The Gentlemanly Sport of Coursing

Coursing was a field sport popular with many gentlemen during the Regency, though it is not often mentioned in novels set during that time. And when it is part of the story, the details noted are often incorrect. The practices and rules of coursing have changed over the years, such that those which obtained during the Regency were not the same as those observed at other times in the history of the sport.

A bit of coursing history, with details on how it was practised in England during the years of the Regency …

Coursing is probably the oldest of all sports and is recorded as having been popular with both the ancient Greeks and Romans. In its simplest form, it is the pursuit of game animals by hounds which hunt by sight rather than smell. Game might have been various deer, wolves, foxes, hares or rabbits. The coursing breeds of sighthounds included greyhounds, whippets, afghan hounds, borzois, and salukis. Typically, these sighthounds, also known as gazehounds, were owned and hunted only by the aristocracy. This practice continued through the Middle Ages, by which time, in most countries, ownership of sighthounds was prohibited by law for all but the aristocracy. In England, King Canute passed a law which specified that greyhounds were not to be kept by any person inferior to a gentleman in rank. It is known that the infamous King John accepted greyhounds in payment of fines and taxes.

By the reign of Elizabeth I, deer, wolves and foxes were still coursed, but coursing hares was becoming more widespread. It was during this time that the Virgin Queen directed her Earl Marshal, Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, to draw up the first rules of coursing which codified and reconciled the discrepancies in the various local rules for the sport. Entitled The Laws of the Leash, these "laws" laid out how the gazehounds should be handled on the course and how to judge which dog won the match. Coursing continued to be an aristocratic sport through the reign Charles I, then fell out of fashion during the Commonwealth period. As with so many popular diversions, coursing became acceptable again among the aristocracy with the Restoration of Charles II. The Game Laws helped to ensure this, as hare, in particular, were classed as game, and thus could only be hunted by the nobility.

Yet, until the reign of George III, coursing was primarily a private sport which was conducted on the great estates of the royalty and aristocracy. But as the sport gained popularity, more gentlemen were interested in matching their hounds against others, for a wager, of course. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the greyhound was the dog most commonly coursed, though whippets where occasionally included in some coursing meetings. The greyhound is the fastest dog of all the breeds, and it was that speed which became the primary focus of coursing matches. In 1776, in Swaffham, the Earl of Orford founded the first English coursing club. Other coursing clubs followed, including the Ashdown Park Club (1780), the Malton Coursing Club (1781), the Newmarket Society (1805), the Louth Coursing Society and the Ilsley Club (both 1808), the Beacon Hill Club (1812), the Morse Coursing Society (1815), the Derbyshire Coursing Society (1817), the Deptford Coursing Union (1819), the Amesbury Club (1822) and the Altcar Club (1825). Additional clubs continued to be founded well into the second half of the nineteenth century as organized coursing continued to grow in popularity.

The rules for membership in all of the coursing clubs was based on the rules Lord Orford had established for the Swaffham Coursing Society. Membership was only open to gentlemen, and was limited to twenty-six members at any time. Each member of a coursing club typically owned, bred and trained his own greyhounds which were then matched at coursing meetings. A new member was only considered when a current member left the club. The membership limit was due to the fact that there were only twenty-six letters in the alphabet. Typically, the most prestigious or powerful members took the initial letter of their name or title. Those of lesser rank would have to settle for a letter unwanted by those of higher rank. This choice of letter was of extreme importance, as each member must name all of his dogs with names beginning with the letter which was allocated to them. Thus, for example, all of the Earl of Sefton’s greyhounds had names which began with "S." In many cases, club membership was handed down from father to son, so even the death of a member might not free up a particular letter in that club for many generations.

Coursing was a winter sport. The season began in early September and ran through the following March. Coursing meetings might be among members of one club, or the members of two or more clubs might come together to match their dogs against all the others. All of these meetings would have been considered public coursing meetings, as by this time private coursing was conducted only to rid an area of vermin or put meat on the table, not to match one dog against another. Greyhounds kept for private coursing were not the thoroughbreds of the breed, but they did tend to be successful hunters. In public coursing, the sport was in watching how well the greyhound pursued its quarry in competition with another dog. In more than two-thirds of all public matches, the hare actually escaped the hounds. Public coursing meetings always took place on a large area of relatively open, unfenced ground, as the judges and the spectators wanted to see the dogs as they worked. The judge of the match was typically mounted on horseback, as would be most spectators, certainly the aristocratic ones. But there might be a few lower-class spectators on foot along the course, out to enjoy the sport of their betters. However, the "slipper," the man who released the dogs to chase the hare, was almost always on foot.

