Unlike most other terrier breeds, Manchester Terriers were specifically developed to be city-dwellers rather than country companions. Starting back in the 1500s, Manchesters were bred to seek out the rats and other rodents that infested dilapidated city buildings and nearby areas of urban wasteland in England. Eventually, their specialized ratting skills caught the attention of fans of the bourgeoning sport of pit-ratting, at which Manchesters quickly became highly competitive. Ratting contests were staged in Great Britain as a pastime for the lower classes, reaching their peak popularity in the mid-1800s. During those contests, individual dogs were placed in a ring, or “pit,” with a large number of rats. Observers placed bets on how many rats each dog could kill within a set period of time – usually, about 8½ minutes. This “sport” was especially popular in the Manchester district of England. During the 1850s and 1860s, a dog breeder from that area named John Hulme decided to try and develop an agile, dual-purpose dog that was proficient in hunting rodents and that also was adept at killing rats quickly and in great numbers in the ratting pit. Mr. Hulme crossed sturdy Black and Tan Terriers with lean, hard-bodied coursing Whippets. He bred the offspring of those crosses back to Black and Tan Terriers to fix breed type. Through this selective process, he created what we now know as the Manchester Terrier.
The Manchester quickly became immensely popular. It was extremely successful at its ratting tasks, both in rundown urban buildings and in the sports pit. In the late 1800s, a particularly renowned Manchester Terrier named “Billy” reportedly faced - and killed - 100 adult rats in a single pit contest. It took Billy just 6 minutes, 35 seconds, to accomplish this feat.
The Manchester Terrier’s name was coined and first used in print in 1879. However, because this game little dog was well-known throughout Great Britain, many breed fanciers found the name to be inappropriately restrictive. The breed was referred to as the Gentleman’s Terrier, and even the Black and Tan Terrier, for a number of years. However, by about the 1920s, the name “Manchester Terrier” finally stuck.
Originally, the Manchester Terrier’s ears were cropped short and to a point, to emphasize its sleek body and forward, aggressive demeanor. Cropping the ears also reduced loose areas that could be grabbed and bitten by vicious rodents. Eventually, however, ratting contests declined in popularity and ultimately were outlawed. The Manchester Terrier’s popularity likewise waned. In 1898, due largely to the efforts of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), ear-cropping also was outlawed in Great Britain. The Manchester’s ears, which had always been surgically shortened, proved ungainly and unattractive when left in their natural state. It took years for dedicated breeders to consistently produce correctly-set natural ears. In that span of time, the popularity of the breed declined even further, to the point that the Manchester Terrier became rare even in its homeland. By the end of World War II, the breed was almost extinct. At one point, there were only 11 purebred Manchester Terriers registered in all of England.
Breed fanciers rallied and formed the Manchester Terrier Club. By the 1970s, the breed’s numbers had increased substantially, both in Great Britain and in the United States. Fortunately, it has regained its popularity. Today’s Manchester Terrier is prized as a companion and a competitive show dog, rather than as a working rodent hunter. However, it retains its natural hunting instincts.
Manchester Terriers have an average life span of about 15 years. Breed health concerns may include von Willebrand disease, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, pattern baldness (mainly in females), Ehler-Danlos syndrome (cutaneous asthenia), lens luxation, cataracts and generalized progressive retinal atrophy (GPRA). These short-haired dogs become easily chilled and should wear a sweater or coat when outside in icy weather for any length of time.