Brian Ghent (Thornville Clumbers) and Eric Gillibrand
from the chapter CLUMBER SPANIELS
A Clumber Spaniel puppy looks like a happy little bear, and a full grown Clumber is a great, bustling creature that reminds me of an Irish washerwoman, with the same tenderness of heart and loyalty of spirit.
I wish I could round off the picture by saying that the Clumber is making rapid strides back to popularity, but it would not be true. Once he was the sporting dog de luxe, the friend of kings and princes. Today he is demode, an athlete still magnificent and still handsome, but out of favour with his public. I am sorry that it is so.
Because it is not, in the main, the Clumber’s fault. For one thing, the breed dwindled in numbers as a result of the war. He is a sizable dog, and big dogs of all breeds began to lose ground when meat became more precious than fine gold and even dog biscuits were to be bought in Britain only with the greatest difficulty – and then usually not more than a pound at a time.
To some breeds it was almost a death-blow – the mastiff and the bloodhound became almost extinct in Britain. The Clumber suffered the additional disadvantage, for those times, of being almost entirely a sporting dog, and when the Nissen huts and the barbed wire of Army camps began to sprawl where once were covert and copse, and the caterpillar tracks of tanks churned up the grouse moors, the Clumber was unneeded and unwanted.
At the same time the Clumber is not what he used to be. I pondered over that sentence for a while, and then I asked Brian, who had just abandoned his scraper board and gone off in a cloud of tobacco smoke to put the kettle on, if he thought it was fair.
He thought it over, too, “I think so,” he said finally. “You know yourself we’ve seen some very elegant types on the show bench that you wouldn’t dream of taking out with a gun – unless you just wanted your photograph taken.”
“oh quite,” I said. “But you can’t generalize. Take your own Snowey – she’s as good a gundog as you’ll ever find.”
“I know,” admitted Brian, poking the fire absently. “I think you’ve got to try and make it clear, somehow, that there are still good Clumbers – and when I say good Clumbers, I mean as gundogs. At the same time, there are more of the other kind, the good-lookers that would look pretty sorry for themselves after a day in that gorse and stuff where you were wasting cartridges the other day – by the way, did you put back those you borrowed?”
“I will, tomorrow,” I answered firmly, “At the moment I’m talking about Clumbers. There’s that hindleg trouble, too.”
“Don’t forget the cartridges,” persisted Brian, “Look, this is how I see it.
“We both know that Clumbers have a tendency to weak back legs. Why, heavens only knows, but it does turn up now and then. But only now and then. It’s just that you have to watch for these things. I know a lot of people say they are a delicate breed, too, can’t stand damp and cold, but there again, Dartmoor’s a wild enough spot, and the Clumbers we saw in the kennels there were fit enough. Anyway, you’ver been out with all sorts of Clumbers one time and another – what do you think?”
“We’er back where we started,” I said. “But I think, on the whole, they are not as good as I remember them. I don’t think, there is anything to beat a Clumber still for a tender mouth or for finding game. What they’ve lost is – I suppose you’d call it `pep’ or drive, or something like that. They’re not as keen and active as they were.”
“Well, why not say so?” asked Brian. And so I have.
I do feel that when that truly regal gentleman King George V, died the Clumber too lost his throne and has never regained it. The kennel of the breed which George V kept at Sandringham was one of the finest in Britain. His Majesty used to contend that the Clumber was a steadier animal than the springer, and that it was, in fact, the most reliable of all gundogs.
Of course, if you knew King George V, the Clumber’s efficiency goes without saying, for there was a man who did not suffer fools gladly, either man or dog. Looking back over the years, King George V may seem a little punctilious, unyielding, but he set Britain a standard in dignity, and everything he did he did well. Moreover, he expected everyone else to do his best too.
It was my privilege to see him on many Royal occasions, and I never ceased to admire his unruffled precision. Many years before that, Brian’s father, once a keeper on the late Lord Lathom’s estate near Ormskirk, Lancashire, gave just the same account of George V in the field with the guns.
