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The History of the Breed - Part 1

Although there would appear to be little doubt that Beagle type dogs have been known in Britain since probably the 3rd century BC, and is generally regarded as a British breed, its origin, however obscure, is almost certain to be found outside the British Isles. living in the second century BC Certainly there are references to dogs which sound as though they could be Beagles by Arrian and Oppian, Greek authors. In the opinion of those who have researched the subject the Beagle has evolved from small hounds used for hunting small game in Southern Europe, as opposed to the larger sight hound used for hunting larger and faster quarry.

Evidence to this effect comes from the Greek author Xenophon born about 433BC who was an enthusiastic follower of hunting and who wrote a "Treatise on Hunting" , in which he refers to the small hounds which are used to hunt hare and rabbit on foot. The method of hunting used then, differs from that of today, in that the hounds were used to drive the game into nets laid out by the huntsmen. Illustrations on pottery of that period show two types of hounds; the small ones with thick muzzles and long ears, and the much longer legged hound with slim more pointed muzzles and shorter ears. It is also possible that these were the dogs referred to the Langenhern or long eared dogs and being too small to do any harm in Canute's 10th century game laws.

The develoment of the Beagle is exclusive to Britain, starting with the Romans who acquired the small Greek hounds and brought them to Britain for trading and hunting. The Saxons were known to have used them for hunting hares and exempted them from the Forest Laws drawn up by King Canute in 1016. Whether or not there were any hare hunting hounds native to Britain at this time is not certain, but Capt Otho Paget, described as the dean of all Beagles wrote "There were, however, in England packs of hounds before the times of the Romans and it is on record that, Pwyll, Prince of Wales, a contemporary of King Arthur, had a special breed of white hounds of great excellence". The Normans who were keen hunters brought over some larger hounds, probably of Harrier size. in the 14th century Chaucer mentions in his Canterbury Tale the "Small Houndes"belonging to the Prioress, and in the 15th century the name Beagle was used for the first time by several writers. In the accounts of Henry VIII there is reference to Robert Shere "keeper of the Beagles" . In Tudor times, Queen Elizabeth 1st had a pack of "Singing Beagles", a name inspired by their cry which is still used today. These Beagles were supposed to be small enough to fit inside a lady's gauntlet. Another royal reference came from James 1st who referred to his wife as his "dear little Beagle", apparently a term of affection!  It was in the same reign that one Johanes Stradanus in 1560 produced a print of Beagles killing rabbits. Other royal patrons of the breed were Prince William of Orange who had a pack, and a century and a quarter later George 4th who hunted with his pack over the Brighton Downs and in the 19th century Prince Albert had an almost pure white strain of rabbit Beagles with which he hunted in Windsor Park. Artists such as Stubbs in the 18th and J F Herring in the 19th century depicted Beagles in their paintings. There are a number of references to Beagles in the 17th century with their inclusion in poems by both Dryden and Pope. It was in this century that the game laws were introduced which resulted in a decline in deer hunting and an increase in hare hunting.

No names appear to have been given by the Greeks, Romans, Saxons or Normans to their small hunting hounds. In the 11th century the name Kennetty was used to refer to hounds of similar size to the Beagle. Rache was also used at about the same time but this was thought to refer to the larger hounds of Harrier size. Hayreis and Hayrers were names given in the 15th century, for harrying game, those names becoming Harrier sometime during the next century. The first recorded use of the name Beagle appears to be about 1475 in "The Squire of Low Degree". The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary considers the word may have come from the French beguelle  while other sources claim it came from the Celtic beag or small.

From early illustrations it is obvious that type and size were very varied. Early writers depicted puddingy hounds, however, Thomas Bewick's engraving of a Beagle in his history of Quadrupeds published 1790 shows a fine streamlined hound with well proportioned body. When Sydenham Edwards wrote his monumental work Cynographica Brittanica in 1800 he stated that "They (Beagles) are chiefly kept as finders to the Greyhounds in coursing, which purpose they answer extremely well, hence they frequently called Finders". He continued by writing that "They are distinguished by the parts where they are bred..."  and goes on to describe the Southern and Northern Beagles. He also makes the comment " The term Beagle has been indiscriminantly used by many for both the Harrier and the Beagle but is now wholly confined to the latter." Three years later the author of The Sportsman Cabinet  notes "This slow type of hunting (eg hare) was admirably adapted to age and the female gender. It could be enjoyed by ladies of the greatest timidity as well as gentlemen labouring under infirmity...."! Stonehenge's depiction, 1859, of Barmaid, which he describes as a dwarf Beagle, height twelve and a half inches, possessed many of the qualities valued today. Type no doubt differed in different localities and  packs and depended on the predilection of the masters, the nature of the country over which they hunted and the requirements of the followers. 

