SHORTHORNS were the stars of the Great Yorkshire Show on Tuesday as 200 of them were paraded in front of Princess Anne to commemorate their breed’s 200th anniversary.

Shorthorned cattle have been probably farmed along the east coast of Britain since Danish farmers first brought them over in the aftermath of the Viking raids.

The Northern Echo: HRH The Princess Royal at the Great Yorkshire Show Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Surrounded by shorthorns: Princess Anne at the Great Yorkshire Show this week. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

In the 18th Century, urbanisation and turnipisation encouraged farmers to breed larger, more productive animals to feed the growing industrial populations living in towns and cities. They were assisted by the arrival of the turnip from Holland in the 1730s as cattle had traditionally been slaughtered at Martinmas (November 11) because of a lack of winter feed, but turnips allowed them to overwinter and carry on growing.

Then farmers looked at the genetics of their animals so that they grew bigger faster and produced as much beef, milk and tallow, for candles, as possible.

Michael Dobinson, of The Isle – a farm on a raised piece of land above the boggy carrs between Aycliffe and Sedgefield – went to Holland in the early 18th Century and bought some bulls which added a new dimension to the cattle of the Tees Valley. They became known as “Teeswaters” or “Durhams”.

The Northern Echo: The Blackwell Ox, which was slaughtered in 1779 and was the first shorthorn star

The first shorthorn star was the Blackwell Ox (above), bred by Christopher Hill on his farm to the south of Darlington. Because of its enormity, it was the first to have its picture painted and distributed in the manner that a popstar hands out signed photos to fans. When it was slaughtered in Darlington in 1779, it weighed 151 stone 10lbs (935kg), and its beef was sold for a shilling a pound to the local leading families.

Many local farmers were experimenting with their breeding programmes, but the Colling brothers, Robert and Charles, of Ketton to the north of Darlington were outstanding in their field.

The Northern Echo: The Colling brothers, Charles and Robert, who farmed at Ketton and Barmpton to the north of Darlington

Robert and Charles Colling, of Ketton and Barmpton

In 1784, Charles bought some extremely tasty veal on Darlington market and discovered that the father of the veal calves was an impressive-looking bull called Hubback, which had been bred by John Hunter of Hurworth in 1777. Charles liked the veal so much he bought the bull for ten guineas.

His wife Mary spotted a fine cow in a field near Eryholme and persuaded the reluctant farmer, a Mr Maynard, to sell it and its calf, so Lady Maynard and Young Strawberry joined the Collings’ herd.

Then, on Darlington market, Charles bought for £13 a black and white cow bred on the Duke of Northumberland’s Stanwick estate and named it Duchess. He now owned the four finest shorthorns in the district.

From them, he bred Favourite, the great-grandson of Hubback, which sired three of the most internationally famous animals of the day.

The first was the Ketton Ox, born in March 1796 and when first exhibited on Darlington market in 1799, weighing 216 stone (1,372kg), it caused a sensation.

The Northern Echo: The Durham Ox, with John Day

The Durham Ox, with John Day

In 1801, it was sold to showman farmer John Day, of Lincolnshire, for £250. He renamed it the Durham Ox and built a special carriage for it. Pulled by four or six horses, it toured the country as a travelling freak show.

Its gargantuan girth spent most of 1802 in London where takings were £97-a-day. In the early winter of 1803, it had a homecoming in south Durham: Darlington for one night only, followed by a quick stop in Ketton, a further break in Ferryhill before a 12-night extravaganza in Newcastle.

By the time it arrived in Hereford in 1806, it had covered 3,000 miles in five years. The local newspaper billed it as “the greatest wonder of the age” and “the greatest curiosity in Europe”.

“In short, no language can give an adequate idea of the beauty, symmetry, and size of this extraordinary animal,” said the paper.

The Durham Ox wasn’t the biggest beast of its day, but it had a buzz about it, created by the publicist Mr Day. It was good looking, well-natured thing and surprisingly agile. Merchandise, such as prints, china plates and scale models, were produced as Mr Day milked his ox, and many of the communities that it visited were so impressed that they named a pub after it. From Coundon to Warwick, you can still sip a pint in the Durham Ox. In the goldfields of Victoria, in Australia, there is a hamlet called Durham Ox centred around a pub of the same name, which was opened in 1848 by prospectors from Derbyshire who were big fans of the ox from the Ketton outback.

The Northern Echo: A blue and white Staffordshire plate which was a Durham Ox souvenir

A china souvenir of the Durham Ox

The end for the Durham Ox began on February 19, 1807, when it arrived for a gig in Oxford. As it manoeuvred its bulk out of its carriage, it slipped, dislocating a hip. After eight weeks, it showed no sign of recovery and was slaughtered. Despite having lost weight during its ill health, the monster weighed 271 stone (1,724kg) when it died.

