Camilla Swift delves into The Greyhound and the Hare to unearth a beautifully-illustrated book on the history of hare coursing.
On 1st March 1871, a crowd gathered at Windsor railway station to greet a small greyhound. His name was Master M’Grath, and he was there at the invitation of Queen Victoria, who had requested to meet this famous greyhound. He had won the Waterloo Cup – the highlight of the coursing calendar – three times in four years. He was greeted by Her Majesty at Windsor Castle, and paraded through the castle and past Eton College, where the boys cheered him along the way. A hundred and thirty-four years later, in the very same castle, her great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II signed the royal assent which would ban coursing.
The story of what happened between those two events, and indeed how coursing reached its halcyon days, is documented in a new book, The Greyhound and the Hare. I say book, but it’s an enormous and beautiful tome, which manages somehow to combine a thorough biography of the animal itself, an in-depth history of the sport of coursing across the British Isles and beyond, and stunning illustrations. The author, Charles Blanning, is a true fount of knowledge on the topic; his family has bred greyhounds since the 1920s, and as well as being a highly respected journalist on both coursing and greyhounds, he has also been both Keeper of the Greyhound Stud Book, and Secretary of the National Coursing Club.
The foreword is written by Sir Mark Prescott, well known for being one of Newmarket’s most respected racehorse trainers, but also one of coursing’s most loyal and vocal supporters. Who is this book written for, he wonders. “Perhaps principally, for a student one hundreds years hence who asks the question, ‘What on earth was coursing anyway?’ This must,” he goes on, “surely be the best book ever written on the greyhound”.
When the aforementioned “small black greyhound” Master M’Grath competed in the Waterloo Cup, which took place at Altcar near Aintree, daily crowds at the three-day meeting numbered around ten to twelve thousand people. Thirty thousand people, then, made their way “to the remote fields near Liverpool” to watch greyhounds course a hare. This celebration of Master M’Grath was most likely the “historical high water mark of the eminence of the greyhound,” comments Blanning. The first coursing club was established at Swaffham in Norfolk, in 1776, and until the 1830s coursing was the preserve of the nobility, as the Game Laws restricted the right to hunt to a privileged minority. But in 1831, a new Game Act allowed anyone to buy a licence to hunt for £3 13s 6d (around £2,000 in today’s money). The new laws had a huge effect on coursing. The number of clubs mushroomed, the sport flourished, and it became “a sport of national importance”. As the railways came, it revolutionised the sport, allowing dogs to compete all over the country, and in 1857 the number of Waterloo Cup entries was doubled to 64 names. Around 5,000 people attended the meeting on each day.
The 1870s, however, saw a new kind of coursing where not only were the hares enclosed in special holding grounds but the running grounds were fenced in as well. This sparked a period which, says Blanning, “has been much misunderstood ever since.” For a decade, racecourses such as Kempton Park, Haydock Park and Gosforth Park offered coursing fixtures, and the 1886 Champion Stakes at Kempton were described as “next to the Waterloo Cup, the acknowledged greatest coursing event of the season.” This enclosed coursing only lasted a decade, but it had led to the advent of a new kind of greyhound – one who relied on “pace, pure and simple”.
The first greyhounds raced after a dummy lure in 1876, but greyhound racing as it is today (or what remains of it) kicked off in the 1920s. In 1927 London’s White City hosted “50 consecutive nights of racing with an average crowd of 40,000”. But the National Coursing Club weren’t keen, and “the proceedings of the NCC in relation to greyhound racing make grim reading now”. Before the coursing authorities knew it, “track racing was in the driving seat”. In 1945 the Waterloo Cup winner was, for the first time, sired by a dog who was a track-racing star.
By the 1960s, hares were beginning to suffer, as the mechanisation of farming, fewer hedgerows and increased pesticides took their toll on the animals. By the late 1960s, coursing was falling by the wayside, “reduced from a national sport to a pariah”. Over the years, various attempts had been made to ban the sport, with enclosed coursing and rabbit coursing leading people to believe, mistakenly, that “the dog which killed the hare won the course”, and that hares had no chance of escape. This was the beginning of the end. In the 1980s, Sir Mark Prescott, among others, brought back the Waterloo Cup, and managed to restore it to its former glory. TV crews were encouraged, in the hope that transparency in the sport would allow people to see the truth. But it wasn’t to be: Blanning tells an anecdote whereby one BBC crew filmed over 20 courses before they saw a hare killed. As soon as they had that on camera they packed up, claiming to be going “for a coffee”.
This is a book jam-packed with tales, facts and history. You might not think that you have much of an interest in coursing and greyhounds, but I can guarantee that this book will prove you wrong.