Sporting of the Past and the Present Day

by "Old Calabar"

"O tempora! O mores!" how our grandsires would stare if they could only see how differently sporting in all its branches is carried on now-a-days; it would make their pigtails stand on end, and the brass buttons fly off their blue coats in very fright.

There are few of the Squire Western school now left; but occasionally you may still come across some jovial old sportsman of eighty years or more, who, though his form is shrunken, and his snow-white head proclaims that many winters have passed over it, yet carries a pair of eyes as bright and keen as of yore, eyes that glisten again when he launches forth on his favourite hobby.

I know several gentlemen nearer eighty than seventy who still shoot, and keep a fine kennel of dogs. One of these gentlemen only last year took a moor in Scotland for five years. May he live to enjoy it and renew his lease.

I could name many close on, ay, over fourscore, who ride well yet to hounds; and though they may not be such bruisers as they once were across country, yet are difficult to choke off.

It is just forty-one years [this was written twenty years ago] since I had my first mount to hounds. There is no non mi ricordo with me. I can recollect the day as well as yesterday, the pinks, the beaver-hats of curious shape, the short-tailed horses, are too vividly impressed on my memory ever to be effaced. Men went out in those days for hunting, and not merely for a gallop. Time changes all things, and I suppose we must change with the times; but are these changes for the better? Well, I will not give an opinion, but leave others to decide.

The hounds of those days were not nearly so fast as those of the present; and I am inclined to think that our hounds are now bred too fine and speedy—for some countries they certainly are—and often flash over and lose a scent which ought not to be lost.

Hunting, in the days I speak of, could be enjoyed by men of very moderate means, for it was not necessary to have two or three horses out. In some countries, especially woodland ones, one horse may still do; but, as a rule, hounds are now so fast, and horses so lightly bred to what they were, that no hunter, however good he may be, can live with them from find to finish. If you wish to see a run out, you must have your first and second horsemen riding to points. These men must not only be light-weights, but steady, know the country, save their animals, and be there when wanted.

You seldom, at least where I hunted, saw men driving up to the meet in their well-appointed broughams, mail-phaetons, or what-not. A long distance was done, in my early days, on a cover hack; and one hunter did where three are now required.

In the present day you see men stepping from their close carriages with the morning papers in their hands, beautifully got up—a choice regalia between their lips, with holland overalls to keep their spotless buckskins from speck of dirt or cigar ashes. Very different from the hardy men you encountered years gone by, alas! never to return again—cantering along on a corky tit, with leather overalls. Now you have all sorts of devices—waterproof aprons before and behind—in my idea it only wants some enterprising man to bring out a hunting-crop with an umbrella, something similar to the ladies' driving-whips, whip and parasol in one, to complete the picture. Fancy men hunting with waterproof aprons—they should go out for nurses!

Perhaps, as years creep on, one is wont to look back on his youthful days and fondly imagine nothing is done so well now as then. Understand, I do not say hunting and shooting are not as good as they were. I do both still, and enjoy them as much as ever; but there is not so much sport in them, to my mind, as formerly—men are not the hardy, genuine sportsmen they were.

Horses are much dearer now than twenty, thirty, forty years back—provender also. Where £1 would go thirty years ago, you require now nearly £1, 10s.; this alone prevents many men from following their favourite pursuits.

The time is not far distant when hunting will be given up in England; railways, the price of land, and the high market prices which must necessarily come with an increase of population, are doing their work slowly but surely. The present generation are not likely to witness it: so much the better, for it would break the hearts of some to see the noble pastime of hunting on its "last legs." Waste land, too, is being rapidly enclosed, and what are now wilds, fifty or sixty years hence may be flourishing districts.

How many country villages are now huge towns! I remember, years ago, when I used to meet the Queen's hounds, before the South-Western line was made, there was only one old wayside inn at Woking, which was much resorted to by "the fancy," for it was a noted spot for pugilists. Many and many a prize-fight have I seen there. Now Woking is a little town—I mean the new town, not the old town some four miles distant; and the spots where I used to knock over the snipe and plover are now built on and enclosed. And so it will go on to the end of all time; bricks and mortar, iron and compo, will rise up, large and small buildings, all over the face of the country, and those whose hearts are still bent on sport will have to go farther afield for it.

