“Mr. Peter Delme’s Hounds on the Hampshire Downs”, by James Seymour, 1738.
“Fox-hunting as we know it,” the social historian Roy Porter wrote, “was a Georgian invention.” He was, of course, referring to people on horseback, with a pack of specially-bred fox-hounds, chasing a fox across the countryside. Of the famous East Midlands hunts, the Quorn was founded in the 1770s, along with the Pytchley, the Belvoir and the Cottesmore. Foxes were hunted before then, primarily as a form of vermin control, but it was done on foot, with dogs, and probably involved finding a fox’s trail and following it back to its den. Even so, packs of hounds bred to hunt foxes were already known in the late 1600s in England and it was from these that the hounds used by mounted hunters were developed.
Hunting as an Upper-class Sport
It’s important to make the distinction between hunting as a sport and hunting for food. Foxes are obviously inedible. Oscar Wilde famously described the sport as “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable!” In earlier times, hunting wild boar, deer and hares, for example, all began as a means of obtaining fresh meat, especially in the winter after the vast bulk of domesticated animals had been slaughtered, because sufficient food to keep them alive and fed over the hard times was unavailable. Where foxes were hunted, it was because they were seen as vermin to be kept under control. This made them very much a lower-class quarry, where hunting the deer was the preserve of kings and aristocrats.
By Georgian times, wild boar were extinct in Britain and deer had mostly to be kept in fenced deer parks, making hunting them still very much the preserve of the richest in society. Improved agriculture and land enclosure made setting aside large tracts of land in this way beyond the resources even of most of the lower aristocracy and the gentry. Besides, that same improved agriculture, especially the introduction of turnips and forage crops, made it increasingly possible for cattle, pig and sheep-farming to provide year-round supplies of fresh meat.
Paradoxically, this progressive removal of the need to hunt for meat made the activity itself, viewed as a sport, more desirable. For a start, it proclaimed you had what was necessary to stake part in such a “useless” activity; the wealth to afford the highly-bred horses and hounds required and the leisure to indulge yourself in that way. In short, hunting on horseback became a badge of affluence and status, irrespective of the animal being hunted. Given that foxes were plentiful, and killing them could be seen as beneficial to farmers, they became almost the ideal prey — even more so given their wily nature and running ability.
This produced an obvious paradox too. If fox hunts were too successful — and too frequent — the number of foxes in a locality would fall to a level where there would be insufficient to make even a minority of hunts into chases. The inevitable result was a level of protection for foxes, in order to have sufficient to hunt in the winter months, despite the proclaimed purpose of protecting chickens and lambing ewes in the spring. Even in the early 18th century, we find records of payments made for this reason. In the Holkham household accounts on November 20th 1721, for example, there is a record of a payment “to a shepheard for preserving foxes: 13s 6d”. That was a significant amount of money in those days too; perhaps two or three months’ wages for an agricultural labourer.
Better Horses and Hounds
If you owned an extensive estate, as most of the gentry and aristocracy did in Georgian times, developing its usefulness for hunting would increase your status as well. Friends, acquaintances and anyone suitable you wished to impress could be invited to visit to take part in a hunt.
It was also during Georgian times that specialist breeding of thoroughbred horses for racing became a significant and sometimes even profitable business. Similar horses were also required for fox-hunting, with the advantage that there were many more fox hunts than race meetings at which you could show off your beasts. At a time when the vast majority of horses were seen as merely utilitarian creatures, spending your money on rearing and maintaining a stable of animals useful for no purpose other than riding to hounds was yet another means of proclaiming your wealth and status to everyone in the neighbourhood.
The Norfolk Connection
While researching this topic, I discovered that although fox-hunting came to be most associated with the counties of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland, significant advances in the breeding of both hounds and horses can be traced to Georgian Norfolk, especially the great estates of Houghton, Holkham and Raynham.
In the early 1720s, Sir Robert Walpole already kept two packs of hounds specifically for hunting foxes and hares, using them up to six days in the week. The Holkham accounts record that one William Pickford was paid £102 in June 1718 for “keeping ye foxhounds 34 weeks at Beck Hall”. George Townsend at Raynham kept hounds for fox-hunting between 1752 and 1772 and Thomas Coke was styled master of the Norfolk Foxhounds from 1775 to 1797.
Norfolk and Norfolk grandees were at the forefront of hound breeding from the late seventeenth century onwards. In 1767, Lord Townsend of Raynham was drawing hounds’ family trees in his own hand with notes and reminders to himself about his plans for future breeding. The Raynham hound registers and correspondence of the 1760s reveal a widespread network of breeding links all over East Anglia and the Midlands.
A piece of doggerel verse of 1791 records:
… now the dogs were laid on and no merrier sounds
Ever came from the Holkham or Leicestershire hounds
Nor sweeter the cry that our ears could assail
In Pytchley’s thick covers or Belvoir’s stiff vale …
And since Taverham pack can hunt foxes with Meynells
More sport when so e’er he another unkennels.
(Taverham is a village near Norwich)
A Wider Country Pursuit?
So why did what began as the private outdoor recreation of the aristocracy and country squires developed into an important feature of rural society, with a significance out of all proportion to its role as a sport?
I suspect the main reason was the comparative ease with which lesser gentry and even tenant farmers could partake in a sport with obvious aristocratic and high-status overtones. All you needed was a single riding horse sufficiently capable of following the hunt across country. You might not be able to afford anything better — or to follow the hounds that often — but so long as you could ride well enough not to get in the way or make a fool of yourself, you could still take part as a hunt follower. And since, if you were a tenant of a fox-hunting squire, his hounds were going to cross your fields and maybe damage your crops, whether you agreed or not, you might as well take part and curry what favour you could from the elite of the sport in your locality.