The First House of Commons Steeplechase, 1889

18th February 2014

As the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art takes a step closer Tony Lake looks at the story behind one of his favourite sporting paintings.

It started out as something to relieve the boredom; it made for a great day out, but ended acrimoniously.  That’s politicians for you.

The British Empire extended a quarter of the globe but MPs did not have enough to do so someone suggested a members’ horserace. On Wednesday, 20th March, 1889, the Speaker’s counsel, Mr Chandos Leigh, invited interested parties to his rooms and the idea of an annual steeplechase was warmly taken up by both sides.  Funds were raised and a race was set for 1.30 on Saturday, April 6th at Banbury Cross. Lord Chesham, Mr Fitzwilliam and Mr Chaplin were appointed as stewards with Lord Chesham in charge of choosing the course, which was to be kept secret until the last moment and the country not known to any member.

The conditions of the race were clearly stated: only members of the House of Commons were allowed to enter; they had to ride their own hunter at catchweights, at a minimum weight of 13 stones.  They must have owned their horse since February 1st and hunted him in the season.  The horse must not have raced under rules.  A trifling £2 sweepstake was set so as not to exclude any member. (NB MPs were not paid at the time).

Lord Chesham got to work straight away and, after finding the Banbury country unsuitable, decided to locate the race near Buckingham.  Meanwhile Lord Valentia was appointed as the judge and Mr Chandos Leigh the starter.  The North Western Railway Co agreed to put on a special train from Euston.

Amidst national interest the riders gradually stepped forward with their two pounds stake. All shades of politics were represented, but the Worcestershire press felt a little hard done by when they realised that their MPs were “unlikely to take part since they are more senatorial rather than steeplechasers,” however, it was made clear that they would be attending the occasion.

On the morning of the race, at 10.30, a crowded train left Euston, with the majority of the gentlemen attired in hunting pink since even if they were not competing they would follow the race on horseback. The Times noted that about sixty MPs and Parliamentary officials boarded the train including as well as “goodly sprinkling” of ladies.

At 12.30 the train arrived at Buckingham station, and what had been a cloudy and misty morning had cleared away into a gloriously sunny afternoon. The competitors made their way to awaiting traps and travelled a further six miles to the Swan Hotel at Chetwode to declare to race. Unfortunately, Buckingham had not anticipated such a turn out and some would-be spectators failed to get a cart or trap to the course and, being unprepared to walk, spent the afternoon in the little market town. Racing professionals also missed out on the day since it clashed with the most valuable stakes race ever staged, the Prince of Wales Stakes, at Leicester, the International Chase at Leopardstown, the Eglington Hunt meeting and the  Household Brigades’ meeting at Windsor.

At Chetwode the riders met Lord Chesham who revealed the three and a half mile course to them.  It extended from Hillesdon to Chetwold comprising of “some of the stiffest of the Bicester country,” it was “mostly grassland but one or two ploughed fields and a difficult brook.”  The consensus of opinion was that it was “fair hunting country and the jumps were the same taken in the hunting season”.

As the riders familiarised themselves with the course, on a perfect spring day with “unwonted heat,” about 300 spectators gathered around the finish.  Luncheon was served on the grass where flags were hoisted, and a picnic took place amidst a party atmosphere.  It was reported that most of the ladies had ridden to the course so were “dressed sensibly, rather than fashionably, with most wearing closely cut tailor-made jackets”.  Lady Doreen Long, the wife of Mr Walter Long MP, caught the eye on a beautiful black horse, which she kept under perfect control.

Due to one reason and another Hon Lewis Dawney, Lord Earnest Hamilton and Mr Lambert could not take part and eventually twelve runners were due to face the starter. The punters had to make up their minds and scanned the runners and riders:

  1. Bazeley White Mr J on 'horse', 13 st 6 ¾ Ib(without saddle)
  2. Bentinck Lord Henry on Border Chief, 13st 10 ½ Ib (without saddle)
  3. Davenport Mr Bromley on Berkshire, 13st 6Ib
  4. Fitzwilliam Mr J on Marcellus, 13st 13Ib
  5. Flower Mr Cyril on Farmer, 13st 8 ½ Ib (without saddle)
  6. Heath Colonel on Kismet, 13st
  7. Lees  Mr Elliot on Damon, 13st 2Ib
  8. Long Mr W on 'horse', 13st 8 ½ Ib
  9. Mildmay Mr F B on 'horse', 13st 3Ib
  10. Muntz Mr P A on Dauntless, 15st 4 ¼  Ib (without saddle)
  11. Newark Lord on 'horse', 13st
  12. Weston Jarvis Mr J on Conjuror, 13 st

In what was thought to be a very open race plenty of bets were struck.  Dauntless perhaps had too much weight whilst Marcellus, the very recently imported Irish horse, was well fancied even if Mr Fitzwilliam was not that well acquainted with him.