But this is already done. France, Sweden, Norway, Hungary, Bohemia, Bavaria, and other countries, have their English sportsmen. Railways have made nearly all places within reach of those with means. Scotch moors that you could rent thirty years ago for £50 a year, are now £500; the rivers the same; and grouse that are killed one day in Scotland are eaten the next in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Some men meet the hounds now thirty and forty miles away from home. They breakfast comfortably at home, then step into the train, and are whirled away with their horses and grooms; have a gallop, come home, or perhaps go out to a grand luncheon; lounge down to their club, or do a few calls, then dine, and go to one of the theatres to see the last new thing; finish up with a supper or a ball, or perhaps both.

Old Squire Broadfurrow has ridden his stout, easy-going hack to cover, has had a clinking day, and a fox run into, as the crow flies, about eight-and-twenty miles from his home. The old man, nothing daunted, jogs quietly along and pulls up at the first country inn, orders a chop for himself and a bucket of gruel for his horse, gets home in good time to entertain three or four choice souls at dinner, ride the run over again, and talk of some shooting they are going to have on the morrow. Reader, which is the pleasanter style of the two? which the most healthy? Railways and hunting I cannot reconcile with my ideas of sport; there is a sort of cockneyism about it that I do not like; it seems to me poor "form."

Men change, too, in their ideas as well as their dress. I was talking some time ago to an old friend of mine who had been an inveterate fox-hunter, did his six days a week, and spent the seventh in the kennel; if you asked him what Sunday it was, you always got the same answer, "Infliction Sunday."

I asked him how he was getting on in the hunting line.

"Hunting, my dear fellow; why, I have given it up years ago—all humbug! What on earth is the use of a man making a guy of himself, putting on a pink coat, top-boots, and uncomfortable leather breeches, and for what?—to gallop after a lot of yelping dogs, and to catch a fox which is of no earthly use to any one when he is brought to hand; endangering your neck, breaking fences, and destroying land and the crops. Hunting is an idiotic fashion; half the men only hunt for the sake of dress, and for mounting the pink. If they must hunt, why not dress like reasonable beings, in comfortable cords, gaiters, and a shooting-jacket? Ah! then you would not see half the men out you do now. I am quite ashamed to think I ever hunted. Just come and look at my shorthorns, will you?"

In sporting parlance, I was "knocked clean out of time;" this was the inveterate six-days-a-week man.

"But you shoot?" I asked, seeing it was necessary to say something.

"Oh yes! I shoot, and fish occasionally, when the May-fly is up—anything but hunting. There, what do you think of that bull?"

Shooting, too, is wonderfully changed. Where are the high stubbles we so eagerly sought on the first of September?—gone, gone for ever. The reaping-machine cuts it off now as close as the cloth on a billiard table.

It has often been said the birds are wilder at present than they were: admitting this to be the case, the cause probably is the high state of cultivation, and nothing more. There is not the cover there was formerly to hold them, and therefore they are more difficult to get at. Turnips are now sown in drills, and not broadcast, as grain usually was. If you work down the drills, the birds see you, and are off the other end: the only way is to take them across. Yet there are thousands of places where the cover is good and plentiful; and where this is the case the birds lie as well as ever.

Game is scarcer than it was, except on manors that are highly preserved: it must be remembered that where there was one shooter formerly, there are twenty now. It is a difficult matter at present to rent a shooting, for directly there is anything good in the market it is snatched up at once.

The general style of shooting of the present day is odious—large bags are "the go." In some countries it has done away with the noble pointer and setter altogether; nothing but retrievers are used. The guns, beaters, and keepers are all in a line: a gun, then a keeper with a retriever, a beater, another gun, and so on. The word is given, and away they go, taking a field in a beat. As you fire—possibly there are two or three guns popping at the same bird—a keeper falls out, and finds it with his retriever, whilst you are going on. Can this be called sport? It is nothing more than pot-hunting, wholesale butchery. Give me my brace of pointers and setters, and let me shoot my game to points; there is some pleasure in that. What can be a more beautiful sight to the shooting man than to see a brace of well-bred dogs, ranging and quartering their ground like clockwork, backing and standing like rocks, steady before and behind, and dropping to fur and wing, as if they were shot? Working to hand, and obeying your slightest word—beautiful, intelligent creatures—there is some pleasure in shooting over such animals as these.

