Sir John Dugdale ASTLEY (1828 – 1894)
Prominent among Newmarket’s racing personalities of the past is a name that is still much in evidence today – Sir John Astley, a name that conjures up the very spirit that made the town the racing headquarters of the world.
Horse racing was his greatest love, but as an all-round sportsman, he enjoyed most of the then current sporting pursuits. With his addiction to gambling he often risked large sums of money with the result that he alternated between the extremes of comparative wealth and poverty.
Unlike some of his contemporaries his love of horses and racing were accompanied by an honest and benevolent nature, he was not a wealthy man but in his latter years he used his considerable influence to help others, particularly the young men employed in racing.
John Astley was born into the aristocracy, his father being the 2nd Baronet of Everley. He was educated at Eton. By the age of 20 he received a commission in The Scots Guards and went on to fight in The Crimean War (1848 – 1859).
He had married heiress Eleanor Corbett in 1858 and decided that a wife and army life were not compatible, so he retired with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Although he had a distinguished army career (he was wounded in the neck in the battle of Alma in 1854) his attitude to soldiering and war is expressed in this extract from his memoirs:
“As our pleasant time at dear old Windsor drew to a close, and the battalion was about to move to London again, and leave would be hard to get, I, with the approval of my people, decided to send in my papers and give up soldiering. I had been eleven and a half years in harness, and, taking the rough with the smooth, had spent a very pleasant time in the regiment; but I was never fond of the art of war, or mechanical drill. What I did like was the fellowship of as good a lot of brother officers as could be found in the service, and I was real proud of the splendid body of men who composed the Scots Fusilier Guards”.
He succeeded to the baronetcy in 1873 becoming the Third Baronet (the title became extinct in 1994)
In 1874 he became Conservative MP for North Lincolnshire, a position held until the general election of 1880, when he lost his seat. By the mid-1850s his racing interests had drawn him to Newmarket, where he became a familiar figure. In 1863 he had 7 horses in training at Newmarket and had a friendly relationship with his two favourite jockeys, George Fordham and Charlie Wood. He referred to Fordham as “A paragon of honesty”.
Having been elected to The Jockey Club in 1860 he became a steward in 1875 for three years. During that time, he helped to revise racing rules and took the responsibility for rebuilding the Rowley Mile Stands. It was discovered that the bricks of the old stands had been badly laid and not even properly bonded. It was a miracle that a disaster had not occurred. The betting ring was placed by the new stand instead of way off down the course – a change not popular with everyone. The cost of the new stand and laying out the paddock was £20.000.
Several years later the Jockey Club were receiving over £25,000 per annum in admission fees so the prize money for races could be increased. Sir John’s Stand was finally demolished in 1998 when the present Millennium Grandstand was built and completed in the year 2000.
In the 1860s he had rented a small cottage near to the old Gt Eastern Station, in what is now Old Station Road. He writes:
“It had been built by Robinson the jockey, and had a grass paddock behind it of about an acre, and we kept our hacks at Mrs. Flatman’s (the widow of old Nat), next door.
In the spring of 1870, I bought this cottage and paddock for £3000, and I don’t think I ever enjoyed any period of my life so much as those pleasant meetings at Newmarket; for we did the thing “proper.” We each (wife and I) had two hacks, and never missed a morning, when it was fine, but were out on the Limekilns, or wherever the horses were doing their work, by 8.30, and came into a delicious breakfast, with plenty of appetite, at 10.30.
An hour or so before the races we mounted our fresh hacks, and with a fly to carry our coats, cloaks, and convey our two grooms, we caracoled down to the races, seldom dismounting, but riding from saddling paddock to betting ring, and backwards and forwards between different courses. If it rained real hard, we hopped off into our fly. Ah! those were happy days, and no error; and it was a bitter blow when, in after years, the nicest little crib at Newmarket had to be sold, and Jockey Wood bought it, and built those splendid stables in the paddock now the property of Colonel North.”
John Astley’s enounters with the world of sport often involved considerable financial risks and occasionally brushes with the law. Bare knuckle fights and public cockfights had been outlawed by the late 19th century*, so clandestine matches were staged in secret locations with wary eyes looking out for the police. Some sports such as shooting live pigeons released from traps and cockfighting are looked upon as barbarous today, but attitudes have changed. A comment from his memoirs demonstrates this well:
“I never could get up any great amount of enthusiasm over a cock-fight, though, for the life of me, I can’t see any great harm in it; for it cannot make much odds to the bird whether he is caught by the cook and has his carotid artery severed by a knife, or whether he is killed by the spur of his antagonist. If the bird could be consulted, it is any odds he would much prefer the latter arrangement, by which he would certainly have some fun for his money ;besides, if he proved himself an adept at the game of skill, would not only survive the conflict, but with his shrill clarion announce his readiness to meet all comers for many a year, to the dignified admiration of his half-dozen devoted wives”
Today Sir John Astley’s name is chiefly remembered as the founder of The Astley Institute.
And from his memoirs written in 1894:
Let us turn for a moment to consider whence so many little lads are obtained, and how they are fixed when employed in racing – stables. I feel sure there is hardly any town in Great Britain where there are so many diminutive specimens of humanity employed as at Newmarket, and a wonderful intelligent lot they are. As most of these boys are far removed from their parents and relations, they have an especial claim on the sympathy and kind feeling of those they work for, or who are interested in the horses they look after ; and, though I am a firm believer in the merits of the ash plant, when applied with judgement and moderation, either to a stubborn, pig headed horse or to a lying or obstinate lad, yet, in both cases, in nine times out of ten, kind treatment does more good than rough and violent measures.
