Nicola here. I live near a racing village and today I’m reflecting on the pleasures of race going in the Georgian and Regency periods in my local area. I’ve been researching this not for a book I’m writing but for a talk I gave yesterday for the National Trust on gambling in the early 19th century. In 1836 one member of the Craven family of Ashdown House bet 8000 pounds (about the equivalent of 400 000 pounds or 625 000 dollars in modern terms) against the favourite, Bay Middleton, in the Derby race. He lost. All that money lost on one horse in one race…
Arriving in Style
First you had to get to your racecourse, and a spectator’s means of transport, mode of arrival and accommodation was defined by his class. The nobility and gentry, naturally, had their own carriages whilst families slightly lower down the social scale would arrive at the racecourse in a hired post-chaise which could travel at up to eight miles per hour and cost between sixpence and one shilling per mile.
The vast majority of spectators, however, arrived at a racecourse on foot and thought nothing of walking up to 15 miles to get there. The cheapest carriage that offered a public service was the covered wagon. The horse was led by a wagonner on foot and the vehicle travelled at walking pace. There are plenty of records of racing crowds travelling to the races at Newbury and Reading by stagecoach as well. These were drawn by four horses, carried six people inside and up to eleven clinging to the outside and in the late 18th century they charged fourpence per mile for the inside passengers and twopence for the outside ones. At seven to ten miles an hour travel by stage could be both dangerous and nausea-inducing, particularly at night on the downhill sections of the road.
The diligence was smaller and more comfortable than the stagecoach, carrying only four passengers inside and drawn by two horses. This also operated to a public timetable. Prices depended on whether it was a two wheeled variety or the more superior four wheeled one.
The other alternative for some racecourses, depending on situation, was to arrive by water. Many rivers were navigable in the period. The Oxford races were served by the river Thames and with the opening of the canal system from the late 18th century onwards race-goers might have the option of a public boat service. From 1810 the Kennet and Avon Canal ran a twice-weekly passenger barge which had priority over the slower goods barges.
There was no charge for entry to the racecourse for those who arrived either on foot or on horseback but carriages paid for the privilege of parking where there was a good view of the track. By 1800 most courses had grandstands where for the sum of five shillings the middle classes, and ladies in particular, could buy a comfortable view of the course away from the common crowds. The other benefit of the grandstand was that it was covered, which gave some protection against the weather, either stifling heat or a downpour of rain. In her letters Jane Austen mentions the Basingstoke Races of 1813 as being a complete washout and at Abingdon in 1828 the fashionable ladies were drenched (presumably they had not bought grandstand seats) and the horses were apparently running knee deep in water.
Coaching inns in towns such as Marlborough, Newbury and Reading did extremely well for custom during race weeks when they were usually full to overflowing. The other alternative for accommodation was to rent a house in the town for the period of the race meeting and some enterprising homeowners would either let their entire house or would rent out individual rooms. The inns offered special fixed price meals for race-goers during the period, rather like booking in for dinner, bed and breakfast these days. Usually the gentlemen and the ladies ate separately, though in 1829 the Star Inn at Oxford introduced mixed tables which must have caused quite a stir!
The Georgian age was characterised by excessive gambling by the upper classes on just about anything that moved and some things that didn’t: horse races, beetle races, raindrop races, cards, cockfights, prize-fights, billiards and pedestrianism were a few of the events or sports that could be bet upon. Gentlemanly wagers at the races were initially conducted on a credit basis, one to one, off the course but in response to the demand for some fixed premises for these deals, Richard Tattersall, a horse auctioneer, set up the first betting shop at Hyde Park Corner in 1815. The entry conditions for Tattersalls were both financially and socially stringent, demanding as good a breeding in the customer as in the horse, as well as financial liquidity. Nor was gambling on the horses confined to men. A poem by Lord Abingdon called Adieu to the Turf makes reference to creditors circling Lady Bampfylde who was a racehorse owner and prominent patron and gambler.
Further down society, wealthy farmers were showing an interest in field sports and gambling. They would think nothing of losing £40 a day (several thousand pounds in today’s terms) at one race meeting. And amongst the working classes a day at the races was also popular. In 1784 La Rochefoucauld commented that: “a great number of people economise all through the year for the pleasure of risking the product of a year’s privation on one five-minute fling.”
