Lives well lived: 13 of the best hunting biographies *H&H Plus

  • Which are the most interesting hunting biographies? Frank Houghton Brown gallops through a selection of great sporting books...

    Biographies of various sporting personalities seem to be at the front of every bookstand, but in many ways the lives of famous huntsmen or hunting folk are even more interesting. There are a host of wonderful biographies that cover all types of hunting people, and in most cases their lives have been fascinating. It is from these that we have selected what could be the best hunting biographies.

    Some huge characters from the 19th century lived lives that one can only dream of and spent their vast fortunes on their personal enjoyment of the chase. Henry Chaplin, the “Squire of Blankney” is one such individual. His biography, Henry Chaplin: A Memoir, covers his long mastership of his own hounds, his success with Hermit in the 1867 Derby and the sadness and scandal when his engagement to Lady Florence Paget was abruptly severed as she was about to buy her wedding outfit and eloped with the Marquess of Hastings.

    A similar book is The Meynell of the West, the story of James Farquharson and his mammoth 52-year mastership of his own hounds, who hunted the whole of Dorset entirely at his own expense from 1806.

    That great American master of the Cattistock, Henry Higginson, was the author of Squire Farquharson’s biography and his own autobiography is a fascinating read. With a forward from his great friend Ikey Bell, Try Back refers not only to his English mastership in the 1930s, but also to a 20-year spell hunting hounds in America.

    Beagling is well represented among the best biographies, none better than Her Master’s Voice, the amazing story of Betty McKeever and her Blean Beagles which she hunted in Kent for the best part of a century.

    However, if you want a really different sort of experience, then the life of Flight Lieutenant HC Pyper fits the bill in his 1937 book Hounds First. He was a truly well-travelled man and used every opportunity he could to sample the sport on offer wherever he found himself. From time spent as a jackeroo in Australia prior to World War I, to hunting with the Royal Exodus hounds in Iraq, Pyper hunted hare, fox, otter and jackal at every chance he could grab. He hunted beagles in the UK, notably the RAF Uxbridge, which later morphed in to the Old Berkeley Beagles.

    Ernest Bawden was perhaps the most celebrated huntsman of staghounds, and his story is brilliantly told in the book Staghunter. His time with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds straddled World War I, and the stories of fieldcraft and hunting are second to none. However, equally as interesting is his time in Africa during the Boer War, when he used his immense hunting skills to kill an enemy sniper.

    Bawden’s story is superb, but that of his harbourer Fred Goss in Memories of a Stag Harbourer is perhaps even more extraordinary. His job was to find what he describes as “a warrantable stag” and to locate its position ready for the meet. His vast wealth of knowledge of both the deer and their terrain is immense, and with his own words you get a sense of his love for his quarry and for Exmoor itself.

    Professional huntsmen have regularly consigned their lives to print, with the lives of famous Quorn huntsman Tom Firr and Pytchley huntsman Stanley Barker being two of the best. Huntsmen of a Golden Age tells of the life of the Goodalls; the 20-stone Stephen Goodall, who hunted the Pytchley and the Quorn, and Will Goodall, grandson of Stephen who became huntsman of the Belvoir at the tender age of 24 in 1842.

    The lives of different Fell huntsmen are immortalised in print, none better than that of Joe Bowman, huntsman of the Ullswater for more than 41 seasons from 1879.  Life in the Fells was a distinct world of its own, and each individual valley another world again. Bowman gives an insight into the tight-knit communities and the important part that hunting played within them.

    Thirty Years a Hunt Servant by Jack Molyneux is a classic, written in 1935. The name Molyneux is associated with a famous family of huntsmen and Jack was brought up in kennels, initially when his father was first whipper-in to the Garth hounds. Jack leads the reader through his life and it soon becomes clear just how totally immersed in hunting life his family had become. Rejected by the army as a result of hunting accidents, Jack’s career unfolds from whipper-in to huntsman in an array of very different hunt countries – a fascinating insight.

    George Race hunted his own hounds, the Biggleswade Harriers, who mainly hunted the hare. In his 1911 biography, Seventy Years a Master, there are some nerve-racking accounts of amazing hunts. One particularly memorable run was in 1847 when he hunted a white fallow buck from Southill Park near Biggleswade for 17 miles without a check across a punishing line of country. The stag swam the lake at Wrest Park to Hockliffe, but broke bay before they could catch him. Race was furious that the noble beast was then taken by what he describes as “a bunch of navvies”, presented to Queen Victoria and released in Windsor Great Park.

    The legendary American master of foxhounds Ben Hardaway published his autobiography, Never Outfoxed, in 1997. An extrovert and fanatical hunting man, Ben describes his childhood addiction to the chase and his journey in building his famous pack, the Midland Foxhounds in Georgia, USA. Ben certainly had an interesting and varied life which was lived to the full.

    There is a plethora of choice available to the hunting enthusiast, but my favourite is Martin Letts’ succinct Memories of my Life at the College Valley. Every one of his stories is not only interesting in its own right, but shows how quickly things changed in the Cheviot countryside in the second half of the 20th century. The only downside is that he must have become bored while writing it, because it whets the appetite but is sadly only too brief.

    H&H 13 August 2020

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