Charles Cruft was a salesman-turned-showman who created the world's biggest dog show — yet Cruft himself owned a cat. So why didn't he do the same for felines and create a Crufts for Cats? Well, it turns out that he did — but it was scuppered by the British weather. Martin Fone tells the extraordinary tale.
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. To the chagrin of dog breeders, fanciers, and television schedulers, Covid-19 restrictions put paid to it in 2021, the first cancellation since it fell foul of an electricians’ strike in 1954. The 2022 show is scheduled for the 10th to 13th March.
The show bears the name of its founder, entrepreneur, showman, and former pet food salesman, Charles Cruft. He started his career in 1876 as a travelling representative for James Spratt, whose company manufactured and sold the first commercially available pet food, a Patented Meat Fibrine Dog Cake. In his role 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 was the first to include 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, putting dog shows firmly on the social calendar. The quality of the exhibits was variable, though, and partly to establish a consistent set of rules for their governance, The Kennel Club was founded by a group of enthusiasts on April 4, 1873. It held its first shows at Crystal Palace and Alexandra Palace later that year.
Cruft cut his teeth as a dog show organiser when, at the behest of a group of French dog breeders, he staged an event at the L’Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. This was followed by similar shows in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Brussels. Realising that this was where his talents lay, 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. Initially, 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 the Club was not able to hold the first Cruft’s show under its aegis until 1948. Now it attracts over 20,000 entries, 160,000 visitors and a worldwide television audience.
But what of the feline equivalent? The first cat show, held at London’s Crystal Palace on July 13, 1871, attracted sixty-five entries. Like their dog equivalents they soon became popular, but they lacked Cruft’s touch of pizzazz and marketing magic. Approached by a group of cat fanciers, Cruft seized the opportunity by the tail and set about organising ‘Cruft’s Great International Cat Show’. It was held at St Stephen’s Hall in the Royal Aquarium in Westminster on March 7th and 8th 1894.
Astonishingly, considering that he had given himself just weeks to organise the event, he managed to attract 567 entries, making it the biggest cat show of the time. Critics suggested that entry standards were not high, Cruft even exhibiting his own tabby, Tiddley. Attractive prize money also helped. There were seventy-four classes, each of which offered a first prize of thirty shillings, a second of a pound and a third of ten shillings. While there was no Best in Show award, exhibitors could walk away with cups valued around twenty-five guineas. One exhibitor’s cat won three pounds, two cups, a silver cigarette case, a silver whistle and matchbox combination, and a medal.
The showman in Cruft ensured that the event was memorable for its visual and aromatic impact. “The masses of red drapery, the innumerable Japanese lamps, umbrellas, flags, and other ornaments which adorned the walls and roof, to say nothing of the magnificent palms which were largely in evidence about the floors of the building, all helped to give the visitor the idea that they were attending some fashionable fancy fair rather than a Cat Show”, wrote a correspondent of Fur and Feather. ‘The disinfecting was beyond praise’, they gushed, thanks to ‘the use of Spratt’s new pens, filled with earth drawers, and Mr Carvill’s Air Purifier’.
Perhaps having sniffed too much of Mr Carvill’s purifier, the correspondent went on to predict that ‘Cruft’s Cat Show has come and it has come to stay…henceforth we shall look forward to the Cruftonian event as one of the great features in the cat exhibition world’.
The reality was somewhat different.
Despite an extensive advertising campaign, opening until ten o’clock at night for each of the two days, and the assistance of the railway companies who made available special carriages to ease the problems of bringing the cats up to London, it was poorly supported by the public. The weather in March was atrocious; it rained cats and dogs, you might say. Even the press, other than those with a vested interest, paid it scant attention and when Cruft drew up the accounts for the event, he found that he had lost £100.
He was, though, persuaded to organise a second show, at the same venue on March 13th and 14th 1895. Again, it attracted around six hundred entries, but it was clear that Cruft’s heart was not in it. The event was poorly advertised, the prize money was considerably reduced, the hall was not as grandly decorated, and Tiddley was a notable absentee. Exhibitors were allowed to sell their cats to the public to add a bit of interest, but the weather was against Cruft once more and attendances were disappointing.
The ever-faithful Fur and Feather proclaimed it a success, though, and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported that the trio of tortoiseshells named Samson, Hope, and Charity, which won Mrs C Heslop the Cruft’s Challenge Cup, were remarkable because Samson was one of only two tortoiseshell toms known to be in existence.
Unsurprisingly, the accounts showed another loss. In March 1896 the Fur and Feather reported that the cat show had been postponed due to Cruft’s other business commitments. He never seemed to find space in his diary to hold it again and the dream of a Cruft’s Cat Show to rival his dog show was lost for ever, a victim of the English weather.
Instead, Britain’s premier cat show is the Supreme Cat Show, held under the auspices of the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF), which has been running since 1976. It is only open to cats which have won an open class at another championship show under GCCF rules, not dissimilar to the modern entry requirements for dogs at Crufts. It is also held at the NEC, but unlike Crufts, organisers are hopeful that the 2021 show together with the Annual World Cat Congress, scheduled for October 23rd, will take place. Let’s hope so.