Death of a Regency Prize-Fighter


During my recent research into Royal Ascot I stumbled across an 1830 newspaper report relating to the death of pugilist Tom Shelton, a sportsman considered ‘one of the brightest stars’ of the Regency era.

shelton 2

Weighing in at 12 stone 7lbs – Tom Shelton

Tom Shelton’s boxing career is described in great depth in Pearce Egan’s Boxiana – Volume 2 (1824) and again in Volume 3 (1829) where his decline in stature (as age set in) is well recorded.

Born in Wrotham in Kent on May 1st 1787, Tom Shelton began life as a canal worker in and around the Thames estuary. It was hard labour for small pay, so by the age of 16 Shelton entered the ring for the first time at St Giles’ Fields for a prize of just five shillings. He was initially considered to be a ‘miller’ in style, meaning that he was not afraid to trade blow for blow with his opponent – but showed little regard for his own safety. But very soon ‘The Navigator’ (as he was named) became widely renowned as a ‘scientific boxer – a truly great man in the ring- a good in-fighter, but a left-handed hitter’. Boxiana describes a number of gruelling contests in which Shelton fought bravely to the finish. It is both awe-inspiring and sickening to read about the punishment he endured over a great many bouts between 1812 and 1825. For example on more than one occasion Shelton fought on with multiple broken ribs.

tom shelton 1

However the most harrowing tale of all relates to an incident occuring outside the ring, which all-but foreshadowed Shelton’s untimely end. In the summer of 1812, at the age of 25 Shelton found himself in Hampstead on a drinking binge with a friend. As the day wore on the men began to gamble, the stakes for which became increasingly serious as they became more inebriated. Boxiana relates that when Shelton actually lost the clothes off his back

The last desperate stake was HIS LIFE. The destructive effects of gaming were never seen in a more horrid point of view, than in this transaction between Shelton and his associate… It is scarcely possible to admit of the reality of the circumstance… to witness one man staking his life with perfect indifference as to the event, and viewing the other equally as callous, not only in winning the life of a fellow creature, but claiming the performance of the contract, with all the barbarity of a Shylock.


There but for the grace of unlucky good samaritan Mr Croker

When Shelton lost this final throw of the dice, his dreadful friend ordered him to hang himself from the nearest tree. Considering this to be the right thing to ‘fulfil the character of an honourable gambler’ he immediately proceeded to do so. Fortunately, a passer-by named Croker intervened to take Shelton down, thereby saving his life. Croker was rewarded with two black eyes and a broken nose for his troubles. Consequently, on 14th September 1812 Shelton was tried and found guilty of assault. Just before sentence was passed his wife Mary suddenly stood up to address the bench, stating that from this prosecution ‘she was ruined in her little shop and business, and her four young children deprived of subsistence’. She added that, ‘excepting some such irregular fits and frolics, Shelton was a good husband, and laborious and attentive to his duties’. Remarkably, the judge was greatly impressed by this act of matrimonial loyalty and Shelton was discharged.

gamester reformed

‘Honour’ in gambling – what a frightening concept

It is really quite appalling to consider how close Shelton came to killing himself as a result of heavy drinking and gambling. However, it was not that Shelton had suicidal tendencies – rather that he was following a convention going back to medieval times whereby a wager was considered enforceable as a legal contract. In short Shelton went too far because he was drunk, but could never relinquish his respect for the boundaries of ‘honourable gambling’, even if his life depended on it.
sparring at the fives court

The Fives Court – where Shelton often gave boxing exhibitions

During his boxing career, Shelton often took part in organised displays, involving sparring contests with various other well-known pugilists, and he regularly acted as a second in other bouts. As his career reached its conclusion, there are several newspaper reports describing benefit nights held in his honour. So it would seem that Shelton was a widely liked and respected sportsman.

Shelton became a pub landlord around 1820, and as his career drew to a close used his pubs for boxing events, and later dog-fighting contests. But his association with sport and the wagering involved in the outcome meant that gambling remained very much part of Shelton’s persona. By 1829 Boxiana recorded him as a man in decline, hardly surprising as Shelton was into his 40s and no longer in the top bracket of prize-fighters. He was very much yesterday’s man, and perhaps the loss of celebrity led to more serious and prolonged involvement in gambling.


