By Anna Sikora, Gale Ambassador at NUI Galway
I hate it when parents do homework for their kids, but the last one tempted me enough to get involved! To deter my 15-year-old from using the plethora of lazily compiled websites cluttered with poorly researched material, I got her onto Gale Primary Sources. Her presentation, according to her history teacher, was beyond impressive. Plus, he could not believe how easily one can now access such primary source materials, and how uniquely valuable they are. The topic was simple: to research the family pet. We have a little Yorkie, so here goes the shortened version of my child’s homework… Today, Yorkies are tiny posh dogs which celebrities like to parade in their bags, grannies hold on their laps, and small kids pet in the park (to the horror of the owners), all forgetting that a terrier is the ultimate working dog: a snappy little ratter originally bred to catch rodents.
The article “Fancy Pets” published in 1851 in The Illustrated London News, describes an establishment, a club of sorts, where the entertainment consists of cheering while a dog kills rats. All visitors to the club are welcomed by a stuffed dog, Billy, “that extraordinary animal of rat-killing notoriety” who like no dog before and since him could kill 20 rats in a minute. The article describes the various rules of the “rat-matches”: a dog, or two dogs, is placed in the cage with tens of rats and the countdown begins.
The same article also describes dog shows featuring dogs considered (at the time) more distinguished, such as the King Charles, featured with their gentlemen owners in the illustration below.
While still making money for their owners in rat-killing matches, some breeds of terriers followed their fancy cousins depicted above, and gradually began gracing the couches of actresses and celebrities. The short entry titled “THE DOGS OF ACTRESSES”, published in 1899 in The Era (found in British Library Newspapers), announces the entries to the Midsummer Fête of the Ladies’ Kennel Association; prominent actresses of the day, including Miss Ellen Terry and the opera singer Isabel Jay, are both proud Yorkshire Terrier owners.
A 1916 article “Science and Natural History” published in the Illustrated London New Historical Archive takes us from posh dog shows to the French trenches invaded by rats during World War I. The rats not only ate the little food available to the soldiers, but also gnawed on shoes and even sleeping men, spreading flees and worms, and causing illnesses and death. The rats – also in a way a casualty of the war – were displaced from their original habitat, and moved to the trenches where they multiplied by the hundreds. In addition to rat poison, the army employed rat catchers – and, of course, their terriers – who received a penny for every rat’s tail! The picture below shows a proud owner and his terrier; yes, those are all dead rats.
Another article “After Rats with the Bayonet! a Novel form of Small-Game Hunting in the Trenches” describes how hunting rats in trenches became a curious form of a sport, which could not, of course, exist without terriers – one of which is prominently featured in the illustration below.
In a more recent article titled “The Making of an Aristocrat” and published in 1969 in The Illustrated London News, the authors describe a modern dog show and the spike in the different breeds of dogs.
The author once again reminds us of the rather less glorious origins of our beloved lap dogs. Tiny the Manchester Terrier, we learn from the snippet below, could kill 100 rats in thirty minutes, three seconds, for a wager in 1849. We humans, only took over rat-catching from dogs and cats “the sole rodent officers” in the 14th century (“The Making of an Aristocrat”).
Perhaps the examples above appear prosaic, but they also illustrate a great deal for us, from the Victorians’ questionable taste in entertainment to the gruesome conditions in the trenches, and, taken together, they demonstrate the different stages in our relationship with dogs.
“After Rats with the Bayonet! a Novel from of Small-Game Hunting in the Trenches.” Illustrated London News, 1 Apr. 1916, p. 432-433. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5XHcw3. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017
“Fancy Pets.” Illustrated London News, 8 Feb. 1851, p. 99+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5XHgc5. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017.
Pycraft, W. P. “Science and Natural History.” Illustrated London News, 8 Apr. 1916, p. 468. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5XHe71. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017.
“The Making of an Aristocrat.” Illustrated London News, 15 Feb. 1969, p. 14-15. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5XHKM3. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017.
“THE DOGS OF ACTRESSES.” Era, 24 June 1899. British Library Newspapers, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5XHJi3. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017.