Remembering Thelma Gray
In 1980, when I was living in Australia, I did an interview for National Dog magazine, the then-leading canine publication in that part of the world. The person I interviewed was Thelma Gray, who had the famous Rozavel kennels in England but retired to South Australia a few years earlier.
I did not save a copy of the printed interview and remember very little of it, but when Queen Elizabeth died recently there was a new incentive to search for the interview: I knew that Mrs. Gray had provided the future queen with Pembroke Welsh Corgis on a couple of occasions in the distant past and was curious to see again what she said about this. She had also received, as a gift from the queen, at least one of her dogs' descendants — incidentally, the only dog bred by Queen Elizabeth that had been shown.
The royal connection was not the most important reason that I interviewed Mrs. Gray, however. The Rozavel kennel was iconic not just in Pembroke Welsh Corgis for having provided much of the world's foundation stock, and had also experienced tremendous success in Cardigan Welsh Corgis, Chihuahuas (both Smooth and Long coat), Beagles, German Shepherds and many other breeds. Rozavel was easily one of Great Britain's top kennels, had been around for a long time even then, and that was reason enough for the interview.
I am indebted to Wendi McKay and Dogs Tasmania for sending scans of the whole interview — all 14 pages of it. I am also grateful to Wendye Slatyer, who took over when National Dog's founder Frankie Sefton died: Wendye's own Ringleader is no longer published, but all she said when I sent her a request to reprint the interview was “I guess we do own the rights” to all the ND and Ringleader editorials … She just asked me to include the publication date with the reprint; the interview was initially printed in National Dog Annual in early 1981.
Thelma Gray judging in the U.S. awarding BOS at the Southern California Beagle Club in 1976 to Ch. J Don's Salt of the Earth.
The interview has stood up to the time change surprisingly well. Thelma Gray was probably then in her 70s but very sharp and articulate. It is too long to reprint the whole thing here, but I plan to publish it on my Facebook page (“Great Show Dogs of the Past”). A recap of the highlights might be interesting, but Mrs. Gray's notes on the Royal connection may be worth quoting verbatim:
“It all started in 1933 when the then Duke of York, later King George VI, purchased a puppy as a companion for the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. This was Rozavel Golden Eagle, whom we called Duke during his month of house-training with us and who remained 'Dookie' for the rest of his life. He brought a great deal of publicity for the breed and was constantly being photographed, usually being hugged by Princess Margaret or by our present Queen.
“In fact, Dookie was such a success with the Royal family that later a bitch, Rozavel Lady Jane, was added with the idea of breeding a litter. She wasn't mated to Dookie, however, but on Christmas Eve she produced a litter by one of my dogs. Two of the puppies, Crackers and Carol, were kept by the Royal family, and all the present-day Royal Corgis descend from the early Rozavel dogs. The Queen has never exhibited her Corgis, but before leaving England I won the CC with a dog which the Queen had bred, Windsor Loyal Subject.
“The last time the Queen was in Australia she only spent four days and didn't come to Adelaide [where Mrs. Gray lived], but the previous year when she came to Adelaide she telephoned me and asked me to take 'Roddy”'and 'Edward Windsor,' as we call him, to Government House and we walked about in the Garden and the Queen said how much she missed her dogs, but she had telephoned to England and reassured herself that they were all well.”
Pembroke Windsor Loyal Subject, bred by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, owned by Thelma Gray. Winner of one Challenge Certificate. Photo Pearce.
Mrs. Gray felt that the connection to the royal family had helped the breed a great deal in the early years. She pointed out that it had been a lovely connection and one that meant a great deal to her.
Other facts from the interview:
• Thelma Gray got her first dog in 1927, a German Shepherd, and then worked for a whole year in a GSD kennel.
• She knew personally “quite well” Max von Stephanitz, the “father of the German Shepherd,” and also his daughter, Herta.
• Her first champion, around 1930, was also a German Shepherd. When she was 19 years old, her father gave her £25 to go and buy a dog in Germany. (“Money had a different value in those days, but still this was a time when people were paying £100-£200 for a top dog in Germany.”) She found a sable dog she liked, managed to buy him, brought him over to England and made him up in four straight shows: Ch. Billo vom Grombergshaven, SchH.
