Shopkeepers who try to squeeze the most potential purchases out of consumers in the run up to Christmas are nothing new. The traders of Birmingham did this in late November 1870, with seasonal decorated windows ‘of the most varied and tempting character’, seeking to attract the thousands of additional people who visited the city for the annual cattle and poultry show held in Bingley Hall. Those who visited the show before making their seasonal purchases included ‘ruddy-faced countrymen in smock-frocks and mud-coloured leggings’, as well as landed gentry, tenant farmers and others in the ‘country party’. Bingley Hall was the first purpose built exhibition hall in Britain, built in 1850 with a capacity for up to twenty-five thousand people, which burnt down in 1984.
Along with the cattle and poultry on show there was also a dog show in the Curzon Hall, an exhibition space first built to house dog shows in 1865, the first ‘dog show’, said to have taken place in Newcastle in 1859. One for sporting dogs was tried in Birmingham a few months after this and was so successful that it was repeated with additional classes for non-sporting dogs and led the organisers to build the hall to host the shows. By 1874, there were over a thousand entries for the dog show. Seating three thousand and named after the local MP, the hall later became a space for circuses and other events, and then a cinema before it was demolished in around 1967. In 1870, crowds of ‘fanciers and connoisseurs…criticise and admire the shape, build, and breed of hounds, harriers, mastiffs, bulldogs, terriers, spaniels, and fancy pet dogs, with queer-looking tails and still queerer names.’ These dog shows laid the foundation for the world famous Crufts Dog Show, first organised in London in 1891.
The importance of dogs in country life as working companions should not be forgotten. When a man or youth was depicted in a painting in a smock frock, a dog was usually never far away. In this picture, ‘Rus in Urbe’ by Briton Rivière, a well-known animal painter, the boy was shown with his collie dog. They were pictured on an urban doorstep, as alluded to by the title of the picture, translated as the ‘country in the city’, a phrase coined by the epigrammatist Martial in the first century AD to conjure up the illusion of the countryside in the city, usually through a building or a garden. Here the countryside is represented by the smock-frock, gaiters and collie and, although the picture is dated 1890, these were the kind of visitors Birmingham was used to throughout this period.
see also Workshop of the World, Birmingham’s Industrial Legacy, by Ray Shill, (The History Press, 2006)