St Albans Grand Steeplechase
PUBLISHED: 12:41 03 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:41 03 March 2015
March was the month that St Albans became the centre of the horse racing world in the early 19th century with a thrilling race that inspired the Grand National. A print of the 1832 event inspired Mary Derriman to look into its remarkable history
Some years ago, I bought a sporting print in a sale. I do not remember how much I paid but it couldn’t have been more than a few pounds. It was of the St Albans Grand Steeplechase run on March 8, 1832. I bought it because I like sporting prints and because I know St Albans. Recently I thought I would find out more about the print, the artist and the engraver and about the race itself.
The first thing I found was that my print was the fifth of a set of six and that a set of six had sold for more than £1,000. Sadly there is no hope that mine will be as valuable as it is only one and not part of a set. It is also rather faded but it might be worth more than I paid for it – who knows?
My fifth print (above) is entitled Within View with the description: ‘Chalkley field – a short distance from the winning post a most interesting struggle down the Hill, Moonraker and Grimaldi lead the field. Captain Codrinton on Bloomfield and Mr Weston on Peacock fall in the Chalk Pit. Moonraker at this hedge clears Seven Yards at one leap.’
The original work was by James Pollard (1792-1867), a painter and aquatint engraver known for his foxhunting and sporting pictures as well as racing scenes. During his career he worked with the renowned 19th-century race scene painter John Herring Senior, painting landscapes and spectators while Herring did the horses. Between 1821 and 1839, Pollard exhibited at the Royal Academy and in 1824 and 1844 at the British Institution.
Charley Bentley was the engraver of the St Albans Grand Steeplechase prints. Also a painter in his own right, he was elected an associate member of the Water-Colour Society in 1834. He painted mostly coastal and river scenes in the UK and on the continent. He died of cholera in 1854.
The Grand Steeplechase
Steeple chasing is thought to have originated in Ireland as a contest between two riders testing their horses’ endurance across country, probably for a wager. There was no set course and probably no actual winning post, rather a race between two villages or towns, heading from church steeple to steeple.
As the sport became more popular it became more organised and several entrepreneurs over in England took up the idea, notably Thomas Coleman, licensee of the aptly-named Turf Hotel at 8 Chequers Street, St Albans, and latterly William Lynn, proprietor of the Waterloo Inn in Liverpool.
Riders, all ‘gentlemen’ – that is amateurs – with a maximum weight of 12 stone, and spectators met at the Turf Hotel, going from there to the field, a four-mile course through countryside around the city, taking in large fences and banks, and heading to the winning post between two large trees on Level Lands Field. In 1832, Moonraker ridden by Mr Beardworth won the race by half a neck from Grimaldi in a time of 15.5 minutes, Corinthian Kate and Napoleon were a close third and fourth. Grimaldi ran again in the 1836 St Albans race but dropped dead as he passed the winning post. This was the year the Hungarian Prince Esterhazy presented a gold cup to the winner.
The trade that the race brought to Thomas Coleman impressed William Lynn. Some of that trade at the Turf Hotel may have been due to its excellent chef, good cellar and the fact that Coleman could provide hot baths for his clients. It was also near the headquarters of the local Conservative party – and trade certainly declined when St Albans lost its electoral franchise.
The Grand National
Greatly influenced by the St Albans race and assisted by Captain Martin Becher, Lynn resolved to stage a similar event near his own hotel, at Aintree.
Captain Becher rode in several races at St Albans and riding Duke went on to win in 1836 (in a field of 10 runners) the first official Grand Liverpool Steeplechase, the foreruner of the Grand National. Becher is now best know for his association with the Grand National, principally his sojourn in the brook which bears his name.
The new race at Aintree went from strength to strength while the St Albans Grand Steeplechase began to founder. The last St Albans race in 1839 proved a fiasco and appears to have been badly organised in every respect. Coleman’s fortunes declined and he ran up large debts, partly from losses incurred by the race and also from entertaining his aristocratic friends. Coleman left St Albans in 1845.
The Turf Hotel became a warehouse for the straw plait industry and is now, rather appropriately for its sporting past, a branch of Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society.
Whatever his failings. Thomas Coleman created, for a few years, the most important jump race in Britain and laid the foundations for steeple chasing, inspiring what many today consider the greatest horse race in the world.