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Iris Combe celebrates her 90th birthday!


Iris and friend enjoying a day in the sunshine

Iris Frances Mary Power was born in Ireland on 23rd June 1914. The family home was at Glencairn Abbey, a cold and rambling house situated on a seven-hundred acre farming estate, near Lismore, County Waterford.

Iris’ father, like so many other Irish men, was on active service for King and Country in the trenches in France, and so her mother was left in charge. Having had no experience of running a large estate, Mrs Power soon found herself in financial difficulties as well as having to care for her new daughter. The recently formed Irish Republican Army (IRA), fighting for Irish independence from British rule, added to her difficulties, causing fear and disruption to farm routine. IRA members constantly raided the farm and house, felling trees to use as road-blocks. Both Iris’ parents were proud of their Irish roots but there was a conflict of loyalties because her father was serving in the British Army.

Following the birth of Iris’ brother, their mother was unable to cope with the situation any longer. She made a hasty, ill-judged decision to sell the Abbey and estate, and moved to live with her older unmarried sister in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), near Dublin. From there Iris was sent to boarding school, spending the holidays mainly with friends and relatives.

Iris often reminisces of the times she and her brother spent many happy hours playing in the woods and fields. They also loved pottering about the farm, helping to bring in the cows for milking with the aid of the two farm collies and ‘Mick’, a retired Airedale Terrier that their father had brought home on one of his ‘leaves’. Mick had been trained at the War Dogs School in Hythe, in the south of England, to carry messages along the French trenches. He was also trained to wear a special wheel attached to his back, and could travel huge distances laying cables.

By the time Iris left school at sixteen, her mother was living in London and wanted Iris to join her there. Without academic qualifications or money Iris’ first requirement was to find work, and her first employment was at an ‘up-market’ café in Knightsbridge, London, where she earned five shillings a week plus tips. Iris had a passion for pretty clothes and longed to be a mannequin, eventually finding employment with a well-known Court Dressmakers, where she modelled court dresses, and bridal and ball gowns for young debutantes. When not on the cat-walk Iris received numerous wonderful invitations to the ‘coming out’ balls associated with the London season.

Then came World War II! Initially Iris became an Air Raid Warden and later, when she was ‘called up’, was sent to learn catering management. She was employed as a caterer at the Daily Mirror in Fleet Street, where she worked night shifts enduring most of the London blitz, before being sent to manage the canteen at a munitions workers’ hostel in the Midlands.

There she was allocated a staff bungalow next to a small cottage, occupied by a retired shepherd and his wife and it was here that her passion for sheep dogs was kindled. Iris was saddened to see that their old Border Collie ‘Tibs’ spent most of his time chained to an old barrel in the garden because the wife would not allow him into the house. Despite this, Tib’s temperament was fantastic and Iris eventually offered to buy him. Fortunately her future husband Tom, a Captain in the Grenadier Guards, allowed her to keep the dog.

Following the war Tom and Iris settled back into civilian life, running a small farm in Essex, breeding Jersey cows and pigs. Tom also resumed his earlier passion, growing carnations and roses. About this time Iris was introduced to the local Dog Obedience Club where, with her own dogs, she formed ‘The Tilehouse Tykes’, an obedience demonstration team that regularly performed at local fetes and dog shows. As she became more involved in the Club’s organisation, she eventually took an Instructor’s course.

When her working Border Collies grew too old to compete in obedience competitions, Iris retired them and turned her attention to the show ring, which appeared physically less demanding. The idea of exhibiting a well-groomed dog by her side appealed to her vanity as it reminded her of her days on the cat-walk! She soon discovered that the reality was very different, and in order to make an impact she needed a more glamorous breed of dog than her working collies.