 When his career ended, Shelton went back to the tables

On Monday 22nd June 1830 Tom Shelton returned to The Ship in Montague Street, Bishopsgate, having been absent from duty for over a week. After dinner with his family and smoking his pipe, Tom confided in his wife that he had lost £800 gambling at Ascot Races. This was a colossal sum of money, perhaps 10 times what Shelton could earn annually. He said he had already tried and failed to secure an advance from employers Trueman & Hanbury. In consequence of this, Shelton was now compelled to surrender himself to Whitecross Debtors Prison on Wednesday morning, with his destitute family in tow.

whitecross debtors prison

Life was grim for families inside Whitecross Debtor’s Prison

Not for the first time, Mary Shelton tried to rally her husband at his time of need. Despite his recent neglect of both family and business responsibilities, she argued that they were both young and able to work, & that by ‘giving up gambling and using honest and persevering industry, he might get through all his difficulties.’ Apparently soothed, Shelton asked his wife to get him a gin and water before retiring to bed. But when she was gone he produced a bottle of prussic acid from his coat pocket, swallowed the contents, and was dead before she returned.

This story of a family ruined by gambling addiction resonates very strongly today. For, at the end of the Regency period questions were raised about the dangers of unrestricted gambling and the effect it was having upon society. Then, like now, the spectre of poverty and alcohol dependency quite often played a role in the process of ruination for gambling addicts.

As early as 1828 the Morning Post decried the proliferation of gambling transactions throughout Windsor during Royal Ascot, stating that

It is high time that some serious notice be taken of these base proceedings for it is most shameful and scandalous, that in a small town like Windsor, so near our chief seats of learning, and moreover the residence of the British Monarch, these vitiating receptacles should with impunity be allowed to remain

 gambling table
A common ruse was the thimble table – turning gambling into pure deceit

Though Shelton’s death and inquest were widely reported it was only a matter of days before it became old news. The following week’s headlines moved on to Mr Stevenson, a ‘sporting gentleman’ who threw himself from a window ‘under the excitement of feeling arising from his having lost £7000 on the Derby – He was not expected to survive.’ In fact it was not until the Gaming Act of 1845 that bets were finally deprived of ‘legally binding’ status, relieving men like Tom Shelton from the shackles of so-called ‘honourable’ behaviour when settling debts.

I have tried to find out what became of Shelton’s family. Considering the stigma associated with death by suicide, the inquest was a very sympathetic one. Emphasis was placed on Shelton’s previous suicidal tendency, and a string of witnesses testified to the unbalanced state of his mind, meaning that a verdict of death by insanity was quickly arrived at, to give his grieving widow some crumb of comfort. The only remaining clue I could find relates to the activities of a London prize-fighter active in the 1840s named Tom Shelton – perhaps this was one of his sons following his footsteps into the ring.


Are we more civilised today? Gambling is policed by…. the gambling industry

In the most deprived areas of modern Britain betting shops proliferate, gorging themselves not on the rich but the poorest element of our society. Not just live sports but daytime TV is riven with readily accessible options for having a flutter, – there seems to be no escape. In the late Regency era gambling was equally pervasive; at card tables, sporting events, or practically anywhere likely to attract crowds. You would be faced with all manner of games of chance, many of which were rigged to ensure that losses would ensue. Then, just like today, gambling was tacitly accepted – and nothing done to counter its effects. Whilst we can forgive our ancestors for their inability to control the effects of gambling, I don’t know how we can explain modern day arrangements – whereby gambling seems to be regulated by the gambling industry itself. This smacks of putting children in charge of the sweet shop, and as long as it continues the misery and waste resultant of reckless gambling will continue unabated.

For more information on the growth and development of Boxing in the Regency period, I would heartily recommend David Snowdon’s Eganesque Blog and his accompanying Pierce Egan twitter account

For a cautionary tale of modern day gambling, see this very moving BBC report on jailed accountant David Bradford, and the effect it has had upon his thoroughly decent family.

For all else related to problem gambling, the following websites may offer help

 This blog is copyright Greg Roberts, and I hope you will inform me if intending to reproduce any part of it for your own use.
I would welcome any comments, suggestions or advice you may wish to provide and thank you for visiting my blog

If you are interested in Regency sport, you might like my history of ‘Royal Ascot’ or to find out about Wicked William and the Epping Hunt


Why Wellesley-Pole should be commemorated by Ascot

Creating Tradition – Wellesley-Pole and Ascot (Part 5)

The Importance of Wellesley-Pole’s Legacy

Intro | Master of the Buckhounds | The Age of Reform | Anger Management | Legacy


William Wellesley-Pole (Lord Maryborough) 1763-1845

It is tempting to turn the concluding part of my study of Wellesley-Pole’s impact upon Ascot into an open letter to the powers that be, in the hope that our man will finally gain the credit he deserves. Instead, however, I want to explain why the invention of tradition was not just about Ascot, but more to do with the relationship between the monarchy and the people.


A Perfect Marriage : the Monarchy &  the People

We have seen how Wellesley-Pole’s structural and organisational changes transformed Ascot into the best race track in Britain, and how his rules of racing added a much-needed backbone of professionalism upon which horse racing (as a sport) has thrived. We must must acknowledge that great innovators can make mistakes, & there certainly were one or two wrong decisions made along the way.