“There was one day in particular,” he said, “when I took out an old Clumber called Weaver, As a matter of fact, it was the first time I had been out with the King, and I was just a bundle of nerves.
“Well, I needn’t have been. The King was very kind, and the dog was wonderful – of course, I ought to have realized the dog wouldn’t know who he was working for, but you don’t just think of these things, somehow. I never saw so many birds shot in one day. I’d heard the King was a marvellous shot, but I don’t think he missed a thing all day.
“He said some very nice things afterwards, but it always stuck in my mind that he congratulated the dog first. And he was quite right too.”
Naturally, with such Royal enthusiasm for Clumbers, the breed flourished. Then came the crescendo of events in which men had other things to think about than game and gundogs; the succession of Edward VIII, the Abdication, the coronation of George VI, the war that raged and finally resolved into a series of uneasy, difficult years. Many noble features of English life suffered in those trying days, amongst them the Clumber, and also the great estates which were his stamping-ground.
As places to live in, I suppose the mansions of England are open to criticism in present times. The mode of life has changed, conditions have changed. And even if the gentry were not crushed by savage taxation and ruthless death duties, many other reasons make it inevitable that these stately homes will continue to lose their dignity.
Take, for instance, Wentworth Woodhouse, home of Earl Fitzwilliam, near Sheffield. It is the largest private house in England, an architectural conglomeration but nevertheless enormous, with its 660 foot frontage and nearly 400 rooms.
Once it had ninety maids, apart from other staff, where would one find ninety maids today, let alone their wages and upkeep? The two huge boilers for hot water, with their automatic stokers, in a boiler house like a liner’s, used to consume four tons of coal a week in the days when coal merchants used to plead with householders to buy at prices as low as a shilling a hundredweight.
The stables alone would hold a regiment (and did, in fact, during the war, as I know only too well), but they could never be needed again.
No, such houses were built for a way of life which has gone forever. Even Queen Victoria, as a guest at Wentworth Woodhouse, is reputed to have observed once that she could not afford to live in the same style. For the coming of age of the heir, the Marquis of Rockingham, in 1751, there were 53 tables laid in 23 rooms, and they were spread with 132 dishes of beef, 92 pasties, 60 dishes of mutton, 48 hams, 50 dishes of chicken, 55 of lamb, 70 of veal, 100 of fish, 106 of cheesecake and tarts. In addition 150 bushels of flour were used for bread, and the whole affair was washed down with 20 hogsheads of ale, 3 of household beer, 8 of punch, and 6 of port wine. Those were, indeed, the days.
And yet, in many cases, such mansions could never approach the comfort of the modern villa. Tinkered about with by a succession of architects, they were often full of dark corridors and unexpected steps. At Wentworth Woodhouse each guest had his pack of differently coloured cards with which to “blaze a trail” to his room, for it was easy to get lost in the labyrinth of passages.
In other stately homes I have seen guest rooms, used by some of the noblest in the land that would have to be refurnished to satisfy the present day domestic servant’s idea of comfort. They were lovely, graceful rooms – but out-dated. The plenitude of folding screens in the huge entertaining rooms tell their own story of shivering evenings round a fireplace which, however large, could never be adequate to warm those echoing vastnesses.
I tell all this because it is really part of the Clumber’s story. He stands for an era, for a way of life which is slipping away, for the days of the gentry in Britain. And as the big estates shrink, and the housing estate thrusts its way into what was once pleasant parkland, so does the Clumber’s domain pass from his reach.
There is another point, too. That territory of his was larger half a century ago than might be imagined.
I mentioned, just now, an occasion when Royalty went shooting on the Lathom Estate in Lancashire. I have been surprised at the number of people I have met in Southern England who raise their eyebrows at the mention of anything like that in industrial Lancashire, as though they imagined that all the big estates were south of Derby and that north of the Mersey the natives danced round their camp fires at night.
