Humans 1, Foxes 0: from our Sports Correspondent

Show Navigation

By | From the Collections

Huntsmen in their red jackets, steam rising from huge horses on a frosty morning, the clamour of hounds: for many years this scene, immortalised on a thousand sporting prints or table mats, was a fixture in the British countryside and in particular on Boxing Day, December 26th. Even before the Hunting Act 2004 banned the practice and reduced packs of hounds to following a trail dragged by a human being, the scene was probably an exotic one to most of the inhabitants of what has long been a majority-urban country, something that played no role in their normal life.

As opinion polls show a general public contentment with the ban and no clear appetite for its repeal, the Boxing Day Hunt may eventually fade to a memory, to become just another one of those ways in which the past is a foreign country. One volume in the Wellcome Library’s archive collection, held as MS.7626, hammers home this difference by showing us fox-hunting through Victorian eyes.

Two mounted huntsmen in red jackets guide their horses over a hedge into a field where hounds are gathered around a fox

The Last Fence by G.L. Harrison. Wellcome Library no. 41661i.

Monday, Dec.18, was a day on which men merely went out for the amusement of the winds, who sported with them and beat them about to their hearts’ content. The Quorn faced the tempest at Ab Kettleby…Though most of the sporting fair shrank to-day into the shelter of carriages, two young ladies from Worcestershire set a brave example, paid no heed to the elements, and, what is more, made as light of the Leicestershire fences as if they were nothing but gorse hurdles.

One of the joys of the Wellcome Library’s holdings are their huge variety, and the way the reader can stumble over materials they never expected to be here. This is especially the case with archive material: a doctor’s personal papers can include not merely their professional life but also their spare-time interests, interests as variable as human beings are.

MS.7626 is a scrap-book assembled by the London doctor William Job Collins (1818-1884). Originally a ledger recording patients and treatments, during the 1870s this was filled by Collins with newsprint clippings, pasted over the patient details, relating to subjects of interest to him. There is considerable medical content, itself rather surprising to the 21st-century reader. With the benefit of considerable hindsight, and after the global eradication of smallpox, we tend to see Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination for smallpox as an unqualified triumph, an unquestioned good thing. (See our Jenner manuscripts here.) For some in the 19th century, however, Collins among them, it was a risky new process and its compulsory application was an affront to the liberties of the free-born Briton. The scrapbook brings together many reports of vaccination failures or problems along with campaigning pamphlets setting out the anti-vaccination case: in itself a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of those who found themselves on the wrong side of history on this issue.

Many of the cuttings, however, have no medical content, but instead take us to the world of fox-hunting: specifically, to a world in which fox-hunting was so mainstream that someone in London could follow it as avidly as people now might follow professional football. (Anthony Trollope, of course, another desk-bound Londoner, loved fox-hunting and as a treat to himself would include a hunting chapter in most of his novels, simply because he enjoyed writing them and doubtless found this the next best thing when he could not be out in the country actually doing it.)

Covering many pages are cuttings from magazines such as The Field, giving what are in effect match reports: relating runs by the Quorn, the Pytchley or other major hunts, and bringing the frosty fields and coverts of Leicestershire to the Londoner. The style is generally bluff and breezy, reeling off lists of villages, hills and coverts with a blithe assumption that the reader will know the country well, and at times to the modern reader it is so filled with jargon as to require careful decoding:

The few small inclosures below the frowning heights of Burrow afforded some extra jumping to those who were fond of it, or who thought the run was over; but the knowing ones threw an eye forward to the Punch Bowl close ahead, and saved all the wind they could to climb its rim. Up the steep ascent the hounds carried it noisily on, and, before the puffing panting quads could bring their respirations back to regulation time, Reynard had acted on an impression that the Bowl might be too hot to hold him, and was viewed away beyond… Those who meant to see what the hounds were doing had to ride fast and ride straight, and there were soon many painful discoveries… The ultimate fate has not transpired of the man who was left stuck half-way through a thick bullfinch…

Mounted huntsmen, many in tall top hats, chat on horseback.

A gathering of huntsmen in a valley, early 19th century lithograph. Wellcome Library no. 41665i.

Goadby Gorse was the next find; the day had cleared, and they went away as if for a burst. But a thorough Goady varmint merely skirted the village, and allowed himself to be killed in Goadby Bullamore, just as the field were warmed up for a gallop…

Page from William Job Collins’ scrapbook, MS. 7626 f.58v.

Page from William Job Collins’ scrapbook, MS. 7626 f.58v.

A finer sporting run could not be wished for. Of the fifty-two minutes up to Owston Wood, the greater part was fast going, and enough to make more than one high authority style it “a real gallop” before half of it had been accomplished… The country was just big enough to require a hunter of the true type; at each fence there was room enough for everybody; and the field rode wide of the hounds and behaved like so many tame doves….It ought to be mentioned that Earl Wilton was taking his old place, and riding up to the hounds with the nerve of the youngest, and the quietness and finish peculiar to himself.

A medical maverick and an avid armchair fox-hunter; as if this weren’t enough, Collins shoehorns plenty of other subjects into his scrap-book. There is, for instance, an extract from a spiritualist journal, The Medium and Daybreak, and extensive cuttings on an outbreak of diphtheria in Darmstadt in 1878 including the death of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria and Grand-Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt.

Perhaps the most startling topic, however, is closer to home: Collins engages in a protracted dispute with the Zoological Society of London over allegations that London Zoo allowed exotic animal dung to leak into the adjacent Regents Canal and thus affect the quality of life in his canalside home, just along the canal in Camden Town. All this is of course just up the road from the Wellcome Library. If you do visit us and take the opportunity for a stroll through the recently refurbished canalside areas behind Kings Cross, keep your nostrils alert for the scent of lion dung.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

See more posts by this author

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts