The Dirty Derby (1863)

Epsom Downs 1863
Epsom Downs 1863 by Aaron Green (1820-1898)
Image source: The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery


By Edmond Yates
(From Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round, Vol IX, Mag No 216, 13 June 1863 p.369-371).

When I think that this is written with unshackled hands in a pleasant library instead of a padded cell, that I am as much in possession of my senses as I ever was, and that I acted under no constraint or obligation-I feel that the world will be naturally incredulous when I record the fact that I went to the last Derby. I blush as I make the statement; but if I had not gone, what could I have done with O'Hone, who had come over from Ballyblether expressly for the event, who had been my very pleasant guest for the three previous days, and who would have been grievously disappointed had he not put in an appearance on the Downs? For O'Hone is decidedly horsey. From the crown of his bell- shaped hat to the sole of his natty boots, taking in his cutaway coat, his long waistcoat, and his tight trousers, there is about him that singular flavour, compounded of stables, starting-bells, posts and rails, trodden grass, metallic memorandum-books, and lobster-salad, which always clings to those gentry whom the press organs are pleased to describe as "patrons of the turf." Since O'Hone has been with me, the stout cob whose services I retain for sanitary purposes, and who is wont to jolt me up the breezy heights of Hampstead or through the green lanes of Willesden, has been devoted to my friend, has undergone an entirely new phase of existence, has learnt to curvet and dance, and has passed a considerable portion of each day in airing himself and his rider in the fashionable Row. For I find it characteristic of all my visitors from the country that while they are in town not merely should they see, but also that they should be seen; there is generally some friend from their country town staying in London at the same time, to whom they like to exhibit themselves to the best advantage, and there is always the local member of parliament, who is called upon and catechised, and whose life, from what I can make out, must be a weary one indeed.

For O'Hone to miss seeing the race would have been wretched, though even then he would not have been worse off than an American gentleman who crossed the Atlantic expressly to attend the Epsom festival, and who, being seized with the pangs of hunger at about half-past two on the Derby Day, entered Mr. Careless's booth and began amusing himself with some edible "fixings" in the way of lunch, in which pleasant task he was still engaged when shouts rent the air, and the American gentleman rushing hat-less out of the booth, and finding that the race had been run and was over, burst into the piercing lamentation: "Oh, J-rusalem! To come three thousand miles to eat cold lamb and salad!" But for O'Hone to miss being seen at the race, being recognised by the member, by Tom Durfy now sporting reporter on the press, but erst educated at the Ballyblether Free School, and by the two or three townsmen who were safe to be on the Downs, that would be misery indeed. Moreover, I was dimly conscious of a white hat, and a singular alpaca garment (which gave one the idea that the wearer's tailor had sent home the lining instead of the coat), which I knew had been specially reserved by my friend for the Derby Day; so I determined that, so far as I was concerned, no overt objection to our going to Epsom should be made.

I still, however, retained a latent hope that the sense of impending misery, only too obvious from the aspect of the sky during the two previous days, would have had its natural effect in toning down my impulsive guest; but when I went into his bedroom on the morning of the fatal day, and when I pulled up the blind and made him conscious of the rain pattering against his window, he merely remarked, that "a light animal was no good to-day, anyhow," and I, with a dim internal consciousness that I, albeit a heavy animal, was equally of no good under the circumstances, withdrew in confusion. At breakfast, O'Hone was still appallingly cheerful, referred in a hilarious manner to the "laying of the dust," borrowed my waterproof coat with a gentlemanly assumption which I have only seen rivalled by the light comedian in a rattling farce, and beguiled me into starting, during a temporary cessation of the downfal, after he had made a severe scrutiny of the sky, and had delivered himself of various meteorological observations, in which, when they come from persons residing in the country, I have a wild habit of implicitly believing.