Wellesley-Pole’s true legacy, however, must lie in the adoption of ceremonial rituals via the ‘Royal Procession’ – an entirely new creation that gave the instant impression of being a long-held tradition- bringing the people and their King together as one joyous ensemble. It was a simple but brilliant idea that has served us right up to the present time.

Royal Procession

To illustrate this better I will firstly examine why ‘Royal Ascot’ meant so much to George IV, and secondly show how it played a significant role in popularising his successor, William IV.

It must be clarified that Ascot was inaugurated under the reign of Queen Anne in 1711. This was more of a permit to hold meetings, and it was not until after 1750 that an annual 4-day meeting was held. The first royal to show a great interest in Ascot Heath was the Duke of Cumberland – who, as Lord Warden of Windsor Forest, was a enthusiastic and regular attendee. King George III also went frequently until his descent in madness in 1810. But it was his two eldest sons George (Prince of Wales) and Frederick (Duke of York) who really took Ascot to their hearts. The Duke of York was perhaps the most pivotal supporter of Ascot in this period as he regularly entered his own horses, sponsored races, and was always on the course. George, on the other hand, was more of a gambler than a participant – so much so that his debts led to exile from Ascot after 1807. Even after he became Prince Regent, George was remained wary of Ascot – principally because he was deeply unpopular and genuinely feared for his safety. The Duke of York by contrast was a soldier, widely respected, and loved by the people – amongst whom he could freely mingle.


Frederick, Duke of York – a massive fan of Ascot Heath Races

So, by 1820 when the Regency ended and George IV became King – Ascot Heath was certainly considered a race meeting frequented by Royalty – but there was no real glue to bind each together into one synonymous concept

George IV


George IV’s early reign was marred by mud slinging

It is actually quite incredible to think that speculation about the King’s health was gauged throughout 1830 on the basis of whether he was likely to attend Ascot Races. On April 24th reports that the King spent three hours instructing the Royal Stud groom regarding horses to enter, was taken to mean his illness wasn’t serious. Yet as the weeks passed by and it became clear that George IV would miss Ascot the nation braced itself for bad news. This sense of foreboding reveals the bond that had formed between King and Royal Ascot and can be explained thus:

George Satire

The press loved to hate the King, and he became withdrawn

The first years of the King’s reign were dogged by social and political unrest, and problems with his estranged wife Queen Caroline of Brunswick. Her trail for adultery, exclusion from the Coronation and sudden death in 1822 combined to make George IV deeply unpopular at all levels of society. Not suprisingly by 1823, the King was largely reclusive – spending months on end at his Royal Cottage in Windsor Park. After his death it was revealed that aside from an occasional visit to the theatre, Ascot Races was the only public engagement at which the King appeared.

the Royal cottage at Windsor

Home from home – The Royal Cottage, Windsor Park

Ascot Races was to become a unique and pivotal occasion for the King. His decision to embrace and improve Ascot, by employing  Nash then Wellesley-Pole, was a bold move hoping to carve out one small corner of Britain where he could feel at home amongst his subjects. As an excercise in public relations, Wellesley-Pole’s newly devised ‘Royal Procession’ was a masterstroke. By 1826 it was reported

A little before one the heath was well filled, and the eyes of the spectators were then anxiously turned towards the straight mile, and the Royal Cavalcade approached amidst the cheerings of the people. The carriages stopped at the Royal Stand, and his Majesty alighted, and during the whole of the races was at the window, conversing with the noblemen of his suite… & was highly delighted at the affectionate demonstration of loyalty with which his progress was attended. He bowed repeatedly, and smiled upon the multitude in the most affable manner

If the King liked it, the public was just as enamoured, as this slightly offensive 1828 report shows

It cannot be denied that the popularity of these races arises more from the sanction afforded them by his Majesty, than from the mere running. Horses may be seen every day, but Kings are scarce; and the sight of one is something to talk of, and is recompense for an immensity of fatigue and expense. Of the thousands congregated at least three out of every five came to see the King; and it is a fortunate circumstance for his admiring subjects, that the Royal Person is sufficiently bulky not to be mistaken for that of any less personage

When Wellesley-Pole created the Royal Procession, therefore, he did an enormous service to the King, paving the way for his popular acceptance. In one fell swoop, Ascot Heath was permanently transformed into ‘Royal Ascot’ – for the benefit of both instititutions.

William IV

It is a curious thing that Ascot proved to be an important turning point for George IV’s successor, William IV  (even though Wellesley-Pole was no longer in charge). The new King was never much of a fan of horse-racing and seldom attended Ascot. However, one of his first engagements was at Wellesley-Pole’s second Ascot meeting in August 1830 where he received a rapturous reception.


