Memories of a grouse moor owner
Born into a well-known family of Bradford woollen manufacturers in 1865, Albert Holden Illingworth grew up in a world where 'trade' was considered vulgar, no matter how hard one worked. After a successful career in the woollen industry, as well as holding directorships in the National Provincial Bank and the Ford Motor Co., he entered politics at the age of 50 in 1915, as Liberal MP for Heywood in Lancashire. A year later, in 1916, the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, appointed him Postmaster-General, a job which he held until 1921 when he was elevated to the peerage as Lord Illingworth of Denton.
Now aged 56, with a title and an immense fortune, Lord Illingworth was acceptable to 'society'. He began to spend more time indulging in his passion for fieldsports, acquiring Denton Park near Ilkley in order to provide pheasant and partridge shooting for his many friends and business associates. At the end of each season he travelled to Monte Carlo to shoot pigeons for a month or so.
In late spring, Lord Illingworth travelled to Norway to fish for salmon, and then spent part of June and July fishing for salmon and sea trout on the Grimersta Estate in the Outer Hebrides, which boasted the finest salmon river in Europe. His game book records that over a six-week period at Grimersta in 1922, he and two other Rods landed a total of 270 salmon, while on July 18,1936, he singlehandedly caught a large basket of 10 salmon. In 1928, he became a part-owner of the Grimersta Estate by purchasing a share in the prestigious 'Grimersta Syndicate'.
However, the jewel in Lord Illingworth's newly created sporting empire was his 15,000-acre moorland estate in Upper Nidderdale in North Yorkshire which he bought from Major Dermott McCalmot, Master of the Kilkenny Foxhounds, in 1927. Consisting of two large grouse moors, Ramsgill and Heathfield, and two smaller moors, Redlish and Sigsworth, which were normally let, the property had been keepered by George Grass since 1907. The moors had been underperforming for many years due to a lack of investment by previous owners, but had the potential to provide good bags of grouse.
Lord Illingworth immediately began to develop Ramsgill and Heathfield into two of the best grouse moors in Yorkshire. He gave George Grass and his underkeeper a substantial pay rise, provided them with free coal and firewood, and gave them a new bespoke tailored tweed plus four shooting suit and a pair of handmade shoes annually. He spent large sums of money on drainage, efficient heather management and butt replacement, and, in anticipation of big bags, built a large game larder next to the headkeeper's house in Ramsgill village.
Within seven years, Lord Illingworth's investment paid off. On August 13,1934, nine Guns brought down 406 brace of grouse - an all-time record for Ramsgill moor. The pick-up added a further 13 brace to the bag. The following day the same Guns shot 313 brace on Heathfield moor. Ramsgill provided 19 days sport in 1934, making it one of the best ever seasons.
Lord Illingworth was so confident of success on August 13, 1934, that he hired a crew of professional photographers to accompany the Guns out on Ramsgill. Two sets of 50 photographs were printed to record the occasion, one set for himself and the other for his headkeeper, George Grass.
Throughout the period of his ownership of Ramsgill and Heathfield moors, Lord Illingworth entertained in great style. He took a full suite of rooms at the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate to house his guests during the shooting season. Their servants and loaders either stayed at the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill or in a bothy adjoining the headkeeper's house. Lord Illingworth's butler and footmen served a four-course lunch to the Guns in a shooting box situated out on the moor. Food was brought up in a lunch cart which left the Yorke Arms at 10 o'clock precisely every morning.
The Guns travelled daily to Ramsgill village in a fleet of Rolls-Royces. From there they made their way up to the moor on horseback accompanied by a retinue of grooms and loaders. Guy Moreton of Swaffham Hall, one of Britain's leading Shots of the day, was a regular guest of Lord Illingworth. Other Guns included Viscount Mountgarret, Lord Saville, Lord Holden, Lord Pender, Lord Sandhurst, Lord Semphill, Sir Pierce Lacy, Sir Frederic Aykroyd, Bt., Sir William Aykroyd, Bt., Major Briggs, Major Cornwallis-West, General Sir Herbert Wilberforce and the well known angling writer, Cecil Braithwaite.
Lord Illingworth's headkeeper, George Grass, the man responsible for the smooth running of the Ramsgill shoot, worked to the following timetable on a shoot day:
7:30am - Meet the beaters on Ramsgill Village Green, send them up to the moor with the underkeeper.
8:30am - Meet the Guns and their ladies outside the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill. Mount them on ponies and send them up to the moor with Lord Illingworth.
8:40am - Meet the proprietor of the Yorke Arms to discuss luncheon arrangements for the following day.
8:45am - Walk up to the moor accompanying the game cart.
9:45am - Position the Guns in the butts and ensure that the beaters were correctly placed.
10am - Begin the first drive. Normally three drives were held before lunch.
1pm - Lunch.
2:15pm - Reposition Guns and beaters.
2:30pm - Begin the first drive of the afternoon. Normally two drives were held after lunch.
5pm - Guns departed from the moor on horseback.
5:15pm - Return to Ramsgill together with beaters and game cart.
6pm - Empty the game cart onto the village green. Grade the grouse into hampers containing large, medium and small birds. Enter details into game register.
6:30pm Ð Tie the grouse into braces. Sew them into straw bags and fix pre-addressed labels.
8pm - Transport the birds by wheelbarrow to Ramsgill Post Office for despatch the following morning.
8:30pm - Return home for dinner.
Shooting parties at Ramsgill were usually two-day events, with the estate being shot over on approximately 20 days each season. On the last night of each shoot, Lord Illingworth laid on a substantial cooked supper and an unlimited supply of beer and spirits at the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill for the gamekeepers, loaders, beaters, shepherds, farmers and other persons connected with his moors, always inviting the local policeman to ensure late drinking. A case of 'Pedlar's Sloe Gin' would be specially sent up from Portsmouth to add a buzz to the occasion.
Lord Illingworth's game registers provide an insight into the type of sport that he and his friends enjoyed on his moors, and also note how game was disposed of. A typical entry for August 15,1938 states that 139 brace of grouse were shot, with a pick-up of three brace, making a total of 142 brace. 117 brace, including 65 brace of old birds and 52 brace of young birds were sold to Mr. Twigg, the game dealer at Ripon. Of the remainder, Lord Illingworth took four brace, 14 brace were sent off by post, one bird was spoilt, three brace were taken to 'The Sportsman's Arms' for lunch, with the remaining three brace being divided between Sergeant Ramsden, P.C. Chalmers and D. Wainwright.
The Guns included Albert, General Wigan, Lord Fermoy, Lt. Colonel Heyworth-Savage, H.G.C. Illingworth, J. Robarts, and Guy Moreton. The weather on the day is described as being "Very windy and Showery."
Wherever he went in pursuit of sport, Lord Illingworth was popular with rich and poor alike. When he married Miss Margaret Wilberforce in 1931, not only did he invite his headkeeper, George Grass, to attend his wedding as a personal guest, but he provided a celebratory luncheon for the tenants on his estates, a dance for the local people, and a tea for the children and old folk in Ripon Workhouse. He was generous, too, with his game, both in Yorkshire and in the Hebrides, donating salmon and grouse to hospitals, workhouses, and community fundraising events.
Albert Holden Illingworth, 1st Lord Illingworth of Denton, passed away at the age of 77 in 1942. As he had no children, his title became extinct and his Nidderdale estates were sold, Ramsgill moor being purchased by Major Briggs whose descendants own the property today.