Bill George (1802–1881) was a Victorian era dog dealer and well-known character in London, England.
George's first job was as a butcher's boy. A bareknuckle prizefighter, he later became an apprentice to Ben White of 'May Tree Cottage', Kensal New Town, a dealer of Old English Bulldogs, the ancestral breed of Bulldog used for dog fighting. Kensal New Town was a rough working class area with many Irish immigrants and the scene of Protestant-Catholic conflicts. He was indirectly part of an incident in 1825, sponsored by Sam Wedgbury, who had bought a dog from White, and a menagerie owner called George Wombwell, involving lion-baiting by Bulldogs. George is said to have unsuccessfully attempted to dissuade the participants from continuing in this bloody enterprise. The outcome was that one of the lions was injured and several dogs were killed, leading to public outrage and a local ordinance banning the use of dogs for fighting. The practice continued in secret, however, and White's kennels remained in operation, with George continuing to work for him.
In 1835, Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act, banning dog fighting nationwide. In that same year, Ben White died, and George purchased the premises from his widow, renaming them 'Canine Castle'. Aware that for the business to continue, a new clientele would have to be cultivated, George shifted the focus on the Bulldog as a companion animal, giving the breed a fresh impetus. He also developed a new line of "Toy Bulldogs" which became a craze in France where he sent many specimens who are believed to have been major contributors to a new breed, the French Bulldog. The magazine Country Life, in 29 April 1899 recounts:
"Some five-and-thirty years ago in fact, [i.e. about 1865], the small-sized or light-weight Bulldog was common in this country; so much so that dogs of the breed that scaled over 28 lbs were not encouraged at such shows as Birmingham, which was at that period the most important exhibition of its kind in England. Then by some freak of fashion the Toy Bulldog became all the rage in Paris, with the result that the celebrated Bill George, of Canine Castle, Kensal New Town, the most eminent dog dealer of his or any other day, received carte blanche commissions from French customers to procure them light-weight Bulldogs, and by this means England was denuded of all the best specimens."
In 1840, George imported a Spanish Bulldog, a larger breed used for bull baiting in Spain. He was brindle pied, and known as "Big Headed Billy". George's famous white dog Dan, which weighed 65 lbs, and was sold for the extraordinary sum of £100, was a grandson of Big Headed Billy. George was apparently breeding Bulldogs in three sizes.
Earlier than that, he had begun to branch out into Mastiffs, selling John Wigglesworth Thompson the brindle bitch Juno, who would be the foundation of his line. Thompson would later make him a gift of a young dog called Tiger, generally known as George's Tiger, who would become an important stud dog. George also provided both the foundation animals, Adam (bought by George at Tattersalls) and Eve (bought by George at Leadenhall Market), for Captain Garnier. (Adam was reputed to be one of the Lyme Hall mastiffs, from the region of Forest of Lyme, Cheshire. This was the line established by Sir Piers Legh from the bitch that protected him at the Battle of Agincourt.) Adam and Eve's descendant Governor was perhaps the most famous Mastiff in the beginning of the dog show era.
Recognition During His Lifetime
George's celebrity status is confirmed by his appearance in the Punch magazine cartoon shown above. He even claimed to have received visits from foreign royalty. Apparently Charles Dickens paid him visits when researching Bill Sikes’ dog, Bull’s Eye (portrayed by illustrator Fred Barnard as a Bulldog) in Oliver Twist (1837-39).
He was proud that a letter sent to “Bill George, Devil’s Castle, Bloodhound Corner, Tyke Lane, London” reached him, but disappointed when one sent to “Mr. Bill George, Dog Fancier, London” was returned to the sender. He is said to have asked the name of the Postmaster General, and, when told it was Lord John Manners, replied, “Tell those fools in the Post Office that if his Lordship don’t know me, I don’t know manners”.
