Philip Howell, “June 1859/December 1860: The Dog Show and the Dogs’ Home”


In 1862, the Victorian journalist John Hollingshead (1827-1904) noted the comparability and complementarity of the Dog Show and the Dogs’ Home, both recent innovations: the first true dog show was held in June 1859 and the Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs (now the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home) was founded in December 1860. This article considers these innovations as key events in the culture and treatment of companion animals in Britain, and their contribution to the Victorian “invention” of the dog.

It is a pleasing coincidence that the world’s first professional dog show and the world’s first and most famous dog shelter opened within eighteen months of each other, either side of (for added and perhaps not entirely spurious significance) the publication of The Origin of Species.[1] “Coincidence” is perhaps not the right word, though, as that first dog show, held in June 1859 in the town hall at map iconNewcastle-upon-Tyne, and the founding in London in December 1860 of what would become the map iconBattersea Dogs and Cats Home are surely equivalent evidence of the institutionalization of pet-keeping in Victorian Britain; enthusiasm for dogs and other companion animals certainly predates the Victorians, but we can argue that it found a kind of apotheosis in the second half of the nineteenth century. These twin events—and we can add a few others, such as the first dedicated dog food brand (Spratt’s “X Patent” dog biscuits, also of 1860 or thereabouts)—announce, on the one hand, a recognizably modern world of pampered pooches, the scale and significance of which is today incontestable, but, on the other, some of the darker developments associated with pet culture, principally the vast numbers of abandoned and unwanted animals, whose miserable fates shelters seek to alleviate. The 1860s in Britain seem a particularly persuasive candidate for the advent of this example of “animal modernity,” to borrow the historian Susan Nance’s useful phrase. Within a decade or so, dog shows and homes for dogs were firmly installed in Britain and being exported to other countries, bringing with them the morally schizophrenic attitude to domesticated animals that critics take to be characteristic of contemporary society, where the lives of the petted few serve to point out the exploitation or neglect of the many.[2] Some commentators and scholars, chancing their arms only a little, have spoken of the Victorian “invention” of the dog—suggesting that the domestic dog, as we know it, is as characteristically part of the furniture of Victorian Britain as are, say, antimacassars and aspidistras.[3] What this argument about the “Victorian dog” means, both in its dogged detail and what it amounts to in its wider ramifications, are considered here, as part of a commitment to both the value of animal-human history in general and a more-than-human perspective on nineteenth-century Britain in particular.


If we start with the specifics, it is important to emphasize that the first dog show was a somewhat modest affair, especially when we think of the subsequent extravagances of Cruft’s (established 1891) or, across the Atlantic, the Westminster Dog Show (from 1877). For a start, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne only the “sporting” breeds of pointers and setters were entered into competition, a modest 60 dogs in all (and for the record, the champions were Lord Derby’s pointer, “Bang,” and Mr Jobling’s Gordon setter, “Dandy”). The fact that the event was an addendum to a long established agricultural show also implies its essentially rural, rustic character.[4] So too does the fact that the chairman of the judges, and in his own estimation the prime mover of the event, was the Newcastle sportsman and gunsmith William Rochester Pape (the prizes were shotguns from his own manufactory).[5] The world’s first dog show thus appears to look backwards, to the world of the gentry and their country pursuits as much as forwards to any putative modernity. The temptation to relegate the countryside to the world we have lost must be resisted, however. Dogs were long prized for their abilities, irreplaceable as they were on the farm and the estate, but “field trials” for herding, hunting and bird dogs developed at much the same time as the dog show, and were indeed somewhat laggard by comparison (the first field trial taking place on the 18th of April, 1865, in Bedfordshire). Still, little seems auspicious about the one-off show at Newcastle, little enough “animal modernity” to periodize an otherwise anthropocentric history (that is, humans regarded as history’s principal or indeed singular subjects). In 1860, however, further south in map iconBirmingham, the first of what became an annual dog show, and “one more universal in its character,” according to the Illustrated London News (15 Dec. 1860, 569), made ample room for non-sporting breeds, the aesthetically pleasing as well as accomplished animals that provide the mainstay of contemporary dog shows. These “fancy” breeds are the forerunners of the hundreds of groups, breeds, hybrids and types that the conformation judges have to choose between today. Only a year after the Birmingham event, the Illustrated London News triumphantly declared that dog shows were “a great national fact at last” (14 Dec. 1861, 608).

