Peter Beckford.

Thoughts on hunting : in a series of familiar letters to a friend online

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From a painting in possession of the Hon. Miss Pitt of Steejtleton














AS the Author of the following Letters has been
* charged with inhumanity, and yet conjectured
to be a Clergyman, it is now become necessary to
publish his name : and, though it may not be usual
to answer an anonymous writer, 1 yet, as it is not
impossible that some readers may have adopted his
sentiments, this consideration, and this alone, induces
the Author to answer the objections which the critic
hath so wantonly made. Whatever may be the
imperfection of these Letters, the Author is desirous
that it should fall, as it ought, upon himself only.
The objections, which he thinks were unnecessarily
made, he has endeavoured to remove. All intentional
cruelty he entirely disclaims. His appeal from that
accusation lies to those whom he addresses as his
judges ; not (as the critic may think) because they are
equally barbarous with himself, but because Sportsmen
only are competent to decide.


1 In the Monthly Review

IT is rather singular to observe but worthy of
remark by the Sporting World that, till Mr.
Beckford's book appeared, no work on the subject
of Hunting had been published, except an anonymous
publication, in 1733, entitled An Essay on Hunting?
This latter work displays much good sense and
practical knowledge : it has been reprinted with

great success.

The biography of the Author of Letters on Hunting
might be said to be multum in parvo. But, short
as it may be, it is entitled to our notice. Peter
Beckford, Esq., of Stapleton, in Dorsetshire, died
at the age of seventy years. As a gentleman hunter,
not a stanch er one was to be found in his whole
county. His judgment in the choice of hounds, and
the skill he displayed in the management of his
establishment, claimed the praise of all those persons
who witnessed it. In his selection of horses, and
all other animals, his judgment was considered equally
conspicuous. In the character of an Author, his

I 1 A very interesting little work ; but the author is evidently only a hare-
hunter. The chapter on the various sorts of hounds and their different
peculiarities is worth reading.]


Letters on Hunting, which have gone through several
editions, have not only been pronounced excellent
by the Sporting World, but completely show that
Mr. Beckford was master of the subject on which
he wrote. His elegant and hospitable residence in
Dorsetshire was one of the most delightfully pic-
turesque situations in that part of the country. In
a word, a truer sportsman never crossed a horse,
followed a pack of hounds, or leaped a gate, than
Peter Beckford, Esq.


October 2nd, 1820.


MORE than a hundred years have elapsed since Beck-
ford wrote Thoughts on Hunting, yet to this day the
book remains a standard work on the subject. There had
been no text-book on hunting previous to its appearance,
and there has been nothing to rival it since. The ordinary
reader fights shy of the yellow-toned page discoloured with
the stain of years, and thinks — often rightly — that any
literature of our great-grandfathers must be of a prosy
nature. Nowadays a book, whether it be for instruction or
amusement, must be distilled and compressed to its smallest
compass. The bulky tome may fill a place in the bookshelf,
but its virgin leaves will remain uncut for ever. In con-
sideration for the age in which he lived, we could have
forgiven Beckford if he had been slightly longvvinded, but
every word is to the point, and there is not a sentence we
would wish left out. The book is purely technical, and yet
those who know nothing of the subject read it with pleasure.
I have not been able to gather many reliable facts about
the personal character of our author, but whoever reads his
Thoughts on Hunting will, I think, agree with me that the
man who wrote them was a sportsman and a gentleman.
Can there be higher praise than this? Every line in the
book bespeaks him a fox-hunter, and yet he was able to
appreciate the mysteries of hare-hunting. Humane, kind-
hearted, and fond of animals, still, when he found a fox he
was never satisfied until he had run him to ground or killed
him. It would be hopeless to try and explain these things


to those outside the craft, but we know that it is impossible
for a good sportsman to be cruel. A fox-hunter may love
the fox, but he loves the hound more, and he cannot spare
the life of one without being cruel to the other.

