The Influence of Field Sports on Character

by Sir Courtenay Boyle

Field sports have been generally considered solely in the light of a relaxation from the graver business of life, and have been justified by writers on economics on the ground that some sort of release is required from the imprisoned existence of the man of business, the lawyer, or the politician. Apollo does not always bend his bow, it is said, and timely dissipation is commendable even in the wise; therefore by all means, let the sports which we English love be pursued within legitimate bounds, and up to an extent not forbidden by weightier considerations.

But there seems to be somewhat more in field sports than is contained in this criticism. The influence of character on the manner in which sports are pursued is endless, and reciprocally the influence of field sports on character seems to deserve some attention. The best narrator of schoolboy life of the present day has said that, varied as are the characters of boys, so varied are their ways of facing or not facing a "hilly," at football; and one of the greatest observers of character in England has written a most instructive and amusing account of the way in which men enjoy fox-hunting. If, therefore, a man's character and his occupations and tastes exercise a mutual influence upon each other, it follows that while men of different dispositions pursue sports in different ways, the sports also which they do pursue will tell considerably in the development of their natural character.

Now, the field sport which is perhaps pursued by a greater number of Englishmen than any other, and which is most zealously admired by its devotees, is fox-hunting. It is essentially English in its nature.

"A fox-hunt to a foreigner is strange,

'Tis likewise subject to the double danger

Of falling first, and having in exchange

Some pleasant laughter at the awkward stranger."

And it is this very falling which adds in some degree to its popularity; suave mari magno, it is pleasant to know that your neighbour A.'s horse, which he admires so much, has given him a fall at that very double over which your little animal has carried you so safely; and it is pleasant to feel yourself secure from the difficulties entailed on B, by his desire to teach his four-year-old how to jump according to his tastes. But apart from this delight—uncharitable if you like to call it—which is felt at the hazards and failures of another, there is in fox-hunting the keenest possible desire to overcome satisfactorily these difficulties yourself. Not merely for the sake of explaining to an after-dinner audience how you jumped that big place by the church or led the field safely over the brook, though that element does enter in; but from the strong delight which an Englishman seems by birthright to have in surmounting any obstacles which are placed in his way. Put a man then on a horse, and send him out hunting, and when he has had some experience ask him what he has discovered of the requirements of his new pursuit, and what is the lesson or influence of it. He will probably give you some such answer as the following.

The first thing that is wanted by, and therefore encouraged by, fox-hunting, is decision. He who hesitates is lost. No "craner" can get well over a country. Directly the hounds begin to run, he who would follow them must decide upon his course. Will he go through that gate, or attempt that big fence, which has proved a stopper to the crowd? there is no time to lose. The fence may necessitate a fall, the gate must cause a loss of time, which shall it be? Or again, the hounds have come to a check, the master and huntsmen are not up (in some countries a very possible event), and it devolves upon the only man who is with them to give them a cast. Where is it to be? here or there? There is no time for thought, prompt and decided action alone succeeds. Or else the loss of shoe or an unexpected fall has thrown you out, and you must decide quickly in which direction you think the hounds are most likely to have run. Experience, of course, tells considerably here as everywhere; but quick decision and promptitude in adopting the course decided on will be the surest means of attaining the wished for result of finding yourself again in company with the hounds.

Further, fox-hunting teaches immensely self-dependence; every one is far too much occupied with his own ideas and his own difficulties to be able to give more than the most momentary attention to those of his neighbour. If you seek advice or aid you will not get much from the really zealous sportsman; you must trust to yourself, you must depend on your own resources. "Go on, sir, or else let me come," is the sort of encouragement which you are likely to get, if in doubt whether a fence is practicable or a turn correct.

Thirdly, fox-hunting necessitates a combination of judgment and courage removed from timidity on the one side and foolhardiness on the other. The man who takes his horse continually over big places, for the sake of doing that in which he hopes no one else will successfully imitate him, is sure in the end to kill his horse or lose his chance of seeing the run; and on the other hand, he who, when the hounds are running, shirks an awkward fence or leaves his straight course to look for a gate, is tolerably certain to find himself several fields behind at the finish. "What sort of a man to hounds is Lord A——?" we once heard it asked of a good judge. "Oh, a capital sportsman and rider," was the answer; "never larks, but will go at a haystack if the hounds are running."

