Doggy People: The Victorians Who Made the Modern Dog 
by Michael Worboys.
Manchester, 312 pp., £20, February, 978 1 5261 6772 9
Show More
Show More

On a typical day​ , John Henry Salter would rise to shoot wildfowl at dawn. A GP in the Essex village of Tolleshunt D’Arcy for 65 years (he died in 1932, aged 91, while still working as the local doctor), he ministered to his patients in the morning, tended his dogs and plants in the afternoon, gave his evenings to committees, and seldom went to bed without completing his diary. He excelled at cricket, rowing, swimming, long-distance running, archery and boxing. He lost the use of his right eye in his youth – allegedly during a brawl on Derby Day at Epsom. He presented at poultry shows, was a competitive gardener – winning 1400 prizes in his lifetime, including an award of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society – and registered his own variety of dessert apple, the D’Arcy Spice. He served variously as a Tory councillor, a Poor Law guardian and on school boards; and was charged during the First World War with evacuating the Blackwater Estuary in the event of a German invasion. But dogs were his real passion.

Renowned as a breeder of greyhounds, Salter competed at field trials and was a judge at dog shows both nationally and internationally. In Russia he became acquainted with the family of the tsar, and took the opportunity to shoot big game, including wolves, a lynx and a polar bear, which were displayed in his home alongside the birds. Another bear he killed was stuffed and placed in the entrance hall of the Kennel Club, where he served as vice-president from 1899. By the time of his death, according to his diaries, Salter had bred 2123 dogs and owned 2696.

They are often like this, the ‘Doggy People’ who feature in Michael Worboys’s study of twenty ‘eminent and not so eminent Victorians who were the modern dog’s makers’: muscular, energetic, eccentric, polymathic. Kathleen Pelham-Clinton, the Duchess of Newcastle, who imported the borzoi breed from Russia into Britain, met her husband, the seventh duke, at a dog show; she was exhibiting her fox terriers and he was competing with his Clumber spaniels, named after his estate in Nottinghamshire. After their marriage in 1889 they led almost entirely separate lives: he devoted himself to Anglo-Catholic ritualism and travelling the world with the animal photographer and spiritualist Gambier Bolton; she spent her time breeding horses, foxhounds, borzois and fox terriers, hunting on the estates known as the Dukeries, and raising a prize-winning herd of cattle. In a 1902 book by Charles Henry Lane, Dog Shows and Doggy People (from which Worboys borrows his title), the duchess was judged, after the queen, to be ‘the most popular of her sex in the ranks of the Doggy people’.

Alice Stennard Robinson (née Cornwell) was an Australian gold rush millionaire, nicknamed ‘Princess Midas’ and ‘the Lady of the Nuggets’, who purchased the Sunday Times seemingly on a whim and installed her lover as editor. She also established the Ladies Kennel Association in 1895, a challenge to the authority of the male-only Kennel Club. (The duchess of Newcastle was opposed.) Robinson’s loyalties were split, however, as she was also the secretary and treasurer of the National Cat Club.

Parson Jack Russell, after whom the terrier is named, was ‘the last of the old school of reverend English sportsmen’, according to his obituary in the Washington Post. Out hunting three or four days a week, he would attend Sunday services wearing hunting gear under his surplice, ready to take to the saddle at the end of prayer. In demonstration of good Christian thrift, when his horses died their hides were recycled to cover his armchairs.

Worboys describes the ‘Canine Castle’, the dog-dealing emporium of Bill George, a ‘nobby West End butcher’ (‘nobby’ was London slang for those with social pretensions), who was known as the ‘Father of the Fancy’. The Fancy was a loose fraternity of working-class men with a passion for pub-based blood sports. (Charles Dickens visited the Canine Castle as part of his research for the character of Bill Sikes and his dog, Bull’s-Eye, in Oliver Twist.) George was famous for his mastiffs – which, at the time, were identified by means of different strains associated with landed estates, such as Chatsworth and Lyme Hall – and his wide social reach showed in the bloodlines of his favourite mastiff, Tiger. Descended from the Lyme Hall strain, which apparently included a dog that had accompanied its master home from the Battle of Agincourt, Tiger had a pedigree that also encompassed mastiffs owned by the industrialist Titus Salt, the naval commander Lord Waldegrave, and George’s mentor, the Fancy sports promoter and breeder of pit-fighting dogs Ben White. George supplied dogs to British and European royalty, and the Pasha of Egypt.

