What was the weather like, I wonder, on Monday 1 September 1856, when Lord Charles Fitzroy and his brother Lord Frederick enjoyed a day?s shooting at the Grange Farm, Euston, bagging 14 brace of partridges, a rabbit and a hare? Were they shooting over setters or walking-up with spaniels? We?ll never know, but by the end of the week five more shoots had taken place and the total bag had risen to 593 partridges and 20 hares. There were shoots every day the following week, except on the Saturday, and a further 463 partridges were shot.
I gleaned these details from The Euston Hall Game Book, 1856-1870, one of several gamebooks lent to me by Lord Euston when I wrote my shoot report on the estate (Euston Central, 1 February). Those early entries are written in a wonderful Gothic hand, with a fine-nibbed black pen, but they make frustrating reading: they tell you so much, but you end up wanting to know more.
In those distant days, exactly 150 years ago, Euston was primarily a partridge shoot. The season?s total for 1856 was 2,223 partridges and a mere 714 pheasants. Shoots were held three or four days a week through September, October and November, and the last shoot of the season was on 1 December, when George FitzRoy bagged nine partridges and a pheasant to his own gun. Why were there no more shoots after that? Did hunting take precedence, or did the regular Guns ? Lord Euston, Lord Southampton, Lord Charles and Lord Frederick ? shoot elsewhere for the rest of the season?
Ten years later the shoots continued through December and into mid-January, the bag growing accordingly: 3,473 partridges (presumably all wild greys), 1,935 pheasants and 27 woodcock. One feature of all the early Euston gamebooks is a column accounting exactly how the game was disposed of. In those days game was considerably more valuable than it is today and to be given a brace of birds was quite a treat.
The Guns invariably received their birds (usually a brace, sometimes a brace-and-a-half, more rarely two brace), while small numbers of surplus birds were sold. Every year a brace of birds would be sent to the local postmasters, as well as numerous station masters from Thetford to St Pancras and, appropriately enough, Euston. The local police inspectors could expect a brace, as could the vicar, bank manager and schoolmaster. More generous gifts were given to local hospitals: the Hospital for Consumption, for example, received 10 brace of partridges in October 1902.
Not everyone was lucky enough to get pheasants or partridges. The gamecart man probably thought himself fortunate to receive half-a-dozen rabbits, while the shepherds on the estate were only given hares. There?s also an entry for the man with goats, who was given six rabbits. Spoilt birds were carefully noted, as the books had to balance at the end of the season.
One of the Victorian gamebooks provides exact details of the shoot expences [sic]. In 1878, for example, expenses attending the presentation of Game on the Euston Hall Estate came to £800.13s.5d. Slightly more than half of this was made up of the gamekeepers? wages (£407.17s.4d). The next big cost was food for game (£286.7s.1d), while ammunition came to exactly £18. Dog and horse expenses added up to a modest £30.11s.4d with casuals of £62.17s.8d making up the remainder.
It is possible to work out the cost per bird at rather less than £1, as the total bag that year was 8,920 head (excluding rabbits and hares). Intriguingly, the total costs for 1886 were appreciably lower, at £719.3s.3d, with the most significant saving made in food for game, down to just £113.0s.11d. Perhaps not enough food was provided, as the total bag also dropped to exactly 7,000 head.
Figures only tell you so much, but they do show that the biggest bags at Euston were shot in the last years of the 19th and first years of the 20th century. Every year from 1895 to 1905 the bag was in five figures, with 1896 the best at 15,972. Partridge numbers were down badly in 1906 (2,351 shot), but did recover well, with 4,780 bagged in 1912. The impact of the Great War took time to be felt. The 1915 season produced 11,192 head of game, but it was down to 2,697 the following year, and the days of the spectacular Edwardian shoots were over.
Between 1919 and 1937 the shoot was let and split into two, but the gamebook entries start again in 1937, when Mr Harcourt Gold took over the shoot. The gamebook itself is a magnificent leather-bound and gilt-edged volume in its own slip case. Some welcome comments appear for the first time. Only a very adequate season, but we had a lot of fun. Partridges very bad. After a good season in 1936 they got disease badly and we only shot very lightly. Nearly 2,000 pheasants were put down. The partridge bag was indeed low ?
just 261 ? but 2,705 pheasants were shot.
There?s one fascinating entry for 8 November 1937, when Lord Euston is noted as having shot one pheasant in the park. One has an image of his lordship potting an old, long-spurred cock with his air rifle, but perhaps he was trying out a new gun, or there had been a demand for a bird from the kitchen.
The outbreak of war in September 1939 saw the collapse of the syndicate. The gamebook records that, we were in the Isle of Skye and returned hurriedly at the end of August to find the house occupied by over 100 boys from Dr Barnado?s Homes. We had to make out with local guns the best we could. Nearly 3,000 pheasants had been reared. Partridges recovering slowly, and were better, but the Frenchmen on the Heath were still scarce.
Black-and-white photographs, now faded to sepia, decorate this volume, but frustratingly they are uncaptioned. They do show the Black Bourne flooding around the Hall, and Euston blanketed by snow. There are also a number of shooting photographs, one of which depicts the Guns between drives. It?s not only the long, Mackintosh-like shooting coats and flat caps that date the picture, but the fact that all the guns under arms are unbroken. When did it no longer become acceptable to walk around with an unbroken gun?
An undated photograph of the Euston gamecart, drawn by a sturdy Suffolk punch, also appears. The same gamecart, a scaled-down model of the sort of wagon used by the Boers in South Africa, remains in use on the estate today, though the big old wagon wheels have been replaced with smaller spoked wheels, shod with inflatable rubber tyres. A tractor has also taken over from the horse.
The most intriguing entries are for February 1940, a leap year, when pheasant shooting continued until the end of the month, with bags of 75 on 15 February, 66 on 20 February, 40 on 27 February and 36 on 29 February. Was there a special wartime dispensation to extend the pheasant season? Pheasants continued to be shot until 1 March in 1941 (when 41 were shot on 1 March), 1942 (only four shot on 7 March) and 1943 (43 shot on 13 February).
After the war a number of amusing watercolour cartoons decorate the pages. These were drawn by Roy Beddington, a talented artist and regular guest on the estate. They depict long-forgotten events and, with only short captions rather than written explanations, it?s not always easy to understand what they?re about. There are sufficient pictures of errant dogs to entertain, however, even if the dogs (and most of their owners) have long since departed for the happy hunting grounds.
Browsing the Euston gamebooks gave me a glimpse into the history of gameshooting in this country ? what a shame more effort wasn?t made to describe the days and seasons in words, but none of the various people who kept the books over the past 150 years could ever have anticipated that they would be so fascinating to the 21st-century reader.