I wrote this piece some time ago but am still fascinated by it. It’s still a mystery but thanks to the internet some facts have come to light, I’ll leave you at first with the tale as I first told it.
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y work as a bookmaker’s floorman had been drastically put on hold by the cold snap. I can’t exactly remember why I wandered into the Tiverton Library that bitter afternoon. It was hardly my normal preferred hangout, though I suppose no wages since before Christmas had made free entertainment for an afternoon a necessity. I quickly browsed the racing section for something interesting then opted to sit at the reference table and have a cheapskate glance through the day’s papers.
The Chronicles of Twyford was sitting neglected next to the Telegraph. Something about its aged cover and yellow pages drew me to it. I had a cursory skim through its pages, a history of my much maligned home town of Tiverton, from the Doomsday book to modern day, though as published in the late 1800’s ‘Modern Day’ was also pretty historic. As I was flicking through the index the word ‘races’ caught my eye, as it generally did. I turned to page 281 and read halfway down to the bottom of the page and was surprised to learn that our rather dowdy, definitely non-equestrian little town had once played host to ‘One of the most attractive and best attended race meetings in the West of England’.
As I continued to read I was transported from the bitter winter to the last Thursday and Friday of August back in the 1800’s. The Townspeople of Tiverton had been looking forward to the races for some weeks, the last Thursday and Friday in August were race days and also a general holiday for as long as anyone could remember. Visitors had been converging on the town since the weekend. The inns were already pretty full and getting fuller by the time the racehorses started to arrive from the nearest railway station of Bristol. Some were led by their trainers and ridden by their jockeys, other more valued animals were transported in large horseboxes drawn by four Post Horses, which were ridden by postilions. By the eve of racing the Town was overflowing with carriages and visitors, the inns were so congested the horses were removed from their shafts and put into what remaining stable space there was. The vehicles spread the length and breadth of the town, many acting as makeshift board and lodgings for their owners.
The morning of the races brought even more and colour and life to the town, more carriages arrived, many contained officers and their ladies from the nearby Exeter barracks. They carried on the general tradition by entering the town with buglers sitting aloft playing the popular tunes of the day. These competed for the town’s peoples’ attention with the arrival of the many ‘Sporty buggies’ driven by ‘Toffs’ donning their ‘fashionable driving coats with pearl buttons as large as small cheese plates’. I went on to read of the half-mile double line of carriages at the course, the stands and the gallery that sat along the river. Tivertonians on foot were allowed into the races for nothing while carriage drivers were charged depending on the number of wheels on their vehicles. Local public houses had their own booths where patrons could buy food and drink and if they wished pay sixpence to sit on the covered viewing area positioned above.
The course itself was sat alongside the River Exe, the atmosphere was of a picnic and funfair all rolled into one, the town band played, to which the more adventurous (and drunk) danced al fresco. Caravans containing exotic animals and freaks enthralled and shocked the crowd, swing boats and roundabouts excited them, boxing booths and shooting galleries brought out their competitive edge, ‘negro minstrels, itinerant musicians and ballad singers’ entertained them, while ‘three card trick men, pea-and-thimble sharpers and gypsies’, tried to fleece them! It sounded a wonderful place. The well-heeled were also catered for in the way of roulette tents that were ‘guarded by a brace of powerful bullies, whose office it was to prevent any attempt at robbery, to which the heaps of gold pieces presented an exceptional inducement’.
There was of course betting on the races themselves, top class they were too, Lord Palmerston’s Iliona, winner of the 1841 Cesarewich, won the Tiverton Stakes the following year and collected the 120 sovereign prize. Palmerston donated the purse to the race committee to help fund the prizes for the next years racing. There was a story in the latter section on the races that particularly captured my imagination, the tale of a gentleman gambler who had a favourite horse who rather aptly went by the name of ‘Grimace’, the details were that the animal was ‘Trained by a man name Harris and ridden by a jockey who bore the singular name Weediniron’. The intrepid gentleman in question had wagered heavily on the colt and by all accounts his investment looked a wise one for most of the race until in sight of the finish Grimace and Weediniron collided with a distance marker. The author did not relate if the combination fell but the race certainly went to a rival. The Gentleman lost his entire estate that had been in his family since the conquests.