Doggy People is Worboys’s good-humoured follow-up to The Invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian Britain (2018), written with Julie-Marie Strange and Neil Pemberton, which explored the origins of defining dogs by breed. The making of the modern dog, the authors argued, offers an unusual perspective from which to view Victorian society, as evolutionary thinking, commercialisation and anxieties about class, gender and degeneration converged in attitudes towards canines. Before the 19th century, observers spoke of dogs in terms of ‘varieties’, ‘types’, ‘tribes’, ‘sorts’, ‘races’ and ‘kinds’, and deployed these terms interchangeably. Writing in 1576, the physician John Caius identified seventeen ‘sorts’ of dogs; his categories included ‘hunting beasts’, ‘those good at finding game’, ‘mongrels and rascal sort’ and ‘gentle comforting companions’. Variations in look or type were seen as existing along a continuum, with one blurring into another: Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, an 18th-century naturalist and philosopher, argued that ‘the number and mixture of races are so great, that it is almost impossible to recognise or enumerate them.’ But from the mid-19th century, competition at dog shows, new fashions in dog ownership and the changing role of dogs in society led to selective breeding and the establishment of breed standards (or ‘conformations’), as breeders aimed to reduce variation within types as well as to increase the number of distinct, standardised breeds – all in pursuit of the Victorian ideals of ‘purity’ and ‘improvement’.

Dogdom, as it was referred to by its participants, cut across class lines. In the early 19th century, canine culture became synonymous with the Fancy, which began hosting not only dogfights but ratting competitions and canine beauty shows in pubs for mostly working-class spectators (genteel visitors were known to attend the fighting events). Its members bred and sold bulldogs and mastiffs as well as toy dogs to all sections of society, though middle and upper-class observers complained that, with the rise of beauty contests and the decline of fighting and baiting (banned in 1835, though events continued in secret), the bulldog had become a more exaggerated and ‘artificial’ creature – all flattened face and protruding jaw.

By the mid-Victorian era, modern-style dog shows had become popular. They positioned themselves somewhere between Barnumesque spectacles and the pigeon and poultry shows that had emerged during the recent ‘poultry mania’. The Monster Dog Show, held in London in 1862, attracted more than sixty thousand paying visitors. Foremost among the new types of competitions were the ‘canine carnivals’ held by Charles Cruft – ‘the British Barnum’, a dog biscuit salesman turned enterprising showman – whose brand, Crufts, would eventually be sold to the Kennel Club. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, however, that the modern Crufts format emerged, and with it a reputation for respectability. Early shows in the 1890s featured novelty exhibits of the world’s largest and smallest dogs and a category for the best-stuffed specimen. Charles’s employer, Spratt’s Patent Dog Cakes, initially disavowed any association.

As breed culture developed in this new economy, dogs became commodities – designed and standardised. Breeds were now brands, invested with cultural and social capital. The Duchess of Newcastle’s borzois, for instance, were associated with feminine, aristocratic and ‘oriental’ qualities – ‘a symbol of eastern exoticism, as romantic and avant-garde as Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes’. Conversely, the Jack Russell – a breed not given official Kennel Club recognition until 2016 – could serve as a kind of reverse status symbol. These terriers had ‘charm but not papers’, according to the canine correspondent of the Daily Express: they were ‘classless’, the ‘nonconformists’ of the dog world.