William IV – the ‘Sailor King’

The following summer was less enjoyable as the King found himself snubbed by the aristocracy, who boycotted Ascot in protest at William IV’s support for the Reform Bill, reportedly ‘evincing the coldness of their feelings towards the Crown’. But when the public heard of this snub they turned out in even greater numbers than before. The Morning Chronicle wrote

It is clear that the expectation of seeing the King is paramount over every other consideration with three-fourths of those who visit Ascot; without this attraction, certain we are that the brilliant company assembled on the Heath would have been fewer by some thousands… the great popularity of the Sovereign excited an interest ensuring a full attendance.

In 1832 the Royal Procession ceremony provided one last final, and unexpected endorsement proving beyond question that Wellesley-Pole’s marriage of Ascot to Monarchy was both secure and permanent. When making his initial public salute at the balcony of the Royal Stand…

A ruffian, in the garb of a sailor suddenly threw a large flint stone directly at the King…striking our venerable Sovereign on the forehead, just above the rim of his hat… the sound was loud and the King fell back one or two paces and exclaimed ‘My God, I am hit’. Happily his Majesty soon relieved all anxiety… and appeared smiling at the front window of the Stand to huge cheers from the populace

Concluding Words

So we can see the pivotal role Ascot played in re-connecting one monarch (George IV) with his subjects, and reviving another (William IV) at a time when the ruling elite tried to slap him down. In both instances the Royal Procession provided a perfect platform for the exchange of affection needed between citizens and Kings. Wellesley-Pole therefore created a pageant that elevated Royal Ascot above the status of a mere sporting occasion into a popular celebration of the monarchy.

That Ascot became the venue for a vitally important patriotic affirmation, whilst at the same time undergoing unprecedented improvements in all aspects of horse-racing – is the reason why I think Wellesley-Pole ought to be thanked by today’s owners.


If you have read and enjoyed this, I hope you will try to remember Wellesley-Pole next time you happen to see Ascot’s ‘Royal Procession’. At least that way his hard work will never be forgotten.

Recommended Links

The main Ascot website has detailed information on days out at Royal Ascot 

I would heartily recommend a stay in Windsor, as besides Ascot there is so much to do in this beautiful town

Anger Management? Wellesley-Pole’s Ascot Disaster (1829-1830)

Creating Tradition – Wellesley-Pole and Ascot (Part 4)

The Decline & Fall of Wellesley-Pole

Intro | Master of the Buckhounds | The Age of Reform | Anger Management | Legacy

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.

 ascot 1836
Wellesley-Pole’s grandiosely remodelled Royal Stand

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

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!’

horse whipped

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.

For more about Wellesley-Pole’s defence of the poor you might like ‘She’s MY vagrant’ or to see Wicked William’s equine escapades read Wicked William’s Hunt

A great way to find out more about King George IV is via The Royal Pavilion Website

Or you could visit Rachel Knowles’ excellent Regency History Blogspot  & Sarah Murden’s Georgian Era

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

The invention of ‘Royal Ascot’ 1823-1830

Creating Tradition – Wellesley-Pole and Ascot (Part 3)

How Wellesley-Pole invented ‘Royal Ascot’

Intro | Master of the Buckhounds | The Age of Reform | Anger Management | Legacy

George IV

George IV – A great patron of Ascot Races

The transformation of Ascot Heath races to ‘Royal Ascot’ between 1813 and 1830 must largely be credited to George IV. At the beginning of his Regency (1813) Parliament enacted an Act of Enclosure securing the future of Ascot Heath as a public racetrack. But it was not until his accession to the throne in 1820 that the King really made his mark. Almost immediately his favoured architect John Nash was engaged to construct a Royal Stand.  This began a decade of almost continuous change and improvement. Between 1820 and 1830 racing at Ascot and the Royal Family became synonymous- This happened because it was transformed into an incredibly well-organised and massively popular event- one of the few venues where the unloved and extravagant King genuinely felt at ease.

Wellesley-Pole was the man George IV entrusted to revitalise Ascot, but the King could never have imagined this undertaking could lead to the creation of ‘Royal Ascot’ AND the rehabilitation of the King in the eyes of his subjects.

Wellesley-Pole’s changes can be briefly be categorised as follows:

Building Works

The Roal Stand - Ascot 1825

The Royal Stand c.1825

Though the Royal Stand was first opened in 1822 (having been built by Nash in just 5 weeks), it was greatly improved and modified under Wellesley Pole’s stewardship. Additional rooms were added, and the windows hung with rich rose-coloured drapery. The King now had the option to make himself more visible to the public from its rooftop terrace, or to retreat to the privacy of his entourage. He greatly enjoyed the ability to wave to his subjects from the security of his suite.