The riders were slow getting to the start having been delayed weighing out at Warr’s Farm but eventually the race got underway at 2.30. The ground, owing to recent rains, was heavy and slippery, especially in the early stages, and many spills were anticipated. They were off to a good start with Mr Muntz making the running with Mr Fitzwilliam last.

At the third, Mr Bromley Davenport was the first to come to grief, though he pluckily remounted and chased his eleven rivals, and was eventually one of those who completed the course. After a mile and a quarter, Lord Henry Bentinck fell when jumping out of a road and Jarvis’s mount broke down. At half way the order was: Lees, Mildmay, Flower, Fitzwilliam, Long and Davenport, the rest were tailed off with Muntz’s chances sunk in the heavy ground.

The pace was good throughout, with Mr Lees and Mr Mildmay disputing the lead. The pair was still some 50 yards in front with a mile and a quarter to go with Mr Cyril Flower in third. At the stiff brook (known as Mill Ditch) Mildmay was unseated and so was Lees, but Flower negotiated the jump safely and went for home.  Lees quickly remounted and dashed off in hot pursuit.  He narrowed the gap to a length and was considered an unlucky loser by most, but others felt that Flower had won cleverly.

Although he may have won the race cleverly the member for South Bedfordhire and Gladstone’s whip then badly blundered.  As he received hearty congratulations he flippantly re-named his horse “Home Rule,” in deference to the most contentious political topic of the day. Radicals loved it and saw it as an omen with one paper seeing the result as a “prophetic victory”.

Others were not so impressed and a row ensued. A blind eye had been turned when Flower contravened the conditions of the race but now that it appeared he was attempting to make political capital out of the day an objection was lodged.  Mr Flower had rode “Home Rule” (brown gelding by Danby) to the start but that animal proved fractious so was withdrawn and he rode “The Sultan” (by Palmer) instead. He was objected to on the grounds that that horse had raced under rules, which made him eligible. Mr Lees, who was sitting in his first parliament and only twenty eight years old, did not want to object but relented after the other competitors insisted.

Mr Cyril Farmer, was the eldest of a very sporting Australian family, a rich man himself, made richer by marrying Constance Rothschild, the daughter of Sir Anthony Rothschild, and was acutely embarrassed by the whole unseemly affair.  The Harrow and Trinity College educated man owned up; admitting under Sir Henry James arbitration, that his horse had indeed contravened the rules so was disqualified. Mr Lees was declared the winner.

Credit: Palace of Westminster

The MP still embarrassed vowed to spend the prize money on a cup to be competed for in future. However, the idea of a perpetual trophy was not considered a good one and he had to come up with another idea. On 11th May he hosted a dinner at his Queen Anne’s gate residence and invited all those who took part as well as Lord Ernest Hamilton, who was too ill to ride, Mr Chandos Leigh, Mr Gossett (sergeant at arms) and Mr W B Thornhill his private secretary. As a surprise before each of the guests was an exquisitely modelled silver horse mounted on black marble which bore the following inscription: “Souvenir of the first House of Commons point to point race, 6th April, 1889” and also the Westminster portcullis.

In July, the 12 members who took part, sat for a young artist, Godfrey Douglas Giles, and the First House of Commons Steeplechase was immortalised.  That painting is part of the Palace of Westminster collection but is now on loan and displayed in the Museum.  For once we can be grateful to politicians.

The Result:

  1. Mr Elliot Lees          (Conservative Oldham)                    Damon
  2. Mr J Fitzwilliam      (Liberal Unionist Peterborough)   Marcellus
  3. Mr F B Mildmay      (Liberal Unionist Devon)                horse

Mr Cyril Flower Home Rule disqualified