New breeds were created by subdividing existing types, and by importing and ‘improving’ foreign dogs. ‘Improvement’ could mean altering dogs to suit new tastes or practical needs, or returning a breed to its imagined historical form. Supposedly ancient breeds were often Victorian inventions: Irish wolfhounds had disappeared in the 18th century, following the extinction of wolves in Ireland, but breeders became convinced that traces of ‘pure’ wolfhound bloodlines could be found within other dogs. The breed was ‘resuscitated’ through crossbreeding Great Danes with Scottish deerhounds, guided by representations in paintings and historical texts; though none could match the imposing physique attributed to wolfhounds of old – an improbable sixty inches tall at the shoulder when seated, according to the comte de Buffon.

Art and literature were important influences. The Dandie Dinmont terrier took its name from a character in Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering (1815). When it came to establishing breed standards, canine authorities were unsure whether to model them on the terrier described in the novel, or on sketches of Scott’s own pet terriers drawn by the animal portraitist Edwin Landseer. The popularity of Landseer’s painting of a black-and-white Newfoundland challenged the existing standard that required the breed to be black and led to the creation of a second category, the black-and-white ‘Landseer Newfoundland’. Such was Landseer’s influence on perceptions of the St Bernard that a museum in Bern remodelled its exhibit of the taxidermied body of Barry (1800-14), a local St Bernard famed for his heroism. Barry had, so the story goes, rescued forty or more travellers, including a young boy almost frozen in an ice cave whom he licked back to warmth. Visitors objected that Barry was not what they expected him to look like, so his legs were lengthened, his head raised and a barrel of brandy put around his neck to match the Landseer painting. (Landseer had never been to the Alps but had seen a St Bernard when it was on a tour of Britain.)

Breed was contested and debated at every level. Differences of opinion about a physical characteristic – ear shape, say, or tail angle – were debated for months. Arguments at dog shows could be acrimonious, and there were frequent accusations of biased judging, bribery, corruption and cheating by doctoring a dog’s appearance. High-profile disagreements spilled into the popular press, and occasionally into the courtroom. In 1880, one breeder sued the Field and the Fanciers’ Chronicle for libelling his prize-winning bloodhound: during a two-day hearing, thirteen expert witnesses were called to determine whether Napier could reasonably be described as ‘slack loined’.

People began to worry that dog fancying was becoming altogether too fancy. Campaigners against dog shows protested against the cruelty of practices such as ear cropping and tail docking, and argued that breeders were producing ever more exaggerated and unhealthy dogs, from bandy-legged bulldogs and bloodhounds whose skin hung down in ‘ghastly folds’ to ‘goggle-eyed abortions called toy dogs’. Class was an issue. Notions of bloodline and pedigree served to symbolise the genealogical underpinnings of the aristocracy, but the breeding and selling of dogs also highlighted the growing power of the market: a prize-winning dog was at once an emblem of status and rank, and a tradeable commodity. Inherent in the concept of the dog show was a conviction that dogs would be ‘improved’ by competition in the canine economy, yet consumer demand could exert countervailing pressures. Faced with the growing influence of women as owners, breeders and exhibitors, male fanciers complained of the ‘little monstrosities’ on display at shows. Ladies who favoured tiny, fragile dogs, they argued, were producing small-brained, nervous and stupid creatures, or else transforming once rugged working dogs such as the poodle into emasculated accessories – the ‘buffoon of the canine race’.

Anxieties​ about ‘dogdom’s deterioration’ were linked to wider fin-de-siècle concerns about degeneration, and overlapped with British anxieties about nationalism and empire. ‘Alien immigration’, the National Observer argued in 1894, was corrupting English bloodlines and weakening domestic breeds. ‘The fact is that, in their pursuit of something new and foreign,’ Country Life Illustrated reported from Crufts in 1899, ‘English breeders have neglected to support the old national varieties, which used to be the pride of their fathers, the results being that while the mastiff has become moribund, the bulldog has been metamorphosed into a caricature of what it used to be.’

