The House of Commons Steeplechase

Although it has passed the world of racing by, so far as I’m aware, this month is the 130th anniversary of what was apparently the first House of Commons Steeplechase, and possibly also the first occasion on which a formal sporting competition had been organised among Members of Parliament. There is a long history of politicians in both Houses being closely involved in horseracing. Newmarket was often a site for political conclaves timed to coincide with major races, particularly in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and several major houses in the vicinity (especially the earl of Orford’s Chippenham) were associated both with racing and politics. Many senior politicians were prominent in racing, from Sydney Godolphin (who was one of the ‘duumvirate’ with the duke of Marlborough, running both the country and a massive foreign war during the reign of Queen Anne) to Disraeli’s friend and associate, Lord George Bentinck, who was mortified when he abandoned horseracing to concentrate on a political career, only to discover that the horse he sold immediately went on to win the Derby. The Marquis of Rockingham (prime minister 1765-6 and 1782), the Earl of Derby (prime minister, 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8) and the Earl of Rosebery (prime minister 1894-5) were all more interested in their racing than in their political careers, and many of their parliamentary colleagues, particularly in the nineteenth century , were far happier on a horse than in the chamber. Earlier blogs by the History of Parliament, here and here, provide further information.

The House of Commons steeplechase was inaugurated in 1889. It is in some reports referred to as a ‘revival’ of a tradition, but I have not been able to find any previous accounts of such a race. Who was behind it is unclear. Henry Lucy mentioned (Alexander) Weston Jarvis, the conservative King’s Lynn MP, as its most active promoter. The Morning Post reported in March on a meeting held in Mr Chandos Leigh’s room to arrange the rules; Lord Chesham, Mr Fitzwilliam and Mr Chaplin were appointed stewards. Leigh was Edward Chandos Leigh, not a Member, but a distinguished lawyer who served as Speaker’s Counsel and also President of the MCC; Chesham, a peer and recently retired military officer, was master of the Bicester Hounds; Fitzwilliam (William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam) was a liberal unionist MP for Peterborough and son of Earl Fitzwilliam; and Henry Chaplin, racehorse owner and conservative MP for Sleaford, was soon to become President of the Board of Agriculture. The Steeplechase was first run on Saturday 6 April 1889, from Hillesden to Chetwode in Buckinghamshire, about 5 miles outside Buckingham. A special train was laid on from King’s Cross to carry around 60 Members and many others to the race. The party assembled at the Swan Hotel in Buckingham, before making its way to the three-and-a-half mile course. The winner was the MP for Brecon, Cyril Flower, later Lord Battersea, a Liberal Whip. Some of the details of what happened are a little confused; but it seems that Flower was planning to ride a horse which had been provocatively re-named Home Rule for the occasion. Some, but not all, sources say that the horse would not run, and a substitute had to be used. Whether it was a substitute or not, Flower’s victory was celebrated by Liberals, until the horse was subsequently discovered to have ridden competitively before, a contravention of the rules of the race. Flower, he and his friends claimed, had been unaware of this fact (Flower was ‘quite incapable of underhand tricks’, wrote his friend and fellow horseman, Alfred Pease); Unionist competitors assumed that he was acting in bad faith. ‘I fear party feeling rather got the better of the judgment of some two or three MPs’, wrote Pease, ‘as some nasty things were said about Mr Flower, who is the last man living to do a “sharp” thing’. Flower surrendered the trophy to the runner-up, Elliot Lees, a Conservative with a taste for writing vaguely Longfellow-esque ballads (such as ‘The Desmond’s Wake’ and ‘A Hunting Lay’) and other occasional verse, including ‘Experto Crede’, in which a young man asks an older dining companion for advice on a career:

Well, they tell me, old chap, you’re a real good sort,

You have played every game that a gentleman may—

High politics, culture, wine, women and sport

So which would you counsel a youngster to play?

 

If Parliament gave you your fellows to rule,

I’d launch you forthwith on the candidate’s course,

But when you’re a pawn in the hand of a fool

You’ll find that life’s sweeter on top of a horse’

Temple Bar, 102, issue 405, Aug. 1894, 504-5:

 

Other competitors in 1889 included the prominent back bench Conservative Walter Bromley-Davenport, and the minister Walter Long. A painting of the event, now in the parliamentary collection, and displayed at the National Horseracing Museum at Newmarket, was commissioned from the sporting and military artist Godfrey Giles. Also in the parliamentary collection, but on view at Newmarket is a silver trophy associated with the race.

The race was run again in 1890, along the same lines. There was much interest in the press, including verses in the Conservative magazine Judy, which begin:

Not Quite Point to Pointless!

A meeting gay, the other day

(Last Saturday, to be exact),

Drew many down to Rugby town

(Somewhere in Warwickshire, in fact),

And there, one reads, were gallant steeds

And riders (as is oft the case)

To ride, d’ye see (‘twixt you and me),

The House of Commons Steeplechase!

 

And so on.