Peter Beckford, born in 1740, was the son of Julines Beck-
ford, whose brother William was the celebrated Lord Mayor
and father of the author of Vathek. Five years after the
birth of Peter his father purchased the house and manor
of Stapleton, or Stepleton-Iwerne, in Dorsetshire, together
with certain rights in Cranbourn Chase, from Thomas
Fownes, who bought it from George Pitt in 1654. This
Mr. Fownes appears to have been an excellent sportsman,
and was one of the first masters who kept a pack exclusively
for hunting the fox. He was also one of the pioneers in
the scientific breeding of the fox-hound, and his pack was
supposed to have been the most perfect in England, not only
for looks, but for the style in which they hunted a fox.
Like many other good men who have devoted a lifetime
to sport, he took no thought of riches for himself, and in the
end want of money forced him to sell his estate. Mr. Bowes,
of Yorkshire, bought the pack for what at that date was
considered an enormous price, but their subsequent history
I have not been able to trace, though it is unlikely masters
of that day would allow blood to be wasted which had
proved itself to be good.

Julines Beckford does not appear to have kept a regular
pack of hounds, but as his boyhood had been spent in
Jamaica, it was perhaps a form of amusement that he did
not understand. We, however, read that he appointed
keepers to look after the deer in certain parts of Cranbourn
Chase, so that it is evident he was interested in sport.

Young Peter must have been initiated early into the
mysteries of sport, and we can imagine him as a boy with a
few couple of the ancient breed of buck-hounds pursuing the
deer in Cranbourn Chase. We are told these hounds were


not particular what they hunted — deer, hares, foxes, and
marten-cats were hunted impartially. It was the duty of
the keepers of the Chase to keep down the vermin, and
it was probably with these men that Peter first imbibed his
love of hunting a fox. The population in and around the
Chase was of a very sporting character, for they were all
descendants of either poachers or keepers. These men
would naturally be delighted to see the young squire of
Stapleton developing sporting tastes, and would gladly
impart their knowledge of woodcraft to him.

A slight stretch of imagination and we can see Peter,
a lad of twelve or thereabouts, galloping off to the Chase
on his pony in the fresh crispness of an autumn morning.
By arrangement the keepers meet him at a certain spot
with eight or ten couple of buck-hounds, but on this occasion
it is not deer that are to be hunted.

A litter of cubs have been located in a patch of gorse
in one of the open parts of the Chase, and as they have
been making havoc amongst the rabbits it has been decided
to reduce their numbers. A crowd of footpeople await the
young squire's appearance, and under the direction of the
head-keeper they proceed to form a circle round the gorse
where the cubs are supposed to be. There are several
terriers, and nearly every man carries a spade, for they
fully anticipate having to dig. The cubs have, however,
moved elsewhere, but there is an old fox at home, and
hounds are soon bustling him from one clump of gorse to
another. Every time he attempts to escape he is met by
a chorus of yells. Peter, in the middle of the gorse, is
wild with excitement, dashing wildly from one side to the
other, and occasionally viewing the fox. The old varmint
begins to think there is more danger in stopping in the
covert than in going away, and just when he is supposed
to be on the further side, he breaks through the cordon
and gets clear away. The noises that are made to stop


the fox bring the hounds to the scene, and away they go
in view to the disgust of all except Peter, who gallops
after them in an ecstasy of delight. The open space is
soon crossed and hounds disappear amongst the trees ; but
there is a riding handy, and our young sportsman hastens
down the track with hounds running a little to the left.
At last the limits of the Chase are reached, and hounds
cross some rough heathy ground which brings them on to
cultivated land. Peter's pony is showing symptoms of
distress, for he is not in very good condition, the pace has
been fast and the day hot ; but scent is not so good
now, and there is every appearance of the hunt coming
to an end. Hounds also are not showing any desperate
keenness to recover the scent, and are turning over in their
minds the shortest way back to kennels. Then Peter sees
some men in a cornfield half a mile away, frantically waving
their hats. Digging his heels into the pony's fat sides,
he holloas to the hounds and gallops with them to the
distant cornfield. The men have been reaping wheat with
the sickle, and seeing the tired fox lie down in the long
stubble, they promptly surrounded him. Peter rides into
the stubble, which reaches nearly to his pony's girths, the
fox jumps up in the middle of the pack, there is a shrill
little holloa, and they run into him before he can get out
of the field. The little heart had throbbed wildly throughout
the exciting incidents of the hunt, and every moment would
be engraved deep on his memory, leaving an impression
that nothing in after-life could obliterate.