national exhibition of dogs

Figure 1: “National exhibition of dogs at Birmingham,” _Illustrated London News_, 15 December 1860, 551 (used with permission of Cambridge University Library)

This judgement may have been premature, but by the end of the 1860s dog shows were certainly a fixture and a focus for the dog-breeding fraternity. As with all successes, dog shows seem to have met a need, and in turn to have enhanced and stimulated it; commercial sponsorship followed, along with aristocratic patrons, and the entire panoply of Victorian associational culture, including the rules and conventions and institutions of good government, culminating in the hegemony of the Kennel Club of Great Britain (established 1873, precisely in order to impose a measure of consistency on the burgeoning dog shows).[6] Regulating the dog “fancy” was the principal task the Kennel Club faced. The primary register of the putative Victorian invention of the dog must therefore be both the development of dog breeds and the culturally overdetermined question of good “breeding”: the maintenance of the pedigreed aristocrats whose equivalent of Debrett’s would be the Kennel Club stud and registration books. It is worth stressing just how recent is the classification of these races and classes of canine society. The concept of “breed” was itself of no great pedigree, nurtured as it was in the eighteenth-century business of animal “improvement,” but by the mid-nineteenth century in Britain it was being bolstered by a panoply of ideas surrounding superior inheritance and descent from good “stock.” The extension of breeding from the practical exigencies of livestock and poultry raising, through sporting and fancy animals such as Darwin’s famous pigeons, and then on to companion animals or pets is the notable achievement. The triumphs of selective breeding—hymned by Darwin in The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication (1868)—are evident in the dog’s unparalleled plasticity, the journey from the 40 or so breeds recognized by the Kennel Club in 1875 towards the 200 and more today. (On Darwin, see Nancy Armstrong, “On Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, 24 February 1871″; Ian Duncan, “On Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle”; and Cannon Schmitt, “On the Publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, 1859.″) Breeding became a great Victorian enterprise, and the year 1859 saw not only the invention of the modern dog show but also the publication of the first edition of John Henry Walsh’s essential guide, The Dog in Health and Disease (written under the more familiar pseudonym “Stonehenge”). The beginning of the first modern attempts to establish true breed standards followed only a very few years later. In 1865, Walsh himself established a system of classification for the pointer breed—an event so auspicious that it leads the historians Neil Pemberton, Julie-Marie Strange, and Michael Worboys to announce a pointer named “Major,” property of a Mr Smith of map iconTettenhall in map iconWolverhampton, as “the first modern dog.”[7] If we can say that the dog was invented by the Victorians (and I return to this difficult question in conclusion), it is these new “breeds” and the “breed standards” judged at the dog show that justify the claim.


So dogs can at least provisionally be added to the ranks of eminent Victorians through this emergence and proliferation of breeds and breeding, with the decisive separation of the “pedigree” from the “mongrel.” But the “fancy” dogs at the dog shows are not the only “modern” animals. Their anonymous and unloved peers, the “innumerable nondescripts,” in John Henry Walsh’s words (9), belong just as much to history. Indeed, the proletarian dog (by which I mean the property of poor humans, but also the animal antonym of the pedigreed pet) can be rescued from the condescension of posterity, by turning our attention to the birth of the Dogs’ Home only a few months later—an equally significant milestone, both in human attitudes towards the dog and the dog’s own destiny.

