Why are some hunting coats red, some yellow, some blue? Andrew Sallis MFH explains the history of hunt liveries
WHEN at a masters’ meeting some years ago, the topic of the kennel-huntsman’s frequent “visits” to see a married lady subscriber was misguidedly attributed to “scarlet fever”. My joint-master, deep into his seventies and south of a barrel of liqueur, retorted forlornly that despite trying, he had failed to have that “feverish” effect, but hadn’t given up hope.
Whether it is at school, on the parade ground, football pitch or hunting field, uniforms are worn with pride. School uniforms are considered a great leveller among peers. Hunt liveries try to raise the bar universally out of respect for the office or privilege held, the farmers and the landowners.
The histories behind individual hunt liveries tell an important narrative of British country life stretching back centuries, taking in some of the great families and events en route.
The red coat synonymous with foxhunting has its roots in the military, although its exact provenance has been lost. However, correct terminology has always been important. As a student master of beagles, I was firmly reminded by an elder that, “Hounds divide and bananas split, huntsmen wear coats and potatoes have jackets.”
Huntsmen in pink jackets are the stuff of Disney. A coat is red, occasionally scarlet but never pink, an erroneous reference to a London tailor.
IT is easy to think of hunting attire as stuck in time, but the reality is quite different. Strange as it may seem to some outsiders, pomposity and pretension are rarely factors, but few topics are less globally important and yet capable of raising both blood pressure and eyebrows than hunting attire, particularly if it is deemed incorrect.
If not a hunt official, to wear a red coat with some packs is deemed crass, whereas other hunts delight in a sea of red dashing across the country.
Gentlemen are traditionally granted the right to wear a red coat once awarded the hunt button, although discretion and humility along with a particular hunt’s conventions may dictate when or even if the sartorial leap is made. Better to wear the hunt button on a well-fitting black coat than fall at the first in your gleaming new red coat.
The correct number of buttons is also important – three for subscribers and members, four for masters and five (or occasionally six) for hunt staff and masters hunting hounds.
Distinctive liveries for ladies became more established after World War II, with collars on black or navy coats, although lady masters generally avoid wearing red coats.
Ulrica Murray Smith, master of the Quorn from 1959 to 1985, disliked women wearing red coats as, “they end up either looking like the ‘Tallyho Band’ or wizened, little men; neither alternative being particularly desirable in the hunting field.”
Times change and the 21st century has heralded more female hunt staff who tend to wear red.
The most spectacular of liveries was worn by the hunt servants of the Charlton Hunt Club, the oldest documented pack of hounds solely used to hunt the fox, more than 300 years ago and immortalised in oils by Gainsborough.
In their bright yellow coats with red cuffs and collars, the servants’ livery of the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, they led the mounted field dressed in “Charlton” blue coats across the South Downs, from the ducal estate at Goodwood. West Sussex, not Melton Mowbray, was hunting’s mecca and the subscribers’ list read like the upper echelons of Burke’s Peerage.
The Goodwood estate still maintains its support of its local hunt and the Charlton blue neatly ties in with the Leconfield blue sported by the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray Hunt.
As is foxhunting convention, red coats had been worn for generations, but the blue of the Leconfield family servants’ livery was adopted during the latter part of Richard Barlow’s distinguished mastership from 1936 to 1990.
The neighbouring Hampshire Hunt, known more commonly as the “HH” and one of England’s oldest hunts, was founded in 1745. The original members wore blue coats with large silver buttons engraved with “HH”.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the hunt’s fortunes were mixed with staghounds and latterly foxhounds of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who granted members of the HH permission to wear the Prince of Wales’ feathers, embossed into the hunt button. This permission has been sought and granted by every succeeding Prince of Wales.
Navy coats gave way to red over time, but modern considerations prompted the hunt to adopt its original livery once again in 2005.
Joint-master Rupert Harvie explains, “The hunt staff weren’t too keen to ditch their red coats for the new blue uniform, but we did get a lot less roadside abuse. It’s irrational, but sadly true.”
When the political climate permitted the current Prince of Wales to hunt, he wore the smart Windsor livery of navy coat with red collar and cuffs.
