Trust me, once you start digging into the history of British and Irish pointing breeds it’s easy to get drawn into one fascinating rabbit hole after another. So instead of actually putting words to paper, I end up spending way too much time looking into things only vaguely related to what I should be concentrating on. Last week for example, I spent an entire day watching Youtube videos about how Illuminated manuscripts are made. Sometimes though, going down a rabbit hole pays off. In fact, two different subjects I’ve been researching — the history of North American field trials and the evolution of the English Setter’s coat and conformation — lead me somewhere unexpected. My hometown.
It turns out that a number of influential Pointer and setter breeders lived in Manitoba in the late 1800s and early 1900s and produced some of the most famous dogs on the North American field trial circuit. Perhaps the best known among the old time Manitoba dog men was Mr. Thomas Johnson, owner of Manitoba Rap, the first Pointer to ever win a national championship. A. F. Hochwalt mentions him in Bird Dogs— Their History and Achievements:
”Up in Manitoba, Thomas Johnson was quite active in pointer breeding and also in field trials. Among the well known dogs that he brought before the public were Manitoba Shot, Alberta Joe, and his sire, imported Iightfield Upton, and the imported bitch Ightfield Blithe. Manitoba Rap was a later celebrity of Mr. Johnson’s. Referring to the National Championship Hochwalt explained that: up to 1909, the pointer never succeeded in wresting this important stake from the setters, but in that year, Manitoba Rap the famous Johnson pointer, came down from Winnipeg and turned the trick”.
A more detailed biography of Thomas was published in 1907 in the book Field Trial Record of Dogs in America by J. M. Taylor.
With the field-trial matters of the United States and Canada, Thomas Johnson has been one of the most active participants since about 1886. He has owned kennels of setters and pointers constantly and has spared no pains or expense to secure, according to his judgment, the very best blood obtainable. Sport afield with dog and gun, and good competition at field trials, all in a true sportsmanlike manner, are subjects which ever stir his enthusiasm. Largely through his energy and initiative the Manitoba Field Trial Club was organized. It gave its first trials in 1886. Even at that early day of competition, he was prepared and owned dogs which were winners. Since then he has owned and bred numbers of dogs, many of which have displayed field-trial excellence, and their names appear in the records of the winners.
Champion Alberta Joe, renowned both as a field dog and field-trial contestant, achieved probably the greatest victories, the brilliancy of his work, and the number of his wins, meriting deservedly the high place he holds in the records and in public esteem, securing the warmest spot, also, in the heart of his owner. Mr. Johnson has many times acted as a field-trial judge both at trials on prairie chickens and on quails. His activities have covered a wide field also. On the Atlantic Coast, the Pacific Coast, and in the great chicken country of the Middle West, he has in the aggregate judged many times, so that his experience has been "from the center all round to the sea."
He also has been conspicuous as a writer, and has published many valuable contributions in the interest of breeding, training, hunting and field-trial competition. His writings are distinguished by a broad, accurate knowledge of his subjects, skillful and fearless presentations of his facts and all adorned by a graceful diction. To the visiting sportsman he is princely in his hospitality. He seems to be happiest when sharing his pleasures with his friends.
Physically he is a man of magnificent proportions, a true athlete. All forms of wholesome sport win his approval. He besides his fame as a sportsman, has great renown as a curler, a favorite winter sport on the ice in the North. His curling team has been a successful contestant a number of times at the great yearly curling tournaments. In the columns of the Manitoba Free Press, in 1906, there was a column treating of the Manitoba sport of "Twenty years ago," and mention was made that Mr. Johnson's Dash B won the Derby in 1886, and his Manitoba Mike won the championship, under the auspices of the same club, in 1906. On this matter being brought to his attention, he remarked: "Yes, it is quite a record; twenty years in the field-trial game and still solvent." Those who know how great are the expenses and how small the receipts of the average contestant at trials, will best appreciate the point of the remark.
