The Story of Charles Cruft: 125 Years On

The Story of Charles Cruft: 125 Years On

Charles Cruft, founded Crufts at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington and built his reputation as an innovator in the area of public relations, sponsorship and advertising.  He was born in 1852 and died in 1938. 

The son of a goldsmith, he was born in Hunter Street, Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury. He was very bright and was educated at Ardingly College in Sussex and later, as an evening student at Birkbeck College.  Aged 14, he took a job as a post office boy with Spratts Patent Ltd. James Spratt, a Canadian electrical engineer and entrepreneur, had interests in everything from lightning conductors to dog food and it was dog food that made his fortune in the form of the Spratt’s Meal Fibrine Dog Cake.  James Spratt later liked to tell the story of interviewing his new post boy who, precociously told him:

“You know, I think this kind of business ought to do very well. I honestly do.”

He wasn’t wrong.  Within months, Spratt allowed Cruft to pursue his newly self-appointed role as travelling salesman and, as a result, the dog biscuit business boomed.  Twelve years later, aged 26, Charles Cruft was wholly in charge of the office and sales department at Spratt’s, whilst James Spratt concentrated on manufacturing.  His methods, as later demonstrated in his dog shows, were to attract attention and to excite the imagination of the public as the most effective means of making a product desirable. 

Spratts dog cakes

His keen eye for presentation is demonstrated by the logo for Crufts dog show – a St Bernard head enclosed in a stylised dog collar topped with a crown, which he designed himself.

It’s at this time that we first see Charles Cruft getting involved with the fancy dog show scene.  In 1878, in spite of a staggering workload, he became the Secretary of the Toy Spaniel Club.  Rapidly, he also became Secretary of the Pug Dog Club and is involved with shows for Setters, Borzois and St Bernard’s. 

By 1886, Charles Cruft had had enough of managing other people’s shows and decided that the time was right to launch his own.  With his talent, reputation, network of influence and financial resources, he was eminently equipped to do so.  At the suggestion of the Duchess of Newcastle, a formidable presence on the male-dominated dog scene of the day, he decided that London should have a terrier show, and the six Terrier shows run by Charles Cruft at the very central Royal Aquarium in Westminster between 1886 and 1890, are the roots of the Crufts show we have today. 

His Seventh Show was different from his terrier shows.  It was the first show to include all breeds, the first one to be called Cruft’s Dog show and, having outgrown smaller venues, the first Cruft’s show to be held at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington.  At the Kennel Club, this is regarded as the first proper Crufts all-breed show and we mark the anniversary of the show from 1891. 

The first show held at the Agricultural Hall and the first to carry his name was held from 11th to 13th February 1891.  The entry was large for the time – 2437 entries in total (note:  actual dogs less – some compete in more than one class).  The coverage was positive, if not entirely uncritical, with the Field magazine praising the quality of entries in some breeds but finding others somewhat lacking.   One great coup was that his show attracted the attention of the nation’s most famous fancy dog enthusiast, Queen Victoria herself. 

Old Crufts poster at the Royal Agricultural Hall

The papers believed Charles Crufts when he told them Crufts was the biggest dog show in the world…it certainly is now but it might not have been then.  Back then, the Kennel Club Show, the National Dog Show at Birmingham and other major shows all had entries nearly as high, yet Charles Crufts cheekily tweaked numbers by counting teams of 5 dogs as individual entries rather than one, and even gavethe artwork, equipment and stuffed dogs catalogue numbers, thus providing a further bump in entry figures.  He also left strategic gaps in the numbering between breed listings.  Charles Cruft had promised his public the biggest dog show in the world and he made sure they got it. 

Criticism aside, for the dog owner, the shopping and amusement opportunities at Crufts were unrivalled and Charles Cruft ensured that his exhibitors and spectators could reach the show in comfort.  From 1903, he negotiated special train fares with the railway companies and even designed and adapted special train carriages for the comfort of the dogs.  This was totally innovative.  The local economy benefitted too as hotels and eating houses in the area took out advertising and offered Crufts specials.