The Duke of Norfolk’s Laws of the Leash were the basis of the rules for coursing across England, but through the end of the eighteenth century, each coursing club added a few embellishments of their own. It was not until 1858 that a national code of coursing rules was drawn up and ratified by all the clubs in Britain. During the Regency, each club still held to their own rules. The only exception would have been when more than one club sponsored a joint meeting. Then the club representatives would have to establish a mutually agreeable set of rules for the matches held at that particular meeting. If these representatives were not able to settle upon a set of rules for a proposed meeting, the meeting would not have taken place. Most clubs offered a gold or silver cup to the winner of the meeting they sponsored. Other coursing meetings, usually those sponsored by a group of coursing enthusiasts rather than a specific club, might offer a silver plate as a prize to the owner of the best dog.

The essentials of any coursing meeting were a series of matches, each of which comprised the pursuit of a hare by a pair, or brace, of greyhounds. In some countries, three greyhounds might be coursed in a match, but in Regency England, all coursing matches were between two dogs. Just before a match, both dogs were given into the custody of the slipper. Both dogs’ collars were attached to a special single leash which had a double-spring clip. This late eighteenth-century invention allowed the slipper to release both dogs at the same time, once he was certain they had both sighted the hare.

There were a number of ways to provide hares for a coursing meeting. If the area to be coursed was known to be well-populated with hares, then beaters would be hired to flush a hare for each match. If there were not a lot of hares in the area, or if they were believed to be particularly cunning or elusive, they might be trapped a few days before the meeting and held in cages until there were enough for all the planned matches. Then a hare would be released to be coursed by each brace of dogs. If hares were scarce in an area chosen for coursing, then hares would be trapped and brought in from elsewhere. Some clubs had their own hares bred and raised just for coursing. However, these last two methods were not popular with true coursing gentlemen, as non-native or domesticated hares did not provide the best sport since they did not know the countryside over which the coursing would take place. The hare, also called "puss" during the Regency and almost inevitably referred to as "she," was held in some respect by gentlemen who regularly coursed their greyhounds. The more cunning, quick and elusive she was, the better the challenge for the dogs. A non-native or domesticated hare would not know the coursing ground, she would not be able to take advantage of the natural topography, so it was believed she would not provide the best sport and show the skill of the dogs to their best advantage.

Once the hare was on the course, it was the slipper’s responsibility to be certain that both greyhounds on his leash had the hare in sight before he slipped them. But to ensure a good match between the dogs, he had to give the hare a fair start. If he let the dogs off the leash too soon they would overtake the hare too quickly, particularly a non-native or domesticated hare, who might even freeze in panic rather than run. It was also the slipper’s responsibility to be sure he did not release his dogs until the match judge, on horseback nearby, was in position to have a clear view of the beginning of the chase. The pursuit of the hare could cover as much as three to five miles, with the judge and the mounted spectators all riding behind the fleeing hare and her canine pursuers.

The greyhounds were judged on both speed and skill in their pursuit of the hare. One of the reasons hares had become so popular for coursing was that in addition to being very fast, they were both clever and agile. They seldom ran a straight line, and could turn quickly and unexpectedly to evade the pursing hounds. The "turn" was a coursing term which indicated the hare had turned at not less than a right angle, while the "wrench" was the term for a turn of less than a right angle. The greyhounds were judged on how well they anticipated and responded to the movements of the hare along the course. There were points awarded if one of the a greyhounds caught and killed the hare, but those points were awarded to the dog who had done the most to make the kill possible, even if that dog had not actually made the kill. More often, however, the hare escaped, or was caught up by one of the spectators after the match and set free, if she was considered to have provided especially good sport. In those cases, the match was decided on how efficiently and determinedly each dog had pursued its quarry during the chase. If the judge could not decide in favor of just one of the dogs, then his verdict would be an "undecided course," if he thought the dogs were fairly matched, or a "no course," if he felt they had not been tried fairly. This last verdict could be the result of a terrified hare which offered no challenge, interference on the course by a spectator, or if the dogs were not released at exactly the same time by the slipper.

The winning greyhound from each match was usually matched against other winning dogs as the coursing meeting progressed, until a single clear winner was chosen. The owner of this winning greyhound would be awarded the prize for the meeting, oftentimes a gold or silver cup put up by the members of the club which sponsored the meeting. But many in attendance at these coursing meetings might come away smiling, with money in their pockets, if they were successful in some of the many wagers which took place at these events. The owners of the winning dogs might also realize additional income after the fact by standing their winning male dogs at stud once they were back in their kennel. Most owners also bred their winning bitches, but it seems few of them sold the puppies. They kept them, raised them and trained them to course hares as soon as they were old enough. Most greyhounds only left their owner’s kennel in trade for another dog, or if the kennel was put on the block at his death, or bankruptcy.

