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The Beginnings of The Oakley Hunt

The Oakley Hunt crossing Bedford Bridge 1909 [CRT130Oakley8]
The Oakley Hunt crossing Bedford Bridge 1909 [CRT130Oakley8]

The Oakley Hunt was an important part of the parish, particularly in the 19th century and continues at the time of writing [2011] though, since the Hunting Act 2004 came into force it no longer hunts foxes in the traditional way. It has access to land not only around Oakley and in other parts of Bedfordshire but also in parts of Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a good archive relating to the hunt [X213] as well as copies of other documents. The following history [CRT130Oakley11] was written by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service staff.

In England generally throughout the 18th century fox hunting was winning the day over the hunting of hares. For a long time foxes were ranked as vermin. The last known description of them as such in Bedfordshire is at Pertenhall in 1817-1818 with a note in the churchwarden’s accounts: “Sanders for destroying foxes – 6d” [P65/5/1]. The nearest neighbouring hunt was the Pytchley in Northamptonshire dating from 1750. By the end of the century over a dozen hunts were established in many parts of the country. In Bedfordshire too fox hunting was gaining ground. John Byng, later 5th Viscount Torrington wrote in his diary in 1794 (the diaries 1781-1794 and available for study in the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service Searchroom): “Mr. S…. a young buck was only for the splash and dash of foxhunting, and spoke with bitter contempt of hare hunting”. When William Lee Antonie in 1796 changed his hare founds to fox hounds, Richard Orlebar writes that this “will be highly approved of by all his neighbours” [BS460/3]. Antonie, was William Lee, had inherited the Colworth Estate near Sharnbrook in 1771 from Richard Antonie, and therefore took the additional name. He was to be one of the trio who initiated the Oakley Hunt. The other was the Duke of Bedford’s political ally, Samuel Whitbread.

Samuel Whitbread the younger, born in 1764, was a few months older than the young Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford. Both young men were active in politics on the Whig side. At Wrest Lord Polwarth, an early champion of fox hunting in the county, was dead and the future Earl de Grey still a child. In any case, Wrest was in the opposite camp politically and the Marchioness Grey’s steward writes sourly of a county meeting in 1795 when the Duke and his party entered, surrounded by numerous dissenters and a great number of the lower order of mechanics and labourers; and the Duke and Whitbread both spoke a long time with much declamation. The meeting was followed by petition and counter-petition; the Wrest steward got forty signatures in Silsoe for his side, but no one there – he says – signed the Duke’s [L30/9/73/16]. Antonie was also a Whig and soon became, with Samuel Whitbread, on of the Bedford Members of Parliament from 1802 to 1807.

This increasing interest in politics, and again in agricultural matters was, with maturity distracting the Duke’s attention from hunting. His state of health may have contributed; he was only 31 when he died of a neglected hernia. A statement made by S. J. Knight of Welwyn [Hertfordshire] in 1829 alleges this as the sole reason: “When the health of Francis, Duke of Bedford, declined … he asked Mr. Lee Antonie to take part of his hounds and hunt what is strictly called the Oakley country”.

A further factor was the pressure of high taxation because of the heavy cost of the Napoleonic wars. The Duke, having made a return of 26 servants and 30 horses, found himself surcharged with 25 more servants and 17 horses which, on appeal, was confirmed. The horses and grooms required for hunting purposes were evidently reckoned in with the Duke’s domestic establishment for taxation purposes. Others felt the difficulties of the times. Lord Southampton wrote to Lee Antonie on 14th February 1798: “In these days of … want of spunk … everybody talks of giving up their hounds … What is determined about the Duke of Bedford’s?” An undated estimate by Lord Southampton “expenses for 35 couple of fox hounds (Snugs)” is probably about this time”.

Thus there seems every reason at the end of the 18th century why the Duke should decide, not to give up, but to put on another footing what in his first youth had been his chief interest, and which was now more costly, less feasible for health reasons, and was giving way to the more mature interests of the landowner and statesman.