Founded as the “Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs” by Mary Tealby, the estranged wife of a provincial timber merchant, living apart from her husband in the obscurity and seclusion of north London, the Dogs’ Home would prove to be just as consequential, just as necessary, as the dog show and the business of breeding. The Home’s immediate impulse was to rescue the dogs of the streets from want, abuse, and neglect: appalled by the spectacle of suffering that London’s stray dogs represented (“Persons walking through the streets of London or of its suburbs, can hardly fail frequently to have seen lost dogs in a most emaciated and even dying state from starvation” went the Home’s first prospectus), Mary Tealby and her friends set up a refuge first in her own house and then in dedicated premises. As its full name indicates, two categories of boarders were immediately envisaged: “lost” dogs who had become separated from their owners, and “starving” dogs in need of a new home. The Dog’s Home—and of course the name is thoroughly significant, as Hilda Kean (88) has pointed out—was founded to “restore” the former to their anxious human companions, and to “rehome” the rest, if at all possible. In both cases, the aim of the institution was to be a “temporary” home only, a transit for the “lost” and the “starving” on their journey to domestic security—to what in the slightly mawkish modern parlance is known as their “forever home.”

Dog's Home illustration

Figure 2: John Charles Dolman, “The Dogs’ Home,” _The Pictorial World_, 27 February 1875, 522 (author’s collection)

Tealby’s invention of the animal rescue home or shelter was meant as a modest countervailing force to the beastly cruelties of London’s streets. As an institution, the Dogs’ Home and its inspirations are usually regarded as evidence of a more compassionate approach to animals in the Victorian era, an instance of the age’s expanding and enfolding “humanitarianism.” Like the showing of dogs, the idea of an animal rescue charity was in time made thoroughly respectable—respectable enough to be welcomed as an example of the kindness that the English (read British) extended to the brute creation. A simple chronicle adds the founding of the Home to Martin’s Act of 1822, the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824, and other developments that policed the worst abuses to animals and provided some measure of amelioration—developments that would convince the British, well before the end of the Victorian age, that they were in the vanguard of an international animal protection movement. (See Ivan Kreilkamp, “The Ass Got a Verdict: Martin’s Act and the Founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1822.″) The Dogs’ Home suggested to approving contemporaries nothing less than a providential national commitment to animal welfare—and it served as an example that would be copied and replicated in many other countries. Like the dog show, animal rescue homes are a part of the world we have inherited from the Victorians. This too is why we might speak of the “Victorian dog.”

Given the familiarity of this “discourse of compassion” (as Markovits and Crosby put it), it is important to observe that the Dogs’ Home was initially met with derision rather than fanfare, with, in the words of the journalist James Greenwood “obstinacy and apathy and stupid-headed ridicule” (174). The most cynical critics wondered whether the capital needed perhaps a home for lost and starving rats, and collectively wagged their heads at this sentimental perversion of the contemporary fad for providing homes for the homeless. A home for lost animals appeared to many of these critics a home too far. The Dogs’ Home accordingly found it rather harder to gain acceptance than did the dog show, and its early days were marked by financial and organizational struggles that threatened its viability. Within a decade or so, however, the Dogs’ Home would be much more secure in the nation’s notice, both in terms of financial stability and in public acceptance. One early and influential statement of support came in 1862, in the pages of Charles Dickens’s influential All the Year Round, when an article pointedly compared the “prosperity” of the pampered prize pets on display at a dog show in map iconIslington with the “adversity” faced by their proletarian peers at the Dogs’ Home in Holloway:

Curiously enough, within a mile of that great dog-show at Islington there existed, and exists still, another dog-show of a very different kind, and forming as complete a contrast to the first as can well be imagined . . . this second dog-show is nothing more nor less than the show of the Lost Dogs of the metropolis, the poor vagrant homeless curs that one sees looking out for a dinner in the gutter, or curled up in a doorway taking refuge from their troubles in sleep. To rescue these miserable animals from slow starvation; to provide an asylum where, if it is of the slightest use, they can be restored with food, and kept till a situation can be found for them; or where the utterly useless and diseased cur can be in an instant put out of his misery with a dose of prussic acid; to effect these objects, and also to provide a means of restoring lost dogs to their owners, a society has actually been formed, and has worked for some year and a half with very tolerable success. (Hollingshead 495)