In a business way, Mr. Johnson has been with the pioneer firm of Messrs. G. F. and J. Gait, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, since its beginning. He was one of the founders of the Northwest Commercial Traveler’s Association, and was elected president of the organization in 1885. For a long time he held Certificate No. 1 on its roll. His official energy and influence secured many valuable concessions from the railroads, and the organization was recognized as being of great dignity and importance. As an entertainer Mr. Johnson has few equals. He has an inexhaustible stock of bright stories, which he tells well, reminiscences of sport, witty sayings, etc. which serve to drive away dull care.
Today, there are still a few field trialers up here, mainly professional trainers from the US that spend summers on the prairies training dogs for the field trial circuit down south. And there is still a Manitoba Championship trial held near Broomhill, Manitoba. I posted a photo essay about the dogs and their handlers here.
Researching the history of the Llewellin setter, I came across yet another connection with my home town. It was an article that appeared in 1891 in The Fanciers' Journal about a famous setter, a dog named Pitti-Sing. The author of the article was none other than Thomas Johnson of Winnipeg.
PITTI-SING. A History of Her Rearing, Breeding and Accomplishments. Editor Fanciers' Journal.
An unknown friend thoughtfully sent me a copy of your excellent journal of issue May 16th in which with characteristic enterprise you do me the honor of publishing a front page cut of my English setter Pitti-Sing.
It may probably interest your readers to know what prompted me to send a dog from this northern portion of Her Majesty's dominions to the Southern States to compete in your field trials. There are a few people in the world no doubt who innocently imagine that setters are bred and kept by sportsmen for the pleasure they afford them afield. The few I propose to enlighten; the many can draw their own conclusions.
Some years ago a strain of setters was imported from England from the kennels of Mr. R. LI. Purcell Llewellin, who had acquired, principally by purchase, a number of the best field dogs in England. This strain was very successful in your American trials, and was then eagerly sought for by prospective purchasers. This naturally created an interest in the strain, when most of the setter owners throughout the states, who had the dollar in view, commenced to breed and in-breed in a reckless, rushing, unnatural manner which they grandiloquently termed "scientific breeding." So great was the demand that they dubbed the strain the "Llewellin," yet I think Mr. Llewellin has never claimed to this day any credit for originating the same, knowing if any credit was due that Mr. Thomas Statter and Mr. Barclay Field were entitled to it.
This did not worry the "breeder after the dollars." He asserted that only one strain of dogs existed, or rather no other known strain of setters could successfully compete with the Llewellins". The cry was shouted and repeated from every hill top until those not fully conversant with the kennels of England were led to believe it. There were numbers of pointer, Irish and Gordon setter breeders to whom the forlorn hope of defeating them was left, which in the case of the pointer it can be said, successfully.
When I was brought personally in contact with some Llewellin enthusiasts and said that there were numbers of kennels in England that had strains just as good as the "Llewellins," the smile of incredulous pity that their countenances would exhibit at my ignorance would make milk sour enough to cure a bad case of worms in a litter of puppies. Assertions proved nothing so I got out from England a brace of setters of the Beaudesert strain, one of them being Pitti-Sing. I was determined, or at least would endeavor to prove my assertions, but the idea of defeating a "Llewellin" was so preposterous that even Dr. Rowe in the American Field, who had heard of my intention, twitted me in his paper and sarcastically said, "I was going to Chatham to clean up the Llewellins with the 'new breed' " — a breed by the way that were noted field dogs long before Mr. Llewellin was born, and were winners at field trials before the same gentleman commenced buying dogs.
Well, the "new breed" and the subject of your illustration arrived in this country in August, so in September I ran her in the All-aged Stake in the Manitoba Field Trials against the best "Llewellins" in the country and I venture to say as good as any to be found anywhere, when, to use Dr. Rowe's adjective, she "cleaned them up." That was all the trials I could attend that year (1888), but in 1889 I went to Chatham to the International Field Trials and again "cleaned up" the Llewellins. I then felt I had accomplished all I claimed, but desiring to show that this strain had the greatest requisite a field dog should have, viz., stamina, I sent Pitti-Sing to North Carolina to compete in the Four-hours' Heat Race. The result of this is fresh in the memory of your readers. What more requires proving ?
