The name of Crufts is synonymous with the international dog show, hailed by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest, which is organised by The Kennel Club and held at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre (NEC). To the chagrin of dog breeders, fanciers, and television schedulers, Covid-19 restrictions caused its cancellation this year, the first time it has not been held since it fell foul of an electricians’ strike in 1954. The 2022 show is scheduled for the 10th to 13th March.
The show is named after its founder, entrepreneur, showman, and former pet food salesman, Charles Cruft. He started his career in 1876 as a travelling salesman for James Spratt, whose company manufactured and sold the first commercially available pet food, a Patented Meat Fibrine Dog Cake. His role involved establishing relationships with estates, sporting kennels, and dog breeding associations and Cruft quickly recognised that dog shows offered a perfect venue for promoting his wares.
Modern dog shows had a low-key beginning, the first being a side attraction to the annual cattle show held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 28th and 29th June 1859. The dogs on display were sporting breeds, setters and pointers. The Birmingham Dog Show Society included non-sporting breeds in their National Dog Show, which, in 1860, attracted 267 entries across thirty breeds, judged in 42 categories.
London’s first dog show was held in 1862 at Islington’s Agricultural Hall. A week-long event held the following year at Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea, attracted 100,000 visitors, including the Prince of Wales. Dog shows soon became popular, but the quality of the exhibits was variable. Partly to establish a consistent set of rules for governing dog shows, The Kennel Club was founded on April 4, 1873, and organised its first show that year at Crystal Palace and another at Alexandra Palace.
It was as a representative for Spratt’s in Europe that Cruft’s involvement in the organisation of dog shows began, invited by a group of French dog breeders to organise a canine event at the L’Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. He was also involved in events in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Brussels. Realising that he had a talent for promoting and organising shows, by the mid-1880s he had left Spratt’s and in 1886 established the Great Terrier Show in London, which attracted 570 entries.
Five years later he launched the all-breeds show that to this day bears his name, even if the apostrophe was ditched in a rebranding exercise in 1974. Relations with the Kennel Club were fractious, though, as they disapproved of his overt showmanship, his concentration on numbers of entries rather than quality, and his practice of only awarding prizes to his subscribers.
Nevertheless, the show flourished and by 1936, in what Cruft described as his Golden Jubilee, the show had attracted 10,000 entries. After his death in 1938, his wife, Emma, sold the rights to the show to the Kennel Club. The Second World War and its aftermath meant that it was not until 1948 that the Club was able to hold the first Cruft’s show under its aegis. Now it attracts over 160,000 visitors, a worldwide television audience and over 20,000 entries.