This article—which has frequently been attributed to Dickens himself, but was written by the journalist and dog enthusiast John Hollingshead—is notable not only for its defence of the work of the Dogs’ Home, even in competition with the many human charitable causes, but also for the connections it traced between the innovations of the dog show and the dogs’ home. In its defence, Hollingshead freely admitted the “queerness” of the venture, but he argued that if the eccentricities of the dog show were allowed, such a place as the Home should be welcomed too, not just as a legitimate charity but more importantly still in the very hearts of the English people:

Now, really, among all the queer things which a man might devote a whole lifetime to routing out and which lie within the limits of this metropolis, the existence of such an association as this is one of the queerest. It is the kind of institution which a very sensitive person who had suffered acutely from witnessing the misery of a starving animal would wish for, without imagining for a moment that it could ever seriously exist. . . . At all events, and whether the sentiment be wholesome or morbid, it is worthy of record that such a place exists; an extraordinary monument of the remarkable affection with which English people regard the race of dogs; an evidence of that hidden fund of feeling which survives in some hearts even the rough ordeal of London life in the nineteenth century. (496)

The subsequent history of the Dogs’ Home would amply bear out this prediction; the Battersea Dogs’ Home has indeed been taken to the nation’s heart. But this is rather too rosy an overview, and it indicates very neatly the problems with any Whiggish (that is, always progressive) history of attitudes to animals. The near-simultaneous appearance of dog shows and dogs’ homes certainly suggests the complementarity between pedigreed pooches and their unfortunate cousins—between the “pet” and its other: the “stray,” the “mongrel,” or the “cur.” What the dog show signifies for the pampered pet appears to be replicated in the extension of British generosity to the suffering dogs of the streets, the very summit of whose ambition is portrayed as a desire to be installed in a Victorian parlor, in the kind of compulsory domesticity familiar to readers of the age’s homilies. It is small wonder that some commentators have seen a certain analogy between the “rescue” home for dogs and the “rescue” homes for abandoned women and children, the “waifs and strays” of the human race. But the tendency to wrap up stories of our relations with nonhuman animals within a narrative of humanitarian amelioration is particularly invidious in this case, for the success of the Dogs’ Home owed as much to the sacrificing of dogs as to their salvation. It is the distinction between the proper “pet,” safely secured in the private sphere of the home, and the “stray,” left at large in the public streets, that is precisely the issue here. The failure to achieve a room of their own had fatal consequences for the dogs that could not or never could be “rehomed.” By 1871, by which time it had removed south of the river to Battersea, the Dogs’ Home had for some years been participating in the systematic policing of “strays,” having established a profitable working relationship with the Metropolitan Police, a franchise that also involved putting to sleep thousands of unwanted dogs every year. This metropolitan experiment was a template for national legislation, and the provisions for the rounding up and destruction of stray and dangerous dogs laid down in the Dogs Act of 1871 are surely more important to the success of the Home than the working out of a humanitarian geist. The Dogs’ Home represents a Victorian strain of kindness to animals, but also a pragmatic response to the policing of increasingly out-of-place animals in the public sphere. A clear-eyed view of the invention of the modern dog must emphasize the role of the Dogs’ Home in removing and eliminating diseased, dangerous or simply unwelcome “strays” from the streets of London. At the height of the rabies scares of the later nineteenth century, the proportion of animals put to sleep in its specially designed gas chamber climbed to 75-80% or more, a kill rate that would not be representative of or acceptable in shelters today, but which is in step with other provincial dogs’ homes in Victorian Britain.[8] The work of the Dogs’ Home and other animal charities, for all the evident care and love for animals they evinced, anticipated the mass production of surplus animality in the modern world, such as the industrial reserve army of dogs who even with much improved kill levels find only brief respite in rescue homes today. In the blunt contemporary parlance, the Battersea Dogs’ Home qualifies as the world’s first “kill-shelter.” For all the compassion, this is a central contribution to our “animal modernity.”


