A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
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Sport Ancient and Modern
Few, if any, parts of Oxfordshire are not regularly visited by packs of foxhounds. The country is at present divided among the South Oxfordshire, the Bicester and Warden Hill, and the Heythrop hunts, other packs of foxhounds which occasionally hunt within the county boundaries being the Warwickshire, the South Berkshire, the Old Berkshire, and at times the Old Berkeley (West).
The South Oxfordshire
The name of the South Oxfordshire Hunt roughly indicates its territory. Its neighbours are, on the north the Bicester, on the east the Old Berkeley (West), on the south the Garth and South Berks, and on the west the Old Berkshire. The South Oxfordshire country is divided into the Big Woods (commonly known as the Quarters), the Vale, and the Hills; the Quarters, embracing many thousands of acres of woodland, is shared in parts with the Bicester; the Vale, which in the neighbourhood of Thame forms a continuation of the Aylesbury Vale, extends practically from Thame to Nuncham; and the Hills are those interminable beech-woods on the summit of the Chilterns in which the South Berkshire and Old Berkeley also hunt. The South Oxfordshire hunt two days a week, but a fifth day in the fortnight is sometimes put in on the Hills, which territory, however, is by no means popular.
In 1770, and probably prior to that date, the South Oxfordshire country, or a considerable portion of it, was hunted by the then Lord Abingdon, who kennelled his pack, known as the Rycote Hounds, at his seat of that name. In 1784, Lord Abingdon handed the hounds and his coverts to the Rev. John Loder, whose country thenceforward extended from beyond Fairford in Gloucester to Thame in Oxfordshire, and Stokenchurch (now in Buckinghamshire). (fn. 1) The remains of the old kennels at Rycote still stand, but the mansion was destroyed by fire. From 1814 Mr. William Codrington, of Wroughton House, Wiltshire, hunted the choicest part of the South Oxfordshire country, i.e. that round Thame and Tetsworth, the 'Three Pigeons' being then, as now, a favourite meet. Part of the country was also hunted in 1822 by Mr. Lowndes Stone, of Brightwell Park. In 1824 and 1826 Mr. Harvey Combe, then master of the Old Berkeley Hunt, took over, besides that country, the area at present hunted by the Old Berkshire and South Oxfordshire hunts, but at a later date handed over the Old Berkshire country to Lord Kintore, the hardest rider of his day.
The question of dividing so large a tract of country appears to have arisen in 1832, and in 1834 a meeting was held at Abingdon with the result that certain resolutions were formulated, which being carried into effect considerably altered the boundaries. In 1837 Mr. Morland lent ten couple of hounds to Major Fane of Wormsley, who then resided at Shirburn Lodge and had his kennels at the foot of Pyrton Hill; with these hounds he hunted what is now known as the South Oxfordshire hill country. In 1841 Mr. Morland gave permission to Mr. John Shaw Phillips to draw some of his Oxfordshire coverts, and lent Elsfield and Woodeaton coverts to the Bicester; it would seem, however, that Mr. Phillips had the right to draw the Elsfield coverts prior to this date, for the New Sporting Magazine of April, 1835, contains an account of a good sporting run from Stow Wood. On that occasion hounds found a leash of foxes in one of the Elsfield Woods,
one taking his course straight to Woodeaton and Prattle Wood, on to Noke village, skirting the wood to Beckley Castle; he here ran over a portion of the far-famed Otmoor to Whitecross Green, thence to Arncott, through woods to Piddington, skirting the upper part of the village, and across Piddington Field to Ludgershall, and from thence to within a mile of Tittershall Wood at Wootton, the seat of Lord Chandos; here the hounds threw up their heads and could not make him out afterwards. This was a regular good hunting run, and at periods very fast.
It is worthy of notice that after an interval of sixty years this run was almost repeated, when Mr. Barber had such a fine hunt from Woodeaton Wood on 17 February, 1905. Mr. Morland definitely gave up the Oxfordshire country in 1845, Lord Parker taking it over and obtaining leave to hunt the Nuneham coverts in addition to his own.
In 1865 an arrangement was made by which the Nuneham coverts became neutral between the Old Berkshire and the South Oxfordshire for a period of seven years, 'the latter Hunt to include the Baldon coverts in the neutral zone and the Old Berks conceding Sandford Brake to the same arrangement.' (fn. 2) After the lapse of seven years Nuneham and Sandford Brake were hunted in the regular season by the South Oxfordshire, while the Old Berkshire had the right of cubhunting in these coverts. This right had not been exercised for thirty years until Mr. C. B. E. Wright, then master of the Old Berkshire, brought his hounds to Sandford Brake in 1902 and the two following seasons. The arrangement would hardly appear to be a satisfactory one, particularly from the point of view of South Oxfordshire sportsmen, for Sandford Brake lies well within their country, being only some four miles from the kennels, while the education of the cubs belonging to the covert cannot be a matter of importance to the followers of a pack which may not hunt them when they have learnt their business.
Lord Parker hunted the country for two years until 1847, when he gave it up, and Mr. John Shaw Phillips succeeded him. His lordship, however, now earl of Macclesfield, after some years resumed office, becoming joint-master with Col. Fane, of Wormsley, in 1857, and the jointmastership continued for three seasons. The earl bought the pack outright and his memorable period of mastership extended until 1884. The long reign of the Earl of Macclesfield may well be called the palmy days of the South Oxfordshire Hunt, for his lordship was not only a particularly fine judge of a hound, but possessed a thorough knowledge of the huntsman's art, while his personality and charm of manner ensured him such measure of popularity as falls to the lot of few. Until quite the latter end of his mastership Lord Macclesfield rode straight to his hounds whether in the woodlands, vale or on the hills—indeed his method of riding through the beech-woods in the latter district, with the reins hanging loose on his horse's neck, could only be copied by a man of indomitable nerve. The kennels in Lord Macclesfield's time were situated at Shirburn Castle, his seat beneath the Chilterns, and they were consequently a long way from some of the Friday fixtures; in 1884 new kennels were built at Stadhampton and the pack has been quartered there ever since. In addition to bringing the South Oxfordshire pack to a high pitch of excellence, Lord Macclesfield planted several coverts, notably Cornwell Gorse, more familiarly known as The Gorse. This covert is one of the best in the country, situated as it is in a sea of grass; and though at the present time the gorse itself has vanished, a strong growth of blackthorn has replaced it, and it is seldom that this covert is drawn blank. In the earl's time also a covert was planted by subscription at Kimble Wick on the extreme east of the South Oxfordshire country. This, however, was subsequently claimed by the Old Berkeley (West) on the ground that it had been planted on the wrong side of the boundary; the case was referred to the Masters of Foxhounds Association and was a subject of much discussion at Boodle's Club, until the verdict was given in favour of the Old Berkeley. That Hunt at the present time look upon Kimble Wick as quite their best covert, standing as it does in the Aylesbury Vale and the country round it forming a pleasant contrast to the flinty hills and beech-woods which form the greater part of their country.
Lord Macclesfield had at one time an excellent staff in W. Grant and H. Molyneux; the former became huntsman to Sir Bache Cunard and subsequently to Lord Middleton, in whose country he served for several seasons before he retired. Harry Molyneux left to become first whipper-in to Mr. Garth, and after spending a long time with that pack was appointed huntsman to the Burstow, where he still remains. Two quicker hunt-servants than these two would be hard to find, and during their service with the South Oxfordshire sport was first-rate.
Our present King, then Prince of Wales and an undergraduate at Oxford, used frequently to hunt with Lord Macclesfield and had the brush of the first fox he had seen killed by hounds near Garsington on 27 February, 1860. His Royal Highness was riding 'Comus,' a horse which had carried the celebrated huntsman of the Royal Buckhounds, Charles Davis. An amusing case of what would in some countries be called lèse majesté once occurred with the South Oxfordshire hounds, when the Prince, in company with several other sportsmen, took a short cut home through a farmyard at Barton belonging to a farmer named Hedges. This man shut both gates of the yard and refused to let any one go out without payment. In vain did General Bruce remonstrate and explain; the old farmer stuck to his guns and eventually the Prince had to pay up a sovereign which he borrowed from the General. It is stated that H.R.H. was much amused by the incident and that Farmer Hedges wore the sovereign on his watch-chain for the rest of his life. The public house opposite the scene of this episode is called 'The Prince of Wales's Castle.'
. . . . Went on to Turner's Wood from which a fox broke immediately, ran quick across into Boarstall Wood, but he only just went inside the lower wood hedge and away from the middle ride. We then went at a capital pace by the Decoy over Muswell Hill and the earths down the hill leaving Rush-Beds on the right, crossing the Bicester road, the river Ray and Marsh Gibbon Field to within a hundred yards of Marsh village. Here our fox changed his point, turned short to the left running very short and pointing for Gravenhill Wood but after re-crossing the Bicester road and skirting Blackthorn village we got on bad terms with him and only by the help of holloas marked him into Ambrosden; here he jumped up in the ruins and dodged about the village for some time but was lost after all.
Of the many fine runs during Lord Macclesfield's mastership those known as the Nunehamand the Goddington are perhaps the most noteworthy. In the former, hounds found in Lock Wood and the earl on hearing Hawtin, the whipper-in, holloa at the Carfax end caught hold of the pack and never laid them on the line of the fox until half a mile beyond Nuneham House. They then ran quick to the top of Shotover Hill, where they would have lost but for a lucky view by Mr. J. S. Phillips, and never stopped again until they killed their fox in the open on Muswell Hill—a seven-mile point. The Goddington run took place in the last season of Lord Macclesfield's mastership; the fox was found in Studley Wood and was killed at Goddington after an eight-mile point had been made in a very short time, only some four or five followers being up at the finish.
To the great regret of all Lord Macclesfield gave up the country in 1884. He lent the pack to the country, a benefit still conferred by the Countess of Macclesfield and the Parker family. Mr. Charles Morrell, who had previously hunted the Ledbury hounds and the Worcestershire hounds and also the Berkshire Vale Harriers, succeeded him as master and hunted the hounds himself for the following three seasons. Mr. E. B. Fielden became master in 1887 and continued in that capacity for seven seasons, during which period Charles Sheppard hunted the pack. On Mr. Fielden giving up the reins of office, Mr. W. H. Ashhurst of Waterstock took on the country to the great satisfaction of all, for Mr. Ashhurst not only had the great advantage of being a local squire, but was, and is, extremely popular among the farmers of the country. On the retirement of Mr. Ashhurst in 1900 he was presented with a magnificent silver bowl by the hunting and non-hunting farmers of South Oxfordshire. A new master was now found in Mr. H. G. Pease, who hunted hounds himself, but gave up the country at the beginning of 1902, when Mr. Ashhurst stepped into the breach and in a most publicspirited manner took over the responsibilities of government until the end of the season. Mr. W. Henry Barber, of Culham Court, near Henley-on-Thames, became the next master, and engaged as huntsman Walter Keyte, late of the Quorn. This, of course, necessitated the retirement of Charles Sheppard, who, commencing with Lord Macclesfield in 1870, had served for twenty-five years in the country. A subscription for this excellent hunt-servant resulted in the collection of £600. Mr. Barber still continues as master and Keyte as huntsman and, though during their time much good sport has been shown, their first season, viz. 1902–1903— which has always been called the 'Record Season'—still stands out as the best. Not only did the total number of foxes killed (37½ brace), far exceed all former records, but the season was marked by many sterling runs, as the following brief accounts will show. Friday, 17 November —Waterperry Common. From Waterperry Wood hounds ran to Stanton Big Wood, away by the village and on towards Bayswater, crossing the brook of that name opposite Shotover Lodge and turning right-handed to Barton. Here the fox turned back and made a ring to Stanton, on to Forest Hill and over the hill to Shotover Plain and down to Open Magdalen, from which stronghold he took a most unusual line over the 'Varsity golf-links to Wareford Asylum. Here the fox entered Mr. Morrell's park and was killed at the bottom of it, a high wall preventing him from entering St. Clements, a suburb of Oxford. Time, 2 hours, 15 minutes. Yet another good run was in store on this day, for from Marston Copse, a covert situated just on the outskirts of Oxford, and therefore seldom drawn, hounds ran fast over a delightful grass country to Penywell, on to Woodeaton Wood, and from here in a wide ring round Woodeaton House up to the Islip road, which they crossed and ran down to the Ray, now keeping along its banks in a righthanded direction, finally running into their fox in the open near Noke village.