Yet you can still board a bus in the Market Place at Wigan and be, within half an hour, in as luscious shooting country as almost anywhere in Britain, richly wooded landscape with a view clear away to the estuary of the Ribble gleaming like silver on the horizon. From Blackburn, where you can see ninety mill chimneys at once, or the gigantic ugliness of Norwich locomotive works, it is an easy walk to moors where the grouse rise with sudden panic from the whinberry.
This North country is truly an odd mixture. The 22,000 acre park of Wentworth Woodhouse is only a few minutes from industrial Rotherham on the trolley bus, yet the red deer roamed there until the clattering bulldozers arrived a few years ago to open up the country’s biggest open cast coal site. A Liverpool omnibus will set you down within ten minutes’ walk of the main gate of Knowsley, home of the Earl of Derby and a favourite visiting place of Royalty since James I, but from the Drawing Room, looking across the 20,000 acre park, the march of industry seems just as far as it must have done when Queen Victoria sat by those windows.
In fact it is not. Many acres of the Knowsley estate where a former Earl kept one of the most famous kennels of Clumbers and used them in teams of twenty five to thirty for beating coverts, are now covered with municipal houses. Other estates all over Britain have been carved up, their mansions turned into colleges and institutions.
We have to move with the times, and still I think we have lost something that was England. My own “ancestral home” is a stolid, noble mansion, quite hopeless for present day ways of life and much better suited to its current role as a convent. And yet it hurts a little to see modern housing estates spreading across parkland, and the pompous gateway (minus family crest) re-erected at the local pleasure gardens, bearing threatening notices about the Picking of Flowers and the Riding of Bicycles. Snobbishness? Not really, I hope.
Still, about those Clumbers. They owe their English origin – and, in fact, their name – to one of these fine old estates in a romantic and lovely stronghold of English aristocracy. Clumber Park stands in “The Dukeries,” the best of what remains of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, and still the home of four English Dukes.
It was there, to the second Duke of Newcastle, that in the eighteenth century there came from the Duc de Noailles, in France, the first of the breed we now know as Clumber Spaniels.
Now there are various versions of how that came about. One is that they were brought over by a Captain Robert Spencer about 1730. Another is that they were the gift of the Duc de Noailles at the time of the French Revolution. The answer may lie in a combination of the two stories – i.e., that Captain Spencer brought a few and other came later. But whatever the actual date of the Clumber’s first coming to England the story of the French Revolution episode has always seemed to me one of the most moving incidents in the whole history of dogs, for it was the gift of an entire breed by the man who had reared it.
Technical evidence supports the story. The late C.A. Phillips, an authority on Clumbers, summed it up some twenty years ago like this. The dogs undoubtedly came from the Duc de Noailles, and the way in which the characteristics of the breed had since been preserved for a century and a half was very remarkable. It indicated that they had been bred with the greatest care, and that they had been established for many generations before coming to England.
But no one has ever been able to find any independent strain of Clumber type spaniel on the Continent. Those that are there almost certainly descend from the animals imported into Britain. Everything points to the original Clumbers having been a private strain of the Duc, and though Mr Phillips was cautious on this point, he had to admit “it almost looks as if the Duc de Noailles had given the whole of his kennel to his friend.”
Is the explanation so incredible? I think not. Look at the history of the time.
Crisis was approaching in France. Gone were the days when Louis XVI reigned over the Court at Versailles in splendid majesty, with the de Noailles amongst his trusted friends. The mob were gathering , the shadow of the guillotine became nearer a reality every hour.
Whatever else history may record of the French aristocracy they knew how to die like gentlemen. In his last hours, realizing that there was no escape, no hope, Louis gave orders for most of his stable and kennel to be put down: though he could not avoid himself the cruel bestialities of the revolutionaries, at least he would spare his dumb friends the tortures that might lie in store.
