With Parliament in recess and ‘Glorious Goodwood’ in full swing, Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the House of Lords 1715-90 section, considers the importance of racing in Georgian society as an opportunity for political display…
In the late summer of 1724 Lord Bingley laid on an entertainment at his estate at Bramham Moor, offering prizes amounting to 12 guineas for those taking part in a series of comic races. The first match consisted of a trot-race involving nine pack horses, the riders deprived of both saddles and reins but each equipped with a whip instead; the second, more eccentric, round featured five galloway horses (sturdy draught animals), none of which was to be bigger than eight hands but ridden by especially tall jockeys, each one six foot one; again the race was bare-back though on this occasion bridles were allowed. The final race consisted of three more pack-horses, this time weighed down with pack saddles, collars and bells, and jockeys required to ride side-saddle for the duration of the four-mile gallop.
The whole event was reported to have caused general diversion to those present and no doubt provided Bingley with a helpful fillip in the locality. For the price of just 12 guineas of prize money he was able to entertain his neighbours and boost his local standing. The sport of kings, it may not have been, but it provides, nevertheless, an interesting insight into the variety of racing fixtures laid on for the entertainment of the Georgian crowd.
It was not just at the race meets themselves that money was won and lost. For some, getting to a fixture was cause enough to risk a wager. In the spring of 1728, the press reported that Sir Edward O’Brien had bet a considerable sum that he would be able to drive from Williams’ coffee house in St James’s to Newmarket in his chariot drawn by six horses in just 12 hours, where his grey galloway, Merry Pintle, was entered to run against Major Gibbs’ horse Black Ovington over a distance of eight miles for £500. The odds were said to be against O’Brien.
With prominent members of society willing to stake large sums of money at such events it is unsurprising that the contemporary press was more than willing to offer in-depth reporting of the various meets held around the country, many of them featuring animals owned by well-known parliamentarians or graced by the presence of the king with a substantial following. Both George I and George II proved significant patrons of racing, with each making a point of attending a variety of racing fixtures, and their presence encouraged the attendance of a sizeable retinue of courtiers. In June 1715 one of the king’s horses won a £50 plate at the races near Guildford in Surrey. The newspapers of late March 1728 reported the extensive preparations for George II’s forthcoming visit to the races at Newmarket, noting that he was to be accompanied by no fewer than 12 dukes and 13 earls, in addition to ‘many other noblemen and gentlemen’ [Daily Post, 26 March 1728]. The master of the king’s running horses ensured that the king’s entourage was suitably well equipped, ordering the provision of new scarlet liveries for the servants. The presence of grandees also offered the public with the rare opportunity of seeing their social superiors (and perhaps political opponents) bested. Thus in late September 1715 the races at Lutterworth, small though they were, provided ‘great joy to most of the spectators’ when the duke of Rutland’s entries were beaten on both days.
Two years later the Lutterworth meet was again a rather select affair. On this occasion the plate was won by the earl of Denbigh, though the earl himself was at the time underage and seems not to have been present to witness his triumph. Other grandees showed greater application. After succeeding to his peerage in 1740, Richard Onslow, 3rd Baron Onslow, was said to have ‘devoted himself to racing and hunting’, while one of the most famous races to descend to the present day, the St Leger, was said to have been inaugurated by another devotee of the turf, Anthony St Leger in 1776. The 3rd Lord Craven chose to make his first major public outing with his new wife in the summer of 1721 at the horse races at Rugby. The couple’s presence drew a large crowd, with many of the neighbouring gentry providing ‘new liveries and extraordinary equipages in honour of his lordship’ [London Journal, 22 July 1721]. There was a similarly handsome turnout at the races at Warwick the following month and over the remainder of his career, Craven was to be a fixture at race meetings around the country, where his horse ‘Badger’ proved particularly successful.
Eccentric naming of the horses appears to have become something of an art form during the period – many of them hardly suggestive of racing steeds that were particularly fleet of foot. Mr Smith’s horse, Splint, was victorious in the £40 plate run at Peterborough in June 1718, while in spite of its unfortunate title, Mr Darby’s Clubfoot was similarly successful at Ascot Heath in July 1724. The following year Mr Andrew’s Loggerhead succeeded in carrying off the 70 guinea prize at Winchester. Perhaps the prize for most peculiar name, though, goes to Sir Robert Fagg’s horse Daffa-down-dilly, which won the £30 Plate at the same meeting.
Of course, there was frequently a serious political background to all of this. Prorogations of Parliament enabled members of both Houses to decamp from London to attend racing meets, where they were able to develop their local interests (there were also examples of Members of both Houses absenting themselves from Parliament during its sitting in order to attend races). Ever since Charles II had taken a liking to the place, Newmarket was as much a political as a sporting venue and other prominent politicians made use of racing fixtures to make overt political points. In July 1719 the Prince of Wales (future George II) was accosted at Epsom races by a member of the crowd crying out ‘Ormond Forever’ in support of the exiled Jacobite duke. The protestor was ‘soundly caned’ for his trouble before being sent about his business. In September 1733 the races at Shrewsbury were trailed well in advance as an opportunity for those in opposition to Walpole’s Excise policies to make their voices heard. Perhaps most strikingly, on 26 July 1718 the Weekly Journal announced what it thought to be ‘one of the oddest races’ forthcoming at Aylesbury at the beginning of September, when a 50 guinea plate was to be offered by the duke of Wharton:
the winning horse is to be sold to the duke for 50 guineas, if demanded, and the owner of the said winning horse to take the Oath of Abjuration before he can demand the plate
In the resulting race, Lord Hillsborough’s mare proved triumphant. The subsequent edition reporting the race queried ‘whether the Lord Hillsborough’s mare qualified herself or not; we cannot determine’.