Creating Tradition – Wellesley-Pole and Ascot (Part 4)
The Decline & Fall of Wellesley-Pole
By the end of the 1820s Royal Ascot was the most important occasion in the sporting calendar, attended by huge crowds from all levels of society. On racing week London was quite simply drained of its inhabitants, & a great many rival events and pastimes forced to reschedule or close their doors as they could not hope to compete. Other sports, such as boxing cleverly capitalised on Ascot’s success – as for a number of years it became customary for a big bout to be arranged to attract the returning hordes on the evening of the final day’s racing.
London’s loss was not only commercial and social, for there was a marked rise in both burglaries and fires in the many unattended homes. Criminals must have loved the absense of Bow Street Runners, many of whom were sequestered to Ascot by Wellesley-Pole.
However, by 1828 Wellesley-Pole began to become a victim of his own success, and his control over Ascot unravelled
Second Meeting Syndrome
George IV was so delighted with ‘Royal’ Ascot that he commanded Wellesley-Pole to arrange a second meeting to be held from 1828 onwards- proposing that it be held a mere fortnight after the first one finished. It is easy to see why the King craved more of Ascot, given the rapturous reception he was now accustomed to receiving each day he attended.
George IV loved Ascot and was greedy for more
Wellesley-Pole was as anxious to make the King happy, as the King was willing to give Wellesley-Pole absolute authority over the new arrangements. But as the King’s health declined, Wellesley-Pole’s workload doubled, meaning that his temperament and judgement was to be sorely tested by these new arrangements.
A second meeting was duly held at Ascot from 1828 onwards, but it was soon apparent that the King’s enthusiasm was insufficient to overcome the many problems created by trying to replicate another ‘Royal Ascot’ a mere fortnight after its conclusion. In the first place the new meeting did not suit many of the leading horse owners, who were used to taking their horses on to Goodwood after ‘Royal Ascot’. Secondly there was an inevitable loss in quality of the main meeting as several high-prize races were transferred to the second meeting. Thirdly and most importantly, no allowance was made for the ordinary folk whose attendance at Ascot was crucial to its carnival atmosphere. In 1829 the Morning Post summed up the problem
After the first Ascot meeting the better horses generally leave… leaving a small quantity of bad horses for the second meeting… We do have other thoughts upon the subject which we also consider of consequence to the support of the race course- the middling classes of society are the principal frequenters, who cannot afford to give up so much time in so short a space.
It was obvious that a second meeting was a bad idea, but Wellesley-Pole still went ahead in 1830 – though he did push the date back to August. Wellesley-Pole went against his better judgement to avoid disappointing the King, instead of calling the whole thing off. In fact George IV died on 26 June 1830 so was not around to witness the demise of this failed experiment, and Wellesley-Pole was held responsible for the whole idea. Not surprisingly, as soon as Wellesley-Pole stepped down as Master of the Buckhounds, ‘Royal Ascot’ reverted back to its old single meeting format.
Don’t Question MY Authority
The most inevitable consequence of Wellesley-Pole’s increased power was the knock on effect it had upon his emotions. As his temper began to overheat, decisions became rash and ill-considered & his well-ordered management system began to crumble and subside.
Arguments often flared up before the race had even set off
Wellesley-Pole’s megalomania boiled over during the Ascot Gold Cup in 1829. Prior to the race and to avoid any delay in his strict timetable, Wellesley-Pole made a rule that the horses gather together- setting off at the same time. The Morning Post wrote
When Mr Gully heard of [the new rule], after all the horses were brought to the post, knowing that his horse was of a frightful temper, he became apprehensive he might lose his chance of the prize, and hastily rode up to [Wellesley-Pole] to induce him to rescind the order. In doing so he passed the Royal Stand & neglected to take off his hat.
Wellesley-Pole seized on this breach of protocol to deny Gully a hearing and the race was run. Afterwards Gully sent a letter of apology to the King, which was graciously accepted, but this merely served to stir Wellesley-Pole’s resentment further. On the grounds that Gully’s explanation was not unsatisfactory to him as Lord Steward of Ascot – Wellesley-Pole decreed that Gully was henceforth forbidden to run a horse for the Gold Cup!!
Considering that the King had taken no offence for Mr Gully’s faux pas, Wellesley-Pole’s punishment was very mean-minded and personal. But it did not end there because Wellesley-Pole subsequently issued an edict declaring that from 1830 Ascot would only accept horses
The bona fide property of a member of the Jockey Club, a member of the Upper or Lower Rooms at Newmarket, or one of those clubs in London whose members may be admitted into the above clubs without a ballot
This was an extraordinary dictat, unilaterally imposed by Wellesley-Pole – and had immediate and far-reaching consequences. Most country-based owners suddenly found themselves excluded from entry meaning that by 1831 the Gold Cup was reduced to a ‘commonplace affair’. Royal Ascot was seriously damaged because of this. By this time both Wellesley-Pole and George IV were off the scene, so it presented new King William IV with a perfect opportunity to boost his own popularity with Ascot patrons by rescinding this elitist rule.
Wellesley-Pole was starting to act like a donkey.
You Damned Scoundrel!!
Perhaps the final straw for Wellesley-Pole came as a result of a moment of madness, as his fierce temper exploded and he resorted to violence. It must have been pure comedy to witness what occurred. During the second Ascot meeting of 1829 Wellesley-Pole observed a man dragging an old lady off the race track, and heard her shout ‘Murder’ as she tried to resist. In an instant he rushed from the Royal Stand and ‘struck the man two desperate blows with the butt end of a whip, hitting him on the forehead and damaging his cap.’ Not waiting for an explanation Wellesley-Pole then grabbed the man by his lapels, throwing him to the ground with the words ‘You damned scoundrel!’
Wellesley-Pole loses the plot, June 1829
All of this was quite a feat for a 66 year old man dressed in ceremonial garb, but Wellesley-Pole had totally mis-read the situation. For the lady in question was a blind beggar unaware of the danger she faced wandering onto the race track. Her ‘assailant’ was in fact a special constable from Windsor whose sole concern had been for for her safety. Not knowing why she had been grabbed the beggar had indeed cried ‘Murder,’ and this was what triggered Wellesley-Pole’s protective instincts.
Just a few days after King George IV’s death, Wellesley-Pole found himself before a judge at Abingdon where he was convicted of common assault, receiving a fine of £50. Several witnesses testified that Wellesley-Pole’s reaction was disproportionately violent and that his rage had got the better of him.
After this embarrassment Wellesley-Pole changed his mind about staying on to serve William IV and announced his departure by the end of 1830.
Such sequence of unfortunate events is one that sadly repeated itself throughout Wellesley-Pole’s life. Once again his achievement were subsumed by the ignominy of his departure, and the impression he left was of being volcanic in nature, liable to erupt at any time. When viewed like this, it is not so hard to see why his son ‘Wicked’ William turned out so bad.
His race may have been run, but ‘Royal Ascot’ ultimately was the winner
Yet none of the above errors should detract from the permanent changes instigated by Wellesley-Pole, and the skilful way in which he welded ‘Royal’ into Ascot. Hence, in the final part of this blog I will sum up the Wellesley-Pole’s legacy as Steward, suggesting that Ascot really ought to find a place, any place, to honour his achievements.
A great way to find out more about King George IV is via The Royal Pavilion Website
Last but not least look out for The Angel & The Cad Geraldine Roberts’ forthcoming true story of love & loss in Regency England, which will be published by Macmillan June 2015 & features more on Wellesley-Pole