THE GOLDEN RETRIEVER
Let's rewind to early 19th-Century England, where class distinctions were razor-sharp, and the manses and manors that gave us “Downton Abbey” were in full swing. That’s the socially stratified backdrop into which Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks (often pronounced “Marchbanks”) was born in 1820, second son to a successful Scottish banker. Even as a teenager, the young Marjoribanks was interested in dog breeding – then, unlike now, considered an admirable hobby for the well heeled and socially prominent. He recorded all the breedings he did over a half-century in a leather-bound book that still survives today, kept securely at the Kennel Club in England. (That’s the formal name of Britain’s dog registry – simply the Kennel Club – which, with its implied sense of universal recognition, is so very British.)
While his father’s banking partnership was earmarked for his older brother, Marjoribanks nonetheless inherited a substantial fortune. With it, he purchased part of the Meux Brewery. Formerly known as the Horse Shoe Brewery, the distillery had been the site of the London Beer Flood of 1814, in which a burst vat sent a quarter-million gallons of porter beer gushing the densely populated neighborhood, killing eight. But during Marjoribanks’ tenure, the only flood he saw was of pound sterling. And that investment, along with his directorship in the East India Company, left him even wealthier.
Now suitably equipped with the appropriate trappings of aristocratic British life, Marjoribanks received the ultimate nod in 1881 – elevation into the peerage as the newly minted 1st Baron Tweedmouth.
TWEED WATER SPANIEL
Now extinct, Tweed spaniels were liver-colored, sort of kissing cousins to Irish Water Spaniels, and associated with the fishermen of the River Tweed Valley on the Scottish-English border.
Tweed water spaniel picture by John Carlton
For many years, the prevailing origin story of the Golden Retriever was that Marjoribanks had purchased a group of Russian circus dogs, and started breeding his famous yellow-coated dogs from there. But the truth turns out to be much more pedestrian – literally. On a walk with his son in Brighton in 1865, Marjoribanks came across a wavy-coated dog named Nous. Belonging to a cobbler who had gotten him from an employee of a local nobleman to settle a debt, Nous had black parents but was himself gold-colored.
In dogs as in humans, one’s standing in life depends on the vagaries of luck and birth. During the 19th Century, black sporting dogs were fashionable and considered to be better hunters; any other colors in well-bred litters were usually disposed of. Had Nous not been given to a tradesman, he might not have survived at all.
Three years after Marjoribanks acquired him, Nous was bred to Belle, a Tweed Water Spaniel that Marjoribanks had been given by his cousin. Now extinct, Tweed spaniels were liver-colored, sort of kissing cousins to Irish Water Spaniels, and associated with the fishermen of the River Tweed Valley on the Scottish-English border. It was an inspired combination, crossing a retriever to a water spaniel to create a robust hunter capable of navigating both land and water to hunt grouse, partridge and even red deer. Marjoribanks’ famous 1868 litter contained the florally monikered puppies who are considered the world’s first Golden Retrievers – Cowslip, Crocus and Primrose.
Unlike those common woodland flowers, the gold-colored Marjoribanks retrievers weren’t widely dispersed, but instead were only gifted with great discretion to family and friends, who valued them as the ultimate gentleman’s hunting dog. Marjoribanks’ son Edward was given Crocus, and the fact that he also owned a red setter named Sampson might explain the very deep red that is part of the spectrum of color seen in the Golden Retriever even today. A female named Ada, who was from a repeat breeding of Belle to Nous, was given to Marjoribanks’ nephew the Earl of Ilchester, whose subsequent line of Golden Retrievers at Melbury Hall in Dorset became quite famous.
And long before the Golden Retriever became the third most popular breed in the United States – surpassed only by Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs – two alighted on North American soil with Marjoribanks’ youngest son, Archie. Archie took a male named Sol to Texas, where his Rocking Chair Ranch raised some of his family’s prized Angus Aberdeen cattle. Soon after, Archie brought a female named Lady to Canada, when he was appointed aide-de-camp to his brother-in-law, Canadian Governor-General Lord Aberdeen. Sol died in Texas, but Lady returned to Britain with Archie in 1895 and went on to produce more puppies there.
Marjoribanks made the final breeding entry in his leather-bound record book in 1890, and died several years later, but the breed carried on without him.