There is a story that when Napoleon Bonaparte was escaping from Elba, he fell into the sea. In the darkness, the sailors could not find him but a Newfoundland dog that was in the boat jumped into the water and rescued the drowning emperor. Had the dog not possessed such skill and tenacity, the battle of Waterloo might never have happened.
This remarkable breed probably originated from the ‘St. John’s’ dogs used by the native inhabitants of Newfoundland. By the time John Cabot landed on the coast of the island in the late 14th century, the Newfoundland dog had developed into huge animal with a black double coat, webbed feet and a massive head. Following Cabot’s voyage, European ships began to visit the island for the seasonal fishing and some of them carried dogs on board which bred with the native species. As Poole ships were involved in the fishing trade from the early 15th century, it is possible that Dorset dogs were among those transported across the Atlantic.
Different varieties gradually appeared, including brown, grey and black and white dogs. One black and white animal was later immortalised by Sir Edwin Landseer in his 1838 painting “A Distinguished Member of Humane Society”. His subject was credited with having saved 20 people from drowning and was therefore adopted as a member of the Society. This variety soon acquired the name ‘Landseers’.
Life-saving was just one of the characteristics of the breed. Newfoundland dogs were intelligent, calm and loyal as well as being excellent water dogs and strong swimmers with a powerful instinct to retrieve objects and people. This made them invaluable to fishermen who would use them to haul in nets or retrieve fish. When fishermen were using a jigger (a weight with two unbaited hooks which was jiggled in the water), the fish would sometimes slip off the hook. The dogs were skilled at retrieving fish with their paws or jumping into the water to bring the fish ashore and pile it up as they had seen men do. They were also employed to pull sleds loaded with fish, nets, firewood, milk, mail and other goods across rough ground inaccessible to a pony. Trained dogs could even transport goods on their own without the owner having to go with them. It was said that a good dog could earn his owner’s keep during the winter months.
Not surprisingly, European captains began to bring Newfoundland dogs back with them across the Atlantic as a valuable side-line, demonstrating their skills at ports where they landed. The dogs were soon in demand for their novelty or as working and sporting animals. Portraits from the early 18th century onwards show the presence of Newfoundland dogs in wealthy households while sportsmen valued them for their ability to retrieve wildfowl from the sea.
In the late 18th century, Poole was became one of the leading ports for the Newfoundland trade and a major supply centre for dogs. Col. Peter Hawker in his ‘Instructions to Young Sportsmen’, first published in 1814, wrote that ‘Poole was of late years, the best place to buy Newfoundland dogs; either just imported or broken in, but now they are become much more scarce, owing (the sailors observe) to the strictures of those — tax-gathers.’ However, fifty years later the Rev. Thomas Pearce was still writing in ‘The Field’ about buying ‘several excellent dogs out of the Mountaineer of Poole, on her arrival from White Bay, St. John’s’ and mentioned ‘ “Snow”, a dog I bought at the King’s Arms in Poole directly he landed in the autumn of 1859’. He also asserted that ‘those captains who pay any attention to dogs know very well where to procure good specimens and we who live near Poole know the right men to deal with’. Some dogs were brought in on commission and others sold at auctions or transported to London and elsewhere to be sold.
Newfoundland dogs were also used to pull carts as an alternative to horses or ponies. In the early 1800s, the dog-cart was ‘one of the usual sights of Poole . . . One two or three dogs were harnessed to a shallow cart of about two feet wide and a yard long, and these dogs were used for local haulage and domestic work around the narrow streets of Poole, as well as for fast relays in the delivery of fresh fish along the South Coast and even to London.’ Dog carts were a familiar sight in many towns but a rabies scare in London in the 1830s together with humanitarian considerations, caused them to be banned in the city in 1839. The following year, Poole’s first Liberal Council revised the byelaws to ban the use of dog-carts in Poole. However as late as 1853, James Bugden was prosecuted and fined in Poole Guildhall for using dogs for haulage. An Act of Parliament outlawed the practice throughout the country in 1855.
Newfoundland dogs were still being bred in the area and a large pack was owned by Mr Henry Richard Farquarson of Eastbury House, Tarrant Gunville, M.P. for South Dorset. He used to send carts down to Poole to collect dogs from the Newfoundland timber ships. Two kennel lads had the job of exercising the dogs and bitches in separate groups. One day around 1890, due to a misunderstanding, the two groups met up on Chettle Down. The usually placid dogs were not proof against the instinct to compete for the females and a big fight ensued. As a result, 45 dogs were killed or had to be put down.
The incident is a rare example of aggression from this amiable, hard-working breed. Today, Newfoundland dogs are still bred and kept in the vicinity of Poole but their days of arriving on sailing ships from the other side of the Atlantic or drawing carts through the streets of the old town, are long gone.
Main sources: The Book of Newfoundland 1967 Vol. 3 The Newfoundland Dog by M. M. Nutbeam / The Newfoundland: A Complete Anthology of the Dog / Poole and Dorset Herald