School and college packs of beagles have played a considerable role in teaching young people about hounds – and life – for many generations, as Andrew Sallis explains
MY parents’ horror was palpable. Their hunting-mad nine-year old son was hopping with excitement at the ringside. A school pack of beagles was parading and what’s more, they were hunted by the boys.
I couldn’t believe they had kept this secret.
Beagles, studies, boys, hunting – what could possibly go wrong? Within a year I had been packed off to choir school, far removed from any venatic distraction to my studies: that was to come later in my academic career.
For generations, “young gentlemen” (and now some ladies) have followed the well-worn path of masterships from school beagles to college beagles before taking a pack of foxhounds.
Pressures of balancing academic studies with co-curricular activities and shifting admission criteria, not to mention economic considerations, have re-aligned this route-map, but the merits and rewards offered by school and college packs, hunting within the law, remain as strong as ever.
Most packs had a humble naissance. A few “hounds” of dubious provenance and questionable breeding were acquired and lodged, sometimes illicitly, away from the eyes of Victorian schoolmasters. The keeping of “dogs” was contrary to rules at most schools, but this was a technicality generally bypassed in the interest of encouraging sportsmanship.
In the 1850s, the Eton began using a semi-trencher system. In the history of the Eton College Hunt, it is noted that “the rule was either to subscribe or bring back a couple of beagles… naturally the result was a rather unlevel lot.”
Ironically, in light of their present-day “quarry” compelled by law, many packs began their existence hunting a “drag” before quickly moving to a live quarry. The young beaglers didn’t limit themselves to a single species and could at best be described as opportunist, at worst indiscriminate.
Although the hare became the prized and respected quarry of the young gentleman beaglers before the beginning of the 20th century, even as late as the 1940s the beagles would purposefully account for the occasional fox.
The schoolboy Ronnie Wallace famously accounted for a fox in a cottage kitchen, only to have his picture appear in a local newspaper which prompted a woman to write to him, “You have a very sweet face. Can I not save you before it’s too late?”
Not for the first time, innocent looks benefited a young master in a tricky scrape. Wallace’s influence over the Eton College Hunt lasted his lifetime. As senior trustee he designed the new kennels and was honoured by the approaching road being named Wallace Walk.
A FINE REPUTATION
DESPITE their collegiate names, the Oxbridge packs don’t have formal relations with the colleges. Since the mid-18th century, Oxford has had at least five establishments: Christ Church, Trinity, Magdalen, Balliol and New College. Amalgamations and takeovers followed, with the Christ Church emerging as the sole university pack in 1950, eventually joining with the Farley Hill, from civvy-street, in 1970.
From the early 1850s, Eton hosted two packs, the Oppidans and the College Hunt, before the Eton College Hunt was assumed in 1867.
The Ampleforth College Beagles, founded in 1915, had a fine reputation in North Yorkshire and still maintain strong links with the school today in their new constitution, as does Marlborough College, whose sporting country joined with the Palmer Milburn Beagles more than a decade ago. Both school packs contributed heavily to the pantheon of great masters and huntsmen.
The most recently formed school pack has been a remarkable success. The Stowe Beagles were founded in 1962 and have been showing capital sport ever since, as well as becoming the nursery of countless talented huntsmen of beagles and foxhounds.
Key to their success has been the appointment of first-rate kennel-huntsmen. Adrian Dangar, who hunted the Stowe in the early 1980s before a distinguished career with foxhounds, recalls that, “Nat Thornton had a knack of allowing his young masters leeway and intervening in time to avert disaster. He was an all-round sportsman who made it fun and produced hounds in tip-top condition. Nat taught me so much about hunting and hound management. We didn’t realise how lucky we were.”
The beagles naturally attract children from hunting backgrounds but, more importantly, they offer a great opportunity for all children to get involved in a community beyond the school gate. After all, non-school or college members, alumni and the farmers are crucial to all packs, providing continuity and support.
The Stowe and Royal Agricultural College (RAC) Beagles have produced the greatest number of masters and huntsmen of foxhounds over the past 50 years, whose alumni include a current cabinet minister.
The RAC trace their history back to the late 19th century and have been bound by high-quality sport with their eminent foxhound neighbours in Gloucestershire ever since.
Radley College has truly brought its hunt into the modern era. As well as offering legal hunting, their Countryside Centre gives boys the opportunity to look after farm animals and rare breeds, in addition to experiencing other country pursuits. Such ventures can inspire vital new recruits to hunting and the countryside.
David Brown, kennel-huntsman to the Christ Church and Farley Hill Beagles at Oxford for 16 seasons, admits: “It can make such a difference if the master has carried the horn at school or been involved with hounds previously.”
