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The Oakley Hunt in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The Oakley Hunt on Elstow Green 1909 [CRT130Oakley12]
The Oakley Hunt on Elstow Green 1909 [CRT130Oakley12]

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 1814 the formation of a Club was proposed. Charles Fysshe Palmer worked out draft rules and sent them to William Lee Antonie, one of the three founders of the Hunt; he had already got the approval of the master, the Marquess of Tavistock but “had great difficulty in persuading Lord Ludlow – I promised he should be perpetual President if he liked it and at last he gave his consent”. A few days later he wrote: Lord Saint John … approves of the plan very much and expresses a great desire that the first dinner may not take place till his return … at the end of the moth. Lord Ossory hesitates a little, and says he is afraid of being thought too buckish, but … I do not despair of having the Lord Lieutenant … Already more numerous than I expected … we are now 33, and I do not see any impropriety at stopping at the Pytchley number – 40”. Pytchley was a hunt in Northamptonshire which dated from 1750.

As organised hunting developed in this country in the 19th century, there are three points of interest: premises; hounds and Masters. These are to be seen against a national background of comparative peace and of the heyday of the landed aristocracy such as the Dukes of Bedford. It is the world of the novelist Trollope.

Permanent premises were acquired in 1834. For the first thirty years the Hunt enjoyed the hospitality of the Duke of Bedford (or Marquess of Tavistock) at Oakley. G. F. Berkeley, during his term as master, 1829 to 1834, created kennels at Harrold. In his Reminiscences he wrote: “Mr. Berhil converted the barn into a feeding-house, the cow-sheds into lodging-houses, and a portion of the farmyard into a spacious yard for the hounds … another large shed made an over-night kennel for the hunting hounds and a lesser one a house for the bitches. The coachhouse made a 3-stall stable; cart stables comfortable stalls and boxes … boiling-house, with running water at hand, built a little way off”. The unsatisfactory effect of having no permanent headquarters was again evident when Berkeley left.

In 1834 a close of 2½ acres at Milton Ernest was acquired from J. M. B. Brown of Harrold for £341 by the Marquess of Tavistock, Earl Ludlow, James B. Praed of Tyringham [Buckinghamshire] and Hollingworth Magniac of Colworth [X213/8-9]. Kennels and stables were built on it at a cost of £859 [X213/11-13]. Yet this cost was not met by all the subscribers, but by the four gentlemen who made the purchase, in equal proportions. These four signed a declaration to the effect that if at any future time the Committee of any subscription pack of fox hounds hunting regularly in that part of Bedfordshire commonly called the Oakley country, and elected by the general body of subscribers to that hunt, repaid them the money expended with interest at 4% they would convey to that Committee the close and buildings [X213/11-13]. This situation later caused complications. In 1893 counsel stated that the declaration was “a personal agreement only as to the common action of four joint owners in certain contingencies which never arose and cannot now arise” [X213/17]. The Duke of Bedford now held Lord Ludlow’s share as well as his own; Praed’s share had gone to R. W. G. Tyringham and Magniac’s to Herbert Richard Magniac who became bankrupt in 1893. The 11th Duke, who succeeded in March 1893 acquired the remaining shares in 1894 and, in 1903, conveyed the property to the trustees [X213/27]. Since then the property has continued vested in the trustees, who have completed declarations to the effect that they stand possessed on trust for the Committee for the time being of the Oakley Hunt. The original property had been enlarged in 1873 by the purchase of another 2½ acres adjoining the kennels at Milton Ernest [X213/32] and in 1912 twenty acres at Yelden called Shelton Gorse were acquired for £150 [X213/41]. Small amounts of land have, however, bee sold off: 290 square yards at Milton Ernest for road widening in 1939 [X213/44], an acre to A. W. E. Scarlett in 1946 [X213/44] and six acres at Yelden to the Air Ministry in 1947 [X213/44].

Until the hounds were owned by the Hunt they were in general the property of the Master for the time being who, having bred up a good pack, could sell all or most of it on retiring. For the first thirty years, however, the hounds seem to have been almost entirely those of the Duke or Marquess (supplemented in the early years by those of William Lee Antonie). After Tavistock’s second period as master he was told by his doctor that he must give up hunting. He at first waited to see whether some arrangement would be made by the Hunt: “My resolution all along has been to keep the establishment entirely free till I could learn the wishes of the country … for that reason … I did not propose any measure of my own” he wrote; and “the best pack of fox hounds in England may be spoilt in six months, which the gentlemen assembled at the Swan appear not to have been aware of”. When nothing was concluded he sold the hounds to Lord Southampton, Master of the Quorn Hunt in Leicestershire from 1827 to 1831. Some other suggestions fell through, but G. F. Berkeley was anxious to come and was accepted to hunt the country four days a week on a subscription of £1,000. He took Harrold Hall; here, with some hounds which he had brought, he bred up a new pack; which was dispersed when he retired in 1834. D. R.Dansey was the new Master; he, according to R. Greaves in his Short History of the Oakley Hunt brought his own hounds from Ludlow [Shropshire], and they were housed in the new premises at Milton Ernest. In 1836 Tavistock again took over the mastership and continued for two years after he became 7th Duke of Bedford in 1839 when, according to Greaves, he again sold hounds to Lord Southampton. Hollingworth Magniac, who became master in 1841, built up a new pack. When Robert Arkwright began his thirty five years’ mastership in 1850 he bought the pack for £400. As time went on he felt the financial strain and in 1876 the 9th Duke of Bedford bought the hounds for £1,500 and handed them over to the Hunt on the condition that they would remain in the country and be kept in their then efficiency. The number at that time was 43 couple old, 15 couple young, 45 couple puppies. When the new master took over (T. B. Miller) the number of hounds to be handed over at the end of his term was stipulated. Thus at last the hounds had become the property of the Hunt.

The master undertook for an agreed sum to hunt the country so many days a week, and members apparently each season announced what they would give for that year; if it was not sufficient, efforts were made to get more; or from time to time there were deficits which had to be made up by appeals. The master’s personality has always been important. The most controversial seems to have been G. F. Berkeley. His term is vividly described by himself, for both his Life and Reminiscences, written twenty or thirty years later; both need to be toned down somewhat in light of contemporary correspondence. He seems to have got on well with the farmers, who presented a memorial to the Duke in his favour, but was too strong an individualist for the Hunt. Lack of accord almost resulted in a duel between himself and the secretary, Samuel Charles Whitbread in 1832 [ST1100 and GA2492]. This was eased over by the help of Lord Clanrickard and Captain Duberly. In the time of his successor, Dansey, the sum subscribed was £1,300; in 1855 £1,500; in 1862 £1,800. The number of days to be hunted was usually four days a week. Sometimes complaints were made as to the fair distribution of meets over the county. The masters who stand out as having had long and/or successful terms were William Lee Antonie, the Marquess of Tavistock who was later 7th Duke of Bedford, Robert Arkwright and Esme F. W. Arkwright who died in the field in November 1934.