The Breed History
The origins of the Flatcoated Retriever can be traced back to early 1800's. Shooting men needed to retrieve the game they shot and the development of the retriever breeds were the direct result. By the 1850's different breeds were gradually emerging. In particular dogs from Labrador and Newfoundland, also referred to as the St John's Waterdog/Retriever or Labrador were making an impression (Note: this is not the Labrador Retriever or Newfoundland as we know the breeds today). These dogs were predominantly black, rather big and heavy, had a good constitution and seemed to be impervious to cold; they were outstanding retrievers and dogs which showed great intelligence. By crossing these dogs with English and black Setters, with one or two other breeds thrown in the mix the result was the Wavy-coated Retriever, later renamed the Flat-coated Retriever which, with some more refined breeding to define type, resulted in the well loved breed - The Flatcoated Retriever.
Brenda Phillips writes in her book Flatcoated Retrievers - "Both as a worker and as a show dog the Flatcoated Retriever soon reached something very near to the ideal standard of perfection, and this has been upheld consistently. Careful selection and systematic breeding, backed up by enthusiasm, have resulted in the production of a dog combining useful working qualities with the highest degree of beauty."
During these formative years the breed had some wealthy patrons who could and did invest the time and money to carefully plan and maintain good breeding programs. One such person was Mr S E Shirley of Ettington affix. He ran a large kennel and put a lot of effort into producing dual purpose dogs. Mr Shirley was also the founder of the Kennel Club of the UK and the person accredited with registering the Flatcoated Retriever as a recognised breed with the Kennel Club in 1873, even though the first Flatcoats to receive awards in the show ring was as early as 1864.
By the latter part of the 19th century the Flatcoated Retriever was established as a quality breed with a great family likeness and character. The dogs were well known for their beauty and for breeding true to standard. They were mainly black or liver, although other colours were permitted in the early days - Brenda Phillips (Flatcoated Retriever).
This period proved to be the heyday of the breed. It was the most popular dog used in the field and they were obvious favourites in the show ring. Stud dogs and good quality bitches fetched high prices at auctions and the breeding of Flatcoats seemed to be well managed and controlled by their wealthy patrons. One can only guess as to how big a role this played in the future demand for the breed, as sadly by the turn of the century their popularity was on the decline. Smaller breeders and ordinary shooting men had to look elsewhere for a less expensive hunting companion and breeding stock. There was a slight rise in registration after World War 1, but by the start of the Second World War numbers had markedly gone down.
At this point in time Flatcoats were mainly owned by wealthy sportsmen, but it was during the inter-war period that a number of gamekeepers remained or became strong supporters of the breed. They recognised quality and bred for this, as well as for working ability.
Though the numbers of flatcoats declined from 1900 to 1940, the trial and show records of this period indicate that the existing dogs performed well in the field and in the show ring. In October 1900 during the official Retriever Society trials, gamekeeper Mr J H Abbots liver bitch named Rust, was recorded as overall trial winner. Ch Darenth (1888) who is considered the patriarch to all present day Flatcoats also proved himself in the field and the show ring.
It was also during these years that the first breed clubs were formed. The Flat-coated Retriever Association was founded in 1923. The main focus was to organise Field Trials, and the association also approved judges to draw up the Breed Standard, which was accepted by the Kennel Club and is still recognised today (This is also the Breed Standard stipulating the only recognised colours for the breed as Black and Liver). The Flat-coated Retriever Club was established in 1937, a split off by some members to encourage the breeding of a type of flatcoat suitable for the show bench and also possessing good working ability - thus maintaining the Flatcoat as a dual-purpose dog. Both clubs did much to promote the working and showing of Flatcoats until the outbreak of the war in 1939 which stopped gundog activities all together.
By 1947, after the WW2, Flatcoat numbers were decimated, many records destroyed. Both Ms Phillips (Flatcoated Retriever) and Dr Nancy Laughton (A Review of the Flat-Coated Retriever) relate in their writing to the daunting task of picking up the threads and saving the breed from extinction. With registration records lost, the Kennel Club allowed B registration to bolster the numbers. All unregistered dogs were to be appraised by a breed expert before being placed on the breed register and names such as Mr Stanley O'Neill must be given credit for his painstaking research into the lines that should be used. Mr Stanley and his wife were well known for their selfless devotion to the Flatcoat, and for the advice and information they gave to other breeders. Mr O'Neill wrote extensively on the breed for many years and he played a pivotal role in re-establishing the Flatcoat after the war, however there were many dedicated breeders during this period, several of them gamekeepers. The aim of all was to produce flatcoats true to type, with good working ability accompanied by impeccable temperament. The two breed clubs joined to form The Flatcoated Retriever Society of the UK in an attempt to pool resources and save the breed. The aim - to protect the breed they loved and promote the true dual-purpose gundog by giving equal value and support to both the field and conformation show.
It was a difficult time for the breed and those who loved them. Their dedication and commitment carried the breed through to the present day.
(A. de Wet - December 2014)