Marlborough is surrounded by top-flight racehorse trainers – it is a carefully regulated business. In Victorian times it was all very different with scandalous behaviour among some of England’s owners, trainers, jockeys and bookies.
Race meetings were barely organised at all – with mounted police clearing spectators off tracks. The 1867 Derby had 30 runners and 10 false starts – delaying the race by an hour.
Though in those days Marlborough trainers and racing enthusiasts did have the advantage of a racecourse as nearby as Hungerford.
We find a detailed view of the ‘turf’ in the second half of the nineteenth century in Paul Mathieu’s colourful new book Duel. With careful research, he tells the story of a headline grabbing society scandal that led to a serious rivalry between to two wealthy racehorse owners. As the book’s subtitle puts it: “How Lord Hastings stole ‘The Pocket Venus’ and how her fiancé was avenged.”
The central character in this fascinating book is Henry Charles Weysford Plantagenet Rawsdon-Hastings, 4th Marquis of Hastings. He inherited the title – and numerous other noble titles – when he was nine. By his twenties he was living the high life and breakfasting on mackerel soused in gin, devilled caviar and a bottle of claret.
The ‘Pocket Venus’ was the very beautiful and petite Lady Florence Paget, who had accepted the second proposal of Henry Chaplin, a Lincolnshire landowner. But on the eve of the wedding, which was to be the society event of the year, she ran off with the Marquis of Hastings and married him – a ‘quickie marriage’ before her family could intervene.
Both men had been at Oxford. But while Chaplin played cricket there for the Bullingdon Club XI, Harry Hastings partook in Bullingdon-type ‘japes’. To take an example from Mathieu’s book, Harry and a friend emptied two sacks full of sewer rats onto the crowded floor of a dance academy. What a jape!
Chaplin was handsome, imposing, and a friend of royalty. Hastings was dissolute and unhealthy. He spent his evenings in drinking dens or at cockfights, and his nights in gaming clubs.
When nothing else was available to bet on, he invented spider racing. He might have got through his fortune even faster had the Victorians thought of FOBTs.
Above all, he was addicted to reckless betting on the string of 50 racehorses he stabled with trainer John Day at the famed Danebury yard, close to Stockbridge on the Wiltshire-Hampshire border.
Hastings was fixated on winning the Derby. And this gave Henry Chaplin an idea for revenge – he wanted to punish Hastings for stealing his fiancée. So he spent heavily on expensive bloodstock – intending to win the Derby before Hastings.
The two men’s feud reached its climax at the Derby of 1867. When Chaplin had bought the colt Hermit, Hastings had been the under-bidder. Hermit – also quite petite at about 15.2 hands – had a successful season as a two-year-old and was seen as a good Derby prospect.
However, as Hermit had been off the track for 220 days since his last race as a two-year-old, a ‘rehearsal’ was held a Newmarket – ten days before the big race. During it, Hermit suffered a burst blood vessel – there were rumours he would not make the race.
Hastings decided to bet against Hermit. And he bet against Hermit very heavily for several months before the race. His total liabilities on the race were over £10 million in today’s money. With Hermit’s injury, his boldness seemed to have been rewarded.
But Hermit recovered and on a bitterly cold Derby Day, at long odds and with a new and gentler jockey, Hermit won by a neck. Racegoers considered the result a scandal. For Hastings it meant ruin. It also ruined the Danebury training yard which had once boasted 100 horses and some great results.
That was the end of the duel between Henry Chaplin and Harry Hastings. Hastings was dead a year later at the age of 26 – his health wrecked and his possessions in hock. All his horses sold to pay his money-lenders and banks.
Hastings suffered from casual extravagance and reckless gambling. In the five years since his majority, Hastings is “…reckoned to have burned through half a million pounds – over £40 million in today’s money.”
Marlborough.news asked Paul Mathieu whether he concluded that Hastings was just a bounder: “He was a bounder…he had a reckless appetite for low life. If he hadn’t spread his money around, it would have been most dangerous to be haunting the places he did. He also had redeeming qualities. He settled his debts and paid his bills. And he took jokes made at his expense in good part.”
“He blew away a huge family fortune to no purpose but the benefit of saloon barflies, bookies and money-lenders.”
Chaplin married and served for 39 years as an MP for a Lincolnshire constituency. He lost his seat in 1906, but soon won a by-election – against Bertrand Russell. He married happily. But his wife died following complications with the birth of their third child.
Lady Florence married again. Bizarrely she married a man obsessed with horses and gambling who gamed the system so hard he offended the Jockey Club and was “…eased off the Turf.”
There is only one footnote in Paul Mathieu’s book, but hidden away on every page, as asides and as context, are enough gems of racing history and human folly to make any dull footnote blush.
We learn not just about the ringers, the late withdrawal of runners and the many ‘contemptible brigands’ of the gambling world. But also about how racing was changing – slowly. The regime of harsh – even cruel – training of racehorses was ending. Chaplin’s depiction in Vanity Fair magazine of 1874 described him as ‘A turf reformer’.
Hastings’ scandalous life was followed by ‘The Clear Up’ – an intriguing chapter in Duel following the winding paths as his devious affairs were sorted out.
And scandal followed him beyond his death: the imputation in The Times’ obituary was “…that Hastings had cheated on Lady Florence – without any attempt to be discreet”. It caused outrage. Even bounders should not have their dirty linen aired in public – this was, after all, the upright and discreet Victorian Age.
Duel by Paul Mathieu is published this week by [write first time] at £20. It has 320 pages and 34 colour and black-and-white illustrations. It is available at The White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough or via https://shop1.racingpost.com