Then driving is another pot-hunting system, and does no end of harm; and so those who practise it will find out before many years are over. More game is wounded and left to pine away and die than many have an idea of—a more cruel and unsportsmanlike system has never been thought of, and I much regret it has its votaries. A heavy hot luncheon from a Norwegian kitchener is now the correct thing—heavy eating and drinking must form a prominent feature in the day's programme, otherwise it is not sport.

A few men are still content with their sherry-flask and sandwich, and I would back these to beat the others into fits in a day's sport. One does not go out to eat, but to shoot, and a man that has laid in a heavy luncheon can neither walk well up to his dogs nor shoot straight after it.

Great improvements have been made in guns. The old flint that took half an hour to load was a bore; the flint had every now and then to be chipped and renewed, the pans fresh steeled, the touch-hole pricked, powder put in the pan, and even then there were constant misfires and disappointments. The flint in time gave way to the percussion, a great improvement; but there are many inconveniences with this; unless the nipples are kept clean, and the gun washed each time after using, constant misfires are the consequence. Then, in cold weather it is no end of trouble to get the caps on. With half-frozen fingers it is a difficult job; but this has been remedied by a cap-holder, which sends the caps up with a spring as you want them. With both flint and percussion there were great inconveniences in loading; the spring of your powder or shot flask might break, and then you had to judge your charge till they were repaired. All this trouble was put an end to by the introduction of the breech-loader, which has not half the danger, is ten times quicker, and much more convenient in every way; the ammunition more easily carried, and there are very few misfires. The gun wants no washing, merely a rag passed through, and it is clean. But I am not going into the subject of guns and all their improvements; I have merely mentioned these to show the great stride that has been made in the last fifty years in shot guns.

Steeplechasing and racing I must touch on, and the little I have to say will not be in its favour.

The hateful passion of betting is slowly but surely ruining the turf; for there are not the same class of men on it that there were thirty years ago.

Where do you see fine old sportsmen like the late Sir Gilbert Heathcote? He raced for the pleasure of racing, and so did many others who never betted a shilling; but it is all altered now, and not for the better.

Young men—ay, and old ones too—ruin themselves by betting; Government and other clerks squander their salaries away, which might maintain them, and perhaps a mother or a sister who is totally dependent upon them; the butlers and footmen pawn the family plate to meet their engagements; and the shop-boy is often detected in flagrante delicto, with his hands in the till, purloining a half-crown or two to enable him to go with Mary Hann to 'Ampton. You are pestered with letters from tipsters—scoundrels who know just as much of a horse or racing as they do of the man in the moon. The man from whom you can get nothing else, is always ready with his advice on the momentous subject of "what to back" for this race or that, quite ignoring the question of whether he really does or does not "know anything," to use turf parlance.

Betting will never be put down entirely, but much might be done. Were I to commence racing again, I would hit the ring and the betting fraternity as hard as I could to scare them from backing my horses for the future. This cannot always be done, but after one or two such lessons people would be shy of burning their fingers over my stable. I daresay I should be called an "old curmudgeon," "selfish brute," and "no sportsman;" but after all said and done, you race to please yourself, not the public. You have to pay the hay and corn bill, trainer's expenses, and, above all, entry fees, far the heaviest item in the whole list; and surely, if any money is to be had over a race, the owner should be allowed "first run" at it.

We see no Alice Hawthorns or Beeswings now-a-days; racing men cannot afford to let their colts or fillies come to maturity: most are broken down before they are three years old. Government ought to interfere and put a veto on two-year-old races; this done, and the One and Two Thousand, the Derby, Oaks, and Leger made for four-year-olds, then we might hope to see our racehorses and hunters coming back to their former stout form. But this we shall never see. John Bull, with his proverbial stubbornness, will stick to his old line.

I was one and twenty years riding and racing in France, and was highly amused when the French first began sending over horses to us; we generously allowed them seven pounds—half a stone. How I laughed and chuckled in my sleeve when I heard this! After a little time Mr Bull found this would not do, so he came to even weights; but he received such a lesson with Fille de l'Air and Gladiateur, that it made the old gentleman stare considerably, and pull rather a long face.

Racing men, I will tell you what you probably already know, but will not admit—the French could better give us seven pounds than we them: their three-year-olds are nearly as forward as our four-year-olds.

