A fellow named “Saxon “describes this breed in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs:
The colour is more often brown than black, and the shade of brown rather light than dark – a sort of sandy brown, in fact. Coat curly, of course, and the curls hardly so close and crisp as in the show retriever of the present day, but inclined to be open and woolly. The coat is not long, however, and across the back there is often a saddle of straight short hair. In texture the coat is inclined to be coarse, and it almost invariably looks rusty and feels harsh to the touch. This, however, may in some measure be due to neglect. The head is heavy and wise-looking, the muzzle square and broad; ears large, and somewhat thickly covered with long curly hair. The limbs stout and strong, with large and well-webbed feet. The tail is usually docked like a spaniel’s, but not so short. This seems to be quite a keeper’s custom, and probably originated from the fact that, to an inexperienced eye, the tail of a puppy generally appears too long for the dog. However, although docking the tail improves the appearance of a spaniel, in my opinion it completely spoils the symmetry of a retriever. I remember once asking a Norfolk keeper’s opinion of a very handsome flat-coated retriever I had.
After examining the dog carefully, the man said, ‘ Well, sir, he would be a rare nice-looking dog if you only cut half-a-yard off his tail.’ I need hardly add that I did not act on the suggestion.
When white appears on the chest it is more frequently in the form of a spot or patch than a narrow streak. They are usually rather above than below the medium size and are strong compact dogs. As a rule, they are exceedingly intelligent and tractable, capaple of being trained to almost anything, both in the way of tricks and with the gun. In temperament they are lively and cheerful, making excellent companions; and it is very rarely that they are found sulky or vicious. When only half-trained they are apt to be headstrong and impetuous, and, though naturally with a strong retrieving instinct, are often a little inclined to be hard-mouthed. This defect can be traced to two causes. It may be the rusult of injudicious breeding from hard-mouthed parents, or it may arise from careless or slovenly handling in their young days. However, when they are wanted almost exclusively for wildfowl shooting, this failing is not of so much moment, for they will be principally used for retrieving birds that fall in the water, and, as fowl are for the most part very tough birds, the rough grip as a dog seizes a duck will not cause much mischief, and while swimming the most inveterate “biter ” will seldom give his birds a second nip. For wildfowl shooting they are admirable.
These dogs remind of a breed in Australia called the Murray River Curly-coated retriever. This dog was developed along the Murray River to retrieve shot waterfowl. Its ancestors are believed to be the more curly-coated retriever that developed in Britain, the Irish water spaniel, and the wavy or flat-coated retriever. I’ve suggested that maybe the Norfolk retriever had some role in developing the Murray River curly, simply because the descriptions are so similar, except that Murray River curlies are not docked.
Saxon believed the Norfolk dog was derived from taking the English water spaniel and breeding it to the Labrador (St. John’s water dog). This cross was more common in British retrievers than one would think. After all, the so-called Tweed water spaniel, was mostly a cross between an indigenous strain of water spaniel and the “Newfoundland” dog (St. John’s water dog). The modern breed called curly-coated retriever is believed to have developed through cross-breeding water spaniels and St. John’s water dogs.
Indeed, this cross-breeding had to have been commonplace. If one reads any literature on water spaniels, the dogs are very common throughout Great Britain and Ireland until about the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, the dogs begin to disappear. The word retriever starts to replace them in the literature, and it is very likely that the dogs themselves were being replaced.
The curly-coated retriever was promoted as a show dog in the early fancy. Although it did not have the patronage of the flat-coated retriever, it was not well-publicized as a working dog. The curly was often denounced in sportsmen’s literature as being inferior to the flat-coat.
Perhaps the patrons of the Norfolk retriever were trying to keep alive a strain of working curly that was no longer associated with the bad reputation of the curly-coated retriever. (Of course, the dogs may have not deserved that reputation at all. The flat-coated retriever had many powerful friends in the early British dog fancy, and it is possible that the early trial system was designed to make the flat-coat look good.)
In the end, it really didn’t matter. The Norfolk retriever is no more. I cannot find any references of the breed later the First World War.
And there are still questions about what it exactly was. Maybe it didn’t go extinct after all. Maybe it is an ancestor of the Murray River curly. Maybe it was absorbed into the modern curly.
We just don’t know.
In fact, it might be that the Norfolk retriever was the last of a surviving line of British water dogs– some of them called water dogs and some called water spaniels– that were actually ancestral to the modern retrievers and the St. John’s water dog. I find this possibility a bit more interesting, but it is also one that Dalziel and his “experts” didn’t explore.
And it’s a shame that they didn’t.