The Northern Echo: The White Heifer That Travelled on the pub sign in West Park, Darlington. The heifer was big in London in the 1800s and was picturedd with a man feeding it turnips

The next supersize superstar produced at Ketton was the Durham Ox’s half-sister, the White Heifer. Born in 1896, at the age of four, it weighed 164 stone (1,043kg), and Robert Colling sold it to the Three Kings Hotel, in Piccadilly, London, where it was exhibited as “the greatest wonder in the world of the kind”. Because it journeyed from Ketton to the capital, it was known as “the White Heifer that travelled” and it lived until at least 1811 when an artist painted it standing in front of a man slicing delicious-looking turnips – this image is on the pub which bears its name in West Park, Darlington (above).

Such was the Collings’ fame that King George III leased one of their bulls for three years to improve his herd in Windsor.

The Northern Echo: Comet, the first £1,000 ox which was was bred in Ketton

Their biggest success was Comet (above), born in 1804. “He had a fine masculine head, broad and deep chest, shoulders well laid back, crops and loins good, hind quarters, long, straight and well-packed, thighs thick, breast full and well let-down, with nice straight hocks and hind legs,” enthused Charles. “He had fair sized horns, ears straight and hairy, and a grandeur of style and carriage that baffled description.”

Because of the Collings’ in-breeding programme, Comet’s father and grandfather were the same bull, Favourite, which was mated with its mother and its own daughter born by its own mother. Phoenix was both of Comet’s grandmothers.

Comet was the star of the sale when Charles, 60, retired from farming. It became the first bull to sell for more than £1,000 guineas – making it the shorthorn equivalent of Trevor Francis, the first £1m footballer – although Sir Henry Vane Tempest, of Wynyard, rode up minutes after the hammer came down and offered the winning bidders £1,600 cash. They refused.

Charles made £7,115 17s by selling his 47 animals. “Well, we’ve beaten all England in prices and have no shorthorns left,” his wife Mary said, sadly, and they retired to Monkend Hall, in Croft-on-Tees, where the pub on the opposite bank of the river is still called the Comet.

Comet’s new owners were a syndicate which kept it at Cleasby for stud. It died in 1815 and was buried in a field – Comet’s Garth – with a chestnut planted over it.

On February 3, 1865, the tree was chopped down and Comet was disinterred. A 2ft 1in rib was sent to California for the Americans to marvel at but most of its ginormous remains ended up in Darlington museum.

The Northern Echo: Thomas Bates, the Kirklevington farmer who did much to improve the dairy shorthorns

Charles’ brother Robert continued farming at Barmpton until his death in 1820 when the development of the shorthorn passed to a new generation, including Thomas Bates (above) of Aydon Castle, near Corbridge, who was the first person to pay the Collings 100 guineas for a cow. He was left a legacy by his Aunt Joyous which enabled him to buy a farm at Kirklevington, near Yarm for £30,000 (he paid £20,000 in cash) in 1811. He spent 20 years improving the ground until, in 1830, he deemed it ready and moved his 50 shorthorns down from Northumbria.

In 1839, he put his favourites on a steamer from Middlesbrough and sailed them down to London from where they took a canal to Aylesbury so they could attend the first Royal Show at Oxford. They won first prize.

Bates specialised in the dairy side of the shorthorns – he sold butter on Newcastle market.

Thomas Booth, and his sons John and Richard, farmed at Killerby, near Catterick, and Warlaby, near Ainderby Steeple. They developed the beef side of the shorthorns, and won first prize at the second Royal Show, held at Cambridge.

The Northern Echo: To this day, the Darlington coat-of-arms features a shorthorn bull, at the bottom, as well as Locomotion No 1 and three bales of wool

To this day, the Darlington coat-of-arms features a shorthorn bull, at the bottom, as well as Locomotion No 1 and three bales of wool

These early animals changed the global face of farming. The first “Durhams” were exported to Virginia in the US in 1783 where it was discovered that their placid temperament made them ideal for pulling the wagons that won the west.

In 1812, Sir Henry Vane-Tempest shipped the Collings’ Teeswaters to his estate in County Galway in Ireland, and in 1823 a shorthorn bull named Tarquin was exported from Teesdale to Buenos Aires – Tarquino, as it was known, is still regarded as the father of the Argentinian beef industry.

In 1812, the Collings brothers and Bates and Booth attended at a meeting at Sir Henry’s home of Wynyard Hall when the shorthorn breeders agreed that their pedigree records should be kept and passed to Gordon Coates, of Pontefract, who would compile them into a gigantic family tree. It was the first time anywhere in the world that such a feat had been attempted for cattle – thoroughbred horses had had their bloodlines chronicled since 1791.

Coates published his Herd Book in 1822, and its bicentenary was celebrated at the Great Yorkshire Show on Tuesday.

The Honourable Gerald Turton, of the Beef Shorthorn Society who had one of the most famous shorthorn herds at his farm at Upsall near Thirsk, is giving a talk about the history of the shorthorn to the Friends of the Bowes Museum on October 20 at 10.45am in the Jubilee Room at the museum. John Bowes, the museum's founder, had a major shorthorn breeding programme. Email for further details