On Saturday 27 May the Newport Local History Group made a trip to Newmarket, the home of horse racing. This was the first of our two summer excursions, and was inspired by the fact that an object from Terry Searle’s collection, Sir Carl Meyer’s racing purse, is on display at Palace House. Palace House has recently been fully refurbished, and the museum is currently shortlisted for the prestigious Art Fund Museum of the Year Award.
Before visiting the museum, however, we called in on the Jockey Club Rooms, a private members club in Newmarket with a unique historical pedigree. We had a very pleasant 90-minute tour here courtesy of the General Manager, Charles Howard, who kindly broke into his otherwise very busy day to welcome us (the Club was hosting a wedding in the afternoon). We began in the Steward’s Room, sat around a horseshoe-shaped table which is where the Jockey Club would have its Stewards’ enquiries in the event of a dispute over a race’s outcome. Charles explained how Newmarket was the Las Vegas of 18th-century England, because it was a town whose fortunes were built on gambling. If it moved, the Georgians would place a bet on it, and besides horseracing there was cockfighting, bear baiting, and bare-knuckle fighting. Several Newmarket inns and hostelries still have their original fighting pits: their trade, then as now, was entirely dependent on the practice of making bets on the outcome of sporting competitions.
These days of course the competitions are much more genteel. Horse racing has developed into a highly professional business, even while its origins may have been rather more unruly. The Newmarket race track was often the route from the centre of the town to Six Mile Bottom, or vice versa races would start there and then finish just outside the Jockey Club itself. Disputes would be resolved in the Steward’s Room, the walls of which were lined with horsehair-stuffed leather, to prevent the sound of the proceedings from leaking out. We also saw the Coffee Room, where the first wagers were placed. Gentlemen would sit in alcoves, getting steadily inebriated and placing wagers on the outcome of races. These would be marked in a book, hung from a nail in the wall. The making of these books gives rise to the word ‘Bookmaking’.
Over time, horseracing became the lucrative and highly regulated affair that it is today. Its unruly side was tamed, as courses were more closely defined, and riders were forced to wear their distinctive silk shirts, so that they could more readily be identified. The Jockey Club became a most exclusive venue. Even today its membership is tightly controlled, although the practice of blackballing is no longer followed (where a black coloured ball rather than a light coloured one was dropped into a voting box, to block someone’s attempt to join the club).
Another stunning feature of the Jockey Club is its artwork. Sporting art proliferates, naturally, and there are some truly remarkable paintings, including by Stubbs and Munnings. The evolution of artists’ attempts to depict the horse is on show. Early 18th century paintings are somewhat naive in their appearance, and don’t quite capture the full complexity of the horse’s physique. Close observation and study of the horse led to significant breakthroughs by artists such as Stubbs. The invention of photography helped artists to realise just how horses ran - not, as it turns out, with all four legs in the air at any one time. The Jockey Club walls are also hung with portraits of the individuals that have made a significant impact over time: Admiral Rous (who did much to modernise the sport), Winston Churchill (who prevented the race course from being taken over as an airfield in World War Two), the trainer Henry Cecil, and of course the Queen, who remains Patron of the club and a regular visitor.
As well as paintings, Charles showed us some impressive items from the collection. There was a wheel from the first ever horse box - a carriage designed to transport the famous thoroughbred Eclipse, which avoided the need for the horse to be walked all the way to Newmarket (which had been the practice until then). There were several horses hoofs, saved as momentos of much loved horses, and now used as ink stands or even a very fine William IV snuff box. All in all, the Jockey Club rooms were a fascinating place to spend a little bit of time before moving on to Palace House itself.
As our guide explained, Newmarket features not one but several royal palaces, making it fairly unique as an English market town. Palace House was built for Charles II, who was a fanatical horseman, and a regular visitor (with his wife - and mistresses - in tow). The building is now a temple devoted to British Sporting Art, some of which is now on loan from other museums and galleries (including the Tate).
We were pleased to see that Sir Carl Meyer’s Racing purse was on display in a prominent spot in the Oak Room, at the top of Palace House. It served in some ways to underline the link between Newport and Newmarket. Not only do the two placenames have essentially the same etymology, but there are other links as well. Setting aside the suggestion that Charles II was also responsible for buildings in Newport (Crown House in particular), we can see that the landscape around Newmarket is a vast arena for horseriding, with Newport serving as a sort of perimeter mark. Gentlemen were keen to build houses in our part of north west Essex because of the proximity to the delights of the racing at Newmarket. North of us, Anglesey Abbey can be said to occupy a similar position, and the horseracing was definitely behind Lord Fairhaven’s decision to move there in the 1920s.
Newmarket’s fortunes are inextricably linked to the horse. At any given time, there could be as many as 10,000 -12,000 horses living in the centre of Newmarket or nearby, all of them taken out to train on the gallops each morning. There are 92 yards in the centre of the town alone. As well as Palace House, the Newmarket museum features a stable yard, where former racing horses are being retrained. A series of exhibition spaces explain the development of the sport, and its fascinating history. We could not fault the design of the buildings, and the way so much has been crammed into a single site. Our tickets will give us all the chance to return, and many resolved to do so, in order to learn more of the history of this most fascinating sport, and town.
We wish the museum all the very best of luck in the forthcoming Art Fund Museum of the Year competition. I am starting to wonder, even, if a small wager could be justified….