A fine hunt took place in the Friday country on 23 January, 1903, when a stout woodland fox led the pack after a preliminary skirmish through the quarters by York's and Turner's Woods away to Whitecross Green Wood, then after pointing for Arncot wheeling round to Boarstall Wood. From here, after bearing towards Hornage Copse, hounds gradually climbed the slopes of Brill Hill and with that village on the left entered Chinkwell Wood. The Rushbeds at Wootton were now traversed and Piddington appeared to be the point, but with a turn right-handed the small band of followers found themselves at Ludgershall and the chase went on to Tittershall Wood, where this good fox was headed by hedge-cutters and now set his mask for Grendon or Ham Green. Night was now fast coming on, and Mr. Barber reluctantly had hounds stopped, all being by this time many miles from home, while the hunthorses had long since had enough of it. The distance covered in this fine old-fashioned run was little short of 16 miles; the line was over grass the entire time, and not a strand of wire was met with throughout.
The South Oxfordshire farmers showed their appreciation of the good sport provided for them by Mr. Barber and his huntsman on 2 March, when, at a meet of the pack at Wheatley Bridge, they presented the master with a silver horn and an illuminated address, Mrs. Barber with a diamond fox-head pin, and Keyte with a silver tankard. George Eliot, the first whipperin, also received proof of their regard. The same day was remarkable for a fine evening gallop from Cowleaze (or Charlie Taylor's) Gorse to Lewknor, a seven-mile point, most of this run taking place over a good grass country.
One more great run during Mr. Barber's mastership may perhaps be quoted. On Friday, 17 February, 1905, at Woodeaton House, the hounds found in the wood of that name a fox which led them via Stow Wood to Noke Wood and on to Horton Spinney where a check occurred; being put right the pack ran on almost to Whitecross Green Wood and with this covert on the left went by Little Arncot to Piddington. Coming away as if for Muswell Hill hounds now ran a ring down to Piddington Village, where they were in difficulties until a holloa by Big Arncot set them going again and they ran at a good pace back to the top of Whitecross Green Wood, which covert they threaded and then raced back to Arncot again. Another ring to Piddington and back was made, and the line now lay over Muswell Hill to the Rush-beds and so into Wootton, where the fox swam the lake, and Keyte holding the pack round by the gardens hit the line off. The pace now became far too good for the tired horses as the pack ran on to the new Great Central line, then swung to the left and reached Ham Wood where this good fox, barely a hundred yards in front of hounds, beat them. To sum up briefly the day's proceedings, hounds ran, practically without intermission, from 11.40 a.m. until 5 p.m., in the course of which time they covered fully thirty miles; while, with the exception of two ploughed fields at the very commencement of the run, the line lay over good sound grass.
Mr. Barber has done much to keep up the standard of the pack by the purchase of studhounds and drafts from the Belvoir kennels; the hunt servants are excellently mounted, and the popularity of the master and Mrs. Barber with the agricultural classes ensures them a hearty welcome wherever they go. A feature in the South Oxfordshire country is the number of farmers who come out hunting—sometimes, indeed, forming the major part of the field. As Brooksby says, (fn. 3) it is a boast in the country that 'Ware Wheat' is a cry never heard: it is therefore strange that the more serious cry of 'Ware Wire' should at times occur with painful frequency. A strong committee of influential farmers was formed to deal with the wire difficulty, and has met with very fair success. The year 1906 saw the retirement, after forty years in office as honorary secretary, of Mr. John Thomson of Woodperry. The members and farmers presented him with a portrait of his favourite hunter 'Lancelot,' and Mrs. Thomson with a diamond pendant.
The Heythrop country was originally hunted by the Dukes of Beaufort, who had kennels for their Gloucester country at Badminton, while they kept their Oxfordshire pack at Heythrop Hall. The sixth duke, finding that his health would not admit of his doing justice to both countries, gave up the Oxfordshire portion in 1835. The hunt, thenceforward called the Heythrop, was governed by a committee of seven gentlemen with that fine sportsman, Lord Redesdale, at their head, and this arrangement continued for two seasons, the celebrated Jem Hills hunting the hounds. This great huntsman is said to have been the first to introduce the 'galloping cast' into the provincial countries, and that his old tactics were still pursued to the end of his career, the following pithy entry in an old hunting journal will show. It refers to a day with the Heythrop in 1860: 'Met at Begbroke; drew Stratfield Brake blank; hunted Jem Hills into the Ditchley coverts from Tackley Heath.' Jem Hills was brother to Tom of that name, the musical huntsman of the Old Surrey, of whom frequent mention is made in Handley Cross and Jorrocks's Jaunts and Jollities. Jem Hills hunted the Heythrop pack for thirty-two years and showed unparalleled sport; Jack Goddard turned hounds to him. Goddard served as first whipper-in for fourteen years, and by his smartness and intelligence greatly assisted the huntsman in his bold style of hunting.
The Hon. T. A. Parker had a brief mastership of three months, and was succeeded by Lord Clonbrock in 1838. Short masterships were apparently fashionable at that time, for Lord Cronbrock resigned office in 1841, and was succeeded by Lord Redesdale, who this time ruled alone. His reign, which lasted for eleven seasons, was remarkable for good sport; the celebrated Tar Wood run on Christmas Eve of 1845 must always stand out as pre-eminent in the annals of the Heythrop hunt. There can be few hunting men who are not familiar with Egerton Warburton's stirring verses descriptive of this wonderful run when the gallant fox found in Tar Wood, disdaining to seek the shelter of any covert, led hounds some twenty miles and yielded up his brush after one hour and forty-two minutes, the distance between point and point being from fifteen to sixteen miles. Lord Redesdale, assisted by Jem Hills, got together a beautiful pack of hounds, and on his retirement in 1853 lent them to the country. On his resignation the affairs of the hunt were again managed by a committee of five gentlemen, of whom Mr. H. Hall acted as field-master.
An interesting exchange of courtesies took place on 26 November, 1861, when the South Oxfordshire, under Lord Macclesfield, paid a visit to the Heythrop country, Mr. Hall being at that time field-master of the latter. The meet was at Worton village, but not much sport was enjoyed, the weather being wet and stormy and scent bad. Lord Macclesfield succeeded, however, in hunting a fox from Barton and killing him in Rousham village. A return visit was paid on the following day, and Mr. Hall and the Heythrop had much the best of the deal. Stadhampton Gate, where the South Oxfordshire kennels now stand, was the fixture; the weather was very fine and there was a capital scent. Finding their first fox at Holcombe the Heythrop pack ran at a great pace in a ring and marked their fox to ground at Newington. The next fox from Chislehampton crossed the river Thame and was killed on the other side. From Baldon Gorse hounds ran round by Garsington village back towards Chislehampton, and were stopped on account of the lateness of the hour. Thus each master had the satisfaction of killing one of his neighbour's foxes.
After seven seasons Colonel Thomas and Mr. Grisewood became joint masters, but this arrangement only lasted from 1862 to 1863, when Mr. A. W. Hall commenced his reign, which was to last ten years. In 1873 Mr. Albert Brassey, the present master, succeeded Mr. Hall, and bought the hounds from Lord Redesdale. A fine run in December, 1881, is worthy of mention. The meet was at Stow-on-the-Wold, and an unusually large field was present. Hounds were taken down hill to draw Swell Osiers, and a fox immediately went away up the hill pointing for Banks Fee; but turning down the vale he left that covert on the left and pointed for Broadwell, skirting Crawthorne covert, then across the Broadwell and Oddington Road, the chase went on below Captain Thursby's house and over the Stow Road down into the Vale parallel with the Bourton railway, crossing the line by Bledington buildings. The pace became faster than ever as the fox pointed for Bledington village, turning again to the left straight down to the banks of the Evenlode, which he crossed. The few who remained of the 200 who had started from Swell Osiers looked aghast at the obstacle which now faced them, for the stream was in flood up to the very top of its banks. Not one of their horses could raise a trot, but Mr. Frank Sartoris without hesitating rode at the 20 ft. of water. In jumping into the field bounded by the brook his horse carried away a rood of the fence, and the horse being incapable of an effort, both he and his rider disappeared under water. Fortunately there were several farm hands and plate-layers on the railway just above the brook; they dragged out man and horse on the right side and opened the gates for him to cross the line. Now the hounds broke from scent to view and ran into their fox in a turnip-field below Kingham rectory, Mr. Sartoris being the only man out of 200 who saw the fox killed. A shepherd who helped to pull Mr. Sartoris out of the brook said that while they were getting him on to his horse he saw the fox in front, and 'never in all his life did he hear a gentleman holler like he did.' The place where this gallant sportsman jumped the fence before the brook is recognizable to this day, since, for some unaccountable reason, the blackthorns refused to grow up in the gap, and the place is now guarded by a post and rails. It is as though Nature wished for a permanent memorial to as bold a feat as ever occurred in the hunting field. The run was a notable one; a long 15 miles.
To show how history repeats itself the following account of another good day's sport is added. In December, 1905, the Heythrop met at Bourton Wood, a fixture generally despised: why, it is hard to tell, for though it is not altogether a pleasant place in itself the surroundings offer great possibilities. A fox went away at once pointing for Cadley, but with this on his right set his mask straight for the Warwickshire country. After going at a great pace for a mile or two the hounds completely slipped the field in a most unaccountable manner (probably by turning at right angles under one of the very thick and high fences which bound all the fields in these parts) and the followers kept on, supposing the hounds to be still in front of them. The next time the pack was sighted they were going for all they were worth over a hill to the left and at least two miles away. It is doubtful whether anyone succeeded in catching them up, but it could only be a short time before they killed their fox near Golden Cross. And now comes the part of the day which so closely resembles the great run of 1881. Banks Fee for about the only time on record failed to hold, but an outlier was put up in a field close to Mr. Evan Pritchard's house. The pack were on his brush as the fox ran down into the vale for Broadwell, but he gained on his pursuers, in spite of a tearing scent. Racing over the meadows below Broadwell the fox skirted Crawthorne covert and then, still keeping to the vale, he went straight for the Stow road, crossing this just below the old windmill. Now rising the hill he led down the valley to the Bourton railway and over it pointing straight on for Bledington village, and with this on the right he seemed inclined to cross the Evenlode almost at the scene of Mr. Sartoris' exploit fourteen years before. Fortunately he changed his mind, and keeping along the water-meadows left Foxcote village on his right and was run into before he could reach the sanctuary of Bold Wood. The point was 7 miles and the pace was remarkable throughout; the huntsman had only to leave his hounds alone and ride as close to them as he could.
Captain Denis Daly, the master's son-in-law, acts as field-master when Mr. Brassey is unable to be out, and by his gallant riding sets a fine example to all who follow the Heythrop. The country has always been a favourite one with the Oxford undergraduates—'Who the deuce would go to lecture with the Heythrop at Bradwell Grove?' sings Finch Mason; and it certainly would be hard to find better fun than a quick dart over the light ploughs and stone walls which abound in this district in the wake of the jealous little Heythrop bitches. It is unwise to attempt to take a forward place in the stone wall country unless mounted on a horse that knows his business, for though the top of an ordinary wall may be sent flying with ill results only to the horse's legs, a coping does not yield, and if not cleared will give the rider a most 'imperial crowner.' Light arable lands and stone walls do not compose the entire Heythrop country; on the contrary there is much good grass in the vales, interspersed by strong fences and wide brooks, chief among which are the Gawcombe and Deddington brooks. The territory over which Mr. Brassey holds sway is bounded on the south by the Old Berkshire and V.W.H., on the west by the Cotteswold and North Cotteswold, on the north by the Warwickshire, and on the east by the Bicester. Tar Wood is neutral with the Old Berkshire, that pack having the right of cub-hunting in it. Thanks to the popularity of Mr. Brassey wire is practically unknown in the country, while owing to the goodwill of the farmers the hunt is welcomed on the arable land long after other packs have had to give up hunting on account of the young spring crops.
