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Background to The Oakley Hunt

The Hunt at Oakley about 1920 [Z1306/85]
The Hunt at Oakley about 1920 [Z1306/85]

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 the 17th century stags were still hunted in several parks in Bedfordshire and there was hawking on Dunstable Downs. By the 18th century more is heard of hares, while rabbits were not despised. With some references to hunting there is no indication of what was hunted, and it is probable that at first the same pack was used for hunting hares and foxes. In 1678 the earl of Ailesbury at Houghton Conquest paid wages to a foothuntsman. In 1736 the Carlton parson Rogers writes: “My son … went a –hunting with Mr. Alston’s hounds” [the Alstons were Lords of the Manor of Odell]; or in 1759 the Leighton Buzzard diarist Salusbury writes “Captain Nodes of Luton has gone a-hunting”.

Hounds, however, began to be bred especially for the livelier work of fox-hunting. “By the year 1710 we can trace hounds being maintained in packs … exclusively for hunting the fox” [G. T. Burrows – Gentlemen Charles published in 1951, page 18]. In Bedfordshire at Hinwick Richard Orlebar kept a book “Pedigree of Hounds” from 1708 to 1725; which refers to hounds of other owners used for breeding purposes. When his health began to interfere with hunting, Orlebar gave 15 couple to the Duke of Grafton in 1722. That Orlebar’s hounds were for foxes seems clear from a letter to him from Sir Simon Harcourt referring to “the young foxhunter” – apparently a son who died.

Published information on the Dukes of Bedford in the early and mid-18th century does not give much to connect them with hunting or to make explicit what they hunted. The 4th Duke of Bedford (died 1771) had a reputation for economy. Several properties in Oakley were added to the Woburn Estate from 1737 onwards, and by 1765 [Jeffreys’ map – MC2/11-12] there was what a contemporary guidebook describes as a “neat seat” there, perhaps a modest hunting lodge or a converted farmhouse.  This may have been for the Marquess of Tavistock, whose portrait was painted by Reynolds in the blue and silver dress of the Dunstable Hunt (of this hunt no more is known). He was killed in 1767 riding in HoughtonPark. A man named Cole, writing at Bletchley [Buckinghamshire], may have been misinformed when he puts it “he took a very gentle lollop in hunting, but fell unluckily”.

A private pack was kept in the 1770s by Lord Polwarth, husband of the heiress to WrestPark and this was definitely for fox hunting. Lady Polwarth tried to explain to her parents that kennels at or near Wrest would cause no trouble. “It seems the huntsman does not live at the kennel, but with the other stable people, and goes to it every day (some old man lives at the kennel to keep it clean) and therefore it must not be placed far off … Any place … near any public way Lord Polwarth would not like, because of boys and idle people coming about it and plaguing his dogs (which any noise at the kennel door will do). Another necessary requisite is a spring of water”. The estimate for kennels, however, £250, took Polwarth aback. A site must have been found, for Lady Polwarth describes runs on 23rd December 1773. “They have not actually killed anything but one bagged fox, but the last day they ran a fox to ground, had him dug up with a good deal of trouble, and at present they are chasing him through the rain”.

On 22nd November 1774 she wrote [L30/9/60/26]: “A report was spread that a fox had been seen by the Pavilion, upon which all the bow-wows were brought into the garden and ran yelping about the woods to no purpose. The horses all stayed at the bottom of Cainshill, the huntsmen ran about on foot, and Lord Polwarth and Sir Francis walked about the terrace and grumbled, and I made acquaintance with one of the dogs who seemed to like a bit of bread better than a fox-chase. Friday the wind was too high and they lost. At last yesterday they killed a fine old gentleman with a huge brush”.

Tavistock’s young son Francis succeeded to the Dukedom in 1771 at the age of six. When he and his brother John grew up they were more expansive than their grandfather. According to the Whitehall Evening Post the Duke at first subscribed to the Meynell (Quorn) hunt, but discontinued this in 1784. Samuel Johns Knight of Welwyn [Hertfordshire] in a letter of 28th March 1829 says that the Duke bought a large draft of hounds from Meynell, as also some from “Mr. Richard, Sir William Louther, Lord Archibald Hamilton, Mr. Corbet, Mr. Pulaston and Lord Fitzwilliam”. The Morning Chronicle in 1785 says “The Duke of Bedford’s hunt, though taken up on an extensive scale which is talked of, will not be entirely an object of pleasure”. The World in 1788 said that his “pack is the most numerous of any in England”, but that “he has not yet drafted those hounds he means to fix on his established hunt”. This sounds as if he already contemplated the Oakley Hunt, but it does not appear to have come until some years later.

The Duke’s new kennels at Woburn were seen by John Byng, later 5th Viscount Torrington in 1789 (when the young Duke was twenty four) and are noted in his diaries (1781-1794 and available for study in the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service Searchroom) as “established in a pompous style. The huntsman has a charming house … 70 couple of hounds fed upon flesh and oatmeal and lying upon the straw all the summer”. R. Greaves in A Short History of the Oakley Hunt describes a “grand hunt” of 1793 and reproduces an account of Woburn in the Sporting Magazine of February 1795: “the dog kennel is esteemed the completest in England”; between sixty and seventy couple of hounds were kept there, and there was accommodation for thirty six hunters.

At the sight of apparently still more elaborate kennels at Wyboston in 1794, built by the young Duke for “when his Grace should come to hunt this country … various well built buildings of brick, with strong good doors and well tiled … a kitchen, boilers and coppers; with separate apartments for the female hounds during their accouchements; that coals and straw are laid in in great abundance for these hounds … milk is also supplied … The dog kennels proudly overtops those miserable mud hovels erected for the sons of Adam, who … regret … that they are not born fox-hounds”, Byng was indignant: “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Oakley is, unfortunately, not described by John Byng. It seems likely that it was at this time that Oakley House was built to the designs of Henry Holland (1745-1806) (these designs are preserved in his sketchbook at the Royal Institute of British Architects). It was before 1793, in which year the WrestPark steward secured “a joiner who lives at Bedford and who has done all the Duke of Bedford’s work at Oakley House” [L30/9/73/11]. The kennels may well have been rebuilt too, and if so the brothers had three kennels strategically placed in the county. Daniel and Samuel Lysons in the Bedfordshire volume of their Magna Britannia of 1813 says that the Oakley villa was John’s country seat before he succeeded his brother.