Captain Hunt: “but to do and die”

6th August 2015

Tony Lake (with a little help from Lord Tennyson) recalls a Crimean War hero who gained further fame as a “gentleman rider”

When HM Troopship Birkenhead was wrecked off Danger Point near Gansbaai, South Africa, over 400 soldiers were lost, but George Hunt was not one of them. The young officer in the 12th Lancers had so impressed the Colonel of the 4th Light Dragoons that he had been transferred into his corps. Consequently, Hunt avoided that disaster of 26 February 1852, but was forever known by some as “Jonas”.  Following his exploits at the Charge of the Light Brigade, however, others called him "Balaclava" Hunt. On retiring from the army he plied his luck and courage on the racecourse.

George Warwick Hunt was born at George Terrace, Plymouth, 22 April 1833. He was the eldest child of the marriage between Emily Wooldridge Linzee, the daughter of Admiral Linzee, and Warwick Augustus Hunt, a lawyer. Once his formal education was completed he joined the army.

He sailed with his regiment to the Crimea and, on 25 October 1854, was riding “into the valley of death” at Balaclava. As the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars made their charge “Jonas” was in his element.  Arriving at the Russian guns, the young captain was oblivious to the “shot and shell” round him. “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them” Hunt decided to carry one of them away as a prize!

Dismounting, he slashed the leather traces only to find chains which could not be cut from the harness. Ordered to remount by Lord George Paget, “Back from the mouth of Hell” he had acquired the “Balaclava” nickname.  Gaining a reputation as the only subaltern in the Cavalry who never missed a single day's duty, it was said, that he volunteered for every perilous mission. The campaign, he always insisted, was the most enjoyable period of his life.

After the Peace of Paris, Hunt returned to England, married Miss Emma Taylor and settled in Market Harborough. He took up hunting, fishing and shooting, but turned to racing for the excitement he yearned.

Taking a number of rides at the Ascot Military Meeting in 1858, he won the opener with an all the way victory on his Little Gerard before finishing second on The Courier in the next. In 1859, he gained his most notable riding success when landing the Grand Military Gold Cup.  Run at Moor Hall Park, Sutton Coldfield, he partnered his own Goldsmith and made all the running to win easily, with the horse defying a 10Ib penalty for winning a Sweepstakes race “for officers of the Army” the day before.

After his resignation from the service was accepted in 1860, he sold his commission, and his blue, crimson sleeves and cap colours were seen far and wide.  He rode Brington in the inaugural National Hunt Chase, at Market Harborough, and took mounts at Slough, Stockbridge, Reading, Stamford, Chelmsford and Ipswich, where he drew plaudits in The Era for a driving finish against multiple-classic winning jockey John Wells. Riding  “Boldly... and well”, “Jonas” Hunt became recognised as one of the leading amateur riders.

Although he never rode in the Grand National, he came close to winning the race as an owner. Double handed in 1860, with The Huntsman and Goldsmith (the mount of Ben Land jun.), it was his 40/1 shot that he plunged on. The Huntsman, the mount of fellow Crimean War veteran Captain Townley, however, failed by a neck to give 26Ib to the Tommy Pickernell ridden, 7/2 favourite, Anatis.  Hunt gained some consolation when The Huntsman (Land up) won the Craven Chase at Coventry next time out and when he steered the bay to victory in the Veteran Stakes at Northampton. Unfortunately for Hunt, by the time the horse won the 1862 renewal of the Grand National he had sold him to Viscount de Namur.

Hunt rode extensively on the continent when “gentlemen riders” were resented by many locals who felt their livelihoods threatened. In the summer of 1862, when Emmanuel-Jean-Ludovic de Gramont, duc de Caderousse complained about “Mr Thomas” Pickernell taking rides at Camp de Châlons, Le Sport's editor, HL Dillon, wrote in support of his countryman.  Subsequently, he challenged Gramont to a duel, with Hunt acting as his second. When the former attaché chose rapiers as the weapons, Dillon, having never held one before, never had a chance when they met at St Germain.

Unperturbed by the likes of Gramont, M. le Captaine Hunt continued to ride regularly abroad. In 1865, he was amongst the winners at Deauville, with Count Lehndorf's Said, at Chantilly, securing Le Prix du Jeune Homme Pauvre on Count Dampierre's Benjamin, and at Baden-Baden, lifting the prestigious Damen Pries on Jarnicoton for the same owner.

It was at that fashionable Baden-Baden meeting that the resentment came to a head again when Hunt was accused of riding a non-trier by Monsieur Thomas. Taking umbrage, words and punches were exchanged before the Frenchman challenged “Jonas” to a duel. When the seconds met to arrange 'the fixture', Thomas's apologised for their friend's conduct, claiming that he was drunk, and cried off. The matter was quietly forgotten; but Captain Hunt's reputation soared amongst the Anglophiles.

At a time when gambling had reached near-epidemic proportions, “Jonas” was at the centre of the action, especially during “Sussex fortnight” when there was racing at Goodwood, Brighton and Lewes. Based in Mr Jinks's notorious club, Hunt's set gambled, raced, and drank all day and all night, or as long as their bodies or wallets permitted. He spent lavishly, often finding himself “financially embarrassed”, and had been declared bankrupt in 1871, but he insisted that "a good knife and fork was always ready at home”.

“Balaclava” Hunt gained a reputation for “forgetting” to settle small debts and being ready to "go out" and duel on the slightest provocation.  Nonetheless the man who “Came thro' the jaws of Death”  was always cheerful and ready to gamble. He died on the 15 October 1906, in Torquay, but his “glory will never fade”.