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1854 West Buckland, Devon results


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I’ve suspected for several years that sheepdog trials started in Great Britain at agricultural shows long before trials at fairs began over here. Unfortunately, reports in journals like Farmers’ Magazine did not offer any details of the bases for awarding shepherd’s dog prizes and without any particulars the prizes could have been for beauty. While I haven’t been able to find any in British Isles from 1850 or before, I finally have a reference from the 1850s in a report called “First Agricultural Show at West Buckland, September 18, 1854”.

Here are some excerpts:

In calling attention to the fete of Monday at West Buckland, we do so not because of its magnitude, but for its novelty, its practicability, its value as an example worthy of being followed by every clergyman in every parish of the kingdom. It will be understood that this holiday was confined to the parish of West Buckland, containing about three hundred people and about seventeen hundred acres of land. It lies remote from any public thoroughfare, and a more sequestered and purely rural district is scarcely to be found.

By the programme written previous to the day of meeting it was proposed to give prizes ranging from five shillings to two shillings and sixpence. First to " farmers," prizes of five shillings each for the best specimens of live stock, of horses and fowls, the best walking and trotting horses, the best sheep dog, the best pound of butter, and the best samples of roots. To " farmers and labourers," three shillings each prize for the best ploughing and other acts of husbandry. And the best produce of the farm yard, which will be specified in the prize list. The third set of prizes of two shillings and sixpence each, were for the productions of the " cottage-garden;" to which were added "rewards" of the same amount to " servants" who had " stayed longest in their places," others for " knitting and " plain work." Almost every farmer in the parish sent something or other, by way of manifesting his interest in the proceedings; so generally and cheerfully was the idea taken up.

There were about sixty prizes given. Head quarters were in a field adjoining the rectory, where a booth was erected for the general convenience. A banner in front of the booth bore the memorable words of Lord Nelson's last signal, " England " expects every man to do his duty." In the middle of the field was a flag-staff. It may naturally be supposed that the bells did not keep their tongues silent on the occasion. The proceedings began a little before ten o'clock by the commencement of the ploughing match in a field belonging to Mr. Thome, called Square Close. Three ploughs entered the field and contended for the ploughing prize, which was won by Mr. Thome's ploughman, John Gill, who used one of Venn's ploughs.

Then followed reaping, gathering, and binding, in which William Rice, workman to Mr. Miller, won the prize. The other competitors were William Ketter, who works for Mr. Brereton, and John Beer, shoemaker, who handled his reap hook with a dexterity which would fully plead his excuse against the advice of Apelles, tie sutor ultra crepidam.

In ditching*, each man was required to execute one perch, to be built up three feet high with stone. The job was completed in two hours and a half. The prizeman was William Ketter. The prize for mowing was contended for in a piece of after-grass belonging to the rector; the prize being for him who should mow the most and the best in a quarter of an hour. Four commenced and one gave up. William Ketter was again the best man. A prize was given to the best thrasher with a flail; the test of workmanship being the manner in which the " niches" of reed were made. The two competitors—Clarke and Rice—did their work so well that the judges had to give a prize to both. Another prize was given to the best driver of a loaded cart. Given a horse and cart loaded with com : the prize was for the man who could drive it clear through a gateway but two or three inches wider than the cart, or shew the most judgment in turning a " crooked comer." In a country abounding with " sideling" fields, and roads " steep as the roof of a house," and gateways in all sorts of awkward positions, no inconsiderable care and tact is necessary to preserve the centre of gravitation, and keep man, beast, and burden, from going over. In the course of the day there was also a species of horse-race, a prize being offered to the best trotter and the best walker, over two half mile heats, in a field called " Wills Close." Mr. Miller's " old pony" won the prize for trotting, taking the wind out of the sails of a somewhat swell gent who had " never been " beaten in his life." Mr. Avery's horse won in walking. But no one of all the prizes contended for excited an interest equal to that produced by the trial of sheep dogs. There were four entered, but only two were tried. Their masters entered the field with them, with a flock of sheep, and put them through all those " moves" which exhibit the intelligence, tact, courage, and perfect knowledge of language displayed by those invaluable animals. Even from those who had been familiar with their performances on the road and in the field all their life, the prize trial of Monday produced renewed admiration.

 

(For the record, 1854 West Buckland is unlikely to have been the first sheepdog trial in Great Britain. It's simply the earliest I have located with adequate evidence that the competition was based on work. I have included descriptions of the other events to give a flavor of how the sport began.)

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Great work! I've said it before but it bears repeating: an evidence-based approach to the documenting of sheepdog history is imperative to preserving the breed's working heritage. This type of research is time-consuming, tedious, and intellectually challenging - to say the least. Thanks to Penny for her efforts. She may be unable to compete on the trial field at the moment, but she's found her own way to continue contributing to the sheepdog community. I just wish she'd get on with writing the darn book...

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But no one of all the prizes contended for excited an interest equal to that produced by the trial of sheep dogs. There were four entered, but only two were tried. Their masters entered the field with them, with a flock of sheep, and put them through all those " moves" which exhibit the intelligence, tact, courage, and perfect knowledge of language displayed by those invaluable animals. Even from those who had been familiar with their performances on the road and in the field all their life, the prize trial of Monday produced renewed admiration.

Love it! That was really interesting. I very much appreciate your post.

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Thanks, Penny!

 

I have just been reading Eric Halsall's Sheepdog Trials, and am enjoying the historical aspects of the book. Your article here is very timely!

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Some of Charlie's early sheepdog training tales remind me of descriptions I've read of misadventures at 19th century trials and, come to think of it, more recent ones like the bear eating a ewe in the woods abutting the trial field at Red Lodge. Boy howdy, that sure tightened up the outrun on my too wide dogs.

 

Anyway, I tried to find Charlie's story of trailering sheep to open country on the fringe of a suburb and couldn't. If anyone knows where that narrative is or Charlie is willing to retell it, please, do so.

 

Penny

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I'm planning a section on training and handling techniques from circa 1500 or so to the present. It's all too easy to dismiss the advice that the best use of a dog is to chase away ill humours and miasma in sheep. To work up good appetites, sheep should be run smartly by a dog in the morning, and the way to teach a dog his flanks is to chuck dirt clods in a circle. I want to lighten up the subject with a few modern tales.

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