We had promised, the night before, to call for little Iklass, an artist, and one of the pleasantest companions possible when all went well, but who, if it rained, or the cork had come out of the salad dressing, or the salt had been forgotten at a pic-nic, emerged as Apollyon incarnate. Little Iklass's greatest characteristic being his generous devotion to himself, I knew that the aspect of the morning would prevent him from running the chance of allowing any damp to descend on that sacred form. We found him smoking a pipe, working at his easel, and chuckling at the discomfiture outside. "No, no, boys," said he, "not I! I'll be hanged-- "

"Which you weren't this year at the Academy!" I interrupted, viciously; but you can't upset Iklass with your finest sarcasm!

"The same to you, and several of them-no- which I was not-but I will be, if I go to-day! It'll be awfully miserable, and there are three of us, and I dare say you won't always let me sit in the middle, with you to keep the wind off on either side. And I won't go!" And he wouldn't, so we left him, and saw him grinning out of his window, and pointing with his mahl-stick at the skies, whence the rain began to descend again, as we got into the cab.

We went on gloomily enough to the Waterloo station, we passed the Regent Circus and saw some very shy omnibuses with paper placards of "Epsom" on them, empty and ghastly; there was no noise, no excitement, no attempt at joyousness! I remembered the Derbys of bygone years, and looked dolefully at O'Hone, but he had just bought a "c'rct card," and was deep in statistical calculations.

There was no excitement at the station; we took our places at the tail of a damp little crowd, and took our tickets as though we were going to Birmingham. There was a little excitement on getting into the train of newly varnished carriages destined for our conveyance, for the damp little crowd had been waiting some time, and made a feeble little charge as the train came up. O'Hone and I seized the handle of a passing door, wrenched it open, and jumped in. We were followed by an old gentleman with a long stock and a short temper, an affable stockbroker in a perspiration, and two tremendous swells: in one of whom I recognised the Earl of Wallsend, the noble colliery proprietor. Our carriage is thus legitimately full, but a ponderous woman of masculine appearance and prehensile wrists, hoists herself on to the step, and tumbles in among us. This rouses one of the swells, who remonstrates gently, and urges that there is no room; but the ponderous woman is firm, and not only takes 'vantage-ground herself, but invites a male friend, called John, to join her. "Coom in, Jan! Coom in, tell ye! Coom in, Jan!"-but here the swell is adamant. ''No," says he, rigidly, "I'll be deed if John shall come in! Police!" And when the guard arrives, first John is removed, and then the lady, and then the swell says with an air of relief, "Good Heaven! did they think the carriage was a den of wild beasts?"

So, through a quiet stealing rain, the train proceeded, and landed us at last at a little damp rickety station: an oasis of boards in a desert of mud. Sliding down a greasy clay hill we emerged upon the town of Epsom, and the confluence of passengers by rail and by road. We, who had come by the rail, were not lively, we were dull and dreary, but up to this point tolerably dry: in which we had the advantage of those who had travelled by the road, and who were not merely sulky and morose, but wet to their skins. At the Spread Eagle, and at the King's Head, stood the splashed drags with the steaming horses, while their limp occupants tumbled dismally off the roofs and sought temporary consolation in hot brandy-and-water. A dog-cart with two horses driven tandem-fashion, and conveying four little gents, attempted to create an excitement on its entry into the town. One of the little gents on the back seat took a post-horn from its long wicker case and tried to blow it, but the rain, which had gradually been collecting in the instrument, ran into his mouth and choked him, while the leading horse, tempted by the sight of some steaming hay in a trough, turned sharp round and looked its driver piteously in the face, refusing to be comforted, or, what was more to the purpose, to move on, until it had obtained refreshment. So, on through the dull little town, where buxom women looked with astonishment mixed with pity at the passers-by, and where, at a boot-shop, the cynical proprietor stood in the doorway smoking a long clay pipe, and openly condemned us with a fiendish laugh as "a pack of adjective jackasses;" up the hill, on which the churned yellow mud lay in afoot-deep bath, like egg-flip, and beplastered us wretched pedestrians whenever it was stirred by horses' hoofs or carriage-wheels; skirting the edge of a wheat-field (and a very large edge we made of it before we had finished), the proprietor whereof had erected a few feeble twigs by way of barriers here and there-a delusion and a mockery which the crowd had resented by tearing them up and strewing them in the path; across a perfect Slough of Despond situated between two brick walls, too wide to jump, too terrible to laugh at, a thing to be deliberately waded through with turned-up trousers, and heart and boots that sank simultaneously ; a shaking bog, on the side of which stood fiendish boys armed with wisps of straw, with which, for a consideration, they politely proposed to clean your boots.