The Bicester and Warden Hill
The earliest discoverable record of fox-hunting in the present Bicester and Warden Hill country bears date 1778, when the celebrated John Warde, who at that time also hunted over a great part of what is now known as the Warwickshire country, established a kennel at Weston-on-the-Green, subsequently moving to Bicester, where he built kennels and stabling and started the Bicester Hunt. This famous sportsman, 'the father of fox-hunting,' kept hounds for fifty-seven years of his life; he was noted for his good humour and for his pithy sayings, among which his recipe for a hot, fractious horse is perhaps the best: 'It's a certain cure in twenty minutes, particularly after a wet night and a rapid thaw,' said Mr. Warde. 'Pray tell me what it is,' replied the owner. 'My carcase,' replied Mr. Warde, who weighed a good eighteen stone. Lord Sefton, who succeeded him, only remained for one season.
Sir Thomas Mostyn became master at the end of 1799. His mastership lasted till 1829, during the whole of which period he never took a subscription. 'The character of the Mostyn Hunt,' says a writer in the New Sporting Magazine,' never ranked with the very crack packs of England, . . . For pace, however, they have been conspicuous, when all went well as to country, scent, &c.; but difficulties too often presented themselves, from which hounds in the neighbourhood of Universities cannot expect to be free.
As regards the latter part of this criticism, recent masters of the Bicester on occasion have found that the rule applies to the present day. Sir Thomas Mostyn had at one time as huntsman the 'great' Stephen Goodall—great in every sense, for his riding weight, with saddle, &c., is said to have exceeded twenty stone. The Rev. 'Griff' Lloyd also assisted his relative as amateur huntsman, and from his roughness of speech and manner appears to have been by no means popular, though undoubtedly a keen sportsman. 'The Druid' tells many quaint stories of this curious character, who was a Fellow of All Souls, rector of Christleton near Chester, and curate of Newton Purcell in Oxfordshire. Sir Thomas Mostyn, though for many years prevented from hunting by the gout, maintained the pack in order to give pleasure to others, and his resignation of the country was a source of the keenest regret to all who hunted with him.
Mr. Thomas Tyrwhitt Drake, M.P. for Amersham, then became master with a subscription of about £2,000 a year, and his memorable reign extended over a period of twenty-two years. Such a number of fine runs during Mr. Drake's mastership are recorded by 'Esau' in the New Sporting Magazine that it is hard to pick out any day of exceptional merit, but the following account of a hunt in 1833 may be noticed as having taken place in the Bicester and the South Oxfordshire country of the present day. Meeting at Rycote in November of that year—
Two brace of foxes were presently turned out of Fern Hill—one going away in good style across Rycote Park by the Old Paddock, in the direction of Tetsworth through Thame Park, and from thence to Emmington, where he was lost in the Decoy. It was a capital run of forty-five minutes, and would have been a brilliant one had it not been for the unfortunate mistake made by the old hand, one generally to be depended upon, who sang out Tally-ho back, which turned out to be puss instead of the vermin. After the mistake was discovered the hounds were again set on him, but he had been gone too long, and made his escape in the direction of the Beech-Woods.
After almost three-quarters of a century Fern Hill and the Old Paddock are still two of the best coverts in the South Oxfordshire country. Matters during the earlier portion of Mr. Drake's rule appear not to have run quite as smoothly as they should, partly on account of the scarcity of foxes, and partly from the difficulty in raising the requisite subscription; indeed, in March 1833 Mr. Drake made up his mind to sell the pack, but a generous sportsman came forward in the person of Sir Henry Peyton, and the financial affairs of the hunt were once more put on a satisfactory footing. Mr. Drake was succeeded by his son, who hunted the county until 1855 and built the kennels at Stratton Audley.
Captain Anstruther-Thomson then became master, bringing with him his own pack of hounds from the Atherstone, and hunting them himself, and whipping-in to his professional huntsman on alternate days. Captain Thomson's most notable run occurred on 23 December, 1856, when hounds met at Charndon Common, found at Nole Hill, and without being cast once ran by Marsh Gibbon, Piddington, over Muswell Hill to Boarstall Wood, then turning back through the Arncots lost at Merton, having made a sixteen-mile point in one hour and twenty minutes without the vestige of a check. Captain Anstruther-Thomson killed in his last season with the Bicester forty-five brace of foxes, considered in those days a notable achievement, though nowadays that total is doubled every year. Mr. T. T. Drake entered on his second period of mastership in 1857, and continued to hunt the country until 1862. An old hunting journal gives the following brief account of a fine day's sport on 9 December, 1861, when Mr. Drake's hounds met at Chesterton village.
Found first fox at Grave Hill Wood, ran very fast, leaving Launton on the left to a drain near Marsh Gibbon. Time, 25 minutes. Dug out and killed. Second fox found at Godington—ran a ring and lost. Third fox found at Cotmore Gorse, ran by Bainton Braid Farm, leaving Fringford Hill on the left to Godington (great pace) through the covert straight to the railway near Pounding (Pounden). Then to the left by Twyford, across the river to Hillesdon, ran under Padbury to Buckingham, crossed the river and railway at Radclive (Radcliffe), turning to the left. Whipped off at Stratford Hill. All the horses tired; very few at the finish.
In 1862 Sir Algernon Peyton and Mr. Richardson became joint masters of what was now to be known as the Bicester and Warden Hill Hunt; but this arrangement only lasted for one season, and Mr. T. T. Drake entered on his third period of mastership in 1863. The Hon. W. H. T. North succeeded Mr. Drake in 1866 and remained in office for four years, his last day as master being 31 March, 1870, when a good day's sport is recorded. Meeting at Skimmingdish Gate,
hounds found a brace of foxes at Fringford Hill, ran one through Shelswell to Cottisford and lost. Then went to Stratton Spinney and killed a vixen. Found again at Godington Gorse and ran fast by Pounden, then turned to the left by Godington village and over the grass to Foster's farm by Preston and Shelswell to Tusmore and lost.
Sir Algernon Peyton became master, this time without a partner, in 1870, but his reign only lasted a short time, for on 27 March, 1872, when passing through Bicester on his way back from hunting, he was in the act of taking a cup of tea at the King's Arms when he suddenly fell from his horse and expired.
Next came the mastership of Viscount Valentia, under whose rule from 1872 to 1885 the followers of the Bicester enjoyed excellent sport, particularly perhaps while Dick Stovin (who later went to the Heythrop) was huntsman. A notable run occurred on 6 January, 1873, when the meet was at Waddesdon cross-roads. Finding an outlier near Eythorpe hounds ran at a great pace by Blackgrove to Oving and on nearly to Highhavens; they then turned back to Christmas Gorse, pointing for the Claydon Woods as far as East Claydon, over the water by Eustace's Farm to Monk's Gorse, round Winslow until they were stopped at the Lone Tree after a run of four hours and ten minutes; the point being one of seventeen miles. The viscount was succeeded in 1885 by Lord Chesham, who hunted the pack alternately with Stovin and Wilson. His lordship was a rare good man to hounds and few could get the better of him when the pack ran hard over a strongly fenced country; he was somewhat of a martinet in the field. Among the good runs recorded during Lord Chesham's mastership the following may be quoted: On 27 January, 1890, met at Whitecross Green, and Wilson, whose turn it was to handle the pack, soon had a fox afoot in Whitecross Wood. Going away at the top end hounds ran fast to Boarstall, and leaving the wood on the right kept on over the Oakley Road pointing for Brill, but they swung right-handed, and with Oakley Village on the right crossed the Chilton-Brill Road, and running past Chilton crossed the Dorton Brook, killing their fox in the open on Pollicot Hill. The point of this capital gallop was six and a quarter miles as the crow flies; the pace was very hot all the time, and as the country rode very heavy nearly all the horses were quite done up by the time the Dorton Brook was reached. It was a sight to see the number of people in the water at the same time.
On Lord Chesham's resignation in 1893 the Bicester sportsmen were rather hard put to it to find a new master, but Mr. P. Colville Smith came forward and reigned for two seasons, Wilson still continuing to hunt the pack. A fine day's sport occurred on 19 March, 1894, during Mr. Colville Smith's mastership. Meeting at Steeple Claydon the day was begun with a fast ring from Eustace's Gorse with a kill at the end of twenty minutes near the original startingpoint. With the next fox found at Lines Spinney (Hillesdon) hounds ran at a great pace pointing for Preston Bisset, turned over the Chetwode Road and so down to the river, crossing it close to Godington village, where they checked for the first time. The pace then became slower as the hunt went on past Poodle Gorse and Deely's Gorse to Launton Station, where the pack ran alongside the railway for some distance, then crossed close to Marsh Gibbon Station, passed Marsh Village, and just touching Blackthorn Gorse almost reached Piddington village. Here hounds turned left-handed to Tittershall Wood where they were stopped, the horses of the few survivors being pretty well 'cooked.' From Lines Spinney to Tittershall Wood is a point of eight miles; but as hounds ran the distance was twice as great. The line lay over grass throughout.
The Earl of Cottenham became master in 1895, and with the youngest M.F.H. and the youngest staff in England everything 'made' for sport, and sport there was in abundance. Cox, called 'Will' because his name is Charles, apparently on the lucus a non lucendo principle, became huntsman; Walter Wilson, son of the old huntsman, turning hounds to him. Always a 'fox-catcher,' irreverent undergraduates have been heard to say that to follow Will Cox on one of his galloping casts was as good as a hunt in many other countries. Walter Wilson and Cox continue to show sport to a critical Bicester field. The latter retains his wonderful knack of handling his foxes, while his control over hounds makes the task of the whippers-in almost a sinecure. A record of a good cheery day with Lord Cottenham runs thus:—
Met at Chilton on 12 March, 1896; a small field out. Soon found in Chearsley Firs, and after most unfortunately chopping a vixen in covert got away with the dog-fox and, crossing the brook at once, ran very fast over the hill to Dorton Spa Wood—hardly stopped a minute and kept on at a good pace to Hornage Copse, which was barely touched, and hounds ran to the cross-roads near Easington Farm, killing their fox there in the open after a capital gallop of forty-five minutes. After a lot of drawing found our next fox at Tittershall and ran a ring to the Rush-Beds—away over the tram-line to Chinkwell Wood, which was not entered, and the hunt went on under Brill, crossing the road up to Muswell Hill. Here the fox pointed for the Quarters, but turned right-handed and sank the hill to Piddington where there was a check. Cox hit the line off again after a bit, and hounds then ran past Little Arncot up Muswell Hill again and got to slow hunting; but, thanks to a good forward cast by Will, they got on better terms again and ran down the hill to the Rush-Beds, where the fox lay down dead-beat and hounds soon had him. This was a right good hunt of one hour and fifty minutes.
Lord Cottenham relinquished command in 1899 and the hunt was fortunate in securing a successor in Mr. J. P. Heywood Lonsdale, who continues to guide its fortunes. Mr. Lonsdale has established himself on a firm footing by marrying Lord Valentia's daughter and by buying an estate in the country. Though the huge fields which nowadays pour in by railway from London and the big manufacturing towns take heavy toll of the fences and pasture-land, the farmers appreciate the master's exertions to safeguard their interests and welcome the hounds on their lands. The Bicester country suffers much from railways, for a branch of the Great Central Railway and the Great Western Railway now cuts right through the pleasant Chearsley Vale, and there is in course of construction yet another line which will pass close to the historic Wootton and practically destroy the Rush-beds, the start and finish of so many a good run. Evidence of Mr. Lonsdale's popularity is also shown by the fact that the Bicester country enjoys the rare distinction of being free from wire! To bring the accounts of good runs up to the present master's time, the following entry in a diary may be quoted: Meeting at Langford Lane on 27 March, 1902, Gravenhill Wood was first drawn and produced a rather mangy-looking fox, which, after one or two turns round the covert, went away, and leaving Bicester on the left hounds ran at a great pace for fifteen minutes when a longish check occurred and they kept on at a slower rate to Blackthorn Gorse. From here they ran as fast as light to Piddington village, where about two couple of hounds took a line right-handed up Muswell Hill, but the body of the pack kept on to the Rush-beds, went on through Wootton, and lost under Grendon village. All the horses of the small band of survivors were 'beat to the world.'
