The Victorian Sportsman
David. S. D. Jones turns the pages of Sir Francis Denys' shooting and fishing diary from 1897.
Recently I had the pleasure of reading a diary kept by retired diplomat Sir Francis Denys, Bt. during the 1897 shooting and fishing season. Bound in a richly-tooled calfskin cover, it provides a unique insight into a more leisurely age when Victorian sportsmen were able to shoot and fish whenever they wished – either on their own property or on estates belonging to their friends – often on an almost daily basis between late spring and the end of January.
Sir Francis, who was born in 1849 and died in 1922, opened the 1897 fishing season on April 12 on the River Carron at Bonar in Sutherland. He fished from 11am until 6:30pm in the evening, and succeeded in hooking a 9lb salmon at 5:45pm, using a Thunder and Lightning fly. He records in his diary that he had left his London home on the evening of April 10 aboard the night sleeper train to Inverness, and had arrived at his fishing quarters – the Bridge
Hotel in Bonar village – the following afternoon, having made the final part of his journey by horse-drawn carriage from Dingwall railway station.
After spending a fortnight or so fishing for salmon on the River Carron, starting at 8am in the morning and finishing at 6pm each day, Sir Francis returned to London on April 26. He only caught three salmon during his sojourn at Bonar, noting in his diary that, although a total of 33 salmon were netted by professional fishermen on one occasion, “Fish were very scarce”.
Throughout the late spring and early summer of 1897, Sir Francis concentrated on looking after his business affairs and administering his estates in Yorkshire and Ireland, and so did not resume his sporting activities until August 2, when, along with his friend, Sir Clement Hill and a party of gamekeepers, he spent a day ferreting for rabbits at Burderop Park near Swindon in Wiltshire. He finished the day by shooting four rabbits in an oat field as it was being reaped – in his diary that day, the bag amounted to 259 rabbits and one leveret.
In September 1897, Sir Francis travelled north from London to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, to spend a fortnight fishing for salmon on the Grimersta River, paying the lessee, Charles Mackillop, £50 to cover his angling fees and full-board accommodation in Grimersta Lodge. During his stay, he succeeded in landing a total of 26 salmon, 23 sea trout and three brown trout, but notes that, “Owing to a dry summer, a large proportion of salmon were kicking around in Grimersta Bay, consequently the third and fourth lochs on the river were almost destitute of fish”.
Sir Francis left the Isle of Lewis in the middle of September, 1897, travelling to Gledfield Moor in Ross-shire to shoot grouse as a guest of Sir Kenneth Matheson, Bt., after which he went up to Sutherland to try and bag roe and fallow deer at Skibo, but to no avail. He then returned to England and spent five consecutive days shooting grouse on Hauxwell Moor in Yorkshire, accounting for 45 red grouse, three partridges, five hares and two rabbits.
On October 4 of the same year, Sir Francis arrived at Burderop Park in Wiltshire to shoot hares and partridges. He attended a number of other partridge shooting parties during the course of October, including three days at Hagnaby Priory in Lincolnshire with Captain Pocklington, two days at Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire as the guest of Lord Saville, and two days on Lady Campbell's estate at Garocule near Glasgow in Scotland. His best day, on October 21 at Garocule – “A bright summer day” – yielded a bag of eight partridges, two hares and three green plover.
During the November and December that followed, Sir Francis kept himself occupied shooting pheasants, visiting the Pitshill estate near Petworth in Sussex, Weald Hall in Essex, Burderop Park in Wiltshire, Hauxwell Hall in Yorkshire, Richings Park in Buckinghamshire and a game farm at Ogbourne St.George in Wiltshire in pursuit of his quarry. He records in his diary that the owner of the Ogbourne game farm, Mr Francis Lillywhite, stated that “300 pheasants could be killed over two days”, but in actual fact the shoot produced only 79 pheasants, one woodcock, 28 hares and four rabbits.
On December 27, Sir Francis travelled from his London home to Burderop Park in Wiltshire to see the New Year in with his friend, Sir Clement Hill. Together with Sir Clement and various other Guns, he spent a total of six days shooting on the estate and helped to secure a combined bag of 161 pheasants, 13 partridges, two woodcock, 18 hares, 1,059 rabbits and 11 various. He notes in his diary that “five out of the six days were fine”.
Following his sojourn at Burderop Park, Sir Francis took the train from Swindon to Moreton in Dorset on January 11, 1898 for three days of mixed shooting on the celebrated Oakers Wood shoot as a guest of Squire Frampton. His bag included snipe, woodcock and wild duck as well as pheasants, partridges, hares and rabbits. He records that he brought down “50 head of game using 130 cartridges” during his stay there.
Sir Francis ended the 1897 season on January 29, 1898 at Peper Harow House near Godalming in Surrey, shooting alongside five other Guns, who between them brought down 53 cock pheasants, one hare and six rabbits. He notes in his diary that the weather was “fine but cold”.
In all, Sir Francis Denys, Bt. shot and fished on a total of 58 days during the course of the 1897 season and, according to the final tally at the back of his diary, accounted for a grand total of 382 pheasants, 97 partridges, 76 red grouse, one woodcock, three snipe, one teal, three green plover, one sparrowhawk, 45 brown hares, two blue hares, 183 rabbits, 29 salmon, 23 sea trout and three brown trout. Unlike many sportsmen of his generation, who concentrated on taking a large head of game annually, Sir Francis was obviously more interested in spending enjoyable days securing small bags or baskets!