In 1826 a new stand was erected for the Duke of York next to a further smaller stand for Wellesley-Pole’s use as steward. Sadly the Duke of York died in 1827, whereupon the King assigned his brother’s stand to the Jockey Club. Before it was handed over Wellesley-Pole reconfigured the windows so that Jockey Club members would not be able to overlook the King’s Stand.

For the benefit of the betting circles a new three storey building was erected to afford a better view of proceedings for aristocratic gamblers as well as more than doubling the capacity for licensed book-makers. This building too was set back to prevent over-looking the Royal Stand.

All these improvements were eventually superseded by the opening of a magnificent Nash inspired public stand in 1839, but the plans for that were laid down during George IV’s reign, when Wellesley-Pole was in charge.

But the most important and lasting changes to Ascot undertaken by Wellesley-Pole related to the course itself. Wellesley-Pole recognised that the quality of racing was totally dependent upon the state of the racetrack, and set out to ensure that (whatever the weather) Ascot would rise to the occasion. His first action was to ensure that race-goers could not enter the running area. He did this by employing a host of security guards and police men who rigidly prevented any intrusion likely to damage the course, or worse still hinder the races when in progress.

yeoman prickers

‘Yeoman Prickers’ nowadays known as Greencoats -entrusted with keeping pedestrians off the course

By 1824 the course was closed to cattle grazing- only sheep were permitted onto the course when it was not in use. An extensive program of under-draining began so that by 1828 it could no longer be considered a ‘heath’ since standing water simply drained away. That same year Wellesley-Pole remodelled the turns at Swinley & Pike corners, creating a wider sweep, giving the horses more room for running with greater safety – immeasurably improving the race standards. Finally in 1829 £300 was spent forming a new gallop for the horses in training – meaning that the course was now pristinely preserved solely for the annual race meeting. The Morning Chronicle described these structural improvements as making ‘Ascot on of the most complete race courses in the Kingdom… which cannot fail of proving beneficial to the sport’.


It was already a long-held tradition that the Royal Family attended Ascot Races. Since the 1750s the event was held once annually lasting four days. There was no fixed date in the calendar for Ascot, it seemed to be determined a fixed number of weeks after Easter- hence the meeting could fall in May, but was most commonly held in the early part of June. Attendances were always greater when it was known that the Royal Family would be there, so Wellesley-Pole set about adding a much-needed touch of pageantry to the occasion.

Royal Procession

The Royal Procession – Inaugerated by Wellesley-Pole 1825

Wellesley-Pole decided that the Royal Family should arrive at the fixed time of 1pm, and that a ceremonial procession be devised to celebrate the occasion. Given that Ascot was open to all, and the King was genuinely fearful of public hostility – Wellesley-Pole ramped up the pomp to such a high level as to create a sense of awe. This had two effects – firstly it put the King at his ease to feel that he was partaking in a State Occasion – secondly it appealed to the patriotic fervour of the people. Yes, they may have resented George IV as a profligate wastrel – but the institution of the British Monarchy meant so much more than that, and Ascot was neither the time or the place to undermine it.

So, on 31st May 1825 his Majesty and a party of distinguished visitors emerged from trees within the Park and began a parade down the straight mile section of Ascot’s racecourse. The procession continued up to the newly built Royal Stand, and the newspapers reported

His Majesty was preceded by Wellesley-Pole and several yeomen prickers in their scarlet jackets, and came in his plain travelling-carriage drawn by four horses. Three carriages followed with the members of His Majesty’s suite. His Majesty, on alighting, was received by the Duke of York, who had previously arrived… and walked to the Stand with great firmness and appeared to be completely relieved from his recent attack of gout. On reaching the Royal Stand he instantly advanced to the window and on throwing up the sash was received with the customary demonstrations of loyalty and affection. He was highly delighted by the brilliant and numerous assemblage which was presented to his view.

Ascot Heath Races

The Gold Cup 1829, King George IV’s final appearance at Ascot

At one o’clock precisely Lord Maryborough desired the bell for the first race to be rung, and at the same moment the Yeoman Prickers and Constables under his Lordship’s direction, and with great propriety forced every person to retire outside of the ropes and railings, thereby enabling his Majesty, and those in elevated situations, to command an uninterrupted view of the running, which began at 1-30pm sharp. Newspapers enthused that ‘the regulations adopted in this respect were most judicious, and were strictly adhered to throughout the day… It would be well if at Epsom so admirable a precedent were followed.’

So strikingly successful was the Royal appearance in 1825 that it was permanently adopted thereafter. Thus, as early as 1826 ‘Ascot Heath’ was no more, and the press hereafter referred to it as the ‘Royal Races’ at Ascot.

