A Brief History of the Mastiff

I hope that there will not be, in this brief article, a disproportionate emphasis on the breeds history, but such history must be understood if our present day mastiffs are to be fully appreciated.

It will be acknowledged that enthusiasts of various breeds claim great antiquity for their chosen strain of dog, be it greyhound, ibizan, dane, tibetan mastiff, etc., whose likenesses in sculptures and friezes seem to prove their contention. There are indeed Babylon sculptures which show heavy, broad muzzled dogs remarkably like our present day mastiffs, but as to their actual origin who can now say. It is likely that they came from the interior of Asia and eventually arrived in these islands with those great traders the Phoenicians. In all events, dogs like today's mastiffs were here when the Romans invaded and the Romans were so struck by their size and bravery that they were sent back to Rome to fight in the arenas, with a special officer in charge of their export. Strabo also says that the English mastiffs were sometimes bought by the Gauls 'to serve in the forefront of their battles.' So there have been very large dogs of the mastiff type in this country for over 2,000 years. As to the name itself, it probably comes from old French, Mastin meaning a huge dog.

After the Roman withdrawl from England, these dogs were primarily to guard farms and stock against bears and wolves; they are mentioned in the Forest Laws of King Canute and were also known as Bandogs, or Tied Dogs. According to the Rev. Wynn writing at the end of the last century, it was decreed that there should be '1 mastiff to every 2 villeins' which seem to denote rather a lot of dogs!

Despite being primarily guards they could obviously also hunt and therefore in Norman Times they were "lawed" i.e., three toes cut off from one front foot, to prevent them chasing or harming the King's deer. Coming further up to date, the story of Piers Leigh is well known; how this Knight mortally wounded in the French wars, was guarded by his mastiff bitch against all comers. It is from this bitch that the strain of Lyme Hall mastiffs, which died out only at the end of the last century, was said to descend.

Henry VIII sent over 400 "mastiffs" to Charles V of Spain as a gift, to be used as fighting dogs, and in Elizabethan times they were used for bull, bear and lion baiting as well as watchdogs.

With the decline of these "sports" their numbers also declined so that by 1800 they were almost extinct and had, as the writers said, "been bastardized by crosses". There were however still a few pure bred specimens left at Lyme Hall, Chatsworth, Elvaston Castle, etc., and the revival of the breed can be said to have been started about 1800 by Commissioner Thompson of Halifax. He mated one of his bitches, Rose, to Robinson's Bold and it is true to say that all today's mastiffs can be traced back to those animals.

Some famous names of the early 1800's, when interest in the breed was increasing were John Crabtree, who found a brindle bitch in a fox trap and mated her to a son of Rose and Robinson's Bold; J.W. Thompson, grandson of Commissioner Thompson, who bred mastiffs well into the later part of the century; T.H. Lukey, called 'the father of the modern mastiff'; the Marquis of Hertford and many others. The first half of the century saw the breed become consolidated, though through the whole of the 1800's controversy raged as to what outcrosses had been used and whether muzzles should be long or short - in fact the sort of debate that continues to the present time! By the latter part of the century mastiffs were being bred as pedigree dogs, and not merely as functional guards, and dog shows had been introduced. The first show, as such, was in 1859 and there were 6 mastiffs entered. In 1871 there were 64 on display.

The kennel Club was founded in 1873 and thereafter shows became a little more uniform and organised. The Old English Mastiff Club was formed in 1883 and in 1890 held its first "exhibition" with an entry of 51 mastiffs. The breed had certainly come a long way in three quarters of a century.

After 1900 the breed remained fairly steady in numbers, although not as popular as it had been in the 1870's and 1880's. However, the 1914-1918 war dealt it a heavy blow as very few dogs were bred and numbers fell again. It was after this period, in the early 1920's, that influx of bullmastiff blood became well documented although it had of course occurred pre-war. During the 1920's and the 1930's we find several well known kennels whose names are still remembered today, the Broomcourts, the Havengores, the Hellingleys, the Delevals, the Gorings, and of course the dogs bred by Miss Bell although she did not register her Withybush prefix until the early 1950's. This was a good time for the breed, and pictures of the dogs of that era show some extremely fine specimens, although there was still controversy among breeders as to the extent of "foreign" blood within the breed, and the correct head type.

During the 1930's many of the well bred Hellingley mastiffs were sent to America where the breed had almost died out in the 1920's and those dogs who were exported to the United States in the 1920's, 1930's and immediately pre- 1940, are behind all the dogs in this country today. They provided the major portion of the small nucleus of breeding stock with which we struggled to resuscitate the breed in the immediate postwar period, as described below.

At the end of the war the position of the breed was desperate. A meeting in 1946, of those interested in trying to save the mastiff, found that there was just one bitch of breeding age left in the country. This was Sally of Coldblow, one of the only litter born during the war. There being at that time no other dog available, she was mated to Templecomb Taurus, a dog of whom it is impossible to say with certainty whether he was a mastiff or bullmastiff. His owner had been killed in the blitz and he had no papers, but he and Sally between them produced 17 puppies, of which only one, Nydia of Frithend, born in 1947, survived. It is to Nydia and Sally that we owe the single line of "home bred" continuity for the breed and their importance is impossible to overemphasise.

At this meeting held in 1946 it was of course quite obvious that poor Sally and Taurus could not turn the tide by themselves, so approaches were made to America and Canada. This resulted eventually, in three puppies - all very closely related - being sent to us from Mrs Mellish of British Columbia, and a brindle dog, Valient Diadem, was purchased privately. It is to Valient and the British Nydia that we owe the first 'harvest' of puppies as between them they produced over 30, which turned the tide. Their daughters were mated to the Canadian import, Heatherbelle Sterling Silver; the Canadian bitch, Heatherbelle Portia of Goring was also mated to Valient Diadem and the resulting progeny were mated back to Sterling Silver and to the second Canadian dog Heatherbelle Bearshill Rajah. The amount of inbreeding that went on at this time was amazing but there was nothing else to be done and gradually numbers increased. In 1952 Miss Bell exported a puppy called Withybush Magnus to America where he was meted to an unrelated American bitch. A puppy resulting from this mating, Weyacres Lincoln, was then sent back to this country. He proved invaluable, Between that time and the 1970's I think it can be safely said that there were no other imports and so all mastiffs in this country stem from this extremely small genetic base, which has proved to be both a strength and a weakness. The next American imports did not make an appearance until about 1975.

Many well known kennels of the 1950's and 1960's are no longer with us, among them the Havengores, the Withybush, the Buckhalls and the Kisumus. However, the number of mastiffs continues to increase and the trend today is, thankfully, for more people to keep them but to keep fewer, as pets rather than kennel dogs. This must be a good thing in the breed such as ours.

The breed today has been saved through sheer hard work, dedication and enthusiasm of innumerable people. It is true that other breeds have had to be used to achieve this but even so, there is a strong and unbroken line of continuation from today's animals to those large, massive broad muzzled dogs that lived here 2,000 years ago.

 

Written by Betty Baxter ©

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