Dogs of all shapes and sizes will take to the stage at Crufts this week. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner today looks at one Wearside winner of the past.
SASSY the Dalmatian will be flying the flag for Sunderland at Crufts this year – 101 years after a Wearside woman swept the board at the championships.
Aline Doxford won fame around the world for her award-winning deerhounds, salukis and terriers. Indeed, in just one day her dogs won 14 competitions.
“She bred champion after champion,” said Douglas Smith, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society. “They loved her, and she loved them. The dogs were her world.”
Aline, the only daughter of wealthy shipyard director Charles Doxford, was born in 1884 and spent her early childhood at Grange House, Stockton Road.
In 1902, however, her father took a 99-year lease on Silksworth House. Aline was to remain on the secluded 24-acre estate, surrounded by animals, until her death in 1968.
“Miss Doxford never married and lived a reclusive life. She rarely left home other than to show her dogs at Crufts, where she had great success,” said Douglas.
“It is interesting that Miss Doxford was often referred to by people in the area as Lady Doxford, yet she was never awarded this title. Perhaps it was her great wealth.”
Local legend has it that Aline’s interest in dogs was sparked following her move to Silksworth, when she discovered an old deerhound had been left by a previous tenant.
The Doxfords were told they could put the dog down, if they wished, but Aline refused – saying the house was the dog’s home, and she should stay for the rest of her life.
“This was how she first became attracted to the deerhound breed and, as the dog’s name was Zenda, she adopted the name Ruritania for her kennels,” said Douglas.
“The dogs in the yard – deerhounds, salukis and bell terriers – were all show dogs, and there was a room in the courtyard which was used as a kitchen for them.
“She also had a room in the big house for her little dogs – the Pekingese and King Charles spaniels. Again, there were many of them.
“The room had beautiful carpets and furniture; the little dogs would be draped all over the chairs, chaise-longue and floor. On the walls were dog photos, cups and prizes.”
The fame of the Ruritania Kennels spread far and wide from 1908, as Aline won prize after prize. No expense was spared, with each dog brushed and groomed almost daily.
“Ownership of a stud dog was expensive, with all the care needed, and to own two was very rare because of the cost of food – especially during the war,” said Douglas.
“Breeding was suspended around the First World War, due to these exorbitant costs, but it was not a problem for Miss Doxford and she had four – an unheard of number.
“She had little trouble in winning, because she ran a big string of animals, and could enter several at one show. However, she appears to have been a judge only twice.
“It is thought that Miss Doxford was not a member of the ladies section of the Kennel Club as, being somewhat a loner, she was uninterested in the social side of activities.”
The needs of each and every dog appear to have been much more important to Aline, who spared no expense in buying quality food and seeking advice from vet Mr McDowell.
Indeed, old and disabled pit ponies from across Wearside were delivered to the estate as food for her dogs – but each enjoyed a peaceful retirement before being killed.
“They were slaughtered in a special slaughter house on the estate, then brought to the stables,” recalled Sheila Brown, niece of the Doxford’s chauffeur Harry Saynor.
“Miss Doxford would then work hard with the electric saw, cutting up meat to feed the dogs. Even in wartime they were given the malt extract Virol, when it was scarce.
“If you were an animal you were highly thought of, but if a worker, less so. I must admit that animals were very important to her, and she was very good with them.
“Why she had so many is a mystery. I have always thought they replaced some deep sadness. She was always on her own. She cut herself off from everyone.
“Many folk who lived in the nearby village all their lives never saw her, and were probably unaware of her Miss Havisham-like existence. It was never spoken about.”
Despite turning Silksworth House into a sanctuary, and all but shunning the company of others, Aline continued to show her dogs at Crufts – collecting ever more prizes.
Among her winners was Ronie of Ruritana, who won Challenge Certificates at Crufts in 1922 and 1924, and Noel of Ruritana – who triumphed at Crufts in 1917 and 1922.
As the years went on, however, and she was struck down with arthritis, Aline was forced to give up her beloved deerhounds – instead taking up the breeding of salukis.
“Miss Doxford was the person who originally brought the deerhound breed back into popularity, as they were dying out,” said Sheila.
“She had 14 firsts in the Best of Breed at Crufts one week with them. They were lovely dogs, although very big and fleet of foot.”
Aline is believed to have purchased the lease for Silksworth House following her father’s death in 1935 and, in 1964, became a “tenant for life.”
Only in death, in 1968, did she finally leave her beloved home.
The estate was bequeathed to Sunderland Corporation, which opened the gardens as a park and re-named the mansion Doxford House – in honour of the Doxford family.
Today, following a succession of academic and medical tenants and owners, the house is back in private ownership – with work underway to restore it back to a family home.
“Although Aline had a brother, Charles, he seems to have had little to do with his family after re-marrying following a bitter divorce,” said Douglas.
“It was left to Miss Doxford to continue alone in Silksworth House, and she was the last of the Doxford family to have a connection with Silksworth.” •Historical details taken from the book Old Silksworth and the Secret Garden, by the Friends of Doxford Park.
History of Crufts
l Crufts is named after its founder, Charles Cruft. He started by selling “dog cakes” but moved into dog shows as manager of the Allied Terrier Club Show.
l The first Cruft’s show was booked into the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington in 1891. It had 2,437 entries and 36 breeds.
l Crufts was cancelled during the First World War.
l The Best in Show award was launched in 1928. The first winner was a Greyhound called Primley Sceptre.
l Lorna Countess Howe became the first female owner of Best in Show with Labrador Retriever Bramshaw Bob in 1932.
l The competition broke the 10,000 entries mark for the first time in 1936.
l Charles Cruft died in 1938. His widow, Emma Cruft, took over the running of the show.
l Crufts was cancelled during the Second World War.
l The first Cruft’s Show under Kennel Club auspices was held in 1948, after Emma Cruft relinquished control.
l Cruft’s was first televised by the BBC in 1950.
l Cruft’s became an Obedience Championship Show in 1955, featuring working sheepdogs – the first crossbreeds to compete at Cruft’s.
l Entries broke the 15,000 mark for the first time in 1961.
l The three-day week of 1972 forced Cruft’s to take place under subdued lighting.
l Cruft’s became Crufts following a re-brand in 1974.
l Agility was first demonstrated at Crufts in 1978.
l The show moved to Earls Court after outgrowing Olympia in 1979.
l The Kennel Club Junior Organisation was launched in 1985.
l More than 110,000 people visited Crufts in 1988.
l The Crufts Centenary Show was held at a new venue, Birmingham National Exhibition Centre, in 1991.
l Rescue Dog Agility was introduced in 2000.
l Crufts was moved from March to May in 2001 due to foot and mouth disease.
l The show was streamed online for the first time in 2009, becoming the most watched channel on You Tube in the UK.