The next few years at Westminster School would not
afford much opportunity for hunting, except during the
holidays, and we may conclude that Peter had to devote
most of his time to study until he was twenty-three. Julines
Beckford, the father, was himself a man of very good ability,
and was desirous that his son should lack nothing that
education could impart.


Peter's innate love of sport found vent at first in keeping
a pack of harriers, but these soon gave way to fox-hounds.
Thomas Fownes had given the neighbouring squires and
yeomen a taste for fox-hunting in its legitimate form, so
that when Beckford announced his intention of reviving
the glories of the Cranborn Chase hunt he was welcomed
on all sides. From what source or sources he procured
the foundation of his pack it is now impossible to ascertain,
but judging the man from his writing, one does not deem
it likely that he would spare either trouble or expense
in getting the best blood. We may also consider it an
established fact that by dint of careful breeding he brought
his pack to a very high state of perfection ; but what was
their ultimate fate I have not yet been able to trace. The
Cranbourn Chase country was not, even in Beckford's day,
an ideal spot for hunting, as he says himself; but being
then less cultivated and fenced it was probably much better
than as we know it now. They had, however, good sport
and killed their foxes, so that it may be presumed they
enjoyed themselves, which is after all the chief object for
which we hunt. The country which Beckford hunted was
probably that which now is known as the South Dorset.
We know he hunted beyond the Stour, as we have it on
his authority, the occasion (p. 245) being when he crossed
it in a flood and lost several hounds. To the north is
the Blackmore vale, which is nearly as good a country
as any in the shires, being a wide expanse of grass, though
it is greatly spoilt by the majority of fences being planted
on banks. From the little one can gather of Beckford's
doings as set down by himself, I imagine he was not a
very hard rider, and the big banks of the vale may have
had no great attraction for him.

Cranbourn Chase was a royal forest in the time of King
John, and it then became the property of an Earl of
Salisbury, by whom it was sold to the Earl of Pembroke.


The next owner was a Lord Shaftesbury, who sold it to
Mr. Freke, of Shroton, and it thus descended to Lord Rivers.
The Rev. W. Chafln, in his Anecdotes of Cranbourn Chase,
says there were many serious fights between poachers and
keepers. About the year 1786 a severe battle was fought,
the combatants being equally divided ; the keepers were,
however, armed with staves and short hangers, whilst the
poachers only carried flails. The keepers, finding they were
getting the worst of the encounter, retired amongst the trees,
where it was impossible to use the flail, and at close quarters
the hangers soon carried the day. The leader of the gang,
a soldier from Blandford, had his hand cut off, another man
was killed, and the remainder were all taken prisoners.
History relates that prisoners and wounded were haled
before his honour Peter Beckford, Esq., at that time Ranger
of the Chase, who committed them for trial at the next
assizes, after first procuring medical aid to bind up their

The family of Beckford was supposed to have originally
come from Gloucestershire, but there is no record to establish
the claim between the family who lived there in the thirteenth
century and the man who was the direct ancestor of the
author of this book. This ancestor was also called Peter
Beckford, and was one of the richest men in Jamaica, but
where he came from or how he became possessed of his
riches history does not relate. Jamaica was at one time
a favourite resort for the buccaneers of the Spanish main,
and many a highly respected pirate retired to that island to
spend the remainder of his days in peace after a stormy life
on the ocean. Occasionally, when his Majesty of England
had not other work for his ships to do, one of these sea-
robbers would be captured and hung from the yard-arm, but
as a rule, if he confined his attentions to the unhappy
stranger and respected the union-jack, the hard-working
pirate had not much to fear. It is quite certain that many


