Captain James Octavius MACHELL(1837-1902)
Another of Newmarket’s past personalities concerns a man who was very much part of the same era as several of our other featured personalities – Admiral Rous, Sir John Astley, Fred Archer, The Duchess of Montrose, Col Harry McCalmont.
All were big players in the horseracing scene during that Victorian period, a time when landed gentry were able to use their wealth and influence to indulge their passion for horseracing and gambling.
The advent of the railway made Newmarket accessible and enabled horses to be transported comfortably to other race venues. For them Newmarket was the centre of the racing world, and they brought much wealth to the town; their legacy lives on today in the many fine houses that they built or improved.
Captain James Machell did not have money, at least when he first arrived in Newmarket. The horseracing elite were wary of strangers entering their establishment but by his extraordinary understanding of horses, good judgement and bold risk taking he became the doyen of the racing circle, and wealth and influence followed.
Born on 5th December 1837, James Octavius Machell came from an old Westmorland family being the youngest son of The Revd Robert Machell. At the age of 10 he was sent to the public school Rossall, near Fleetwood in Lancashire. At school he proved himself to be a natural athlete and good at all sports. In 1854 he left school at the age of 16 and as with many aspiring public school educated young men he was destined for the army, a career choice that with the patriotic fervour of the time seems to have been a virtual rite of passage.
Much to his disappointment he was just too young to take part in the Crimean War with Russia but enlisted in the 14th Regiment of Foot. During a brief spell with the regiment in India he was involved in the Indian Mutiny, and then returned to be quartered at the camp on The Curragh racecourse in Co. Kildare.
He soon gained a reputation with his various and sometimes bizarre athletic achievements, such as the ability to hop onto a mantlepiece and stay there.
In January 1858 he was a Lieutenant and was then promoted to Captain in 1862. A burgeoning gambling instinct won him a number of bets both on his own athletic abilities and increasingly, as his winnings allowed, as a horse rider and owner.
Over the next few years this junior officer became the leading owner in Ireland, based on the number of races won, the most notable being the 1863 Stewards Plate with his horse Baccus. After moving into the 59th Regiment of Foot he fell out with his new Commanding Officer who was unsympathetic to Machell’s racing interests. With a determination not to be thwarted he resigned his commission in the army and moved to Newmarket, where horse racing monopolized the town.
At first Machell had an uphill struggle to be recognized by the racing hierarchy who were unwelcoming to strangers. He had acquired a small stable at Kennett* and had his three-year-old Bacchus but not much else. Taking a characteristic big gamble, he entered Bacchus in the 1864 Prince of Wales Handicap. The poorly fancied horse won against classy opposition at long odds, netting Machell serious prize money and setting him on his feet in Newmarket.
He invested in more horses and bought Bedford House and Bedford Cottage Stables from William Butler for £5,000, appointing George Bloss as his trainer.
Machell’s association with Henry Chaplin (picture right).
Chaplin was a very wealthy young man who had inherited the Blankley Estate in Lincolnshire and who had been a member of the exclusive Bullingdon Club at Oxford. Despite his wealth and influence he was jilted in love by the young and beautiful Lady Florence Paget, who without warning ended their engagement by secretly marrying the Marquess of Hastings, another larger-than-life big spender and gambler.
Thereafter Chaplin and Hastings became rivals and Chaplin was determined that where he had failed in love, he would get revenge on the turf. Both men had their sights set on the ultimate racing prize of a Derby win. At this stage Chaplin seems to have had more money than good sense and he would buy horses on impulse, often proving bad investments.
By 1865 Machell had established himself in Newmarket as a good judge of horses. Chaplin, impressed by Machell’s successes, engaged him as his racing manager. From the outset this marriage of money and shrewd judgement changed the fortunes of both men for the better.
For the 1867 Derby Machell had high hopes for Chaplin’s horse Hermit and the owner was sufficiently encouraged to gamble a great deal of his wealth at long odds on his horse, as was Machell who, bold as ever, was not to be outdone. When challenged by the young Duke of Hamilton he accepted a wager on Hermit winning that would have ruined him had he lost.