Finally, it seems clear that Samuel Whitbread was a prime mover in establishing the Oakley Hunt. He, not having yet plunged deeply, was so fat not anxious about the cost, and in spite of his many local and political interests he was still an enthusiastic sportsman. On 4th March 1798 he wrote to Lee Antonie: “Pray think on what I proposed to you yesterday – it is the only plan upon which we can have or hope for sport” [UN395]. On 20th March 1798 the Duke wrote to Whitbread: “I will continue my subscription of £500 so long as the hounds are kept at Oakley and Mr. Pitt leaves me the money, but I wish to be considered as having nothing to do with the hounds beyond paying the money … I take it it would be of advantage to the country that the hounds should continue hunting towards the end of April, but I should like for many reasons to transfer them (if it could be arranged) on the 5th of April, the day on which the new year of assessed taxes commences” [W6193]. Whitbread was evidently the go-between on 29th March he writes to Lee Antonie: “I saw the Duke of Bedford yesterday who agrees perfectly to all our proposals respecting the establishment of the hounds at Oakley and will give you the use of the granary, the place Sharp mentioned as convenient for him and his family to live in, in short everything necessary for the use of the hounds. He says there is a 5-stalled stable which he built for Lord Preston (Ludlow) which if wanted might be converted into a place for the habitation of Nicholson’s family. The boiler he thinks might live over the kennel. If Goosey is wanted he will let him to the hounds, and he consents that the hounds shall hunt the season out from Woburn and then remove to Oakley”. Whitbread adds: “I told him what I had added to my subscription, but as he made no motion towards an increase of his own, I could not say a word about it” [UN396]. This sentence is significant in pinpointing their respective positions. Lee Antonie was evidently considering whether in the circumstances to sell part of his own pack; for Whitbread encloses a letter from a possible buyer. That the Duke, Whitbread and Lee Antonie were the founder members is confirmed by a letter from Whitbread to Lee Antonie in the following September: “enclosed you have a draft of our fourth subscriber” he also writes: “I cannot say how pleased I am … I knew it would answer, and without you we could do nothing” [UN397]. In November he writes about various supplies, such as meal, coal and oats [UN399].

Of the other members unfortunately it is possible to guess at only a few. Among Lee Antonie’s correspondents are J. W. Hawksley, Rector of Souldrop 1792-1821; Edward Arrowsmith of London and Robert Lee, apparently a relation. Others whose names occur in the early years are Augustus, 2nd Earl Ludlow (died 1811), who lived at Cople House as the Duke of Bedford’s tenant and his brother and successor George (died 1842). Lee Antonie writes to Hawksley, then in Sheffield [Yorkshire], describing some runs in February 1799: “Keysoe Park has afforded us some excellent foxes, which have immediately gone away over Keysoe open field, Thurleigh, between Ravensden and Renhold woods, down to Bedford, crossed the river and up to Sheerhatch. Kimbolton has also been favourable, gone away by Hargrave, Kennes meadow, Denford old ash to Barnwell wold” [BS461/1]. He mentions once in a very thick fog spending the night under a hayrick. In September 1799 he writes: “Hunting is again commenced with the Oakley pack with the death of 8 brace of foxes” [BS461/2].

When the first season was over, the cost gave Lee Antonie cause to reflect and even to think of resigning. Whitbread wrote on 7th July 1799: “That there can be no pack of hounds unless you will manage them is quite certain … I am aware of the magnitude of the expense … nor had I the smallest intention that new buildings at Oakley should be charged to the subscription fund. I consider that expense my own” [UN400]. Still Antonie was worried. Whitbread replied that initial expenses were always the worst, and that he hoped the price of oats should fall (he little reckoned on the duration of the Napoleonic Wars). “I feel bold eno' to undertake ... to supply what may be necessary over and above yours and the Duke's subscriptions, and I cannot say how much obliged I feel by your consenting to continue" [UN401]. He therefore asks Lee Antonie to open an account at Barnard's bank and, under cover of undertaking to collect the subscriptions, he will keep this account supplied. But another year brought home the cost even to Whitbread. With extreme reluctance he thinks (17th October1800) there will have to be a reduction in hounds, horses and servants and hunting limited to three days a week. Oats are very scarce, and "in the present state of the country I do not think quite decorous to go on with the same consumption ... as in more abundant times" [UN402]. There were also taxation difficulties. In 1802 Lee Antonie found himself assessed apparently for two packs of hounds, though he maintained that those at Colworth were only veterans and invalids, and that no huntsman or whipper-in was there.

