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National Horseracing Museum

The National Horseracing Museum – Newmarket

An article by the Former Director – Hilary Bracegirdle, appearing in the Suffolk Local History Council’s Newsletter – Autumn 2003

Newmarket’s attractions are such that for regular periods of months at a time it was, in effect, the capital of England. Kings and their courtiers gathered here to gamble, play cards, hunt and race – usually accompanied by a cross-section of mistresses! Here William Hervey carried out experiments that led to the discovery of the circulation of blood; Britannia was first sketched; Charles I discovered a witch living on the heath; the world’s first test-tube foal was born; the world record price was paid for a horse and the world’s largest expanse of mown grass is maintained.

Newmarket did not invent horseracing, of course; the sport dates back elsewhere in Britain to the Romans and probably to the Bronze Age. The town’s association with racing began with James I’s arrival from Scotland in 1603. Forced to stay overnight by heavy fog, he recognised that the sweeping landscape and springy turf suited his equestrian interests.

Although these interests centred on hunting and hawking, he is known to have owned racehorses, to have employed two surveyors of the races, and to have attended races here in 1619. When the Griffin pub proved inadequate (chiefly because the ceiling caved in), he built a palace and established himself and the court there on a regular basis.

James’ successor Charles I inherited his father’s racing and hunting enthusiasms and in contrast was an excellent horseman. Had he spent less time at Newmarket and more attending to matters of state he might not have perished. The Commonwealth was the last time the heath has ever been ploughed. Charles II restored its spirits with brio, riding in races himself, setting out rules and adjudicating in disputes.

He rebuilt the Palace; one wing survives as the Tourist Information Centre, which also boasts the country’s oldest sash window. Queen Anne paid for part of the town to be paved; George IV stomped off in a huff when his jockey was accused of cheating. Edward VII’s interest in racing led to a blossoming of Edwardian architecture in the town.

Newmarket has continued its relationship with royalty to the present day, with various members playing an active part in the town, not only as participants but also as patrons of various equine charities. It is said HM the Queen visits on average once a month, and Princess Anne takes a hands-on role at the Animal Health Trust, one of the world’s leading equine and small animal hospitals.

However, Newmarket’s importance in racing stems just as much from its role as ‘Headquarters’. The Jockey Club, a London gentlemen’s club, came here in 1752, and because it gradually bought up the land in Newmarket, it was able to regulate how racing took place there; these rules became adopted throughout the country, and emulated throughout the world.

Clearly, the National Horseracing Museum’s role is to address the colourful history of British racing rather than the local history of Newmarket itself; but because the town has been so tied up in that history it is inevitable that its characters feature greatly in the displays. The Museum and its sister organisation the British Sporting Art Trust, contains a vast and surprising collection of objects, ranging from paintings by Stubbs, Herring and Munnings to stuffed horses’ heads, Coalport cups, 18th century racing silks, gruesome veterinary equipment, jewellery, games and toys, and beautiful gold and silver trophies.

Even those who have no real interest in racing – or don’t think they do – emerge amazed at the stories and scandals associated with the people and horses. But perhaps what they want to take home more than anything is one of our staff – the retired jockeys and trainers who work in our Practical Gallery, where you can ride the horse simulator (at the equivalent of about 40 miles per hour), dress up in silks, discover how much a jockey eats in a day, and find out why horses have passports.

Further insights into Britain’s sixth biggest industry are gained on our minibus tours, which include a trainer’s yard, the horses’ swimming pool and the gallops. Many of the trainers’ yards are highly historic in their own right.

Despite such a high level of activity, including special exhibitions and new displays each year, we have a very small full-time staff. Apart from myself, the Director, we have a Curator (Graham Snelling), a shop buyer/tours organiser, Sarah Jarvis, and two café staff The café, shop and tours are all essential to our existence, because we receive no government grant, nor regular funding from the horseracing industry.

There are, however, exciting plans afoot for us to relocate to Palace House (Charles II’s Palace) and its stables. Here at last the plans include space for displays devoted to Newmarket’s local history. Newmarket has a very active Local History Society and an excellent library with a local history and racing collection.

Our Curator, Graham Snelling, answers about 380 enquiries a year, of which the vast majority are connected with family history rather than local history. It is not always easy to help; unless a jockey was successful in a high profile race, he is unlikely to have been recorded, and few if any records survive for stable staff at all. Many stable staff moved round yards.

A name of a horse always helps. However, Newmarket has an amazingly stable population (perhaps it is so special no-one wants to move away) so an appeal in the local paper can lead to amazing results – we recently managed to reunite a family that had lost touch just after the last war.

Local history research is also complicated by the fact that at various times Newmarket has been in Suffolk and in Cambridgeshire; at one time it is said the boundary ran down the High Street and the racecourse still straddles both counties. Researchers therefore need to study in both record offices.

Newmarket definitely deserves an enhanced display or even museum devoted to its local history. For its size, I am certain no other market town has seen so much history, intrigue and scandal. It continues to amaze. After all, where else do horses have the automatic right of way (and their own traffic lights), tiny shoes fill the shops, and people get named after horses?

Hilary Bracegirdle – National Horseracing Museum