This is an expanded version of a review first published in the Times Literary Supplement of 25 January 2019. All images except the first have been added from our own website. Click on the others for more information. Click on all the images to enlarge them. — Jacqueline Banerjee.

Cover of the book under review.

Everywhere we look we find Victorian inventions, from post-boxes above ground to sewerage systems below, but ... dogs? Surely they were sneaking titbits from the cavemen? However, the early generic dog was not the "companion animal" that we know today. In their introduction to The Invention of the Modern Dog, Michael Worboys and co-authors Julie-Marie Strange and Neil Pemberton argue that there were "varieties" of dogs long before the Victorian period, but not "breeds" as such (the authors' own italics). To catch their drift, we might take a look at William Hogarth's beloved pug, Trump. More biddable than his modern namesake, he appears in several of his master's paintings, and sits by the artist's statue in Chiswick High Road. He has a longer muzzle and longer legs than the squat roly-poly pugs of our own times. During the nineteenth century, explain Worboys and his co-authors, dogs were commodified, objectified, differentiated and standardised, until (though not at all in the blink of an eye), the modern breeds emerged. From that point of view, then, our dogs are indeed "thoroughly Victorian inventions" (7).

Sculptor Jim Mathieson's 2001 bronze statue of Hogarth and his pug on Chiswick High Street, London.

The breed discussed most fully in the introduction is not the pug but the Newfoundland, named like the Pekingese and other early varieties after its place of origin. This too changed over the years. It was bred to have certain pronounced features, including a broad head and a gracefully curving tail. As for the coat, we learn that William Youatt, author of The Dog (1845), described two kinds of Newfoundlands, a more compact black one, and a larger, variously coloured one. Black came to be preferred: the mainly white specimen painted by Sir Edwin Landseer back in 1838, based on a canine hero famed for its Thames rescues, wouldn't have stood a chance in later Victorian dog shows. The authors quote Charles Darwin's comment in the second edition of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1875) to the effect that the breed had been "so much modified that... it does not now closely resemble any existing native dog in Newfoundland" (qtd. 162).

Darwin, incidentally, had learned a good deal about such matters from his London barber, a dog-breeder on the side — as Kathryn Hughes reveals in Victorians Undone (95-99). In this context, the authors explain the important distinction that Darwin makes in the Origin of Species, between evolution, which is not progressive but protracted and contingent upon the surrounding conditions, and breeding, or artificial selection, which is progressive because of its "absolute goal to change organisms to meet human needs" (161).

Sir Edwin Landseer's A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, from the Tate Collection.

The process of standardising breeds was, of course, not as simple or quick as this might suggest, even though bitches can produce two litters a year, each with a clutch of puppies. The results were never guaranteed: inbreeding, outbreeding, artificial insemination to overcome size differences — all had their pitfalls. The authors are also careful to explain that standards themselves were not set in stone, but developed under the pressure of conflicting values: between blood (or inherited qualities) and conformity to a list of specifications (that is, breed); between the breeders' own opposing goals of conformity and improvement; and between the different requirements of people who showed dogs, and those who worked with dogs or kept them as pets. But, in general, breed and the show-dog went together: the authors argue convincingly that it was the establishment of dog shows and their governing institutions that encouraged the commodification and modification of dogs.

The show culture itself was complex. Dog shows started several decades before a certain Charles Crufts of Spratt's Patent dog biscuits came on the scene, and in two entirely different milieus. The earliest were the working-classes' canine "beauty shows" held after dog-fights were banned in 1835. Then there were sporting dog shows associated with agricultural fairs and inspired by livestock and poultry shows, which attracted quite a different set of patrons — the landed gentry. The first such show was held in Newcastle upon Tyne and the second in Birmingham, both in 1859. Next came a major milestone: Birmingham held another show in 1860 which included "Other Dogs" in its title, and was promoted as a National Dog Show. (Moving Crufts from London to Birmingham in 1991 was, in a sense, sending it home.) But perhaps it took the publicity surrounding another milestone in this intriguing history, the "Monster Dog Show" in Islington in 1862, to put events like these on the social calendar.

This show, with the hint of razzmatazz in its title, was noticed in Dickens's All the Year Round of 2 August that year. Authorship of the anonymous piece, "The Two Dog-Shows," is still being debated, but either Dickens himself (for whom Worboys et al. make a strong case), or his contributor, a journalist and dog-lover called John Hollingshead, took exception to the Islington event. Was there not a shameful contrast between the pampered pooches on show there, with their exaggerated characteristics, and the hapless, emaciated curs currently being rescued from the streets of nearby Holloway and housed for adoption in a vacant yard?