families in Jamaica are descended from successful buccaneers,
and it is not unlikely that Peter Beckford, Commander-in-
chief and Governor of the island, may have been a pirate
chief or the son of one. Whatever his origin, this Peter
must have been a very able and energetic man, or he would
not, on the death of the Governor, have been elected to
fill that post. We are told that he was the owner of several
plantations and of slaves by the hundred. Peter Beckford,
his son, was Speaker of the House of Assembly, and was
the father of thirteen children. Two sons, William and
Julines, came to England, and were at the time of their
arrival possessed of considerable wealth. William had in-
herited his grandfather's energy and strength of character,
so that we find, instead of allowing his capital and time
to be idle, he entered very successfully into business as a
merchant in the city of London. Twice was he made Lord
Mayor, and on one celebrated occasion he demanded
audience of the king and protested stoutly against the
infringements of certain rights. His son William, the author
of Vathek, was a man who could probably have made his
mark in the world had he not been hampered with too much
riches, but he lacked the fixity of purpose which was one of
the strong points in his father's character. His collection of
art treasures at Fonthill Abbey was perhaps larger than any
single individual has ever owned.

Julines Beckford was more of a student than his brother,
and enjoyed the quiet retirement of a country life, but we
find that he was at one time the member for Salisbury. He
married Elizabeth, daughter of Solomon Ashly, Ashly St.
Ledgers, Northamptonshire. The result of that marriage
was Peter, the author of this book and the subject of this
short history, who in 1773 married Louisa, daughter of Lord
Rivers. Peter's son became the third Lord Rivers by a
special Act of Parliament, and his great-granddaughter
married the ninth Duke of Leeds, so that the present master


of the Bedale is the direct descendant of the man whose
name all fox-hunters honour.

Beckford sat for Morpeth in 1768, and in 1789 he travelled
in Italy, when he wrote an account of his travels. Sir
Egerton Brydges, in Retrospective Review, says : " Never had
fox or hare the honour of being chased to death by so
accomplished a hunter ; never was a huntsman's dinner
graced with such urbanity and wit. He would bag a fox
in Greek, find a hare in Latin, inspect his kennels in Italian,
and direct the economy of his stables in excellent French."
Of course we understand by this that Beckford was a
brilliant conversationalist and an excellent linguist, but I
think it would have annoyed him, in spite of the intended
compliment, to read of his bagging a fox and of his giving
orders to his stud-groom in French.

The first edition of Thoughts on Hunting was published in
1 78 1, when Beckford was forty-one years of age, and the
proof of the excellence of the book is in the way it has
stood the test of time. You turn to its pages for information,
and you find pleasure in gleaning the fruits from the
experience of a master in the art. If you flatter yourself
you are beginning to know something of the subject, you
find yourself agreeing with the author in every particular,
and in any way you may differ, you are almost persuaded
by his gentle reasoning. If you are an utter novice at the
game, a close study of the book will start you on that path
of knowledge which experience alone can complete. I have
loved and venerated the author for a great many years, so
that to me the task of editing his book is an honour which
I greatly appreciate.

Through the kindness and courtesy of the Misses Pitt, 1
the present owners of Steepleton, I was able to see the house
where Beckford lived and the interesting pictures which are
reproduced in this volume. The house is practically as it

1 Great-granddaughters of Beckford.


was in Beckford's time, and of course the greater part of the
structure dates to a much earlier period, the basement and
cellars being in existence when Elizabeth was queen. Though
I have read and admired this work for years, I had no idea
that the author's home was standing in its original condition
and contained personal relics of the man. My most sanguine
hope was to find an engraving of the old house and to look
on some new building that covered the site. Therefore my
joy and surprise was great to see the house itself, the intel-
lectual features of Peter Beckford in a life-size portrait, and
the excellent paintings of his hounds.