Pitti-Sing, coming fresh from English partridges and Scotch grouse, beat the best Llewellins on prairie chickens. Then on quail; Then she shows her stamina in the hot South that Mr. W. W. Titus writes me : "Her endurance is simply marvellous and had she four hours more to go at the conclusion of the final she was good for it."
In England at this time her brother, Woodhill Bruce, won the All-aged Stakes, and special for absolute best, beating the winning pointer then with her sister, Woodhill Betu, won the Brace Stakes. Another litter brother, Tutshara Trip, won the Derby, while her own daughter, Ightfield Rosa, won the Setter Derby Stakes at the Irish Field Trials. With this record, successfully competing in England, Ireland, Manitoba, Ontario and the United States, I think I have fairly proved that at least one strain of setters are able to hold their own with the famous "Llewellins." — Thos. Johnson. Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 21.
Two rabbit holes opened up when I looked into the details of the English Setter’s coat. I wanted to know if coats were different in the past, and if so, in what way. What I discovered, was, yes, setter coats had changed over time. Curlier/wavier coats seem to have been more common 150 years ago and so was a shade of colour known as ‘fawn’, something rarely seen today. And that is when I ended up back in Winnipeg once again. It turns out that there used to be setters with “jet black” coats. I’d come across references to them in the old literature but was stunned to see that good old Thomas Johnson of Winnipeg actually kept a kennel full of them, right here in Winnipeg!
BLACK SETTERS From OUTING October, 1898
DOGS OF TO-DAY — THE BLACK ENGLISH SETTER. The beautiful dogs here portrayed are representatives of a very old strain of English setter blood, perhaps the oldest strain of setter known. They are the property of that enthusiastic sportsman and breeder, Thomas Johnson, Esq., of Winnipeg, Manitoba, who for some years has been a stanch supporter of the black fellows. Most of the dogs in this kennel are jet black, without a white hair anywhere. That the strain is a good one goes without saying. Choice specimens possess all that speed, dash, range, courage, nose and bird-sense upon which is founded the well-earned reputation of the gallant Llewellin, and the black dogs are also, as a rule, very handsome.
From as far back as about 1809 until the early " fifties " Mr. James Tait bred these black dogs, and their fame was great among the leading sportsmen of England. In 1838 Mr. R. Brailsford, the originator of bench shows and the father of Mr. Wm. Brailsford, the originator of field trials, offered to run black setters against any setters or pointers in the world, but no one would take him up. As in those brave old days bluffs were seldom allowed to go uncalled, we may safely infer that the black setters were dangerous customers to tackle. I think I may truly say that the black dogs have not deteriorated.
Other strains, notably the Llewellin, have come on, thanks to the wisdom of the man the strain is named after, and to the enterprise and persevering efforts of breeders upon both sides of the Atlantic. One black dog, presumably of this strain, was years ago the king-pin of my old shooting grounds. He was owned by a thorough sports man of the old school, the late Sheriff Mercer, of Chatham, Ontario. This dog was large, and a free, stylish worker, and that he was good is attested by the fact that he is still mentioned in a respectful manner in that home of fine field dogs. If my memory serves aright, he was killed by a train after seasons of almost invaluable service.
I have seen some other black dogs which were excellent workers, but I am sure they were not of the true black strain. A choice specimen of this strain in conformation and field qualities so closely resembles a Llewellin of good type that these matters need not be dwelt upon, the one chief difference being the color. This, in the opinion of some sportsman, appears to be a highly important matter, and, in the case of the black setter of the true strain, it certainly indicates a long pedigree, yet I care little about it.
There is a strain of black pointer which has been represented in hot company by some grand workers, and not so long ago its admirers were ready to claim that it could outwork all creation. I have seen some of these black dogs in the field, and, while they certainly were very good, they were no better than the more common liver and whites and lemon and whites. Mr. Johnson's black setters are of high quality, and I have every reason to believe that they are clinkers to go and stay, but I fail to see why they should be any better than their relatives, the Llewellins.I* will grant that the black is the peer of the popular dog, but nothing further. The "Llewellin has as much speed, style, courage, endurance and sense as can be packed inside a dog's hide, and the blacks can claim no more, and I say this with out prejudice, because, personally, I prefer a top-notcher in the pointer line.
