Frank Houghton Brown investigates the famous names of beagling
A SPORT known for its venery but without the glamour of foxhunting, beagling has been enjoyed by many dedicated followers over the years. Some giants of the hunting world started their career with beagles. Stalwart kennel-huntsmen have perhaps contributed as much as any to the sport by acting as teachers to their young protégés.
Matthew Higgs, chairman of the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB) and master and huntsman of the Trinity Foot and South Herts beagles, describes another category by saying, “Many beaglers have been hugely influential with their own pack on a local level and have been satisfied with just enjoying their hunting.”
Rowland Hunt was master of the Eton College Beagles in 1876 and proved to be a brilliant huntsman and organiser – “the most successful huntsman the ECH had ever possessed” according to the history of the pack. He moved the hounds to the back of some Turkish baths in town and employed William Lock, who kept the baths, to act as his kennel-huntsman.
This proved to be a masterstroke and his reforms allowed him to catch a record tally on both his first and second season in charge. He repeated the success as master of the Trinity Foot Beagles when he went up to Cambridge and afterwards became a successful master of his home pack, the Wheatland foxhounds, and a Member of Parliament.
John Atkinson and Nat Thornton taught dozens of Stowe boys the art of hunting during their tenures as kennel-huntsmen for the Stowe Beagles, a task that was equally ably administered by the likes of Jack Welch and Jeff Hall for the Ampleforth Beagles and former Pytchley huntsman Archie Jones among others at Eton. Walter Clinkard was a famous kennel-huntsman at the Christchurch for the Oxford students and his son Roy built himself a formidable reputation at the Aldershot before setting up his own pack, the Clinkard Beagles.
However, the highest accolade at any college pack must go to Father Walter Maxwell-Stuart, who as a student was appointed master of the Ampleforth Beagles in 1931. In 1939 he became a junior monk at Ampleforth Abbey and held the role of secretary to the college beagles for 47 years. An inspiration and mentor to generations of country boys, his tutelage of students in beagling has to make him one of the true heroes of the sport.
BEAGLING has nurtured several worthy scribes, like Otho Paget, who hunted his own pack in Leicestershire during the early 20th century, the Thorpe Satchville Beagles. He wrote about most packs of the time in Beagles and Beagling.
Peter Wood, the younger brother of Charles, the Earl of Halifax, wrote the ultimate disposition on beagling called Thoughts on Beagling, brilliantly illustrated by sporting artist Tom Ivester-Lloyd, master of the Sherington Foot Beagles who hunted largely where Milton Keynes is situated today. Peter was sadly killed during World War II in the desert war.
Bay de Courcy Parry was a prolific writer and hunted his own Clun Forest Beagles when living at the Anchor on the Shropshire Welsh border. He famously saved himself the expense of striking a new hunt button when he moved to Cumbria by renaming his pack the Caldbeck Fell Beagles.
The fairer sex has been well represented in the high echelons of respected beaglers. Jean Dunn is still pulling the strings at the Hunsley Beacon in her nineties, having had a distinguished mastership in which she proved to be an excellent huntsman, as was her daughter Jane after her. Jean took over from founder Patrick Till, who named his pack after the landmark beacon which he could see from his study window.
Betty McKeever was one of the true greats in hunting history. She was given the Blean Beagles by her father as an eight year old child and remained in office as master until she died in 1990.
Phemie Angus was another giant of the sport, hunting the Mid Essex from 1955 until their disbandment in 2003 and looking after the hounds herself from 1979.
The Taw Vale Beagles in Devon were founded by Miss KY Varndell in 1962, and kennelled at her house near Crediton along with her other pack, the Dartmoor otterhounds. When she sadly died in 1966, her step-sister Miss EC Nessling stepped up to fill her shoes and remained as master until 1978. Miss Nessling had been a dame at Charterhouse School with little previous association with the beagles, but considered it her duty to take over from her sister.
Sir Newton Rycroft founded the Dummer Beagles and was a brilliant huntsman and hound breeder. A Wykehamist and academic, he turned his considerable brain power to breeding his own high-class pack of hounds which he hunted for 24 seasons before moving on achieve a similar result with the New Forest Foxhounds.
Extraordinary displays of skill
THE leading professional huntsmen in beagling have always set the bar high. The likes of Peter Howe at the Newcastle and District Beagles, under the guidance of their founder and master Colonel Leonard Gibson, used to put on extraordinary displays of his skills when the Northumberland beagling festival was at its height in the 1970s. Peter ended his hunting career as huntsman to the London foxhounds in Ontario, Canada.
Admiral Sir James Eberle was a master of the Britannia Beagles for some 50 years and he hunted them himself for the early part of his tenure. As much of a leader in the defence of country sports as a leader in the Navy, he certainly flew the flag for hunting within the echelons of power.
The Warwickshire Beagles have had some substantive masters, none more so than their founder, Colonel Guy Jackson, who started them as the Springfield Beagles and hunted them in his plum-coloured smoking jacket, a livery which they still wear today. He went on to be master of the Exmoor after the war despite having had both legs blown off by a land mine in Italy.
Perhaps the greatest master was Phil Burrows of the Bolebrook in Kent, under whom Martin Letts learnt his trade as a huntsman before moving to the College Valley in Northumberland. From 1934 to 1974 Burrows was master and bred his pack, arguing against the fashion of breeding a beagle too big or to be a miniature foxhound.
The list could go on, but Matthew Higgs sums up the mentality of the sport when he says, “It is the beaglers who can truly say that they hunt to enjoy themselves and not to astonish others.”
H&H, 24 September 2020
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