Stag-hunting never appears to have found much favour in Oxfordshire, though it was customary at one time for the Royal Buckhounds to meet annually at Stonor Park, the seat of the Lords Camoys. The following account of one of these 'gala days' occurs, the date being Friday, 19 April, 1861:—
Ran round the woods above Stonor, then across Turville Heath and North End Common, down hill by Shirburn Castle, Pyrton Heath and Cutt Mill to Chalgrove, past Rofford to Ascot. Left Little Milton on the right, nearly reached Chislehampton, came back to Garsington and took the stag in the village.
In the following year Her Majesty's Stag-hounds met at Stonor on 18 March and ran by Turville and North End down to Pyrton, on by Britwell, Crowmarsh and Mongewell, the stag being taken at South Stoke.
Many parts of Oxfordshire are admirably suited for the sport of hare-hunting and it is surprising that more packs of harriers do not exist in the county. Mr. Mark Morrell, the founder of the great Oxford firm of brewers, kept a pack in the early thirties, and many an undergraduate of those days was first entered to hounds with 'Mr. Mark's' harriers. This gentleman appears to have been of a somewhat irascible temperament, for history relates that on one occasion he chased an undergraduate round and round a turnip field, brandishing his hunting-crop and threatening to flay his quarry alive if he caught him. He was succeeded by his son, Mr. James Morrell, who hunted over a large tract of country in Berkshire and Oxfordshire until in 1847 he became master of the Old Berkshire Hunt.
The Rev. C. Dundas Everett was for about twenty years master of the Berkshire Vale Harriers and had a beautiful pack of hounds which hunted in Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Mr. Charles Morrell took over the pack from him in 1881 and showed much sport until in 1884 he took the South Oxfordshire hounds. He in turn was succeeded by Mr. W. R. Milne of Leamington who hunted the country for six years and then handed the pack over to a gentleman who summed up the country as being 'a d—d glue-pot' and gave up after one season. Although these harriers hunted over a good deal of Berkshire, they were constantly in South Oxfordshire; such places as Warborough, Benson and Ewelme being favourite fixtures. Mr. J. S. Mason, of Eynsham Hall, had in recent years a very smart little pack of harriers with which he showed much sterling sport, but he gave them up some three seasons ago. A pack called the Peppard Farmers' was started in 1905 and hunts over a good deal of the Oxfordshire side of the South Berkshire country; that is to say, the Chiltern ranges between Nettlebed and Reading, a district which was hunted more than twenty years back by the Wyfold Harriers kept by Sir Robert Hermon-Hodge, and later by Mr. E. R. Portal, who was master of the Craven from 1892 to 1895.
The country in the neighbourhood of Oxford is well hunted by beagles; the following undergraduates' packs are now in existence: the Christ Church, New College and Magdalen, and the Exeter College. The first-named pack has been in existence for a considerable number of years, and on more than one occasion has won laurels at Peterborough. The kennels are at Garsington and the pack hunts over a good deal of South Oxfordshire country, where it is welcome as being often the means of driving outlying foxes back to the coverts. The New College and Magdalen Beagles hunt over much the same country, though at times they go further afield and cross the border into Berkshire. The Exeter College pack, one of more recent origin, hunt north of Oxford within the bounds of the Heythrop country.
Many parts of the county are well adapted for coursing, the fields generally being large with low fences, though some of the plough-land is very heavy, especially in the neighbourhood of Thame, where meetings were held in the seventies. The oldest clubs the writer can trace are the Oxfordshire and the Fourshire which existed some fifty or sixty years since. The former club held some most successful meetings in Blenheim Park, but these were brought to an end by the division of the Park into paddocks by wire fencing; this necessarily rendered coursing impracticable. The club afterwards held meetings at Campsfield, now the Duke of Marlborough's estate, and at Middleton and Barton Abbey over Lord Jersey's estates, which also provided good sport. Some capital meetings were also held at Culham, not far from Oxford; the meet used to take place at the railway-station, and the ground was covered as far as Abingdon, over the estate of the late Mr. Morrell. An old supporter of the meeting writes:—
I have been on most of the coursing grounds in the kingdom but I put Culham among the best places for the sport. . . . It was no trouble to run through four eight-dog stakes in the day and be back at Oxford by 4 o'clock—but it was useless taking a dog to Culham unless he could stay.
Mr. W. R. Pratt of Woodstock was the hon. secretary of the Oxfordshire Club as long as it existed, and as a boy he slipped for the Fourshire Club. Mr. Pratt's experience dates from the fifties; he owned his first greyhound in 1854. Among the local supporters of the clubs were Messrs. D. Mather, Colman, A. Howland, Hedges, Franklin, Johnson, Hewer, Castle, Harvey, &c. Some differences occurring between the keeper and tenants, the Culham coursing was lost to the club.
During the lifetime of the late Messrs. A. Howland and Coltman the East Berks Club used to hold meetings at Thame over very heavy plough-land. There are still plenty of hares in the district, but interest in the sport is lacking. Hares are also plentiful on the estates of Lord Ducie in the neighbourhood of Churchill, Lyneham, Sarsden, and Chadlington; and some fine sport is enjoyed in this district by a number of farmers who keep greyhounds and arrange private matches.
Although Oxfordshire cannot be said to rank among the first-class shooting counties of England, there are many districts within its area which from the nature of the soil and surroundings lend themselves to the successful rearing and preservation of game. This, perhaps, applies more especially to the range of the Chilterns, where pheasants and partridges thrive, though the almost interminable chain of beech-woods which crowns these heights renders the shooting of the former birds somewhat difficult by reason of the scarcity of undergrowth under the older trees, which permits the birds to run. In fact, it is only on estates where the beech has been cleared out and box or privet planted for preserving purposes, that satisfactory bags of pheasants are obtained; on other estates it has been said that there is nothing to prevent an old cock-pheasant from running to London should he so desire it. The chalky soil, too, on these hills appears to suit the pheasant, as witness the many game farms which now exist in that part of the county, among the most successful being those of Major Boyle of Dame Leys and Mr. Alfred Major England of Greenfield, both near Watlington. Partridges abound on the hills, but are hard to shoot by walking up on account of the noise made by the sportsman's feet on the innumerable flints and the scarcity of cover; while the size of the fields and the lowness of the fences make driving particularly difficult. The red-legged partridge, once despised and rejected as likely to banish the English bird, is now rather encouraged than otherwise, as he has been found by no means inimical to the native partridge, and is most useful for driving purposes, coming as he does fearlessly and straight for the guns, and often leading other birds which might have been inclined to 'jink.' In many parts of the county hares still exist in large numbers, as many as 80 or 100 being killed in a single shoot; and rabbits swarm on the open juniper-covered Downs, where they can do little or no harm. So numerous are the animals in some places that a casual observer might think the only effect of the Ground Game Act had been to lead farmers to preserve hares and rabbits more carefully. A large portion of the county is devoted to fox-hunting, and in such areas preservation of game on a large scale is not seriously attempted; yet there are many estates where foxes and pheasants live together.
At Eynsham Hall the rabbit-shooting used to be a great feature, but of late years this has been discontinued, and the rabbits are now killed down to the smallest possible limits by trapping. Here Mr. Mason tried the French system of rearing partridges, but with unsatisfactory results, and is now turning down Hungarian birds. Formerly Hungarian eggs were procured and the young birds hatched out under hens; the results were distinctly good, bags of over 125 brace being frequently made, and this on an estate where grass predominates. Pheasants at Eynsham are not at present reared on such a large scale as formerly, but since 1890 the best bags have been 1,360, 1,382, 1,383, 1,428, and 1,338, with seven guns a day.
In a good beech-mast year the woods on the Chilterns swarm with wood-pigeons. So great are their numbers that when they rise simultaneously the roar made by their wings resembles that of a sea breaking on a rocky shore, while from an eminence above them the tree-tops present a most curious light-blue appearance. The year 1894 was particularly noticeable for the multitude of wood-pigeons in the beech-woods: a game-keeper at Wormsley, taking with him a dark lantern, a dog, and a stick, killed over sixty in one night. Anon these birds visit the oakwoods, particularly those vast woodlands known as the Quarters near Oxford. The record bag of wood-pigeons was that made by Mr. J. F. Mason of Eynsham Hall in the winter of 1901–2. By careful study of the habits of the birds, and the skilful use of decoys, Mr. Mason killed to his own gun 252 wood-pigeons between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. in one day. His bag for five days averaged 217 pigeons per day, made up as follows:—18 November, 130; 23 November, 71; 30 November, 252; 16 December, 160; 24 December, 194; and 31 December, 219; and in nine days he shot 1,005 pigeons. The decoys used were stuffed birds; these were placed on the top of a lofty oak-tree, in a wood of spruce and oaks, with their heads facing the wind, while the shooter stood in a hiding-place made of fir boughs. 1,156 wood-pigeons were killed in this particular tree.
Oxfordshire is not a very good county for woodcock, though the birds are met with in small numbers in nearly every part of it; half a dozen, or perhaps ten, are accounted a good bag. They are found in the Chilterns, and mention may be made of Russells Water Common, or Maidensgrove Scrubbs, both on the Swyncombe property, where the covert consists of stunted oak; here as many as a dozen may be seen in a day. In the Quarters also very fair bags of woodcock are made occasionally.
Now that the marshes have been drained, snipe are only found in small quantities, and perhaps it is hardly fair to mention the Oxford Corporation farm at Sandford-on-Thames where, as on most sewage farms, the birds abound. The writer has seen as many as fifty on the wing at the same time.
Pyrton, the estate of Mr. E. Hamersley, furnishes an example of the results accomplished by careful preserving. This property, which lies near Watlington, and practically at the foot of the Chilterns, extends to about 850 acres, of which some 500 are kept in hand, while the total acreage of cover amounts to some 35 acres. Yet on this small area the total annual bags are seldom less than 3,000 head, and in the season 1899–1900 reached 7,000 head, made up of 580 pheasants, 257 partridges, 146 hares, 6,107 rabbits, 57 wood-pigeons and sundries. The coverts in 1905–6 were shot twice within the fortnight, and yielded on the first occasion 609 head, and on the second 539 head, 871 rabbits being killed in the two days by six guns each day. The rabbits on the Pyrton estate are killed down to a minimum at the end of every season by ferreting and trapping; and are kept on their own ground by the use of wire netting, so that the crops and young plantations suffer little if any damage. To compare the bags of the present day at Pyrton with those of fifty years ago is difficult, because the only covert in the time of Mr. Hamersley's father consisted of some 8 acres, while the present owner has increased this to about 35 acres by judicious planting; but it is perhaps interesting to note that in 1857 and many subsequent years Mr. E. Hamersley, who kept the game-book, complains bitterly of the scarcity of rabbits. It should be added that the South Oxfordshire hounds seldom call on Mr. Hamersley's coverts in vain.
Blenheim is one of the principal shooting estates in the county. Unfortunately the old game-books were destroyed in a fire which occurred at the palace some years ago, and the present records do not go further back than the season 1870–1. The bag of those days did not differ in any great degree from that of the past season (1905–6), some 9,000 head of game being killed in the first-named season as compared with about 11,000 head in the past winter. The best season here was that of 1896–7, when H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, our present king, paid the Duke of Marlborough a visit, and on 27 November was one of a party who shot 1,334 pheasants; the total bag for the day being 2,210 head. The guns on this occasion were H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, Lord Chesterfield, Lord Gosford, Viscount Curzon, Sir S. Scott, Major-General Ellis, the Rt. Hon. Henry Chaplin, and Mr. W. H. Grenfell. The total amount of game shot that season was 23,196 head. The partridge shooting on the Blenheim estate has been greatly improved of late years by the turning down of Hungarian birds, and by driving. In the season 1905–6, 1,571 partridges were killed, 193 brace being obtained by seven guns in a single day's driving, and in 1904–5, when the stock had suffered severely from the disastrous season which preceded it, 1,157 birds were killed. Going back to 1877, the game-book shows that 527 partridges were shot in the season—a fair average bag for many Oxfordshire estates at the present time.