The climate of France is warmer than ours, horses do better and furnish quicker there, and the time is not far distant when they will beat us as easily as we used to beat them. It is no use disguising it; it is a fact, and a fact, too, that is being accomplished; for no one will deny that the French already take a pretty good share of our best stakes. They have a climate better suited for horses, they buy our best sires and mares, have English trainers and riders, therefore what is to prevent them from beating us? They have done it already, and will continue doing so.

We have found out that when we take horses over there we are generally beaten, and this alone ought to convince us that the French horses are more forward than ours. Racing now-a-days is nothing more than a very precarious speculation, and the practice of some on the turf to gain their own ends is anything but (not to use a stronger word) creditable.

Within the last few years, gentleman after gentleman has left the turf disgusted and disheartened; and well they might be, for if a man is not very careful, there is no finer school than a racecourse to pick up swindling, dishonesty, and blackguardism.

Your fashionable light-weight jocks of the present day have their country houses, their valets, their broughams, hunters, and what-not. The old riding fee of £3 for a losing race and £5 for a winning one is seldom heard of except at little country meetings. Trainers and jockeys are at present much bigger men than their masters; and why? because they allow them to be so; they may owe them a long bill, or be foolishly good-natured in putting their servants on the same footing as themselves by undue familiarity—'Hail fellow well met' with them.

Racing will never be what it was again, for the reasons I have mentioned. Speculation is too rife to allow it a healthy tone. Shortly but few gentlemen will be left as racing men, and the turf will be represented by the lower five, and men to whom the meaning of the words honour, honesty, principle, and conscience, are unknown.

Coursing too, a healthy and fine amusement, even this cannot be enjoyed without the presence of the betting fraternity, bawling and shouting. A clean sweep should be made of them.

Pigeon-shooting as well. Although I am not an admirer of this pastime (sport I will not call it), yet one cannot stroll down to Hurlingham or the Bush, to look on, but what one must be pestered with odds offered on the gun or bird. Your shady and doubtful betting men are nuisances. Who on earth wants to lose a lot of money to moneyless scoundrels? But there are fools who do so, and they deserve to be fleeced.

Many of our old sports have died out. The Ring is a thing of the past, and so is the Cock-pit. I am savage enough to say I liked a prize-fight and a cock-fight. When it was on the square, a prize-fight was a most exciting scene. Yet both have very wisely been put down, and athletic sports take their place.

I seldom see the fine old game of bowls played now. Le gras, too, has gone out.

Polo, which I think nothing of, is the rage amongst gentlemen now. I see nothing in it whatever; it is a wretched game for the lookers-on; but then it is the fashion.

The fine old game of cricket is totally altered. I shall have the cricketing world down on me, but I care not. I think the present style of bowling has entirely ruined the game as a game of science. There are not many Graces in the present day, nor were there many Wards of the olden time. Cricketers of the present day look like so many hogs in armour; and where one man bowls tolerably over-handed, fifty who attempt it cannot bowl at all—they are never on the spot. Consequently the balls break anywhere. I would ten times rather stand before the fastest man in England who is true than I would to a middling fast one who is not.

I remember, many, many years ago, at the Royal Clarence Cricket Club—alas! defunct (I have the button still)—which had its ground on Moulsey Hurst, taking old Ward's wicket the third ball with a round-hander. It was a bit of practice we were having: I was a lad at the time, and the old gentleman had stuck half-a-crown on the centre stump for me to bowl at: he had no doubt played carelessly, wishing to give me a chance. He looked surprised at seeing his wicket fall. He coolly put them up again, and on the centre stump was a sovereign.

"There, young fellow," he said, "bowl at that." I did bowl at that, till I was almost ready to drop, but that never came into my pocket. Yes it did, though, but not by taking his wicket. I shall never forget the fine old gentleman, with his bat nearly black with oil and age. Cricket still holds, and always will deservedly hold, a high place in our English sports.

Boats and rowing have made immense strides for the better; the only thing I am disposed to cavil at with regard to it is the training. I am inclined to think the severe preparation they have to go through to get fit, tells on the constitution of young men who are not full grown and set. But training now is so carefully looked to, that after all there may not be the danger one imagines. One thing is certain, that it is much less dangerous to row or run a severe race well prepared: it is inward fat that chokes men, causes apoplexy and what-not. Men in training, if they are careful and do not catch cold, and are not too severely taxed, have little to apprehend; and this is why an experienced trainer is necessary.