The Duc de Noailles was more fortunate. He hurried his kennel of spaniels over to England for sanctuary. Why did he not escape himself? Did he hope, at some future time, to rejoin his beloved dogs, or was it a grand and humane gesture that led him to seek safety for his spaniels although he knew there could be none for him? We do not know. We can only be grateful and salute him.
And so Louis died in the Place de la Revolution, to the howls and jeers of the tricoteuses, the Revolution swept over France and the First French Republic took shape. The Clumbers were saved, and not long ago I heard that an English breeder had received an order for some from France. The wheel turns full circle.
However, to go back to the second Duke of Newcastle. There is no doubt that he had an eye for a good dog, and that he was not slow in appreciating the value of his unusual new animals. He set to work to build up a kennel of them – furthermore, he tries hard to keep them within the estate, just as would any other man who realized he had a wonderful gamefinder which was unique and better than any of his friends had. He even had them included in a painted portrait, which still hangs at Clumber Park, [nonsense] with the date 1788.
Of course, it was too good to last. Clumbers began to appear, mysteriously, in places far away from the Dukeries. By the end of the nineteenth century they had become so popular that special classes were being provided for them at shows.
Nevertheless, they stayed for many years the pride of the noble houses of Britain, and the names of those who have owned famous kennels of Clumber Spaniels reads like a page from Debrett or Burke – the Duke of Portland at Welbeck Abbey, Lord Rothschild, Lord Derby at Knowsley House, Lord Middleton at Birdsall House, Earl Spencer at Althorpe Park, the Earls of Manvers at Thoresby Hall, Mr Foljambe at Osberton Hall, the Maharajah Duleep Singh, and many more.
When Clumbers did eventually get into the hands of the more general public, the breeders began to work on improvements. Whether everything that Clumber breeders have done in the past thirty years, like architects and politicians, can be called improvements is open to argument, but broadly speaking they have produced a much more efficient dog.
By the 1930s the old definition of a Clumber as “long, low and heavy” had to be revised. The modern Clumber is more “up on the leg” than his predecessor of last century, and this has given him additional speed, a very useful point.
The breeders, however, also set out to produce bone and stamina, straight forelegs and plenty of “bellows room”. All this is very well, but just as the car designer finds himself deep in complications when he tries to introduce a bigger and faster engine, the size of the Clumber has had to be increased to keep him shapely. His head, for example, which at one time had a setter like appearance, is more massive and square – very useful for retrieving, but a feature which has had to be balanced by stouter physique generally. A once active dog has become, in fact, a dignified gentleman who has lost some of his agility and also some of that dogged perseverance which brought him original success.
Funnily enough, I once met one of the old school of Clumber enthusiasts who was just like that himself. Brian and I found him in a little lamp lit inn one night, at Moretonhampstead, when we called in for a cider after picking our night’s lodging and spending an hour or so amid the soothing assurance of those fine old streets so rich in history. Do not, incidentally, underestimate that draught Devonshire cider: the “rough” variety used to cost tuppence ha’penny a glass, and after three one night we were broken reeds.
He was a very, very old man, but still dignified. Perhaps when I suggest he had lost his perseverance, like the Clumber, I do him an injustice, for judging by the landlord’s expression the veteran had been eyeing the last half inch in his glass for much too long already when we arrived.
He craved a light for his battered old meerschaum pipe (always a useful opening gambit), commented gravely on the thinness of the wind, and we bought him, after a proper show of reluctance on his part, half a pint. New life came to him. His name, he confided as Coneybeare (“actually Captain Coneybeare, sir, but I don’t trouble my friends with it”), and he pulled at his curling white moustache solemnly as we talked.
We talked of the music hall and Government policy, of the failings of the modern Army, of silly fashions, of dogs – of Clumbers.
A far-away look came into the Captain’s faded eyes.
“People don’t appreciate the Clumber now, sir,” he said. “I’ver bred them and my father before me, and I know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing quite so good as a good Clumber.”