• She got involved in Welsh Corgis around 1930. “I saw a picture of one somewhere, not in a dog paper, and it was a Cardigan, not a Pembroke.”
The relationship between the Cardigan and the Pembroke people in the early days was notoriously bad. (“[T]here were terrible rows … Both sides felt that their type was the true Corgi, so it was really a very unhappy state of affairs until the Kennel Club finally split up the varieties …”)
It was not until 1934 that the Kennel Club made any official distinction between Cardigans and Pembrokes. (“Pedigrees were written on scraps of paper or from memory, and it was possible in those days to drive around the farms in Wales and buy a puppy for about ten shillings. One dog which I bought very reasonably and later won the Challenge Certificate with at Crufts had been standing at stud in Wales for a pint of beer.”)
Pembroke Welsh Corgi Ch. Rozavel Red Dragon, owned by Thelma Gray, is considered the "father of the breed."
Thelma Gray's Pembroke Ch. Rozavel Red Dragon, born in 1932, is considered by most people to be “the father of the breed as we know it today the world over.”
The first Welsh Corgi to win BIS at a general all-breed championship show in England was Eng. Am. Ch. Rozaval Rainbow, who won in Birmingham in 1950 and was later exported to the U.S.
Pembroke Eng. & Am. Ch. Rozavel Rainbow, first Welsh Corgi to win BIS at an all-breed championship show in the U.K., later exported to the U.S.
The first Welsh Corgi to win BIS at an AKC all-breed show was Ch. Rozavel Uncle Sam of Waseeka in 1949. (Waseeka was an American kennel, famous for its Newfoundlands and Pembroke Welsh Corgis.)
• Rozavel early on had “between 30 and 40 Corgis, as well as the German Shepherds.” It was a big kennel with at least 100 dogs until the late 1960s/early 1970s. Thelma Gray moved to Australia in 1976.
• Why can you get blue merles in Cardigans but not in Pembrokes? “Of course merles aren't allowed at all in Pembrokes, but at one time we used to get brindles. They took that out of the standard because they reckoned it showed Cardigan blood. That wasn't quite fair, I thought … [A]ll the Cardigans had some Pembroke blood and vice versa, even though they were mainly kept separate by the farmers even before KC recognition because of local pride.”
• Rozavel had Cardigan Welsh Corgis since the start but didn't show them in the early years. However, she very much wanted a blue merle Cardigan (“I didn't want a blue merle just because it was blue merle, it had to be a good Cardigan too …”), but was told they didn't exist anymore: the blue merle gene was supposedly extinct. She saw a red Cardigan with one blue eye and thought he could sire blue merles: he did, and she bred a red bitch to a “beautifully marked” blue merle son of this dog and got two “marmalade merles” that looked like ginger-colored cats. The bitch died and the dog had soft ears and a bad mouth but didn't produce his faults, and in about two generations Ch. Rozavel Blue Rosette was born, later her daughter Ch. Rozavel Blue Tinsel and her daughter Ch. Rozavel Blue Lamp … “good-coloured merles and lovely Cardigans.”
Cardigan Welsh Corgi Ch. Rozavel Blue Rosette, 1963.
• She imported “five or six” Rottweilers from Germany, the first ones ever in Britain, just before World War II, but lost them all during the war and was too disheartened to start again with them afterward.
• Her next breed was the Chihuahua. “My husband had an old aunt who had lived in Mexico … and died as a sort of recluse in her London house, surrounded by possessions which she had never thrown away. She had apparently had some Chihuahuas in Mexico. We had the task of clearing away all her things after she died … [M]y husband came across two dear little collars and moth-eaten tiny woollen coats. … I had always wanted a tiny little Chihuahua as a pet and now that I had the collars I thought I should have the dog to go with them!”
• Chihuahuas hardly existed at all in England then and were not very common even in the U.S., but in 1954 Thelma Gray went to the U.S. to buy some foundation stock. She stayed with Margery (Roesler) Renner of the Merriedip Old English Sheepdogs and Corgis in Connecticut, and Mrs. Renner drove her around to several kennels. Mr. Gray bought 11 Chihuahuas and brought them home to England, but only a few proved to be of any value for breeding. There were many champions: Ch. Rozavel Shaw's Violet was one of the breed's first BIS winners in the U.K. and won BOB at Crufts. Ch. Rozavel Uvalda Jemima won BOB at Crufts twice and held the breed record for CC wins for a long time, as did Ch. Rozaval Bienvenida and Ch. Rozavel Hasta La Vista.
