The Norwich terrier is not among the oldest breeds, but it has a rich history at being good at what is was bred for. The original ancestors of the breed were present in England since the beginning of the 1800s, though they didn't have an official name or any type of recognition at this point. They were essentially common farm mixed breeds, owned mainly by gypsies and used to keep a check on the rat, fox, and general vermin population. Someone got the bright idea to breed these little terriers and sell them as efficient and useful ratters.
The group that most enthusiastically took to this little wiry red-haired canine were Cambridge University undergraduates. Around the 1880s, undergrads were looking for a dog to keep their dorms free of rats; they needed a hardy, fearless dog that did not require a great deal of maintenance, was not a bothersome animal and was nice and small so as to not suffer in small spaces for limited amounts of time. The Norwich terrier fit the bill and the popularity of the breed soared; local horsemen also started using the dogs to rid their barnyards of rats and to bolt foxes. It was at this time that the breed actually started to be considered a breed and there was the first attempt at giving the new breed a name. The university students proposed the name Cambridge, or Cantab Terrier.
The breed's popularity really took off when one Cambridge student graduated and decided to dedicate time to establishing the breed as efficient dogs to be used to hunt vermin and bolt foxes, another task at which these dogs excelled. One specimen made it to America and was bred successfully to create terriers used in foxhunts; indeed, Norwich terriers often were carried along with hunters (though sometimes they ran) and put down to help foxhounds when prey dove into some den or hole (when the prey "went to ground"). Many hunting clubs of the early 1900s actually kept kennels of Norwich terriers to be used during their hunting escapades. Finally, in the 1930s, the Norwich terrier was officially recognized by first the British and then the American kennel clubs.
As time passed, fox hunting became controversial and the role of the Norwich terrier in the hunt faded in importance. Nowadays, breeders who wish to keep the Norwich hunting ability alive enroll their dogs in controlled hunting or earth dog trials. Furthermore, with the advent of first chemical poisons and then more humane means of controlling vermin populations, the Norwich's ratting abilities were no longer sought after, though many Norwich owners who own large estates still use their terriers to keep their land free of annoying little animals. Fortunately, as has occurred with many other dogs whose original jobs have become obsolete, the characteristics that were bred into the Norwich allowed it to comfortably ease into the role of a loyal, affectionate and entertaining family companion.