Among other estates in Oxfordshire, Nuneham may be mentioned; for although the late Mr. Aubrey Harcourt did not preserve on a large scale, his pheasants were most sporting, coming as they did very 'tall,' while the beat off the island when hand-reared wild-duck and pheasants came together was a remarkably pretty one.
As showing the 'sporting' nature of the bags made in earlier days, an entry in the Haseley Court game-book of 1851 may be quoted. The bag included pheasants, partridges, woodcock, snipe, hares, rabbits, and wood-pigeons, these being killed on the same day by one gun. A curious entry occurs in 1853: 'Dropshot Copse—2 hares, Three or four Poachers'; whether the latter formed part of the day's bag is not clear! A good bag was made over pointers on 1 September, 1859, when five guns killed 101 partridges and 6 hares. On 22 December in the same year Big Wood, which as a matter of fact hardly covers 30 acres, was shot over by six guns and yielded 26 pheasants, 4 pigeons, 109 hares, and 18 rabbits. The spinneys and double hedges with which the Haseley Court estate abounds would have lent themselves particularly well to shooting over spaniels, while the wide fields, over which driving would be well-nigh impossible, form ideal ground for the work of pointer or setter. In the course of a day's shooting on 22 November, 1860, eight foxes were seen. In 1865 a rough-legged buzzard was killed at Spartum (or Spartham) Bog, which, by the way, is one of the best of the South Oxfordshire fox-coverts. It is always interesting to notice the variety of wild fowl which fly out of the covert while the hounds are busy among the reeds and rushes so beloved of foxes.
The country about Henley-on-Thames is most favourable for game, and more especially for pheasants, which, owing to the contour of the country, are bound to be real rocketers. Indeed, at Stonor Park, the seat of Lord Camoys, the cult of the 'high bird' existed long ago, and it used to be said that the old lord of three generations back, who always shot in a tall hat and white duck trousers, was the only man able to kill the Stonor pheasants.
The big woodlands of Oxfordshire harbour all manner of vermin, and the writer has on one occasion, when hunting among the Chiltern beech-woods, seen no less than twenty-one magpies on the wing at the same time. These birds undoubtedly pilfer eggs, though it is open to question whether jays, which also abound and are pursued relentlessly by gamekeepers, do as much harm as is ascribed to them. Although the vast woodlands near Oxford itself are always full of foxes, little could ever be done here in the way of pheasant-rearing on a large scale. The county, therefore, is one of the few of which it can be said that fox-hunting and shooting seldom, if ever, interfere with each other.
Bounded on the south for 74 miles by the River Thames, intersected by numerous tributaries of this river, and having many lakes and ponds within its borders, Oxfordshire affords to the angler ample and varied opportunities. From the earliest times the Thames has been regarded as one of the most important angling rivers in England. Dr. R. Plot, in The Natural History of Oxfordshire, 1677, considers 'the plenty and goodness of the fish to be a sure indication of the wholesomeness of the waters,' and in order to prove the purity of the Thames he says—
In the year 1674 it gave so ample testimony of its great plenty, that, in two days appointed for the fishing of Mr. Mayor and the Bayliffs of the City, it afforded between St. Swithin's Wear, and Woolvercot Bridge (which I guess may be about three miles distant) fifteen hundred Jacks, besides other fish.
Many of the older anglers maintain that there are not nearly as many fish in the Thames as there were forty or fifty years ago, when netting was a means of livelihood to a large number of professional fishermen; and they attribute this partly to the increase in the number of anglers, and partly to the better drainage of the flood-water, which has caused many of the ditches and smaller streams, to which the fish formerly resorted to spawn, to run dry. Most of these anglers base their estimate of the number of fish in the river on the number taken out of it, and on this fallacious method of reckoning, a river would certainly appear to be improved, as many maintain that it actually is, by occasional netting. The great increase in the number of Thames anglers in recent years has doubtless rendered the fish more shy and difficult to catch; but it is hard to believe that the depletion of the river by the increase in the number of fishermen has not been more than counterbalanced by the recent restocking measures, and by the abolition of netting and the prevention of poaching. The two most important Thames Angling Societies in the county are the Henley-on-Thames and District Fishery Preservation Association, and the Oxford Angling Society. For more than twenty years both these societies have been carrying on most useful and important work in restocking the river, and in the prevention of netting and poaching.
Between the years 1882 and 1906 the Henley Society has placed the following fish in the Thames: 172,000 trout ova, 11,600 fry, 9,300 yearlings and two-year-olds up to 14½ in., 150 large three-year-olds marked with a silver label through the adipose fin, and 10,500 bream, roach, perch, tench, rudd, and carp. From 1891 to 1906 the Oxford Angling Society has placed in the Thames 500 trout and 8,034 roach, perch, chub, pike, tench, rudd, and bream. Mr. A. E. Hobbs, the honorary secretary of the Henley Society, has kindly furnished the following notes on the results of the restocking in the Henley district:—
The restocking operations have undoubtedly yielded good results, the full benefit of which we have not yet experienced, so far as the trout are concerned, but in spite of the fact that the weather was persistently adverse last spring, I and other local anglers saw more trout of 2 to 4 lb. weight than for many years previously. That the trout turned in at any particular point do not benefit that immediate district only is, I consider, sufficiently proven by the fact that marked fish turned in at Henley, at one spot, have distributed themselves over a known area of 4½ miles, the distance being accurately determined by various points of capture both up stream and down stream. But there is no doubt young trout soon cease their roaming habit and take up a permanent home in one spot for many years, when once settled. This I have proved by actual circumstances. Since the first restocking with bream—before which the capture of one of these fish was a very rare occurrence indeed—a very fair number of good fish have been taken; not large bags, but more frequently individual fish, the best I have knowledge of was a fine specimen of 8 lb. or slightly over. On more than one occasion during recent years I have seen a shoal within two miles of Henley Bridge.
The following list of Thames trout caught by Mr. Hobbs during the past ten years affords further evidence of the value of restocking: 10 lb. 6 oz., 10 lb. 2 oz., 9 lb. 10½ oz., 9 lb. 5 oz., 9 lb. 1½ oz., 9 lb., 8 lb. 8 oz., 8 lb., 7 lb. 12 oz., 7 lb. 11 oz., and twenty other trout from 4 lb. to 6 lb. 5 oz. The Oxfordshire portion of the river has also been benefited from the restocking operations of the Berkshire Clubs at Reading and Abingdon. The following are the best specimens of the more important varieties of Thames fish caught during recent years:—Pike, 26 lb., caught spinning by the writer at Bablock Hythe, 23 January, 1898; barbel, 11 lb. 12 oz., caught by the lock-keeper at Sandford Lock, July, 1905; chub, 7 lb. 1 oz., from the Henley district, vouched for by Mr. Hobbs; tench, 4 lb., caught by Mr. Morley at New Bridge, August, 1905; roach, 2 lb. 8 oz., caught by Mr. W. H. Daw, 9 July, 1905; roach, 2 lb. 8 oz., caught by Mr. Young at Bablock Hythe, 13 August, 1905. No very large perch have been caught in recent years, but during 1905 Mr. Hobbs caught ninety-five fish; thirtyfive being returned to the river, the remaining sixty scaled 47 lb. Angling in the Thames is for the most part free, either because the owners of the fishing rights do not trouble to assert their claims, or 'because the real proprietors of the soil and fishery cannot trace and establish their title.' (fn. 4) In the Thames above Oxford, however, there appears to be a growing tendency on the part of the landowners or occupiers to resent the presence of anglers on their land, a natural result of the practice of those anglers who in parties of from fifteen to thirty drive out from Oxford on Sunday and fish certain portions of the upper river. In the neighbourhood of New Bridge and Duxford particularly the farmers are warning off trespassers. Certain portions of the river, the Trout Inn water at Lechlade, for example, can only be fished by the payment of a small fee. The Oxford Angling Society rents the water from Whitley Scours, a mile below Bablock Hythe, for about five miles down stream; from King's Weir to Godstow Lock the water is preserved by the landlord of the Trout Inn, Godstow. Below Sandford Lock to the railway bridge at Nuneham the water is preserved conjointly by the Cowley and Abingdon Angling Societies.
The two chief trout streams in the county are the Windrush and the Evenlode; formerly they were both celebrated for the fine trout which they contained, but as a consequence of many years' neglect and pollution the fish became very scarce. During the past few years, however, efforts have been made to improve the fishing, and with most satisfactory results.
The Windrush enters Oxfordshire near Burford, and, flowing through the county for about 16 miles, joins the Thames at New Bridge. The whole of the river with the exception of some hotel water at Burford is in private hands and is now strictly preserved.
A few years ago some rainbow trout were turned in at Minster Lovell, but the experiment was not a success as none of the fish have since been seen. Below Witney the river has been restocked since 1901 with 1,000 yearlings and 2,250 two-year-olds from the Wyresdale, Brimpton, and Chess hatcheries. During the mayfly season good sport is now obtainable in this portion of the stream, but at other times the only chance of success appears to be with large flies of fancy patterns, fished wet. Several thousand dun larvæ were turned into the stream during 1905, and although one or two fish have since been caught on the small olive dun, sufficient time has not yet elapsed to prove the value of these experiments. Probably the recent instalment of a drainage system at Witney will tend greatly to the improvement of the river below that town. Besides trout the Windrush contains a large number of chub and dace, some roach and a few pike; there are perch in the neighbourhood of Burford, but these fish are rarely found below Witney.
The Evenlode enters the county at Bledington, and after passing through Shipton under Wychwood, Charlbury, and Long Handborough enters the Thames about a mile below Eynsham Bridge. It is only in the upper reaches that this water has the slightest pretension to rank as a trout stream. This portion of the water is rented by the Evenlode Fishing Club, whose honorary secretary, the Rev. D. H. W. Horlock, has kindly supplied the following particulars:—
The Evenlode from time immemorial has been noted for its large trout. Some years since it was quite destroyed by the drainage of Chipping Norton and the escape from various gas works, which not only destroyed the trout but also the larvæ of the various flies that used to abound in it. In 1901 a club was formed by gentlemen in the neighbourhood for the purpose of purifying and stocking the river. The drainage and the other pollutions were stopped by the Thames Conservancy, and many thousands of yearling trout and some grayling were turned in. The club water extends from Bledington Mill to Charlbury Bridge, a distance of some 12 miles. Many fine trout have been taken during these years and the river is full of fish. The coarse fish have been constantly netted and otherwise destroyed. The flies on the river are the drakes, several kinds of duns, the March brown, the grannom, and the stone fly. These have increased lately, but there is room for much improvement in this respect.
There are many small streams in the county containing trout, and several of these at different times have been restocked; the chief are the Glyme and its tributary, the Dorn, which unite near Woodstock to supply Blenheim Lake; the Sorbrook which runs into the Cherwell near Adderbury; and the Chalgrove brook which enters the Thame at Stadhampton. Of the coarse fish rivers the Cherwell, which enters the county at Ayles Bridge near Prescot, stands next in importance to the Thames. In its upper reaches the interests of anglers are well cared for by the Cherwell Angling Association, which controls the fishing rights from Cropredy Bridge to Heyford. Since its formation in 1888 the association has turned upwards of 200,000 fish of various kinds into the river; these have chiefly been obtained by netting the adjacent canal, but recently several bream have been introduced from Lincolnshire, and about 500 perch were obtained from Windermere. About £50 has been at different times expended on trout; on the whole these fish have not done well, but during the past few years, two very fine trout have been captured, one of 9 lb. 12 oz. at Aynhoe Cross waters and one of 8 lb. 8 oz. at Bodicote. Below Islip the fishing is chiefly in the hands of the Oxford Angling Society. The fish are pike, perch, roach, chub, and tench. In the neighbourhood of the University Parks at Oxford there are some very large carp, which are said to have escaped into the river from a lake which burst its banks some forty or fifty years ago. Many of the old angling works refer to the very fine rudd in the lower portion of the Cherwell; these fish do not appear to exist in the river now. The River Thame, which enters the county near the town of that name and joins the Thames at Dorchester, is much neglected by anglers. It is greatly poached in many parts of its course, but in the neighbourhood of Waterstock and Waterperry the water is strictly preserved and the fishing in this portion is very good. The whole of the fishing is in private hands, but in most parts of the stream permission to fish is readily granted. It contains the same varieties of coarse fish as the Thames or Cherwell.