Robert Lee, staying at Woburn in February 1802, writes to Lee Antonie his views on the training of hounds. He "will not hear of hounds not having been out for some time being an excuse for their being fat. If they are lame, starve them, if not, give them a gallop over the country the day before they hunt. If they are really worn out (like poor Prosper) put them out of the way ... Lord Southampton had a very pretty run from King's Wood, Leighton yesterday (after having killed his first fox) to near Lord Carteret's Park. He missed his fox from a rascal farmer sending them the wrong way that they might not ride over his wheat" [WG2992-2995]. The next month, March 1803, the Duke of Bedford suddenly died ("our much and more to be lamented friend" [W6195]), and was succeeded by his younger brother John (6th Duke 1802-1839).

Financial difficulties grew. In the winter of 1804/5 there was anxious cogitation. Lee Antonie for a time had given up on his own hounds, but "I found Colworth so dull and so gloomy ... that I would rather discontinue living here entirely than not have some hounds about the place ... In my little way I have felt the ill consequences of the war as well as the Duke and yourself". Whitbread wrote: "I fear the Oakley establishment must be given up ... It is my intention to write to the Duke of Bedford ... better the matter should be confined to we three ... for the season ... which will be giving sufficient time to the gentlemen who have hunted with us ... and for the servants ... The hounds are between you and the Duke of Bedford and the stable is between you and me" [UN408]. The Duke wrote: "Let us try whether ... we cannot hold our heads above water". But by March 1805 Whitbread thought the end in sight: "Antonie is to decide what part of the country he will retain for his own amusement and see what can be done for the staff, Sharp, Nicholson and Wells".

It rather seems that Lee Antonie thought of trying to run the hunt from Colworth, but that this was costly. Robert Lee was incredulous, recalling the preliminary calculations:

"Your establishment of the Snugs £700
your subscription to the Oakley hounds £300
Subscription from the Duke and Sam £1,500
£2,500"

"Estimated expense of new establishment at Colworth
£2,200"

"I can't help thinking that you don't make up the account justly, which indeed can't be done unless you separate it entirely from your own private establishment" [WG2992-2995]. In January 1807 Whitbread writes that the Duke leaves the disposing of the hounds to him [Lee Antonie] [UN423]. A letter from Lord Ludlow to “Bob” (probably Robert Lee) in 1807 reads as if the Duke had tried in vain to persuade Lee Antonie to continue: “I am sorry to find by a message from the Duke of Bedford that he has conversed with Lee Antonie relative to the hounds, and the squire does not wish to have anything more to do with them. I confess it has been a great disappointment to me, having flattered myself … that our efforts to preserve the country, the best of all amusements, and an invaluable pack of hounds would have been crowned with success; and that we should not have been left as wanderers … to sally forth from what has hitherto been our home in search of a pack of foxhounds … However … we must patiently submit to the irrevocable decree of William Lee Antonie esquire” [WG2992-2995].

What happened for the next two years is not clear. It seems possible that in fact Lee Antonie carried on. On 13th March 1809 he wrote to Sir George Ludlow that, to prevent any offer from a stranger, he had said that he would carry on. But he thought that the Marquess of Tavistock ought to take the hounds; or failing him, Ludlow or Hoare. “I cannot last” he adds also “The expense is much too great for me”.

So it was that the Marquess of Tavistock too over running the hunt. The Duke of Bedford writes to Samuel Whitbread on 4th April 1809 “You will be glad to hear that Tavistock has determined to undertake the arduous task … It is rather hard upon him to exact the sacrifice of half his income … for the gratification of a few gentlemen who are unwilling (yourself excepted) to contribute anything towards their own amusement” [W2462]. Tavistock’s hunting expenses are mentioned in another connection in the Whitbread correspondence; when subscriptions were coming in for the new Bedford bridge, the Duke writes: “it strikes me that Tavistock ought to subscribe , but as I believe his hounds run away with all his superfluous cash I must pay the money for him”. Tavistock wrote courteously to Lee Antonie from time to time, telling him how the season was going. He continued as master until 1816, when he was followed by Lord Ludlow; but resumed the mastership from 1822 to 1829.

Thus, by the sportsmanship of William Lee Antonie, the drive of Samuel Whitbread II and the substantial part played as sleeping partner by the Duke of Bedford, the Hunt has been launched and, mainly through Lee Antonie and the Marquess of Tavistock, had survived the difficult period of the Napoleonic Wars.