Rowland G. M. Baker, 1989
The extinction of prize-fighting did not leave Molesey Hurst entirely bereft of sporting encounters. On two days a year at least it sprang into life again as teeming masses thronged onto its turf for the annual carnival known as Hampton races.
Horses had been raced on the Hurst since the early seventeen hundreds at least, probably due, like so many other sports here, to the proximity of Hampton Court and the luxuried idlers it encouraged. But the meeting did not achieve much prominence until after the commencement of the next century. In fact, its renaissance may well have been influenced by the patronage of the sporting Duke of Clarence and his brood of illegitimate Fitzclarences from Bushy House just across the river. Even after his accession as William IV he continued his support and in 1831 donated a plate of one hundred guineas for a race run here.
The meeting, which was held in June each year, became more and more a festival for the plebeian masses of London. By the middle of the nineteenth century the gathering was estimated to attract over one hundred thousand souls on each day. Getting such a multitude on and off the Hurst was in itself a miraculous exercise, bringing difficulties and chaos to all the surrounding districts. The Surrey Comet commented: 'So great was the traffic through Kingston that it completely threw the Derby day into the shade'. And this was beside the shoals who came down on the special trains which were run from Waterloo, or travelled more leisurely by river steamer. No wonder the meeting was known as 'the Cockney Derby'.
Of all the race meetings held in the Kingdom this was pre-eminently the one at which the issue of the races paled into almost complete insignificance beside the collective enjoyment of the day's outing. Thus was it proclaimed by one newspaper 'of the thousands who frequent Molesey Hurst comparatively few care a fig which horse wins. They are out for the day, fixing upon one of two days of the meeting, because it is the thing to do. The staked-off course, stands, booths, and caterers for the pleasure and amusement of the people, give to the gathering rather the resemblance of a fair. The titled patrons of the turf were represented by several scions of noble houses, but it is for "the people" that Hampton draws its chief supply of visitors. The fun at times waxed exceedingly boisterous. The disregard for the racing in the minds of the majority was plainly shown in the difficulty experienced by the police in clearing the course for the first race, the holiday makers steadily refusing to be tempted from between the ropes'.
The scene has been vividly portrayed by the witty pen of perhaps the most observant and descriptive of our English novelists — Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby. 'The little racecourse at Hampton was in the full tide and height of its gaiety; the day as dazzling as day could be; the sun high in the cloudless sky, and shining in its fullest splendour. Every gaudy colour that fluttered in the air from carriage seat and garish tent top shone out in its gaudiest hues. Old dingy flags grew new again, faded gilding was re-burnished, stained rotten canvas looked a snowy white, the very beggar's rags were freshened up, and sentiment quite forgot its charity in its fervent admiration of poverty so picturesque.'
'The great race of the day had just been run; and the close lines of people, on either side of the course, suddenly breaking up and pouring into it, imparted a new liveliness to the scene, which was again all busy movement. Some hurried eagerly to catch a glimpse of the winning horse; others darted to and fro, searching, no less eagerly, for the carriages they had left in quest of better stations. Here a little knot gathered round a pea and thimble table to watch the plucking of some unhappy greenhorn; and there, another proprietor with his confederates in various disguises, sought, by loud and noisy talk and pretended play, to entrap some unwary customer. These would be hanging on the outskirts of a wide circle of people assembled round some itinerant juggler, opposed in his turn, by a noisy band of music, or the classic game of "Ring the Bull", while ventriloquists holding dialogues with wooden dolls, and fortune-telling women smothering the cries of real babies, divided with them, and many more, the general attention of the company. Drinking tents were full, glasses began to clink in carriages, hampers to be unpacked, tempting provisions to be set forth, knives and forks to rattle, champagne corks to fly, eyes to brighten that were not dull before, and pickpockets to count their gains during the last heat. The attention so recently strained on one object of interest, was now divided among a hundred; and look where you would, there was a motley assemblage of feasting, laughing, talking, begging, gambling and mummery.'
'Of the gambling booths there was a plentiful show, flourishing in all the splendour of carpeted ground, striped hangings, crimson cloth, pinnacled roofs, geranium pots, and livery servants. There were the Strangers' club-house, the Atheneum club-house, the Hampton club-house, the Saint James's club-house, half a mile of club-houses to play in; and there were rouge-et-noir, French hazard, and other games to play at'.
The rows of refreshment booths, drinking tents, gingerbread stalls, shooting galleries, merry-go-rounds, and the like, imparted the appearance rather of an old-fashioned country fair — which was virtually what it was. And all this entertainment and catering was conducted by itinerant showmen, strolling gipsies, hawkers, and dealers, for whom the gathering was just as much a holiday mecca as for the patrons who were soon to be parted from their hard-earned cash.