Chaplin’s arch-rival Hastings had bet extravagantly against Hermit winning and it became a clash of wills as to who would back-off before the start.
Machell’s nerve held and, in the event, Hermit won despite a late alarm about the horse’s fitness lengthening the odds. The win netted Chaplin and Machell fortunes but financially crippled Hastings, who died a year later broken in health and wealth at the age of only 26.
The story goes that Machell’s winnings on that day, the then vast sum of Ł70,000, was taken to the bank in a black bag by a “little old lady housekeeper”, the bank had to stay open late in order to count the money.
Machell’s fortunes continued to blossom in the 1870s when he was attracting the patronage of wealthy aristocracy. Betting high stakes was becoming more important than sport. Machell had always had an interest in steeplechasing and had his first big win with Disturbance in the 1873 Grand National.
Over the next three years he repeated his Aintree success with Reugny (1874), Regal (1976) and Seaman in 1882. In 1876 he was elected to The National Hunt Committee and Machell was considered one of the most important men in the history of Aintree.
At Newmarket he could count among his patrons Sir Charles Legard, Lord Calthorpe, Sir George Chetwynd Lord Strathnairn, The Duke of Beaufort, The 7th Earl of Aylesford, The 2nd Lord Gerard, J B Leigh, Sir John Willoughby, The Duchess of Montrose, The 4th Earl of Lonsdale, The 7th Lord Rodney, The 5th Earl of Carnavon and Col. Sir Harry McCalmont
Machell was a close friend and confidant of Fred Archer although they fell out over a misunderstanding just before Archer’s death, an incident that Machell bitterly regretted. He was also friendly with the Prince of Wales’s unofficial mistress, Lillie Langtry who owned Regal Lodge, Kentford and therefore was a near neighbour, but their association was on a strictly racing level.
After his Aintree successes his interest in steeplechasing began to fade and he concentrated on Newmarket and the flat. In 1877 He was able to re-purchase the old family home Crackenthorpe Hall in Cumbria that had been sold to Lord Lonsdale in 1786.
In 1884 Machell purchased Bedford Lodge Stables, adjoining his own Bedford Cottage. He leased his new acquisition to George Baird, a wealthy owner, breeder and amateur jockey.
In the 1890s Machell’s health began to fail him and in 1893 he suffered a breakdown. When his friend and trainer James Jewitt died in 1899, he sold the Bedford Cottage stables to Col. Harry McCalmont, wealthy owner of Isinglass, the Triple Crown winner that had benefited from Machell’s guidance and which had a practically unbeaten record.
Machell Place and stables Old Station Road once consisted of a detached pair of cottages owned by Sir John Astley amongst others. The pair was then converted to a single house and enlarged in 1884 by W.C. Manning for trainer Charlie Wood, as the house for Chetwynd Place Stables, at the rear. The premises were renamed Machell Place and Machell Place Stables in the late 19th c after they had been bought by Captain Machell from former jockey George Chaloner.
Some contemporary writers referred to Machell as “Captain Mac-Hell” owing to his occasional fits of rage when crossed or things were not going right for him, others as “The Lucky Captain”. Luck undoubtedly played a part as it does in anyone’s life but to leave it at that would be to greatly underestimate his shrewd judgement and courage in seizing opportunities when they came along. As a friend of mine rather aptly put it “you make your own luck”.
Machell died while at Hastings on 11th May 1902 at the age of 65. His body was brought to Newmarket, the town with which he will be forever associated. He was laid to rest in Newmarket Cemetery.
He had never married and his estate passed to his nephew Percy Machell, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
* The reference to his ‘small stable at Kennett’ was known to be Kentford House, now known as Meddler Stud in the parish of Kentford in the county of Suffolk.
RV Feb. 2014.
- ‘Captain Mac-Hell’ – by Richard Onslow (A detailed account of Machell’s racing successes is given in this book)
- Mr Hugh McCalmont
- The National Horseracing Museum
- Newmarket Local History Society’s ‘History of Newmarket’ and NLHS members
- Various online sources publically available.