The coat of the black dog, his hall-mark of choice blood and his greatest beauty in the eyes of his admirers is, to my mind, his one drawback. Upon the sun-dried grass of the Northwestern prairies and upon snow it is all right, but in dense Eastern covers it is too easily lost sight of. Those who have worked heavy cover behind all liver and roan dogs and Gordons will understand what I mean. I prefer a coat with plenty of white in it, and many of the Beltons, black, white and tans, and black and whites of the Llewellins, fill this want, and at the same time are as beautiful as sportsman could desire. —Nomad.
And finally, a story in the book “All Setters” by American journalist Freeman Lloyd connected the dots between a British Viscount, two famous English painters and my hometown.
The Old English Setter print is reproduced from the J. Scott engraving of H. B. Chalon’s picture. This black, white and apparently tan-muzzied English setter was described as “old” in 1802—or 129 years ago. Therefore, when looking upon this illustration, we might be observing the portrait of a setter dog of the sort or kind that was fashionable a couple or more cycles agone. It will be noticed that Chalon’s setter had a short and spaniel-like head. There is lacking the length and sharply defined cut or profile of the skull and foreface of the later and modern dogs, even that of the period of Joseph Man, the gamekeeper and huntsman of 1733, with his light fawn, very long and snipy headed, gay-tailed setter; from a painting by Martin T. Ward. The coat of the old English setter is very curly at the fore parts of the thighs and frill.
Gamekeeper Man’s setter was of that pale fawn color that was common enough in my boyhood days, but now is seldom seen. Joseph Man, and probably his master’s setting dog, were painted by George Stubbs, A.R.A. (1724-1806). It is recorded of Man that he was born in the year 1700, at Poles Walden, in Hertfordshire, England, in which county he was, at an early age, employed as a gamekeeper. When nineteen years old, a violent fever changed his hair to gray in one night, so that at the time of being hired in the year 1733, by Viscount Tarrington, as huntsman, he had the appearance of an elderly man. He was known far and near as Old Joe Man and was called by all the country people Daddy.
He was in constant strong morning exercise; he went to bed always betimes, but never until his skin was well filled with ale. This he said would do no harm to an early riser (he was ever up at daybreak) and to a man who pursued field sports. “At seventy-eight years of age Joe Man began to decline and then lingered for three years; his gun was ever upon his arm and he still crept about, not destitute of the hope of fresh diversion.” A gun, setter, pointer or spaniel dog will help to prolong the days of any man inclined towards the sports of the field.
It is thought that the picture of Joe Man, his gun and setter will become the more interesting because of the familiar story just related. The Setter and Black Grouse illustration was reproduced from a beautiful engraving by J. Scott, after the painting by P. A. Reinagle, R.A. (1794-1833). This print was publishd in May, 1800, by Bunney and Gold, Shoe Lane, London. Exactly one hundred and thirty years afterwards this picture was shown to my nephew, Merwyn Lloyd, who was on a visit to my home at Oscawana-on-Hudson, New York. On seeing Reinagle’s white and orange ticked-eared setter, he exclaimed: “Why, there’s old Prince!” My kinsman meant the English setter dog, Prince of Orange, a dog I had purchased, as a puppy, in Winnipeg, Canada, some years ago and presented to my relatives ranching at Greenlawn, Alberta, to found the kennel of English setters, now registered as “Trevallen.”
Nor was it unpleasing to hear and learn that “Old Prince” bore the image of or resemblance to Reinagle’s English setter, a handsome, well-made, full-blooded appearing dog, gracious in countenance, brainy in the width of his skull, three-quartered in stern and nice in bone; and the general style of Reinagle’s English setter, which was somewhat short and twisted in his coat. This peculiarity might have pointed to a remote spaniel ancestry, but the dog was a very good looking, sporting-like setter. Reinagle’s picture of an English setter of a hundred and thirty years ago will surely bear inspection.
In Home and Away Part Two I take a look at the golden age of field trials in Manitoba, from the late 1890s to the 1950s.