Britain is a nation of dog lovers, and our history is inextricably entwined with that of our furry friends. The British royal family has owned many dog breeds over the centuries, with Henry VIII, Queen Victoria and Edward VII all proving that 'man's best friend' is actually a monarch's too. But which dogs from history are the most famous?
Here, Emma White, author of A History of Britain in 100 Dogs, highlights just a few of the brave, loyal and friendly canine companions who stand out in British history…
Friend, the brave sea rescuer
William Phillips, a wealthy businessman from London, was bathing in the sea at Portsmouth in 1789 when he got into difficulty, and although a man tried to save him, he was unable to be reached. Two unscrupulous men nearby with a boat were called upon to help but they refused to do so without payment. Luckily for Phillips, a Newfoundland dog was on the shore nearby and heard the commotion, and pulled him to shore by his bathing cap.
Phillips subsequently purchased the dog, who he named Friend, and decided to create a coat of arms dedicated to the loyalty of his companion, which he displayed on his cutlery and other items.
During the Civil War the Royalists, also known as Cavaliers, had a secret weapon that sent fear through the ranks of the Parliamentarians (Roundheads): a white poodle named Boye.
Prince Rupert, who led the cavalry of the Cavaliers, had spent time in confinement after he was captured by his enemy during the Thirty Years’ War and was given a dog to keep him company. Soon the dog, named Boye, was permanently near his master’s side – even in battle.
The men found Boye to be a huge asset, as he was clearly visible and could be used as a rallying point because he was sure to be near his master at all times. To the enemy, meanwhile, Boye was considered to be an agent of the devil who had magical powers to sneak into the Parliamentarian camp at night and discover information.
Unfortunately, Boye therefore became a target for the enemy and on Marston Moor Prince Rupert lost not only the battle but his companion as well, who was undoubtedly killed by his opponents.
General Howe’s prisoner of war
In October 1777, during the American War of Independence, General Howe and General Washington faced each other at Germantown. The battle was considered a narrow victory for the British and afterwards a terrier-type dog was found by the American lines and handed over to General Washington. The dog was found to have his owner’s name in his collar – that of General Howe, the British commander.
All sorts of ideas were passed around as to how the men could take advantage of their hostage. However, Washington – a dog-owner himself – was steadfast in deciding the dog would be returned unharmed to Howe, along with a note with compliments from Washington. Even in the midst of war, Washington was unwilling to part master and pet.
Boatswain, Lord Byron’s Newfoundland
So devoted was Lord Byron to his Newfoundland, Boatswain, that when the dog died he erected a memorial at his home at Newstead Abbey in Nottingham where he was buried. In 1808 Boatswain had been bitten in a nearby village and contracted rabies. Byron reported in his letters to have nursed him without realising what was afflicting his faithful companion.
Nipper, the naughty dog who sold records
From the Andrex puppy to the Old English sheepdog synonymous with Dulux paint, dogs have pride of place in many a modern-day advertisement. A much older example of a dog used to help advertise products is Nipper, appropriately named because he used to nip people’s legs.
More than 100 years ago, Nipper was painted listening to records of his master speaking on a phonograph. After updating the record machine in the original painting (by his master’s brother) and renaming it ‘His Master’s Voice’, the painting was sold and has appeared as advertising for various companies, most recently HMV.
Nipper lived in Kingston-upon-Thames and when he died in 1895 he was laid to rest in a small park in Clarence Street. A bank now sits on the site, but inside it a plaque can be found and a small street nearby is named Nipper Alley in his memory.
Dash and other right royal dogs
British monarchs through history have taken dogs to their hearts. Henry VIII had two favoured canines named Cut and Ball, and Queen Victoria had many dogs of varying breeds, including greyhounds, a Pekingese and a King Charles Spaniel named Dash, who was reportedly given a bath by the new queen after her coronation.
Other examples of royal dog-lovers are Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s son, who had a favourite pooch named Caesar. Caesar was so dedicated to Edward VII that he accompanied his master’s funeral procession, along with Edward’s horse. Meanwhile Queen Elizabeth II’s love for the corgi breed is renowned, but the royal family has owned many breeds over the centuries – as witnessed by the memorials that appear for several of these dogs in the gardens at Sandringham.
Cap and Jack, nurses’ best friends
Before she became a nurse, Florence Nightingale cared for Cap, the sheepdog of a local farmer, who had been hurt by a group of boys throwing stones. The farmer feared the dog would have to be put down if bones were broken. Fortunately, Florence and her friend cared for the pooch and he fully recovered. Shortly afterwards, Florence had a ‘vision’ that inspired her to devote her life to nursing and caring for those in need.
Another famous nurse, Edith Cavell, also cared for dogs and had at least one of her own in her clinic during the First World War in Brussels. Jack was reported to have howled for her at the clinic after she was executed by firing squad in October 1915.
The Darling’s Nana
One of the most famous dogs in literature has to be Nana from Peter Pan, depicted by author JM Barrie as a loving caregiver to the Darling family. She is based, however, on Barrie’s own dogs, Porthos and Luath, a St Bernard and a Newfoundland respectively.
Other famous fictitious dogs include Spotty Dog from the 1950s children’s programme Woodentops; Dougal from The Magic Roundabout; Muttley from Wacky Races; and K9 from Doctor Who. Each of these pooches form part of memorable childhood moments spent in front of the television. Blue Peter, meanwhile, has had a dog since 1962, and most of us can probably recall the name of the dog that featured in the show during the years we watched it after school.