In the 1960’s, when my first Labrador was virtually bigger than the child I was at the time, I was lucky enough to be introduced, by a family friend, to Mary Roslin Williams, of the world famous Mansergh Gundogs. It was the start of a long friendship, only ending in 1994 when Mary died. Why on earth Mary took this child with a pet Labrador under her wing, I will never know, but she did, and without her I’ve no doubt that my life would have been very different.
M R-W, as we all knew her, was certainly one of those rare people who stood away from the rest. Dogs were her life, although she had other interests as well, sport and art being a couple of them. She also loved music and was, herself, musical. Her knowledge of dogs, and all other forms of animals and the countryside, came from a part of time when practical experience and common sense were so much more important than just reading books or attending seminars. Science, as we know it now, really didn’t come into breeding dogs. Genetics, in it’s simplest form was the nearest Mary, and other breeders of that era, would come to a scientific basis for breeding dogs.
One of the earliest things she taught me was that if you had a bitch who was small, then you didn’t mate her to a dog who was big. You mated her to a dog who was the correct size, and who had close relatives who were a correct size too. This could apply to any feature that we try to breed for. Simple, isn’t it. Genetics or common sense?
Mary was always dog mad, from being a toddler – her “best friends” were dogs and horses. She was a keen horsewoman in her younger days and this interest lasted until the day she died. She was an avid TV watcher of Flat and National Hunt racing in her later years. However the dogs were to take over as her major interest throughout her life. Her great cousin, Col. Charlie Brook, was the man responsible for Mary’s interest in Labradors. He owned the Kinmount Kennel and a black bitch of his, Kinmount Juno, was the first Labrador who Mary fell for. Believe it or not her first dog was actually an Airedale bitch called Tessa. Mary was only allowed a dog when she turned eighteen. Tessa was a present from Mary’s boyfriend at the time. Unfortunately Tessa was then found to be in whelp. The romance did not progress! After having her litter Tessa developed into a good shooting companion and it was she who impressed Mary’s future husband, Glenton, when they were out shooting.
With shooting being an important part of Mary’s life she then bought a Labrador, in 1939. Unfortunately she was not to be the Mansergh foundation because she went blind and had to be put to sleep. After that, in 1945, Carry of Mansergh became the Kennels’ real Labrador foundation. Of course she was black, because to Mary Labradors were BLACK. A name given to Mary, later on, was ‘black hearted Mary’. This referred to her love of the black Labrador, they were where her heart was.
In 1938 Mary married Glenton Roslin Williams. Glenton was a keen Gundog, Terrier and Hound man and he also was a deputy master of the Kendal & District Otterhounds.
He and Mary ran a sporting hotel on Bodmin Moor. After the second World War they moved back north into the old vicarage, in the parish of Mansergh, in the Lune Valley, which of course is where the kennel name originates. At that time they had to rent land for shooting and training but in 1948 they moved to the Lilymere Estate, near Sedbergh, which consisted of a large house, lake, woodland and moorland for shooting over. They built kennels with the vertical bar type of fencing. This was the most popular type of fencing at that time, before weldmesh came along. The perfect place to breed and train gundogs. After her husband died Mary stayed on at Lilymere for some years.
In about 1972 Mary moved into the lodge at the gates to Lilymere. The house was too big and difficult to keep going. In the grounds of her new home Mary built a wooden kennel block, with individual pens and a large fenced exercise paddock. I remember when the workmen were putting it in, they didn’t make the trench they were digging, to sink the fencing into, deep enough. Mary wasn’t satisfied, so it all had to be done again. The Lodge was a single story building so was better for Mary to live in. She placed a bench seat outside the kitchen door, where she spent a lot of her time, sitting watching the dogs in their paddock and also the wildlife which came within view. One of the funny sights I remember, at the kennels, was on hot sunny days Mary would place large multi-coloured golf umbrellas on top of each pen fence, to give the dogs more shade. There was a large old wooden kitchen table placed in the paddock and the dogs loved to either sit on top of it, or lie underneath it.
Another thing they were always given were large numbers of huge bones. They loved these and I sometimes felt, sitting on the bench, that it was like watching lions in safari parks. However the temperament of Mary’s dogs couldn’t have been further away from lion temperaments. The Mansergh’s were so well known for their placid, easy going temperaments. You would never see a Mansergh jumping around, hauling Mary into or out of a show. The sight of Mary, with half a dozen Labradors, on any old piece of lead, quietly walking into a show, was so well known. They would then be tied up to anything handy and there they curled up and went fast asleep until needed.
Temperament was of prime importance to Mary.
The Mansergh’s, whatever the breed, were always trained and worked, and all the Champions in the ring gained their ‘qualifiers’. No ‘Show Champions’ allowed at Lilymere! The Mansergh Labradors have always been black. Only blacks were kept, although a few yellows were born over the generations but they were a rarity. Poolstead Mary Rose, owned by the Hepworth’s, was one of the few Mansergh yellows (note not registered as a Mansergh). She won 2 CC’s and 8 RCC’s, so nearly becoming a yellow Mansergh title holder. I wonder what Mary would have said about that!