What, then, of the notion that the Victorians “invented” the modern dog? The proliferation of dog breeds and the complementary work of rescue homes suggest that we, and our dogs, live in the world that the Victorians created. But animal-human historians might balk at the phrase “invented” all the same. It is not an unproblematic claim, for we are always likely to do injustice to the past if we indulge in the worst kind of stadial history (a history, that is, narrated via stages of increasing development, complexity, progress and enlightenment), and this danger is only the more acute when it comes to nonhuman animals, who have obviously no conception themselves of historical periodicities, and for whom historiographical conventions have no meaning. Proust’s hero Marcel reflects that the fishermen of the fictional Balbec did not have a “Middle Ages” any more than did the whales who surfaced off the map iconNormandy coast. With less overt snobbery, historians have similarly questioned the utility of flat periodizations when it comes to those at the margins of human history, including nonhuman animals. The adjective “Victorian” might thus seem to be out of place when speaking of animal history. Allegiant to no country, animals are more like history’s “secret agents,” to borrow David Gary Shaw’s appealing phrase (146), accomplished in crossing temporal borders as well as territorial ones. The history of animals is almost by definition “transhistorical,” since it rejects the artificial, anthropocentric norms associated with period and place. So we might reasonably take issue with the idea of the “Victorian” dog, or any animal boxed in (crated in?) by humans’ arbitrary historiographic conventions. The prospect of relegating dogs and other animals to the mere contextual artefacts of a synchronic history, accorded no greater status than the “furniture” of the Victorian age, is no more appealing.

This does not mean that dogs and other animals do not participate in history, however, nor that we cannot with care write their history. They are not for instance just the products of human artifice or the prompts for human attitudes, but historical “agents” in their own right. The dog’s nature was irrevocably altered by the business of breeding, but their “nature” is only with massive qualification entirely “invented.” The fate of dogs in the modern world inevitably depends on human attitudes, conventions, discourses, and practices, as the history of the Dogs’ Home demonstrates, but the life or death of these animals is not a matter of “invention” either—if by this we mean merely material objects, “Victorian Things” (see the work of Asa Briggs), or cultural figures, no more than cartoons. Instead, we should see these particular dogs in this particular moment as inviting and inciting action: attracting friends, allies, and enemies, persuading people of their rights and privileges, or alternatively leaving human beings inimical or at best indifferent to their destruction. Rather than talk of the Victorian invention of the dog, or the invention of the Victorian dog, and the like, it might be better to conclude by acknowledging the dog’s role in the “assemblage” that we refer to when we use the term “Victorian.” It might be more politic to speak of the “assembling” of the Victorian dog, emphasizing the conjuncture of the 1860s rather than human intention and agency alone. But whether we use this modish language or not, the birth of the dog show and the Dogs’ Home and all that they represent demonstrate not only that nonhuman animals are culturally significant, especially for Victorianists, but also that they enter into history, even help in their own ways to make that history.

published March 2017

Philip Howell is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the map iconUniversity of Cambridge. He is the author of Geographies of Regulation: Policing Prostitution in Britain and the British Empire (Cambridge, 2009) and At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian Britain (U Virginia P, 2015).


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[1] Granted, there are earlier events where dogs were shown. See, for instance, “Fancy pets” in the Illustrated London News. For a short account of this history, see the referenced chapter by Sampson and Binns. Still, the Newcastle show is widely considered the first serious, respectable, modern “conformation” show, and I have settled for first “professional” dog show as my own compromise.

[2] For “moral schizophrenia” see the work of Gary Francione.

[3] For example, see John Homans (155).

[4] I am indebted here to the work of the historians Neil Pemberton, Michael Worboys, and Julie-Marie Strange, currently at work on a definitive account of dog breeds and breeding in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. See Pemberton and Worboys, “The Surprising History of Victorian Dog Shows,” for an excerpt.

[5] For the claim, see the letter cited by William Arkwright (68-69).

[6] By comparison, the American Kennel Club was founded in 1884.

[7] Again, see the pioneering research of Pemberton, Worboys, and Strange, reported as “First Modern Dog Discovered.”

[8] For comparison, current kill rates at Battersea seem to be around 25%. Many other shelters have lower rates, and their staff work tirelessly to euthanize as few animals as possible.