For a week or more before the meeting the Hurst was asparkle as the travelling folk mustered, with their caravans, tents, camp-fires, their horses, barking dogs, clucking fowls, and lively, excited children. It appears that this place was liked by them much better than any other on their rambling itinerary. It was usually whilst staying here that advantage was taken to carry the year's offsprings along to West Molesey Church to be baptised. For many years after 1839 the parish register records each June, a list of 'travellers' and 'licensed hawkers' who had presented their babes at the font.
The gipsies, according to one report, 'were wonderfully well-behaved, and complaints of their behaviour were few and far between'. It was also noticeable that they departed much cleaner and more presentable than when they came. The same could not be said of some of the hangers-on who congregated around, and whose drunken orgies, for two or three nights, kept the neighbourhood in one continuous state of uproar and excitement.
The gipsy fraternity was composed of several close-knit families; the Sampsons, Lees and Rossitors being perhaps the most prominent, and amongst whom a conspicuous rivalry was forever manifest, especially between the latter two. This rivalry was usually evidenced only in amicable competition to outvie each other in the display of finery and trinkets, the flaunting of which was always a partiality of the romany.
However, on one notable occasion the rivalry broke out into bitter hostility and open fighting. This deadly struggle, which is faithfully retold by 'Lord' George Sanger, in his autobiography Senenty Years a Showman, came to a head at Molesey, when the two factions fought it out in a grand battle, using the large sticks, known as 'livetts', which were normally employed on the shies before wooden balls came into use. The combat was going famously, with neither side seeming to gain the advantage, when suddenly there arose a mighty roar as a posse of the local constabulary arrived to put a stop to the brawl. All at once the antagonism between the gipsies was forgotten and both parties turned as one, with brutal ferocity, on the blue uniforms, and a terrible struggle ensued. The police, who were few in number, were beaten mercilessly and were retreating towards the ferry when, with startling suddenness, the attacking gipsies ceased their mêlée and, as if a signal had been given, scampered to their various camps, which were immediately folded up, loaded onto carts, horsed-up, and they were away from the Hurst as fast as could be. Minutes later a strong reinforcement of armed police arrived on the scene, some arrests were made and it is believed that at least one of the Lees was imprisoned for his part in the contest. For many years afterwards the battle between the Lees and the Rossitors on Molesey Hurst was a talking point wherever the 'travelling folk' foregathered.
The massing of so many people onto the Hurst inevitably offered a field-day for a horde of criminal types, on the look-out for easy pickings from the gullible and unwary.
On the morning after the races a motley crowd of pickpockets, swindlers, gamblers, pilferers, and others engaged in unlawful acts, were presented at Kingston magistrates' courts, and were fined or sent away to enjoy the hospitality of one of HM's places of confinement for sundry spells. In 1859, for instance, four prisoners were sentenced to three months for picking pockets; five to one month each for stealing handkerchiefs; three boys to two months with hard labour for attempting to pick pockets; one charged with gambling with cards, case dismissed; one to hard labour for three months for stealing a shawl; a woman to three months for picking pockets; three were committed to sessions for assault and stealing; and one to three months' imprisonment for attempting to steal a gold watch and chain.
In 1866 an experiment was tried, by holding an additional meeting in the autumn, which proved so successful that it became an annual September feature. But this was a very different affair, with none of the razzle-dazzle of the June event, and the attendances nowhere near prolific. It was more for the racing types, where showmen and gipsies gave pride of place to bookmakers and tic-tac men. Some of the bookies, it was known, much regretted the proximity of Father Thames, for many a member of the fraternity who attempted to 'Welsh' on his clients 'had an involuntary ducking, sometimes with narrow escape from drowning, owing to inability to meet his betting liabilities'.
In 1881 the Prince of Wales attended the June meeting 'and if ever man enjoyed the fun of the fair', one writer tells us, 'it was he. His likeness was taken by an itinerant photographer, he had his fortune told, bought puppy dogs, and was as merry as every costermonger Joe from Whitechapel on his, perhaps, solitary day's outing during the year could have been'.
Being an open course there were few means available to the promoters of the races for the raising of sufficient money to defray the cost of upkeep, and little was done towards its maintenance. Indeed, it would have been uneconomic to expend a lot of money on a ground only used for racing on four days in each year. The course, therefore, deteriorated to a dilapidated condition, and in 1887 the Jockey Club refused to renew its licence, on the plea that it was unfit, if not positively dangerous, for racing. The meeting of that year saw the end of an era as far as 'Happy Hampton' was concerned.
ISBN 0 86023 414 2
Thameside Molesey was originally published by Barracuda Books, now part of Baron, publishers of heritage volumes - maritime, military, transport, sporting and local. It is made available here with the kind agreement of Radmore Birch Associates.
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