200 years since the sad demise of the legend that was the Durham Ox

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Colling Brothers, of Ketton Hall, near Darlington, bred the Durham Ox The Colling Brothers, of Ketton Hall, near Darlington, bred the Durham Ox

DRINKERS up and down the country will have supped pints in public houses bearing the name of a Shorthorn bull bred just outside Darlington.

But few know the story of the legend that was the Durham Ox, an animal so famous that it spawned its own range of blue and white china and could bring in £100 a day from people who paid to marvel at its size.

April 15 was the 200th anniversary of the death of the great beast, and to mark the occasion, a book has been written by Norman Comben, a veterinary surgeon and renown veterinary historian.

He has spent 40 years researching the Ox and collecting rare china, paintings and engravings bearing its image.

The book, which will have a limited print run of between 300 and 500 copies, is due to be published next month.

It tells the story of the Ox, which was bred by pioneering Shorthorn breeder, Charles Colling, at Ketton Hall, just outside Darlington, in 1796.

Mr Colling, along with his brother, Robert, helped bring British breeds of cattle into the world spotlight. They were breeding 30 years prior to the setting up of the Coates Herd Book of Improved Shorthorn Cattle, which was the first cattle breeding herd book in the world when it was published in 1822.

The animal was initially christened the Ketton Ox when exhibited in Darlington in 1799, but its fortunes, and its name, changed in 1801, when it was bought by John Day of Harmston, near Lincoln, for the then enormous sum of £250.

Day recognised the potential of the animal, which weighed in at almost 4,000lbs, and immediately set to work to have a carriage built to transport it.

He was not the only one to understand the value of the animal and resisted offers of £500, £1,000 and £2,000 to buy it.

As soon as the carriage was finished, Day set off on a six-year tour of the country, which included a year-long exhibition of the beast in London.

During that time the Ox, now known as the Durham Ox, drew national headlines and was painted by all the famous animal painters of the period.

Pubs in towns and villages where the Ox was exhibited were named after the animal and a wide range of blue and white Durham Ox china was made. The china is now extremely rare and large pieces can change hands for up to £5,000.

Mr Comben, who is from Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire, said the Ox's fame was not just down to its large size.

"At the time there was a lot of animals vying for the prize of the heaviest beast," he said. "The Durham Ox was not the heaviest or biggest beast, but it became so famous because it was such a perfect, beautiful shape.

"It had a beautiful straight back and a very nice, almost female sort of head. It was just a very nice looking animal and that is why people fell in love with it."

Mr Comben said Day was a remarkable character who single-handedly created the legend of the Ox.

"John Day was an incredible man and a terrific publicist," he said. "If he was alive today, he would make a fortune as a PR expert.

"His wife travelled everywhere with him for the whole six years in the cart with the Ox. She said it was as tame as a fawn and a loveable animal."

The Ox's downfall came in February 1807 near Oxford when it slipped as it was getting out of the carriage and injured its hip.

Hopes that it would recover proved fruitless and it was slaughtered by butchers two months later on April 15.

Mr Comben said: "The animal was in pain and Day quite rightly came to the conclusion that he had had a wonderful run and the time had come to let it go."

Copies of the book can be ordered in advance from Richard Hodgson (Books) at Manor Farm, Kirklevington, Yarm, TS15 9PY, or ring 07950-647377.

It contains a reprint of An Account of The late Extraordinary Durham Ox, a 32-page pamphlet detailing the travels of the animal. The booklet was written by Day and originally published in 1807. This is the first time it has been reproduced in 200 years.

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