In the beginning, racing wagers were unwritten and were settled the following day at the local coffee house. However by 1805 betting stands had become a feature of most racecourses with bookmakers called blacklegs. These were generally men from humble origins whose name derived from the top boots they wore because they could not afford stockings. Many were men of their word when it came to settling betting winnings but it was not unknown for a blackleg to decamp from the course without paying out to his customers.
It took some time for race results to become known as there was no mass communication. Mail coach drivers were crucial in spreading the word of the results of important meetings. For really vital results carrier pigeons and even trail-trained hounds might be used to carry the news to interested parties in the surrounding coutryside. I love the idea of a beagle arriving at your door with the racing results attached to it's collar!
This was of course the age of both national and private lotteries so the opportunities for betting were not confined to the horses. One racecourse ran raffles during race week with valuable prizes such as a “high bred bay mare” one year and a four wheeled post chaise another. There were plenty of other ways to lose your money at the racecourse as well, including gambling sideshows such as the game of pitch and toss for money. Between 1805 and 1815 the town of Newbury in Berkshire banned EO betting (the precursor to roulette) in the town in race week so that gamblers were tempted to spend more on the racecourse. Billiards matches tended to follow the racing calendar as well and heavy bets were placed on the outcome of these.
On the course itself, vendors of beer and food could rent a pitch for their booth. There were shooting galleries, musical entertainments, acrobats, high wire dancers, fire-eaters, performing dogs and gypsy fortune tellers. Crime was rife on the racecourse with some booths taken by confidence tricksters intent on taking money off naïve victims. Pickpockets mingled with the crowds, as did prostitutes soliciting for business.
Cockfights and prize-fights also took place during race weeks and were popular across the social spectrum. Cockfighting was considered a gentleman’s sport but fell into disrepute by the 1820s. Prize-fighting was technically illegal after 1750 but the ban was widely ignored and after the 1809 Abingdon Races finished a crowd of thousands gathered to watch a 50 round fight which lasted almost two hours.
More salubrious were race week balls. These were held in the local assembly rooms and were priced at five shillings for the ladies and seven and sixpence for the gentlemen, very much an event for the gentry and aristocracy. The Newbury Mansion House Ball of 1805 was described as attracting guests of “the first fashion and distinction.”
Theatres also ran special race week programmes with different plays each night and actors and actresses from London. At Newbury’s Pelican Theatre the boxes cost three shillings, the seats in the pit two shillings and the gallery one shilling. Henry Thornton’s acting company toured the race towns frequently with a cast that included Dorothy Jordan, the Duke of Clarence's former mistress. Attendance at race balls and theatre performances meant that the ladies required the specialised of services of hairdressers and perfumiers brought in from London. Provincial hairdressers were not considered skilled enough to meet the requirements of their aristocratic clientele!
The Newbury Coat
One extraordinary wager that I came across when I was reading about gambling and racing was the story of the Newbury Coat. Newbury was a very famous racing town and the populace of the period well accustomed to gambling. Mr John Coxeter, a cloth manufacturer in Newbury, commented to Sir John Throckmorton that he could take the coat from Sir John’s back, reduce it to wool and turn it back into a coat again all in the space of a day. Sir John was so taken with this idea that he laid a bet of 1000 guineas that at eight o'clock in the evening of June the 25th 1811 he would sit down to dinner in a well-woven, properly-made coat, the wool of which had still been on the sheep’s backs at five o'clock that same morning. (Presumably he didn't want to sacrifice the existing coat and fancied a new one!)
Thousands of people turned out to watch the bet take place; there was even a refreshment tent provided. The sheep were shorn, the wool was washed, stubbed, rove, carded, spun and woven. The tailor had already taken Sir John’s measurements and was ready to leap into action. Ten men worked atcutting out, stitching, pressing, and sewing on buttons and at twenty minutes past six that evening Mr. Coxeter presented the coat to Sir John Throckmorton, who put the garment on before a crowd of over five thousand people. Sir John took dinner with forty gentlemen at eight o'clock in the evening wearing the coat, which was a large hunting coat in the admired dark Wellington colour, a sort of a damson tint. It had been completed in the space of thirteen hours and ten minutes. The wager had been won with an hour and three quarters to spare.
If you attended the Georgian races would you be in the grandstand or prefer to mingle with the crowd? Would you enjoy the races or the fortune-teller’s tent or would gambling simply not be for you? I’m giving away an ARC of my new book Whisper of Scandal, which does not feature racing at all, to one person who leaves a comment between now and Sunday morning!