As I believe and hope that many of my readers are amongst those who subscribed so generously to the building of the Institute (now in full swing) intended for the benefit of the men and lads in charge of racehorses or studs in and around Newmarket, you won’t mind my alluding to it here. I collected about £2500 out of the £3000 subscribed for the erection of that building and was accorded a certain amount of kudos for the nippy way I was always alongside a rich owner so soon as his horse’s number was up as the winner of a good stake.
Nothing like tapping ’em when the first flush of victory warms their hearts; nevertheless, it is expedient sometimes to suggest to the owner of a good favourite for a big race, before it comes off, that if his horse wins, he should subscribe a certain percentage of his winnings to the good cause. This he is generally willing enough to do, just to bring him “luck like”. At the same time, I will own that there are many that have helped us who have not had any luck, and many more who have not a horse at all – the more credit to them.
Now, I hold it must be a good thing for the stable-lads to have a comfortable, well contrived building where they can enjoy various games, and a quiet room where those so disposed can read without interruption ; besides which, since the opening of the Institute (which ceremony was performed, with his well-known kindness of heart, by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales last July) there have been concerts held in the large hall, which the lads much appreciate, and these we hope to continue.
It is curious how some of the trainers crab this Institute. They try and make out that it brings the lads together to talk over the chances of the horses under their charge for some of the big races, just as if they could not, or did not, do that in many a taproom or billiard-room in the town, before there was any Institute for them. At all events, the most prejudiced must acknowledge that it is better for the lads to talk in a building open only to themselves, and where they have no chance of meeting any of the numerous touts and horse watchers who constantly waylay and “treat” them, for the sake of getting information which they have no right to divulge.
Of course, there are many lads still, who prefer a snug taproom where a glass of beer or tawny port, and the present of a cigar (probably home-made) is at their disposal, if they will only enlighten the donor as to the likelihood of the horse, they are in charge of standing a preparation or not, or whether their horse is off his feed, &c. &c. All I know is that there are hundreds of stable lads who frequent the Institute now, who, before it was built, had no other place to go to, where they could enjoy any sort of game, except the “pubs” in the town, where the company, to put it mildly, was somewhat mixed.
If any of my readers feel inclined to help the Institute they will do so best by subscribing to the annual expense of keeping it up or sending presents of books to better furnish the library. It is not generally known that there are some fifteen hundred men and lads employed in looking after horses in and around Newmarket; and as the great majority come from distant parts and are mainly selected on account of their small stature and consequent aptitude for riding as light weights, they necessarily require some sort of protection and looking after.
I have never seen a brighter or more intelligent, cleanly lot of faces than I have noticed amongst these Newmarket lads, when some hundreds of them have congregated together in the Institute on the occasion of a concert; and I feel sure that none will accuse me of exaggeration, if they will come and judge for themselves at any of the series of concerts we (the managers) intend to organise during the race weeks.
Here I ought to mention that the Institute is built on a plot of ground most kindly given for the purpose by Lady Wallace, widow of the late Sir Richard Wallace, who himself nobly presented the adjoining acre of land as the site of the Rous Memorial Hospital and Almshouses; so it is easy to find. All are welcome to come and see how the youths are catered for, as well as the sick and maimed, and the necessitous old trainers, jockeys, and their near relatives.
The Bentinck and Rous Memorial funds supply the necessary amount of money to defray the small yearly pensions of the men, as well as the expenses of the hospital and buildings ; but, as the Institute has no fixed fund to draw from, I must appeal to my readers to help, by voluntary contributions, the inadequate yearly subscription list for the “Stablemen’s Institute,” and if those who have good luck only send a small percentage of their winnings to Messrs. Hammond’s Bank at Newmarket, it will be gratefully acknowledged, and I can vouch for its being well laid out for the benefit of those who, though exposed to sundry and manifold temptations, yet as a body are hard to beat as a trustworthy and hardworking set of lads”.
Just before his death he published some entertaining reminiscences under the title of “Fifty Years of My Life” from which the several passages are reproduced in italics in this article.
Sandra Easom writes this epilogue:
When Sir John died on October 10th 1894 he was mourned by the whole racing community in Newmarket. Perhaps his lasting epitaph is that people knew, whether they were rich or poor, they could be his friends. He would make time for people and help them, despite his own problems. Few could be remembered in a better way.
Footnote: The original Astley Institute building in Vicarage Road was demolished in the late 20th century and the Institute was relocated in its present site in Fred Archer Way.Tis was appropriately named “The New Astley Club”. The premises were re modelled in 2014 and now go under the name of The Racing Centre. Strangely the only recognition of Sir John was the naming of the bar, the one thing he wanted to keep the stable lads out of
* Cock-fighting had been banned as a public spectacle in Victorian times and was finally made completely illegal in the 1920s.
- The NLHS two vol. History of Newmarket and its Surrounding Areas edited by Sandra Easom. Parts of the text are reproduced and are copyright Newmarket Local History Society
- “Fifty Years of my Life” by Sir John Astley.
- Various online sources of pictures and information