Ask any of us what is so special about field sports and we'd be sure to have our own special and particular answer: a great shot or spectacular retrieve, perhaps in amazing conditions. I have those sort of memories, but as a sometime social scientist I am conscious that field sports are remarkable for more general reasons, and field trials particularly so.
Field Trials, in Britain at least, are not, and have never been 'ageist'. Country sports are almost unique in the sporting world for not only making it possible for people to go on, not only taking part but getting better at what they do, well after other sports would have obliged them to retire. They're 'pro-am' in that the rawest tyro may find him or herself in a trial alongside a seasoned professional who has made up several field trial champions. Neither are they 'sexist', in that men and women have competed against each other from the outset. In the hunting field, too, women have been prominent and they hold numbers of fishing records as well.
As my history of the International Gundog League's Retriever Championship, The Best of the Best, shows women have played a crucial role from the earliest days and have shown themselves worthy of that title time and again. In the period covered by the book, 1909 - 2011, no fewer than 43 women handlers have qualified three or more times for the premier event. More than that, some 13 have qualified 10 or more times and, of those, five have won the Capt. A Glen Kidston Challenge Trophy: two of them numbers of times. Two handlers, Miss Ann Hill Wood and Jean Lumsden (Miss Jean Train as she was when she won in 1952) have won though they qualified fewer than 10 times: four and six times respectively. So, in total, seven women have carried off the trophy since it was first presented in 1910.
Sitting atop an impressively broadly based pyramid of female involvement in field trials is June Atkinson. Her record is exceptional: doubly so because the 36 times she qualified between 1950 and 1995 was with Golden Retrievers. Labrador domination of the Championship has been almost total, but goldens have managed four wins (five if you count in the 1937 Champion FTCh Haulstone Larry who was only two generations from a cross bred litter) and, by any standards, the early 1950s were remarkable. In 1952 Miss Jean Train, as Jean Lumsden then was, won an almost scentless championship at Six Mile Bottom. Adjusting his pace to suit the conditions and hunting with great persistence, he was the only dog never to have a failure. It was two years later that one of the breed's great dogs in the hands of one of the greatest handlers repeated the feat.
June Atkinson's FTCh Mazurka of Wynford followed his win in 1953 with a second place the following year at Sandringham and his two other runs yielded Diplomas of Merit. Four awards from four runs including a first and a second makes him one of the great dogs of any breed. At stud too, he was significant and, beginning with her foundation bitch FTCh Musickmaker of Yeo June Atkinson went on to make up 17 Holway FTChs including Holway Gaiety who won the Rank Routledge trophy for most points in field trials in both 1970 and 1971. Fearless in cover, she was a bitch that June bred back to again and again. Charismatic dogs like FTCh Holway Chanter and FTCh Holway Corbiere, meanwhile, became national favourites through performances in the England Team in the CLA Game Fair International. June, who died in 2011, was a Vice President of the Golden Retriever Club and she had the distinction of judging the Retriever Championship no fewer than 9 times. That is extraordinary. No-one has, or ever will, challenge that record which says so much about her reputation.
If June Atkinson became a dominant figure in the immediate post-war period and beyond, the records in The Best of the Best she was joined by a Labrador handler who had already come to prominence in the pre-war period with back to back wins in 1933 and 1934 with FTCh Hiwood Chance. The Hon. Mrs J Hill-Wood won again in 1960 with her FTCh Hiwood Dipper and then, four years later, Lady Hill-Wood handled her daughter Ann Hill-Wood's FTCh Dacre Hiwood Frank to victory in the 1964 Championship. In a career which began in 1930 and spanned 35 years she qualified 19 times and gained 11 awards: four of them firsts. Her last Championship was in 1965 when she won a Diploma of Merit with the defending Champion Frank., though she did return to Judge for the sixth time at Woburn in 1970.
A precedent for multiple wins had been set earlier by a woman who is unquestionably the pre-eminent figure in early Labrador history. The summary in The Best of the Best can barely do justice to the extent of her involvement and achievement. Mrs Quintin Dick, later Lorna Countess Howe, became the first woman to judge a field trial in 1920. She had already, by then, been one of the founder members of the Labrador Retriever Club, its Secretary in 1916 and later its Treasurer and Chairman.
She bought FTCh Balmuto Jock from his breeder David Black after he had gained Certificates of Merit with him in the Gamekeepers National Association Stakes of 1923 and 1924. The dog which he considered the most intelligent he had trained went on in her hands to run in six successive championship, taking an award in each. Two equal thirds were followed in 1926 by his first win in Dumfriesshire. In 1927 he alone took third in a Championship won by FTCh Beningborough Tanco and then, in 1928 and 1929, he secured his second and third wins making his handler the first to win the Championship three times with the same dog. She would win for the fourth time in 1936 with FTCh Balmuto Hewildo.
Lorna Countess Howe had first made an impact in the Championship with second and third places in 1921 and 1922 with Dual Champion Banchory Sunspeck. She exemplified an era when dual purpose ideals could be more than an aspiration. She won Best in Show at Crufts in both 1932 and 1933 with Ch Bramshaw Bob and again in 1937 with Ch Cheveralls Ben of Banchory. Nor was Sunspeck her only Dual Champion: all her dogs were required to show their worth in the field and in the period up to 1939 members of her Banchory kennel won 57 firsts, 45 seconds, 24 thirds, 13 reserves and 34 certificates of merit.
Add to all this the fact that she also made up champions with English Pointers and English Springer Spaniels, winning the AV Spaniel Championship in both 1926 and 1927 with Banchory Bright, and you have a truly towering figure. Indeed, a fitting tribute to her outstanding contribution to the gundog world is the 'Lorna Countess Howe Memorial Trophy' presented annually at the Retriever Championship by the Scottish Field Trial societies for the highest dog in the awards entered by an owner resident in Scotland.
Of course, focussing on such luminaries sadly no longer with us, is to risk downplaying the present contribution which is very significant. Tess Lawrence has qualified 21 times and won in 2007 with FTCh Willowyck Ruff. And she, along with Jayne Coley and Heather Bradley in particular have, in recent years, made up the majority of John Halstead's England retriever team. Jayne and Heather have qualified 12 and eight times respectively and all three have judged the Championship. Sandra Halstead, who won in 1979 with FTCh Westead Shot of Drakeshead, qualified 25 times between 1976 and 2011 and she has run and been placed since.
Gabrielle Benson, a winner in 1971 with the influential FTCh Holdgate Willie, qualified 17 times between 1957 and 1988 as did Mary Rountree who, among many others, handled FTCh Holdgate Bebe in a Championship career that spanned the years from 1976 to 2002. Audrey Radclyffe, associated with the famous yellow Labrador Zelstone, was twice second in the Championship, in 1948 with FTCh Zelstone Darter and in 1957 with FTCh Zeltone Moss, and in total she qualified 11 times between 1947 and 1973. Diane Ryan qualified 15 times between 1970 and 2004, whilst both Joan Hayes (Staindrop) and Janet Webb (Birdbrook) qualified 12 times, as did Mrs A Heywood Lonsdale between 1949 and 1974.
There is no need further to embellish this account to make the point that women trainers and handlers have, from the very earliest days and consistently since, made a very significant impact on the highest levels of competition. Many of today's brightest talents have not yet had the time to accumulate the sorts of records that have been acknowledged here. But there is every reason to be confident that some of them will. The Best of the Best tells an amazing story which is far from concluded.
The Best of the Best: A History of the IGL Retriever Championship
Graham Cox and Dr Gareth Davies
Pernice Press 2013