This time the race took place near Rugby on 29 March 1890, where the competitors were entertained by Captain David Beatty (the father of the First World War Admiral, who ran a business training horses). The winner was, again, Elliot Lees, with the Liberal, the York MP Alfred Pease, coming second. Lees was reported to have celebrated his victory with a dinner to which all of the competitors were invited, and presented each rider with a miniature copy in silver of the winning horse. A third race took place on 21 March 1891. A train was laid on to Daventry, and riders and spectators assembled at the Wheatsheaf. The race itself took place near Staverton, in country that had been run over by the Pytchley hunt that morning. One of the competitors, Robert Yerburgh, a Conservative, provided lunch. This time Pease won, with Lord Henry Bentinck coming in second. Pease considered it ‘about my best performance in real point-to-point racing, for it was over a very big country, in the best of company, and my win gave great pleasure to my party, my constituents irrespective of party and to my county’. Even Gladstone telegraphed his congratulations. The fourth was run in April 1892, at Lord Willoughby de Broke’s estate at Kineton in Warwickshire. Some of the press noted that the special train was not so full of spectators as on previous occasions. However, with much support from the local hunts in ‘Lord Willoughby de Broke’s country’ there was plenty of interest at Kineton itself. The winner was Frank Mildmay, the runner up Walter Long. A race was held afterwards for locals, in the course of which Captain William George ‘Bay’ Middleton, a prominent sportsman, was thrown from his horse and killed.

Middleton’s death may have put a damper on things – Alfred Pease suggested that the Steeplechase was abandoned as a result – though its continuation was also hampered by the 1892 election. Several of the more enthusiastic participants had either retired from politics or lost their seats, and those remaining struggled to find sufficient competitors. There was a discussion about replacing it with an annual parliamentary boat race, which, it was speculated, might become ‘a more popular and striking event… as there are so many university men in the House, there should be no difficulty in making up sufficiently good crews’. The return of Elliott Lees for Birkenhead at the 1894 election encouraged speculation about a revival, though it was not until 1897 that the race was attempted again. It took place at Burrough Hill in Leicestershire, when it was held in conjunction with the Brigade of Guards Officers’ race, and attracted a large and very grand crowd, including the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Earl Spencer, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, the Countess of Warwick, and so on. There were sufficient competitors, though the ease with which John William (Paddy) Logan, a Liberal MP and engineering contractor, won the race, may suggest that the field of experienced horsemen was not so great as previously. In 1898 it was held again on the Bourton estate near Buckingham, when Pease won. There was talk of running it in 1899, but this came to nothing.

It was not until 1907 that another race was run, when it took place again on the Willoughby de Broke estate at Kineton in Warwickshire. Before it started there was some embarrassment at the realisation that the detail of notifying the National Hunt Committee of the race had been forgotten, with the threat of fines and suspensions. The problem was laughed off, and Lord Dalmeny (son of the racehorse owning earl of Rosebery) won the race. The next, and final, race was run in 1910, when the fixture was shared with the Bar. Held at the Pegasus Club, at Epping, it was overshadowed by the death of James Tomkinson, the Liberal MP for Crewe. Tomkinson’s participation was remarked on in advance by the press, as he was over 70 at the time. He was thrown onto his head while leading the field, and died the following morning. It was the last time the steeplechase was run.

The deaths of Middleton and Tomkinson – and of Fitzwilliam too, killed when he was thrown from his horse just six months after competing in the 1889 event– highlight the notorious dangers of steeplechasing to rider and steed. An attempt to ban the sport via an amendment to the Cruelty to Animals bill in 1849 failed by only a handful of votes, and the comments made then indicate that steeplechasing was considered not completely gentlemanly – a sport of the ‘very lowest class’ – though it had its defenders. By the 1890s the sport was said to have ‘got more and more into the hands of the racing fraternity, and farther and farther away from hunting and its votaries’ (Fox Russell, Silk and Scarlet, 1896), which may explain why it was no longer regarded with such disfavour, although many of the men involved were probably more interested in the hunting field than in the racecourse. Emblematic of the way in which, for a time from the 1880s to the beginning of the first World War, the political and sporting worlds of a certain type of MP were closely entwined, the House of Commons steeplechase also indicates how the social worlds of county gentry belonging to the Liberal and Conservative parties could be close and connected – even if the story of Flower’s horse suggests that the latter might be severely tested. There was no revival after 1910, for which the War was no doubt much to blame; though while hunting, and steeple-chasing, and point-to-pointing all continued afterwards, it seems unlikely that there were ever again competent horsemen (and, indeed, after 1918, horsewomen) in sufficient numbers able to create much of a competition. Alfred Pease’s memoirs, reflecting a general disenchantment with the Liberal party and with the conduct of politics since the 1890s suggests that the Commons was no longer such a congenial place for his sort of Member — men keen on hunting, steeplechasing and deeply involved in the county round of the magistracy and the local yeomanry. But there would, in time, be other competitions, in other sports, to take its place.

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