Mary had run her dogs in Field Trials successfully, before making up her first Champion in the showring, and these same dogs were shown as well as used as picking-up dogs. Indeed Mary achieved something quite special when she entered her first Field Trial – she won it with ‘Carry of M’. Approximately 15 Mansergh Labradors won FT awards. There was also success with winning the Gordon Setter Open Stake, with a Gordon, and some success with Irish Setters as well. Her husbands Cockers had plenty of success too, including in the Championship Stake. Mary and her team were always kept busy, picking up, long after she gave up Trialing. Even in her later years, when moving around became more difficult for Mary, she would train her young dogs from her bench outside the kitchen. Any which couldn’t learn even the most basic of retriever work (a very rare thing in a Mansergh) would be on its way.
Mary had a direct line of seven black Mansergh Champions. CH’s Midnight, Bumblikite, Damson, Antonia, Ooh La La, Ships Belle and Mayday. Not many kennels could say they have seven generations of Champions. Two of Mary’s very favourite dogs were the Champions, Midnight and Bumblikite. Mary was always striving to breed a Labrador which fitted the standard. Her dogs had to have typical Labrador heads, their coats were superb weather resisting coats with no feathering, of the type we rarely see to day, they had to have otter like tails and their overall conformation had to be correct. Mary knew that if they were not made right then they would not survive years of work.
Mansergh bone was always good, but never overdone as some are today. Their substance was what they were born with, not what they were fed to look like, as we do it these days in many cases. In the later years Mary had a problem with the more modern judges going for the bigger, more overdone type of Labrador. She hated to see this but she was determined to keep breeding the type of dog she had always bred and believed was the genuine typical Labrador. She would never follow fashion in either her choice of stud dog or in the type of puppy she would run-on. Manserghs were slow to mature.
They had a decent length of leg but were not leggy, they had a good depth of chest but were not overdone in this respect. They had a good reach of neck too. These features were an advantage, not a disadvantage, in a working dog. The heads in Labradors were also changing, but not the typical Mansergh.
They had the kindest of expressions with a brown or hazel eye (Mary would not stand for an over dark eye, a round eye, or a small triangular eye either), with a decent length of muzzle, enough stop, broad but not broad by todays standards skull, and flatter cheeks than we see on todays dogs. No possible resemblance to Rottweilers in the Manserghs. Perish the thought. The Manserghs always had a good shoulder.
When at a show Mary always had a constant stream of people wanting to talk to her. She would sit herself where it suited her and people would come to her, to chat if they were her great friends, to ask questions if they were keen to learn (do they do this now?), or to just pass the time of day. I can imagine that there were many times when she would just have liked to have sat quietly and watched the judging but she was always willing to talk to people, and help them when needed. She was always especially patient with people who really wanted to learn. She had strong views but she was not outspoken. If she had something to say then it would be put to us in a quiet way that always made you think about what exactly was her point.
She would never talk about ‘nothing’, it was always something worth talking about.
Mary wrote several books, the best known being the ‘Dual Purpose Labrador’ and ‘Advanced Labrador Breeding’. The ‘Advanced’ book has become a must for people in all breeds, not just Labradors, as it applies to most breeds and breeders. Recently it has been re-published in America, under the title of ‘Reaching For The Stars’. by Doral Publishing, and is available from Bookworld International. Mary also wrote for Dog World, for many years, writing down to earth articles with many amusing stories along the way, taking over ‘Bench and Field’ from Warner Hill, and starting the ‘Northern Topics’ column.
She was passed to award CC’s in sixteen different breeds, and Best in Show at Gundog Group Championship shows. She was much in demand all over the world and judged the Gundog Group at Crufts. She was also an A Panel Retriever Field trial judge and officiated at Bloodhound Trails too.
Probably Mary’s proudest moment in the ring was when, in 1984, she won Best in Show at The Labrador Club’s ‘Ruby’ Championship show. I know, personally, that she held
that win very dear to her heart, as she did with Midnight’s Best Gundog Dog at Birmingham and Bumblikite’s Best Gundog at Bath Championship show.
For her last few years Mary moved south to live in The Granny Flat of her daughter, Anne’s house near the lovely Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England. This was very convenient for the Three Counties Showground, and after the shows held there we would go back to Mary’s for tea and talk.
Mary’s daughter, Anne, is a highly successful Border Terrier breeder, and has bred and made-up Elkhound Champions as well as judging. Mary’s son, James, has top class
working Cockers, and awards CC’s in Otterhounds. The Cockers come down from his father’s foundation, Fidget, some 60 years ago. He no longer Trials them now but regularly
A lady of great character, Mary was the ‘sort’ we don’t have today in the breed.
Losing her was a great loss to the breed, and to those of us who knew her well. There will never be another Mary, but for those of us her knew her then we must be grateful.
- by Anne Taylor (Fabracken)
- all rights reserved: text © Anne Taylor 2003-2012
- photos: excerpted from: M.R. Williams, Reaching for The Stars, Doral Publishing 2000.