The Field

The golden age of the greyhound

During the heyday of coursing, the Waterloo Cup held at Altcar was the Blue Riband of the sport. Here, the writer recounts the event’s origins

- written BY charles Blanning

By Charles Blanning

No one ever went to Altcar to admire the view. “On the left are interminab­le sand banks, tenanted by coneys and vitriol works, while ditches of all degrees, high mounds and engine houses help to break the dreary Altcar dead level of grass and fallows… there are a few trees, and there is a conventicl­e-looking church in the distance, but even when the sun is out it looks quite a joyless land.”

This is Henry Hall Dixon, the journalist better known as ‘The Druid’, on his way to the first day of the 1857 Waterloo Cup. A hundred or more years later he would not have considered the prospect much improved, although the sand dunes and the foul, rotten-egg whiff of the sulphuric acid factory would have been replaced by a tedious sprawl of red-brick suburbs.

Altcar has remained the best-known coursing ground in the world for almost 200 years. The Altcar Club was founded in 1825 by Viscount Molyneux on the estate of his father, the Earl of Sefton. The club, like Swaffham and Ashdown, had its own code of rules and behaviour. No rough-haired dogs were allowed to run and the members met for dinner at a hotel in Liverpool on the eve of coursing. The hotel was called the Waterloo, and the man who brought in the traditiona­l Altcar Club first course of turtle soup was William Lynn. When the Waterloo opened in September 1818, Lynn was the lessee at the age of 26.

In 1828, Lynn made a major investment by leasing 800 acres of land at Aintree from the Earl of Sefton to create a racecourse. The considerab­le sum of £20,000 was invested in building a grandstand, including a cockpit.

In 1836 Lynn was given permission by the Seftons to run the first open coursing meeting on the Altcar estate. The programme was limited to five stakes for eight dogs each, all to be run off in a single day. The featured event, which Lynn christened after his hotel, the Waterloo Cup, had an entry fee of seven sovereigns, making a total ‘cup’ of 56 sovereigns, which was paid out as winning prize money. In today’s values, that’s a stake of £600 to win £4,800. This was a cash prize of a value unknown before Lynn’s event.

The Waterloo Cup was, from the outset, a ground-breaking event because it was ‘open’ to all comers and was worth a significan­t cash sum. It seemed to have stirred up considerab­le interest as, under the title of Great Coursing Meeting at Altcar, a Manchester newspaper reported that it saw “a much larger company than we had ever met upon any similar occasion”.

The 1836 Waterloo Cup was the sensation of the hour. In 1837, Lynn doubled the number of entries to 16, which allowed it to become “by far the most valuable cup ever run for in this country”. Two thousand spectators from Nottingham, Manchester, Shropshire and

Cheshire came to see Fly win and to enjoy coursing where hares were as “plenteous as blackberri­es”. In 1838, Lynn had managed to double the entry again, this time to 32 runners, and there was £250 to the winner.

The crowd was prevented from interferin­g with the running and the beating by men with large labels in their hats stating ‘Ground Keeper’, holding long poles that acted as restrainin­g barriers. If these failed, Lord Sefton rode down on the errant crowd with his “large hunting whip in hand”. Men were deputed to carry large planks, which were set down as temporary bridges over the dykes.

The jury always seemed to be out on the hares at Altcar, one moment being praised as the strongest in the country and the next being worried and fussed over. Despite the ignorance of the hare’s habits and constituti­on, which persists to this day, one thing is agreed and that is that damp does not suit them. Altcar in the last century with its maze of ditches and badly-drained flats was hardly an ideal spot, and so they prospered remarkably well. General opinion was, by the middle of the century, that the trials were as good as anywhere, as long as the hares were not “mobbed to death” by the vast crowd.

The 1840 Waterloo Cup is immortalis­ed in the great painting by Richard Ansdell. It had taken just four years for the meeting to be accepted that “as a reunion of the crack clubs it stands alone”. Between 3,000 and 4,000 spectators were reported on the field at Altcar, which was so wet the ditches were filled to the brim. That year only spectators who had taken a field ticket, which they wore in their button-hole, a custom still observed in 2005, were able to make use of the plank bridges.

Cerito is the first winner with legendary status. She was the first to win the Waterloo three times, a feat only repeated by Master M’grath and Fullerton. Cerito won the Waterloo Cup “almost unchalleng­ed” on her outing in February 1850. She dominated the next three Waterloo meetings, winning again in 1852 and 1853. When she lost two courses at the 1851 Waterloo meeting, it was to dogs which she had beaten previously. ‘Stonehenge’ (the nom de plume of sporting writer John Henry Walsh) considered that Cerito’s enormous stride and pace was only suited to a coursing ground such as Altcar. “Her stride was too overreachi­ng for hilly ground,” he considered. ‘Stonehenge’ did not realise that all his neat distinctio­ns between Lancashire dogs, Newmarket dogs, Wiltshire dogs and the like were becoming rapidly an anachronis­m. The progress of the Waterloo Cup itself was ensuring the emergence in the mid-19th century of a standard model for the coursing greyhound, and that was the ‘Waterloo greyhound’. If you trace the pedigree of a modern greyhound back into the middle of the 19th century, you will discover the extent to which stallion greyhounds that had run in the Waterloo Cup dominate in the family tree.