The Kennel Chronicle twice featured George after his death. On the first occasion his obituary said, "Bill George ... died recently. He was a character in his day and generation. He is described by one who knew him as a sturdy, straightforward, honest dealing man, and known to be trustworthy by all who came in contact with him. Bill George remained an honourable man in a business which abounded with temptations. He was buried at Kensal Green on 9 July 1881. In 1884 the publication made this appeal, "During the last few years of his life, Bill George was jilted to some extent by Dame Fortune, and hence his widow, who is paralysed, is totally unprovided for, and has no resources. A subscription list has been drawn up, and the Editor of Sporting Life will receive contributions".
In the Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, we learn the origin of the enormous dog kept on the moor by John Baskerville:
"The dog he bought in London from Ross and Mangles, the dealers in Fulham Road. It was the strongest and most savage in their possession. He brought it down by the North Devon line and walked a great distance over the moor so as to get it home without exciting any remarks."
. . . . . . . . . - From The Hound of the Baskervilles
So the dog was acquired from a dog dealer.
But who was this dog dealer?
Ross and Mangles did not actually exist, at least, not under that name.
Yet there were Victorian-era dog dealers, and one shop in particular was the likely spark for "Ross and Mangles," as it was the most notorious source for fighting dogs in all of England.
The yard in question was originally owned by Ben White a famous provider of pit-fighting dogs whose premises were located in Kensal New Town, an Irish part of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, just a few miles from the Fulham Road address cited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This area of London is also cheek-to-jowl next to Notting Hill, and in The Hound of the Baskervilles, we are told that the criminal ‘Seldon’ is also known as "the Notting Hill murderer."
It was Ben White who provided the pit fighting dogs that were used in the famous lion baiting spectacle put on by menagerie-owner George Wombwell. This tragic bit of sadistic money-grubbing resulted in the maiming and death of six dogs, and sparked such outrage it eventually led to an 1835 Act of Parliament which banned animal fighting altogether.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle not only knew of Wombell's lions, he even mentions Wombell in one his stories!
In 1835, the very same year that Parliament passed the ban on dog and animal fighting, Ben White died and his apprentice, Bill George, bought the business from White's widow.
But what exactly was this business now that dog fighting had been made illegal?
Clearly, Bill George would have to reinvent it if he was to stay afloat and inside the law.
Bill George had spent 10 years as White's apprentice before taking over the business, and he was a natural promoter. One of his first acts was to rename White's modest house and bulldog yard "The Canine Castle."
|Bill George's bulldog yard was featured in Punch.|
Now, with a mere name change, Bill George had established that his dogs had an aristocratic and storied provenance. Perfect!
The next job was to create a segmented market for his dogs by breeding three distinct types of bulldogs, as well as offering up a variety of lurchers, hounds, terriers and lap dogs for every sort of pet-dog customer that might cross his threshold.
The largest of the "bulldogs" offered by Bill George were animals descended from Spanish Mastiffs and Alaunts which Bill George imported and bred. Few people had the money and space to feed such a dog, but there was always a steady demand for an imposing beast, and Bill George was more than willing to fill the demand. A massive bandog would have been the kind of animal John Baskerville sought out in order to help him put a claim on the family fortune in The Hound of the Baskerville's.
The second type of bulldog sold by Bill George were "English Bulldogs." These were not sold as fighting dogs, but as companion animals, and they were created by crossing old fighting dogs with Chinese Pugs. The resulting animals had flatter faces, shorter legs, and heavier bodies than the old pit fighters -- and they also tended to have fawn colored bodies and pig tails to boot.
A third type of dog was also in evidence. These "Toy Bulldogs" were the runts and rejects created as a by-product of bulldog-pug crosses. It was hard to pass off these dogs as "English" bulldogs, so Bill George and other dog dealers of the era took a page from the rat-catcher and dog dealer Jack Black, and found a steady market for their cast-offs in France, where they served as the foundation stock for the "French Bulldog."
Bill George died in 1881, and the character of Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, but the actions taking place in the Holmes stories are supposed to have taken place earlier, so Bill George would have been a contemporary of the fictional Holmes.
Bill George's dog yard was sufficiently famous that it was visited by Charles Dickens and featured in Punch. Artist George Cruikshank who did illustrations for Punch, also did illustrations for Dickens' Oliver Twist, and Bill Sykes' dog, "Bulls Eye," was modeled on dogs seen in Bill George's yard.