He thought for a moment. “You see, a Clumber’s so easy to train, and once you’ve taught him something, he doesn’t forget. Some folk say he’s an unfriendly dog, but that’s wrong. He’s a one-man dog – quite willing, mind you, to be friendly with other people and other breeds, but always with reservations. A bit aloof, you might say – in fact, just like the gentry themselves used to be. And he’s face any sort of cover and bring his bird back without a mark – a wonderfully gentle mouth, sir, wonderfully gentle.
The old man talked on, quietly. There was nothing vivid about his descriptions. And yet, as we sat there in the little smoke filled room, with the lamplight gleamimg in the polished brasswork of the pumps and a dull hum of chatter from behind us, it was easy to drift away into that world he had known and loved, when men touched their hats to their betters and sometimes thought more of a dog than of their wives.
“We used to work the Clumbers in a line,” he went on musingly. “It was a lovely sight. The infantry couldn’t have done it any better”. Instinctively we knew it was his highest praise.
“As a rule, we had one, or perhaps a couple of the dogs trained to retrieve, said the Captain. ”The rest – well they were just beaters. But what beaters! They were as good as any of your hired men, and very often better, especially if it was thick stuff. The rougher it was, the better they seemed to like it, and that didn’t go just for the coverts, but the hillside brambles and rubbish as well.
“So there we’d be, moving up slowly behind them, with the Clumbers working away for dear life, until suddenly they’d flush some game and you’d hear and you’d hear a gun or two crack. No need to give any orders. They were down like a flash, the whole line, with good old Dainty and Dazzle, or whoever was trained to retrieve, panting there, itching to be off.
“`Seek dead, Dazzle!’ my father would rap out. And off Dazzle would go, while the others waited where they were, until he came back with the bird and they could move off again.”
The old man took a pull at his glass and smoothed his moustache carefully.
“Don’t think it was easy to get them working like that.” he said. “We spent many a weary hour with Clumbers, but it was worth it in the end, because it came quite naturally to them in time, and they never forgot anything later on. Some of the gentry used to teach their Clumbers to gather together when they heard shot, and that looked quite smart too, but we never thought much of it. I always thought it seemed as if you couldn’t trust the dogs to stay down.
“What I’ve always liked about Clumbers, for one thing, is that they do their work with hardly any noise. I don’t mind hound music – a hunt wouldn’t be the same without it, though, mind you, listening to it when you’re hard after the fox and when you’re in bed with the ‘flu are two different things.
“But yapping and barking when the guns are out is another matter, I think.”
Brian remarked that he supposed training methods had not altered very much.
“Not really,” said the Captain, “I’ver seen some good gundogs trained this last year or two, and those handlers couldn’t have taught us much. It’s surprising how much retrieving you can teach with a rabbit skin filled with straw. There’s always the little details to watch, of course – for instance, you have to start them retrieving on dead birds, not rabbits, or your Clumbers may get hard mouthed through biting to keep the rabbit from struggling.
“But training has not always been like that. My father used to tell me tales that made me shudder about the way they used to teach Clumbers in his young days – choke collars and spikes inside and some really cruel ideas. They didn’t think they were being cruel. Besides, Clumbers those days could stand it, because they were tougher and gamer than they are now. The men were, too.” he added thoughtfully.
I came back from daydreaming sharply and glanced at the Captain. There was a twinkle in his eye as he looked at Brian, nodding gently off to sleep in the warm, smoky comfort of the room. We drank up, shook hands solemnly with the Captain and left him to his memories.
Yes, the Clumber is an aristocrat, and in spite of two major wars in a quarter of a century, with all their difficulties of feeding, rearing and training, the breed has been kept pure. True, a certain amount of inbreeding has been unavoidable, yet the Clumber is still basically the same as he was half a century ago.
Those were the days when such pillars of the breed as Fag’s Son, Champion Hempstead Shotover, Champion Preston Shot, and Champion Fielding Beauty were in their prime, dogs whose pedigrees can be traced back, in some cases, to the strains of the Duke of Portland and Mr Foljambe.
