Death of Jem Mason

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Death of Jem Mason  (1866) 
The Sporting Life, Saturday 27th October 1866

Modern hunting men, whose talk is of horses, and who seldom care to note how Gulder held the line over a dusty fallow or how Grappler turned short to the left while the whole body of the hounds flashed to the right, differ very widely about riders’ merits. There seems however to be one point upon which the older school seem pretty well agreed-that in getting to the end of a run, on any sort of horse “Bay Middleton Jersey” or rather “the George Villiers” of the Coplow day, the Rev Mr Bower, and the present Lord Clanricarde were unrivalled; and that James Mason, as a steeple chase professional, had scarcely a peer in England. It is rather more than thirty years since he came out, and soon went right up to the top of the tree, and with “Jem Robinson” at Newmarket, and “Jem Mason” in the Vale of Aylesbury, it might well be called the riding “era of the Jameses.’” One of this splendid pair still lives at nearly three score and ten, on the scene of his old triumphs, and the other has just been taken from amongst us, after a long and weary illness, while still in his riding prime.

He was born at Stilton and being the son of a horse-dealer, he, as a matter of course, became an infant Centaur very early in life. Tilbury, or old “Feather-bed Rump” as the Squire used to term him when he had a shot at him in trotting from cover to cover, was Mason’s first tutor, and the Dove House, Pinner, the scene of his labours. Old Tilbury’s driving were very superior to his riding hands, but he knew how things should be done, and his was a school such as a young rider cannot get nowadays. He was then in his zenith as a lettor of hunters, more especially to the Quorn and Pytchley man, and Mount-street and the Pinner farm were his head-quarters. The latter was situated near the present Pinner Station, and the London and North-Western line intersects these 200 “broad acres,” which were farmed not so much on a strict four-course system as on one which included a race-course, water jumps, and fences complete, plenty of good meadow hay, and some sound old grass. Many a score of hunters were “made” there by young Jem during the summer, and taught to have a leg to spare in the real battle of life, from Cream to Curate’s Gorse, and not to flinch when “The Whissendine appears in view.” His field practice was by no means confined to Pinner, as he and Tilbury were wont to take many a long journey together to the shires to bring back horses and to take proxies. Thus he perpetually fell in for a fast thing over the grass: and though in later years Sir Thomas Wichcote on Kegworth fairly pounded him at a gate, he once “set” them all at Winwick mill-dam.

The Harrow boys took a lively interest in the hunter tuition which was going on at Pinner, and often ran over between callings-over, to see him at work. Such an idol did he become with them that, when it was settled that he was to ride “The Poet” in his own maiden steeple chase at St Albans, they insisted on presenting him with his jacket for luck. He was such a stripling that he required some two or three stone of lead to make up the weight, and although his horse refused the very first fence, he caught a very large field one by one, and Harrow worshiped him more than ever. Culverthorpe, Prospero and Tomboy were among his Tilbury mounts, but the old man left off on the wrong side both in this and hunter-dealing.

Jem was of course a sharer in the fun of the Vale, when there were races for Eights and Heavies, and Charles Davis was there with the staghounds, and after officiating as starter, uncarted one of his best haviers to fill up the afternoon. This was in 1835, in the golden steeple-chase days of Powell, on Saladin; Becher, on Vivian; and the Marquis, on Yellow Dwarf: and Mason was soon among them on bye-mounts on Grimaldi. Jerry, a very great horse for a severe race was his first crack mount for his next patron, John Elmore, and “Hoppy Turner’s “ pencil preserved the start and finish of that Leamington Grand Annual in which Vivian and Becher could only play second. John Elmore, whose daughter Jem married, became a still greater name of dread over the flag line with Lottery, who was purchased like Jerry at Horncastle, and for the same price, 180 guineas. “The Horncastle horse” was the name that the mouse-brown went by among Elmore’s friends, but the old horse-dealer bore all their chaffing very complacently, and said that the talent was there, and “you’ll see it come out”. He was gradually tutored with Mr Anderson’s staghounds, but his first essay with Chance at Jackson’s grounds was anything but remarkable. At Barnet, with Henry Elmore on him, he towered so at a fence that he threw a complete somersault, and was nowhere at the finish. Mason rode him at his next essay at St Albans, and then bent a large field at Barnet. Not content with winning, the pair jumped a high flight of bullock-rails at the weighing place, and henceforward they passed into a stable proverb, and became “a very trap to follow,” except at water. In April 1838, they fairly challenged Captain Becher and Vivian for the Championship of the Heavy-Weights in a great Dunchurch steeple-chase, from Drayton Grange to Flecknoe, and the veterans had to yield. The next year saw the establishment of the Liverpool Grand National, with Lottery (Mason) first, and Seventy-four (Tom Oliver) second. This pair met two or three times afterwards, and always with the same result, though on one occasion the judge only gave it by a head. February 1840, was marked by Lottery’s refusal of the wall at Liverpool, which caused a good deal of comment, and he followed it up by refusing a post and rails five times at Fackenham. Gradually advancing years and penalties crushed him out of time, and his latest jumping operations were confined to his old friends the staghounds, and larking over marden-chairs and all manner of fancy obstacles, for the amusement of John Elmore’s friends, when they went to have “a quiet afternoon at the farm.” Mason rode during his fourteen or fifteen years for many different owners, but still the majority of his mounts were for John Elmore, and Gaylad, The Weaver, Sam Weller, &c, all bore the “light blue and black cap” to victory. He also donned the “blue and buff” stripes for Lord Strathmore, more especially in St Leger, and his lordship sat for many an hour by Herring’s easel when he was executing his commission of “Steeple Chase Cracks Charging a Wall” with Jem on Lottery holding the place of honour in the foreground. This picture will always be a glorious memorial of the days when fast weight-carrying hunters, and not ex-racers “to whom the grass-hopper is a burden” were seen at the post, and when riders had to take the chance of everything as it came, instead of roaming over a vamped-up course the day before, and then abusing the secretary right lustily for not lowering the fences or for leaving a brook in the line if a “great pot” dislikes water.

