Who are we? - the History of the Club

Written in 1990, a brief history of the Association 

by Mr W Bryden 

It is now over a hundred years since the female of the species openly challenged the dominant male in our society. In many spheres during the latter years of Queen Victoria's reign, at the summit of influence of the Empire when the British through their colonies exerted almost total political and economic domination throughout the world, a group of ladies from a miscellany of social backgrounds decided that no more would they accept a secondary and passive role to men. It was not their goal, as it was not of their later sisters, the Suffragettes, who rightly campaigned long and hard for equality with those of the opposite gender and the right to exercise that freedom through the medium of the ballot box, to be other than ladies.

It was against this backdrop that the Ladies Kennel Association was formed in 1895 and this rocked the very foundations of the male-dominated canine world as with it came the realisation, even in such a limited sphere as the world of dogs, that emancipation of the female was underway and irreversible. Among the founder members of the L.K.A. was a Miss Ingle-Ball , now better know to us as Mrs. Ingle-Bepler , who started showing and breeding Irish Setters in the early 1890s.

In her formative years in the breed, she ‘cut her teeth' in competition with men, predominantly Irishmen, who exercised an almost absolute control over the Irish Setter world, particularly in the selection of judges both on the bench and in the field. At that time, breed clubs had a much greater say in the choice of judges at general Championship Shows than exists today and do doubt it was this that led Mrs. Ingle-Bepler, together with a few close friends, to found the Irish Setter Association, England. This was on the 9 th July 1908 and the meeting was held at the L.K.A. Show in Regents Park. The dominance of the Irish Red Setter Club of Dublin, the oldest Irish Setter Club in the world, was challenged and overcome, by a lady.

The insertion of the world “England” in the Association's title is not without its own special significance and purpose in that, when its rules were first drawn up, it was a requirement of membership that only those domiciled ‘in England, Scotland and Wales' could be elected members. If nothing else, this highlights the confrontation which exists between breeders and exhibitors in the Emerald Isle and on this side of the water. This membership rule lasted for nearly twenty years and it was not until 1936 that the restriction was removed and membership of the Association was open to all throughout the world.

The club records remain more or less intact and the old Minute Books make fascinating reading. Rules were drafted and ratified swiftly in general meeting and it is obvious that the founders set about their duties with much determination and enthusiasm. Funds were raised for Challenge Cups and special cash awards were made to winners of classes at all the major Championship Shows where the judges were approved by the I.S.A.E. Above all, the founders laid down the policy of ensuring the largest portion of revenue raised by subscriptions, donations and the like was returned in some form or another to its members. This policy has continued through years and even today only a modest cash balance is retained as working capital.

The first Committee comprised of breeders whose names have passed into Irish Setter history. Mrs. Ingle-Bepler , owner of the world famous Rheola kennels and on whose stock all present day show Irish Setters is largely based, was appointed Hon. Secretary, a position she held with distinction for 38 years. She bred her first litter in 1895 and her last in 1941, a span of 46 years. Then there was Mrs . Kate Meadows ( nee Harris ), breeder and exhibitor of the famous Halwell strain and Mrs. Edith Cornish , wife of the Editor of Country Life, C.J. Cornish . She was a Thorneycroft with the family skill in sculpting and it was she who designed the medallion that the club offered to members as a ‘special' at shows prior to the First World War. Replicas of this medallion are awarded to the first three placings in all classes at the I.S.A.E. Championship Shows today and in facsimile form as the logo of the Association. The two other Officers of the club were Dr. T.A. Baldwin , the Hon. Treasurer, a Cork man by birth resident but resident in England and a highly respected breeder of Irish Setters, and Col. H.M. Wilson , the first President who held office for nearly 30 years. It was his presence on the Committee which ensured that the club did not become fully show orientated as he was eventually Chairman of the K.C. Field Trials Committee.

When the First World War broke out the Association had to suspend all activities until the restrictions on showing and breeding were lifted. When activities were resumed in 1921, many of the old stalwarts in the breed had died or dropped out.

The popularity of the breed greatly increased in the 1920s and ‘30s with a consequent growth in membership of the I.S.A.E. Up to 1929 furthering the interests of the show setter had been the primary aim but in that year it was decided to organise a Field Trial Meeting confined to Irish Setters. This was held at Ruabon and was organised by Col. Wilson and the late Mrs. Florence Nagle of Sulhampstead fame, the same lady who fifty years later with great determination battled with the Kennel Club for the right of ladies to be full members of the K.C. Mrs. Nagle acted as F.T. Secretary until 1936 and was succeeded by W.J. Rasbridge at the request of Col. Balding . Rasbridge agreed to take on the task provided that the trials were thrown open to other setter breeds and to pointers and it was this that marked the beginning of a long and happy relationship between the I.S.A.E. and the Setter & Pointer Club.