Many of the lakes and ponds in the parks and estates situated in the county afford excellent pike and coarse fishing to those who are fortunate enough to obtain permission to fish them. Several of the lakes and ponds have been cleared of coarse fish and are well stocked with trout.
Several meetings have existed in the county from time to time, though none under the Rules of Racing survive. As proof of the bygone importance of Oxfordshire from a racing point of view it may be observed that about the middle of the eighteenth century Oxfordshire ranked fifth (to Yorkshire, Middlesex, Surrey, and Lincolnshire), among English counties in the number of subscribers to Heber's Calendar. The Burford meeting in its time was one of the most important in England, ranking next only to Newmarket. It is necessary in writing of Burford, to discriminate between the Burford meeting and that of the Bibury Club, held on the same course. The former was public, the latter was the strictly private gathering of a most exclusive club by which publicity was so little courted that only in 1801 did Mr. Weatherby receive permission to include particulars of the races in the official Calendar. In what year the Bibury Club transferred its meeting from Bibury to the Burford course cannot, by reason of its private character, be ascertained. There is reason to believe that the club held its meeting there occasionally before it was ultimately established at Burford at the end of the eighteenth century, but the meeting of 1799 was the first definitely recorded as having been held on the Burford course. To show the character of the Bibury Club races at Burford, the programme for the year 1801 may be briefly outlined. The meeting extended to five days, 16–20 June. The events of the first day were: (1) A 10-guinea sweepstake for which there were ten subscribers; (2) a match; (3) the Bibury Stakes of 100 guineas each, seven entries; (4) a match; and (5) the Welter Stakes of 20 guineas each, thirty-four subscribers. Second day: (1) Sweepstakes of 5 guineas each, twenty subscribers, seven ran; (2) Sweepstakes of 25 guineas each, ten subscribers, two ran; (3) Sweepstakes of 25 guineas each, eight subscribers, two ran; (4) Handicap, value £50. Third day: (1) The Barrington Stakes of 25 guineas, twelve subscribers, two ran; (2) match; (3) Handicap Sweepstakes 20 guineas, ten subscribers, three ran; (4) £50 Stake. Fourth day: (1) Sweepstakes of 25 guineas; (2) £50 handicap; (3) Sweepstakes, 25 guineas each. Fifth day: (1) Match; (2) Sweepstakes, 25 guineas each; (3) Handicap Sweepstakes, 5 guineas each; (4 and 5) matches, in either of which, it may be noted, one competitor paid forfeit. The name of the Prince of Wales occurs as that of the owner of two winning horses.
Comparison of this programme with those of contemporary meetings other than Newmarket shows the wealth and influence of the Bibury Club. The ordinary meeting of one, two, or three days, consisted of one race, or at most two, on each day; while The Royal Plate of 100 guineas was the great feature of any meeting deemed sufficiently important to be made the recipient of that honour. The Bibury Club races were strictly confined to horses owned by members; for which reason, no doubt, the programme usually included races for bona-fide hunters. Members of the club only were allowed to ride, the minimum weight being fixed at 10 stone to permit of this, regardless of the rules of the Jockey Club whose supremacy it would seem the Bibury Club did not recognize. In 1814 the rule as to riders was relaxed to permit the employment of professional jockeys, but by this date the height of the club's prosperity was past. Thenceforward the meeting steadily declined. It reached a low ebb in 1821 and 1822; an effort to revive the active interest of members in the early twenties is apparent in the inclusion of a welter race confined to them as riders, but the club had passed its zenith. In 1826, the last year in which the meeting was held at Burford, there were two days' racing; the programme of the first shows two races with three and two runners respectively; that of the second, three races, in two of which three horses ran, the third being a walk-over; a match for which one horse paid forfeit completed the programme. In this melancholy condition the Bibury Club's meeting at Burford passes beyond the purview of the Oxfordshire historian. (fn. 5) The old saddling bell still hung in its place on the course until the year 1900. It is now, the writer believes, in the possession of a gentleman at Swindon, who uses it as a dinner bell.
When the Burford public meeting was first held it is impossible to say. We find it noted (fn. 6) in 1743 that the races were 'renewed after a long cessation and were particularly well attended'; and must be content to outline the history of the meeting since that date. In 1743, the year of its revival, there were three days' racing, the events being a 60-guinea plate, a hunters' plate, and a 50-guinea plate. In 1745–7 inclusive the meeting extended to five days, horses being entered by many of the leading turfites of the time. In 1748 there was a four-day meeting and in the next year one of three days. In 1751 the sport lasted five days, and it is worth noting that for one £50-plate for four-year-old horses which had never won a £50 stake, matches excepted, eleven horses ran. The distance, two miles, short for those days, and the comparatively light weights, 9 st. 2 lb., may perhaps account for the large field. For several years the Burford meeting was carried on, now as a three-day fixture, now attaining to five days.
In 1755 it was for the first time the scene of a Royal Plate, (fn. 7) and enjoyed this distinction till it came to an end. In 1756, and for some years after, there were two meetings in each year. The earlier of the two annual fixtures is distinguished in a measure from the second (held in September) by the number of names of peers who ran horses; and from the fact that in 1761 the September meeting is described as 'Burford Old Races' (fn. 8) it is permissible to conjecture that the fixtures of June or July may have been held by the Bibury Club. Of this, however, there is no proof.
In 1773 and thenceforward one meeting of four days was held at Burford, with two or three races on each day. Some of the stakes were valuable enough to induce the entry of good horses. In the year named a 25-guinea sweepstake run in one heat brought twenty-nine subscribers, of which eleven came to the post, the winner being Mr. Fitzpatrick's ch. c. Pumpkin by Matchem. In 1776 the meeting occupied only three days with fewer races on each day; its popularity was now on the wane, though the Royal Plate still remained to it and horses of good class ran for the various stakes. In 1779 four races and one match comprised the whole programme, and a couple of years later the fields were conspicuously smaller than they had been in the days of Burford's prosperity. A feature of the 1784 meeting was a sweepstake for maiden hunters, inclusion of which suggests paucity of patronage by owners of race-horses. In 1796 the programme was reduced to three races and three matches; and the year 1802 saw the last of the regular series of Burford meetings—two days' racing with a single event each day, the King's Plate being one of them. There can be but little doubt that the Burford meeting succumbed to the superior attractions of the Bibury Club's fixture when that was transferred to the Oxfordshire course. Occasional matches were run at Burford at times other than those appointed for the regular meetings, but these were of minor importance and require no special reference. After a lapse of some years meetings were again held at intervals at Burford. On 3 April, 1838 and 1839, there were flat races for hunters not thoroughbred, and there were unimportant meetings in 1841 and 1842, 1844 and 1845; the last, it may be noted, had the distinction of being the only meeting held in the county during that year.
After the cessation of the Burford meeting, in 1802, that of Oxford was for a time the only one held in the county. The county town meeting was one of considerable antiquity; the earliest discoverable record (fn. 9) refers to that held on 22 August,' 1727, when a purse of 60 guineas was offered 'for horses which had never won a King's Plate, weight 12 stone.' The race was won by Lord Essex's ch.h. Smiling Ball, who was first in both heats; at a subsequent meeting we find the same horse walking over for a 50-guinea plate offered on similar conditions. The Oxford meeting at this period, like many others of the same class, was conducted on lines calculated to encourage local talent. In 1729 a 50-guinea plate was offered open to horses which had never won a King's Plate; and the second day's race was a 20-guinea plate for horses which had never won a stake worth 40 guineas. The former was won by Mr. Hove's Foxhunter by the Bald Galloway. In 1834 the meeting rose to the dignity of a three-day fixture with one race run in heats on each day. The events were: A purse of 50 guineas for horses to carry 12 stone; a plate of 20 guineas; and the Ladies' Plate of 80 guineas for six-year-olds. On these lines the meeting continued for many years, the various events attracting fairly large entries. In 1737 it appears to have been extended to four days, but the record of the last day's sport only has been preserved: the race was a plate of 80 guineas for six-year-old horses, to carry 10 stone. This 80-guinea plate or purse was for a long period the most valuable stake at the meeting; it is variously described as the 'Ladies' Plate' or 'Ladies' Purse,' and it was the exception for the race not to fill. A King's Plate was given at the meeting in 1742, the only occasion on which the coveted honour was vouchsafed it. In 1749 Oxford had become a threeday meeting with one race, or one race and a match, on each day. In 1753 Lord Onslow, a very staunch supporter, won two of the three races which comprised the whole programme. As a three-day fixture the meeting had a long career; races for horses which had never won a Royal Plate occur with great frequency in the records; the Town Plate of £50 remained the principal race when the Ladies' Plate disappeared; and 'Give and Take Plates' (fn. 10) of £50 were sometimes offered. In the early seventies of the eighteenth century the restrictions against Royal Plate winners were dropped, and the result of this policy is manifest in the more frequent occurrence of names of owners and animals known in Turf history. A better class of horse was now to be seen on the Port Meadow course. In 1775, for example, Captain O'Kelly won a match for 100 guineas with a grey colt by the famous sire Eclipse, then his property; Captain (or Mr.) O'Kelly, it may be observed, was one of those who regularly ran horses at Burford and Oxford. At the meeting of 1778 Dorimant won a 10-guinea subscription cup, for which there were thirty-four subscribers, starting at five to one on, and beating, among others, Mr. Bertie's Pot-8-os, then a five-year-old.
A valuable supporter of the Oxford meeting about this period was the Duke of Marlborough, who in 1776 and for many years afterwards gave annually a £50 cup. In 1784 a cup worth 100 guineas, with an addition in specie which in subsequent years varied from 30 to 100 guineas, was added to the Oxford programme. This trophy, later described as 'the Gold Cup,' became the principal prize of the meeting. Among the seventeen owners who entered horses to run for it in 1816 no fewer than ten were Oxfordshire men, viz. Lord Jersey, Lord Churchill, Lord Abingdon, Mr. Ashhurst, Mr. Fane, Mr. Annesley, Mr. Dawkins, Mr. Henley, and Mr. Lindow—all names, except the last, well known in the county at the present time. In 1830 the Gold Cup was won by the king's b.h. Hindustan, who, ridden by Pavis, beat four others. The races had their fluctuations of fortune. In 1817 Oxford became a two-day meeting; in 1819 only two runners were forthcoming for the Gold Cup, while the Duke of Marlborough's £50 plate 'was not run for want of horses.' In the following year the Duke's Plate was not given, but it was restored in 1821, to disappear finally from the programme a year or two later. In 1822 the meeting on Port Meadow consisted of two days' racing, viz. three races and one match. In 1825 there were during the two days five races, which afterwards were increased to six; and thus it continued until 1841, in which year was held the last meeting for seven years. In 1847 not a single race-meeting was held in the county. In 1848 Oxford was revived as a two-day fixture, and in that and the subsequent year this was the only race-meeting in the county. Again it disappeared from the Calendar from 1850 to 1858 inclusive, to be restored in August, 1859, as a two-day meeting with half a dozen races on each day. In this form the Oxford meetings survived until 1878, in which year the last was held on 22 and 23 August. Various reasons contributed to bring the meeting to an end. The rule passed by the Jockey Club in 1877 requiring that the added money per racing day should be not less than £300, and that no race should be worth less than £100 to the winner, had no doubt potent influence on this as on other meetings to which the public were admitted without payment. The practice of running excursion trains from London, Birmingham, and other large cities, whereby great numbers of undesirable persons were brought to the course, roused the active opposition of the university authorities and the police. Roughs, pickpockets, and welshers descended upon the city, and rendered what had been a well-conducted and pleasant country meeting intolerable for respectable people.