Rules and Regulations

Wellesley-Pole was a stickler for order and propriety, and his unremitting demands for conformity played a huge role in changing Ascot into a public occasion worthy of the Royal Court.

Ascot Heath Races 2

Determining race winners was never easy

We have seen that Wellesley-Pole laid down the rule that the Royal Family arrived at their Stand at 1 o’clock precisely via a procession down the straight mile. He employed hordes of security to keep the people off the race surface. As Steward he requested that all ranks of the aristocracy were on the course by 12 noon, emphasising that the new ‘Royal Procession’ was to become an integral part of the Ascot races.

When it came to the races themselves, Wellesley-Pole really came into his own. He insisted that all races start on time. A notice was fitted on the weighing room that every jockey not attending to weigh at the proper time would be fined.

The outcome of races was often the subject of great controversy, so Wellesley-Pole employed Mr Clarke the well-renowned judge from Newmarket in order to raise the Ascot’s standards of professionalism to the highest level. He also made it a strict rule that all horses start from the same point as this was often the source of dispute and accusations of cheating. Finally Wellesley-Pole ended the practice of running heats for various prized events, since on one occasion it got too dark for the final races to be ran.

It was generally agreed that Ascot needed an officious and firm stewardship, and though Wellesley-Pole did not endear himself to anyone unlucky enough to breach his rules, there was a grudging admiration for what he had achieved.

Licensing & Security

One of Wellesley-Pole’s greatest attributes was his ability to involve all staff in the process of change. Adding the Yeoman Prickers to the Royal Procession gave them a very real sense of inclusion, and made it easier for Wellesley-Pole to encourage them to secure the racetrack from trespass. On race days each person employed was made fully aware of the importance of their contribution. Better still, Wellesley-Pole paid special bonuses to reward everyone involved in the successful outcome of each meeting.

From 1825 there was a noticeable decline in crime and illegal gambling. The Morning Chronicle enthused that ‘those ruffians with cups and balls, garters, and other swindling devices, by whom Epsom downs was infested, were altogether excluded from the course’. A large contingent of Bow Street Runners were on hand to deter pickpockets and other petty thieves. The aim was to make the occasion a safe one, but not to exclude ordinary folk who came there in their droves.

Public at Ascot - Sandhay 1809

Ascot was a great public occasion, and there was not a bed to be had for miles around during race week

As mentioned earlier, the betting circle was extended after 1826 – but a license charge of 5 guineas was set so that Ascot could benefit financially. Also a team of inspectors was engaged to proceed against all vendors intending to serve wines and spirits without purchasing the appropriate license – again at 5 guineas each.

Such was the effect of Wellesley-Pole’s reforms that the Morning Chronicle wrote

Ascot cannot be too highly praised. The precision in which the races were run the keeping of the course- and the spirit displayed by the principle supporters of them, cannot but have satisfied the most fastidious; for everything evinced liberality and good management. To [Wellesley-Pole] the public are indebted for the management and execution of those measures to which the excellence of the sport was owing.

So, by 1830 Ascot had truly transformed to become ‘Royal Ascot’. It was in fact so popular with the King that he ordered Wellesley-Pole to arrange a second meeting to be held just a few weeks later. In the King’s eyes Wellesley-Pole could do no wrong. But change was coming – the King was ailing and Wellesley-Pole himself was soon to overstep his authority and fall from grace.

Tune in for part 4 of Wellesley-Pole and Ascot to see how Wellesley-Pole’s hot temper and over-bearing rules & regulations combined to bring the curtain down on his illustrious Stewardship of Ascot race track.

My blog sheds light on the extraordinary life and times of the Wellesley-Pole family, including their three daughters (dubbed the three graces), and, of course ‘Wicked’ William his notoriously scandalous son. It is only when we learn the calibre and achievements of his family that the real scale of ‘Wicked’ William’s depravity is revealed.

I would be please to receive any comments or feedback and thank you for reading this blog!


Lord Liverpool’s Masterstoke

Creating Tradition – Wellesley-Pole and Ascot (Part 2)

How Wellesley-Pole came to be Master of the Buckhounds, 1823

Intro | Master of the Buckhounds | The Age of Reform | Anger Management | Legacy


Where’s Wellesley-Pole? Why, He’s Gone to the Dogs!

