129 SPANIELS SPRINGING FROM NORFOLK
SPANIELS SPRINGING FROM NORFOLK
If you wish to read about the authentic origins of your particular breed of gundog, then the official histories of our pedigree breeds of dog are not always the best place to look. And the breed of English springer spaniel is no exception. The authorised blueprint for the breed, the Kennel Club standard, refers to "a breed of ancient and pure origins, oldest of sporting gundogs" and "raciest in build of all British land spaniels." This wording flies in the face of a number of facts. Spaniels were not truly breeds until the end of the 19th century when field trials for spaniels demanded their registration as breeds rather than separation by size, weight or colour. Gervase Markham even in the 17th century was describing the true-bred land spaniel with the caveat..."if one could still find one of those". There is also an abundance of references to 'setting dogs' far earlier than references to spaniels.
A number of writers have denied the existence of Norfolk spaniels but authors such as Vero Shaw, 'Idstone', 'Stonehenge' and Stables describe them fully under that name and virtually as English springers. Bede Maxwell, in her powerfully-argued and forthrightly-written "The Truth about Sporting Dogs", does get nearer to the truth when she writes: "My thought is that the name could be purely geographical". She then suggests a link between the Norfolk spaniel, liver and white and bigger than other spaniel breeds, and the Coke family of Holkham Hall in Norfolk in the very early part of the 19th century. She quotes 'Idstone's' reference to the fact that "Mr. Coke and the Duke (i.e. of Gordon) bred from the same stock" - Gordon setters in this case, as clear evidence of Coke's possession of high quality gundogs.
Thornhill describes Coke as..."a man of fortune, surrounded with gamekeepers...pointers, setters, etc, without number..." Coke is nationally famous as an agricultural innovator and an acknowledged breeder of farm animals, but also as a superlative shot and sporting landowner. But any link between this celebrated sportsman and a particular type of sporting spaniel is best illustrated in three separate portraits of him. For the two major portraits of Coke on display at his family home to feature spaniels indicates to me the value he placed on them. The third painting shows Coke as a youth, but also features a brown and white spaniel and again confirms his partiality for this type of dog.
At the turn of the century Coke was acknowledged as just about the best exponent of shooting flying. In 1797, within a circumference of a mile, he is reported to have shot forty brace in 93 shots in eight hours; each bird was apparently shot singly. Colonel Peter Hawker in Hampshire was his main rival as a shot. Coke had lived and studied abroad, was a leading Whig politician who revitalised his estate's finances. This was a man who had the individuality to twice reject a title (finally accepting an earldom in 1837) and the social standing which enabled him to turn down a royal request to shoot on his estate. As a successful breeder of foxhounds, a renowned breeder of farm animals and a respected breeder of setters, he would have had top class spaniels. If the Duke of Gordon wanted to own Coke's setters, wouldn't his spaniels have been prized too?
Vero Shaw described the Norfolk spaniel as like a thick-made English setter, liver and white - heavily flecked, with a blaze of white up the forehead. Dalziel describes the Norfolk as belonging to the springer family, liver and white and leggy. 'Stonehenge' says the breed should stand 17 to 18" and Youatt states that the Norfolk of his day was larger, stouter, and stauncher than the "common Springer".
Today the English Springer Spaniel is our most successful sporting spaniel. The topknots and curly coats have been mainly bred out, although they still crop up from time to time. But the Norfolk influence has lasting significance. Men like Coke of Norfolk and Boughey of Aqualate bred for excellence in the field not handsomeness of appearance. They have left us an outstanding breed to provide both an efficient service in the shooting field and great companionship at the hearth. The prowess of working springers in Norfolk in past centuries should never be devalued by being blurred with the Toy Dogs of a Duke, wherever his dukedom is located.