The Midnight Steeplechase part 2

By David Bowles and Gillian Lane

Click here for part 1 of the story.

Lady Augusta Fane

The 'Midnight Steeplecase' was held to celebrate the birthday of Lady Augusta Fane

When we left the story, the eleven riders were all milling around at the start line, in a gateway. This was originally to have been the finish line, but for safety reasons it had been changed! The winner would be the first one to jump the last fence. Otho Paget’s horse had wheeled away, so he was not aware of the change.

Prior to the start, the riders had agreed that they would ride at a sensible pace, however, once the starter’s flag had fallen everyone “dashed off as if it had been a five furlong dash in the light”, said Otho Paget.

Lord Melgund, standing at the first fence takes up the story: “I could only just see what the first fence was like by looking close into it. It appeared to be an old fence, cut over and weak, but pretty high, quite five feet, with a very small shallow ditch on the far side– The performance began by McNeil (who Melgund described as being a ‘mad Irishman’) taking a preliminary canter over the first fence, over which he tumbled head over heels, and then they started.

“I stood at the first fence and the crowd of nightshirts rushed desperately by me with a crash over, or rather through it, and as far as I could see without a fall; the only two who went slowly at it being the two Pagets who walked through the hole made by the rest. So they all disappeared into the darkness.“

Otho Paget, whose horse had refused at an early fence, continues; “The race itself was very good fun, and quite exciting. The most noticeable feature to me was the galloping top speed across ridge and furrow without being able to see which was the up and the down – it gave you an extraordinary feeling. And I can only tell what befell me in the race, as the white gowns of my fellow competitors was all that could be seen from the start to the finish.

“I was able to catch up with the others before we reached the turning point and then commenced to draw ahead. I knew exactly the location of the gateway and as the finish was uphill I could send my steed along best pace without fear of his ‘dicky leg’.

“Although it was impossible to see, I could hear the other horses and all were well behind me on my right, so that after pulling up on passing through the gateway I naturally imagined I had won. The whole affair was just for the fun of it and there was no prize except for a cup that Count Zborowski gave, so that of course, I did not say anything, but must admit was very disappointed”.

Shortly after watching the riders charge through the first fence Lord Melgund heard them tearing back again to win: “All I could see was two nightshirts racing for the last fence, over which one landed with a lead of half a length, the other falling. The winner turned out to be Burnaby, the second who fell being Zborowski.

“I only saw one loose horse come in, Zborowski had remounted at once. They tell me Zborowski was leading up to the last fence and it was very confusing owing to the number of lights where it was to be jumped, but Burnaby managed to get first run at it. I do not fancy the fences were much, but all the same it was a strange and marvellous performance. What extreme youth and champagne can do!”

So that was that. The Moonlight Steeplechase, run in complete darkness, won by Algernon Burnaby, riding a horse appropriately named ‘Midnight’, second Count Zborowski riding ‘Topthorne’, third was Mr C McNeill, clearly none the worse for his first fence tumble, when his top hat saved him from concussion and fourth was Otho Paget. No other rider completed the course.

The biggest irony was that shortly after the finish, the clouds cleared and it became a clear moonlit night.

The spectators and riders made their way back to Melton, many in high spirits. As the Melton Mowbray Mercury records: “As madmen in a frenzy, the horsemen, carriages and foot people turned Meltonwards, making the hours of the early morn hideous by their yells, while the equally excited pedestrians kicked every door they came to and in innumerable ways annoyed the inhabitants of the town”.

The suppers after the event held at the Spinneys, hosted by the Brocklehursts and by Count Zborowski at Coventry House went on until the early hours of the morning. The guests at Coventry House apparently wearing their ‘nightwear’ throughout. It was here that Algy was presented with his prize, donated by Count Zborowski – a cup of ivory about 12 inches high, with three handles, the whole being mounted in silver.

For the next couple of weeks, the local papers were full of the story, and on Friday the Melton Mowbray Times reported that “This event is doubtless fated to become historical and will be related with gusto for many years by those who were fortunate enough to be present at what must become inalterably associated with the annals of sport”.

But not all were impressed with the activities of that particular evening. The local clergy of the many churches in town were quick to rebuke the revellers in their Sunday sermons.

Rev. Karney caused much amusement by taking as the text for his sermon, ‘Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness but rather reprove them’. As Lady Augusta quotes “The whole congregation was convulsed with laughter, as everyone knew how we had all longed for a light night. It was also difficult to understand why it was so wrong to ride a steeplechase after sunset.”

The Rev T Scrimshaw, at the primitive Methodist Church, took as his text “And exercise thyself unto godliness, for bodily exercise is profitable over a little, but godliness is profitable over all things”. He warned against the dangers of intemperance, gambling, and midnight revellings, the Midnight Steeplechase he said, “Almost bordered on indecency”.

The Rev Joseph Twidale, in the Independent Chapel, spoke strongly on the midnight assembly a week before, and described it as a scene in which no Christian would allow himself to be seen.

Unsurprisingly, this drew a vigorous response from the supporters. Lady Augusta wrote, “I had difficulty in preventing some of those who had taken part in the race from going round to the vestry and giving the parson their opinion of him and his works. I pointed out that he was not worth the trouble, as a man who could make such a fool of himself in the pulpit must be past redemption., Rev. Karney was one of those unpleasant people who see wrong in everything”.

She went on: “Luckily the other parsons round Melton were of a different mould from Mr. Karney. The Rev. J. P. Seabrooke, Vicar of Waltham, when he accepted the living, promised only to hunt two days a week, but compromised with his conscience by taking four half-days, and there were few hunts with the Belvoir that Mr. Seabrooke did not take part in. He rode in a steeplechase occasionally, entering his horse as the property of C. Brook! His parishioners were devoted to him and would never willingly disturb his pleasure by dying or getting married on hunting days!”

The Quorn correspondent of the Melton Times reacted vehemently, after first outlining how well received the event had been, he went on to say: “The sensitive and tender nerves of a few namby-pamby goody-goody and ‘really too-too’ souls have, it is true, been somewhat ruffled and startled by the event, and these prudish purists have made what they term a solemn protest against the revival of the merry pranks and practical jokes of a former period. (Referring to ‘painting the town red’ in 1837)

“Poor frightened and timid doves, they may safely draw their night caps over their ears and sleep and snore in absolute security, as the idea of reviving the deeds of the practical jokers of fifty years ago has never been entertained. The present members of the Melton Hunt may resemble their predecessors in the pluck and courage, but have too much sense to emulate the mad frolics of a bygone era”.

The Melton Times, published a letter: “Sir, I hope you will allow me a small place in the Melton Times to say a word about the Midnight Steeplechase. Well, sir, we all know new brooms sweep clean, and, of course, no one expected to meet a clergyman, or a minister, on the ground, though if they had gone they would have found many of the flowers of their flocks there enjoying themselves to their hearts’ content, and not one there has ever said that he saw or heard anything bad.

The fact is, all this screeching is out of place. A lot of young gentlemen did in the night what thousands of people do every day-risked their necks- and like Englishmen all over the world, every man rushed to see it. But my object in writing to you, sir, is to ask these talking gentlemen what it is they want. Is it to throw hundreds of honest hard working chaps like me out of a good job by driving the gentry out of town and so bringing want to the door of many like myself”.

He signed himself “A stableman with a large family”.

So that is how a ‘lark’ arranged for a lady’s birthday became part of the history of hunting and local folklore.

Happy Birthday Lady Augusta!

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