Even as the show gained in prominence and more well-known names became involved, in practice, all organisation and decision-making lay in the hands of Charles Cruft, his second wife Emma, his show manager Robert Keddell (1894-1924) and, from 1925,  his personal secretary Miss Hardingham. 

The Crufts famous Best in Show trophy is named in memory of Robert Keddell. 

Over time, the show overcame its reputational difficulties and became, not just a grand spectacle, but a serious and respected competition in its own right. It attracted genuine entries of 4,000 or more by the late Edwardian period and around 10,000 by the time of Charles Cruft’s death in 1938 – he managed the show personally until he died – 45 shows in total. 

Even during the period of the First World War the show continued and he gained the respect of the dog community for continuing despite the great personal financial risk, the difficulties he encountered in staffing the show and attracting visitors to a building which was a prime Zeppelin target. In 1918, the Agricultural Hall was finally requisitioned by the army as a warehouse for military equipment and the show went on hiatus until 1921. 

So, what do we know of Charles Cruft himself?  Did he like dogs at all or was this purely a business opportunity?  It’s hard to know.  As someone in the dog food business, he had been around dogs and dog breeders his entire working life.  For someone so keen to maximise publicity for his own business ventures, he was very circumspect when it came to his own private life.  His first marriage was in 1878 to Charlotte Hutchinson, with whom he had four children.  He married again in 1894 to Emma Hartshorn, but had no more children. 

His four children were all involved with the show at various points, including serving on the committee, but only one was mentioned in his will – Clara, known as Birdie, who was close to both him and her stepmother, Emma.  Though he was also on friendly terms with all the prominent canine journalists and writers of the day, none attempted a biographical sketch of him. 

Some prominent journalists, who knew him well, later said that he owned Schipperkes, Fox Terriers and Pointers. 

Charles Cruft Canine World

Emma Cruft, however, in her 1949 publication ‘Mrs Charles Crufts Famous Dog Book’, states firmly that the couple had never owned a dog, not through lack of affection for them, but to ensure impartiality as show managers.  She does mention a pet cat! 

Yet further contradiction comes from the pen of Charles Cruft himself. In 1952, in a following publication called ‘Charles Cruft’s Dog Book’, he speaks knowledgably of the challenges of keeping a large dog in a small house and mentions a St Bernard, the breed which appears on the Crufts logo. 

He lived at 12 Highbury Grove and owned a country house as well.  He died on 10th September 1938 of a heart attack and is buried in Highgate Cemetery West; his grave is grade II listed.  The London Borough of Islington placed a plaque commemorating at Ashurst Lodge, which occupies the site of his Highbury Grove home. 

Emma Cruft managed the show herself in 1939 and then sold it to the Kennel Club, thus ending the Cruft family’s involvement with the show.  Surely this was an insult to the memory of the man who had kicked against their authority for so long?  Well, not really.  Crufts, the Kennel Club Show and all other major dog shows took a break when World War II broke out.  However, the Kennel Club Show never came back after the war when showing resumed in 1947.  The Kennel Club’s flagship show was now Crufts and the show has been owned and managed directly by the Kennel Club ever since. 

Alas, Crufts never returned to the Agricultural Hall.  It went to Olympia first and, when it outgrew Olympia, found a home at Earls Court (and mislaid a vital apostrophe in the early 1970s).  In 1991, the centenary show took place at a new venue – the NEC in Birmingham.  Crufts had outgrown every London venue.

Charles Crufts started out in 1891 with an entry of 2437. Nowadays, Crufts sees between 22,000 and 24,000 dogs in competition over four days, from all over the world, and the gate for 2014 was 159,536 – that’s 15,000 more than the Glastonbury Festival.  The pedigree competition is at the heart of the show still, but all dogs are celebrated, with crossbreed dogs having their own national Scruffts final at Crufts as well. 

If Charles Cruft were to visit now, we expect he would love it, especially as it is his brand and his name, still unique in the world, which is on what is truly the BIGGEST and BEST dog show in the world.  We expect he would also have some ideas about how to do it better, though. 


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