Rough Collies

The choice was made for her when she visited the Suffolk County Show and fell in love with a golden sable Rough Collie bitch. ‘Posy’ (Clayswood Debutante) belonged to a Mr and Mrs Wheldon who had purchased her from Mrs Clay as a potential brood bitch, but as she had not settled with them Iris persuaded them to sell her. She had mediocre show success with Posy who eventually produced puppies by Mrs Coleman’s Shencoln Happy Wanderer. Iris kept a dog puppy, Debs Happy Marquis, who became her first champion and she remembers vividly her first big thrill in the show ring when Joan Hill (Selskars) awarded ‘Marquis’ Best of Breed, at his first show in 1956.

An in-depth study of Posy’s pedigree prompted Iris to visit Mrs Clay for further advice and she advised Iris to look at an impeccably bred blue merle litter. Despite the fact she did not particularly favour blue merles Iris met Mr Job, with three of his blue merle bitches, in a Nottingham park. These were Champion Crosstalk Silver Belle (by Ch Westcarrs Blue Minoru) and her two puppies, Corviross Silver Joy and Corviross Gay Silver (by Clayswood Don Nicholas) who both eventually became Champions, breeding Champions in their own right.

Iris purchased Silver Joy, who unfortunately disliked kennel life and had ‘silent’ seasons. Following Joy’s first Challenge Certificate win, at the West of England Ladies’ Kennel Society Championship Show in 1963, she was mated to Lyn Westby’s Champion Lowerpark Black Buccaneer, and by the time her puppies were whelped the ‘Tilehouse’ prefix had been registered at the Kennel Club. Corviross Silver Joy whelped six puppies two of which were Tonto, a tricolour dog who proved useful at stud, and his blue merle sister Thistle. These two both subsequently became Champions, the first ones to hold the Tilehouse prefix. Their dam, Silver Joy, eventually went to Doris Lowe, Secretary of the London Collie Club. Doris campaigned Joy to her title gaining a second Challenge Certificate, with Best of Breed, at Crufts in 1965, and her third and crowning Challenge Certificate at Windsor the following year.

Smooth Collies

Iris had always admired Smooth Collies and so, in the late 1960’s, she purchased a Peterblue-bred tricolour bitch from Mrs Barlow. Robec Ramora was adorable, but scatty, so Iris decided to calm her down with a litter. The litter of nine puppies, born in 1971, was sired by Christine Leach’s Champion Selskars Blue Tarn, and among them was the blue merle dog Champion Tilehouse Patrick. Winner of twenty-one Challenge Certificates, Patrick also qualified as a Tracker dog and was an excellent cattle dog. He sired a Champion son, Tilehouse Sabre.

Border Collies

With five Tilehouse Champions in UK, and one in Barbados, Iris felt justifiably proud of her achievements and decided to embark on a further challenge. At the time there was a great deal of talk about the Kennel Club accepting the Border Collie as a recognised show breed.

Knowing that the temperament of the working Border Collie was not always suitable either for the show ring or as a domestic pet, Iris was determined to find a strain that not only measured up to the proposed Kennel Club’s Breed Standard but also had good temperaments and pedigrees. This was a laborious process but eventually, with the help of Mrs Barbara Carpenter (Brocken), she purchased a compatible breeding pair and from their first litter Iris chose a dog puppy, naming him ‘Cassius’ (after the boxer Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali).

The birth of Cassius, in 1979, unfortunately coincided with Iris’ husband Tom being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, so she retired from breeding and showing and sold Cassius to Joyce Collis and Felix Cosme. They added the Beagold affix to his name and Show Champion Tilehouse Cassius of Beagold became the first Show Champion Border Collie in the UK, winning many prestigious awards along the way. Iris also bred Show Champion Tilehouse Tip (half brother to Cassius) and International Champion Tilehouse Tommy.

Judging appointments

In the early days, once an exhibitor/breeder had campaigned a dog to its title, it was often the policy to ask that person to judge. Initially Iris refused all judging invitations, through lack of confidence, but Tom persuaded her that after several years of success in the show ring, she should have gained sufficient experience to become a Collie judge.