For this second dog-show is nothing more nor less than the show of the Lost Dogs of the metropolis — the poor vagrant homeless curs that one sees looking out for a dinner in the gutter, or curled up in a doorway taking refuge from their troubles in sleep. To rescue these miserable animals from slow starvation; to provide an asylum where, if it is of the slightest use, they can be restored with food, and kept till a situation can be found for them; or where the utterly useless and diseased cur can be in an instant put out of his misery with a dose of prussic acid;— to effect these objects, and also to provide a means of restoring lost dogs to their owners, a society has actually been formed, and has worked for some year and a half with very tolerable success. Their premises are in Hollingworth-street, St. James's-road, Holloway, and it is there that the public will find a permanent dog-show, of a very different sort from that which "drew" so well at the Agricultural Hall, Islington. [495]

As it turned out, there was room for both kinds of projects. The latter was the germ of the future Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, while the former, despite its financial failure, led to more such events in Islington, and eventually to the establishment of the National Dog Club in 1868. This was the first organisation to set out the points to be looked for when judging. Finally, in 1873, came the founding of the Kennel Club, with many members drawn from the top ranks of society, and soon snugly ensconced in offices in Pall Mall.

The Birmingham Dog Show, 1874, from The Graphic, Vol 10: 561.

No enterprise is without its critics, and the Kennel Club's studbook of 1874, with its information about pedigrees and performance, met opposition: were individual dogs to be judged on their pedigrees rather than their conformation? When it came to the awards themselves, accusations of favouritism by judges were rife. But then the need for supervision, for protocols, was great, too: for example, mange and distemper spread easily when the animals were in such close contact, and the Kennel Club's rules about the exclusion of affected dogs could be helpful here. At least one Club member felt that not enough was being done in this respect, and it comes as a surprise to learn that this was Everett Millais, eldest son of the more famous artist, and a keen proponent of scientific breeding. But this engaging history shows how the Club survived all attacks from without and within, expanded its powers and membership, and still oversees and sets rules for dog shows and trials today.

H.H. Duleep-Singh with her toy Pomeranians (Lane 94).

Subsequent developments reflect the whole course of Victorian social history. Despite the cliquish nature of the Kennel Club in its earlier years, the shows were already becoming more inclusive, not only as regards dogs and breeders, but patrons as well. One of the most compelling sections of the book is "Ladies, Shows and Breeds" in chapter seven, because among the "all sorts" of people drawn to late-Victorian dog shows were women. Women had long been vociferous critics of such practices as the cropping of ears (we learn that there was once a fashion for removing pugs' ears entirely) and the docking of tails. Although this is not mentioned here, Queen Victoria herself had outlawed these practices from the kennels at Windsor. So when the Ladies Kennel Association was founded in 1894, its aims were partly to combat misogyny — and partly to reform the treatment of dogs.

The Duchess of Newcastle's Borzoi, Champion Tsaritza (Lane 94).

Some women, from Queen Victoria down, greatly enjoyed the chance to breed and show their dogs, and now there was a new wave of interest among them in larger breeds, such as the exotic Borzoi. These were favoured not just by Princess Alexandra and the Duchess of Newcastle, but (though again, not mentioned here) the suffragist Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who had five prize-winning pedigreed Borzoi. The feminist and anti-vivisectionist Francis Power Cobbe does get some space, however, for quite a different reason. She was having none of this show-biz glitz: the authors quote her letter to the Association in 1895, saying: "I may boast of being a true Dog-lover: I am not a Dog-fancier. I take no interest in the various points of conventional beauty, which are the glory of Dog-shows. On the contrary, I am so deeply interested in the character of dogs and their intellectual possibilities that I rather resent the importance attached to the length of their tails or the precise angles of their noses" (qtd. 212).

In this way, issues of class and gender, as well as evolutionary thinking and humanitarian principles, all have a bearing on the history recorded in The Invention of the Modern Dog. Our four-footed friends, whether diminutive toy dogs, loyal playmates or helpers, or elegant hounds, have not come about by accident. We might conclude that human beings have meddled in everything that nature provided for him, but it is not easy to disapprove of our own particular favourite amongst this diverse assemblage of tail-waggers. On the whole, then, this is something else for which to thank the Victorians. This book is neither popular history nor popular science: it is closely argued from a variety of archival sources and supplemented with several hundred notes. But it is also highly readable and plentifully illustrated — and even includes Dickens's recipe for nutritious dog food. He recommends a mixture of oatmeal, barley-meal and Mangel Wurzel mixed with "pot-liquor," or, if there is none of that at hand, "a sheep's head will make it very well" (qtd. 181).


Hughes, Kathryn. Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum. London: 4th Estate, 2017.

Lane, Charles Henry. Dog Shows ... and Doggy People. London: Hutchinson, 1902. Internet Archive, from a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 20 September 2020.

"Two Dog-Shows." All the Year Round. Vol VII: 493-97. Internet Archive, from a copy in the University of Oxford Library. Web. 20 September 2020.

[Book under review] Worboys, Michael, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton. The invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian Britain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 282 + viii pp. £26.55. ISBN. 978-1-4214-2658-7.

Created 20 September 2020