The Association has always been emotive and can justifiably claim credit for first putting forward, officially, suggestions that the K.C. later adopted. Space does not permit a catalogue of these, but notable among them was the request first in 1928, to introduce the title of “Show Bench Champion” for Gundogs. It was not until 30 years later that Rasbridge , as Hon. Secretary of the I.S.A.E. and by then a member of the General Committee of the K.C. obtained official recognition of the title “Show Champion”, with retrospective effect.

During the Second World War, activities were banned and for seven long years the Association marked time. In 1946, the I.S.A.E. took on a new lease of life when Rasbridge aided by P. Holme , the pre-war Hon. Treasurer, set about resurrecting the club. At the same time Mrs Ogden ( Borrowdale ) was busy at the same task with the Setter and Pointer Club. The great need was for a Championship Show and a Field Trial Meeting to normalise canine activities once again and, in November 1946, a Championship Show for the three varieties of Setters and for Pointers. The Ogden-Rasbridge partnership pioneered this event. In the following March, 1947, the Association organised a Championship Show for Red Irish Setters, the first of its kind to be held anywhere in the world.

In September 1948, the I.S.A.E., jointly with the Setter & Pointer Club once again, held a Field Trial Meeting at Binsted Wyck . Then it could be said that the Association's activities were really back to normal. By the following year the General Championship Shows had resumed and the I.S.A.E. saw its task of promoting shows at an end until 1969, one year late, it held the first of its now annual breed shows at Ascot to mark its 60 th Anniversary.

It is here that all breeders and exhibitors of Irish Setters must pay tribute to W.J. Rasbridge for his unselfish dedication to and his remarkable achievement in leading the fight against P.R.A. during the 1940s. It was he who identified the mode of inheritance of ‘night blindness' in Irish Setters, an affliction that threatened the very existence of the breed. When it was recognised that serious and determined efforts had to be made to try to eliminate this hereditary defect from the breed, the only breed club to lend the full weight of support to the Association was the Setter & Pointer Club and this through its Hon. Secretary, Mrs. Ogden, it did unreservedly. This again made the already strong bond which embraced both clubs even stronger. With guidance from Rasbridge the breed came through this most difficult periods and, although some cases of P.R.A. still come to light even today, the incidence is not high in numbers. Because this situation could change as the tainted gene has not been completely bred out and Irish Setter breeders are aware of the danger to the breed of this insidious condition, complacency is not a luxury the breed can afford. The mechanisms exists within the breed clubs to ensure that any case which is brought to their attention can be dealt with and breeders informed.

It was in the ‘60s that the membership reached 100 plus from a base of only 27 in 1908. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s the number has grown to over 600. In many ways it was this rapid rise in membership which has marked the difference between what the Association was in 1908 and is today. Throughout the post-war period the club has striven to meet the demands placed upon it. It has continued through the years to organise, jointly with the Setter & Pointer Club, two Field Trials every year and in 1989 had the satisfaction of holding its 21 st Breed Championship Show. In addition, the 1980s have again seen the Association playing a major role in the breed's development. With the co-operation of the other Irish Setter Clubs in the U.K. and the Irish Setter Club of Dublin, the I.S.A.E., in response to the Kennel Club's declared intent to revise Breed Standards, co-ordinated the views expressed within the breed and submitted in 1985 a revised Breed Standard to the K.C. This was accepted without alteration. Again in 1986, supported by the majority of Irish Setter Societies in the U.K. with whom the Association has very close ties and a remarkable working rapport, the I.S.A.E. successfully campaigned to stop the further increase in the number of Challenge Certificates on offer in the breed. This was universally believed to be in the best interests of Irish Setters.

In this brief history of the Association, I make no apology for repeating a quotation I have used before, since it encapsulates the whole spirit of the movement which gave birth to the I.S.A.E. in 1908, its revival in both 1918 and 1946, and is the credo by which the present day Committee entrusted with its guardianship is honour bound to follow. It was written by W.J. Rasbridge in the Annual Report 1946-49.

“A breed club, if it is to serve any useful purpose, is a means of giving direction to the breed's evolution and of co-ordinating the efforts of all those interested in the breed for the breeds sake … It will be strong just to the extent that its numbers take a broad view of its functions and their obligations and regard it as something to serve the generality and not some particular individual interest.”

The Irish Setter Association, England, now enters the last decade of the twentieth century with the assurance gained from pride in its heritage and achievements and looks forward to serving the breed with the same determination and forthrightness for which its founders and members throughout the 82 years of its existence have been credited. Like the ladies of the 1890s and early 1900s who, when they initiated their campaign to gain rightful recognition for their sex, unaware of the far-reaching effect which would occasion their every step of the way, so the I.S.A.E. has left its indelible mark on the development of the Irish Setter in the United Kingdom.