The Romney Marsh and District Sheepdog Society - a brief history
This piece was kindly written for the website by Terence Stevens; Shepherding historian and archivist
By the time the Romans had invaded these Islands Britian already had a flourishing wooI trade and was producing superior cloth. The English language has been enriched by sayings that originated from wool; “spinning a yarn” on “tenderhooks,” “dyed in the wool” to name a few. Such was the worth of wool, in 1194, King Richard the Lionheart's ransom was paid in fleeces when imprisioned in Austria. In the Middle ages Britian led the world in wool production and exports. Buyers would come over from Italy, including buyers from the Vatican, and secure several years worth of wool production. Cathedrals, churches and large country houses were built and lavishly furnished, on “wool money.” In 1683 a writer stated “that there are many more people employed and more profit made and money imported by the making of cloth than by all the other manufactories of England put together.” All the aformentioned, whilst the humble shepherd, who was directly responsible for producing the wool clip lived in a hovel, barely able to provide for his family.
There are numerous books available on the fascinating history of wool production down through the ages, Romney Marsh, shepherding and sheepdogs that are well worth reading.
The following text is written to give a little historic background of the Romney Marsh and District Sheepdog Society.
For centuries the wind swept and open alluvian pastures of Romney Marsh have produced a breed of sheep, known all over the world as “Romneys,” hence the saying that “the sun never sets on a Romney.” The value of these sheep are mentioned in the great Norman Doomsday book and they can possibly claim to be one of our longest traceable history breeds of sheep.
In the distance past many towns had their own flock of sheep, the marsh town of Lydd founded its own flock of Romney's in 1572, which grazed on the towns Rypes (village greens) under the watchful eye of the town shepherd.
For centuries and indeed up to relatively recent times, sheep would be grazed on the marsh and owned by those that preferred to live inland away from the marsh's often inhospitable climate and safe from what was referred to at various times of outbreak, as the “Marsh Plague.” This disease, although unknown at the time, was in fact a type of malaria. Those that were inflicted became seriously ill and as a result suffered frequent re accuring attacks, sadly many more died. These flock owners were referred to as “Gentlemen farmers.”
Shepherds on the marsh are often incorrectly referred to as “Lookers.” The difference being that a shepherd is employed full time and would be solely responsible for the welfare, shearing, lambing and general care of his employers flock: The occupation of a looker, not unique to Romney marsh, are also employed in other areas, is that of a self employed shepherd, paid either per head of sheep or sometimes by the acre, their main task was to inspect and count the flock daily and administer any emergency veterinary treatment. Absent owners would employ, perhaps a retired shepherd and boy during lambing times and bring in a shearing gang during the summer.
Invariably when good friend Harry Balcomb, a shepherd at Warehorn, visited Dick Webb the conversation would be about sheepdogs. With a professionalism that came with shepherding in his blood Dick took pride in his work and that of his dogs. He was only too aware that an untrained dog tearing about after sheep, not only stresses them but can lead to injury and with pregnant ewes cause them to abort. Such work practices also makes a shepherds work longer and harder and could result in dismissal. I'll borrow part of a quote from Mark Hayton, a Yorkshire farmer and famed sheepdog trainer of years ago; “For those that understand no explanation is needed; for those that do not no explanation will prevail”
Many of the dogs originally used by marsh shepherd's were really of mixed parentage, one or two however had Old English Sheepdog blood in them. The uncanny skill,workmanship and ability of the, mainly black and white coated working sheepdog, was brought to the general public and city dwellers attention, in the early Seventies when the televised One Man and his Dog series became compulsive viewing for millions.
The true genetic and historic evolution of this premier breed of sheepdog has been lost in time. The Collie sheepdog we see today, is referred to as the Modern Border Collie and has a direct ancestry that can be traced back to 1893 when Adam Telfer of Northumberland mated his Roy dog to his shy almost black coated Meg and produced their genius of a son, Hemp: Old Hemp is thus often referred to as the “Father” of the breed.
Dick and Harry were aware of this “new” strain of sheepdog and how valuable they would be, not only with their own work, but also for their fellow shepherds on the marsh. The cost to obtain one of these Collie's was beyond both men's pocket; such was their wages at the time. Both men though outlined a plan to bring these dogs to the marsh. The idea was to set up a Sheepdog Club. The first “open” meeting to discuss such a proposal was held on the 18 January 1932. At the next meeting on the 28 January the name was changed to Romney Marsh Sheepdog Society “and District” was added in 1947.
Whilst both men, at the time, were running in sheepdog trials, held by the New Romney branch of the National Farmers Union, the sole, original, aim of the Romney Marsh Sheepdog Society was that of promoting “Better Breeding of Dogs” Border Collies favoured. It was also stated that £5.00 for a Border Collie puppy, from the best breeders,was too much to pay for shepherds with families to bring up!
Dick formulated a plan and contacted Mr. J.B. Bagshaw, a well known triallist and breeder. Dick paid £5.00 plus carriage fee's to Mr. Bagshaw to send down a bitch puppy. The idea being that when bred from the Society would pay for stud fee's and any associated costs of raising the pups; a member could then purchase a puppy for £1.00. subject to the rules of the Society regarding the pups welfare.
Dicks middle son Peter, told me that when the puppy arrived the family couldn't decide on a name, until Dick said, “since she had cost so much, her name should be Dear.” Both Eric and Peter, Dicks oldest sons are no longer with us. I used to work with youngest son Bill. He always said that Dick and the family had a special effection for Dear. She was housed at the end of a store shed, behind a curtain of sacking. Each day Dick would have his lunch there, whilst Dear was resting. Dick always used to save a bit of his sandwich for her, having done so he called Dear – when he looked behind the curtain he found that Dear was curled up and had died. If she looked forward and to her right, she could just see the outline of the field where the very first sheepdog trials were held on the marsh in conjuction with the New Romney branch of the National Farmers Union, likewise, to her left, the field where Romney Marsh trials were held for many years, straight on and far in the distance where the Romney Marsh Sheepdog Society held their very first open trial. A befitting resting place!
Over the years Romney Marsh and Distric Sheepdog Societies members, indeed as have the other societies members on this site, have been pleased to raise many thousands of pounds for various charities. This couldn't have been achieved without the help and support of many local farmers – our thanks to you all.
Details of each of the five Societies trial dates are via the links on this web site. New members are always welcomed as are any of you that just want to come along see these amazing dogs work.
(c) Terence Stevens; Shepherding historian and archivist