Ascot in the eighteenth century

16th June 2014

With the Royal meeting upon us Tony Lake answers some questions about Ascot in the 1700s

When did racing start at Ascot?

The origins of the Royal Ascot meeting date back to the reign of Queen Anne who loved riding and frequently raced her own horses at Newmarket.  One day in 1711, she was travelling to the royal kennels on East Cote Heath when she realised it was the perfect location for a racecourse and gave orders for one to be constructed there. Later that year on Saturday, August 11th, surrounded by a brilliant entourage, she drove from Windsor Castle to watch the first race, "Her Majesty's Plate".  The race was worth 100 guineas and attracted seven runners, each carrying 12st. and comprised of three separate four-mile heats. Unfortunately, we do not know who won the race, since the results were not recorded.  It was claimed that the task had been left to the author Jonathan Swift, but he didn’t get to the races in time.  Queen Anne died on 1st August, 1714 and the meeting that year was abandoned.

Were Queen Anne’s immediate successors as interested in racing as she was?

The Hanoverians rarely saw eye to eye, but both George I and George II were lukewarm towards racing. Although racing returned to Ascot in 1720, with a two-day meeting, no meetings took place between 1731 and 1734, in 1737, nor between 1738 and 1743.

So how was racing revived at Ascot?

It was the appointment of the Duke of Cumberland as the Ranger of Windsor Forest that really changed the fortunes of the racecourse. The Duke, the third son of George II, was a great patron of the Turf, and remembered as the breeder of Eclipse. After he defeated the Jacobites at Culloden in 1745, he devoted himself to racing and proved to be a great supporter of Ascot.  Once his uncle, George III came to the throne, in 1760, Ascot thrived as a distinguished race meeting.

What else took place on the Heath during the meeting?

The meeting was the catalyst to a host of other entertainments and diversions. Cockfighting, E O (a type of roulette), three card tricks, wrestling and prize-fighting were all part of the scene and at least once there was even a duel.

During the 1784 meeting, Mr Rose, a brewer from Kingston, and a Dick England fell out over a game of dice.  England won £200 from Rose, but Rose suspected that England had cheated and refused to pay up. The men argued and agreed to settle their difference like gentlemen and a duel with pistols was fought near Cranford Bridge. On the fourth shot Mr Rose was fatally wounded.

The meeting tended to attract all sorts of gamblers at a time when gambling was rife.  In 1768, a leading lady of fashion was at the centre of a £5,000 wager: that she could ride a hundred miles in ten hours. The bet was made by her husband.  Furthermore he was prepared to double the bet if anyone doubted that she would eat a leg of lamb as well as drink two bottles of claret en route. Regrettably the media of the day failed to report the outcome.

Was racing always the main feature?

Usually but not always, and sometimes the racing played second fiddle to a display of patriotism. In 1794, the news had just come through that Lord Howe’s fleet had defeated the French Revolutionary navy off Ushant, in a battle known as “The Glorious First of June”. When King George III and his family arrived at Ascot to watch the races, they were greeted with frenzied cheering.

Were ladies’ fashioned always a feature of the meeting?

Definitely and some always bordered on the outrageous.  In Queen Anne's day, fashion was influenced by Louis XIV’s royal court at Versailles, with big Watteau necklines and wide pannier skirts. However, Miss Forester, Queen Anne's maid of honour, was the first to cause controversy by wearing a man's riding habit. Some 60 years later it was Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire turning heads with her large black 'Gainsborough' hat and a free-flowing muslin dress tied simply with ribbon round the waist.

But what do we know about the racing?

Unfortunately, during the eighteenth century few records were kept. A day’s racing would usually consist of two races, typically run over two four-mile heats, and private matches. It was not until 1796 that two-year-old races came into fashion and became a permanent fixture. Little is known of the jockeys, but undoubtedly among the most famous to have ridden at Ascot included Sam Chifney, John Arnull and Frank Buckle.

Most of the races were for King’s Plates, but the Duke of Cumberland’s successor as Ranger of Windsor Forest, his nephew (also the Duke of Cumberland), offered a cup as a prize for the first time in 1772. He introduced a four mile race for five-year-olds; however, it did not prove to be popular and it resulted in a walk-over for his Maria. The Gold Cup, as we know it, was not run until 1807.

As for the actual racing perhaps the greatest race held during the eighteenth century on Ascot Heath was the Oatlands Stakes, run on Tuesday, June 28th, 1791. 19 starters were to race over two miles for 2,950 guineas and the racing world went wild. All manner of people descended upon the racecourse from all over the country to witness the contest. Predictably, the betting was frenetic and it’s reputed that nearly a half a million pounds changed hands.

As the leaders rounded for home, five were in with a chance and the crowd were hysterical. Then a stride before the line, Chifney, riding the Prince of Wales' Baronet, lunged to the front to win by half a length.  Not only did the Prince of Wales win the substantial prize, but was said to have won more than £17,000 from his bets. The Times reported that the King rode up to his son and congratulated him on his success. Though he “had made many a baronet,” he observed, he had “never before heard of any knight securing a victory by running!”