Blood Sports at School: The Eton Hare-Hunt

Blood Sports at School: The Eton Hare-Hunt

WE are often told that the true way to teach kindness to animals is "to begin with the young." Let us see how they begin with the young at the chief of English public schools.

"I have told the Master of the Beagles that he must not do anything unlawful. I am sure that he would not do anything cruel willingly. But until the common sense of the nation express itself in the shape of a law forbidding the hunting of wild animals, I cannot interfere with the Beagles, which are here an old institution."

Such were the terms in which Dr. Warre, when Headmaster of Eton, expressed his refusal—his first of many—to substitute a drag-hunt for the hare-hunt now in favour at Eton College; and his argument has since been the subject of much humanitarian protest, and of not a few memorials to the Governing Body. But there is one point concerning Dr. Warre’s remarks which seems to have almost escape attention—that the Eton Beagles are not, after all, so old an "institution" as his words would imply, in the sense of being recognised and encouraged by the school authorities, for, as a matter of fact, they have only been openly permitted since about sixty years ago, and they were not actually legalised until 1871. In the old Eton Statues of Henry VI. it was ordained under the head of "Discipline" that "no one shall keep in the college any hounds, nets, ferrets, hawks, or falcons for sport," and for this reason the authorities long refused to give official recognition to the Beagles. In the reign of Dr. Keate the hunt, according to Mr. Wasey Sterry’s book on Eton, was "unlawful, though winked at," and this state of affairs continued until about the middle of the past century, when the Beagles began to be regarded as on a par with cricket and football. At last, under the revised Statutes framed by the new Governing Body, which was called into being by the Public Schools Act of 1868, all earlier regulations were repealed, and the Beagles became legalised, having thus passed through the three successive stages of being prohibited, winked at, and recognised as "an old Eton institution."

It may seem strange that the sporting propensity of schoolboys should have thus defied and survived the ban placed upon it by the pious Founder; but the history of Eton shows it to have been always the home of cruel sports. We are told by Sir H. Maxwell Lyte, the historian of the school, that "sports which would now be considered reprehensible were tolerated and even encouraged at Eton in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries." "No work," he says, "was done on Shrove Tuesday after 8 a.m., and at Eton, as elsewhere on this day, the practice prevailed of torturing some live bird. The college cook carried off a crow from its nest, and, fastening it to a pancake, hung it up on the school door, doubtless to serve as a target." Then, again, there was the once famous and popular ram-hunt. "The college butcher had to provide a ram annually at election-tide, to be hunted and killed by the scholars," the unfortunate animal being hamstrung and beaten to death in Weston’s Yard. Even in the nineteenth century such sports as bull-baiting, badger-baits, dog-fights, and cat and duck hunts, were "organised for the special edification of the Eton boys."

It is from these good old times that the present hare-hunt is a survival, and though it may now be conducted, as Dr. Warre has stated, in a legal and "sportsmanlike" manner, this certainly was not the case at a period no more remote than the headmaster of Dr. Balston (1857-1864), as we learn from Mr. Brinsley Richards’ well-known book, "Seven Years at Eton," from which the following passage is quoted:

"It is not pleasant to have to write that the Beagles were often made to hunt a miserable trapped fox which had lost one of its pads. Those who bought maimed foxes, as more convenient for beagles to hunt than strong, sound foxes, should have reflected that they might thereby tempt their purveyors to mutilate these animals. How could it be ascertained whether the fox supplied by a Brocas ‘cad’ had been maimed by accident or design? It was an exciting thing for jumping parties of Lower Boys, when out in the fields they saw the beagle-hunt pass them in full cry—first fox, lolloping along as best he could, but contriving somehow to keep ahead of his pursuers; then the pack of about ten couples of short, long-eared, piebald, or liver-streaked hounds, all yelping; then the Master of the Hunt, with his short copper horn; the Whips, who cracked their hunting-crops and bawled admonition to the dogs with perhaps unnecessary vehemence; and lastly the Field of about fifty."

It is specially worthy of note, as bearing upon a later controversy, that Mr. Brinsley Richards states that "run were far better when a man was sent out with a drag." The drag is thus proved to have been in successful use at Eton almost as long ago when the Beagles were first openly tolerated.

