When we read about pets today, it's as likely to be privileged, pampered pooches in Gucci carriers as those who have been abandoned or harmed. We are, we are told, a nation of dog lovers. We own about eight million of them in Britain; they're our best friends. It was not always thus. In the 1800s, a dog's life was – for all but the lucky few – nasty, brutish and short. Dogs were liable to be beaten or shot on sight by park keepers and police. During frequent rabies outbreaks, public fear of stray dogs increased, leaving any slightly wild-looking creature open to stoning in the streets. If they were in good health, they might be pitted against each other at organised dogfights or used to pull carts around towns, practices which weren't banned until 1835 and 1854 respectively (and then not always very firmly enforced).
But the Victorian era saw public opinion about animals shift, albeit slowly. On a wave of sentimentalism, an appetite grew for touching tales about wagging tails: pamphlets, poems and books about devoted dogs such as Gelert or Greyfriars Bobby became popular, and there was a trend for animal autobiography – novels written in first-person voices by anthropomorphised canines and other creatures. Black Beauty in 1877, and Beautiful Joe in 1893, were two of the most successful.
In 1859, the first official dog show was held in Newcastle, and they were widespread by the time the showman Charles Cruft organised the first in his name at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington in 1891. Dogs were becoming pets, part of the family, while Queen Victoria herself – often photographed with a mutt in frame – helped to popularise the notion of them as "man's best friend".
In science, too, attitudes to animals were changing. Vivisection was a ferociously debated topic, while Charles Darwin, who spent his life with a succession of trusty dogs, did much to promote the notion that animals deserved human kindness. He even grounded his controversial theory of natural selection by comparing nature to a picky dog-breeder, bringing "evolutionary theory right to the hearth rug of the Victorian home", as Emma Townshend writes in her book Darwin's Dogs. The 19th century also saw the origins of the animal-rights movement. The trail was blazed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, formed in a coffee shop in 1824 – although it didn't acquire its "Royal" until 1840 – by a group of men including the anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce.
One of the RSPCA's members went on to found the world's first successful animal sanctuary, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. The institution both responded to and influenced the British public's attitude towards animal welfare during its early years. Mary Tealby, who had separated from her husband and moved to London in 1860, first resolved to found a "canine asylum" after the death of a starving dog she had attempted to nurse back to health. Struck by the plight of London's strays, she established the Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs in a stable in an Islington mews.
"Mary Tealby attacked the project with amazing energy," says Garry Jenkins, the author of A Home of Their Own, a history of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. And he suggests that Tealby was exemplary of another important development within Victorian society – the increasing social engagement of women, leading the way with humanitarian and charitable work.
"Mary Tealby reflected the mood of the times – and particularly the mood of women at the time," Jenkins explains. "Frances Power Cobbe almost single-handedly popularised the anti-vivisection movement, and Octavia Hill campaigned for open spaces and eventually established the National Trust. Women didn't have the vote, yet they were very socially active. There was definitely something afoot – a kind of charitable fever." Even so, Tealby's pet project didn't always have an easy time of it. "Its first decade was a real struggle – they had financial problems, unscrupulous staff, court cases brought by neighbours troubled by the noise," reveals Jenkins.
The home was also roundly mocked by elements of the press. The Times launched a scathing attack on 18 October 1860. While praising advances in animal welfare, it scorned the home as a step too far: "From the sublime to the ridiculous – from the reasonable inspirations of humanity to the fantastic exhibitions of ridiculous sentimentalism – there is but a single step... When we hear of a 'Home for Dogs', we venture to doubt if the originators and supporters of such an institution have not taken leave of their sober senses."
However, there were Victorian heavyweights ready to pledge their support. One of the most prominent was Charles Dickens. He published a piece in the magazine All the Year Round in 1862 about the home, calling it an "extraordinary monument of the remarkable affection with which the English people regard the race of dogs". His sentimental prose gave the home a much-needed seal of approval: "It is the kind of institution which a very sensitive person who has suffered acutely from witnessing the misery of a starving animal would wish for, without imagining for a moment that it would ever seriously exist. It does seriously exist, though."
Dickens wasn't the only renowned writer to lend their literary voice to the plight of animals. For the 100th anniversary of the RSPCA, Thomas Hardy penned them an ode, entitled Compassion: "Cries still are heard in secret nooks/ Till hushed with gag or slit or thud... But here, in battlings, patient, slow/ Much has been won – more, maybe than we know".
By the end of the 19th century, animal charities were no longer the subject of ridicule. The Kennel Club was founded in 1873, and Frances Power Cobbe set up the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection in 1875. The National Canine Defence League was founded in 1891, while 1903 saw a Swedish countess, Emily Augusta Louise Lind-af-Hageby, establish the Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society in London. The home founded by Tealby had moved to Battersea and expanded in 1871, and in 1885, Queen Victoria became its patron.
Britain was leading the way in animal welfare. "Battersea's early period was pretty much when the British Empire was at its peak, the golden era of Victorian Britain, and we were leading the world in all sorts of areas – and we were richer than we'd ever been, meaning we had money to spend on dogs," Jenkins says. "Other homes did pop up, as did cats' homes. There were homes opened in America, Germany, and France, whose owners would come to Battersea to see how it was done."
Many subsequent homes and organisations benefited from the legal precedents that Battersea established. "The basic principles that they had to fight for, legally – such as the right to rehome unclaimed dogs – became the bedrock for animal homes, and remain a standard today," Jenkins says. Their pioneering of humane euthanasia methods in 1883, their enshrined anti-vivisection policy of 1884, and the opening of a free, drop-in veterinary clinic in 1912 were all groundbreaking in their time.
The state of our animal homes, and the number of creatures abandoned, in many ways reflect shifts in our society. While the opinions aired in early newspaper editorials – that humans are surely more deserving of charity than animals – are still issues today (think of the huge donations to, and backlash against, a Devonshire donkey sanctuary that in 2006 was receiving more money from the public than Women's Aid, Eaves and Refuge combined), the way we treat animals is nonetheless often indicative of the state of our society.
"Battersea has always held up a mirror to society, and our evolving attitudes to animals," Jenkins says. "And the home always reflects good times and bad times. If you drew a graph of the amount of dogs coming to the home, you could tie the numbers with economic and sociological changes."
So the World Wars saw a huge increase in dogs brought in to be euthanised – some 400,000 pets were put down by panicked owners in 1939. The Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s saw an increase in strays, as the economic climate meant owners struggled to feed pets and pay for their licences. Another blip occurred in the 1970s, with the advent of high-rise flats – suddenly, people living in council housing weren't allowed to keep dogs. In recent years, there's been a troubling rise in abandoned "status" dogs, often trained to be violent, such as Staffordshire bull terriers. The current economic squeeze has also prompted an increase in unwanted dogs – and a decrease in donations. When times get tight, pets aren't always a priority.
But while times may change, the principles behind many animal charities remain the same. Tealby's pledge that no dog or cat should ever be "refused admittance" is reflected in Battersea's current mission statement: "to do whatever it takes to make sure we never turn away a dog or cat that needs our help". With multimillion-pound budgets, today's animal homes may be a far cry from a humble stable tended by a sentimental dog-loving lady, but the compassion and affection felt by the Victorians for animals still underpins charities' work today.
'A Home of Their Own' by Garry Jenkins (Bantam Press, £16.99). To order a copy for the special price of £15.29 (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.ukReuse content