A lath-like, elegant figure, beautiful seat and hands, and a very quick eye, combined to make him quite the admiral Crichton of the steeple-chase field, though his great rival, Tom Oliver, was a much harder man, and a finer finisher. What struck you so in Mason was the perfect absence of anything like effort or fuss. The right thing to do came to him by intuition, and he did it instantly. Poor William Macdonagh, in his hot haste, might take the ridges slantways, but Jem would just gallop along the headland and then come straight, and leave him and The Nun in hopeless distress, like a bumboat in a gale. We know of no exact parallel to his handling of a horse, save Cresswell’s handling of a case when he led the Northern circuit, and when, with the perspiration standing in beads on his brow, poor Alexander, QC, toiled after him in vain. The last steeple chase which we saw Mason ride was more by way of a lark than anything else, at Hendon, and he did not even condescend to take his cigar out of his mouth. The more a hunt approximated in pace and distance to a steeple chase, the better he liked it. He was equally at home over Leicestershire or Northamptonshire (where in his later days he acted as pilot to the Hon. Mrs Villiers), or the doubles of the Vale; but as for killing the fox, he was much of Mr. Holyoake’s opinion, “It’s perhaps best killed, if it’s any satisfaction to the master of the hounds, but it’s none at all to me.” He liked to have a horse of “perfect manners” and in perfect condition, on which he could take the lead and sall away, but he had no idea of persevering if he was beaten, and generally pulled up at once with “an appointment in town.” He did not care to buckle on his spurs to “make a scraw stir,” or to nurse a third-class horse through a long run, simply for the honour of getting to the finish. Old Bill Bean (who led him over his first flight of park palings) and his school might take the “raw;” he loved the “finished material.”

His weight was always in his favour, as he could ride 11st in his early days, and he can hardly have walked more than that as he grew older. You fancied that you could see the crowfoot beneath his eyes, but his figure at forty-nine was still as youthful, his toilet as careful, and his black eyes as piercing as ever. He seemed delicate, and there was an absence of muscular development about the chest which made many wonder that he could go on so long. However, time had its slow revenge, and when the 1864-65 season closed, he showed unmistakable symptoms of throat consumption, which extended gradually to his lungs. It partook of the nature of cancer, and was thought to have been induced by excessive smoking. The protracted east winds tried him sorely, and when they had ceased he went to Hastings for a time, but the rally was only very fleeting, and after his return to London he became weaker and weaker, and sank to his rest on the evening of the Cesarewitch day, at his residence, Clarendon-place, St John’s Wood, in his fifty-first year. For many years he had done a small hunter and hack-dealing business, buying principally from Collins, but he had not been very fortunate, and he leaves a wife and child with but a scanty provision for the future. Thanks more especially to the exertions of Mr. Campbell, of Monzies, who set a subscription on foot at Tattersall’s (which is never lacking in works of charity), and headed it with £50, he was relieved during the last few months of his life from temporary anxiety. And so there passed away from our “happy hunting-grounds” another of those “representative men” of whom horse-loving England is so justly proud. He held his place for nearly a third of a century, and will the century show us a better in the three-and-thirty years which the lease has still to run?

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).