The modern day breed of cattle known as British Whites can claim direct links with the ancient indigenous wild white cattle of Great Britain, notably from the park at Whalley Abbey, Lancashire which was bought by Richard Assheton in 1553. In 1697 Ralph Assheton of Middleton Hall near Manchester inherited Whalley and in 1765 Mary Assheton, heiress to Middleton, married Sir Harbord Harbord (Lord Suffield) of Gunton Hall in Norfolk and brought with her some of the white polled cattle from her former home, which were reputed to have originated from Whalley Abbey.
The Gunton Park cattle were the foundation of at least two herds of note, firstly through Lord Suffleld's daughter-in-law Lady Caroline Harbord who succeeded to Blickling near Aylsham, Norfolk in 1793 and although the exact date of the arrival of the Gunton Cattle at Blickling is unknown it was between 1793 and 1812. These became almost extinct from cattle plague about 1860, with only two individuals remaining, but from these the herd was built up again and survived to help in the foundation of many other herds and the Park Cattle Society itself in 1918. The second herd founded from Gunton stock was that at Woodbastwick, established in 1840 by the purchase of one or two animals at a sale held by the fourth Lord Suffield. For many years the red pointed animals were preferred at Woodbastwick and black pointed calves were transferred to Blicking, vice versa the red pointed calves. However, by 1918 the universally dominant colour was black pointed, red points occurring at a similar low level of frequency as today.
As can be clearly seen, the breeders of these cattle were engaged in a continual struggle to maintain numbers, and from time to time the blood of other breeds was introduced in order to avoid problems associated with in-breeding and to achieve the desired type. (The article on page 7 of the 1998 British White Breed Journal by Mr J Cator gives a full account of these outside sources used between 1840 and 1918 in the Woodbastwick herd).
Another herd which contributed much to the early development of the breed was the Somerford herd of Sir Walter Shakerley, Bart., Somerford Park, Cheshire. Unfortunately, no record of the origin of this herd exists, but it was described as being intermediate in type between the Horned and Polled park cattle. The Shakerley family originated from a place of the same name close to Middleton (from which come the Norfolk herds), but Somerford is only fifteen miles from Lyme and thirty from Chartley (both homes of ancient horned herds) and reference was made to the similarity between the two. Indeed horned animals were not uncommon in the Somerford herd and have had a considerable influence in the White Park (horned) breed. (See Vol XII The Park Cattle Society's Herd Book).
Between 1875 and 1918 general exchanges of bulls took place between Somerford and the herds at Woodbastwick and Northrepps (founded about 1890 with a bull from Woodbastwick and a cow from Blickling), thus the blood of all these founding herds was commingled. Beside those already mentioned there were another three polled herds existing at the time of the foundation of Park Cattle Society in 1918. The herd at Bawdeswell was one of the largest, and was an offshoot from the Northrepps herd which was divided between members of the Gurney family in 1912. The Kelmarsh herd was founded in 1903 by animals brought from the Blickling herd on which bulls from the other polled herds were used. The Faygate herd founded in 1908 were at first mainly of horned derivation, but by 1918 been divided into two, Horned and Polled, the polled section based on cows from Northrepps and Kelmarsh, with a Kelmarsh bull.
By the beginning of the twentieth Century there was an awareness that the outstanding and unique qualities of "Park Cattle" could best be conserved and promoted by the banding together of breeders. Sir Claud Alexander owner of the Faygate herd, writing in the Amateur Menagerie Club Year Book 1912 says "I would, however, strongly advise anyone who may think of forming a herd to go to the Polled variety for his foundation stock, for they have been kept from time immemorial for their milk and beef producing qualities, and right well do they justify their existence.... The Somerford cows are excellent milkers and one of mine averages five gallons a day when in full profit. In addition to this they are big heavy beasts and give a good return from the butcher when their milking days are over. Mr Quinton Gurney's herd at Northrepps Hall is a thoroughly practical one, for on it devolves the task of keeping the town of Cromer supplied with milk. At Woodbastwick too some grand milkers are to be found, and here great attention is paid to beef producing powers, as the records of the local fat stock shows frequently testify. If anyone who reads these notes and feels inclined to form a herd will communicate with me, I shall be pleased to supply any information that may be required".