Although greyhounds were carefully bred during the Regency, none of this breeding was recorded outside the kennels where it took place. There was no official greyhound stud book until 1882. Lord Orford is said to have bred some of his greyhounds with bull-dogs, thus introducing the brindle color. However, these cross-breeds had a tendency to run by their nose, rather than their eyes, to track game. They had to be rigorously trained to ignore scent and hunt by sight. Perhaps the most famous greyhound of the late eighteenth century was Snowball, who had been acquired by a Major Popham. Snowball was apparently christened with a great sense of irony, as he has been described as jet black, with a coat as glossy as fine satin. He was never beaten, winning over forty matches, nearly a dozen large pieces of silver plate and won the Malton Coursing Society cup twice. Pierce Egan considered him the best greyhound that ever ran in England. Snowball stood at stud for several years after his victories, his owner charging three guineas per cover. He bred true, leaving a number of sons, daughters and grandchildren who won coursing matches all over England. Descendants of Snowball were coursed during the Regency at many club meetings. His son, Snowdrop, outdid his sire, winning the Malton Cup on four successive years. One of his grand-daughters, Fly, took the Malton Cup at the meeting in 1810. During the Regency, it was generally acknowledged that the best kennel of greyhounds belonged to The Right Honorable George Pitt, Baron Rivers, of Stratfield Saye in Hampshire. (The same Stratfield Saye which he sold to the British government so that it could be given to the Duke of Wellington in gratitude for his victory at Waterloo.) Lord Rivers had several Snowball descendants in his kennel. He also followed Lord Orford’s example and cross-bred some of his greyhounds with bull-dogs.

The greyhounds bred during the last few decades of the eighteenth century and through the Regency were heavier and sturdier dogs, with much greater stamina, than the greyhounds of modern times. Regency-era greyhounds had to chase a live, fleeing hare over open ground and if the hare was fleet and cunning the match might cover as much as five miles. Greyhounds today chase what is essentially a stuffed bunny over a carefully prepared track surface at a measured distance. Speed is the only consideration, so they can be bred for a lighter, more fragile frame and cleverness is no longer requisite. A racing greyhound of today would have a hard go on a Regency coursing ground.

Not all greyhounds bred during the Regency had the smooth sleek coats of today’s greyhounds. Many had a longer, thicker coat, primarily those bred in the north, especially in the Yorkshire Wolds. Their thicker coat would have protected them from the colder climate and the rough countryside. Many of these longer-haired greyhounds often had a curling tail, and some believe that in centuries past they had inter-bred with the wolves which had inhabited the area. The shaggier northern greyhounds tended to course better on their own rough, closed territory, just as the sleeker southern greyhounds did better on their own flatter, more open country in the south. During the Regency there was always some discussion about which was the better greyhound, those from the north or those from the south.

Though greyhounds are the fastest breed of dog, they are also usually very calm, even-tempered dogs, as they tended to be even during the Regency. A number of Regency gentlemen who kept greyhounds for coursing also made a pet of one or two of their favorites. They found them remarkably loyal and faithful companions. And, fortunately for such a large dog, they can easily fold up their long legs and lie comfortably in a relatively small area. This was particularly convenient when they had to be loaded into their owner’s specially-built dog-cart for transport to a coursing meeting. Dog-carts were first invented for this purpose, when coursing became popular and more greyhound owners wished to match their dogs at meetings far from their kennels. The dog-cart made it possible to conveniently transport their dogs, allowing them to rest en route so that they would be fresh for their matches.

Horse racing was certainly the sport of English kings, but for most of its history, coursing was a sport reserved by law for English gentlemen. If they had the money, any one could own a racehorse, and some pretty low-life characters did. But only a man born a gentleman could own, breed and course greyhounds. Interestingly, if the greyhound was in some way disabled so that it could not hunt, it could then be legally owned by a commoner. Coursing began growing in popularity at the end of the eighteenth century and that popularity continued right though the decade of the Regency. A number of coursing clubs were established across the country during the Regency, many of them sponsoring annual coursing meetings. Coursing was not only an aristocratic sport, it was also fairly expensive, and for some gentlemen, all-consuming. A successful greyhound kennel could bring in a tidy income for its owner, just as an unsuccessful one could sap needed resources from a gentleman’s estate. There are so many interesting possibilities for coursing to play a part in the plot of any number of Regency novels. Perhaps even now some enterprising author is busy at work on a Regency novel in which coursing greyhounds play a part.

For further reading on Coursing and British Sport in general:

Arlott, John, The Oxford Companion to World Sports and Games. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Brailsford, Dennis, British Sport A Social History. Cambridge, England: Lutterworth Press, 1993.

Brailsford, Dennis, Sport, Time and Society: The British at Play. London: Routledge, 1991.

Brailsford, Dennis, Taste for Diversions. New York: Lutterworth Press, 2001.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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