Admiral, the Hon. Henry John ROUS (1795-1877)
A man of great distinction, both in the Royal Navy and in the world of horseracing, who earned the unofficial title of ‘Admiral of the Navy and Admiral of the Turf’.
Henry Rous (23 January 1795 – 19 June 1877) was born of an aristocratic family at Henham Hall in Suffolk, being the second son of John Rous, the 1st Earl of Stradbroke. The family had held Henham Hall since it was bought by Sir Anthony Rous during the reign of Henry VIII, The Earl kept a stud and so it appears that the young Rous was brought up with a love of horses and horseracing. From an early age he was destined for a naval career and after attending Westminster School he entered the service as a First-Class Volunteer in 1808, aged just 13 years
This was the time of the Napoleonic War (1803 – 1815) when the Royal Navy’s prime task was preventing the French from gaining control of the Channel, and so the young seaman soon had a taste of action
In 1809 he had promotion to Midshipman and served on the Repulse.
By 1812 he had been involved in much action while serving under the command of the famous Capt. William Hoste on the Bacchante, a 38-gun frigate. In 1813 he made a name for himself by commanding a Yawl (a small ship’s boat propelled by oars) in a daring and successful raid against a Napoleonic sail convoy guarded by a ring of gunboats, an action for which he was highly commended.
1814. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant
1815. The Battle of Waterloo ended the Napoleonic wars, and many senior naval officers were ‘beached’ (laid off). Owing to his growing reputation and influential contacts in the service he retained his serving commission, unlike many of his fellow officers.
1817. He received his first independent command – the Podargus and new commands followed in short order. Always during his periods ashore, he was drawn to his other great love – horseracing and this brought him to Newmarket on numerous occasions.
In 1821 at the age of 26 he was elected a member of the Jockey Club.
1823. Promotion to Captain
Painting by Henry Perronet Briggs
From 1829 he spent nearly 6 years ashore which enabled him to concentrate on his racing interests.
1836. Back to sea in command of Pique. While visiting Newfoundland Pique struck rocks and was badly holed. By a considerable feat of seamanship Rous managed to sail his ship back across the Atlantic, although taking on water and without a rudder.
To the surprise of The Times newspaper, he was court-martialled along with the master, a Mr Hemsley, but both were exonerated, and their reputations were saved. Afterwards he became something of a national hero. Pique was his last command and when she paid off in 1837, he retired from the sea.
1836. He married Sophie, daughter and heiress of Sir James Ramsey
1836. Appointed Jockey Club Steward. He was now able to apply his considerable influence to the corrupt world of horseracing and he set about to impose order where there was none. Gambling and high stakes had brought horseracing into disrepute and what few rules existed were largely ignored.
Races were started with a flag, and there was no handicapping system to compensate for different weights carried or age of the mount. Jockeys used to cheat, and everyone knew they did; racing attracted the very worst of rogues and scoundrels. Rous was a man of strict integrity and he set out to clean up the world of racing, applying standards in a ruthless manner.
In 1841 he was elected a Member of Parliament for Westminster, his naval reputation obviously helping him to gain a narrow victory over a well-established rival.
1844. While a Member of Parliament he helped to introduce amendments to the Gaming Laws while serving on a select committee under the chairmanship of Lord Palmerston, although his sporting instincts set him against the abolition of cock fighting, a law that was passed 1n 1849.
1846 Appointed Lord of the Admiralty by Sir Robert Peel, that same year he retired from Parliament
By the mid 19th C steam railways were gradually appearing in the eastern parts of the country although it was not until 1851 that the Eastern Counties Railway Company completed the line from Newmarket to Cambridge (footnote 1). This enabled a direct connection between the town and London. Many were the voices opposed to the railway, fearing it would “bring in the riff-raff and we don’t want those kinds of people in Newmarket”.
The Admiral, however, was not one of them and he saw the potential that far quicker travel would offer. He must have had a personal interest too, as it would end the tedious coach and horses journeys, he had suffered for many years on his frequent commuting between his London home and Newmarket and other racecourses. In fact, the coming of the railway brought much needed income to the Jockey Club which prospered under Rous’s stewardship.
1850. He published ‘The Laws and Practices of the Turf’
1851. Rous set the weights that effectively introduced the handicapping system into racing. The ‘Weight-for-age-scale’ he devised is basically what is in use today. It lays down how much weight horses of different ages must carry over different distances and at different times of the year
1855. Rous was appointed official handicapper, a position of great influence in the racing world but one that inevitably brought him into conflict with those who considered that they had been unfairly treated. His reputation for fairness and integrity meant that he was able to fend off any serious challenges to his authority but earned him the unofficial title of ‘The Dictator of the Turf’. His dislike of jockeys was well known, no doubt owing to their reputation for cheating, and to his death he refused to dine with a jockey at his table (but see footnote 2).
