Long may it last: How hunt clubs have brought people together throughout history *H&H Plus*

  • Hunt clubs are a tradition that have brought members together throughout the history of hunting. Frank Houghton Brown investigates

    The first attempt by parliament to ban field sports was brought to the House of Commons in 1949. It may have been hare coursing and staghunting which was threatened, but many saw it as “the thin end of the wedge”, according to Roger Bennett. On 25 February that year, a group of some 60 farmers from the south-west Midlands, including Roger’s father, came to London to protest.

    Many hired horses from Hyde Park and rode down Piccadilly and Regents Street to Hyde Park, before going to the House of Commons to lobby their MPs. They were all in their hunting clothes with banners such as “Farmers’ Protest”.

    Recently retired joint-master of the Warwickshire Kim Cockburn, whose father Crosby Cockburn was one of the original protesters, says, “My father didn’t ride that day but walked down alongside and handed out leaflets. There was huge interest from all the shops and taxis and overwhelming support from everyone they encountered.”

    For quite a few of those who were involved in what came to be known as “the Piccadilly Hunt”, it was their first trip to London and it coincided with the Horse & Hound ball that was held that evening.

    “Many of them went to the ball while still in their hunting kit: a few others found their way to Soho. They finally got on their coaches home at five in the morning, having left home at 5am the previous morning,” explains Roger Bennett.

    “There were a lot of different stories about that night. Someone even lost their false teeth out of the bus window when they were ill on the way home.”

    The real success, whether prompted by the Piccadilly Hunt or otherwise, was the result. Clement Attlee’s Labour government had a minister of agriculture who was a retired miner called Tom Williams. He was highly respected by all, spoke persuasively in favour of field sports and the bill failed.

    Those involved in the demonstration had effectively formed the Piccadilly Hunt, which their children and grandchildren have kept together. Roger Bennett was chairman for 25 years and handed over to Emma Tolley, whose grandfather Harold was one of the original ringleaders.

    “We have a dinner every year on a date as close as possible to 25 February,” says Roger, “and usually a day’s hunting.”

    In fact, on their 56th anniversary dinner they hosted the “Westminster Eight”, who had a not-dissimilar experience in London when they broke into the Commons chamber in 2004. “We have no constitution at the Piccadilly Hunt, but our aim is to engender good fellowship among hunting people,” says Roger.

    Hunt clubs are a peculiar anomaly in the hunting world, and the Piccadilly Hunt was born from a particular totemic event. Others have deep roots that stretch back far longer.

    A central pillar

    The Old Raby Hunt Club is now associated with the Zetland, but stems from way back in the days of the Raby Hunt. Founded by the Earl of Darlington in 1787, the Raby Hunt country covered much of Yorkshire and Durham. What are now the countries of the Braes of Derwent and South Durham in the north, to the Badsworth and Bramham Moor in the south, were all part of the Raby Hunt.

    The Earls of Darlington, later to become the Dukes of Cleveland, hunted this vast swathe of land from a number of kennels that were situated across the area for just that purpose. The Earl of Zetland bought the hounds in 1879, moving them to his seat at Aske.

    With Jack Champion as huntsman and then his son Bridger Champion following in his father’s footsteps as huntsman to the Earl of Zetland, this was a golden time for hunting in this part of Yorkshire.

    The name Champion became synonymous with that of a professional huntsman, and Jack’s namesake and great grandson became a highly respected huntsman of the Old Surrey and Burstow who served in that position for 38 seasons.

    Lord Zetland gave up the mastership in 1910 and it was decided that in commemoration of his service to the hunt, it would thereafter be called the Zetland.

    The Old Raby Hunt Club is still a central pillar in the make-up of the Zetland. They own the hunt kennels, make financial contributions to the hunt, and many of the hunt’s key landowners are involved. They used to have their own point-to-point, they have a drinks party in the summer and their own hunt ball, which is such a society event that it has been known to feature in Tatler magazine.

    Zetland joint-master Chris Gibbon is a member, and was proposed and seconded to be a member after the death of his great uncle and hunt club member Willie Lax. Willie was a well-known sportsman and mad-keen hunting man with a grass farm that was the cream of the Zetland country.

    “He hunted every day the hounds were out,” Chris remembers, until Willie was killed by one of his own bulls at the age of 83.

    The livery for the Old Raby is buttons with a fox and ORHC underneath. However, the really prized piece of kit is the gold foxes with ruby eyes that are pinned on the lapels. Perhaps Chris was hoping to inherit his great-uncle’s gold foxes, which came from the original 100 that were commissioned.

    Unfortunately, within a week of Willie’s death his house was broken into and his prized gold foxes were stolen.

    Through the ages

    Perhaps the most modern of all these peculiar clubs is the Melton Hunt Club. It was formed in 1955, primarily to raise money for the fashionable side of the Belvoir country, and then with the inclusion of the Cottesmore and Quorn the following year.

    Their fundraisers include a point-to-point, the famous Melton cross-country ride and a dinner every year. It encourages people to hunt in Leicestershire as its membership allows for access to the best high Leicestershire days at a huge discount, and the money goes to keeping the Leicestershire countryside as crossable as possible for these packs. It also offers discounted days with the Meynell and South Staffs.

    There are a number of other hunt clubs, from the Two Bridges Hunt Club on Dartmoor to the Fife Hunt Club in Scotland, but the oldest and perhaps one of the most interesting is the Cleveland Hunt Club on the north-eastern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors.

    The Cleveland Hunt Club was established on 13 November 1722. During the time of the Jacobite risings, it was forbidden for groups of landowners to meet, in fear that they might be in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie or the House of Stuart. The landowners of Cleveland wished to set up a hunt club but they paid obeisance to the law by at first calling it the “Cleveland friendly society”.

    John Coverdale is the 85-year-old president of the club and a veritable encyclopaedia of knowledge about all things pertaining to it. He tells of the Pennyman family from Ormesby Hall who couldn’t sell their stock until they used the club to sell the progeny of their bull, a foundation line of the shorthorn breed.

    This is a feudal part of old England and this men-only club has some fairly quaint and antiquated ways.

    “Tablecloths are removed before I propose the royal toast,” John explains. “If some water were to spill on to the cloth then the toast could be prostituted to relate to the health of ‘the King over the water’.”

    Of course this Jacobite toast would be anathema to this club and the very ideals of its foundation.

    The members of the Cleveland Hunt Club may only pay a £10 membership fee, but “they are all tremendous supporters of the Cleveland Hunt,” according to joint-master Liam Metcalfe. In fact, when a new member is accepted, they have to put their hand on a silver hunting horn and promise to support foxhounds and harriers. This silver horn is kept with club member Anthony Wharton at Skelton Castle, as are the minutes of every meeting the hunt has had.

    The history of the Cleveland Hunt is entwined with that of the club and those landowners who were there at its inception and whose families are still involved. Lord Gisborough’s forebears were deeply involved at the beginning and Lord Gisborough’s estate still owns the hunt kennels.

    Hunt clubs may seem outdated, but it is history and tradition just such as this on which much of hunting has been built, and long may it last.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 10 September 2020