The prohibition once being cancelled, the popularity of the hare-hunt grew apace until it reached its zenith in the reign of Dr. Warre, when the doings of the hunt were regularly reported—in choice sporting jargon—in the Eton College Chronicle, so that the whole school, even to the youngest boys, was made aware of them. A reference to old numbers of the Chronicle will show plenty of instances. Here are one or two extracts taken almost at random from these records of the chase:

"March 20, 1897.—A hare was soon put up in the first wheat-field, and running back through two small spinneys in the field she was found in, went away towards Ditton Park. Hounds ran very fast over the Bath Road and straight away into Turner’s gardens. After being bustled about for fifteen minutes in the gardens, our hare went away at the far end. Turning left-handed, our hare was viewed running parallel with the road into some brickfields. . . . After we had been casting round for some time without success among the rows of bricks, hounds were taken back into a small hut. Hardly had they got inside before old Varlet pulled her out from under a rafter, absolutely stiff."

"February 23, 1899.—Time, one hour, fifty minutes. A very good hunt, since scent was only fair, and we were especially unlucky to lose this hare, which was beat when she got back to Salt Hill. On the next day we heard that our hare had crawled up the High Street to Burnham, and entered a public-house so done that it could not stand, and was caught by some boys, who came to tell us half an hour afterwards, but we had just gone home. Too bad luck for words!"

And so on, with repeated references to "breaking her up," and hounds "thoroughly deserving blood."

Here, again, is the published testimony of a spectator of one of these successful runs:

"On February 4, 1899, being in the vicinity of Eton, I had an opportunity of seeing one of these hare-hunts, and I will give a short and exact description of what took place.

"At three o’clock some 180 boys, many of them quite young, sallied forth for an afternoon’s sport with eight couples of the College Beagles. A hare was found at 3.15 near the main road leading to Slough. It was chased through the churchyard and workhouse grounds at this town into a domain dotted with villas, called Upton Park. Escaping from this spot, it ran towards Eton, but soon doubled back to Upton Park, the numerous onlookers in the Slough Road lustily shouted at the dazed creature all the time. These circular chases were thrice repeated, the hare always getting back to Upton Park.

"Twice did the animal come within a few paces of where I was standing, and its condition of terror and exhaustion was painful to behold. The boys, running after the hounds, were thoroughly enjoying the thing, and two masters of the College, I was told, were amongst them. Now for the final scene, at which a friend of mine was present.

"The hare, which had been hunted for two hours, having got into a corner at Upton Park which was bounded with wire-netting, was seized by the hounds and torn. The master of the pack then ran up, got hold of her, and broke her neck. The carcass was handed to one of the dog-keepers, who cut off the head and feet, which trophies were divided among the followers. The keeper with his knife then opened the body, and the master, taking it in his hands and holding it high above the hounds, rallied them with cries, and finally threw it into their midst, as they had, in language of the Eton College Chronicle, ‘thoroughly deserved blood.’

"I make no comment upon these doings; I only say that I think the British public ought to know how boys are being trained at our foremost school in respect to the cultivation of compassionate instincts towards the beings beneath us."

It is not surprising that the Humanitarian League should have addressed remonstrances to Dr. Warre on the subject of the Beagles; one wonders rather that this "old Eton institution" should have so long remained unchallenged by societies which profess to protect animals from injury, and to teach humanity to the young, especially as Dr. Warre was himself a member of the committee of the Windsor and Eton Branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and as Etonian subscription go yearly to provide a fund for prosecuting carters and drovers who ill-use the animals under their charge!


To all these protests Dr. Warre had practically but one answer—that hare-hunting not being illegal, he could not interfere with the liberty of the boys in the matter, many of whom, he stated, are in the habit of hunting "when at home in the holidays, and with the approval of their parents." But this plea is at once invalidated by the fact that many things are prohibited to schoolboys which may (or may not) be permitted to them at home, and which are not in themselves illegal. Some of the elder boys, for example, smoke when at home in the holidays, and with the approval of their parents; yet if these young gentlemen, relying on Dr. Warre’s argument, had started a smoking-club at Eton, he would not have hesitated to interfere very promptly with their freedom. Why, then, should an excuse which is not nearly good enough to justify a smoking-club be seriously put forward by the headmaster of a great public school when a cruelty-club is in question?

