The Midnight Steeplechase

By David Bowles and Gillian Lane

A famous engraving of the exciting finish to the midnight steeplechase.

A famous engraving of the exciting finish to the midnight steeplechase. (Click to enlarge.)

The night of Monday the 10th March 1890 was dark and cloud covered. But what happened on this evening was to go down in the annals of history and hunting legend. This was the night of The Midnight Steeplechase.

Picture the scene: eleven riders dressed in hunting gear – with nightwear on top – trying to jump fences on a course they couldn’t see in the pitch dark. Cheered on by hundreds of spectators who could not see – or be seen.

Sounds chaotic. And it was. But let’s go back a few days, to the Friday before, to see how this event came into being. Melton Mowbray at this time was the place to be; positioned at the centre of the three most prestigious hunts in England. A fact which enabled them to hunt nearly every day of the week.

This was the winter home for the hunting season for lords, ladies, soldiers, maharajas, princes and future kings; a vibrant place where anyone who was anyone came.

Shops were numerous and bustling; stables and livery bursting at the seams. And any house of standing rented out for the season. It was at this time when many of the landed gentry built their own ‘hunting boxes’ – large well appointed houses built with stables and yards to which they could return year after year.

The Friday had been a good day for hunting, with fine weather and a large field. So it was a contented group who sat down to dinner that evening at the Old Club in Burton Street as guests of that fine horsewoman, Lady Augusta Fane, and her husband Cecil.

Among the guests were Gordon Wilson and Algernon Burnaby of the Royal Horseguards, as well as A Hill Trevor and Walter de Winton of the First Life Guards, who were residing at the Bell Hotel. It was these ‘boys from the Bell’ who insisted on celebrating Lady Augusta’s birthday on the following Monday with ‘a lark’.

Eventually, the idea of a steeplechase by moonlight was suggested. The ‘boys from the Bell’, being in the Household Cavalry, would no doubt have been aware of a previous event in 1837, when two officers of the Dragoons had raced by moonlight in their nightshirts and caps. Thereby establishing a tradition which would be continued on the occasion of Lady Augusta’s birthday,

What does a day of fine hunting, raised spirits and copious drinking have to answer for? On Sunday afternoons, it was the tradition for members of the Melton Hunt to tour each others stables. So it was on this day that Lady Augusta, together with Colonel Baldock (who had agreed to be the starter and judge of the race), visited The Spinney, a large estate near Thorpe Arnold, the home of Mr and Mrs Alfred Brocklehurst.

Along with Mr ‘Buck’ Barclay they ‘walked’ the course. The course, which was on land then occupied by Mr Gunby (close to what is now known as Twinlakes), was already used by Mr Brocklehurst and Mr Barclay as a schooling ground for steeplechasers.

It would consist of six fences arranged in an ‘L’ shape – each of which would be jumped twice, out and back. Everything was now in place and all concerned were eagerly looking forward to the event.

The “Old Club”

On the Monday, as usual, a fine day’s hunting took place and any notion of secrecy about the evening’s events were dispelled by whispers of times and venues.

That Monday evening saw some twenty five dinner guests entertained at the Old Club, including the riders, Count Zborowski , Willie Chaplin, brothers Gerald, Sidney and Otho Paget, Algernon Burnaby, Gordon Wilson, Captain Rawlinson, Mr Heneage, Charles McNeil and Captain Warner.

Lady Augusta takes up the story: “The dining room looked so gay, with the men in red evening coats and white breeches and the women in smart day dresses about 9.30 our groom sent in word that heavy clouds were obscuring the moon.

“No one would hear of the race being postponed, so Colonel Baldock came to the rescue and offered to go to the Midland Railway station to borrow lamps and a van, which he succeeded in doing through the obliging assistance of the stationmaster, Mr Bedlington.

“Taking a porter and some willing helpers with him, he drove to the course and had lamps fixed to poles, put on either side of each of the fences. And one lamp was hung on the top of a tall tree where the riders had to turn for home.

“In the meantime, we were fitting out the eleven competitors with white nightshirts to be worn over their red coats. Some had brought their own shirts, some had not and they had to be supplied. I lent a pink gossamer nightie, beribboned and frilled to Algy Burnaby, which caused much laughter and merriment as he struggled to get into it.”

Lord Melgund confirmed this later remarking; “The nightshirts were so much frilled that I suspected Lady Gussy had issued a supply”. Otho Paget continues;

“Shortly before midnight the horses were brought to the door and their iron-shod hoofs clattering on the cobblestones awoke the vicar from his sleep. (The vicarage being next door to the Old Club where the Blakeney Institute now stands).

“Someone must have made a mistake with the almanac, as instead of a full moon which we had been told to expect, it was a pitch dark night.”

The Melton Mowbray Mercury continues: “Near upon 11 o’clock, unmistakable signs were observed, when heavily laden drags, an omnibus, the parcel vans of the two railways, carriages with their fair occupants and flaming lamps and men on horseback, rattled down Sherrard Street on their way to Gunby’s Lodge, near the Melton Spinnies.

“In a trice, the foot people turned out in their hundreds. The traps of the butcher, baker and publican were requisitioned, and to the refrain of ‘We’ll all go a hunting today’, they proceeded to the scene of the action.”

Everyone made their way along Thorpe Road, up Spinney Back Lane to a point just before the top of the hill. Certain sections of the crowd indulged in a fair amount of horseplay and raucous behaviour. Lady Augusta was surprised to find “the whole countryside had come to see the sport; broughams, brakes and vehicles of every description came rolling through the town and took up their position on the hill”.

The Melton Mowbray Times reported that: “The company included the elite of the town and neighbourhood and the fair sex turned out in extraordinary numbers, including many Grandes Dames of quite the upper crust, who, took the most intense interest in the contest.

“Having gained the hill, the scene was one to be remembered for a lifetime. Far in the distance could be seen streams of floating lights moving along the road like so many glow worms approaching at a rapid rate the scene of conflict.

“The advent of the competitors on the ground, their nightshirts inflated by the wind, caused a complete sensation and roused the excitement of the onlookers to the highest pitch and the cheers and cries which had greeted them on their way to the course were again and again renewed.

“Some of the nightshirts aroused the interest and curiosity of many of the ladies, for whether it was an optical [delusion] or not, our correspondent will not vouch (he had dined), but it seemed to his bewildered imagination as if they were adorned with lovely frillings and trimmings, the use or object of which our correspondent pleads ignorance”.

The scene was now set. Colonel Baldock sounded a warning horn to call the competitors together and pointed out the course. The start and the finish were to be at the same point, in a gateway, the posts of which would be the winning posts, however, it was pointed out that in the event of a close finish this might present a danger and the finishing line was amended.

The first rider over the last fence would be the winner. Whilst this discussion was taking place, Otho Paget’s horse has wheeled away taking his unfortunate rider out of earshot of the starter’s instructions.

The next installment: the race and local reaction.

2 Comments

  1. You may be interested to know that one of the participants, Count Elliott Zborowski, later became a pioneer motor racing driver. Sadly he was killed whilst competing in the 1903 La Turbie hill climb near Nice in France.

    His son, Louis, also became a racing driver after the First World War. His cars, the Chitty Bang Bangs, which he raced at Brooklands, were the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s children’s book ” Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. Louis also died in a racing accident in the 1924 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

    Both are buried in the churchyard at Burton Lazars

  2. There’s another comment about Count Zborowski here.
    I’ve also just posted a then and now shot of Burton Lazars Church which I thought might be of interest. Click here to view it.

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