The International Gundog League

Retriever Society

The IGL Has Reached its 100th Anniversary – Graham Cox

IGL, the three letters which are synonymous with the Retriever Championship and stand for the International Gundog League. It is in this millennial year that the International Gundog League Retriever Society celebrates its centenary. That longer, and more correct version of its title confirms what the most expansive name in gundogs implies: even if that section has long been the most illustrious, there is more to it than retrievers.

Indeed, the IGL traces its origins to the headiest days of the Empire, under the leadership of William Arkwright, early supports of trials founded the IGL in 1895 with the aim of further popularising such competitions for pointers and setters in conjunction with continental enthusiasts. The International Pointer and Setter Society, as it became, amalgamated with the Sporting Spaniel Club in 1899 and, after the creation early in 1900 of the Retriever Society whose objective was ‘to promote the breeding of pure retrievers and bring to perfection their natural qualities’, the decision was taken to bring these interests together under the name of the IGL.

By Charles Eley’s account in his The History of Retrievers, many of the old supporters of trials actually ‘doubted the possibility of holding field-trials for retrievers that would be of any practical benefit or afford any test of the merits of the dogs’.

Mr B. J. Warwick, the League’s first president, was not one of them, however, and it was on his ground near Havant that he and William Arkwright tested 10 dogs over two long October days in the first official trials of the new retriever society.

The introduction of quarantine regulations in 1902 effectively curtailed the activities of the Pointer and Setter Society which had been conducting field trials in the most counties of Western Europe. The retrievers, meanwhile, were making modest progress. Encouraged by the success of the IGL series, the Kennel Club, which had been founded in 1873, held its first trial for retrievers at Horstead, nr Norwich, in 1907 and around that time a number of new county societies were such that the United Kingdom was all but covered. Then, in the 1909 season, under the presidency of Mr F. M. Remnant, the IGL Retriever Society instituted a championship stake and, save for years when war intervened, has run it annually since.

Characterised by Charles Eley as ‘a lasting memorial to the enthusiasm of the late Captain Glen-Kidston’, the blue-riband stake at Compton, near Havant, on January 9th attracted a ‘very large attendance’ and an entry of eight. By the Field’s reckoning ‘there was not the least drag, and a better managed meeting could not be imagined’.

A very different world certainly. And yet continuities are less apparent: not least being the fact that the trophy first presented to the winner is the Challenge Cup given by Captain Glen-Kidston whose early death deprived the working retriever of a staunch champion. And not only continuities, but remarkable coincidences which link the pre-eminent dogs of the post and pre-war eras of the 20th centenary.

The merest glance at the record of the Retriever Championship Stake from those beginnings in 1909 to the last held before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, demonstrates clearly the extraordinary record and influence of Lorna, Countess Howe.

As Mrs Quintin Dick, she first made an impact with second and third place in 1921 and 1922 with dual champion Banchory Sunspeck. Successively secretary, treasurer and chairman of the Labrador Retriever Club, she came third in both 1924 and 1925 with FTCH Balmuto Jock before finally securing a victory. He took then third place again in 1927 and then won successively in 1928 and 1929 in a career which saw him gain his working title eight times over.

Lorna, Countess Howe, went on to gain a further six second places, two third places and finally, in 1936, another win with FTCH Balmuto Hewildo. Others had competed with great distinction, notably Charles Allington who won in 1921, 1922 and again in 1930 with three different dogs as well as taking second place in 1923, but nothing can touch the record of the Banchory labradors’ Jock. But before that final win, in what was to be his last trial, he appeared hopelessly impeded. A constant companion, he accompanied Lorna, Countess Howe, to London and, as she supposed, walked in some acid which resulted in losing the outer skin on all four feet. Leather boots, salt water and a painstaking regime to get him fit and hard, enabled him to run and win a qualifying trial in October before closing his career in the most spectacular manner possible.

Fast forward to the post-war period and it is no more taxing to identify special distinction. In very different circumstances, and with many more dogs competing, John Halstead won the blue-riband stake in three successive years, from 1985-1987, with the same dog, FTCH Breeze of Drakeshead. Others have won the Retriever Championship three times, notably Major Hugh Peacock and David Garbutt and some have won twice, even in succession with the same dog. However, the record of Breeze and of John Halstead, who has won again in 1992 with FTCH Raughlin Pete of Drakeshead, remains unique. At Sandringham in 1987 a bandaged paw indicated that the participation of the champion had been in some doubt until the last moment. However inconvenienced, Breeze opened his account on a bitterly cold morning with a third dog down technical eyewipe on a hen some 150 yards distant on open ground.

The champion coped superbly with everything asked of him with the field of 32 down to 13 he seized opportunities to underline his class. He picked two good cocks, secured an impressive eyewipe and then, spectacularly, brought a live redleg to hand from very deep behind where the dogs had just lined out for the drive. The judges had been inclined to leave it for a picker-up but Her Majesty, always involved, had been able to view it away and had a prefect mark on it. The chance fell to Breeze and the manner in which he took it vindicated Sandra Halstead’s insistence that he should run and confirm his extraordinary three year dominance of a quality event.

So pre-war three times winner, FTCH Balmuto Jock, and the post-was hat-trick achieving FTCH Breeze of Drakeshead were linked across the years, not just by their evident dominance but also by the amazing coincidence of their running despite being inconvenienced to some degree by injuries to their feet. Similarities and difference in matters of fitness and injury are timeless. Not so matters of organisation which now look very different. By the time of Breeze’s third win the number of dogs running had climbed from eight who initiated a great tradition in 1909 to 32. In 1982, when the Championship was also held at Sandringham, the number of qualifying had been 37.

It was again at Sandringham in 1998 that the number of qualifiers rose for the first time to 40 and at Blankney last year it had climbed to 43. In anticipation of the problems with which they had been wrestling for some years becoming more exacting, the IGL had determined that the 1996 Championship should be held over three days. Reverting to three days would perhaps, be a more accurate characterisation of the development since the Championship had previously been held over three days in 1954 and 1955 just after, as it happens, the IGL Spaniel Society had been put into abeyance. Such developments, however, is only a stay of execution in the face of pressures which are relentless and will have to be addressed, principally by the Kennel Club whose actions ultimately control the flow of qualifiers.

Of course, the Championship is not a trial like any other. The grounds on which the stake is held, the meticulous preparations associated with the event and the judging appropriate to the occasion mean that a larger than normal number of dogs can readily be accommodated. But there are limits to everything and the IGL is only too conscious of the need to have well considered strategies in place for when they are reached. It is a far cry from the early days of the last century when sceptics doubted whether 10 dogs could be satisfactorily examined over two days.

That the IGL has managed the radical transformation that has characterised the post-war period, and more particularly the past two decades, is cause for celebration as it reaches the venerable age of 100 years. The Retriever Championship is in good hands. And those safe hands are extraordinarily grateful to the many hosts, including Her Majesty The Queen, who have shown the Society exceptional generosity and have made the transition possible . The memory of Captain Glen-Kidston and those early enthusiasts goes forward into the new millennium in good order.

By Graham Cox, November 2000.

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