I didn't want my boots cleaned. I was long past any such attempt at decency. O'Hone was equally reckless; and so, splashed to our eyes, we made our way to the course. Just as we reached the Grand Stand, a rather shabby carriage dashed up to the door, and a howl of damp welcome announced that Youthful Royalty had arrived. Youthful Royalty, presently emerging in a Mackintosh coat, with a cigar in its mouth, proved so attractive that any progress in its immediate vicinity was impossible; so O'Hone and I remained tightly jammed up in a crowd, the component parts of which were lower, worse, and wickeder than I have ever seen. Prize-fighters-not the aristocracy of the ring; not those gentry who are "to be heard of," or whose money is ready; not those who are always expressing, in print, their irrepressible desire to do battle with Konky's Novice at catch-weight, or who have an "Unknown" perpetually walking about in great-coat, previous to smashing the champion-not these, but elderly flabby men with flattened noses and flaccid skins and the seediest of great-coats buttoned over the dirtiest of Jerseys;-racing touts, thin wiry sharp-faced little men with eyes strained and bleary from constant secret watching of racers' gallops;-dirty, battered tramps, sellers of cigar-lights and c'rect cards; -pickpockets, shifty and distrustful, with no hope of a harvest from their surroundings;- and "Welshers," who are the parody on Tattersall's and the Ring, who are to the Jockey Club and the Enclosure what monkeys are to men- poor pitiful varlets in greasy caps and tattered coats, whose whole wardrobe would be sneered at in Holywell-street or Rag Fair, and who yet are perpetually bellowing, in hoarse ragged tones, "I'll bet against the field!" "I'll bet against Li-bellous!" "I'll bet against the Merry Maid!" "I'll bet against any one, bar one!" Nobody seemed to take their bets, nobody took the slightest notice of their offers, and yet they bellowed away until the race was run, in every variety of accent-in Cockney slang, in Yorkshire harshness, in Irish brogue. These were the only members of the crowd, thoroughly intent on their business; for all the rest Youthful Royalty had an immense attraction.

Sliding and slithering about on the sloping ground where turf had been and where now mud was, they pushed, and hustled, and jumped up to look over each other's heads. "Vich is 'im? Vich is 'im?" "Not 'im! That's the late Duke o' Vellinton! There's the Prince a blowin' his bacca like a man!" "Ain't he dry, neither?" "Ain't I? Vonder vether he'd stand a drain?" "He wouldn't look so chuff if he vos down here, vith this moisture a tricklin' on his 'ed?" "Who's the hold bloke in barnacles?" "That-that's Queen Hann!" No wet, no poverty, no misery, could stop the crowd's chaff; and amidst it all still rang out the monotonous cry of the "Welshers"-"I'll bet against Li-bellous?" "I'll bet against the field!"