It is partly from the necessity of self-dependence which the fox-hunter feels, that his sport is open to the accusation that it tends to selfishness. The true fox-hunter is alone in the midst of the crowd; he has his own interests solely at heart—each for himself, is his motto, and the pace is often too good for him to stop and help a neighbour in a ditch, or catch a friend's runaway horse. He has no partner, he plays no one's hand except his own. This of course only applies to the man who goes out hunting, eager to have a run and keen to be in at the death. If a man rides to the meet with a pretty cousin, and pilots her for the first part of a run, he probably pays more attention to his charge than to his own instincts of the chase; but he is not on this occasion purely fox-hunting; and, if a true Nimrod, his passion for sport will overcome his gallantry, and he will probably not be sorry when his charge has left his protection, and he is free to ride where his individual wishes and the exigencies of the hunt may lead him.

What a knowledge of country fox-hunting teaches! A man who hunts will, at an emergency, be far better able than one who does not to choose a course, and select a line, which will lead him right. Generals hold that the topographical instinct of the fox-hunter is of considerable advantage in the battle-field; and it is undoubtedly easy to imagine circumstances in which a man accustomed to find his way to or from hounds, in spite of every opposition and difficulty, will make use of the power which he has acquired and be superior to the man who has not had similar advantages.

Finally, fox-hunting encourages energy and "go." The sluggard or lazy man never succeeds as a fox-hunter, and he who adopts the chase as an amusement soon finds that he must lay aside all listlessness and inertness if he would enjoy to the full the pleasures which he seeks. A man who thinks a long ride to cover, or a jog home in a chill, dank evening in November, a bore, will not do as a fox-hunter. The activity which considers no distance too great, no day too bad for hunting, will contribute first to the success of the sportsman, and ultimately to the formation of the character of the man.

Fishing teaches perseverance. The man in Punch, who on Friday did not know whether he had had good sport, because he only began on Wednesday morning, is a caricature; but, like all caricatures, has an element of truth in it. To succeed as an angler, whether of the kingly salmon, or the diminutive gudgeon, an ardour is necessary which is not damped by repeated want of success; and he who is hopeless because he has no sport at first will never fully appreciate fishing. So too the tyro, who catches his line in a rock, or twists it in an apparently inexplicable manner in a tree, soon finds that steady patience will set him free far sooner than impetuous vigour or ruthless strength. The skilled angler does not abuse the weather or the water in impotent despair, but makes the most of the resources which he has, and patiently hopes an improvement therein.

Delicacy and gentleness are also taught by fishing. It is here especially that—

"Vis consili expers mole ruit suâ,

Vim temperatam di quoque provehunt in majus."

Look at the thin link of gut and the slight rod with which the huge trout or "never ending monster of a salmon" is to be caught. No brute force will do there, every struggle of the prey must be met by judicious yielding on the part of the captor, who watches carefully every motion, and treats its weight by giving line, knowing at the same time—none better—when the full force of the butt is to be unflinchingly applied. Does not this sort of training have an effect on character? Will not a man educated in fly-fishing find developed in him the tendency to be patient, to be persevering, and to know how to adapt himself to circumstances. Whatever be the fish he is playing, whatever be his line, will he not know when to yield and when to hold fast?

But fishing like hunting is solitary. The zealot among fishermen will generally prefer his own company to the society of lookers-on, whose advice may worry him, and whose presence may spoil his sport. The salmon-fisher does not make much of a companion of the gillie who goes with him, and the trouter does best when absolutely alone; and nothing is so apt to prove a tyrant, and an evil one, as the love of solitude.

On the other hand, the angler is always under the influence, and able to admire the beauties of nature. Whether he be upon the crag-bound loch or by the sides of the laughing burn of highland countries, or prefer the green banks of southern rivers, he can enjoy to the full the many pleasures which existence alone presents to those who admire nature. And all this exercises a softening influence on his character. Read the works of those who write on fishing—Scrope, Walton, Davy, as instances. Is there not a very gentle spirit breathing through them? What is there rude or coarse or harsh in the true fisherman? Is he not light and delicate, and do not his words and actions fall as softly as his flies?

