Lord Walsingham’s grouse
Rupert Godfrey unearths the fascinating accounts of the 6th Lord Walsingham's single-handed, record grouse bags of the late 1800s.
On August 28, 1888, Tom de Grey, the 6th Lord Walsingham, killed 1,070 grouse, shooting by himself, on Blubberhouses Moor. Forty beaters were employed, and 20 drives undertaken, as he shot from dawn till dusk, with four guns and two loaders. It's often said that he undertook this feat because an invitation he had made to a VIP – reputed to be the Prince of Wales – had been turned down, because he thought that there were insufficient grouse on the moor to make the journey worthwhile.
It's a great story, but, in fact, Walsingham had previously killed the remarkable total of 842 grouse (his brother records the total as being 843), on August 28 in the extraordinary record grouse year of 1872. On this occasion, he shot only (!) 16 drives, and used four guns – two of which were breech-loaders, and two muzzle-loaders. For years afterwards, doubt was cast upon this feat, and Walsingham decided to repeat the attempt in 1888.
Blubberhouses moor is nine miles west of Harrogate, and, at the time, was remarkably productive, given its size. Only about 2,300 acres in total, the moor was split – by what is now the A59 – into a South Moor of 1,300 acres, and the North Moor of 1,000 acres. Both moors were narrow too, and because of the shape, they were never driven to more than three Guns – and, often two, or just Walsingham himself.
Driving had begun in 1862, up till then the best annual bag recorded on the moor was 91 brace. By 1866, the total was 691 brace with Walsingham enjoying a solo day of 221 brace. In common with other moors in Yorkshire, there was a disastrous crash after the boom year of 1872, but in 1878 two Guns managed a day of 372½ brace.
Lord Walsingham's half-brother described the moors and how they were driven: “At the western end of the South Moor are some low hills, and on these hills the big packs of grouse congregate quite early in the season, for the Yorkshire grouse comes to maturity earlier than the grouse of Scotland, and, moreover, is a much wilder bird. Not much use to pursue them here with dogs or even to walk them up. The old birds are off at 50 yards' rise, and it is only the young ones that get up within reach of the Gun. Consequently the practice of driving has been most beneficial to the stock of birds, and has brought the tough old grouse to book, who used in the old days to live so long that their spurs became true weapons of offence, and enabled them to drive and harry the younger birds in the breeding season, and so damage the breed.
“So, in order to bring these big packs to the gun it was essential to have a day when the wind blew from the west or southwest; with any other wind the birds would break away to the big extent of moors which lie to the south and west, and be lost for some days, if not longer. Given a favourable wind, two parties of drivers [beaters] were organised, one to get behind the hills in question, and the other to hang back along the borders of the moor next to the arable ground.
“The first drive would be downwind from the hills, over a peat-cutting in which you stood with your head and shoulders above the edge, and in front of you a slight rise in the ground so that you could not see a bird coming towards you until it was about 50 yards off. And then they came at such a pace that you had to be uncommon quick to get on to them, and as to the birds that passed over, you had to be round and on to them like lightning, or in a moment they were gone.
“The birds that came over in the downwind drive had space to settle in, and then the party that had waited at the border of the moor would steadily advance, and bring them back against the wind. Boxes [butts] of peat were built at the right spots some 300 yards nearer the hills than the peat-cutting, and when the birds came, making their way back to their own ground, they came flapping like owls and then ensued a great slaughter.
“Meanwhile a few men would be stirring up the big packs on the North Moor, and these would fly over the valley and join their comrades on the South Moor, and so many of them would meet their fate.
“The driving of the birds to two Guns was a matter of great nicety. Each man had to know his own place and keep a semicircular line with the flank man, on whom everything depended, just sufficiently in front of the others to keep turning the birds inwards, but never so far ahead as to turn them back over the line of drivers. Scarth and Joey Harrison, brothers of William Harrison, were the two most trustworthy flank men in those days….”
Lord Walsingham himself recollected: “On August 30, when I killed 1,070 grouse to my own gun in the day, I shot with four breechloaders. No.1, a gun made in 1866 by Purdey, subsequently converted from pin-fire to central principle, to which new barrels were made last year. Nos.2 and 3, a pair of central fire breechloaders, made also by Purdey, about 1870, for which I have likewise had new barrels. No.4, a new gun made by Purdey this year to match the two mentioned above, but with Whitworth steel instead of Damascus barrels. The guns are all 12 bore, with cylinder 30 in. barrels, not choked.
“My cartridges were loaded by Johnson, of Swaffham; those used in the down-wind drives containing 3 1/8 drs. Hall's Field B powder to 1 1/8ozs. No. 5 Derby shot; those used in the up-wind drives (where the birds, of course, came slower) had 3 drs. only of the same powder, with the same shot; not hardened shot in either case.
“I find I never go out shooting without learning something. If I had the day again, I should cut off the extra eighth of an ounce of shot, not on account of recoil or discomfort of kind – from which I never suffer, although always using black powder – but because I failed to get as much penetration at long distances as I do with an ounce only. I distinctly remember firing three barrels at one bird, striking well in the body every time, but killing dead only with the last shot; the powder seemed to burn too slow.
“Another thing I learned was that Whitworth steel barrels are not desirable for a heavy day's shooting. The explosion in them makes quite a different sound from that given off by Damascus barrels: there is more ring about it, and I can imagine that this might prove a serious annoyance to anyone who minds the noise of shooting. I have no recollection myself of ever having had a headache from gun-firing. Moreover, the Whitworth barrels become hot much more rapidly than the Damascus; and this is a serious drawback, especially to a man who shoots without gloves. I can well imagine that they last much longer, and are in many ways suited for ordinary light work; but am now replacing them with Damascus, as in all my other guns.”
Walsingham kept a detailed record of the big day, which now hangs in the downstairs loo of the house at Merton, the family's estate in Norfolk. Together with details of all 20 drives (the first of which began at 5:12 in the morning, and the last ended at 6.45 that evening), and the walk home which ended at 7.30.
It is interesting that the criticisms levelled at Walsingham after the 1888 record were not just that ‘driving' grouse was unsporting, but also that he was selling some of the game he shot, rather than consuming it himself. He felt it necessary to justify his actions: “Another idea that has been started is that a man who sells his game is no sportsman. I fail to see how this in any way affects the question; but, here again, the facts, which are no secret, speak for themselves. In round numbers, out of 2,000 grouse bagged in the season of 1888 on my 2,200 acres, 500 were given away to friends, and 1500 were sent to market. I venture to think that the consuming public, the majority of whom cannot taste grouse in any other way, were distinctly benefited by this arrangement…”
Walsingham himself was an erudite man, with a particular interest in ornithology and entomology. He was less successful in business, however, and after the agricultural depression of the late 1870s, many of his moneymaking schemes proved disastrous. Whereas his great rival, Lord de Grey – later the 2nd Marquis of Ripon – shot until the end of his life, Tom de Grey lived the last few years of his life abroad, virtually bankrupt, and died in 1919.
Sources: ‘Hit and Miss' by the 7th Lord Walsingham; ‘Experts on Guns and Shooting' by G T Teasdale-Buckell