1871. He moved to a house in the High Street Newmarket; his wife Sophie died that same year; they had no children. She had always accompanied him to Newmarket races but had the reputation of being dictatorial. His niece, the eccentric Lady Cardigan a flamboyant Newmarket figure (footnote 3), said this of Sophie Rous. “I remember one day after her death, calling to enquire how my uncle was. ‘Indeed, my lady’ said the servant ‘I may say that the Admiral is much better since Mrs Rous’s death'”.
Tributes to Rous at that time were many: “The Admiral’s bold and manly figure, erect and stately, dressed in a pea jacket, wearing long black boots or leggings, with dog-whip in hand, ready to mount his old bay horse to ride down to the course, no matter what the weather might be, was an imposing sight at Newmarket”
“Every moment of his over-lordship of Newmarket he loved. The Heath had become his quarter-deck and over it he exercised a commanding sway. He and his lean bay horse were part of the landscape”.
1877. When he died aged 82 at his London House in Berkely Square.it was said “The very foundations of Newmarket seemed to be slipping away”.
From 1836 until he died, he did not miss one great race meeting, in fact he donated those 41 years to racing.
Although he approved of moderate wagering, he did not countenance heavy betting, which he considered criminal and foolish. It was due much to his influence that the sensational gambling houses, such as those run by William Crockford (amongst our Personalties here), died out and racing was set upon a more commercial basis. Among his many obituaries was this quote from Lady Cardigan’s memoirs.
“There was the good old Admiral himself, the King of sportsmen and good fellows. Horse or Man-o-War, it was all one to him; and although sport may not be regarded as one of the same importance with politics, who knows which has the most beneficial effect on mankind. I would have backed Rous to have saved us from war, and if we drifted into it, to save us from the enemy, against any man in the world”.
Rous Memorial Hospital
1878 The Rous Memorial Fund was launched with the aim of building a hospital on land conveyed by Sir Richard Wallace. The sum of £5,000 was raised by The Jockey Club for the memory of Admiral Rous. The Trust laid down its primary purpose – the care of those employed in the racing industry but did not rule out the occasional treatment of others.
The architect Frederick William Roper designed the building in the Queen Anne revival style, with a central clock tower, The Almshouses in the grounds, were single storey cottages, also intended for people connected with racing. They catered for two married couples and six single persons. The hospital admitted its first patients in 1889
More can be found on Dr. Paul Saban’s website www.talkingdust.net.
In the 1970s the buildings on either side of the attractive central tower were replaced by rather featureless residential blocks.
The compiler of this website page, Rodney Vincent, can well remember being admitted to the hospital just after WWII commenced, when it was dealing with accidents of a less than serious nature, the atmosphere was of a kind and caring cottage hospital. The current webmaster had his tonsils removed there in 1943 (in at 9 am, home by 4:30pm)
With the creation of the National Health Service small cottage hospitals eventually closed and were absorbed by much larger units such as Newmarket General. In 1966, after a period of indecision over its future, the Rous Memorial buildings were bought by the Newmarket Urban District Council and converted to Warden controlled flats for the elderly and named Rous Memorial Court. On the gable end of one of the Court dwellings is a large plaque bearing the family crest of the Rous family, bearing the inscription ‘Je vive en espoir’ – I live in hope.
Apart from Rous Court, which continues today as a residence for the elderly (footnote No 4), several reminders exist of the great man. Rous Road Newmarket with its varied architecture is featured on a different page of this website. Memorial races bearing his name are run at Newmarket, Ascot and Goodwood.
(1) A railway link from Newmarket to London via Cambridge was created in 1851, this was from the old station in All Saints’ Road. A previous attempt to create a rail link to London via Six Mile Bottom and Great Chesterford had failed owing to financial difficulties. The new station and the building of The Avenue was not accomplished until 1902, when it was coping with greatly increased race traffic.
(2) Nat Flatman was Admiral Rous’s favourite rider. This was a great compliment as the Admiral loathed jockeys and he refused to socialise with them. He feared that they could be corrupted and bribed by mixing with the aristocracy. However, he saw Nat as an honest man.
(3) Lady Cardigan was the niece of Admiral Rous and the wife of Lord Cardigan (of Charge of the Light Brigade infamy). She outraged Victorian society by living with the Lord before marriage and by smoking in public. Her dress was often flamboyant, and she kept her coffin in the house for several years before her death so that she could try it for size. Cardigan Street acquired its name from her. When the Admiral died in 1877, she purchased her uncle’s house, which is believed to have formed part of the original Panton’s House in which Lady Cardigan also lived.
(4) October 2010. The whole of Rous Memorial Court was acquired by Racing Welfare Charity and extensive alterations were made to restore some of its original character and to make it more comfortable for the new residents.
Further update February 2012. The remodelling work has now been completed, see here.
- Eric Dunning, Chairman of Newmarket Local History Society who carried out much research and given talks on the Admiral’s life on behalf of the Society
- John Winton – ‘From Quarterdeck to Paddock’
- Frank Siltzer ‘NEWMARKET – ITS SPORT AND PERSONALITIES’
- Newmarket Local History Society -‘The History of Newmarket and Its Surrounding Areas’
- Various other sources.