My visit to Steepleton was unfortunately very short, but
I enjoyed every moment of the hour I spent there. The
grey stone walls whispered to me the tale of a country
gentleman's life more than a hundred years ago, and the
wood-crowned hill seemed to echo with the notes of Peter's
horn. The house is just what your imagination would
conceive Beckford's home to be — beautiful yet unpretentious,
with the picturesque surroundings that are only to be found
in England's ancient homes. I would gladly have lingered
on in the sunshine and the scent of flowers, looking at the
scene as it is to-day and filling in the details of the past as
my imagination painted them. The rumble of a not far-
distant train recalled to me the need for hurrying and the
time I was due back at Blandford. Following my guide
into the garden amongst flower-beds and shrubs, we dived
under a yew arch, and to my surprise there was the church —
a pretty little building covered with ivy and creepers,
seemingly shut off from the clamour of the outside world,
and with a look of restful repose that ought to be conducive
to devotions. Within the church one feels the presence of
the dead ; outside in the sunshine and beneath the trees
Peter lives ; but here in the peaceful shadows beneath
our feet lie his bones, and instinctively we tread lightly,
lest we should disturb his rest.


On the marble slab of the vault is this simple inscription :

P. B.





Then on a memorial tablet is the name in full and
the date of death, with this rather curious epitaph :

" We die and are forgotten — 'tis Heaven's decree ;
Thus the fate of others will be the fate of me."

Out again into the bright sunlight, and I was asked
would I like to see the kennels, which of course was exactly
what I did want to see. Therefore, on we went down the
gravel path, by the edge of a large ornamental lake, where
tall yews threw dark shadows on the water, and through
kitchen -gardens surrounded by high walls of age-toned
brick. Here we called the head gardener to our assistance,
and coming out into the road I was confronted with a low
tile-roofed building, covered with roses and creepers, which
is still known as " the kennels." Now they are used as
dwelling-houses for workmen on the estate, and the little
flower gardens in front are planted where was once the
kennel yard. It took me some little time to reconstruct
the place as it was, but by opening doorways that had
been walled up and blocking up others, the kennels grew
gradually upon me. Here was the huntsman's house at
this end, there the boiling-house, and the original arches
are still in the walls showing the feeding-place or hounds'
main lodging-rooms. Some of the flagstones, which must
have often listened to the old story of legs and feet, are
now used as a pathway to one of the cottages. Not fifty
yards distant is the running stream which Beckford insists
on should always be in the grass-yard ; but here nature
and man have contrived to make serious alterations. The
trees under which the Cranbourn Chase hounds used to


gambol are cut down and others have grown up in their
place, whilst the actual scene of the grass-yard is now an
osier-bed. This, I think, shows that the ornamental lake
was not in Peter's reign, as the damming up of the water
must have caused the hounds' playground to become a

Back to the house we went by way of the stables, which
have evidently been shorn of much of their ancient glory ;
but the main building has not suffered any alteration,
and only the wings have been pulled down. Close to the
house are some outbuildings, which have certainly been
kennels at some period, and they may have been used
for shooting-dogs, but according to my fancy it was there
that young Peter kept his pack of beagles.

In the drawing-room Peter welcomes me from his portrait
with a pleasant smile, and I can almost imagine him pressing
me to see the pictures of his hounds in the next room.
There I see three excellent oil-paintings of hounds by
Sartorius, a well-known animal painter of that period,
which are here reproduced. After looking at these pictures
it is easy to believe that Beckford's pack had a great
reputation in those days. On the staircase is a large picture
without either name or date, containing one large hound,
which I believe to be a harrier, and some smaller ones
which are undoubtedly portraits of his beagles. This
picture is not nearly so well painted as the others, but
it gives one a very fair idea of the type of hound. The
painting of the pack with the two hunt servants is par-
ticularly interesting as showing the costumes of that
period. It will be noticed that the men carry short swords
or hangers by their sides, and I believe they wore them
by virtue of their master's office as Ranger of the Chase.
This picture, however, met with an accident and had to
be restored, so that the outlines of the hounds are not
so good as in the two others.


At the moment Beckford commenced to breed a pack
of fox-hounds, others were doing the same thing in different
parts of England, and the middle of the eighteenth century-
may be considered the period when the movement became
general. For those who took the trouble to travel to
different kennels there was ample material to choose

Online LibraryPeter BeckfordThoughts on hunting : in a series of familiar letters to a friend → online text (page 1 of 24)