The Coevolution of the English and Greyhounds

erika on the run

Many techniques of the study of history exist. One of the most innovative is what is called “environmental history” in which human castes, classes, and professions are given ecological/economic niches that allow their behavior to operate as if species in an ecosystem.

It is this history that Edmund Russell lays out in his Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200-1900.  This is a book that anyone interested in dog history should read, for it is an odd comprehensive history of the redefinition of a particular type of dog through the social, economic, and political changes of a nation shifting from feudalism to capitalism and democracy.

Russell’s book is not the history of “the greyhound,’ the breed we know today. That breed is included in this work, but it is also the history of the proto-whippets that worked the rabbit warrens and larger forms of greyhound that were used to hunt deer and wolves. It is also the story of eventual breed standardization within the context of the rise of the kennel club and the closed racing greyhound registries.

Russll begins with the earliest mentions of greyhounds in England, which is around the year 1200. The dogs belonged solely to the patrician class in the feudal system, and different forms of greyhound were used to on different quarry.  Large greyhounds coursed the deer and the wolf.  Mid-sized ones worked hares and foxes. Smaller ones were used to catch rabbits in enclosed warrens. And commoners were never allowed to own a any of these dogs, except under very explicit circumstances.

For over five centuries, various forms of greyhound were used in this way, but then in the late eighteenth century, the forces of democracy and early capitalism began to change the way the English related to their land. The Enclosure of the commons meant that vast tracts of territory could be set aside of the protection and promotion of hares for what was called “club coursing.”

In this coursing clubs, patricians ran their dogs on these hare estates. They were clubs that were quite exclusive, and the commoners could not own these dogs. Russell includes the account of a commoner convicted for owning greyhound, which the commoner tries to pass off as an Italian greyhound.  But he is still convicted of the crime.

At this time, greyhounds are bred to lurchers and bulldogs to improve their runs on hares, and we learn about the various eccentricities of Lord Orford, a founder of the Swaffham Coursing Society.  He was an extreme spendthrift, infamously selling countless priceless family paintings to Catherine the Great of Russia to pay off debts that he had accrued. He also died while running one of his hounds, Czarina, at a Swaffham meet. He had been ill but left his bed to run the hound. He is said to have either died in the saddle or fell from the saddle then died.

As the eighteenth century progresses into the nineteenth, big coursing events, called public coursing, became a popular rural activity. The famous Waterloo Cup began in 1836, and as the sport became popular for spectators, a National Coursing Club was founded to standardize coursing rules. Commoners were eventually allowed to own these dogs, and coursing became more democratic and meritocratic endeavor. The working classes begin to have leisure time and money, which they put toward gambling on coursing events and speculation on various hounds.

This democratic shift in coursing coincided with the rise of the Kennel Club and the purebred dog fancy. Here, Russell introduces us to Sewallis Shirley, the same founder of the Kennel Club and retriever fancier who has been mentioned on this blog many times. Russell portrays Shirley as purely patrician. He is anti-democratic and opposed to tenant rights on his estate in Ireland, and his anti-democratic leanings lead to his promotion of the show greyhound over the coursing one.

As the nineteenth century draws to a close, we see the closing of the greyhound registry with both the Kennel Club and the National Coursing Society. No longer would anyone consider crossing to lurchers or bulldogs to make a better greyhound. The goal was to produce a superior greyhound within the population already ascribed as greyhounds.

Russell leaves us at this juncture but alludes to the rise of greyhound racing in the twentieth century in which the dogs are reborn as objects on which to wager in a new event.

This type of history could, in theory, be written about any type of dog in virtually any European country. However, this particular breed in this particular country is documented well back in the Medieval period, and because it was owned solely by the wealthy originally, the documentation can be followed fairly easily into the modern era.

If one is interested in an academic history of dogs, this book is a great read.  Russell uses the primary sources in his work so clearly, and the prose is posited so logically that one can easily follow the winding history of running dogs in England.

These dogs were made to run, but we now live in a world where they are slowly losing their purpose. Nation after nation, state after state, coursing is losing its legality.  Professional greyhound racing is likely on the way out in much of the world, but we will keep them alive. We will run them, even if it is just after plastic bags raced along on pulleys.

 

Natural History

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