Shooting is of two kinds, which, without incorrectness, may be termed wild and tame. Of tame shooting the tamest, in every sense of the word, is pigeon-shooting; but as this is admittedly not sport, and as its principal feature is that it is a medium for gambling, or, at least, for the winning of money prizes or silver cups, it may be passed over in a few words. It undoubtedly requires skill, and encourages rapidity of eye and quickness of action; but its influence on character depends solely on its essential selfishness, and the taint which it bears from the "filthy" effect of "lucre."

Other tame shooting is battue shooting, where luxuriously clad men, who have breakfasted at any hour between ten and twelve, and have been driven to their coverts in a comfortable conveyance, stand in a sheltered corner with cigarettes in their mouths, and shoot tame pheasants and timid hares for about three hours and a half, varying the entertainment by a hot lunch, and a short walk from beat to beat. Two men stand behind each sportsman with breech-loaders of the quickest action, and the only drawback to the gunner's satisfaction is that he is obliged to waste a certain time between his shots in cocking the gun which he has taken from his loader. This cannot but be enervating in its influence. Everything, except the merest action of pointing the piece and pulling the trigger, is done for you. You are conveyed probably to the very place where you are to stand; the game is driven right up to you; what you shoot is picked up for you; your gun itself is loaded by other hands; you have no difficulty in finding your prey; you have no satisfaction in outwitting the wiliness of bird or beast; you have nothing whatever except the pleasure—minimised by constant repetition—of bringing down a "rocketter," or stopping a rabbit going full speed across a ride.

The moral of this is that it is not necessary to do anything for yourself, that some one will do everything for you, probably better than you would, and that all you have to do is to leave everything to some person whom you trust. Or, again, it is, get the greatest amount of effect with the least possible personal exertion. Stand still, and opportunities will come to you like pheasants—all you have to do is to knock them over.

But it is not so with wild-shooting. Not so with the man, who, with the greatest difficulty, and after studying every available means of approach, has got within range of the lordly stag, and hears the dull thud which tells him his bullet has not missed its mark. Nor with him, who, after a hurried breakfast, climbs hill after hill in pursuit of the russet grouse, or mounts to the top of a craggy ridge in search of the snowy ptarmigan. Not so either with him, who traverses every bit of marshy ground along a low bottom, and is thoroughly gratified, if, at the end of a long day, he has bagged a few snipe; nor with him, who, despite cold and gloom and wet, has at last drawn his punt within distance of a flock of wild duck. In each of these, endurance and energy is taught in its fullest degree. It is no slight strain on the muscles and lungs to follow Ronald in his varied course, in which he emulates alternately the movements of the hare, the crab, and the snake; and it is no slight trial of patience to find, after all your care, all your wearisome stalk, that some unobserved hind, or unlucky grouse, has frightened your prey and rendered your toil vain. But, en avant, do not despair, try again, walk your long walk, crawl your difficult crawl once more, and then, your perseverance rewarded by a royal head, agree that deer-stalking is calculated to develop a character which overcomes all difficulties, and goes on in spite of many failures.

The same obstinate determination which is found in this, the beau ideal of all shooting, is found similarly in shooting of other kinds; and it is a question whether to the endurance inculcated by this pursuit may not be attributed that part of an Englishman's character which made the Peninsular heroes "never know when they were licked."

It is objected by foreigners to many of our national sports that they involve great disregard for animal life. "Let us go out and kill something," they say, is the exhortation of an Englishman to his friend when they wish to amuse themselves. Sport consists, they hold, in slaughter; sport therefore is cruel, and teaches contempt for the feelings of creatures lower than ourselves in the scale of existence. I do not wish to enter into this question, which has been a source of considerable controversy; but I would say three things in reference to it. First, that it is difficult to answer the question, Why should man be an exception to the rule of instinct—undoubtedly prevalent throughout the world—which leads every animal to prey upon its inferior? Secondly, that every possible arrangement is made by man for the comfort and safety of his prey—salmon, foxes, pheasants or stags—until the actual moment of capture, and that every fair chance of escape is given to it; and thirdly, that whatever the premises may be, the conclusion remains, that there is no race so far removed from carelessness of animal life and happiness as the English.

