Archive for July, 2010

The Homing Instinct of Dogs

July 21st, 2010

On 1 June, it was reported in The Daily Telegraph that a nervous whippet-terrier cross named Jack, who had fled into woods whilst on a country walk with his owners, had somehow made his way home to Penistone (sic), South Yorks, along an unfamiliar and hazardous 15-mile route that  would have involved his crossing both a by-pass and the M1 motorway. His delighted owner discovered him asleep on the doorstep, exhausted and with his feet covered in sores, a day and a half after he had gone missing. The case is further remarkable evidence of the homing instinct of dogs.

Perusing that obscure but delightful monograph, Recollections of the Early Days of the Vine Hunt, by a Sexagenarian (1865), I discover two more. The anonymous author is Edward Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s favourite nephew. He writes (p.17) that, in the mid-18th century, Lord Craven would bring his hounds every season to Dummer, near Basingstoke, and hunt the adjoining country. ‘Two or three draft hounds had been sent by Lord Craven to Blair Athol in Scotland, and had been taken part of the way by sea, but found their way back to the kennel at Dummer in some marvellously short space of time.’

He further writes: ‘A relation of mine knew of an instance somewhat similar. A neighbour of his, who kept harriers in the Cotswold Hills, had sent a hound to a pack in Essex, about twenty miles beyond London; I do not know whether on foot or in a carriage. When he was taken out with the pack in Essex, he was observed to be with them when the first hare was killed, but was missed soon afterwards. Some time in the next day, he was found at his old kennel in Gloucestershire. Both these cases seem to prove that dogs are directed to their point by some inexplicable instinct, though they know nothing of the intermediate space which they have to traverse.’

Perhaps the most spectacular example is part of my own family legend. Victor Hugo had a poodle (not a toy poodle, rather the sturdy, water-retrieving type) named Baron, of whom he was very fond. Baron nevertheless demanded constant attention and interfered with his master’s writing. One evening, early in 1877, my grandmother’s grandfather, the Marquis de Faletans, was attending Hugo’s salon in his fourth floor apartment in Paris, at 21 rue de Clichy. Hugo noticed him making a fuss of the dog. ‘Does Baron please you?’ he said. ‘He’s yours!’ Eight days later they departed for Russia, where my ancestor was to reside for a time with his wife at Great Bokino, her country estate, some 200 miles south-east of Moscow.

Regular news was sent to the Hugos, but in mid-December, after a period of ominous silence, the Marquis reluctantly reported that the dog was missing, feared seized by a wolf or a bear.

Hugo, who had resigned himself to the loss, was roused from his bed on Christmas morning by his cook, who lived on the ground floor. An exhausted, emaciated Baron had appeared on the doorstep, and announced himself with frantic barks. Old Hugo was touched to the core, and amazed that Baron had travelled a distance of nearly 2,000 miles in less than a month. He resolved that they should never again be parted, and, indeed, Baron accompanied the family to Guernsey and later to a new apartment in Paris, where he died, a few months before his master, in 1884. Despite extensive investigations, none of the details of his incredible journey had ever been discovered.

The mail coach brings the news of Waterloo to Beaminster!

July 11th, 2010

During the French wars, the mail coaches were used for the official dissemination of news. When the Peace of Amiens was proclaimed in 1801, the coaches carried placards announcing ‘Peace with France’. Each driver wore a sprig of laurel, emblematic of peace, in his hat.

My cousin tells me that her great-uncle, Willie Trotman, had heard at second hand of the arrival of the mail coach in Beaminster, Dorset, in late June 1815. On this occasion, the entire coach was decked in laurel, the breathless driver announcing ‘Bloody news’ – that of the victory at Waterloo – to the excited onlookers. The original eyewitness is said to have been Uncle Willie’s great-grandmother, Ann Cox of Farrs, Beaminster (1770 – 1822), though I suspect that other members of his family would have remembered the event. The pace of life in country towns being rather slow, the arrival of any coach was liable to draw a crowd, if only to see who got off.

Ann Cox of Farrs was the grandmother of Ann Symes Trotman (born Cox), whose grandchildren would pester her to repeat the story, it being so unusual to hear her say ‘bloody’. Similar stories were handed down in other families, such as that of Thomas Hare (1806 – 91, pioneer of the Single Transferable Vote) who is said to have run alongside the same coach at Dorchester as a child. (So he told his grandson, Harold Clayton (1874 – 1963), who told my informant, Richard Hare (1922 – 2010).) See my ‘Dorset Families’ page for this and for a photograph of a later version of the Beaminster stagecoach.