History of the Golden Retriever Breed

Who would think that searching for the documented origin of the Golden Retriever breed would uncover deception and intrigue about the geographic origins and bloodlines leading to what is now known as the Golden Retriever?

Naturally, the research that has been conducted over the years involves a variety of individuals over the course of time. Of note are several people that have maintained an interest in the history behind this very popular breed:

Mrs. Elma Stonex, Mr. O’Neill, Colonel the Honorable William le Poer Trench, Mrs. W.A. Charlesworth, and Mr. A Croxton-Smith

So, to begin with, let’s go over the currently held background of the breed’s origins, and then we will address the previously held version with some reasons to abandon that version:

It was not until around 1952 and 1953 that more factual information was presented to shed light on the true beginnings of the Golden Retriever breed. Originally referred to as “yellow” retrievers, the term “golden” came into usage later, in the late 19th century. The first acceptance for registration was with The Kennel Club of England in 1903 as Flat Coats – Golden.

Mrs. Elma Stonex published an article in the British “Dog World” Magazine based upon research of hers that had been stimulated by information published in the British “Country Life” Magazine in the early 1950’s. The Earl of Ilchester, whose great uncle was Sir Dudley Marjoribanks (pronounce Marshbanks) who was later known as Lord Tweedmouth, wanted to publicize notes written by his great uncle that had recently been discovered.

Sir Dudley Marjoribanks, aka, Lord Tweedmouth, is the founder of the Golden Retriever breed and with the discovery of the kennel records and stud book for his enterprise, a logical relationship between Goldens and other retriever varieties was now possible. With this documentation it is now predominantly accepted that the breed originated with the first mention of a yellow retriever name Nous, and he was recorded as “Lord Chichester’s Breed”. Pupped (born) in June, 1864, purchased at Brighton. Also recorded is that in 1868 Nous was mated to a bitch named Belle, a Ladykirk Breed, pupped in 1863 and noted as being a Tweed Water Spaniel. From this mating was born four yellow puppies (Crocus, Cowslip, Ada and Primrose) and these laid the foundation of Goldens as a breed.

Belle was most probably chosen as a mate for his yellow retriever Nous not to enhance beauty, but rather to intensify the aquatic ability and the already pleasant character of the wavy coat retriever breed.  Presumably, Sir Dudley (Lord Tweedmouth) was seeking character, temperament and usability as the primary desired attributes, and uniformity was not so great a concern.

Lord Tweedmouth purchased Guisachan in 1854 and it was there that the golden (initially called yellow) retriever breed began. He kept Cowslip and Primrose at Guisachan, gave Ada to the Fifth Earl of Ilchester, and it was in the Ilchester strain where frequent black crosses were often used. Crocus was given to the Honorable Edward Majoribanks, later known as the second Lord Tweedmouth.

Lineage records exist up until 1890 that show both cross breeding and lineage breeding with the offspring of Cowslip and Primrose, with the intent being to develop a breed with consistent yellow retriever litters. Even though the Guisachan kennels were owned and maintained by Lord Tweedmouth until it was sold in 1905, there is no recorded history of the golden retriever breed from 1890 to 1901, when the first pedigrees were kept. The subsequent discovery by Mrs. Stonex of papers lent to her by Lady Pentland, a great-grandaughter of Lord Tweedmouth that included a letter written in 1946 by a family member of one of the Guisachon keepers which gives the key to the whole breed’s descent from Lord Tweedmouth’s original matings. To elucidate, this quote from the writings of Mrs. Stonex is presented:

“The influential recorded links of Guisachan bred Lady, Conon and Rock, prove the descent of today’s Goldens from the first Lord Tweedmouth’s thoughtfully planned matings on a foundation of yellow retriever of unknown antecedents (Nous) and two Tweed Water – Spaniels (Belle and Tweed). The roots of the breed lie in Scotland and the Border Country”.

Without the efforts of Mrs. Stonex in the early 1950’s, the predominantly popular story of the breed was that Sir Dudley (Lord Tweedmouth) purchased at Brighton around 1868 three yellow dogs from a dog trainer in a traveling circus. These animals, no doubt sheep dogs, were said to have been brought from the Region of the Caucasus and one of them, Nous, was said to have been taken to Guisachan and in due course became the origin of the breed.

So for many years, without clarification that Nous had already been born and lived at Guisachan since 1864, the breed was considered to have Russian roots. The story originated from Colonel le Poer Trench, who owned a number of yellow dogs of Guisachan origin, claimed that his strain went back to the Nous origin and that Nous was indeed one of the Russian circus dogs. So obsessed with this connection, he even journeyed to the Caucasus, but never was able to locate any dogs of similar appearance.

Without solid proof to the contrary though, the Russian connection was propagated by many, and also disputed by some for the first half of the 20th century, until the studbooks and papers were found in the early 1950’s.

Today, with the origins of this very popular breed being better understood, no one gives credence to the Russian dog possibility, but the breed’s lineal history still remains ambiguous for the period from 1890 to 1901.