For all these patrician concerns about the transgression of boundaries of class, race and gender, dogdom drew together aficionados from across the social spectrum – sometimes in highly unusual circumstances. Landseer, for instance, cultivated aristocratic patrons and visited palace drawing rooms to paint Victoria and Albert with their beloved pack of family dogs; but, as Worboys points out, he also associated with the underclass of dog stealers and dealers adjacent to the Fancy, from whom he acquired many of his canine models. There were stories of the painter recovering stolen pets from his illegitimate suppliers and reuniting them with their wealthy owners. He also befriended another of the subjects in Worboys’s book, Everett Millais: son of John Everett, he was a pioneer of the artificial insemination of dogs, having been inspired by the theories of Francis Galton in pursuit of what he called ‘rational breeding’. Millais was the first person to establish the basset hound as a breed in Britain.

Landseer’s paintings were admired for the ways in which they captured dogs’ human-like feelings – above all, their unwavering loyalty and devotion to their owners. He was ‘the Raffaele des Chiens’, one ladies’ magazine declared, though the reaction of those who worked with dogs in the field was more mixed: New Sporting Magazine reviewed his 1837 canvas of a sheepdog resting its head on the coffin of its master and pronounced it ‘sentimental claptrap’. But Landseer was regarded by others as having special powers of insight into dogs, even a ‘mesmeric’ sway over them, and he was often consulted as an authority on aspects of training, feeding and treating diseases. After his death, it was suggested that his influence on public attitudes towards dogs might prove more enduring than his art. ‘Whatever be his rank as an artist’, one obituarist wrote, he ‘fostered the English love of dogs into a passion, and nearly into a worship’.

Queen Victoria is, unsurprisingly, another of Worboys’s subjects, significant in helping to make ‘emotional investment in dogs respectable’, not least through the regular appearance of her pets in royal photos. The prime minister Lord Melbourne once expressed a fear that the queen would be ‘smothered by dogs’, which she owned in prodigious quantities – 640 over the years. Her attachment to individual animals was nevertheless deep: at least one dog, Noble, was treated by her personal physician; when treatment proved unsuccessful and Noble died, the queen was so distressed that she had to be given a sedative. Another favourite, a collie called Flo, was said to possess ‘female tact and be able to interpret the queen’s moods’.

Worboys describes how the Scottish doctor Gordon Stables adapted his medical expertise to produce do-it-yourself dog healthcare manuals (in an era when veterinarians generally restricted their practice to horses and livestock), as well as writing hundreds of boys’ and girls’ adventure stories, reliably producing around six thousand words a day in a regimen punctuated by cold baths. Posthumous recollections were less fond. A heavy drinker, who suffered from melancholia and became addicted to the sedative chloral hydrate, Stables was remembered by locals as a ‘cantankerous recluse who perpetually wore a kilt and sported a fearsome skean-dhu (a sheath knife about six inches long, traditionally worn in the right sock with the handle showing)’, who ‘could be seen staggering out of the local pub, with a cockatoo perched on his shoulder, a vicious dog in one hand, and a naval cutlass in the other, bellowing at anyone that came in the way’. He lived alone in his later years, his wife and servants having fled.

Doggy people were not just those who bred, exhibited or otherwise participated in the canine economy. Worboys also describes figures who influenced changing attitudes to human-canine relationships. Frances Power Cobbe, leader of the British anti-vivisection movement, regarded dogs as fellow sentient beings, with human-like emotions and even a capacity for religious feeling. Women were at the forefront of lobbying for more humane treatment of animals, in an age which saw the establishment of bodies such as the RSPCA, and the first dog homes. Contemporaries ridiculed the ‘absurdity’ of these ‘canine asylums’, but high-profile endorsements from Dickens and Queen Victoria were instrumental in shifting public opinion towards empathy for the plight of stray and abandoned dogs. Women had a unique relationship with dogs, Cobbe believed, which stemmed from their shared experience of subordination. Campaigns to prevent cruelty to animals were frequently linked to suffragism, as well as to agitation against slavery and child labour. As Worboys notes, it is revealing of Victorian society that Britain’s first dog shelter was established a decade in advance of the first Doctor Barnardo’s Home, and the RSPCA was founded more than twenty years before the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences