There are so many inspiring and interesting figures scattered through hunting’s history. Rory Knight Bruce selects 10 that he would like to have met and learnt from
There are many reasons to go hunting and a few reasons to be sociable while doing so. That you might have fun and learn something are two of them. Each of us have hunted with people we have met in our lifetimes who have influenced our love of the sport for the better. Sometimes it is by instruction and sometimes by observation.
Captain Ronnie Wallace always said: “Leave 20 minutes extra for a broken bootstrap.”
And, as an observation, after a day with the Four Burrow, before going into a farm tea, I saw master and huntsman Paul Hancock wash off his boots.
But, we can also learn from those we have not met. Here are 10 whom I consider to have upheld the spirit and standards of the sport, not just for themselves and their contemporaries, but also for those who have come after them and never knew them. Something of their example still lives with us today.
On 1 February 2013, Lord Daresbury, Migs Greenall’s eldest son, talked about her life on Last Word, the BBC Radio 4’s weekly programme about obituaries.
“She was not from a hunting family, but was diminutive, sporty, a seventh child with red hair and a wild streak,” he said.
She had little money, at one time living in a wooden shack but, for more than 60 seasons, primarily with the Belvoir, epitomised the pluck of the Shires. In the war, she converted hunters into harness work, pulling wagons of coke: “It wasn’t good to see hunters tackling such a job,” she said. “But it had to be done for the war effort.”
No one should underestimate the importance to hound breeding of the American-born master and huntsman Ikey Bell.
Martin Letts at the College Valley has shown me a number of letters to his predecessor Sir Alfred Goodson and they are full of warmth, generosity of spirit and detail on hound breeding, as befits two exemplars of the science. His book, A Huntsman’s Log Book, is indispensable.
The hound that broke the mould into what we now understand to be the modern English foxhound was South and West Wilts Godfrey 28. Bell had him painted and a signatory to his excellence included Middleton master Colonel “Peach”, Borwick who insisted his wife came to bed after hunting in full side-saddle habit as they re-enacted the day.
Widely regarded, alongside George Gillson and Arthur Thatcher, as the greatest professional huntsmen of his or any generation, the Pytchley’s Frank Freeman was no roustabout.
“His neglect of education in his youth was a grave drawback to him in argument,” wrote Guy Paget in his Life of Frank Freeman.
But he was steely, determined and a supreme horseman.
It was once said: “Anyone can hunt a pack of hounds, but can you hunt them from a Monday at Crick?” (meaning the stiffest of the Pytchley country). I have sat down at the Pytchley kennels with two of Freeman’s successors as huntsmen, Peter Jones and Daniel Cherriman, and shown them the same respect as I did for their predecessor. For they have done what Freeman did, and know what he achieved.
Elisabeth, Empress of Austria
Let no man say they are a staghunter until they have had a day with the Ward Union and carted stag from The Snailbox Inn at Ashbourne, on the outskirts of Dublin. It was from hereabouts in 1879 that “Sisi”, Empress of Austria, rode “Bay” Middleton’s Merry Andrew and had days with the Meath and Kildare foxhounds over their notorious ditches.
“The Empress was in front from find to finish, leading the hunt at one stage at full gallop for 40 minutes,” reported The Irish Times.
On her lapel, she wore a shamrock and 500 people came on foot to view her exploits. At the day’s end with the Wards, “there was an imperial luncheon, to which all hunting men were bidden”. A portrait of “Sisi” on Merry Andrew hangs in the Royal Dublin Society.
Beginning as a harbourer for the Norwich Staghounds in the 1930s, then hunting the Norfolk and Suffolk foxhounds and the Dunston Harriers, Ralph Bane never had to move home from the kennels at Wacton (opposite Wacton Hall where Miss Sybil Harker was painted by Munnings). The staghounds were disbanded, the foxhounds short-lived but Bane went on to hunt the harriers until 1983. The only time he left home was to fight in Singapore, and a spell in Changi prison, where he worked on the Burma Railway.
“He was always cheerful with a twinkle, perhaps because of this,” recalls David Bevan, his successor as huntsman at the Dunston Harriers.
One day, an impertinent visitor told Bane he had unmatching buttons on the front of his hunt coat. “That won’t concern you, sir. You’ll only see my back ones all day,” he replied.
Sir Alfred Munnings
Anyone wishing to know about Norfolk, Essex and Suffolk hunting in the 1910s should read Sir Alfred Munnings, An Artist’s Life. He loved the outdoors, his horses, gypsy horse fairs, the landscape and race meetings.
He was next to the suffragette Emily Davison when she threw herself fatally under George V’s Anmer at Tattenham Corner in the 1913 Derby.
“In spite of painting and blank days, nothing could daunt my ‘ardour for the chase,’” he wrote.
As president of the Royal Academy, he often presided over important dinners, with Winston Churchill and leading artists of the day. But the best lunch he ever gave, he said, was one April: “A reunion of my old hunting friends – the best in Norfolk. Present were two masters of hounds, a brewer, a lawyer, a doctor, a veterinary or two and staunch farmers of the right breed.”
It was a lunch of gold-topped magnums of Bollinger, shining silver and bunches of primroses on white tablecloths. “Those were the days!” he concluded.
Paddy Leigh Fermor
Although I dined quite often with Paddy Leigh Fermor in Greece, I never hunted with him. One November night in the drawing room of his Mani house, an electric storm outside the open window to the seaside-facing pebbled terrace, he became unmistakably excited. He rushed to his outside study – a wonderful room, like so many you find in Exmoor homes – and returned with the words, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,” quoting from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In his hand was a meet card from the 1960–61 Mid Devon foxhound season. I had hunted with them from every meet mentioned on the card except Fuidge Manor. On my return to England, on a Tuesday we met at Hittisleigh; few out.
“What about Fuidge Manor?” I asked the field master, George Lyon-Smith, as it was some miles away but the right side of the main A30 from our meet.
“It’s a reclusive estate, we haven’t been there for years,” he replied.
We hunted flat out, on roads and opening gates, until we came upon a place that time itself had forgotten. We had our fox on top in a small fir plantation – at Fuidge Manor.
Lady Margaret Fortescue (pictured top)
Again, although I met “Margie” Fortescue in later life, it is as a Leicestershire side-saddle foxhunter that she will be best remembered.
“A tiny, bird-like figure, she was known as a thruster,” noted her obituary when she died aged 89 in 2013.
“I don’t mind you being at the front, but could you stop your horse kicking mine?” an exasperated Quorn master once asked.
She, and her horses, would travel regularly by private train from Castle Hill, her 20,000-acre Devon ancestral seat.
She rented various hunting boxes in Leicestershire and hunted with the Quorn, Meynell, Cottesmore and Belvoir and was a witty and generous hostess. Nor did she neglect her duties as chatelaine of Castle Hill and the county, being a deputy lieutenant of Devon.
When I was briefly a parliamentary candidate in North Devon, Lady Margaret, having never been seen by the committee before, turned up to each selection round. Eventually, one member asked her what she was doing at these meetings: “The candidate is a master of foxhounds and I own the building,” she replied.
Dennis Silk, later to become warden (or headmaster) of Radley College, was playing cricket as an undergraduate at Cambridge when he first ran into Siegfried Sassoon, there to collect an honorary degree. They became great friends and, years later, Silk played me some recordings of Sassoon, taken at Heytesbury, Sassoon’s Wiltshire home, when he had fallen out of fashion. His voice was no longer strong and his poetry and ethos – very much of the Edwardian era – were from a bygone romantic England before the Great War dashed homes and hopes. But, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man remains one of the great hunting books, elegiac yet unsentimental. The cricket writer, David Foot, summed up their friendship: “Both were gentle, rounded, civilised men, scholars without ostentation, with a similar sense of fun.”
Major REC Knight Bruce
My grandfather died in 1960 when I was four. From 1908 until his death, he was variously secretary, point-to-point secretary (he owned the course) and master of the Silverton for 52 years. He served on the Western Front, in Gallipoli and the Far East – where his reconnaissance bi-plane often missed the ship trip wire and ended up in the sea to be winched back on board. As a child, he gave me his silver half-hunter fob watch and an onyx cigarette box.
“I never cap pretty girls,” he said as secretary to one lady. Years later, dying, she asked to see me. She gave me an historic silver presentation hunting horn. It sits in my drawing room, the half-hunter watch and onyx cigarette box by its side.
Also published in H&H 11 March 2021
You may also be interested in…