A Little later there was Royalist of Wilts (with Champion Hempstead Shotover, Fag’s Son, and Welbeck Ranger in his pedigree), who sire Fulmer Prince, Jeannie McCaura, and Carnforth Beauty, outstanding animals of their period. And famous names of more recent days to note in pedigrees are Witley Acting Major, Witley Peter and Witley Sam (a strain important in the later development of Clumbers), Biggin Chum, and Champion Auckwear Ripper. Very distinguished, too, have been the Rivington strain, and the Beechgrove kennels of the late Mr Winton Smith, magical names in our house when I was a boy, and still vital in the Clumber world.
And yet we have so few Clumbers left. The breed has spread to all parts of the Commonwealth, and won great popularity with the Indian Princes. It is popular in America, notably the kennels of Mr Thomson of Cincinnati, Mrs Du Pont and Dr Meagher of New York, and Mr House of California. Perhaps in Britain, when we have a little more time to think about dogs instead of dollars, the Clumber will come back to his own.
And now – what constitutes a good Clumber? The official description of his colouring is “lemon and white.” But it should be a creamy-white, and of a silken, not a “cottony” texture. Most judges have a preference for pale lemon markings these days rather than for the warmer tone which used to be popular.
A dog should weigh about 55 to 70 lb., bitches 45 to 60 lb. (not current). But the Clumber is, as I have mentioned, becoming a heavier dog, and judges take a broad view of these figures so long as the animal is in good proportion and moves well. If the extra weight is useless fat, that, of course, is another matter.
He should have a large, square and massive head, of medium length, broad on top with a decided occiput (the prominent bone at the back of the skull); dark eyes slightly sunk (a high or prominent eye is a fault) with heavy brows, and a well developed flew to his massive muzzle.
There was quite a bitter and prolonged argument, by the way, early in the century as to whether it was desirable for a Clumber to show “haw” – the red inner membrane of the eyelid. Some held that it was undesirable in a working dog, others thought it gave “the true Clumber expression”, and a joint committee of the Spaniel Club and Clumber Spaniel Club carefully debated the point, with the result that it was agreed to remove reference to “haw” in the official description of the type.
Ears should be large and vine leaf shaped, well covered with straight hair and hanging slightly forward, the “feather” not to extend below the “leather”. He needs a square and flesh coloured nose, a very thick neck well feathered underneath, and a sloping, muscular chest.
His back is to be broad and long, with powerful loins and hindquarters; his stern (tail) set low, well feathered, and carried about level with the back.
Feet should be large and round, well covered with hair; legs – short and thick, with low hocks. In general, the perfect Clumber is long and massive, set low but not too near the ground, and nevertheless active. He can have orange markings incidentally, though this is not a good point – a better colouring is a white body with slight head markings.
It is also important that he should have a thoughtful expression, but if you are showing him for the first time, he is unlikely to have anything else.
The points are useful for guidance. Credit points are: Head and jaw 20, eyes 5, ears 5, neck 5, body 15, forelegs 5, hindlegs 5, feet 5, stern 5, colour of markings 10, coat and feather 10, general appearance and type 10, total 100. Debit points are: curled ears 10, curled coat 15, bad carriage and “set on” of tail 15, “snipey” face or faulty jaw 20, undue legginess 10, light eye 10, full (prominent) eye 10, Straight stifle (the joint in the hindleg nest to the buttock) 10, total 100.
I should like to see more Clumbers about. They are a grand dog for the sporting man who cannot afford variety in his kennels and wants a good all-rounder. The chief charm of a Clumber is that he looks, and goes about his job, as though nature had intended him for it, a solid and sturdy worker who simply loves a day in the field. He will carry things about as soon as he old enough for his pudgy little legs to stagger him around, and goes on doing it until the evening of his days – duck, fur, feather, anything that comes. A grand dog.=