Joan Marsden and the Tarncourt Flatcoats

I wrote this article in 2005 based on correspondence with Mrs Marsden during the eighties and nineties. I believe it’s a very encouraging story about the true capacity of this lovely breed and an excellent example showing that a brilliant and determined Flatcoat breeder/trainer can get far to match the best in any breed. Joan Marsden is a good role model for anyone trying to build a competitive stock of first class working Flatcoats.

(This article by Ingemar Borelius was first presented in Flatcoatdata 2005).

There’s no doubt that Joan Marsden is one of the greatest working Flatcoat breeders/trainers/handlers of all times. During the 1980’s Joan was the dominant on the Flatcoated Field trial scene challenging the best Labradors and Goldens with a line of first class workers bearing her prefix, Tarncourt. Few others throughout working Flatcoat history can match the common successes of Tarncourt Byron, Tarncourt Crofter, Tarncourt Charm, Tarncourt Noteable, Tarncourt Rejoice, Wemdom Bright Bond of Tarncourt and Tarncourt Little Oak. 

Joan Marsden came into the breed in the beginning of the 1960’s when she and her husband bought Claverdon Corker, who became an excellent trialler (1st Non Winner stake, 3rd Open stake) and a great shooting dog. In a letter dated 1983, Joan Marsden tells; “I was brought up with shooting dogs and so was my husband (who is my biggest critic). We became interested in working Flatcoats many years ago when our Flatcoat dog, Claverdon Corker (fullbrother of the famous Claverdon Comet, Skipper, Cindy, IB’s note.) died. He was a brilliant dog and to our dismay we found we could not replace him. We had many years of disappointments with many pups until we bought Bruderkern Witch Hazel of Tarncourt (sired by Heronsflight Tercel and with a strong working line on her dam’s side, IB’s note). She was a good game finder and a sensible worker, but somewhat headstrong which we did not like. She was bred from once to Claverdon Jupiter (Rungles Jerome x Claverdon Flyer) a mating that produced Tarncourt Byron, Bronte and Blighty. All three were good dogs but Byron had much more drive than the others and did very well in Field Trials. Blighty was my husband’s shooting dog and Bronte came to my son in law, a shooting man as well. Before passing her on I bred her to Lingwood Medlar as I felt my “B”-litter in general lacked drive and style and was a bit late in developing. The Bronte x Medlar mating produced T. Crofter and Charm, both with the drive my stock needed and yet still with the kindness of the “B”-litter.”

“Dr Laughton sent me a bitch, Claverdon Lucretia (Claverdon Lionheart x Claverdon Kiss) (a litter sister of Dr Laughtons own Claverdon Lysander, a successful stud dog, and Claverdon Ladybird, a Field trial winning bitch, IB’s note), a few years before. I trained her and found that she was good but not quite as good as Charm, so I had to choose Charm for the trials the following season. Lucretia was bred to T. Crofter in 1982, in hope to keep the excellent qualities of dog and bitch but to improve on “handling ability“ which Crofter had. From this litter I kept a dog and a bitch, Tarncourt Noteable and Tarncourt Nimbus. Due to an illness of mine I unfortunately started to train those rather late.”

Tarncourt Crofter

“Lucretia was bred from once again to a dog named Torwood Buckshot. I judged this dog at a trial and liked what I saw. I kept a bold happy bitch pup which adored me (a good start!). Her name was “Tarncourt Particular” and if she comes up to my hopes and expectations she will be mated to both Thaw of Tarncourt (a young dog of mine) and Crofter. I did know the sire of Torwood Buckshot. It is important to know as much as one can about the character and abilities of the grand sire and grand dam.” (I know from a later correspondence that Joan sold the bitch as she was not up to the standard when it came to retrieving qualities, IB’s note). 

“As you can see I have a large kennel of good working blood lines in the hope of breeding sound, good type Flatcoats which have excellent working qualities which hopefully will compete with the Field Trial Labrador. I try not to double up on any faults, be it on the dog’s conformation or a working inability. I would not breed from a dog which would not train up to Field Trial standards and I look upon Field Trials as a proving ground for dog and trainer as well as it being a sport. I’m fortunate to be able to train with some top Labrador and Golden Retriever trainers, which gives me a standard to strive for and I hope to surpass. I was told many years ago that dog work is 60 % trainer/handler and 40% dog so it is important for an ambitious Flatcoat owner to become an efficient trainer.”              

By pure coincidence I (the author) happened to visit Nancy Laughton, 1985, on the day when “the Working Flatcoated Retriever group” was formed. I presume that Joan was the initiator of the group but it was formed by some of the most respected pro work members of the Flatcoated Retriever Society with Dr Laughton, Amelia Jessel, Gwen Knight, Peter Johnson and Joan Marsden being the most well known names. In a later article Joan Marsden proclaimed that “The working Flatcoated Retriever Group was established with the aim of promoting the selective breeding of working Flatcoated Retrievers for the shooting field”. She told that the success of a Flatcoat winning Crufts resulted in an explosion of Flatcoats on the market and an imbalance between Flatcoats bred for show and work. The group had agreed that action must be taken to protect the working characteristics of the dog by selective breeding. The group intended to compile a register of working Flatcoats and they asked for help from gamekeepers, shooting men, and very important, keen field trailers.”

