An important foundation breed and a valued early gun dog breed, the English Water Spaniel received plenty of notice beginning in the 15th century. Sources as diverse as the daily diaries of the treasury of the Kings of England, Shakespeare's plays, chronicles of sea exploration, and journals of food gathering mention the water spaniel.
Water spaniels were likely different in various parts of the world and even various areas within one country but it is clear water spaniels/dogs were valued in many, many countries. Their value was not only in retrieving waterfowl in rivers and ponds not accessible to the hunter but also for retrieving fish, ship ropes and the occasional man overboard!
Perhaps no dog would be more of a suitable companion for long journeys by sailing ship than these early water spaniels. Travels took them to new worlds like Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in Canada, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the USA and South American countries, and to places where countries were trying to establish colonies. British records indicate efforts to curry favor with various local chieftains and governors in India, China, and numerous places in the Far and Middle easts frequently included the gift of various dog breeds, including the water spaniel. By the mid 1500's, types of water spaniels were spread around the world--including the pudel of Germany, the Barbet of France, the Cão de Água (Portuguese Water Dog), and the Logatto Romangnolo of Italy. Of these, the Portuguese Water Dog is proven to be of very ancient lineage with descriptions dating back to 1292.
More About the English Water Spaniel
Canine Experts Describe the English Water Spaniel
I have hightlighted in red certain passages I believe of particular interest to the curly-coated retriever fancier.
The field book; or, Sports and pastimes of the British islands, by William Hamilton Maxwell - 1833. Description of English Water Spaniel written by Captain Thomas Brown.
LARGE WATER SPANIEL. (Canis Inquisitor).—The large water spaniel is about the size of an ordinary setter, but much stronger in the bone and shorter in the legs. His head is long; his muzzle moderately acute, and his face is quite smooth, as well as the front of all of his legs; his ears are long, which, together with his whole body, is covered with deep hair, consisting of firm, small and distinctly crisped curls, not unlike those of a wig, his tail is rather short, and clothed with curled hair. His hair is very differently curled from that of the great water dog and poodle, as those of the two latter consists of long and pendulous curls. His general color is a dark liver-brown, with white legs, neck, and belly; and is sometimes, though rarely to be met with, all black, or with a black body and white neck and legs.
His smell is extremely acute, and he has in some instances been taught to set, but this is rather a difficult task, from his naturally lively disposition. He takes the water with great eagerness, on which accout he is a valuable dog in shooting wild fowl; he watches with much keenness and anxiety the motions of his master, and as soon as the bird is killed he instantly plunges into the water, fetches it out, and lays it at the feet of the master. He is very quick at finding the haunts of wild fowl; he is also easily taught to fetch and carry articles, and will seek things which have been lost, on which account he had received in England the appellation of the finder.
The native country of this dog is Spain; but we conceive that the variety we possess, which is a very distinct one, is not the pure breed as originaly (sic) imported into this country, but that is it the produce of the large water dog and the English setter, as it appears to be intermediate between these, not only in figure, but also in their united qualities.
Baily's Magazine of Sports & Pastimes,1903:
The differences in the spaniel family are now wide we have at their head the setter English, Irish, and black and tan. Next there is the Irish water spaniel and the probably extinct English water spaniel whose descendant is to be found in our race of curly coated retrievers.
From Robert Leighton's BOOK OF THE DOG:
The English Water Spaniel. In the Kennel Club's Register of Breeds no place is allotted to this variety all Water Spaniels other than Irish being classed together. Despite this absence of official recognition, a breed of Spaniels, legitimately entitled to the designation of English Water Spaniels, has been in existence for many years--in all probability a descendant of the old Water Dogge, an animal closely resembling the French Barbet, the ancestor of the modern Poodle They were even trimmed at times much in the same way as a Poodle is nowadays as Markham gives precise directions for "The cutting or shearing him from the nauill downeward or backeward." The opinion expressed by the writer of The Sportsman's Cabinet 1803 is that the breed originated from a cross between the large Water dog and the Springing Spaniel and this is probably correct though Youatt, a notable authority, thinks that the cross was with an English Setter. Possibly some strains may have been established in this way not differing very much in make and shape from those obtained from the cross with the Spaniel. In general appearance the dog resembles somewhat closely the Springer except that he may be higher on the leg and that his coat should consist of crisp tight curls almost like Astrakhan fur everywhere except on his face where it should be short. There should be no topknot like that of the Irish Water Spaniel.
The English Water Spaniel is a strong and thick-set dog, considerably smaller than the average setter, and weighing from thirty to forty pounds. The prevailing color is liver, or liver and white. The coat should be very curly, in texture similar to that of the black curly-coated retriever; the curls should be tight and close, not open or woolly. The ears are very large and long, heavily feathered. The head is long, handsome, wise, and carried lightly and gracefully. The hair clothing the face and head is short and smooth, but immediately behind the "poll" it becomes long and curly like the body-coat. The neck is moderately long, and strongly joined to powerful shoulders. The legs are of medium length, considerably longer than those of the field spaniel, but shorter and thicker proportionately than a setter's, straight in front, and furnished with abundance of bone and muscle; hind=quarters muscular, with well-turned thighs and hocks. The feet should be of good size, with strong, horny soles, and the tail carried in a gentle curve.
--Frrom THE CENTURY ILLUSTRATED, 1880 (Editor's Note: The word "Poll" in this description refers to the head of the dog.)