Since being approved by the Kennel Club to award Challenge Certificates in Rough, Smooth and Border Collies, Iris has judged in many European countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand. She has also judged Bearded Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs at Open Show level.

Iris’ first Championship Show appointment was at Hove, in the south of England, where she drew a good entry of Rough Collies. Her winners in the ‘Open Dog’ class give some idea of the quality entered at that show: Open Dog and Best of Breed was Winwood’s Champion Rowdina Dramatic of Dunsinane; second place was Betty Eglin’s Royal Ace of Rokeby; and third Mrs George’s Beulah’s Silver Don Mariolo.

Most British breeders think of a Crufts appointment as the highlight of their judging careers and so when Iris was asked by the Kennel Club to judge Rough Collies in 1990, which drew the highest entry of all breeds, she felt this was a great privilege. This was the last Crufts to be held in London and the last one to have one judge officiating over both sexes. Iris remembers the experience as a marathon task and she was full of admiration for her hard-working stewards. They only allowed themselves fifteen minutes for lunch to ensure the Best of Breed (Joan and Brian House’ blue merle bitch, Lassina Let It Be Love) was in time for the Group judging. Four years later Iris had the honour of judging Smooth Collies at Crufts, and her Best of Breed on this occasion was White and French’s Champion Foxearth Flourish.

Over the years Iris has held the positions of President of the Southern Border Collie Club; Vice-President of the Smooth Collie Club of GB; life member of both the London Collie Club and the International Sheepdog Society; and founder member of the East Anglian Collie Association.

Canine Research

During 1979, Tom’s illness progressed and he was confined to a wheel chair, so he and Iris were forced to sell their flower nursery and twenty-acre plot of land near Colchester. They moved to a bungalow between Cambridge and Huntingdon, to be near Iris’ brother and his young family. During Tom’s illness Iris temporarily retired from all canine activities but the friends she had made kept her in touch with the progress of the Collie breeds. Sadly Tom died two years after their move but fortunately Iris’ family encouraged her to resume her canine activities.

Inevitably during a house move many forgotten treasures come to light, and stored in the loft Iris found what Tom referred to as her ‘Heritage Collection’. This comprised boxes and parcels of books, pictures, photographs, newspaper cuttings and other mementoes all connected with Britain’s pastoral scene. Encouraged by Tom’s suggestion to collate the relevant material into book form Iris took up this new challenge, and in 1972 ‘Collies Yesterday and Today’ was published. This was followed by numerous other books, the latest of which was ‘The Rough Collie in Society’, published in December 2003 and co-written with her close friend, Pat Hutchinson. *

Iris is still regularly asked to contribute articles to various canine journals, and she is indebted to her numerous friends and acquaintances who keep her up to date and encourage her to keep busy. She is currently finalising her autobiography which, when published, will be a fascinating read.

Iris Combe celebrates her 90th birthday on 23rd June and, in true indomitable spirit, is busy organising a garden party for her close family and friends. This promises to be a great event because, despite her mobility difficulties, she still retains her sparkle and bubbly school-girl humour.

Happy 90th Birthday Iris, from all your many doggy friends – To Iris, a lovely lady in every sense of the word!

*Books by Iris Combe:

Collies Yesterday and Today, 1972
Border Collies, 1978 (Faber & Faber)
Champions’ Parade – 1975-80 & 1980-85
Shepherds, Sheep & Sheepdogs, 1983 (Dalesman)
Herding Dogs – Their Origins and Development in Britain, 1987 (Faber & Faber)
The Smooth Collie - a Family Dog, 1992 (Roffe)
Border Collies - an Owner’s Companion, 1993 (Crowood Press)
Rough Collie Records, 1997 (TFH Kingdom)
Rough Collies of Distinction, 2001 (Iris Combe, Dareen Bridge & Pat Hutchinson)
The Rough Collie in Society, 2003 (Iris Combe & Pat Hutchinson)