The sports of drag hunting, horse racing and point to pointing or steeple chasing have had an important place in Jersey history for well over two centuries now. The history of the Jersey Drag hunt is all about personalities and events, but can also provide us with a fascinating insight into the changing social structure of the island. Most of us are also aware of how transient our use of agricultural land has been in recent decades, in particular. The survival of the hunt is obviously dependent on this limited island resource.
Jersey’s constitutional and military links with the English Crown were formed in 1066 and reconfirmed in 1204. As a result of these early ties, numerous English military regiments have been stationed on the island. By 1789, there is evidence that these soldiers were organising horse racing contests at Les Rochettes in St. Aubin’s Bay. Horse sports were viewed as a valuable way of encouraging fitness and relieving boredom in their participants. Racing seems to have continued on the island, with the Army organizing a four-day meet in May 1812. Only one race was scheduled for each day of this meet; presumably to allow for plenty of socialising time in between events!
It was in the autumn of the same year that a form of hunting was set up in Jersey. On the 13th November 1812, a Lieutenant Munro of the Royal Artillery advertised in the local press: This slightly eccentric gentleman offered a one guinea reward to anyone who could find a hare on the island! This bizarre appeal was apparently successful, with the brief formation of the ‘Killicrankie Hunt’. Hares were certainly rare in Jersey and it is not known as to whether they were indigenous or imported for sport. This original hunt club on the island was named the ‘Killicrankie Hunt’ after the Scottish birthplace of the Commander of the Island Forces at the time, Lieutenant General Robertson. The Lieutenant used this name for his house, which is now known as ‘Government House!’
Hunting was regarded as valuable training for soldiers, in an era where wars of movement were the norm. Few people received any formal riding training, but one learns quickly when riding across country and jumping obstacles. Through hunting, it was hoped that soldiers would also gain a better understanding of how to ‘read’ the rural landscape.
The history of the Jersey Drag Hunt becomes easier to research reliably from 1876 onwards, when Lieutenant David Lascelles started a pack of drag hounds for the 47th regiment. Hunting was very popular in England by this time and hounds were imported from across the English Channel. In 1877, it appears that James Smyth Piggot of Brockley Court, near Bristol, became the first master of this Hunt.
From 1876, the history of hunting, racing and point to pointing become particularly strongly intertwined in Jersey, as the ‘Channel Island Racing and Hunt Club’ became the governing body for all three sports. (?) Point to pointing was, understandably, very popular in Jersey. Whilst the island lacks quarry, it has a multitude of easily recognisable church steeple across each of the twelve parishes. This exciting cross-country dash, incorporating some impressive natural obstacles, was a regular competition in Jersey, until as recently as 1999.
Meanwhile, race meetings were being held at Grouville by the end of the 19th century. However, this land was lost to the Grouville Golf Club. In 1905, racing was moved to Don Bridge, Les Quennevais. Many spectators arrived by train, but had to be aware of pick pockets and ladies of ill repute! You could purchase anything, from a lobster lunch to a hair cut at these early race meetings!
Meanwhile, hunting seems to have been growing in popularity, with English soldiers hunting alongside local farming folk. Ordinary families were generally obliged to keep one dual purpose animal. This horse was often expected to complete general farm duties during the week, but carry its master on the hunting field on a Saturday. From the early days, the contributions made by farmers, who agreed to allow the hunt access to their land was fully appreciated by other participants. Photographs from the turn of last century, show that ladies were already supporting the hunt, and the vast majority of them negotiated the various obstacles whilst sitting side-saddle on their mounts.
A committee meeting in the 1870s established the pattern of Saturday and Thursday hunting. This was favoured by most, as Thursday was the official early closing day on the island. Meets were held at various locations, from St. Clement to St. Ouen, to try to ensure that enthusiasts living in each part of the island could participate in at least some of the lines scheduled. In the days before horseboxes or indeed motorised transport, long, cold and often dark hacks home were endured!