A dull thudding on the turf, a roar from the neighbouring stand, and the simultaneous disappearance of all the "Welshers," tells us-for we can see nothing-that the first race is over, and that we can move towards the hill. Motion is slow; for, the crowd surging on to the course is met by a crowd seething off it, and when I do fight to the front, I have to dip under a low rail, and come out on the other side, like a diver. The course was comparatively dry, and just as we emerged upon it a large black overhanging cloud lifted like a veil, and left a bright, unnatural, but not unpromising, sky. O'Hone brightened simultaneously, and declared that all our troubles were over; we gained the hill, worked our way through the lines of carriages, received a dozen invitations to lunch, took a glass or two of sherry as a preliminary instalment, and settled down for the Derby. The old preparations annually recurring-the bell to clear the course, the lagging people, the demonstrative police, the dog (four different specimens this year at different intervals, each with more steadfastness of purpose to run the entire length of the course than I have ever seen previously exhibited), the man who, wanting to cross, trots half way, is seized and brought back in degradation; the man who says or does something obnoxious (nobody ever knows what) to his immediate neighbours just before the race, and is thereupon bonneted, and kicked, and cuffed into outer darkness; the yelling Ring; the company on the Hill, purely amateurish, with no pecuniary interest beyond shares in a five shilling sweepstakes, and divided between excitement about the race and a desire for lunch; the entrance of the horses from the paddock, the preliminary canter-all the old things, with one new feature-new to me at least-THE RAIN! No mistake about it; down, down it came in straight steady pour; no blinking it, no "merely a shower," no hint at "laying the dust;" it asserted its power at once, it defied you to laugh at it, it defied you to fight against it, it meant hopeless misery, and it carried out its meaning. Up with the hoods of open carriages, out with the rugs, up with the aprons, unfurl umbrellas on the top of the drags; shiver and crouch Monseiur Le Sport, arrived vi Folkestone last night-poor Monsieur Le Sport, in the thin paletot and the curly-brimmed hat down which the wet trickles, and the little jean boots with the shiny tips and the brown-paper soles, already pappy and sodden; cower under your canvas wall, against which no sticks at three a penny will rattle to-day-O, gipsy tramp, run to the nearest drinking- booth-O, band of niggers, piebald with the wet! For one mortal hour do we stand on the soaked turf in the pouring rain, with that horrid occasional shiver which always accompanies wet feet, waiting for a start to be effected. Every ten minutes, rises a subdued murmur of hope, followed by a growl of disappointment. At last they are really "off," and for two minutes we forget our misery. But it comes upon us with redoubled force when the race is over, and there is nothing more to look forward to.

Lunch? Nonsense! Something to keep off starvation, if you like-a bit of bread and a chicken's wing-but no attempt at sociality. One can't be humorous inside a close carriage with the windows up and the rain battering on the roof! Last year it was iced champagne, claret-cup, and silk overcoats; now, it ought to be hot brandy-and-water, foot-baths, and flannels. Home! Home, across the wheat-field, now simple squash, down the hill, now liquid filth; through the town, now steaming like a laundress's in full work; home by the train with other silent sodden miserable wretches; home in a cab, past waiting crowds of jeering cynics, who point the finger and take the sight, and remark, "Ain't they got it, neither!" and "Water-rats this lot!" -home to hot slippers, dry clothes, a roaring fire, and creature-comforts, and a stern determination never again to "do" a dirty Derby.


The Spectator 23 MAY 1863

The scene on Epsom Downs last Wednesday varied in one or two features from that which is found so -amusing when the weather is fine. There were very few ladies present, and the people seemed to be a trifle more miserable in their enjoyment than usual. At the best, a man must have a great capacity for being pleased who can find it a delightful thing to go to the Derby, unless it should happen to be his first visit. The crush and confusion, the difficulty of seeing the race,and the still greater difficulty of getting home afterwards, are drawbacks sufficient, one would suppose, to deter a non-sporting man from going to the- great race a second time. If thoroughly bad weather is added to- the regular inconveniences inseparable from the occasion, the miseries of the day are complete. The incessant rain this year took the spirit out even of that peculiar class who go down by road charged with slang and patter. After one passed Clapham, the lack of those personal compliments which are usually bestowed so freely was almost painful. In one part of the road a party of girls and men had been shot out into the mud, and as the girls wore pink and white dresses, the figure they made was not quite what- they had calculated upon when they left their homes. Two or three sights of this sort daunted the roughs, whose little carts were's much overloaded as ever. They gave up abuse, and took gloomily to drinking very early in the thy; the result was that they were rendered incapable of saying much to any-one before the course was reached. Beyond a wild flourish of an empty bottle they gave no sign of their wonted fire. The women in the vans seemed to be just "putting their lips" to the refreshments all the way along, and, perhaps, as a consequence, their babies screamed louder them ever. In fact, nothing more dreary can be conceived than that drive down to Epsom. The young ladies who usually make the road bright with their smiles were all indoors. The school-children and workhouse women came out and gave their feeble cheer, and were then washed back again. The cold and the wet together made it difficult for a man who had nothing to do with the race to excuse himself for being there at all.

