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A. Sydney Waller: A Ridgeback’s Best Friend

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.


Train PH38  Waller w Duke.jpgNews clipping (source unknown) from the Duke of Gloucester’s Safari, 1928.  Notice the affectionate dogs, bottom right.


Arthur Sydney Waller may be best known as the white hunter who led a 3,000 mile personal safari for the Duke of Gloucester in 1928 and for the entourage of the first MGM major motion picture shot in Africa, Trader Horn, in 1930.  Waller is somewhat lesser known as one of the early breeders of the Rhodesian Ridgeback, first registered as a standardized dog breed by the South African Kennel Union in 1924 as the “Lion Dog”, and imported from Rhodesia into Kenya by Waller that same year.  According to the memoir of his second wife, Kathleen, he also exported the first dogs to his homeland, England, in 1927 where they made quite a splash at the Kennel Club Show at the Crystal Palace London in 1928.


Train PH41  Waller on Trader Horn Set.jpg  Waller and his Ridgeback sleeping on the MGM set of Trader Horn, 1930.


The absolute origin of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is still not certain.  It is believed that in the late 1880’s Dutch settlers in the Cape Colony of South Africa bred an imported hound dog from one of their trade routes (possibly from Malaysia) with the aboriginal canine hunting companion of the nomadic Khoikhoi peoples (then named the Hottentots).  Although the earliest presence of domesticated dogs in Africa dates back to 4700 BCE in Egypt and around 600 BC in southern Africa, just how indigenous that local Khoikhoi breed was is unclear, although it is considered by many to be the original Ridgeback. 


Train PH40  Ridgeback Reclining Alert.jpg  Ridgebacks are said to have a sweet and alert gaze.


Above all else, the Ridgeback is distinguished by a raised ridge of opposing hairs along its spine.  Its temperament and endurance endear the Ridgeback to its master.  Characterized by its loyalty, sweet temper, and valor, this barrel-chested animal was an ardent protector of the farmsteads, flocks, and campsites of the ever-widening colonial settlements.  In the early 20th century big game hunters like Waller became very attracted to the Ridgeback because of the dogs’ renowned ability to “ball up” or keep at bay large animals such as lions. 


Train PH40  Ridgeback Reclining.jpg  Notice the “ridge” along the spine.


Eventually, in large part due to Waller, a standardized breed of Ridgeback made its way north-northeast from the Cape area through Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe) and into Kenya, where Waller had moved to profit from the influx of wealthy Englishmen and Americans keen on game hunting for sport. Waller died in Nairobi in 1952 of malaria, but during his lifetime the direct progeny of his Ridgebacks made their way to England, America, India, and Sweden.


Train PH39  DSW at Fairview 1915.jpgWaller family pets at their home, Fairview, in Southern Rhodesia* about ten years before the breed was standardized. 


Currently the Waller materials are being mined for historical documentation on the development of the Ridgeback breed.  The Waller archive in the Russell E. Train Africana Collection includes several Sydney Waller photograph and news clipping albums (annotated!) and an unpublished memoir by Mrs. Kathleen Waller. 


The Train collection, consisting largely of 19th and early 20th century Africana and featuring books, manuscripts, photographs, and artworks focused on exploration, adventure, and game hunting, awaits further exploration.  Within, you can find material by and about David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Francis Burton, Sydney Waller, and slew of others.  To plumb the depths of this collection, contact the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History for information on access. 


All images from the Russell E. Train Africana Collection in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution Libraries. 


*Author's correction (12/16/2011):  The Waller family lived in Southern Rhodesia, not South Africa as was origially captioned in the photo above with the two family pets.  The name Fairview refers to the family homestead, not the city in South Africa.  Thanks to Linda Costa for catching this misinformation!  


  1. Linda Costa

    A rich and fascinating glimpse into an earlier life! Thank you for bringing Waller and his dogs to life.

  2. John Truscott

    A. Sydney Waller was my grandfather, whom I never knew and who, during my childhood, was hardly ever spoken of, and then only with distaste. To know anything positive about him, I rely on archive material like this, for which I’m very grateful indeed.

    • John Belair

      I am in possession of a 1920’s custom rifle supposedly given to my relative by one of the 4 Great White Hunters who lead an expedition for the 1931 MGM movie “Trader Horn”. Mr. Waller was one of those men & my relative was an associate photographer on that movie shoot. I am trying to trace the origins of this custom Abercrombie & Fitch #137 rifle (circa 1925) as records for these, in research so far, start in 1929. If you have any info on Mr Waller and his rifles from back then. I would love to hear about them ?

  3. Daria Wingreen-Mason

    A historical archive’s purpose is to document, not judge. We’re so happy that you were able to learn about another facet of your grandfather’s life. A. Sydney Waller was certainly not the only Brit to permanently adventure in Africa. His love of Ridgebacks was no doubt a vestige of the dog-loving British culture he left behind.

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