Many meetings of minor importance have been held in the county at various periods. There is record of such at Woodstock in June, 1733, where there was a three-day meeting. On the first day the dowager Duchess of Marlborough gave a purse of 50 guineas to be run for by horses which had never won a King's Plate, to carry 12 stone. The race on the second day was a £15 plate, and on the third a purse of 25 guineas. This meeting was probably held in Blenheim Park. Chipping Norton was for many years the scene of a two-day meeting. The earliest of which record is discoverable took place in September, 1734; and the series continued with lapses until 1753, when it became a three-day fixture. In 1754 Chipping Norton entered upon the heyday of its prosperity. In that year and until 1757 two meetings were held each year, each of two or three days. The fixtures seem to have been dropped after the date last named. The races were much of the class usual at the period. Plates varying in value from 30 to 50 guineas were the rule. In the first year a 12-guinea plate was offered; but in 1741 the executive was able to offer an 80-guinea plate, which brought six starters. This meeting, there is reason to think, took place in Over Norton Park, the property of the Dawkins family, or possibly in Heythrop Park.
The earliest recorded meeting at Banbury took place on 29 July, 1729, when the race was for a plate of £40 open to horses which had never won a stake worth 80 guineas, 12 stone. Mr. Bertie's Lady Thigh was first in both the heats run. A meeting in 1738 proved something of a failure, only two horses running for the £50 plate offered. Banbury, as the scene of a race meeting, does not occur again in the records for nearly a century; in 1830 there was a day's sport which included three races, two of them subsidized by the Banbury Racing Club, a body whose existence would seem to have been of brief duration. One of the races was for horses not thoroughbred; it was a sweepstake of 3 sovereigns each, to which the club added £30. In 1831 there were two days', and in 1832 there was one day's sport, but the name of the racing club is not mentioned in connexion with the stakes. The Banbury meeting does not appear in the Calendar of 1834, nor again until 1842; it was then resuscitated, and continued for five successive years, disappearing finally after the meeting of 1846. The races attracted local horses, and these of very modest pretensions. In our own time Banbury has been the scene of a very successful steeplechase meeting; this was inaugurated in 1891, and provides a very good day's sport under National Hunt Rules.
In 1820 there was a meeting at Barton, with two races on the first day and three on the second; these races received little support from Oxfordshire men, Mr. Thornhill's name is the only one recognizable as that of a county owner.
A Bicester meeting first occurs in the records for 1734; on 24 September in that year there was a race worth £20 for horses, which were to carry 10 stone. Only three ran for the stake; and nearly a century elapses before we find Bicester again in the Racing Calendar. In 1837 a meeting was held at which there were four races; two were sweepstakes of 5 sovereigns each, with £50 and £30 added respectively. And, more interesting as an instance of desire to encourage horsemanship among the yeomanry, two cups were given by Viscount Villiers, open to horses of the Bicester troop.
Bicester, or more accurately, Cottisford Heath, near the town, claims notice in connexion with another meeting, which was held at different places in the county, that of the Mostyn Hunt, (fn. 11) of which Sir Thomas Mostyn was the master. To the Mostyn Hunt belongs the credit of organizing the first hunt races held in Oxfordshire; the first account (fn. 12) of them refers to the year 1809, when they were held on 21 March at 'Norbrook,' by which no doubt we are right in understanding Northbrook, a hamlet two miles north of Kirtlington. The first race was a 10-guinea sweepstake for 'horses the property of members of Sir Thomas Mostyn's Hunt. Three Miles. To be rode by members of the Hunt. 13 stone each.' Five ran; the winner was Mr. Drake's b.m. Pewet ridden by the owner, who beat Mr. Harrison's br. g. Mountebank (owner), Mr. Cope's br. g. Romeo (Mr. Newnham), and Mr. Taylor's br. g. Gunpowder (owner), in the order named. It may be mentioned that the present master of the Old Berks Hunt, Mr. Tyrwhitt-Drake, is a grandson of the owner of Pewet. It is worth noticing that the programme of 1809 included a farmers' race. In 1811 the Mostyn Hunt races were again held at 'Norbrook,' the principal event being a gold cup value 100 guineas, with a sweepstake of 10 guineas added; this race, confined to members as owners and riders, distance and weights as in 1809, was won by Mr. Harrison's ch. g. Barleycorn. In 1819 (31 March), the meeting was held on Cottisford Heath; the programme consisted of (1) a race for horses that had been regularly hunted, two miles, gentlemen riders, won by Mr. Harrison's Pantaloon; 2nd, Mr. Drake's Farewell; 3rd, Lord Anson's Harlequin. (2) A 50-guinea stake for hunters, also won by Pantaloon. (3) A minor race run in heats; and two matches. In 1820 the event of the meeting, the Mostyn Hunt Stakes, was won by Mr. C. J. Apperley, the sporting writer so well known as 'Nimrod' who rode his own horse Welshman. The programme of 1821 included a farmers' race for horses 'not thoroughbred, owned and ridden by farmers'; the prize was a 10-guinea cup with 40 guineas added. There were three other events and four matches. In 1832 the name of the Mostyn Hunt disappears from the Calendar, the Cottisford meeting appearing in its place. Races for hunters continued to be a feature; and in 1835 a hurdle race was added. This was won by Mr. Codrington's Premier ridden by the famous steeplechase rider Captain Becher. The fixture did not last for many years; no races were held in 1837–40, but they were revived in 1841, and in the two following years; no meeting took place in 1844 nor subsequently.
The earliest steeplechase in the county of which record occurs took place on 25 February, 1832, at Tetsworth. There were eleven runners, each carrying 10 st. 7 lb. It was a genuine point-to-point race over a line unknown to the riders, as we read that 'all the arrangements, choice of ground, &c., were under the direction of Henry Peyton, Esq.' The race was started in a field east of Tetsworth, the finishing point being on a hill near Rycote about three miles distant; the fields were small and the fences stiff, and the last jump, a double post and rails, stopped many who had gone well throughout. Mr. S. Quartermaine's gr. h. by Arbutus won easily. On 7 March in the same year a steeplechase was held near Bicester; the start was from Weston Wood, near Weston on the Green, and the finish at Gravenhill fox covert; distance about 3½ miles, over a severe course, the jumps including three wide brooks. Mr. Deakin's Jack Tar was the winner. Some forty years ago steeplechases, in which the present writer had mounts, were held at Witney and at Primrose Hill, near Wallingford, in the South Oxfordshire country, but these meetings have long been abandoned.
Four winners of the Derby have been bred in the county. Bay Middleton who won the race of 1836 in Lord Jersey's colours, beating sixteen others, was probably the best horse ever foaled in Oxfordshire. Coronation, winner in 1841, was bred by Mr. Abraham Rawlinson of Chadlington, near Chipping Norton (who bred both his dam, Ruby, and grand-dam), and was trained by his owner's stud-groom Painton, who gave him most of his gallops in Heythrop Park. Coronation was a terrible puller; but ridden by Conolly —who used a curb bridle and twisted bridoon— he won in a canter, beating twenty-eight others. His success was made the occasion for great rejoicings at Chipping Norton, a peal being rung on the church bells to celebrate the event. The other Derby winners are two of the most moderate animals that ever won the race; Sir Bevys (1879) was bred by Lord Abingdon on his Oxfordshire property; Oxfordshire's claim to Jeddah, winner in 1898, may be called accidental. His dam, Pilgrimage, when nineteen years old, was bought by Mr. J. W. Larnach at the Newmarket sales for 160 guineas, the low price at which she was knocked down being due to a doubt as to whether she was in foal; installed at Mr. Larnach's paddocks at Adderbury, she threw next year Jeddah, who it may be added was the last of her progeny to survive birth.
Among the prominent county racing men now deceased, the Duke of Marlborough, Marquess of Blandford, Earl of Abingdon, Earl of Jersey, Lord Wenman, and Lord Oxford were conspicuous. The latter began his successful Turf career in 1824, and while his name is known as the owner of horses which won famous races he was always a staunch supporter of the Oxford meeting. The Burford meetings in their day brought horses from all parts of England, and the records of the races contain the names of practically every racing man of note in the Georgian era.
There was a good deal of rowing for pleasure at Oxford before racing came into vogue, for the river was 'open for business' from the city downwards in the reign of James I; and if barges could go down to Abingdon it is quite likely that undergraduates would explore the stream. To begin with definite facts, there was certainly at the end of the eighteenth century a boat to be hired at Mrs. Hooper's, called the 'Hobby Horse.' Mrs. Hooper moreover seems to have provided not only the boat but the trousers, jacket, and a 'catskin' cap which presumably were the recognized uniform of rowing men in those days, when their pursuit was known only as 'pleasure boating.' In 1805 they wore a green leather cap, with a jacket and trousers of nankeen. Eton probably possessed eights before we have any record of them at Oxford, for in 1811 the school owned a ten-oared boat, three eights, and two six-oars, the latter craft being used for university races in America as late as 1867, for in Harvard's challenge to Oxford in that year it was suggested that coxswainless sixoars should race from Putney to Mortlake. The first record of eights at Oxford occurs in 1815, when Brasenose and Jesus rowed in eights and fours, and Christ Church had a four in 1817 composed of De Ros (stroke), Randolph (3), Daniel (2), and King (bow), who just managed to beat a pair manned by H. B. Bulteel of Brasenose, and Davis, the waterman.
Racing in eights first began in the boats which conveyed picnic parties from Oxford to Sandford or Nuneham. They were heavy craft with a 'gangplank' running across the seats down the middle. When two or more boats were in the lock there was a natural rivalry as to who should get out first, and as soon as the gates were opened the stroke of the leading boat, who was standing in the bows with a boathook, ran down the gangplank pushing her out as quickly as he could, sitting down to row as soon as he reached his seat. The boat behind followed, and so the race home to King's (now Salter's) barge was gradually developed. Men changed either in this barge, on which the flags of the eights were hoisted, or in a room in the boat-house tavern. The St. John's crew, soon after 1815, rowed in tall hats, so it is probable that others did the same. In 1819 a majority of Scotsmen in the Christ Church crew adopted the Tam o' Shanter and no doubt then introduced the peculiar ribbon (very like a Scotch plaid) still worn by members of that house. Balliol, Jesus, and New Colleges wore similar headgear up to 1847, and coxswains preserved the high hat until almost the same date.
In 1822 Brasenose and Jesus rowed a very hard race, and some disputes that arose out of it led to a rule against the employment of watermen in college boats; two years later men were prohibited from rowing for any college but their own. In 1824 the famous Exeter White Boat was built at Plymouth, on the model (apparently) of a whaleboat: so much too high out of the water did she prove, it was found necessary to lower her sides by several streaks and fit her with river oars before she was any use. In that year Jesus were beaten in a great four-oar race by a Brasenose crew consisting of F. Slade (stroke), Davis (a waterman), (fn. 13) T. Marres, and a Worcester man.
