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The unique collection of antique dog collars spanning five centuries at Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, Kent, delights more than 500,000 visitors from home and overseas every year.

 Nearly 100 collars and related exhibits in the Leeds Castle Dog Collar Museum trace the history of canine neckwear from medieval to Victorian times.

 Originally assembled by the Irish medieval scholar John Hunt and his wife Gertrude, who presented the collars to Leeds Castle in 1979 in memory of her husband, the collection has since been extended by the Leeds Castle Foundation.

 The museum is also a tribute to the Castle’s last private owner, Olive, Lady Baillie, whose love of dogs inspired Gertrude Hunt to make the gift.

 Many of the earlier collars dating from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were designed to protect the dog. It was a time when wolves, bears and wild boar roamed the forests of Europe and the vulnerable throats of hunting dogs were shielded by broad iron collars bristling with fearsome spikes.

 Among the most attractive exhibits are the exuberant German and Austrian baroque leather collars from the 17th and 18th centuries, often decorated with metalwork and velvet, which were intended mostly for decoration and identification. The museum includes a typical example from the mid-18th century bearing the arms of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzberg.

 Engraved silver collars from the last century, some fashioned by leading silversmiths of the day, form an interesting section. Many come in pairs joined by short chains, such as those presented to Top and Tabinet engraved ‘The Property of Earl Talbot. The Winner of the Great Champion all aged (Puppy) stakes for all England 32 Dogs at 20 guin’s each at Ashdown Park. Dec 14th 1838’.

 Other inscriptions are less formal. An 18th century English brass collar simply states; ‘I am Mr Pratt’s Dog, King St, Nr Wokingham, Berks. Whose Dog are You?’.

 The most common collars date from the last century and usually consist of a simple brass ring, with rolled edges to prevent chafing, secured by a padlock. They were sold by street traders and a contemporary illustration shows a London dog collar seller of the 1850’s laden with brass collars of all shapes and sizes. Prices varied from 2 pence to 15 pence.

It was not unusual for dogs in Victorian times to have charity collecting boxes strapped to their backs. Hence the inscription on a late 19th century metal alloy collar; ‘Presented to Wimbledon Jack by the Parade Committee for his work in the Cause of Charity’.

 Another inscription on a small 19th century English brass collar anticipates a late 20th century preoccupation: ‘Stop me not but let me jog...’

And a really recent addition to the collection was made by the children’s favourite dog, Sweep, when he and his puppet colleague, Sooty, visited Leeds Castle in 1999.

 Leeds Castle is open daily 10am - 5pm (last admission) between March and October, and 10am - 3pm during winter months.

 The castle is four miles east of Maidstone off Junction 8 of the M20 motorway, midway between London and the Channel ports. It is clearly signposted and easily accessible from all areas of the south-east.

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