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All That Glitters: The Bullmastiff in South Africa diamond mines

Britain's home-grown Molosser was once the guard dog of choice for protecting these valuable gems. What happened?

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, the saying goes.

And almost a century ago, the diamond miner’s best friend was the Bullmastiff. Not just any diamond miner, mind you, but the biggest name of them all — De Beers, the South African conglomerate that once controlled more than 80 percent of the world’s sparkling stones.


Peerless Protector


The timing of De Beer’s interest in the Bullmastiff, which started in the mid-1930s, likely wasn’t coincidental. When the Bullmastiff was being developed into a bona-fide breed in early-20th-Century England, clever marketing cemented its reputation as a “peerless protector” in the public consciousness. British dog dealer S.E. Moseley was a tireless — some might say shameless — promoter of his Farcroft dogs, calling himself “the originator of the breed, in the accepted type” on his kennel letterhead.

Another early British breeder, William Burton, described the Bullmastiff as “invaluable” for the kind of sentry work the mines required.

“The dog will sit silently by the side of the keeper or watchman, and his scent is so remarkable and unfaltering that he knows instantly if a stranger is anywhere in the neighborhood,” Burton said in an interview with Britain's Daily Mail around the turn of the last century. “Then he is game to the backbone, and so confident am I that he will never give in, no matter how great the odds, that I have offered to make a wager on the subject.”

Two of Burton's "trained bull-mastiff night dogs."


Burton, of course, was famous for his Thorneywood Terror, who was undefeated in his ability to topple any man in a contest, despite being muzzled. In this interview, however, Burton described a far more gruesome bet, which he said he offered to a major from the government War Office who had come to his kennel to see the dogs.

Any given wagerer, Burton said, could select a man to fight any Thorneywood dog — with bayonet or sword. Of course, no dog could be expected to survive such an encounter, but that was beside the point to Burton. The cost of the bet? The value of the dog.

“If the dog flinched while he was being cut to pieces I am willing to lose him,” Burton said. “But if he proves game right through I take the money to recoup me for the loss of the dog.”

Burton claimed to have satisfied the major with a simple demonstration, and presumably the gruesome bet was not made.

“There is no doubt they would be exceedingly useful for sentry or scouting work in an enemy’s country,” Burton concluded, “for the dogs would be able to detect the approach of an enemy long before he could be seen.”

With this reputation as an intruder’s worst nightmare, it’s no wonder that the emerging modern Bullmastiff breed began to attract the attention of those who had the most to lose — literally. In the 1930s and ’40s, the impossibly wealthy Rockefeller family imported and bred some of the first Bullmastiffs in the United States at their Kykuit estate north of Manhattan.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it was around this same time that the De Beers diamond mines had the same idea, importing some of the best Bullmastiffs England had to offer to patrol its valuable mines.


Rock On


Diamonds were first found in southern Africa in the 1860s, when brothers Nicolaas and Diederick de Beer discovered the precious gems on their farm near Kimberly. Financial pressures soon forced the South African farmers to sell, and all that remains of their involvement is their Dutch surname, which Cecil Rhodes — from whom the country of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, derives its name — used in 1888 to found the world-famous diamond company. When Rhodes died in 1901, the company passed into the hands of German-born Ernest Oppenheimer.

If the name Oppenheimer rings a bell to dog-savvy readers, it’s likely because of Ernest’s dog-obsessed nephew, Raymond Oppenheimer, who is about as famous as one can get in Bull Terrier circles. While Britain-based Raymond was a director at De Beers, he far preferred playing golf and breeding and judging dogs.


Digging diamonds at Kimberley-Kopje in 1872, drawn by J. Vamione and printed in "Seven Years in South Africa," written by Emil Holub in 1881.


According to De Beers, there is no information on the use of Bullmastiffs at the mines in their archives, but surviving accounts indicate that they were quite useful.

"Shortly before the second war, I read that many [Bullmastiffs] were employed in conjunction with Alsatians in guarding the diamond mines at Kimberley,” wrote A. Croxton Smith in his 1950 book “Dogs Since 1900,” using the name given to German Shepherd Dogs during that period. “The fifty [Bullmastiffs] that went on sentry duty every night round the square mile of barbed wire fencing that protected the mines, did work that had previously been entrusted to fifty armed men. Only four men had to be used with the dogs."

To be sure, De Beers did not import the first Bullmastiffs to Africa, as is frequently claimed. There is evidence that the breed was present on the continent as early as Victorian times: The February 15, 1888, issue of the Cape Argus weekly edition, which circulated in Cape Town, noted the presence of “a tremendous bull mastiff, the property of Mr. Percival, of Claremont … the only one of its kind” at the local agricultural show.

Mr. Percival’s nameless pet aside, Mrs. Mary Heard, who lived in what is now Namibia, is credited with bringing the first identifiable Bullmastiffs to southern Africa almost four decades later. In 1925, she imported two Bullmastiffs, both bred by the aforementioned Moseley: a “clear” female (presumably, fawn) named Farcroft Vigil, who was a daughter of Farcroft Fidelity; and a small, very dark brindle male called Farcroft Joe. The two produced a litter together, but the singleton brindle female died shortly after whelping, as did her 4-year-old dam soon after.


Farcroft Fidelity, a popular sire of Moseley's who was the father of at least two of the earliest Bullmastiffs imported into southern Africa.


The first Bullmastiffs registered in South Africa were a trio also imported by Mrs. Heard, and, like her first two, were also bred by Moseley: They were the bitches Brittania of Damara (Farcroft Fidelity x Farcroft Vamp) and Trustful Peggy (Farcroft Formative and Farcroft Tenacious), and the male John Bull of Damara (Hamil Grip x Farcroft Belltong), who was the first Bullmastiff registered by the then-South African Kennel Union.