All things considered 1823 was not a great year for William Wellesley-Pole. After 9 successful years as Master of The Mint culminating in his deserved elevation to the peerage (under the title of Lord Maryborough) Wellesley-Pole fully expected to earn a senior Cabinet position upon Lord Liverpool’s ministerial reshuffle. But when the Prime Minister summoned Wellesley-Pole in January 1823 he dropped the bombshell that our man was surplus to requirements. To put it bluntly, Wellesley-Pole had reached the end of his useful life and the time had come for Liverpool to bring in new blood, such as Robert Peel and the racey and exciting William Huskisson,  who would help to bolster his unpopular administration

But Wellesley-Pole’s reaction placed Lord Liverpool in a quandary, for he flew into a rage and point blank refused to leave the Cabinet. Charles Arbuthnot recorded that Wellesley-Pole considered ‘the usage he has met with is quite atrocious & that he would not accept of any office but the one he has. He talked a great deal of stuff about the respect due to him as the Duke of Wellington’s brother, & in short, was like a madman.’ Such defiance of Prime Ministerial order threatened to undermine the very foundations of Liverpool’s Government. He had to get rid of Wellesley-Pole, but needed to devise a stratagem to achieve his aims without further rancour.

liverpool  wellesley-pole hulk

Lord Liverpool didn’t like Wellesley-Pole when he was angry

In the Autumn of 1823 Liverpool at last found the perfect opportunity to offload his angry Minister. He did this by exploiting Wellesley-Pole’s close relationship with King George IV. The death of Charles Cornwallis on 9th August created a vacancy in the Royal Household, in the office of Master of the Buckhounds. Wasting no time at all Liverpool wrote to the King suggesting that Wellesley-Pole wanted to apply for the job because he was practically George IV’s number one fan.The King was led to believe that Wellesley-Pole he always dreamt of having a country home near Windsor, but that he was far too modest to apply. Needless to say the King was receptive to such gushing adulation, took up his pen and wrote a plea for Wellesley-Pole to take the job. Perhaps with Liverpool’s connivance the salary offered was generous-  plus he was promised the gatehouse to Windsor Park upon which to make his establishment.

When Wellesley-Pole received the King’s letter has was surprised and flattered, but unsure as to whether a man of his age (60 years old) could be capable of taking on such a youthful and athletic role. However it was a place in the Royal Household dating back to the 1300s which appealed directly to Wellesley-Pole’s strong respect for of tradition. For Mrs Wellesley-Pole it was a no-brainer because she really did want a country retreat and this golden opportunity was quite simply too good to pass up. The King’s offer was therefore speedily and gratefully accepted.

It was only after the deal was done that Liverpool played his trump card. He wrote to Wellesley-Pole congratulating him on his appointment to the Royal Household but reminding him that an employee of the King could not be a Cabinet Minister – since the King would be embarrassedby the accusation of putting his own men into Government. This was a masterstroke leaving Wellesley-Pole no option but to fall on his sword – for he could not go back on his word to the King, still less dash his wife’s hopes of rural paradise. In private Wellesley-Pole roundly abused all in Government, not least the Duke of Wellington in whom he felt a keen sense of betrayal, but the fear of upsetting the King meant that ultimately Wellesley-Pole went quietly into political retirement.

buckounds at salt hill

The Buckhounds at Salt Hill, near Windsor c.1850

So just what was Wellesley-Pole letting himself in for? Well its fair to say his task largely involved acting as the Royal entertainments officer. This principally involved gathering the horse and hounds together for organised hunts, usually in Windsor Forest; but from the mid-1750s it began to embrace other sporting activities – particularly equine sports. Because the Royal Family controlled the wardenship of Windsor Forest, their patronage over horse-racing at Ascot Heath was long-established – dating back to Queen Anne (1711). Responsibility for ‘Royal Ascot’ really was the jewel in the crown of duties expected from the office of Master of the Buckhounds.


Ascot Heath Races – The ‘Royal’ tag was to come much, much later

It is no secret that Wellesley-Pole had a hot temper, or that he could be a very fearsome adversary when roused. But his temper tantrums were never of long duration and, like his brother Wellington, he refused to let emotion become an obstacle to giving his all in service of his country.

Just a month after taking up his duties, Charles Bagot saw Wellesley-Pole ‘in light buckskins with a jockey cap and gold couples to his belt’ acting as Master of the Buckhounds. Wellesley-Pole insisted he was ‘exceedingly pleased with the appointment…he was getting tired of politics and the hounds were just the hobby he would most like.’ Whether this was bravado or the plain truth, it was obvious that Wellesley-Pole was going into this job enthusiastically. He quickly realised its possibilities went far beyond dog-minding,  offering him the chance to take control of Royal Ascot, a once great event whose reputation was tarnished by years of disorganisation  and neglect. Nearby racetracks (such as Epsom and Newmarket) threatened to leave Ascot in their wake. So, for Wellesley-Pole the task was on!!

So, on 13th October 1823 the King’s staghounds made their first appearance of the hunting season, near Winkfield Plain at Windsor. Several ladies in carriages and a great crowd of ordinary folk turned up to witness Lord Maryborough’s debut as Master of the Buckhounds- and to witness how a Cabinet Minister really had gone to the dogs.