Bicycling, too, is a fine healthy amusement, develops the muscles and keeps a man in wind and health: he may get all over the country and at one-tenth the former expense of railway travelling. But bicycling, like all other sports and exercises, has its abuses as well as its uses, and when one sees men flying along a road (to the manifest danger of the public) bent double over the handles of their machines, it gives one pause, as to whether crooked backs, contracted chests, and knee trouble are not in store for a future generation.

There are many lakes, large and small, in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, that cannot be either fished or shot for want of a boat. It is costly to get a boat up the mountains, and very often, especially in Ireland, there are no roads, or horses cannot traverse them. Therefore something light but safe is necessary. The Rev. E. L. Berthon, of Romsey, Hants, has invented a boat which is admirably suited for the purpose: it is a folding canvas boat of two skins, cannot be overset, and is quite buoyant if filled with water. The one I have is a fishing boat; it carries four, but two can go with comfort; it is only 70 pounds in weight, 9 feet long, and 4 feet broad. They are made any size, as will be seen from the extract I give from the Times.

"Berthon's Collapsible Barge.—Among other scientific devices with which the 'Faraday' is supplied, with the view of facilitating the laying of the Direct United States cable, is a 'collapsible barge,' the principle of which, the invention of the Reverend E. L. Berthon—a name already well known in nautical circles in connection with his perpetual log—was originally applied by Mr Berthon to life-boats, a number of which, it is stated, are in course of construction. The barge was built by Mr E. R. Berthon, the son of the inventor, and is to be used in laying the shore ends of the cable, of which it will carry from 20 to 30 tons with a very light draught of water. The proportions of length in the barge are very unusual, being nearly 2 to 1, the dimensions being, length 31 feet, width 16 feet, and depth 4 feet; such, however, is its collapsibility, that, stowed away on the deck of the Faraday, it only measures 2 feet at its greatest width. The barge is cellular in construction, and when a small confining rope is cast off it extends automatically, inhaling into its ten cells about 500 cubic feet of air. During the process of expansion, the jointed bottom boards, which are 14 feet wide, fall into their places, and, lever staunchions being placed under the gunwales, the barge is ready for lowering in a minute or two. When in the water a very substantial platform is lowered into the barge, composed of beams 7½ inches thick and 1 inch planks; upon this deck the cable will be coiled, and paid over a large iron sheave at the stern-post. The barge weighs about 23 cwt., and having great powers of flotation, with light draught, is expected to be very serviceable in laying the shore ends of the new cable; the principle, moreover, appears to be one which it might be found desirable to introduce into the life-boat service."

Mine is the smallest size made, and when collapsed is only 7 inches wide. To open and launch it takes less than one minute. It also sails very well, and on lakes, with a small spritsail with brails, it is exactly the thing. A prettier and more useful little boat I never had.

I have mentioned this boat because I have often been asked about such a thing. If by any chance the outer skin should be injured—which is not likely, for the canvas is immensely strong—it makes but little difference to the boat, and the injury is easily repaired. I can strongly recommend it to any one wanting such a thing.

But to "our mutton"—sporting of the past and the present day. Returning to olden times, our fathers and forefathers were not ashamed to run horses, greyhounds, etc., in their own names; now men do so more and more under assumed ones. This is unfortunate, and opens the door for many abuses; and the sooner it is put an end to the better.

I do not believe in the early hours at which our ancestors used to take to the field. Game is not moving very early; therefore, in partridge shooting, dogs have not such a chance of finding game as they have an hour or two later. Nine o'clock is quite early enough for the partridge or grouse shooter; about four in the afternoon is the most deadly time, because scent then begins to ascend, and the dogs catch it much quicker, and birds are then on the feed. The stubble, at this time, is the place to find partridges.

It is a great mistake to walk too fast, shooting, because much game is missed in this way; even very fast dogs require sufficient time to make their ground good; in thick turnips you can hardly walk too slowly.

But I must hold, these notes are growing too long under my "grey goose quill." (I am old-fashioned enough to prefer a quill pen to a steel one.) Old fellow-sportsmen, and young ones, adieu. May you have a good season, and good health and spirits to enjoy it!