Long before the first race was run the course was in a slippery boggy state, and it was soon very much cut up by the tread of the people. The betting-ring showed a large muster of sporting men ; but there was little of the usual hubbub among them, and hardly a book was out. The Prince of Wales came into the enclosure, and followed the example of most of those by whom he was surrounded, by-lighting up a cigar-the quantity of tobacco consumed alto- gether must have been enormous, for what can one do in the rain but smoke? Meanwhile the crowd outside were gazing stead- fastly at a private stand, in which were seated a lady and gentle- man, who throughout the day were popularly believed to be the Prince and Princess. The mist and rain favoured the delusion by preventing their faces being distinctly seen. The vagabonds who go about the course laying bets, and carefully taking the money of the layer as security, and then walking off with it before the race, seemed likely to come to grief this year. They could not get a mob round them, and when they tried the people in the carriages, they had to utter their strange cries-" I'll lay five to one against the field, bar one "-in vain. The gipsy women scarcely showed up all clay. There was no comic singing, no conjuring, no fun of any kind. It was a vast crowd of wet, steaming, disagreeable people. The biting wind seemed to have communicated some of its properties to the tempers of those present. Everywhere there were wrangling and quarrelling going on, or else the unlucky pleasure-seekers preserved a moody silence. When the Grand Stand was filled it was found that there was scarcely a lady there. Consequently the gentlemen who have used that abominable "par- terre" simile in the papers year after year were obliged to let us off this time. Of course there were some women about, and dreadfully unhappy and draggle-tailed they seemed to be. There was one sorrowful creature who had dragged a barrow-load of ginger-beer all the way from London, having started the previous day. Of course ginger-beer stood no chance in such weather-a mouthful of snow would have been as pleasant ; and in the after noon, when the races were over and the people were hurrying away, the poor woman sat on her barrow quite alone, with her head buried in her hands, and tears streaming through her thin fingers. She had "not taken a penny," she said, and it was all she had reckoned upon for weeks. We saw her afterwards about a mile on the road painfully dragging on through the deep sticky mud, which came over her boots at every step. It was one of the minor tragedies of the Derby, that forlorn being toiling back, dis- heartened and sad, to a starving home.

Macaroni (horse)

Extract from the Wikipedia entry, downloaded 29 July 2016

Painting of Epsom Derby winner Macaroni, by Harry Hall, 1863
Painting of Epsom Derby winner Macaroni, by Harry Hall, 1863
Image source: Wikipedia

…On 20 May, Macaroni was a 10/1 chance for the Derby at Epsom, with Lord Clifden starting the 4/1 favourite in a field of thirty-one. The race was run in difficult conditions with heavy rain[8] and soft ground. Among the spectators was the Prince of Wales, who became the first member of the British Royal Family to attend the race since Prince Albert in 1840. The start of the race was delayed for almost an hour, owing to a record thirty-two false starts caused by horses breaking away or failing to line up correctly. The huge field led to good deal of bumping and roughness, with three horses either falling or being brought down. Chaloner held up Macaroni in the early stages, before moving into fifth place entering the straight. A furlong from the finish, Lord Clifden went into a clear lead and looked the likely winner, but Macaroni produced a strong late run to catch the favourite in the last strides and win by a head. Rapid Rhone finished well to take third place. Macaroni's victory was warmly received in Newmarket, where the church bells were rung in celebration. Naylor marked his success by donating £1,000 to charities in his native city of Liverpool.…