There are, however, other field sports which do not involve any destruction of life, and which, from the general way in which they are pursued, may fairly be called national. Foremost amongst these is racing.

Were racing freed from any influence, other than that which distinguished the races of past epochs, the desire of success; were the prize a crown of parsley or of laurel, and the laudable desire of victory the only inducement to contention, the effect on the men who are devoted to it could not be otherwise than for good. In modern racing, however, the element of pecuniary gain comes in so strongly, that the worst points of the human character are stimulated by it instead of the best, and the improvement of horseflesh and the breed of horses is sacrificed to the temporary advantage of owners of horses. To say, now, that a man is going on the turf, is to say, that he had almost be better under it; and though a few exceptional cases are found, in which men persistently keeping race horses have maintained their independence and strict integrity in spite of the many temptations with which they are assailed, yet, even they, have probably done so at the sacrifice of openness of confidence and perhaps of friendship. Trust no one is the motto of turfites. Keep the key of your saddle-room yourself; let no one, not even your trainer, see your weights. Pay your jockey the salary of a judge, and then have no security that he will not deceive you. The state of the turf is like the state of Corcyræa of old. Every man thinks, that unless he is actually plotting against somebody, he is in danger of being plotted against himself, and that the only safety he has lies in taking the initiative in deceit. The sole object is to win—


Si possis recte, si non quocunque modo rem."

Take care you are not cheated yourself, and make the most of any knowledge of which you believe yourself to be the sole possessor.

What is the result of such a pursuit? what its moral? The destruction of all generosity, all trust in others, all large-mindedness: and the encouragement instead, of selfishness, of extravagance, and of suspicion.

The man whose friendship was warm and generous, who would help his friend to the limit of his powers, goes on the turf and becomes warped and narrow, labouring, apparently, always under the suspicion, that those whom he meets are trying, or wish to try, to get the better of him, or share, in some way, the advantages which he hopes his cunning has acquired for himself.

A thorough disregard for truth, too, is taught by horse-racing; not, perhaps, instanced always by the affirmation of falsehood, but negatively by the concealment or distortion of fact. An owner seldom allows even his best friend to know the result of his secret trials, and in some notable cases such results are kept habitually locked in the breast of one man, who fears to have a confidant, and doubts the integrity of everyone. Whether this is a state of things which can be altered, either by diminishing the number of race-meetings in England, or by discouraging or even putting down betting, I have no wish to consider; but that the present condition of horse-racing and its surroundings is very far removed from being a credit to the country, I venture to affirm.

Cricket is another field sport, the popularity of which has rapidly increased; partly from the entire harmlessness which characterises it, and leads to the encouragement of it by schoolmasters and clergymen, and partly from the fact that it is played in the open air, in fine weather, and in the society of a number of companions. I do not propose to inquire whether there is benefit in the general spreading of cricket through the country, or whether it may not be said that it occupies too much time and takes men away from other more advantageous occupations, or whether the combination of amateur and professional skill which is found in great matches is a good thing; but I wish, briefly, to point out one or two points in human nature which seem to me to be developed by cricket.

