Henry Wadesworth Longfellow’s beautiful poem ,which dictates the rules of a well done job, recalls to mind the men of whom we are going to talk about, ‘The Architects of Fate’, the Builders of the Breed. When the selection of the collies passed over to the breeders, they were given the merit of making the collie, which had been indispensable at work, into the most beautiful of show dogs, without ever disclaiming its roots, and without ever losing its shepherd’s soul.
Not everyone was a breeder in the real sense of the word, but everyone possessed the qualities of those who give light to the passions of men, and with their work, indicate the way to them: modesty, creativity, imagination, curiosity and foresight. Besides love and generosity towards the breed, led them to work together for the same purpose, and they made the second half of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century the golden age of the collie.
In just a few years, the collie breed had reached enormous popularity, both in its homeland and abroad, and so many breeders came to be that it would be impossible to talk of all of them individually. It is enough to think, that in the first two volumes of the ‘English Stud Book’, until 1874, 108 sheep dogs and Scotch collies were registered. A remarkable number if you think that the first dog show had been held only fifteen years before.
Notwithstanding the distances and the difficulty in communicating, the many passionate dog-lovers slowly started to organize themselves; thus the first Collie Clubs were created, of which the members were well-prepared and experienced men, and of absolute morality.
Reading the adventures of these first breeders and of their dogs, one must keep in mind, in order to avoid misunderstandings, that often during that period, the dogs changed names when they changed owners and they acquired a prefix of their new masters. Luckily today things are different, and dogs now keep the same name for their whole life.
Another reflection arises after reading the first volumes of the ‘English Stud Book’, and that is that, most of the dogs belonged to people who lived in the counties of Lancashire, Warwickshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. The breeders of whom we will talk about all lived near Birmingham and in the area of Lancashire and Liverpool, which was, not by chance, the region which had benefitted mostly from the Industrial Revolution during the Victorian Age. This geographical closeness made exchanges of dogs and ideas easier, and turned that region into the cradle of the breed.
The few essential notions we will give about these men are not enough to give the just merit of their commitment, but our intention is to remember them and not to write a biography about them. We have a lot to learn from them, not only about breeding terms. Their work should be studied with great attention by all those who aspire to deal with the collie, because they have traced the blood lines on which we work today.
The period of which we are going to deal with, is, above all, the beginning of the dog shows up to the First World War. The breeders of that time, together with their dogs, represent the history of our race. Their lives and their work show that it was a time when all those passionate about collies worked together, learning and teaching, exchanging information, advice, suggestions and criticism, in an agreeable, friendly atmosphere. They were all part of a community which worked for the same purpose. Queen Victoria was the soul of the time, and the inspirer of all those who, in any field, contributed to reforming life, customs, morality and the culture of the society itself. It was the time of Charles Dickens, of Oscar Wilde and of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was the time in which fantasy was beginning to triumph over a rampant mediocrity, and in which consciences finally freed themselves from the spectres that had kept them chained for centuries. The time in which Charles Dickens unhinged the boundaries imposed by science, marginalizing the intervention of God in the Creation. It was the time in which Alfred Tennyson rediscovered the hero Homer, who thought himself to be all-powerful under the walls of Troy; a man weakened by spending time inexorably. It was also the time of the Collie; the triumph of a breed which had its roots in mythical places and time, in the stories and legends that Walter Scott had narrated; a dog, which, through the centuries had lived in close contact to man, thus, turning itself into a work tool and a life companion. It was an a success, because that was the time in which man was getting closer to nature and to his creatures. He observed them with respect and he appreciated their help. It was the time in which the dog entered fully into the family with a precise role and with its dignity.
Today, a century later, there have been many changes in the dog’s world. Today we look at the future of our breed with quite a few regrets. Today the time of heroes is over, and we continue to cultivate our love for this noble animal. There remains nothing else than to look behind and try to be worthy of our past. Let’s say that history celebrates heroes, however, it quickly forgets the merchants and improvisers.