The history of the breed is well documented from about the mid 1800’s onwards, but before that there are few written records. The following account is drawn from several sources.
In Tudor times, there was a type of dog called the setting spaniel. The purpose of these dogs was to quarter the ground to find gamebirds and indicate where they were by, going on point or ‘setting’, and wait until the handler approached. He would then cast a net over the covey of birds, gather them up and cast the dog off to find another covey. ‘Setting spaniels’ were well known in the 1500’s, so the ancestors of the setters go back a long way.
Over many years the type was refined, and many estates developed their own lines. The Duke of Gordon bred his own strain, there were Welsh Setters, Irish Setters (which in the early days were marked just as the Irish Red and White Setters are now), Russian Setters, and so on. A detailed description of these different types can be found in Laverack’s book ‘The Setter’ (1872). It was Laverack who purchased a pair of setters from Mr Humphreys, and from these and other dogs skilfully blended the best characteristics of these different types together to produce outstanding working dogs.
Soon debate began about whose dog was the most accomplished in the field, and before long the first ever Field Trials were introduced, the first being held in 1865 at Southill in Bedfordshire. Setters and Pointers also figured in the first ever dog show, held at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1895. Setter owners obviously have a long history of competition!
Purcell Llewellyn took over the development of the breed after Laverack’s death. With great care he produced a strain of English Setter second to none in the field. Many of these were exported to the USA, where they are still a very popular hunting breed and are known as Llewellins. The AKC recognises them as distinct from English Setters but in the UK the Kennel Club has fortunately not divided the breed.
Back in Britain there were those who felt that hunting ability had been obtained at the expense of appearance, so enthusiasts began to breed for size and substance, a more luxurious coat and other attributes. This was the start of the divide between the show and working lines which has now become very marked, possibly more so than in any other gundog breed.
The show line of setter, which is by far the most numerous, became increasingly popular as a show dog and companion. The working lines continue to be used in shooting, field trials, and by falconers. Field Trials are held each spring in Scotland and East Anglia, on grouse in Northern England/Scotland in July and August, and in north Norfolk during September.
The breed has become popular as a companion and show dog, largely due to it’s happy and friendly nature. They are normally good with children and other dogs, and are generally healthy. In the show ring they remain popular, and several English Setters have reached the high point of Best In Show at Crufts – Sh Ch Silbury Soames of Madavale (1964), Sh Ch Bournehouse Dancing Master (1977) and most recently Sh Ch Starlite Express of Valsett (1988). In 2005, Sh Ch Bournehouse Royal Colours owned by Mrs Penny Williams won Reserve Best in Show, nearly equalling his ancestor’s achievement.