A sporting Maharaja in Suffolk
David S. D. Jones looks at the remarkable sporting life of the Maharaja Duleep Singh.
In an age when wealthy landed gentlemen demanded big bags of driven pheasants and partridges, Henry Grey Thornton went somewhat against the grain, says David S. D. Jones after leafing through extracts from his 1901 sporting diary.
Afamiliar figure on the West Country fieldsports scene during the first half of the 20th century, Henry Grey Thornton owned the Warmore Estate at Morebath on the Devon-Somerset border from the late 1890s until his death in 1949. Throughout this period, he kept annual diaries of his many sporting activities, which ranged from shooting and fishing to stag hunting and hare coursing.
Henry went out in pursuit of game or vermin on an almost daily basis throughout the year. His diary for 1901, a slim volume bound in black leather, provides a fascinating insight into the world of a wealthy landed gentleman at the beginning of the Edwardian era.
In January 1901, Henry spent a number of days out hunting with the Dulverton foxhounds, the Devon & Somerset staghounds and Sir John Amory’s staghounds. He divided the remainder of the month between fishing for grayling on the River Exe, shooting pheasants, rabbits, woodcock and hares at Winsford, Upcott and other locations on Exmoor, and attending a coursing meeting at Burnham-on-Sea, where three hares were killed.
By February, Henry had transferred his attentions to vermin destruction, going out with his gamekeeper on his estate on a regular basis with shotgun, ferrets and nets in pursuit of rabbits. He also went badger digging with various friends and on February 14 accounted for a total of 11 badgers at Stockham in the Exe Valley. In addition, he found time to ride to hounds on several occasions and notes in his diary that after a fox had been killed near Punchbowl on February 8, he sighted a herd of 35 red deer.
Henry devoted much of March that year to hunting and fishing, sometimes fishing for trout in the morning and joining the Dulverton foxhounds in the afternoon, if they were in the vicinity of Morebath. However, the highlight of his month was a pigeon shooting match held at Dulverton on the March 14, where he competed against other Guns to bring down pigeons released from a trap and won a prize on the first sweep!
On April 3, Henry attended the opening meet of the Culmstock otterhounds, of which he was the honorary secretary. He records in his diary that after a chase of one hour and 10 minutes, the hounds succeeded in killing a dog otter on the River Tone near Taunton. His other sporting activities that month included fishing for trout on the Rivers Exe and Barle on a total of 10 days, and taking his 11-year-old son, Cyril, to his first stag hunt on April 16 at Hele Bridge, with Sir John Amory’s staghounds.
In May, Henry concentrated his energies on otter hunting with the Culmstock, going out with the hounds on a total of 10 days on a variety of rivers including the Axe, the Exe and the Yarty. In the latter river, he notes that on May 15 the hunt bagged a large dog otter weighing 27lbs after a run of two hours and 45 minutes. He also spent a couple of days in May fishing on the River Exe, landing a total of 23 trout.
Early in June, Henry and the master, Mr J.H. Wyley, took the Culmstock otterhounds by train from the West Country to Northumberland for a fortnight’s hunting in the northern counties country. According to his diary they were unsuccessful in finding their quarry, apart from on June 15 when they lost an otter after a one-and-a-half-hour chase down the River Tyne below Hexham!
On June 17, Henry travelled north from Northumberland to Scotland for his annual fishing holiday, boarding at the Cuilfail Hotel at Kilmelfort in Argyll, where he went out in pursuit of brown trout on local lochs, and lythe and cuddies in Loch Melfort. During the course of a fortnight, he managed to land a total of 475 brown trout, his best day, July 2, yielding a catch of 124 brown trout.
Henry returned to Devon in mid-July, breaking his journey in London for several days in order to watch cricket matches at Lords and The Oval. He spent the remainder of the month fishing for trout on the River Exe, riding out with the Devon & Somerset staghounds and otter hunting with the Culmstock. His most memorable activity during this period was a three-and-a-half-hour chase with otterhounds up the Exe between Stoke Canon and Bickleigh on July 30, which resulted in the death of a bitch otter weighing 17lbs.
In August, Henry seems to have confined his attentions to otter and stag hunting, attending meets at a variety of locations including the Carnarvon Arms near Dulverton, Dunkery Hill Gate, Hele Bridge and Tonedale. His diary indicates that otters were prolific but that stags were relatively scarce in some parts of the hunt country at this time. On several occasions he did not arrive home until 11pm at night after a day’s stag hunting, sometimes after a ride of over 20 miles!
From September onwards, Henry was actively involved in shooting. He opened the season on September 2 on his Warmore Estate, bringing down three and a half brace of partridges. In addition to a couple of hunting expeditions, he shot on a total of 12 days during the course of the month, the most notable being September 10, when he and one other Gun bagged 5½ brace of partridges, 3 landrail and 2 rabbits.
In October, Henry devoted his time solely to shooting, either on his own property or as a guest of friends such as Sir Thomas Acland, Bt. On October 9 – a typical shoot day, according to his diary – he and three other Guns shot 6 cock pheasants, 13½ brace of partridges, 3 snipe, 1 pigeon and 15 rabbits at Liscombe between 11am and 5.30pm, without stopping for lunch, and observed a lot of black grouse in the vicinity.
November was a particularly busy month for Henry: On the 1st, he travelled to a coursing meeting at Brean in Somerset; on the 2nd he attended the opening meet of the Dulverton foxhounds at Rhyll, recording in his diary that there ‘was a very good spread at the champagne breakfast provided by the master’; and on the 4th he rode out hind hunting with the Devon & Somerset staghounds. He was fully occupied with both hunting and shooting throughout the month and on November 7 celebrated a ‘red-letter day’, bringing down two black grouse at Broford in the Exe Valley.
Henry continued to hunt and shoot on an almost daily basis during December of that same year, and also found time to attend a coursing meeting at Brean on the 18th of the month. The final entry in his diary for 1901 records that he shot a rather modest bag of six pheasants and 24 rabbits at Street on December 28.
In all, between January 1 and December 31, 1901, Henry Grey Thornton accounted for 471 head of game, including 97 pheasants, 126 partridges, 220 rabbits, 2 black grouse, 2 landrail, 3 woodcock, 2 hares, 9 woodpigeons, 8 snipe, 1 moorhen and 1 plover, as well as 652 trout, 5 grayling and 11 badgers. In an age when sportsmen demanded big bags of driven pheasants and partridges, he was quite content with small but enjoyable walked-up days and seems to have had far more fun shooting with his gamekeeper and fellow countrymen than with the gentry and nobility!