A radical change at the 1857 Waterloo Cup was that Will Warner, Lord Sefton’s headkeeper, surrendere­d the slips at last. Warner was replaced by a profession­al slipper, Tom Raper. “Raper’s good temper, the care he took to obtain fair slips and his fine walking throughout, proved him a worthy successor of that famous prince of slippers, Will Warner.” The Waterloo Cup had come of age.

There is a detailed descriptio­n of a Waterloo meeting of the 1870s in the diaries of Dr John Salter. In 1874 he went to Waterloo with his own bitch, Amethyst, and a dog called Magnano, belonging to his friend Charles Morgan. The morning of the first day did not start well. Salter and his friend, Hamar Bass, head of the Bass brewing family and later ennobled as Lord Burton, missed Salter’s hired carriage and had to take a hansom cab, which promptly lost a wheel. By the time they got there, coursing was in full swing.

Salter estimated there to be “60 or 80,000 people standing four and five deep”. Magnano was running as they arrived and Salter by jumping up and down could only get a brief glimpse of his dog putting out the previous winner. They soon solved the lack of a grandstand. A man was carrying a bench around on his back and charging spectators a shilling to watch each course. Bass and Salter promptly bought the bench and made it worth the

The 1836 Waterloo Cup was the sensation of the hour

previous owner’s while to carry it around after them throughout the day.

LCR Cameron’s novel, The Lady of the Leash, was published in 1935 but set in the years before the First World War. The Waterloo Cup meeting provides the novel’s climax. The hero, Norton Maltravers, takes the ‘special’ train to Hill House and when the crowd is allowed “to go upon the ground”, they move off down to the Withins field. On the following day he gets to Lydiate after an “unnecessar­ily long roundabout train journey”, but on the last day he returns to the Withins. Maltravers, therefore, watches a Waterloo Cup organised on the pattern that was observed until the meeting was outlawed in 2005.

The field with which Altcar and the Waterloo Cup was most commonly associated was the Withins, a masterpiec­e of a coursing ground. The field itself was a tapering funnel, which the hares entered by the broader end and ran past the slipper’s shy towards a bank at the apex. Like its sister field at Lydiate, the Withins was permanent pasture. It was ploughed just twice during the history of the Waterloo Cup, in the First and Second World Wars, to help feed the nation. Now it is an onion field and threatened with becoming a wind farm.

The first beat came up in the opposite direction to that which the hares would eventually run on the field. The hares were brought towards the riverbank and swung into the holding ground in a huge U-turn. This meant, of course, that when they were flushed onto the running ground they were going home. They pelted hell for leather towards the welcome refuge of the bank at the foot of the field. The net result was long, straight run-ups in which a fast greyhound could look its best.

The second beat brought in the land from the village of Great Altcar itself. Here the hares were coming from the side, and had a tendency to swing left handed towards the

Hares pelted hell for leather towards the welcome refuge of the bank

‘Members’’ or ‘Nominators’ Side’, a good few looking to turn for the back of the field before they were halfway up it.

Lydiate tended to behave in the same way as the Withins did on its second beat. Hares were brought in at the side into a holding area naturally flanked by the river. The crowd stood on the opposite side to the river only, and so almost every hare was looking to go back the way it came or to swing righthande­d to the white collar towards the crowd. The crowd was divided by a wide gateway, roughly opposite where the first turn took place and towards which the hare often aimed. She would then work her way to the very bottom of the ground or back towards the low bank behind the slipper where she came in. The courses were the opposite of the racy ones on the Withins.

On a good day all the courses needed on the second day of a Waterloo meeting could be run off this one beat. If a second was required, it was brought in from the opposite end, with the riverbank as a natural flank on the right. The hares, with a bank at the far end to aim for, raced on much straighter and either escaped at the bank or, unluckily for the dogs, turned left-handed or coursed back towards Carr Wood.

Despite the increasing popularity of rival pastimes during the interwar years, the Waterloo Cup and coursing remained within the cultural mainstream. In 1935, the Waterloo even appeared in the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s film masterpiec­e, The 39 Steps. In a scene in a music hall, a ‘Mr Memory’ invites questions from the audience to test his general knowledge. A lad shouts out, “What won the Cup in…?” “Cup? Waterloo, football or tea?” demands Mr Memory. “Football, silly,” replies the lad. At least football and tea remain legal pleasures.

This is an edited extract from The Greyhound and the

Hare by Charles Blanning, price £60, published by the National Coursing Club and available from YPD Books: www.ypdbooks.com

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 ??  ?? The Waterloo Hotel in Ranelagh Street, Liverpool. Previous page: Cerito, winner of three Waterloo Cups
The Waterloo Hotel in Ranelagh Street, Liverpool. Previous page: Cerito, winner of three Waterloo Cups
 ??  ?? The Waterloo Coursing Meeting of 1840, by Richard Ansdell; slipper Will Warner has the finalists, Earwig and Emperor, in the slips
The Waterloo Coursing Meeting of 1840, by Richard Ansdell; slipper Will Warner has the finalists, Earwig and Emperor, in the slips
 ??  ?? A painting by Lionel Edwards of Lydiate, showing the hare crossing the top of the Members’ enclosure with the public grandstand in the background
A painting by Lionel Edwards of Lydiate, showing the hare crossing the top of the Members’ enclosure with the public grandstand in the background
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