Hopefully these few old pictures and some of recollections from my early teens (the late 1950’s and early 1960’s) may be of some interest. They’re all old style “rag whippets” and pre date the requirement for a whippet to be registered with the Kennel Club in order to enter a race. Typically these dogs ran from about 14-20 lbs (sometimes smaller) and anything past say the mid 20’s would be questioned as to whether it was actually a true whippet (rather than maybe a whippet x greyhound).
At that time, my father ran a “drinkers pub” in the heart of the Black Country (aka the Industrial Midlands). In the main it was frequented by steelworkers and almost exclusively those of the “sporting variety”. If you were known to have a genuine interest in Whippets, Staffords, Poultry or Pigeons then you were always made to feel welcome. But if not, you’d have very little in common with the regulars and be treated with a fair degree of suspicion. For as long as I can remember, this photograph always hung above the fireplace in the bar and that would be at least 60 years back and beyond.
In those days the whippets ran in straight lines between strings and without muzzles, if they crossed out of their lane they were immediately disqualified, but rarely did. They were all hand slipped and ran to a rag waved by their owner at the end of the track. With hand slipping, you listened for the gun to go off and as soon as it did the dog would be flung through the air and hit the ground running. It was literally a “flying start”, very much an art in itself and it was often said that a good slipper could make you a yard to begin.
So determined were these little dogs and so fierce their hatred for the “rag”, they would take hold of it in full flight. And in order to prevent them injuring themselves, the “rag man” would have to follow them through, swing them through the air still latched on and catch them under their arm (once again an art in itself).
Before each race the dogs were publicly weighed by the Weighing Steward and then handicapped in accordance with the old “yards for pounds rule”, where for example a 19lb dog would be given a one yard start over a dog weighing 20lbs and so on. At that time there was none of this “handicapping on performance”, where a poorly performing dog was given a “fair chance” to beat something undeniably better. In my day, the weighing in process was normally carried out using an old fashioned balance scale which I always knew as a “Steelyard”. This was always carried out in complete silence, the only person who spoke was the Weighing Steward and anyone foolish enough to do otherwise was automatically viewed as “attempting to influence the Steward” and ran the very real risk of receiving immediate rough justice right there and then.
“Old Jack”, my father’s mentor and benefactor, weighing a dog with the same “steelyards” I have at home today.
My Dad was given a bitch pup by “Old Jack’s” son Joe, a very close friend and a man who’d inherited all the talents of his father. Throughout my entire life I only ever knew any of them to “gift” dogs, and then only to people who had earned their trust (not a mean feat in itself). Around the same time, a brand new soft drink was launched and as a Publican my father was being bombarded with advertising literature and requests to stock it. The drink was called Tango and that’s what they named the pup.
“Tango” made 19.5lbs and earned herself a bit of a reputation. Between them they’d always had good dogs and were definitely “the ones to beat”, but this bitch was that little bit special and to plenty that were about at that time she was viewed as the best that there was. In fact so confident were Dad and his mates in that bitch and their ability to present her properly, that they had a challenge out to run any dog in the country, yards for pounds, over 120 yards, for a decent side stake of anything up to a maximum of £100 a side. When you consider just how long ago that was and the fact they were only ordinary working men, that was a lot of confidence to have, particularly when you consider I’d be about 13 or 14 at the time and when I started my first job at 17 my first week’s wages was £3/4s/2d (that’s about £3.21p in modern day money). Now before anyone shoots me down, I’m not saying there weren’t other good dogs about at that time (in fact there were plenty), or that there weren’t any which might have been able to beat her. But what I can say with my hand on my heart and 100% certainty is that of the handful or so which rose to the challenge, no one ever walked away with the purse.
My apologies for banging on a bit, but once I’d found out these old photos the memories just came flooding back too.
Y.I.S. and with the greatest respect for those no longer with us – Barrie
P.S. I remember seeing a letter from a famous Hollywood actor who was very well known for keeping Staffords. It was a letter to “Old Jack” inviting him to America and offering to set him up with a house and pay him whatever he wished to “look after the dogs”. When his friends and family asked him what he was planning to do, his reply was “Why the f*** would I want to go to America, I don’t know anybody over there” and he really did mean it. They certainly don’t make ‘em like that any more.