To find out more about how brilliantly devious Lord Liverpool could be you should look no further than Norman Gash, whose The Life and Political Career of Robert Banks Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool 1770–1828  was first published in 1984. Sadly Norman died in 2009 but a new paperback version of his book is due for publication in 2015.

For more on Wellesley-Pole’s hot-headedness, and how he turned anger into a positive energy, you may like to read his battle to save a tramp.

To find out how Wellesley-Pole ‘created’ Lord Wellington please read my guest blog on Number One London

I’d love to hear any comments or questions you may have about the Wellesley-Pole family, not least Wicked William, the blackest of all black sheep. So please contact me and I’ll be delighted to respond.







Creating Tradition: Wellesley-Pole & Royal Ascot


Tell Lord Maryborough that whatever may happen to me, I declare no interruption may be given to the races at Ascot

King George IV on his deathbed June 11, 1830

Intro | Master of the Buckhounds | The Age of Reform | Anger Management | Legacy

modernday royal ascot

Modern day Ascot -a beautiful race venue

A day out at Ascot Races earlier this month encouraged me to look into its history in the hope that Lord Maryborough (William Wellesley-Pole) would feature prominently. But despite his pivotal role in elevating Royal Ascot from a run of the mill race meeting to a must-see event in the British sporting calendar, I could find no commemorative picture or plaque adorning the walls of Ascot’s magnificent new stand. Ascot’s website is equally unforthcoming in its brief history page – meaning that Wellesley-Pole (as per usual) has been airbrushed from history.


Spot the nonentity? – Wellesley-Pole (Centre)

Sandwiched between successful brothers Richard (Marquis Wellesley – Governor General of India 1797-1805, Foreign Secretary 1809-1812) and Arthur (Duke of Wellington), Wellesley-Pole is destined to remain in the shadows. But this hardly justifies why numberless books about the Wellesley brothers feature Wellesley-Pole in a cameo only – He flits about like a kind of pantomime villain – a social climber, grasping opportunist and perpetually angry ‘with anything and anyone’ who gets in his way. I’m not sure what is worse about these assessments – the lazy complacency of poor historical research or the complete inability/unwillingness to place Wellesley-Pole in his correct context. Because the fact is that even a rudimentary study of Wellesley-Pole reveals the important role he played in establishing and consolidating the Wellesley family dynasty.

waterloo medal

Wellesley-Pole’s Waterloo Medal (1816)



It doesn’t come more iconic than this! Wellesley-Pole’s Gold Sovereign (1817)

In his own right Wellesley-Pole was responsible for the Waterloo Medal (1816), opening of Waterloo Bridge (1817) and the iconic Britannia design for gold sovereigns (1817). As Master of the Mint (1814-1822) his finest achievement was the introduction of new silver currency in 1817, dubbed the ‘Great Recoinage’. Over a period of two weeks Wellesley-Pole organised the nationwide distribution of 2.6 million coins whilst simultaneously collecting up and melting down all the old currency – a task completed without a single mishap –at a time when there was only a rudimentary transport and communication system in Great Britain. Sir Joseph Banks enthused

The bold manner in which [Wellesley-Pole] devised, and… executed one of the most difficult works…during the present Reign, or possibly any former one, does honour to the name of Wellesley

This new silver coinage was to remain legal tender right up until 1971. That’s over 150 years in which Wellesley-Pole’s handiwork permeated every nook and cranny of British society – becoming a recognisable symbol of Britishness – His coins even outlasted the Beatles (whose last public performance was coincidentally held on the roof of Wellesley-Pole’s old family mansion in Savile Row). All this and no blue plaque!!


No 3 Savile Row, Wellesley-Pole’s mansion & latterly Apple Studios

This series of blogs will look at Wellesley-Pole’s 7-year tenure as Steward of Royal Ascot, a time in of great change, during which Ascot’s place was embedded in the annual sporting calendar. This may not be the most important duty Wellesley-Pole undertook in his many years of public service– but it tells us a lot about him as a man – revealing both his brilliant and irrational nature. (Links will come live as they are added)

  1. Master of the Buckhounds – How Wellesley-Pole was unceremoniously dumped from the Cabinet and duped into accepting a role in the King’s Household – which included responsibility for Ascot races.
  2. The Age of Reform – Detailing structural, ceremonial, and organisational changes effected by Wellesley-Pole  as Chief Steward of Ascot between 1822 and 1830
  3. Anger Management – A look at the advantages and disadvantages of Wellesley-Pole’s hot temper, and how it led to his departure from Ascot
  4. Legacy – Why Ascot ought to re-examine its history and traditions to give Wellesley-Pole the credit he deserves

For more information on Ascot Racing visit their website or read the BBC’s brief history

For more equine-related japes on this blog you might like a brief history of the Epping Hunt