Taking yet another unbiased look at the possible ancestry of the Bedlington terrier.
I suppose that one of the most gratifying things about having one’s own page on Facebook, is the ability to post various questions about the Bedlington terrier, its origins and its eventual development into the now beautifully structured and groomed dogs we see paraded at many of today’s top dogs shows.
Of course, in making these observations we should not ignore the special character of the Bedlington terrier that makes it such a wonderful companion.
Nevertheless, in asking these questions, or indeed even venturing to make such observations, we are invariably destined at some point to be the subject of considerable abuse from certain sections of those breeders who consider themselves to be the sole proprietors of the Bedlington terrier breed.
Certain members of the often-maligned working group, with their secretive activities, appear to be particularly aggressive in their observations.
One has to wonder why they should even wish to laud their activities on a public platform such as Facebook.
Of course, it is human nature to believe in the apologue we feel most comfortable with and react quite badly when the truer picture does not quite fit our imagined frame.
Needless to say, it would be wrong to suggest that without the dedicated involvement of such breeders of both show and working, over the past hundred years or so, the breed with all its admirable working qualities, would in all probability not have survived, like several other such working breeds that originated in the Scottish border region..
However, it would appear from historic research, that a recent ancestor to the present day Bedlington terrier evolved from the mid 1600’s to the mid 1700’s to meet the needs of small groups of dissident religious migrants that had taken refuge on certain large estates in Northumberland, and had managed to survive there, despite the severe penal penalty’s and ongoing restrictions of recusancy and interdiction.
It certainly appeared to be a period, were their dog’s looks were of little importance, and that the type of dogs required were evaluated purely on their working ability, which in their case was mainly the catching of rabbits and the control of various vermin as was allowed by the estate owner, a rare privilege indeed compared to those living under severe feudal laws and restrictions outside the estates.
The eventual breeding of such a working terrier by the estate grooms and their close association with the various hunts, attracted considerable interest in their terrier’s potential by the Northumberian hunt masters of the 1750’s onwards desirous to obtain a terrier, capable of bolting a fox gone to earth purely by sheer aggression, yet without attempting to kill it, that being the sole province of the fox hounds waiting above ground, that the grooms were then actively persuaded to breed a smaller version of their rabbit dog to meet the needs of the hunt.
Both the bull terrier and fox terrier being judged as unsuitable for that one particular task.
The present insistence by the working group on the Bedlington terrier having a strong powerful jaw capable of killing a fox, and is only to be used for going to earth, is one of their own making, it certainly was not a requirement in the original terriers used by the hunt masters of the 1800’s. or that of many gamekeepers well into the 1900’s that required the multipurpose attributes of the large type Bedlington terrier.
Where in the 1800’s both types were used above and below earth, especially in assisting the otter hounds in their quest, in the then immensely popular otter hunts of the 1800’s that attracted hundreds of spectators and followers of both genders.
What the ancestor of the Bedlington terrier excelled in above all else, was its sheer aggression and drive, that made it ideal for bolting foxes and the then popular Northumberian sport of drawing badgers through tunnels.
Many large boar badgers were sent down from Scotland to meet the demand in Northumberland.
Despite the original cruelty involved in badger baiting with large powerful pit bull terriers attacking the often-disabled badger, later rules, just before badger baiting was abolished in 1835, was of no contact between dog and badger.
Where the newly named Bedlington terrier had to entice the badger along a predetermined length of an enclosed tunnel in the shortest possible time, that way there was less chance of the dog receiving serious injury at the powerful jaws of the badger.
Despite tales to the contrary, there is no possible way that Bedlington terriers were employed in confrontation and attack on badgers during the full badger baiting period, the Bedlington terrier simply did not exist during that time, such badger baiting ended when the Staffordshire nailers left Bedlington taking their bull type terriers with them.
However, it is in this singular aspect of the sport, that the duly named Bedlington terrier achieved its fame and showed its undoubted superiority over other terriers.
Of course, it was also no mean contender in the rat pits of the period.
However, it is little wonder, that in such isolated conditions that these original estates provided, that despite its obscure terrier ancestry, that due to obvious selective breeding a type of dog appeared suited to the then needs of its owners.
Restricted though they may have been, even under the sympathetic and liberal minded benevolence of the estate owner’s attitude.
A quality seldom found elsewhere in Northumberland, and where landowners would extract the harshest penalties on those taking game from their property without permission.
And as magistrates, they were ever ready to ensure that their slave ships moored in the Tyne had an ample supply of passengers to the colonies to serve out their then standard seven-year sentence for a vast array of offences.
It is interesting to note how many of those lords owning slave ships objected to the abolishment of slavery and continued to enjoy the financial benefits of penal transportation well into mid 1800’s.
Even as late as 1830, in what was probably his last public display of authority over his territory, the Bishop of Durham ordered his gamekeepers to shoot all dogs they found used in poaching in his Manor ship of Bedlingtonshire, even Sir Mathew Ridley despite he owning a 30,000 acre estate at Blagdon Hall, was summoned for hunting hares on the Bishop’s land.
The Bishop of Durham was still a force to be reckoned with when it came to dealing with the Northumberian overlords.
However, in order to take a realist approach to such early dog ownership, one has to consider the harsh hunting laws and penalty’s that were part and parcel of those living under the feudal system during that time, and the ever encroaching land encloser by the numerous land owning nobility that further restricted the non-freeholders to the taking of game without the express permission of the land owner.
Of course the penal dog tax of 1796 to 1882 on hunting dogs and dogs used in poaching, had a highly detrimental effect on the poorer owners, that relied on poaching to feed their families and on such breeds as the Bedlington terrier that still did not rank alongside the recognised sporting breeds.
To the extent, where only the higher paid tradespeople, and business owners had the means to maintain their dogs.
During this period many working lines simply disappeared, due to their owners inability to maintain them.
As we can see, prior to Bedlingtonshire, Norhamshire and Islandshire’s final amalgamation with Northumberland in 1844, and the subsequent relaxing of the Catholic recusancy laws in the 1835/40’s just in time to coincide with the later opening of the Auld A pit and later Doctor pit in Bedlington.
with its high influx of miners from other areas.
Despite the highly popularised picture of the miner and his Bedlington terrier, that we are all now familiar with.
It would appear that in those early days most Colliery owners in their housing contracts, restricted the keeping of dogs in their rented property, the threat of rabid dogs was one not to taken lightly.
It would appear from known records, that a high proportion of the early breeders not living on the estates, were in fact stonemasons due in part to their higher wages and working involvement with the relevant estates, where the original dogs were bred.
Another important factor appears to be the fact that a high proportion of those early breeders even as late as the 1800’s all had family connections going back to Norhamshire and the Borders, something not found anywhere else in Northumberland.
Indicating to my mind at least, that the origin of the Bedlington terrier started about 1600, along the banks of the River Tweed.
There are many interesting historic facts of that period that may or may not support such a contention.
However, with due diligence, the Bedlington terrier’s ancestry could yet confound us all.
This article was written by Mor O Inchrory.