The first of these is hero-worship. The best player in a village club, and the captain of a school eleven, if not for other reasons unusually unpopular, is surrounded by a halo of glory which falls to the successful in no other sport. Great things are expected of him, he is looked upon with admiring eyes, and is indeed a great man. "Ah, it is all very well," you hear, "but wait till Brown goes in, Smith and Robinson are out, but wait till Brown appears, then you will see how we shall beat you, bowl him out if you can." His right hand will atone for the shortcomings of many smaller men, his prowess make up the deficiency of his side. Or look at a match between All England and twenty-two of Clodshire, watch the clodsmen between the innings, how they throng wonderingly round the chiefs of the eleven. That's him, that's Abel, wait till he takes the bat, then you'll "see summut like play." Or go to the "Bat and Ball" after the match, when the eleven are there, and see how their words are dwelt on by an admiring audience, and their very looks and demeanour made much of as the deliberate expressions of men great in their generation. Again, see the reception at Kennington Oval of a "Surrey pet" or a popular amateur, or the way in which "W. G." Grace is treated by the undemonstrative aristocracy of "Lord's," and agree with me that cricket teaches hero-worship in its full. What power the captain of the Eton or the Winchester eleven has, what an influence over his fellows, not merely in the summer when his deeds are before the public, but always from a memory of his prowess with bat or ball. There is one awkward point about this; there are many cricket clubs, and therefore many captains, and when two of these meet a certain amount of difficulty arises in choosing which is the hero to be worshipped. In a match where the best players of a district are collected, and two or more good men, known in their own circle and esteemed highly, there play together, who is to say which is the best; who is to crown the real king of Brentford? Each considers himself superior to the other, each remembers the plaudits of his own admirers, forgets that it is possible that they may be prejudiced, and ignores the reputation of his neighbour. The result is a jealousy among the chieftains which is difficult to be overcome, and which shows itself even in the best matches.

On the other hand, the effect of this hero-worship which I have described, is to produce a harmony and unity of action consequent on confidence in a leader which is peculiar to cricket. Watch a good eleven, a good university or public school team, and see how thoroughly they work together, how the whole eleven is like one machine, "point" trusting "coverpoint," "short slip" knowing that if he cannot reach a ball, "long slip" can, and the bowler feeling sure that his "head" balls, if hit up, will be caught, if hit along the ground, will be fielded. Or see two good men batting, when every run is of importance, how they trust one another's judgment as to the possibility of running, how thoroughly they act in unison. Such training as this teaches greatly a combination of purpose and of action, and a confidence in the judgment of one's colleagues which must be advantageous.

The good cricketer is obedient to his captain, does what he is told, and does not grumble if he thinks his skill underrated: the tyro, proud of his own prowess, will indeed be cross if he is not made enough of, or is sent in last; but the good player, who really knows the game, sees that one leader is enough, and obeys his orders accordingly.

There are other lessons taught by cricket, such as caution by batting, patience and care by bowling, and energy by fielding; but I have no space to dwell on these, as I wish to examine very briefly one more sport, which, though hardly national, is yet much loved by the considerable number who do pursue it. Boating is seen in its glory at the universities or in some of the suburbs of London which are situated on the Thames. It is also practised in some of the northern towns, especially Newcastle, where the Tynesiders have long enjoyed a great reputation.

By boating, I do not mean going out in a large tub, and sitting under an awning, being pulled by a couple of paid men or drawn by an unfortunate horse, but boat-racing, for prizes or for honour. The Oxford and Cambridge race has done more than anything to make this sport popular, and the thousands who applaud the conquerors, reward sufficiently the exertions which have been necessary to make the victory possible.

The chief lesson which rowing teaches is self denial. The university oar, or the member of the champion crew at Henley, has to give up many pleasures, and deny himself many luxuries, before he is in a fit state to row with honour to himself and his club; and though in the dramatist's excited imagination the stroke-oar of an Oxford eight may spend days and nights immediately before the race, in the society of a Formosa, such is not the case in real life. There must be no pleasant chats over a social pipe for the rowing man, no dinners at the Mitre or the Bull, no recherché breakfasts with his friends; the routine of training must be strictly observed, and everything must give way to the paramount necessity of putting on muscle. In the race itself, too, what a desperate strain there is on the powers! How many times has some sobbing oarsman felt that nature must succumb to the tremendous demand made on her, that he can go no further; and then has come the thought that others are concerned besides himself, that the honour of his university or his club are at stake, which has lent a new stimulus and made possible that final spurt which results in victory.

The habits taught by rowing, whether during training or after the race has commenced, lead to regularity of life, to abstemiousness, and to the avoidance of unwholesome tastes, and their effect is seen long after the desire for aquatic glory have passed away.

Such are some of the most prominent influences of English field sports, and as long as amusements requiring such energy, such physical or mental activity, and such endurance as fox-hunting, stalking, and cricket, are popular, there is little fear of the manly character of the English nation deteriorating, or its indomitable determination being weakened.