And so, shortly afterwards in January 1918 the Park Cattle Society was formed "with the object of keeping records of Park Cattle, wild and tame, of developing and popularising their great commercial qualities as well as keeping up and developing scientific interest in this most ancient race". It should be a matter of some pride and satisfaction to all members of the British White Cattle Society of today that we are still maintaining exactly the same aims as those the Society was formed on. (Thankfully with considerable success over the years). The first Volume of the Park Cattle Society's Herd Book was published in 1919, and it is interesting to note that the constitution and rules of the Society remain materially unaltered to the present day. In Volume III (1922), the first breed standard was published in which it is stated "Park Cattle shall be large and massive, dual-purpose, cattle of symmetrical appearance", also "length of legs - medium, in proportion to the size of the animal the legs should be such as to avoid any semblance to an appearance of "shortness" or "longness" of leg length.
In the early years of the Society (up to 31 December 1940) the registration of Park Cattle took two forms, firstly animals certified by the owners of any established herd to be without cross of any other breed were issued with a pedigree number,(indicating the view of the Society that where outside blood had been used in the past it was accepted that its influence was now so diffuse that it would not prevent the animal from breeding true to type) and secondly cattle which were partly of registered blood could be registered on inspection, provided they were, in the opinion of the inspectors, eligible according to standard. These entries were given a pedigree number followed by the letters IFS. In addition a grading up register was started in 1928 allowing breeders to register half bred animals at section A (first cross) to become eligible for pedigree registration at the fifth cross or generation of pedigree blood. With careful selection for type and colour, and no doubt strengthened by the inclusion of wider blood lines the breed swiftly re-established a strong distinct and predictable type.
In 1946 the two forms of Park Cattle, Horned and Polled decided to split and administer their own affairs, and thus the British White Cattle Society evolved.
Dual Purpose Qualities
Great notice is taken in the earlier herd books of the milking properties of the cattle. Most of the polled herds were at that time commercially milked and detailed records are given of both herd and individual performance, often with notable successes in competition with other breeds. The earliest mention (Vol IV) is of the success of Messrs. Buxton and Birkbeck in winning the Norfolk milk recording Society's small herds competition with an average yield of 10,616 lbs. per cow for five park (polled) cattle in competition with all other breeds.
In Vol VI the Woodbastwick bred heifer Faygate Laura is said to have given 10,160 lbs in 327 days with her first calf and 12,603 lbs in a year with her second, Whilst in Vol IX special mention is made of Bawdeswell Catmint, who gave 13,876 lbs in 326 days and obtained a certificate of merit with a yield of 35,928 lbs in 3 years. The fact that milk records were included in the herd books reflects the importance placed upon the excellent dairy properties of the cattle by the pioneer breeders. The ability to milk heavily is one of the qualities which sets our breed apart from those it competes with in the commercial arena today.
Alongside the obvious attention paid to the milking ability of the breed is the esteem in which its beefing qualities were held by the early breeders. Beginning in vol XIII, the results of the Norfolk and Norwich fat cattle show are included in some of the early herdbooks and they provide ample evidence of the excellence of the breed in that arena.
Jumble, a steer owned and bred by the Cator family, was first and best of all breeds at Norwich fatstock show in 1931. Aged 2 years 5 months and 6 days and weighing 13 cwts 1 qtr and 10lbs (679kgs), he sold for £45:10 shillings, the highest price per cwt of any animal in the show. In 1934 the 2nd prizewinner, Crescent, owned by Major Q.E. Gurney of Bawdeswell weighted 15 cwts 2 qtr 1 lb (789 kgs) at 2 years and 10 months.
The Expansion of the Breed in the UK
At the formation of the Park Cattle Society in 1918 there were 7 recorded herds containing 16 bulls and 115 females and for a considerable time the members of the Society had to struggle to maintain the breed in the face of very low numbers. However, in 1973 the RBST was formed and a growing awareness of the existence and desirability of rare breeds began to emerge. Due, no doubt, partly to this and partly to the increasing efforts of the British White Cattle Society interest in the breed began to rise markedly to the point where, in 1990 there were 116 herds containing over 1,500 registered cattle.
This rise in the fortunes of the breed has meant that it is now no longer listed by the RBST as a rare breed, joining the Longhorn (among others) in the minority breeds category.
Given the strengthening numerical position of the breed in recent years the British White Cattle Society decided on a structured closure of the grading up register, beginning in 1996. This will limit the introduction of non-British White blood into the breed, and should further continue the process of ensuring that the British White remains true to the type that has graced our countryside for centuries.