On one point only would Dr. Warre make any concession—viz., with regard to the report that appeared in the Eton College Chronicle of the "breaking up" of hares and the "blooding" of hounds. "The phrases in question," he said, "are among those current in sporting papers, and I regret that they should have found their way into the pages of the Eton College Chronicles, being objectionable in sound, and liable to misinterpretation. I understand, however, that these phrases do not imply more than that the dead hare is devoured by the hounds." This led to a pertinent inquiry in the press, whether the Eton boys were in the habit of hunting "a dead hare." The cruelty of the sport obviously consists less in the actual killing of the hunted animal than in the prolonged torture of the hunt that precedes the death—the "bustling" which, as we have seen in the extracts from the Eton College Chronicle, often renders the panic-stricken little animal "dead beat," "absolutely stiff," "so done that it cannot stand." And, really, if the boys are encouraged to do this thing, it is a somewhat dubious morality which is content with forbidding them to speak of it! "Objectionable in sound" such practices are, beyond question; but are they not also somewhat objectionable in fact?

Thus, while on the one side Dr. Warre hardened his heart and would not lay a sacrilegious finger on the time-honoured institution which had been forbidden in the Statutes of the Founder, humanitarian feeling, on the other side, became more and more aroused, and memorial after memorial was presented to the Eton authorities, suggesting that, "as there is now an increasing tendency among teachers to inclucate a more sympathetic regard for animals, it is desirable that Eton College should no longer stand aloft from this humane spirit." It is significant of the growth of public opinion on this subject that, whereas, some twenty years ago, the very existence of the Eton Hunt was unknown to many except Etonians, we now find among the signatures appended from time to time to these memorials such diverse names as those of Mr. Herbert Spencer, Archbishop Temple, the Bishops of Durham, Ely, and Newcastle, Dr. Clifford, Mr. Thomas Hardy, Mr. William Watson, Mr. Frederic Harrison, Sir A. Conan Doyle, Sir John Gorst, Sir Frederick Treves, and Lord Wolseley, also a number of heads of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, the headmasters of numerous grammar schools and training colleges, officials of the branches of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and many distinguished clergy and laymen, representative of almost every shade of opinion.

When it was known that Mr. Lyttelton was to be Dr. Warre’s successor in the headmastership of Eton, it was thought probable that his notorious humanitarian sympathies would lead him to the desired reform; but these expectations proved to be too sanguine. The immense stability of an "old institution," in so conservative a stronghold as Eton, is a fact that must be reckoned with; for Eton is not like Rugby, where a reformer headmaster might venture, as Dr. Arnold did, to sweep away at a stroke an ancient sporting custom which had nothing but its age to recommend it. We all know the passage in "Tom Brown’s Schooldays"—the speech of "old Brooke"—where Arnold’s abolition of the Rugby Beagles is incidentally referred to:

"A lot of you think and say, for I’ve heard you. ‘There’s this new doctor hasn’t been here so long as some of us, and he’s changing all the old customs. . . .’ But come, now, any of you, name a custom that he has put down.

" ‘The hounds,’ calls out a fifth-form boy, clad in a green cutaway, with brass buttons, and cord trousers, the leader of the sporting interest.

"Well, we had six or seven mangy harriers and beagles, I’ll allow, and had had them for years, and the doctor put them down. But what good ever came of them? Only rows with all the keepers for ten miles round; and big-side Hare and Hounds is better fun ten times over."