In a letter dated July 1985 Joan says; “Our group has caused a storm to say the least and I doubt if the trouble will be settled within the Society …I feel the best we can do is to start a new club, both for our selves and for the breed. Harry Wilson (Nesfield) in Northern Ireland says “if you want to save the breed you must make a clean brake”. “We have had a good support from shooting men and working Flatcoat owners from all over the country.” Also. Joan told about the need for cross border cooperation and that possibilities to import foreign breeding stock might occur in the future. She also told about the need to “look far into the future with breeding policies.”

In a letter dated 1987 she talks about her new experiences from the Danish Flatcoat world. She had run a training seminar there and was impressed by some of the Danish pro work breeders and their Flatcoats although she stated that it’s impossible to fully assess the true working standards without having seen dogs on the shooting field. In a letter dated 1989, Joan discussed the needs to look for stud dogs from even working litters and she commented that both Noteable and Wemdom Bright Bond had good and not so good litter mates, but there were more good than bad ones. “The greatest difference in these dogs is that some matured much faster than others.” She also commented that she would import two Danish working Flatcoats that year. Unfortunately they did not do well at the quarantine kennels, they were harmed mentally and she couldn’t keep them.

Tarncourt Noteable

In 1990 Joan tells about a Flatcoat working day which was very pleasing. She also told that the working people were happy about a number of new stud dogs that were up to the standards and that there was a need to find the working bitches to match those to. She saw a good future for the working breed – “I think I can now wave the flag!” In a letter dated 1991 Joan tells about a number of promising young dogs in the kennel. I don’t know if these didn’t mature well and up to Joan’s expectations or if trialing was not that important any more. However her Tarncourt Little Oak won the FCRS All aged stake that season but the year after Joan left the field trial scene and as it seems she never came back.          

In a letter dated 1998 Joan wrote; “I have to think hard about Crofter and Noteable – it is so long ago. Crofter was not the best looking of Flatcoats but he had a good type and head and was very athletic. He was very easy to train, always full of enthusiasm and never became confused. He would look to me for guidance if there was a situation he did not understand and would take a command without question. He had no inclination to chase rabbits or hares. He was bold in water and jumped and hunted well. He had a good nose and was a brilliant marker. He did not have much (if any) Setter influence in him. He had the best brain of any dog I’ve trained, but he did not have good feet and was not used on game as much as my other Flatcoats have been because his feet would not stand 2 – 3 days of work a week. To sum up  -  he was biddable, courageous and sensible – he had no aggression in him towards humans or other dogs. Both he and Noteable had light eyes as young dogs but darkened with age into a nice hazel colour.

Tarncourt Noteable

Noteable was good looking, a true dual purpose Flatcoat. He was very fast both in movement and reaction. He had a strong setter influence in him which made his training less simple than Crofter’s but there were no long term problems. Without training he would have been fur minded, but once trained he was very reliable and he never chased or ran in or run amock at a trial or on a shooting day. Like his sire he was a good marker, had a good nose, was bold in water and became a good jumper once he got his confidence. He had a game finding instinct beyond human understanding. One day out shooting a friend of mine wing tipped a cock pheasant that dropped unseen by Noteable into a bed of rushes. Noteable was sent across a river, over a wall into the rushes. He returned in no time at all with the bird. My friend called to me “if I had not seen that I would never have believed it”. This remark sums up Noteable; he had to be seen to be believed. He had a mischievous character but he never let me down. He was a magic dog. Both Crofter and Noteable enjoyed dummies and never got bored with training.  

Noteable’s achievements in trials are something the breed should be proud of and he was running in trials when standards were exceptionally high. The first award Noteable won was at Bolton Abbey in 1987. He won the trial by eye wiping two other dogs (Labradors) on a long blind. He was an undisputed winner.”

Consistent Trial Winners Wemdon Bright Bond of Tarncourt, Tarncourt Rejoice, Tarncourt Noteable (left - right). Different sires but all from the Claverdon bitch line

A report presented in “The Working Gundog“ (an excellent British gundog magazine that was published over a few years at the end of the 1980’s) shows what an outstanding worker he was. At the two day Any Variety Open Stake at the Duke of Westminster’s Abbeystead estate in 1988 Noteable made an impressive performance challenging the cream of the British professional Labrador trainers. Among those were Dave Garbutt, Stan Tweedy, Ian Openshaw, Gabriela Benson, Alan Thornton, Joan Hayes and last but not least the outstanding Golden trainer/breeder Mrs June Atkinson. On Day One Noteable did an excellent job on a strong running pheasant which was picked in thick rush close to a stone wall and in all he made a good job qualifying to the reduced team entering day two. Day Two Noteable was second dog on a rabbit laying behind a fence where he “took the short route over the fence, then to command followed the fence down to where the rabbit lay. Later on a similar occasion occurred when two Labradors failed on a long retrieve with a difficult fence. It was left to Noteable who cleared the fence and retrieved. Until now he was obviously fighting for the very top honour.