The impact of WW1 on the island was such that hunting did not resume until the 1926 to 1927 season. It was officers under a Colonol Firzgerald who organised this revival. By this point, Mrs. C. H. Robin and Major Christopher Riley of Trinity Manor began to play their crucial role in the history of the Jersey Drag Hunt. For example, they were responsible for the return of hounds to the Jersey Drag Hunt by 1931. There had been several seasons where cross-country rides had taken place regularly. However, these new hounds were to be kept at Rozel manor. The number and quality of horses on the island was beginning to improve. This was also of benefit to the hunt.
It is interesting to note that the local press was already carrying familiar complaints about hunt followers in vehicles causing congestion on the roads and interrupting the hunt. Some riders were also using private farmland to exercise their animals without permission; much to the annoyance of local land owners.
Having said this, many people regarded the inter-war period as the heyday of drag hunting in Jersey; with relatively small fields negotiating grass to grass jumping, especially banks. All dairy cattle were tethered, so wire was unheard of and motorised vehicles were still rather unusual. In fact, hunt participants who could not afford a hunter-type horse, were usually able to use the horse that pulled their bakery van, hearse, brewery van, vraic cart or even plough, on the other days of the week.
Severe food shortages during the Nazi Occupation of Jersey would have made the maintenance of hounds impossible. However, hunt enthusiasts quickly resurrected their sport after 1945. Although, at first there were no hounds and cross-country rides were held. Major Stansfield Huelin became Master for a brief spell in 1946 but by 1948, Messrs C. Biles and M. Pitcher had been appointed as Joint Masters.
Social events, including the Hunt Ball remained very popular in this era and a huge amount of committee business was devoted to organising the race meetings and point to point races. In fact, the hunt was largely funded by race spectators. It was in 1952, that the Jersey Drag Hunt branch of the Pony Club was inaugurated. Thanks to a number of excellent District Commissioners, most hunt members receive their grounding in riding and horsemanship via the Pony Club.
In 1961, the JDH hounds were being housed at Pomme d’Or Farm in completely unsuitable conditions. It was thanks to the generosity of Major John Riley, who was about to retire from the Army, to his home at Trinity Manor, that a new pack of hounds were rehoused here.
Major Riley recalls the weekly challenge of picking the lines. This was as time consuming then, as it obviously is now. In the 1960s, the knowledge of Charlie Biles and Clarry Le Breton was crucial in establishing who owned each field. Farmers were generally very co-operative; and Major Riley remembers being invited in one Christmas, by a landowner. He poured a whole bottle of brandy into five glasses for those walking the line! Most of this overwhelming quantity of alcohol found itself in the wellington boots of a certain committee member!
This era is also remembered by some for several enjoyable trips to hunt in Guernsey and a traditional all day hunt from Vinchelez Manor to Trinity Manor, with a stop for a three-course lunch! JDH hunter trials also became a regular annual fixture. The hunt began to look more familiar to the modern observer, with green coats and black collars first becoming ‘uniform’ for Hunt staff in 1967.
It is difficult to identify specific losses to the hunt over the decades, but the loss of Maurice Pitcher in 1971, stands out in the minds of many: He had first ridden with the Hunt in the 1930s and was an extremely dedicated supporter of and servant of racing and hunting in Jersey.
By 1974, the numbers of locals wanting to hunt had become a problem, with one field of 94 riders! To address this problem, a waiting list was introduced. Despite this enthusiasm, to those who had been lucky enough to participate before World War Two, modern hunting must have been a little disappointing. It was difficult to pick lines, due to an increase in the size of cattle herds and fields being used for more than one crop per year.
At the Annual General Meeting of 1980, racing had been successfully held at Les Landes race course for nearly twenty years. However, it was unanimously agreed that the Jersey Drag Hunt would “no longer be responsible for the organisation and financing of Racing in Jersey.” To the present day, there are many ties between these two sports on the island, but it was felt that race club members could no longer be asked to partially subsidise drag hunt members.