If we compare this passage with the report of Mr. Lyttelton’s address to the Eton boys at the commencement of his headmastership, in which he frankly avowed his own "strong opinions" on the subject of the hare-hunt, but added that he did not hold these views in his boyhood, and did not see why he should force them on the boys, we see the difference, not so much between an Arnold and a Lyttlelton, as between a Rugby and an Eton. It is doubtful if even an Arnold could have safely flouted Etonian susceptibilities in this matter of worrying hares with hounds. The reason given by Mr. Lyttelton for allowing the hare-hunt to continue is that all legislation which outstrips "public opinion" is injurious and unwise, by which be presumably means the "public opinion" of Eton itself—for it is certain enough that public opinion outside Eton would bear the disappearance of the hare-hunt with equanimity—and undoubtedly Eton opinion, to those who dwell under the shadow of the "antique towers," is a matter of serious consideration, however medieval it may be. It is a curious fact that the large majority of Etonians, though nowadays a bit ashamed of the ram-hunt and other sporting pleasantries of a bygone period, do not in the least suspect that their beloved hare-hunt belongs in effect to the same category of amusement. Thus, Sir H. Maxwell Lyte, in his history of the school, referring to the earlier barbarities, remarks that "it is evident that in the time of Elizabeth cruelty to animals was not counted among the sins for which penitents require to be shriven." But what, it may be asked, of the time of George V.? It is entertaining to find the Eton College Chronicle itself referring to the ram-hunt of the eighteenth century as a "brutal custom," and remarking that Etonians were "only so barbarous." Once!


The value of the moral instruction given at Eton, as far as the duties of mankind towards the lower races are concerned, may be estimated from the following sentiments of an Eton boy, quoted from a letter of dignified remonstrance addressed to the interfering humanitarians: "A hare is a useless animal, you must own, and the only use to be made of it is for the exercise of human being." It will be seen that Etonian philosophy is still decidedly in the anthropocentric stage. It is not easy, even for the most progressively minded headmaster, to make any immediate impression on such dense and colossal prejudice.

But let us at least take courage from the fact that the ram-hunt is no more, that the college cook no longer hangs up a live crow to be pelted to death on Shrove Tuesday, and that the Eton boys are not now invited to indulge in the manly sports of bull-baiting, dog-fighting, and cat-hunts. These recreations have gone, never to return, and it is equally certain that, sooner or later, the hare-hunt will also have to go. It is not to be supposed that Mr. Lyttelton, who is keenly alive to the best and most humane tendencies of the age, is insensible to the discredit which Eton incurs by thus prolonging into the twentieth century a piece of savagery which Rugby, Harrow, and the other great public schools have long outgrown and abandoned; or that he does not feel the sting of Mr. W. J. Stillman’s remark that "the permission given to the boys of Eton to begin their education in brutality, when they ought to be learning to say their prayers, is the crowning disgrace of all the educational abuses of a nation which instituted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals."

To those, of course, who regard blood-sports as not only a proper pastime for men, but a desirable recreation for schoolboys, and a fit form of training for military service, the whole protest against the Eton hare-hunts must needs seem ridiculous; but even these thoroughgoing sportsmen will have to admit that the trend of public opinion is against them, else why does Eton now stand alone among public schools in this matter? If the reason of the Etonian apologists be sound, the absence of Beagles at Rugby, Harrow, and the other great schools, is a glaring defect in their system which ought speedily to be remedied; yet we have not heard that any enthusiast has gone so far as to suggest that the schools which have long since abandoned hare-hunting should now make a return to it, and short of this complete approval of the sport the excuses put forward on its behalf are about as feeble as could be imagined.

It cannot, for instance, be seriously argued that boys whose studies are notoriously endangered by the very numerous athletic exercises—cricket, rowing, football, fives, racquets, running, etc.—in which they are able to indulge, are in need of yet another pastime in the form of hunting hares. Granted that it would be inadvisable for the school authorities to preach advanced humanitarian doctrines to boys whose family traditions and prejudices they are bound to consider, still, it is not necessary to go to the other extreme of encouraging them in familiarity with sights and scenes which must tend to deaden the sense of compassion. From the moral standpoint, blood-sports cannot be regarded in quite the same light as athletic exercises; and there are many persons nowadays who, without raising the question of the morality of field sports for adults, think that the license given to young boys to spend their half-holidays in the "breaking up" of hares is as great a stain on the English public-school system as any of the admitted "immoralities" by which that system is undermined.

There is, in the opinion of humanitarians, a grave inconsistency between the insistence of preachers and teachers on the duty of kindness and consideration, and the sanction accorded by the school authorities to practices the very reverse of these. Unconsciously, perhaps, but none the less surely, the youthful minds which are trained under such influences are affected in their turn, and learn to conform superficially to maxims of piety and honour, while practically in their own lives they are setting those virtues as defiance.

Henry S. Salt

Killing For Sport, 1914, pp. 116-129