The man’s name was not mentioned, though it was hinted to be common knowledge at the time of writing. I was enthralled by the story. Over the next few days I could think of nothing else but Tiverton races and more precisely the unhappy punter that was ruined by Grimace and Weediniron. Rather unfairly I had already condemned the jockey. Of course he was in cahoots with people unknown to relieve the hapless (and now potless) gentleman of his money. I even had a mental image of the man, small and knarled in his late 40’s of dubious origins, he no doubt had a hooked nose and a squint with a hunched posture and hands like claws. I visited the riverbank one mile outside of Tiverton on the Bampton Road where the races would have been held as described in Chronicles of Twyford roughly where Tiverton High now resides. I stood there and tried to visualise the hustle and bustle, the music and the horses. I also tried to imagine ‘that’ race, the presumed skulduggery and the fortune that was lost.
Soon after I took pen to paper and wrote to the Racing Post’s breeding expert Tony Morris. I provided him with as many names as possible and asked if he had any record of the horse or characters mentioned. His reply was swift and positive. He had indeed tracked down Illiona in his records but had not managed to trace Grimace or Harris or any mention of the by now demonised Weediniron. He did confess to not having the time to scour his collection of Racing Calendars that covered those dates but I was welcome to visit his Newmarket home and do so myself. I was excited and sure that I was well on the way to solving the identity of the hapless punter. The next thing was to book time at the Devon records office in Exeter, they had old papers, maps and contemporary accounts of most things there. The voice on the other end of the phone suggested that if I looked hard enough I would unravel the 150 odd year old mystery. I had decided that would be my mission when not racing. The weather broke and racing resumed.
The days prior to my appointment at the records office were taken up by work. The cold snap was forgotten and I soon got back into the swing of the job I love, scrambling around in the livewire atmosphere of the betting ring. The day before I was booked in, I was at Taunton Races, a group of bookmakers were in measured discussion of the old argument about gambling debts being recoverable by law. The younger element seemed to be in favour and the conversation appeared that to be swinging in agreement that they should. At an opportune moment an old sage of the ring, my first boss Jack Lynn (pictured), broke his long silence and made a point that stopped me in my tracks. He looked up, paused for breath and then spoke in the wise and deadpan manner that was his way, ‘If a man has bet with you and paid until he has lost everything what kind of person would want more, why would you want to pursue and shame him to boot?’ He paused and then added ‘He should be let be’.
In an instant all my thoughts of finding the identity of the Gentleman gambler, the fateful race and even the still convicted in my mind Weediniron disappeared. I could only imagine the pain hurt and anguish that must have filled that man’s days for the rest of his life. The fact that he sold his estate proved he did the honourable thing and paid his debts regardless that he and his family would be ruined. The story of his loss would have been Tiverton Races folklore far beyond his death and he was no-doubt haunted by that afternoon every day until his last.
The passage of time and the passing of living memory had finally put paid to tales of his wager and misery. He could rest in peace wherever he lay. Who was I to dredge it all up for no other reason than to amuse myself and to give anyone who was interested the chance to gloat at a long dead man’s misfortune? The very next day instead of keeping my appointment with centuries-old documents I returned to Tiverton Library and asked for The Chronicles Of Twyford. I opened it at page 285 to the account of the bet and then symbolically closed the book. The librarian returned the book to the glass cabinet where it belonged and as she turned the key to lock it, closed the mystery forever.
Well that wasn’t quite it, as mentioned at the head of the story, the internet is a wonderful tool. A reader contacted me to say that he’d found the race on-line, it took place on 26th August 1825 and is recorded in the wonderfully titled ‘Sporting Magazine: Or, Monthly Calendar of the Transactions of the Turf, the Chase and Every Other Diversion Interesting to the Man of Pleasure, Enterprize, and Spirit’ (Now who could resist subscribing to that were it published today?!) So the race happened and Grimace fell in one of the heats. Who was that punter? We still don’t know and as Jack (RIP) advised I think he should still be left be, but I just hope that, whoever he was, his surname wasn’t Nott!