• Mrs. Gray had no Long Coat Chihuahuas at first: Those that were around in those days looked “either like Poms or Paps and not really like Chihuahuas,” she felt. Then she bred one of her Smooth bitches to the Smooth American import Ch. Emmrill Son-Ko's Red Rocket: there was only one puppy, a Long Coat who “really looked like a Smooth with hair on.” She was the ancestor of all the Rozavel Long Coats, including Ch. Rozavel Tarina's Song, BIS at an all-breed championship show and Res. BIS at Crufts in 1971.
Long Coat Chihuahua Ch. Rozavel Tarina Song, Res. BIS Crufts 1971. Photo Pearce.
• Thelma Gray became interested in Beagles when judging in the U.S. She thought they were much more attractive than the ones in England. There were none of “the American type” in England then and at first the American dogs didn't do a lot of winning. Mrs. Gray and a very few other people stayed with it, though, and imported several champions, including Am. & Eng. Ch. Rozavel Elsy's Diamond Jerry, whom Mrs. Gray considers her best dog ever. He was a “fantastic” sire and won the Stud Dog class at the Beagle Association's championship show four years in a row; at one time he had 23 sons and daughters at the same show being judged. Since those days, of course, others have also imported Beagles from America.
• All Beagles are judged together in the U.K. — there are not two size varieties as at AKC shows, although Mrs. Gray thought there should be. “We used to have those [different size classes] at the club show, but then the Kennel Club stopped that. I think they are still allowed to have an under 14” class, but they weren't allowed to have an under 10” class which they wanted, or the under 13” class they have in the USA.”
Mrs. Gray first judged at Crufts in 1933, judged in the U.S. for the first time in 1935, and in 1946 she was the first English judge to go to the U.S. after the war. She judged BIS at Crufts in 1975 and judged in the U.K., America and Australia, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Israel, Italy, France, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, New Zealand, Jamaica and Mexico.
She enjoyed visiting the U.S. but wouldn't want to live and be involved in the dog game over here. “I don't like the professional handler scene and feel that the handlers dominate the dog shows over there far too much, either intentionally or unintentionally. The charges for the top handlers are enormous and it really costs a lot of money to have your dogs campaigned in America.”
• Best dog she's ever seen? Some of Thelma Gray's choices might be unknown to most readers. One of the first German Shepherd imports into the U.K. after the war, Ch. Danko von Menkenmoor of Hardwick, is one of the names she mentions. Her own American import Beagle, Ch. Rozavel Elsy's Diamond Jerry, is another. (“He's the only dog I have ever owned which I couldn't fault anywhere. And I'm usually very critical of my own dogs.”) Among all the top winners she's seen, particularly in England, it's more a case of breeds that have impressed than individual dogs: the Greyhounds from Shalfleet, Shaunvalley and Solstrand, “some lovely Whippets, mainly from Dondelayo,” and some beautiful West Highland White Terriers (another breed that Mrs. Gray was briefly involved in prior to the move to Australia). “I think that Ch. Kaytop Marshall was probably the best Corgi I have ever seen.” Of the American Standard Poodles that came to England, she loved Ch. Bibelot's Tall Dark & Handsome (bred in Canada), “and so many good Miniatures it would almost be invidious to mention one.”
Beagle Am & Eng Ch. Rozavel Elsy's Diamond Jerry. Photo Fall.
In America, Mrs. Gray thinks the Boxers of the late '40s and '50s, Ch. Bang Away of Sirrah Crest and Ch. Barrage of Quality Hill, were “quite marvelous dogs.” The Pekingese Ch. Chik T'Sun of Caversham (born in the U.K.) was lovely. She saw the Afghan Hound Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur and liked him, and more recently some of the Coastwind dogs. And she mentions the Wire Fox Terrier she made BIS at Crufts, Ch. Brookewire Brandy of Layven.