A Magnificent Breed Book: Made in Birmingham: A History of the Bull Terrier, by David Harris

Made in Birmingham outlines Bull Terrier development from humble beginnings in the early part of Queen Victoria's reign to its current position as an admired but frequently misunderstood icon of modern dog breeding worldwide.

Most breed books follow the path of least resistance: the author simply repeats commonly accepted “facts” about the breed, regardless of how loosely these may be founded in reality. Rarely does the author have the energy and know-how to conduct independent research and present anything like a complete picture of how the breed in question actually developed.

This is what makes David Harris’ new book so unusual. I doubt that any other breed book is as complete in that particular respect as this one. Made in Birmingham outlines Bull Terrier development from humble beginnings in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign to its current position as an admired but frequently misunderstood icon of modern dog breeding worldwide. If there is an important dog that’s left out, I can’t imagine who it might be. The hundreds of illustrations stretch from the pre-downface “White Bull and Terrier Dogs” of the 1840s to such latter-day paragons as Ch. Rocky Top’s Sundance Kid (BIS at Westminster in 2006). It boggles the mind that a single person could put all this material together.

Admittedly, David Harris, B.Sc., Ph.D., is well qualified for the task. A longtime breeder under the Brummagem prefix, Harris is AKC approved to judge all Terrier breeds, although there’s no question that his heart lies with the Bull Terrier. He has written several earlier books, notably the fascinating The Bully Breeds (Kennel Club Books, 2008). However, this one is different. Because it is privately published, Harris throws restraints imposed by a regular publishing house to the wind and includes just about anything he wants.

The result is magnificent, starting with the description (in words and pictures) of 1800s Birmingham, where the breed was born, following on with the great names that made breed history over the next century and a half. From James Hinks, father of the breed, the story goes on via the early Bloomsbury and Gardenia champions to the great trio of Ch. Raydium Brigadier, Ch. Velhurst Vindicator and Ch. Ormandy’s Mr. McGuffin, who between them virtually made the breed as we know it today. All three were the result of close inbreeding, which is worth noting in today’s anti-inbreeding world. Brigadier was exported to the Monty-Ayr kennels in the US and subjected to further inbreeding of jaw-dropping intensity. His descendant Ch. Dancing Master of Monty-Ayr, who won the BTCA national specialty twice (the last one in 1961), was the result of full brother-to-sister breedings for at least four successive generations, without any outcross blood whatsoever!

McGuffin’s owner, Raymond Oppenheimer, was one of the most brilliant figures the dog world has produced. He devoted most of his considerable resources from the mid-1930s until his death in 1984 to Bull Terriers, establishing — in partnership with Eva Weatherill — the grandest Bull Terrier kennel anywhere: the Souperlative and Ormandy stud force was beyond compare for decades. One of Oppenheimer’s greatest dogs, Ormandy Souperlative Bar Sinister (never shown because he was a monorchid), was enormously successful at stud in spite of this handicap. (He was also the subject of a brilliant book by his owner, After Bar Sinister, in 1969.) Oppenheimer’s word was law, and his support of “the Trophy show,” an annual invitation-only competition for top dogs of the breed, judged by breed specialists (sort of like a Top 20 contest but much more serious in scope), made regular dog shows pale by comparison. The US version, the Silverwood Trophy competition, is at least as prestigious over here.

Harris does not shy away from controversy. It’s all there. Among the many gorgeous champions, statues in white marble on every page, Harris includes breeders who didn’t toe the line and ended up beyond the pale; the temperament problems and illnesses that plagued the breed; the great controversy before colored Bull Terriers were finally fully accepted; the sad ending to the Oppenheimer saga when his last great stud dog, Ch. Souperlative Jackadandy of Ormandy, proved to have passed on serious kidney problems to many of his get.

Parts of the book read better than a novel, such as the Bible’s genealogical tables. It’s overwhelming and supremely impressive at the same time. The fact that the author could have used an editor and a proofreader is unimportant by comparison. Don’t take my word for it — listen to the Hon. Judge David Merriam: “The book is sensational in scope and detail. I know of no other breed book to match this one.”

Made in Birmingham: A History of the Bull Terrier, by David Harris. 571 pages, more than 500 illustrations, A4 size, perfect bound with laminated soft cover. Limited printing of 100 copies, numbered and signed by the author. Cost per copy: $74. The book weighs in at about 4.5 lb; shipping (within USA only) by Post Office medium flat rate box at $11.35 (one to three copies). Send check or money order to David Harris, P.O. Box 10157, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87184-0157. Email:harris@swcp.com. Tel: 505-898-1241.
Bo Bengtson has followed Bull Terriers as a spectator for many years, attended the Trophy show in England, visited the Ormandy-Souperlative kennels and showed a few Bull Terriers in Europe, including one early Group winner. He is Editor-at-Large of Dogs in Review.
From the October 2012 issue of Dogs In Review magazine. Purchase the October 2012 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs In Review magazine.
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