The Canine Aristocracy

We are all familiar with photographs of Her Majesty the Queen and the royal corgis. But if you had been around at the turn of the century, you would have been hard put to say what a corgi was, unless, that is, you happened to be Welsh sheep or cattle farmer.

The corgi's rise to fame and fashion as a show dog and privileged pet has been extremely rapid. Originally he was known as a common cur but the word cur was never a derogatory term; it was the everyday description of a working farm dog.

The corgi's task was to guard the cattle or sheep and collect them over tracts of rough and hilly ground. A code of Welsh laws dating back to the 10th century defines the duty of a corgi as "to go before the cattle in the morning and to guard the hindmost one at the close of the day". His worth was set as being equal to that of an ox.

On 26 May, 1926, one English lady corgi breeder and nine similarly interested Welsh gentlemen met at the County Agricultural Offices in Lampeter and founded the Cardigan Welsh Corgi Association.

From that time the corgi began to appear at shows; knowledgeable people commented with surprise about the appearance of the Welsh cur in the ring. They did not know that this sharp little fellow with the intelligent eyes, short, stubby legs and upstanding ears was on his way up the social ladder.

It soon became apparent that there are two distinct breeds of corgi: the Pembrokeshire and the Cardigan variety. The first is the stockier type with a very short tail. The Cardi has a much longer tail and its body is longer and heavier.

Cardigan Corgi

Pembroke Corgi

They have some curious abilities. Breeder Bessie Witheridge tells an old story about Bridget, a Cardi who was taken to New Zealand as a pup. One day she attended a sheepdog trial. Bridget watched with keen attention as the sheepdog herded a group of sheep into the corral. When the sheepdog moved away, Bridget sprang forward; calmly and expertly she herded the sheep out of the corral and penned them into a far corner of the field. The dog had been too young when she left Wales to have taken part in such work, but in this case she seemed to have an almost inherited instinct - or was it a quite uncanny ability to copy what she had just seen happen once?

The two varieties of corgi made rapid progress at shows throughout the 1920's, with the Kennel Club granting official recognition in July 1925. In 1936 the Duke of York, later George VI, picked Rozavel Golden Eagle from the kennel of Mrs T. Gray. It was the first of a succession of Pembrokeshire corgis (the Welsh plural is corgwn) to become the faithful companions of our royal family. Having established their place in the royals' affections they are now a familiar sight trotting down the steps of the aircraft the Queen's Flight, or playing on the lawns at Windsor.

Corgis and "Dorgis"

Although the corgi is not aggressive with humans or other dogs, it is said that he knows very well that he is an aristocrat, and regards other corgis as his only equals in the canine world.

Corgis are also excellent guard dogs. Bessie Witheridge again: "A Welsh farmer had been losing poultry to a poacher and decided to put Barry, a Cardi, to stay by the poultry house. In the night the farmer heard a commotion followed by a silence so he went back to sleep. Going out in the morning he discovered the poacher, scared out of his wits, pinned to the wall by the dog which lay in front of him, daring him to move.

The carefully bred and groomed corgis which parade their fine lines at shows still have their counterparts working on farms in Wales, although now in much smaller numbers than in the 19th century when almost every sheep or cattle farm would own one or two.

With the disappearance of the horse from the farming scene, the practice has eased of using the corgi to break-in a reluctant horse. The method was to tie the horse to a log and for the corgi to push the animal into motion by nipping at its heels. A fractional lapse of concentration on the dog's part would mean he was likely to be sent flying by a backward kick from the horse. Often the little dog would pick himself up straightaway and come darting in for revenge.

Corgis are now popular outside their native Wales. In 1950 the Cardigan Welsh Club of America was formed. In 1975 the Netherlands Welsh Corgi Club held its first show. Here are similar associations in New Zealand, Australia, France, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.

From common cur to pampered pet and pride of the show ring in about half a century is quite a rise for this bright little dog with its short legs and prick ears, but the corgi has made it - with a bit of help from dog's best friend.

Cyril Bracegirdle
The Field, 27 April 1985

Comment by Simon Parsons on Facebook: Rather muddled regarding the clubs, no mention of the Welsh Corgi Club or the Welsh Corgi League