UK Champion Springwell Major.


The first Bullmastiff imported by De Beers, in 1935, was quite an accomplished one: UK Champion Springwell Major. His sire was Ch. Roger of the Fens, an early British champion so heavily used at stud that he is to be found in the pedigree of every Bullmastiff alive today. Springwell Major’s dam was Lady Dinah of Springwell, who — small consolation to Moseley — had a great deal of Farcroft blood behind her.

Records from the South African registry indicate that De Beers was also breeding its Bullmastiffs.


Fall From Grace


But Bullmastiffs were not the only breed that De Beers used for protection work — or bred. Rhodesian Ridgebacks were also bred by the diamond conglomerate, which imported some of the earliest registered examples of that breed, too. Documents in the De Beers archive also indicate that Great Dane bitches were bred to the ridged “lion dogs” in an effort to increase size. Pedigreed Ridgebacks were later used for patrolling, but were found to be too independent for such tedious work.

The Bullmastiff also appears to have fallen out of favor at De Beers, though German Shepherds were used well into the late 20th Century. The De Beers press office says it is unable to “locate any relevant information” about the Bullmastiff’s long-ago role in guarding its mines. Interestingly, across the ocean, the Rockefellers, too, replaced their Bullmastiffs with German Shepherds, for reasons that also are unknown.

Perhaps De Beers had difficulty getting its Bullmastiffs to breed true; though Moseley managed to produce typey, quality dogs, his contemporaries — and those who used his stock — were not as fortunate. This was certainly an issue with the Rockefeller dogs, some of which could easily be mistaken for Mastiffs. Author Croxton Smith confirms that this was a widespread problem in the fledgling breed, noting that the “most of the dogs that came out after their earliest recognition being far from pleasing, many of them looking much like very bad Mastiffs,” with long bodies, slack loins and poor fronts.

Another theory about the Bullmastiff’s departure from De Beers is more cynical, but sadly quite plausible: The Bullmastiff was bred to have an undershot bite, which is excellent for holding but not savaging. Indeed, as Burton’s muzzled Thorneywood Terror proved quite aptly, the Bullmastiff’s sheer mass and projectile power was enough to disable a human opponent until authorities arrived. And the Victorian gamekeepers who took Bullmastiffs on their nighttime rounds required poachers to be caught alive.

But the situation in South Africa was quite different. The survival of intruders was presumably of little to no concern, and the stakes were stratospherically higher: The diamond thieves were after a prize that was considerably more valuable than the odd hare or pheasant that an English poacher might abscond with.

The German Shepherd has a scissors bite — far most punishing than the Bullmastiff’s undershot bite, excellent for slashing and doing damage. It is no coincidence that the Boerboel — the South African mastiff that evolved with a great deal of Bullmastiff influence — has a scissors bite as well.

Finally, along these same lines, the Bullmastiff may simply not have been vicious or active enough. Moseley marketed his Bullmastiffs as “faithful and fearless, but not ferocious; big enough to be powerful, but not big enough to be active.” In addition, British gamekeepers often patrolled in the cool of the night, when poaching activity was most common, while mining duty under the hot South African sun would take a toll on any dog, much less one with as much mass and as relatively short a muzzle as a Bullmastiff.

Whether a result or one or a combination of the above factors, what is known is that by the latter half of the 20th Century, the Bullmastiff’s heyday at De Beers had ended.

Chronicling his visit to the De Beers’ Wesselton Mine in Kimberly in the Christian Science Monitor in 1981, writer Gary Thatcher made no mention of Bullmastiffs. Instead, he described “rather ferocious” German Shepherds patrolling the double-ringed fences that encircled the mines. These dogs were trained at a company-owned kennel nearby, where they were sometimes put through their paces for the public, walking blindfolded on tightropes and scaling fences that towered over their handlers’ heads.

“But a company official confides that these dogs are ‘just the ones we show,’” Thatcher said. “The real guard dogs, he says, are so fierce they aren't allowed near the public.”


By the mid-20th Century, German Shepherd Dogs had taken center stage at De Beers. Above and below (in 1952 and 1956, respectively), members of the public visit the diamond company's dog-training center. Photos courtesy of SAR Publicity and Travel Department.


Echoes of the Past


That’s not to say that Bullmastiffs have completely disappeared from southern African diamond mines. As recently as 2015, a brindle Bullmastiff named “Big Boy” was rescued from a backyard in a suburb of Mutare, the third-largest city in Zimbabwe. Media reports said no one knew how long he had been there, but it was long enough for the emaciated Bullmastiff to become so starved he had trouble standing.

Billy Boy had once patrolled a diamond mine in Chiadzwa, about an hour’s drive away. Embroiled in controversy over human-rights abuses after a military takeover, the mine reportedly swapped out its guard dogs periodically. When it was his turn, Big Boy was sent on to “retirement” along with — no surprise — a German Shepherd. His adoptive owners presumably did not have the resources to care for the two dogs, and left both tied to a scrap car.

Big Boy’s temperament may have also hastened his retirement. "He has more skeleton than muscle, more gentleness than gruffness," the rescue group that rehomed him reported.

If the Bullmastiff’s tenure in southern African diamond mines was altogether too short, its impact on the dog culture in that part of the world was inversely profound. With Bullmastiffs being imported into the region in large numbers, and subsequently being bred by De Beers and others, the breed developed a strong presence in South Africa that continues today. And it became an important ingredient in the development of South Africa’s two native breeds, the Boerboel and the Rhodesian Ridgeback. Indeed, in the case of the former, it is safe to say that without the availability of Bullmastiff breeding stock to bolster its Molosser roots, the Boerboel would look significantly different than it does today.

Diamonds in the rough, indeed.



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