The dog in the photo above is Dual Ch. Bramshaw Ben. Not only was he a British field trial champion, but he won Best in Show at Crufts in 1932 and 1933.
He was owned by Countess Lorna Katherine Curzon Howe. She was a notable Labrador retriever authority and enthusiast, who was instrumental in introducing the Labrador retriever to the United States.
Countess Lorna Howe was also instrumental in founding the specialist club for Labrador retrievers in the UK. Although the Labrador was recognized as a breed in the Kennel Club in 1903, it did not have a specialist club until 1916.
Countess Howe’s book on Labradors can be found (1981 edition).
Ben is very close in appearance to the British working type Labrador we see today. I should note that both show and working-type Labradors have diverged a bit from the original form, with many show-type Labradors developing along the lines of black Angus bulls and many working-type dogs possessing rather light frames.
Bramshaw Ben lived at time when the Labrador retriever was becoming truly established in the UK trial scene. Although he lived during the height of the Great Depression, people with means and access to land for shooting were starting to consider Labradors for their “pick-up” work.
The first decades of the twentieth century were the Halcyon Days of the flat-coated retriever. In 1900, if you said the word “retriever,” the average person wold think of a long-haired black dog. After the First World War, the flat-coat fell from favor. Many reasons have been posited for this drop in popularity, but it is likely that a combination of factors led to the flat-coat losing its position as the main retrieving breed used on shooting estates.
Among these is the gradual improvement of the Labrador. George Teasdale-Buckell wrote of the Labrador in 1907:
When Mr. Holland Hibbert ran Munden Single, the Labrador, in the 1904 retriever trials, there is not much doubt she would have been high up in the prize list had it not been that the last runner she got was brought back dead. It was a wing-tipped cock pheasant that Single roded out and then chased. But the cock could almost beat the dog by the help of its wings, and no doubt the Labrador was pretty much blown when she got hold. Then she had to cross a brook to get back, and it is likely enough that a stumble, or perhaps jumping against the bank, led to the pinching of the bird. However, excuses are not admitted in public competitions, and indeed none was made. In 1905, Single appeared to be quite tender in the mouth, and although she is admirably broken, and has no excitement or nervousness, but lots of love of the game, she was not as fortunate in her opportunities as had been the case the year before, and got no prize for work although she has lots of merit. Another Labrador at this meeting got a certificate of merit, so that, as only three entries have been made all told at retriever trials, the breed has taken a much better position with spectators than is indicated by its want of success in gaining stake money
–The Complete English Shot (pg. 194).
Teasdale-Buckell was a total flat-coat man, so his views were not unbiased. However, there may be some truth to what he was saying. Flat-coats would continue to dominate the British retriever scene until the First World War. Labradors were simply not the first choice.
However, the Labrador was being carefully selected for its working ability. St. John’s water dogs were imported to add new blood to the strain, and the dogs were crossbred with flat-coats. I cannot find any evidence of Labradors being crossbred with dogs that make up the foundational stock to the golden retriever, but it is possible that some crosses with these dogs happened.
And through that breeding and careful selection, the Labrador became a good working breed.
However, there was often a complaint of the Labrador being a bit ugly. Harding Cox denounced the Labrador “less beautiful and more obstinate” than the noble Flat-coat.
But with an attractive Labrador winning Crufts two years in a row, that complaint could no longer be considered valid. They now worked well and were pretty.
The Labrador has continued to grow in popularity as a working breed. It is the retriever in Britain– and the rest of the world. It is most popular dog in the US and the UK, and it very well may be the most popular dog breed in the world right now.
However, because the breed is so numerous and used for so many purposes, it has evolved in so many directions. It is almost impossible to find a true dual purpose Labrador anywhere, and it would be next to impossible to find a field champion Labrador in the UK that is also a Crufts contender.
Bramshaw Ben was truly remarkable dog, who did much to credit his breed in the eyes of retriever enthusiasts. Today, we cannot imagine a time when Labradors were not the most popular dogs. But as recently as 90 years ago, they were playing second fiddle to the flat-coat, a breed that too many people today would misidentify as a “black golden retriever.”
Times change, and with them, go the fortunes of breeds. In 1900, no one would have thought the Labrador would be the main retrieving breed. The flat-coat’s position seemed set and secure.
Perhaps someday we’ll see the Labrador retriever lose its position as the most-esteemed retriever in the same way the flat-coat did. And who knows which obscure breed might take its place?
Only time will tell.
Maybe the Lab is built to last.
But history shows that no breed has a permanent monopoly on its status.
They can fall just as easily as they can rise.