By 1825 there were too many boats on the river to permit the old method of starting from the lock, the origin of which is clear from the curiously persistent tradition that boats which proposed to race from Iffley should always start their exercise by going down to Sandford first, though the 'picnic' thereby implied had for some time been abandoned. The method of starting adopted in 1825 is still preserved with unessential differences; for the boats were placed 50 ft. apart from the lock upwards, each opposite a post painted in its own college colours, at which stood an umpire, and Wyatt the lock-keeper gave the word to go as soon as the umpires announced that their crews were ready. The races began on 1 May, and took place on Monday and Friday in each week; so that racing from a Thursday to a Wednesday consecutively (with only Sunday's rest between) may be deemed a comparatively modern system. The head boat had to keep away from the one behind, which in its turn had to escape being bumped by the third; and at first all boats below a bump had to stop racing, though those above went on. The rapid increase of university racing may be traced in the fact that in 1825 Christ Church was head and Brasenose second, while Exeter and Balliol also rowed. The word 'Torpid,' denoting a second crew, also appears, significantly enough, at this time; and there were many private matches in sculling boats, pairs and four-oars, besides the six-oars, that had not yet completely gone out of fashion. But it does not appear that the ten-oars popular at Eton, and with the London Rowing Club at Putney, ever found much favour at Oxford. In 1825, too, Cambridge eight-oar rowing began in earnest, and in 1827 Queen's were added to the list of Oxford eights. But the radical departure came in 1828 when Christ Church challenged Leander to a match on the tideway for £200. It took place on 27 June, from Westminster to Putney. Leander, who rowed in a boat built by Honey and Archer, which had been rejected by Trinity, with very little training and without having rowed together before, won by about seventy yards.
After this it was inevitable that a race should be arranged between the two universities, and in 1829 it came off for the first time at Henley before an enormous crowd. Oxford won, wearing 'blue checks,' while Cambridge were in white with pink waistbands, a compliment in each case to the head boat on the river. Oxford had black straw hats with a broad blue ribbon, but the straw hat did not become general for some time longer. The weight of the boats used at this time may be judged from the fact that many of them were changed from eights into six-oars, when, with seats for passengers added, they could carry some twenty persons. Doubtless they were very steady; and outriggers (first seen in 1845) did not become popular until about 1847. Streaked boats were in use almost until Matt Taylor, in 1856, introduced the smooth, keelless, cedar hulls for eights which Clasper had before invented for smaller craft on the Tyne; these were built for fixed seats, about 65 ft. long, and designed for a very fast stroke. They were made shorter when slides were invented (in 1872) and thereafter were gradually lengthened again until Dr. Warre reverted to Matt Taylor's old design and inculcated the magic seven octaves as the harmonious proportion. This, however, did not suit most crews; by 1906 even a 60 ft. boat was too short, and the two university boats were each 63 ft. long, with 16 in. slides.
The earliest record of a college boat club is the treasurer's book of Exeter in 1831, which contains every sign of being the outgrowth of an older society. From this it appears that a fine of five shillings was levied on any member of the crew known to be intoxicated, and that the crew were bound to obey their coxswain when afloat, and their committee when ashore. Stephen Davis, the waterman, coached them. A new eight from King (over 50 ft. long, 'with oars, boat-hook, etc., complete') cost £80. The growth of this and other college boat clubs, and the possibility of other races with Cambridge, necessitated the establishment of a central authority, especially as Cambridge had already started a university boat club; and on 23 April, 1839, a meeting at King's boat-house was called of strokes of college eights and representatives from other colleges, under the presidency of Calverley Bewicke, of University College, stroke of the University boat. Those present were C. Goodden (Exeter), R. Hobhouse (Balliol), E. J. G. Hornby (Merton), J. Scotland (St. John's), R. A. Lea (Brasenose), S. E. Maberly (Christ Church), T. Meyrick (Corpus), R. M. Howard (Oriel), J. Welch (Queen's), D. W. Griffith (Jesus), H. W. Fox (Wadham), J. K. Hawkins (Worcester), and R. Hickson (New Inn Hall). These gentlemen formed the Oxford University Boat Club and elected its first committee. Almost at once the pairs and fours were founded, and by 1841 the sculls were instituted. The eights were started, from lines held by a man ashore, by two pistols. The small cannon used afterwards are now in the possession of Lord Desborough (W. H. Grenfell of Balliol) at Taplow Court. Proper regulations for the bumping races were also drawn up. The club button, designed about the same time as the medals were made (1840), fell into disuse for a time but was revived in 1885, and is now (1906) worn on the crew's coats, which are of dark blue flannel bound with dark blue braid. the caps are dark blue with crossed oars embroidered in white and the letters O.U.B.C.
The 'Seven-oar' race at Henley gave great impetus to Oxford rowing. Seven of the Oxford crew, in 1843, there beat an eight calling itself the 'Cambridge Subscription Rooms,' in which every man either was in the Cambridge eight already or afterwards rowed in it. In 1839 the University Boat Club had hired a barge from Heather at Folly Bridge, which was passed on to Brasenose in 1846, when the Boat Club bought the Merchant Taylors' barge for £125. Other City companies' barges were bought by various colleges. In 1854, University College took the Merchant Taylors' barge, and the O.U.B.C. bought its present barge (1906) which was built partly at Pangbourne and partly at Oxford. Crews found these barges very convenient for changing, and in other ways they did much to popularize rowing. A further improvement was made when, in 1846, watermen were forbidden to coach crews. By 1852 the Torpids (or second crews) were held in the Lent term, so as to develop beginners for the eights in summer; and, in 1858, were begun the Trial Eights (in December), from which the University eight is still selected. In 1869 Oxford rowing received still further impetus by the victory over Harvard at Putney of a four consisting of F. Willan (bow), A. C. Yarborough, J. C. Tinne (President), and S. D. Darbishire (stroke). In 1880 the new boat-house was built on the towpath side; Cambridge sent £100 towards it.
This completes the outline of the development of Oxford rowing. It is only necessary to add that the names of the first crew recorded as head of the river (in 1824) were Exeter's eight composed of J. T. Wareing (bow), W. D. Dick, S. Parr, T. Douglass, J. C. Clutterbuck, J. G. Cole, R. Pocklington, H. Bulteel (stroke), and J. Pocklington (coxswain). The first Oxford University crew that beat Cambridge, in 1829, were J. Carter (bow), E. J. Arbuthnot, J. E. Bates, C. Wordsworth, J. J. Toogood, T. Garnier, G. B. Moore, T. S. Staniforth (stroke), and W. R. Fremantle (coxswain). In 1841 (the first year when the weights were recorded), the average of the crew was 11 st. 4 lb. In 1906 their average was 12 st. 4 lb., and the boat was built by Sims of Putney, length 63 ft., beam in centre 23½ in., depth in centre 93/8 in. The oars were made by Ayling of Putney, length over all 12 ft. 6 in., with a leverage of 3 ft. 8½ in. in-board, and 5¼ in. blades, of the double-girder box-loom pattern, in which two deep grooves are cut on each side of the loom from the blade to the button and the whole covered over so that the wood looks solid.
Golf in Oxfordshire has been one of the popular outdoor pastimes for thirty years. Though its popularity grew slowly, it has now become fairly established, and at the present time there are in the county just short of a dozen clubs, the majority of them having been founded within the past ten years. Generally speaking the land is admirably suited to the game. There is a fine alternation of hill and dale, and the elevations of the Chilterns, with the beautiful sweeping undulations of the sheep downs, present an admirable test of golfing skill.
The principal course in the county is that belonging to the Huntercombe Club. Instituted in 1901, it new numbers 254 members, among the frequent players being Mr. A. J. Balfour. The course, situated on a wide plateau about 6 miles from Henley-on-Thames, consists of eighteen holes and provides a very exacting test of play. The holes, which vary in length from 143 to 560 yards, were laid out with extreme care by Willie Park (owner of the ground). The porous character of the soil, a mixture of sand and gravel, renders the course almost as dry as seaside links even in wet winters. The turf is short, crisp, and springy, giving good lies, and providing putting greens whose excellence cannot be equalled. The hazards are all natural, and include clumps of whins and open sand bunkers. The undulating character of the ground, moreover, with its large number of grassy hollows, provides all the features that are wanted in the best golf courses, and the length of many of the holes affords a grand opportunity for the use of wooden clubs.
The Oxford University Golf Club, instituted in 1875, has now 450 members. Up to 1904 the university golfers played over a course situated on high ground at South Hincksey, but since then they have migrated to a new course of eighteen holes at Radley, about three miles from Oxford and 1½ miles from Radley Station. The new course is laid out over undulating ground, but the soil is somewhat heavy and tenacious. The Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society, which was instituted in 1898, recruits its membership from among the best golfers who have been, or are, at the universities, and players are elected by the unanimous invitation of the committee. The objects of the society are the playing of inter-club university matches and to raise teams for playing tours against the principal clubs of the United Kingdom and America.
Four miles from Henley is the nine-hole course of the Peppard Golf Club. It was instituted on 24 March, 1894, by the late Mr. R. W. Maude, of Peppard and London, who was the prime mover in starting the game here, the late Rev. Morris P. Williams, rector of Peppard, and Mr. Henry Taylor, of Dyson's Wood, Reading, who was captain of the club in 1906. The membership averages about seventy, of whom ten are ladies. The nine holes are situated on Peppard Common on the Chiltern Hills, about 380 ft. above sea level. The length of the round is about one and a quarter miles, and the hazards include a deep chalk pit, whins, and other natural obstacles. The soil is a combination of chalk and gravel, and the game can be played all the year round, snow only making the course unplayable. When the club was first instituted the course consisted of six holes only, these having been laid out by the late Tom Dunn of Bournemouth; it was afterwards extended to nine holes by Messrs. Maude and Taylor.
The nine-hole course of the Chipping Norton Club, which was founded in 1890, is laid out over pasture land, and is playable from the beginning of September until the end of April. The holes vary in length from 132 to 377 yards, and the total length is 2,065 yards. The number of members is twenty-five.
At Chastleton Hill, 2½ miles from Adlestrop, and 2 miles more from Moreton-in-Marsh and Chipping Norton, there is a course of nine holes situated on high ground about 800 ft. above sea level. The turf is exceptionally good for an inland course, and the game can be enjoyed all the year round. The club was instituted in 1895, and the number of members at present is sixty.
In 1901 Mr. W. H. Fox, the owner of Bradwell Grove Park, 5 miles from Lechlade, laid out a nine-hole course on the park land surrounding his residence, and with the assistance of Mr. F. G. How and others established a local club. The membership consists of fifty gentlemen and twenty-five ladies, but as it is a private club visitors are only admitted to play on the introduction of a member. In addition to the natural hazards, sunk fences, roads, and bushes, artificial bunkers have been made. There is no play in the summer months; September to June is the season at Bradwell Grove.
The Bicester Club was founded in 1902 through the instrumentality of Captain H. G. Fane, Mr. E. A. Burchardt, and Mr. C. T. Hoare. The number of playing members is about seventy, and the nine-hole course is about half a mile from the railway station at Bicester. The length of the holes varies from 136 to 335 yards. The course was planned and laid out by W. Hutchinson over pasture land, on brash soil. The hazards are both natural and artificial; play is possible all the year round. The captain of the club is the Earl of Jersey.
J. Sherlock, the Oxford University professional, laid out in July, 1904, the nine-hole course of the Banbury Club, which was established the year before. Those who were most instrumental in establishing the club were the president, Lord Algernon Gordon-Lennox, and the hon. sec., Mr. J. W. Prescott. The membership consists of forty gentlemen and ten ladies, and the course is situated about one mile from Banbury on the Broughton Road. The nine holes, which vary from 112 to 450 yards, are laid out upon a very pretty and hilly strip of country naturally adapted to the game. All the hazards are natural, consisting of hills and valleys, furze bushes, and cattle pools. With an ironstone soil, and the short, close grass, there is no difficulty in playing all the year round.
The Witney Golf Club, first instituted in 1898 and temporarily suspended, was reconstructed in September, 1906. Its first course was one of nine holes at Clements Field, on the Oxford Road, but with a clay subsoil the grass was rough, and in some respects it was unsatisfactory. The new nine-hole course, which was laid out by J. Sherlock, the professional of the Oxford University Club, is situated on Coggers Hill, and consists of pasture land with clay soil. The hazards are hedges, ponds, and trees. At present there are about seventy members. Mr. F. C. F. Cuthbert, the hon. sec., Mr. N. J. G. Ravenor, Mr. F. M. Green, Mr. C. Storey, and Mr. W. Derby Hyde, late hon. sec. to the old Witney Golf Club, took active part in reconstructing this club.