One of the world’s most famous dogs, and definitely the one associated with selling the most records, was born in Bristol in 1884. Nipper lived with Mark Barraud at the Prince’s Theatre in Park Row where his owner was artistic director. At the end of performances they often took bows together on the stage, or in Nipper’s case bow-wows. The Prince’s Theatre was famed for its unique version of the Panto, which was simply Nipper taking to the stage and doing an impression of an out-of-breath Italian dog. Thus the little terrier was a minor celebrity in the city prior to the business that would propel him posthumously to global stardom.
In 1887 Mark Barraud died and his brother Francis took possession of Nipper. He found that what the dog missed most of all was the adulation he had received from his association with the theatre. Nipper was therefore overjoyed when his new master informed him that he had found him a lead-part; unfortunately this transpired to be just a clasp! To compensate, Francis discovered that Nipper required a lot of attention, which he found difficult to provide as he endeavoured to carve out a career as a professional artist. It was then that the concept for which they are famous was born – although it took a long passage of time to realize it.
As a novelty Francis had recorded his voice and observed that when he played it upon his new gramophone player, Nipper sat there in front of the speaker for hours wondering how his master’s voice had become somehow disembodied from the artist at work in the next room, and intrigued as to why it no longer reeked of alcohol. By this means Francis was able to occupy his pet and concentrate upon his work at the same time. Francis made further recordings including one that taught Nipper tricks. The little dog must have become very proficient at these because it is on record with The Magic Circle archive that Nipper applied for membership in 1892.
Everything went swimmingly well until the thoroughly contented terrier died in 1895. Nearly four years later, Francis, in a moment of reflection, painted a picture of Nipper listening to his voice through the gramophone speaker. This was rather odd, because one would assume that he would have used the reflection to do a self-portrait. This picture would become iconic. It wasn’t until he had finished it that it struck Francis Barraud. That was because the cord slipped off the nail as he was hanging it and he was directly underneath.
Over the years visitors to Francis’ studio commented upon the picture and remarked how great it would be if their own dogs could be as absorbed as Nipper was in the picture. It was accumulative effects of these comments that led to Francis, in 1903, forming a company to produce recordings of his voice to pacify dogs. He called these records His Master’s Voice and reproduced the painting of Nipper on the sleeve of each disc. The records were an instant hit and sold in their tens of millions for decades. It was the Xmas number one from 1903 through until 1940, prompting the marketing soundbite ‘A Dog Record is for Life, not just for Xmas’.
By 1904 Francis Barraud was so wealthy he was able to give up painting, nine years after Nipper had given up panting. But his riches came at a great personal cost. By 1905 it was evident that most of the world’s population of dogs considered Barraud to be their master. This meant:
- He was barred from visiting China incase he said the word ‘jump’ and all the dogs in that nation jumped at the same time causing catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis.
- He was barred from entering newsagents for fear their entire stock would be torn to shreds within seconds.
- He was barred from owning slippers.
- He was barred from ever throwing a ball. This was particularly hard on his daughter Kerry, as he had just booked the Victoria Rooms to celebrate her graduation.
The Government even became involved in 1908 and banned him from speaking in public with an amplified voice after he made a speech through a microphone as guest of honour at the opening of a new wing at the RSPCA Dogs’ Home in St.Phillips and it caused a run on the pound.
With the famous case of Greyfriars Bobby in mind, the Edinburgh dog who for many years as he pined occupied the cemetery in which his master was buried, fears were expressed that when Barraud died, even if only a measly two-percent of the dogs it was estimated considered him their master pined in the same fashion, then any cemetery in Bristol would have to contend with at least three million dogs in permanent residence. This was a bad combination considering all the bones buried there. To allay public anxiety, Francis Barraud agreed to be cremated. His friend, Joseph Valour, thought this was not at all wise, because he was still alive. Barraud took no notice because he was not his best friend….it was estimated that he had 150 million of those!
Francis was not the only person inconvenienced by the popularity of these recordings. On Boxing Day 1936, for instance, about 40,000 dogs descended upon Buckingham Palace convinced that King George VI was their master, after hearing his unfortunate stammer during the King’s Speech broadcast the day before. It transpired that all of them had been played His Master’s Voice records that had become stuck.
It seemed that Francis Barraud would never be able to live a normal life ever again. But then in 1919 a saviour presented himself to the reclusive millionaire. Douglas McDougall a sound engineer from Meadowbank constructed equipment that distorted Barraud’s voice, rendering it unrecognisable to dogs and incomprehensible to humans. Barraud was able to venture out again. He was not the only one impressed by this device. The GWR got McDougall to install similar equipment for the station master to use at Temple Meads.