Hounds have been kept by the Berkeley family since the 12th century. For centuries, their hunting empire stretched from Charing Cross to Berkeley Castle, encompassing five, sometimes six kennels. The masters and hunt staff wear the yellow coats with green collars of the family’s servants’ outdoor livery, adorned with a running fox on the lapel.
The country around Cheltenham was eventually ceded in the mid-19th century to form the Cotswold and North Cotswold, whose respective green and primrose collars on red coats indicate their Berkeley lineage.
DECIDING on livery after an amalgamation can be an excuse for a decent hunt row if not handled sensitively. Thankfully, most amalgamations err away from sending their hunt staff out hunting looking like Joseph in his technicolour dreamcoat.
The Kimblewick, a successful amalgamation of five original hunts, chose the distinctive livery of its ancestor the Vale of Aylesbury, itself a successor to the Old Berkeley Hunt, formally founded in the 1860s.
The jury is out on its name – yellow, tawny or mustard. Their colour is slightly darker than the Berkeley yellow, apocryphally attributed to the older, used coats left to the hunt by its forebears in Gloucestershire.
Two famous packs of hounds whose hunt coats are similar yet unconnected only adopted their unusual shade of red, a Padua red in the case of the Pytchley and subtly different plum colour for the South and West Wilts, in the first part of the 20th century, several centuries after they were individually formed.
Daniel Cherriman, who hunted the Pytchley for 10 years, explains: “Lord Annaly, famed for his mastership during Frank Freeman’s tenure as huntsman, re-introduced Padua red coats, last used in the 18th century from a bolt of cloth from Lowther Castle, whose family had a long association with the Pytchley. The white collars had always been part of the livery, designed to protect coats from a powdered wig.”
The South and West Wilts, probably the oldest pack of foxhounds still in existence, took its shade of red from the outdoor servants livery of Lord Arundell of Wardour Castle who founded the hunt in 1690. During his revolutionary mastership from 1925 to 1934, Ikey Bell asked Lord Talbot, the closest descendent to the Arundells, for his consent to adopt the family livery.
The famous green Beaufort comes from the family outdoor servants’ livery which was then adopted by their offspring, the Heythrop, in 1835. Uniquely in hunting, ladies and gentlemen who are awarded the Beaufort hunt button are entitled to wear the striking “blue and buff,” while farmers proudly wear the hunt button on their black coat.
TRADITION AND HERITAGE
A GREAT breeder of racehorses, hounds and highland cattle, Michael Poland, former master of the Hursley and the Isle of Wight, has always sought to be ahead of the curve. In a significant polemic written three decades ago, he advocated the ditching of red coats in favour of more modest attire, in the interest of public relations.
Interestingly, most of his pioneering ideas have come to pass in the fullness of time; for him, perception was key.
Demands of post-ban trail-hunting saw many hunts alter their traditional liveries. The ground shook with all those long-gone masters and huntsmen turning in their graves, but genuine fears abounded as hunts entered their Brave New World.
At first, the hunt staff, masters and mounted field at the Bicester with Whaddon Chase wore “mufti” country coats before settling on coats made from melange green cavalry twill.
The Wynnstay have worn a specially commissioned tweed since the early post-ban days. Lord Daresbury, joint-master since 1991 and former chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), felt that red coats had “an elitist connotation that inflamed the anti-hunt lobby”.
Whether it was the implied links to the military or a perceived hierarchy, even ridiculous claims about being “blood red”, many masters believed the opposition literally “saw red” at the sight of hunt uniforms.
Opinions and experiences differ, and while the MFHA certainly has authority in certain remits over member hunts and masters, each hunt is autonomous. Certain important matters, governed by rules and principles, unite all hunts, but there is not a “one cap fits all” diktat on many subjects. What works for a large Shires establishment may not for a farmers’ pack in the Welsh mountains: such is the eclectic glory of hunting.
For each anti who sees red, another supporter smiles. Tradition and heritage aren’t sufficient by themselves, but the sight of hounds and red coats in our glorious landscape still gladdens many hearts, making them skip a beat, not necessarily for a “fever” but the thrill of the chase.
This feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 3 June 2021
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