Frederick James Archer (1857 – 1886)
Fred Archer the winning jockey
A man who will forever be associated with the town and horse-racing. Fred Archer had a short life of a mere 29 years that ended tragically, but while he lived, he gained a reputation and set records that will go down in the annals of racing.
It is beyond the scope of this Personality Page to go into great detail of the life of this remarkable man, who from an early age became a true son of Newmarket.
Much has been written about Fred Archer and for anyone wishing to research his life in detail the work of NLHS Chairman Eric Dunning is recommended.
A large file is held in the Society’s archives and can be accessed through Committee Members (contact details are given elsewhere on this site).A Cambridgeshire Genealogy link that provides transcripts of contemporary newspaper reports can be accessed at the foot of this page.
Frederick James Archer was born in at Cheltenham, to William and Emma Archer, William himself a successful steeplechase jockey.
At the age of eleven Fred was sent to Newmarket to be apprenticed to the highly regarded trainer Matthew Dawson (1820 – 1898) of Heath House (1). Dawson, a man of high moral standards, soon realized Archer’s potential, but at first the boy received no preferential treatment. Stable lads had to follow a harsh regime, early rising and strict rules of conduct, although the kindly Mrs Dawson took a liking to the young Fred and made life a little more comfortable for him.
Soon the young Archer began to show his ability as a rider and at only 13 years of age he rode his first winner at Chesterfield. Then in 1872 came his first big race win, The Cesarewitch on Salvanos. In 1874 it was triumph in the Two Thousand Guineas on Atlantic, and in 1877 he rode Silvio to success in both The St Leger and The Derby, all for Lord Falmouth and trainer Matthew Dawson.
As his racing victories increased, so did his reputation. Archer’s success as a rider came from a natural ability and an intuitive feel that enabled him to get the best out of any horse. His physique did not suggest the archetypal jockey, being 5’10” in height and of slim build, however, later in his short career his weight became a constant problem, a factor largely responsible for his downfall.
He had what often prove to be mutually exclusive qualities of great self-confidence combined with an appealing modesty. These attributes together with natural good looks made him a target of affection by the ladies, including at one stage the eccentric Duchess of Montrose (2), despite her being some 40 years his senior. A man of sober disposition, all this adulation left him unmoved, his constant ambition was to ride and win races.
Archer became an international hero, feted wherever he went. In January 1883 he married Helen Rose Dawson, Matt Dawson’s niece and the daughter of Matt’s brother John Dawson (picture of Archer & his young wife right).
The wedding was a very grand affair with celebrations normally reserved for the great and good. A reception at the Westminster Palace Hotel saw many dignitaries present and there a banquet was served on a 24-piece solid silver service. The couple received many imposing presents from grateful owners and admirers.
At his hometown, Newmarket, a grand celebration took place on The Severals where a whole ox was roasted. The High Street was decorated as though for a royal occasion, a ball was held for the families at the Rutland Arms and a party for the Heath House Stable lads at The Waggon & Horses.
With his fame and wealth now assured he was able to move to a much grander lifestyle and he commissioned the building of a fine residence in Snailwell Road, for himself and his bride. He named it Falmouth House (3), after Lord Falmouth, the principal owner for whom he rode and who had helped him in his career.
What seemed an idyllic life with the wife he adored was not to last long. In 1884 a son was born but died only hours afterwards. Even worse tragedy followed in November of the same year when his dear wife Nellie Rose died giving birth to a daughter. She was only 23.
From then on Archer’s career took a downward path, he never overcame the loss of his wife and son, although he still performed brilliantly on the turf, evidenced by the fact that in 1885, the year before his death, he broke his own record for the greatest number of wins in a single year (246).
But his zest for life had gone, a further problem was his constant battle to keep his weight down in order to meet handicap limits, this resulted in him punishing himself with weight saving measures, including frequent Turkish baths (4) and extreme fasting, that together took a toll on his body.
In 1886 The Duchess of Montrose asked him to ride her horse St Mirin in The Cambridgeshire, his last big race. He struggled to make the handicap weight and ate practically nothing for days before the race. Riding in thin silks on that cold November day with his body in a weakened state caused by fasting he caught a severe chill. He continued to ride, his last race being at Lewes racecourse, but by then he was very ill.
He returned to his to bed at Falmouth House where typhoid fever set in, and his mind began to wander. Life had become unbearable for poor Archer and almost to the day of the second anniversary of his wife’s death he picked up the revolver he kept at his bedside and shot himself in the head. He was just 29 years of age. The subsequent inquest concluded that “he took his own life while in a state of temporary insanity.”
It was a time for national mourning, none more so than in his hometown of Newmarket where people seemed stunned by the sudden loss of their idol.The sad news crossed the Atlantic where much space was taken up by tributes in the newspapers.
On the day of the funeral the procession moved from Falmouth House to All Saints’ Church, where he had been married three years before. The service was conducted to a packed congregation, and thence the procession moved to Newmarket Cemetery. Sombre crowds lined the High Street and curtains were drawn as the cortege passed.
So many were the floral tributes it was difficult to accommodate them all, they included those from the Prince of Wales and the great names associated with the world of racing. On that sad day, Friday 12th November 1886, Fred Archer was laid to rest alongside his wife and baby son.
Fred Archer’s racing record was quite amazing with 2747 wins between the years 1870 and 1886 including 5 Derbys, 4 Oaks, and 6 St. Legers, he was also Champion Jockey on the 13 successive years from 1873 – 1886.
His nickname ‘The Tinman’ came from his love of money and there is no doubt that he amassed a fortune from his racing successes. A certain reputation for meanness is contradicted by his willing donations to charitable causes. He also had a fondness for gambling but would suffer any losses philosophically.
Original horse brasses, images by courtesy of members of The National Horse Brass Society
Today Fred’s stone cross stands in Newmarket cemetery where he is buried alongside his wife and son.
- Heath House was a rather grand mansion on the site of the present Heath Court Hotel, between Bury and Moulton Roads, with its frontage facing the Bury Road. The present Heath House adjoins the yard in Moulton Road
- The eccentric Duchess of Montrose trained horses under the pseudonym ‘Mr Manton’ At the time women were not allowed to become trainers.
- Falmouth House was between Pegasus Stables and Balaton Lodge, on a site of around 3 acres (Peter Harris)
- The remains of Archer’s Sweat Box still exist near the entrance to the Heath House Yard in Moulton Road. A boiler generated steam inside a cubicle where the jockey sat and sweated off weight necessary to meet handicap limits.
- In conjunction with British Isles GenWeb, The Cambridgeshire Geneology Website with contemporary newspaper cuttings researched by Geoffrey Woollard select here
- The late Eric Dunning, Chairman of Newmarket Local History Society, who had carried out much research and given talks on Fred Archer’s life
- Newmarket Local History Society -‘The History of Newmarket and Its Surrounding Areas’
- Frank Siltzer ‘NEWMARKET – ITS SPORT AND PERSONALITIES’
- Various other sources