MENTORING YOUNG CHARGES
BEYOND that of other kennel-huntsmen, those appointed to school and college packs have to mentor their young charges. Most packs have trustees and senior members, but it is the kennel-huntsman who must principally educate and mould the young.
The hue of his patois may occasionally differ from their schoolmasters, but he must equally be their teacher, social worker, agony aunt, defender and even stand in loco parentis.
Captain Ronnie Wallace considered the careful placement of school and college kennel huntsmen vital for the future of hunting, which rested heavily on their shoulders. Bill Perkins, famous Eton kennel-huntsman to a generation of top-class amateur huntsmen in the middle of the 20th century, left an indelible impression on the young Wallace. He instilled many virtues and according to Wallace, “could impart hound control to the young in such a way that they could take the pack alone through Slough.”
The kennels and KH’s kitchen become classrooms for life lessons. My kennel-huntsman at the Trinity Foot, then still a student-run pack at Cambridge, was a talented houndman who hailed from the Stoke-on-Trent potteries, via a couple of notable foxhound kennels. He certainly showed me a “rich” side of life previously hidden and a glossary of proverbs in a vernacular to match.
Modern school and college packs wouldn’t be able to tolerate the habits of “Lock”, the Eton kennel-huntsman at the end of the 19th century. Short and fat, he also ran the Turkish baths next to kennels on the High Street and was rarely seen out of his scarlet “drawers”, save for on the hunting field where he sported brown knickerbockers.
Due to academic pressures, today’s kennel-huntsmen and school countryside officers are more likely to clear country and co-ordinate meets than their predecessors, providing essential continuity for the farmers.
While the students are taking on important responsibilities, the kennel-huntsman must remember that they aren’t obliged to be there. In fact many of the students, particularly at schools, may be bucking the trend and resisting considerable pressure, from peers and teachers (even parents) to conform to more conventional sports and activities.
But the little hounds can prove addictive. Involvement with the beagles doesn’t have to involve hunting. Fundraising and socials are essential to hunt cohesion.
A HOME FROM HOME
THE considerable life skills learnt on the rugby pitch and in the school theatre rarely involve such an eclectic and diverse bunch. Just like hunts in the outside world, this fraternity crosses age groups and creates a profound bond between sometimes unlikely bedfellows. For some, the beagles can offer an exciting yet safe haven; a home from home.
“I loved every second of it,” says Tom Gurney, master of the Stowe Beagles 2019–20. “The camaraderie between beaglers of all ages throughout the school was amazing and created a tight social group. We were at kennels every morning and afternoon.”
As his predecessor Adrian Dangar also recalls, Tom stresses that beagling has a high standing within the school.
Matthew Higgs is the long serving joint-master and huntsman of the South Herts Beagles, which amalgamated with the Trinity Foot Beagles in 2003. The Trinity Foot and South Herts Beagles maintain strong links with Cambridge and make several student appointments each season. He attributes many skills needed for later life from his days hunting the Wye College Beagles.
“The experience of opening country, even dealing with an agitated farmer, helped my career as an agronomist,” he says.
As the chairman of the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles, Matthew celebrates the “blend of generations working together on common ground.”
“Beyond running, I was never much of a gamesman,” continues Matthew, “and mucked about trying to avoid the ball, but beagling offered everything.”
Good relations with local packs of foxhounds are crucial. Beagles and foxhounds meeting when out hunting isn’t unheard of, even in recent times. Tom Gurney’s Stowe Beagles bravely gained a couple of Micky Wills’ Grafton hounds for several hours one day, while the RAC once had a memorable afternoon when encountering not only the Beaufort but the VWH too, who had also joined up by chance. Laughter was exchanged rather than blows.
Since the 1950s, Northumberland, that utopia of hare-hunting, has drawn beaglers on pilgrimage, keen to hunt their hounds in its wilderness and sample the hospitality. For many years, an autumnal visit was a seasonal ritual for school and college packs. This tradition began with the Trinity Foot’s first visit in 1888 to hunt the estates of two undergraduate masters, J Carr-Ellison and A Allgood, whose families’ association with the TFB continues to this day.
The hill-country hunts, crazy parties, hunt balls and pub nights morphed into legend for the low-country visitors.
Even in these straitened times, working with in the Hunting Act in a busy countryside, those who have enjoyed school and college beagles could never deny its life-affirming qualities.
Whether or not the young beaglers continue to hunt after their studies, the skills learnt from organising a hunt country, managing the plethora of people, not to forget the enormous fun and privilege of hunting a pack of hounds provide memories and lessons for a lifetime.
This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (8 April, 2021)
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