Saturday, April 6, 2013

Newfoundlands: Lord Byron's Bear and other stories.

by Jonathan Hopkins

Byron had a tame bear. I knew that, but what I didn’t know was that he also kept a pair of Newfoundland dogs, called Thunder and Boatswain.

A couple of years ago when I wrote the outline for my current WIP I decided the young naval lieutenant in the story should own a dog. And since the action took place on board ship that dog should be a Newfoundland. It just made logical sense that in an age when few sailors could swim a ‘water-dog’ offered fresh plotting opportunities.

My first mistake was making the dog black. Apparently, this colour was very uncommon in Britain before 1840. Most Newfoundlands of the day were pied - white and black, or white and brown. Today this colour is known as ‘Landseer’ after Sir Edwin Landseer who painted a number of these dogs’ portraits

But I got the name right. My Newfoundland was called ‘Cuthbert’ after Admiral Collingwood. Apparently Frederica, Duchess of York, owned a Newfoundland called ‘Nelson’ at that time, so I’m in good company!

Newfoundlands had been imported to Britain from…well, Newfoundland, since the mid-16th century. Their origin is obscure, but they are believed to have been developed from crosses between husky types, retrievers, collies and even mastiffs. Some think their ancestry may even date back to Viking bear dogs. 

Early examples often exhibit a decidedly collie-like muzzle, quite different to today’s breed, which brings us back to Lord Byron. So fond was he of Boatswain that he had his portrait painted. Though it must have been a good likeness (or he would likely not have paid the artist) at the beginning of the 20th century its provenance was disputed on the grounds it was too unlike a Newfoundland, so if it was really Boatswain was he actually a cross-breed?

With imported Newfoundlands costing 20 guineas in Byron’s day, it’s doubtful even he would have spent good money on a dog of dubious parentage. And there’s another noticeable difference between then and now because Boatswain and Thunder were used as guard dogs, suggesting a more aggressive temperament, bred out through subsequent generations to produce today’s far more equable, some would say soppier, individuals. In fact Boatswain was well known for fighting with just about every other dog he encountered, his owner being an early example of irresponsible dog ownership. Byron’s darker side took advantage of this trait: he used his two Newfoundlands to bait his bear, and Boatswain’s tooth-edged metal collar, which still survives, shows stark evidence of such fighting in its scrapes and gouges.

When the dog died in 1808, of hydrophopia (rabies) caught from another dog he fought, Byron had an ornate memorial built in the grounds of his home, Newstead. Abbey. Out of interest this property was later owned by Colonel Thomas Wildman of the 7th Hussars, ADC to Lord Uxbridge at Waterloo and my sole mention of anything cavalry-related in this post (!).

One specific point of conformation encouraged by selective breeding is the Newfoundland’s webbed feet. There are huge numbers of incidents recorded of dogs saving the lives of drowning people and other animals. Their size and strength, together with a double-layered pelt, gives them both endurance and buoyancy. Many dogs happily dive into deep water, sometimes from a height, and have been known to retrieve objects below the surface, this despite having open ears and nostrils which, unlike those of a seal, are not designed to close underwater.

A report in the Portsmouth Telegraph of 23rd June 1800 about a Newfoundland which refused to let any stranger approach its master who suffered a fit in the street, says the dog previously saved him from drowning when he fell overboard in the harbour.

This is by no means unusual: there are hundreds of such stories of dogs saving lives, both when deliberately encouraged to enter the water and simply of their own accord. They have retrieved the unfortunate victims of drowning, swum out with ropes to stricken vessels, towed drifting small boats to shore, even retrieved smaller dogs which had swum out of their depth.

Such was the Newfoundland’s reputation that river police on the Seine kept a team as rescue dogs in the early 20th century, though despite some successes they were eventually disbanded, apparently through lack of use. There was even a story that a Newfoundland’s barks attracted the attention of Carpathia to an errant lifeboat when Titanic was sunk, but this was later found to be a hoax. Shame, really.

Obviously intelligent, several Newfoundlands became famous ‘animal actors’ before there were such things. They were used to haul small loads, and small children, in carts. They collected for charities, particularly those connected with seafaring. Nowadays many are still trained and used as lifesaving ‘water dogs’.

It continues to amaze me what you discover when researching for Historical Fiction.



Sources: Jan Bondeson, Those Amazing Newfoundland Dogs (CFZ Press: ISBN 9781905723966)

My grateful thanks to Jackie Bagnall of Newfinch Newfoundlands for her help with this article.


  1. Really interesting... and amazing the facts you have turned up like no black dogs before 1840.... where were all those black labradors?! Thank you for sharing.

  2. There were plenty of black labradors in those days, but no black Newfoundland dogs until the 1840s. The reason is probaby that some dog fanciers introduced Newfoundland-labrador crosses, and later some influential Newfoundland fanciers deliberately bred the dogs to produce solid black dog with the same phenotype as the finest black and white ones.

    Best wishes Dr Jan Bondeson, author of the Newfoundland dog book

    1. Hi Jan - thanks very much for your comment!
      Your book is fascinating - I was amazed at the amount of historical detail you managed to unearth on a single breed. It deserves a wide audience, even among non-Newfie fans.
      Best wishes,

  3. Fascinating. Thanks for the post.


  4. Great article! I had a Newfie when I was a kid, she loved retrieving a floaty toy from the nearby creek and refused to let it go until completely out of the water. Such a sweetheart, she was a wonderful family dog, a true gentle giant. Is there any truth to what I was told growing up that when St Bernards were an endangered breed, they were bred with Newfies and this is why some St Bernards today are long haired, because they were originally short haired until cross bred with Newfies?

  5. You are quite right, History Chick, there was distemper among the St Bernards in early Victorian times and the dogs nearly became extinct. Avalanches killing some of the brave rescue dogs did not help either. X-breeding with Newfs was the only way of saving them, but after that there has been both short- and long-haired St Bernards. All the original St Bernards were short-haired, and the much-repeated story of the flask of brandy is also a myth - see the relevant chapter in my book Amazing Dogs for illustrations.

    Best wishes Jan Bondeson


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