John Meyrick in Housing & Sporting Dogs (1861) wrote that " the Beagle has degenerated from want of care in breeding him. There are very few packs kept for hunting the hare in comparison  with old times, but the Beagle is still used for covert shooting, many sportsment preferring him to the Spaniel"

The development of the modern Beagle has been attributed to an Essex clergyman, a Mr Honeywood who put together a good pack in the middle of the 19th century. The breed was recognised by the Kennel Club in 1873 and the first dogs seen in the show ring were pack bred. Realisation of the desirability of uniformity in shape and conformation grew steadily during the second half of the 19th century culminating in the formation of the Beagle Club in 1890 and the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles in 1891. The desire to stabilise general type had led to the holding of hound shows, the Peterborough Show of 1889 being one of the first and the best known. The Beagle Club held its first show in 1896. Up until the outbreak of World War 1 Beagles were shown regularly at hound shows and at larger general championship shows.

In America the dogs being called Beagles were found mainly in the Southern states and were more like Bassets and Dachshunds. It is not until 1870 when a General Richard Rowlett of Illinois imported some dogs from Britain that the true Beagle was introduced and after the formation of the national Beagle Club in 1888 the breed went from strength to strength, as also happened in Canada after a club had been formed in 1890. In both these countries Beagle Field TRialling is a popular sport.

In 1900 we know from Henry Compton's writing that height varied from 12 to 23 inches. By 1910 great strides had been made in breeding to a definite type, ranging in height from 12 to 16 inches. This steady and general improvement was undoubtedly due to the publication by the Beagle Club of a Breed Standard which has remained virtually unchanged to date. The breed standard was framed with the sole object of defining the physical qualities needed to enable the hound to hunt hare to the best advantage under all conditions. It was drawn up by some of the most distinguished huntsmen of the era.

In the States two varieties of Beagle are recognised, the one being over 13 but under 15 inches in height and the other not exceeding 13 inches. The British Standard gives a maximum height of 16 inches and a minimum of 13 inches. This latter standard is the one adopted by KUSA and the FCI.

During World War 1 most of the principal kennels were disbanded. When dog shows resumed in 1920, Beagles were conspicuous by their absence. A limited foundation stock had survived but in the following 7 years only 2 names were added to the breed register. That the breed was revived is thanks largely to the efforts of Mrs Nina Elms owner of Reynalton Kennels, which between the wars bred Bloodhounds, Bassets and Beagles. Reynalton Kennels were the most successful exhibitors in the 1930's. Other winning exhibitors were Viscount Chelmsford, Miss Willis, Mrs E Stockley and Mr E G Sargean. Great strides were made and by the time of the declaration of World War 2 the future of the Beagle breed both in type and numbers seemed secure.

Once again a World War intervened and once again Beagle breeders and numbers dwindled though not with the same devastating effect of WW1. In 1945 only one Beagle was registered, 1946 the number rose to 18 and thereafter rose steadily. Post war exhibitors and kennels which played a part in the revival were Mrs Stockley, Stanhurst Kennels, Douglas Appleton & Appleline Kennels,Tavernmews Kennels, Mrs Crowther Davies, Mrs Clayton, Barvae Kennels, Mrs Thelma Gray & Mrs Beck, who promoted smaller type Beagles. By 1959 1092 Beagles were registered.

The Beagle star has been in the ascendant since the 1960's and some names from then to the present day who have influenced the breed include three generations of the Spavin family & the Dialynne prefix, two generations of the Sutton family & the Rossut prefix, Leo Pagliero and David Webster. Other kennels such as Bayard, Beacott, Crestamere, Dufosee, Davricard, Eardley, Fallowfield, Nedlaw, Newlin, Norcis Raimex and Serenaker amongst others have been prominent in the breed in recent years. Currently there are eight Beagle Clubs in the United Kingdom, mostly defined by area.*


* Any omissions are unintentional & due to lack of information



www.The Beagle,2010

The Beagle, E. Fitch Dagleish, W & G Foyle, London,1961

Dogs in Africa : On the origins of the Breeds,  M.R. Darwin, March 1998.