I quote the text to show how slight incidents did divide this top performer from hero status “Approaching a small ravine with a stream running through the bottom, no one was prepared for what happened next. A single cock bird rose and was shot on the other side in the reeds. Joan Marsden’s dog, perfectly placed, was asked to retrieve. Out he sped, and just for company one of the other dogs accompanied him. Joan Marsden managed to stop her Flatcoat but the activity of the other dog, now hunting the stream bottom proved too much and he, by now having totally lost his mark, decided to join the hunt. Order was eventually restored after a considerably length of time. Noteable was called up for a rerun and completed his retrieve with a little help from his handler, but the writing was now on the wall. To say that Joan Marsden was bitterly disappointed would be the understatement of the year”. Noteable had in fact been running neck and neck with the winner but was at the end awarded a certificate of merit. However he had proved his outstanding competence, fought well against 23 other first class retrievers and left famous dogs like FT Ch Tibea Tosh and FT Ch Holway Corbiere behind him in the prize list.

Another report from the Retriever Championship 1986 shows how bad luck can strike a first class dog like a hammer. The reporter says: ” Going was very difficult – the undergrowth being thick bramble in parts – mixed with fallen trees and branches. It was sad to see Joan Marsden with her Flatcoat dog fail at this stage, on an extremely difficult and strong runner – the dog I thought being unsighted at the time of the fall. Nevertheless, competition at this crowning event is tough and he had to go. I am sure we shall see more of this attractive dog in the future.”

Joan Marsden had a determination that was stronger than most other trainers. She asked very much from others, and she didn’t expect much success from the “sunny day trainer”, like most dog owners are, but she asked the most of herself. She considered the Flatcoat in general to be a softer dog than the working Labrador and she used soft hands when she trained her Flatcoats. “They need time to mature before the advanced training is started” and Joan didn’t throw dummies to them before one year of age. When she planned a training day she had a rather scientific approach where retrieves were few but designed in detail at home to fit the purpose of the day. When visiting England in 1991 I joined her and Jack Damson when they went out to train in a rough highland area close to her home near Manchester, close to the area where the Halsteads and Ian Openshaw live. Joan brought Wemdom Bright Bond, Tarncourt Rejoice and Tarncourt Little Oak with her. Bright Bond was a strong persevering dog showing magnificent precision and drive when he handled long marked retrieves in the rough cover. Tarncourt Rejoice, handled beautifully on a few long blinds. She was very stylish although she showed the low tail carriage that was passed on from some of Amelia Jessels’ dogs and further on via her litter brother, Tarncourt Ranger, to Claverdon Raffles of Collyers. Jack Damson’s dog, Hermitage Hector (by Tarncourt Crofter) showed tremendous power and biddability when handled on a blind across a wide lake where waves blew high in the strong wind. Little Oak was a bit slower in action but a good and efficient hunter.

The greatest of them all, no doubt, was Tarncourt Noteable who won the FCRS Open field Trial in 1986, he was second at four other trials of which 3 were qualifying any variety field trials and he was third dog once and fourth dog once at open any variety trials. Tarncourt Rejoice (didn’t produce any pups unfortunately) won one open any variety field trial, was second at the FCRS open stake and was third at a 24 dog any variety open stake. Bright Bond won the FCRS open stake once, was third at an any variety all aged stake and gained c.o.m. at two 24 dog, any variety open stakes. Tarncourt Charm won two FCRS all aged stakes, was third at a 24 dog, any variety open stake and gained a c.o.m. at one any variety open stake.

Joan left the field trial scene too early but the memories of her great successes is still alive and the high qualities of the Tarncourt bloodlines is still visible in most of the top dogs of today, in England and in many other countries. Also Joan proved that the working Flatcoat can match the very best retrievers if the breeding is right and the trainer/handler has the hands and the determination that is needed to shape a competitive working Flatcoat.  

There’s no doubt that Joan Marsden is one of the greatest working Flatcoat breeders/trainers/handlers of all times. During the 1980’s Joan was the dominant on the Flatcoated Field trial scene challenging the best Labradors and Goldens with a line of first class workers bearing her prefix, Tarncourt. Few others throughout working Flatcoat history can match the common successes of Tarncourt Byron, Tarncourt Crofter, Tarncourt Charm, Tarncourt Noteable, Tarncourt Rejoice, Wemdom Bright Bond of Tarncourt and Tarncourt Little Oak. 

       © Alex Faarkrog 2017