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Three centuries of South Tetcott hunts recorded in book that's a labour of love

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 18, 2013

  • An early colour photograph of legendary Westcountry huntsman Phil Back (1858-1942) at a meet in the 1930s. The image is used on the front cover of the book

  • Portraits of (from left) Phil Back, Maurice Thomas and John Arscott

  • From top: Edwardian elegance; Phil Back counting hounds through farm gate; Paul Martin MFH Left: Black John of Tetcott, with the house in the background. He was Squire John Arscott's jester, employed to entertain visitors to his house, and reputedly slept with the hounds or at his master's feet. Right: The house today with the Hunt gathering in the yard

  • Author Maurice Thomas

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Anyone who hunts, shoots or tries to catch fish will tell you that the stories are almost as important as taking part in the activity itself.

And of all the country pursuits, from grouse shooting to gardening, none can have had more words written about it and more drawings, paintings and photographs made, than hunting.

No one who has ever engaged in the hunting debate – whether from a pro or anti standpoint – can be in any doubt about the passion with which hunters follow their sport.

And that passion has extended, down the years, to chronicling virtually every covert drawn, every creature pursued, every success, every failure, every tragedy and every triumph.

It means that when a former Joint Master and keen hunting man for 40 years sits down to write and illustrate the history of just one relatively small hunt in the Westcountry, he can knock out 400 pages of a large format book and still have material left over.

Maurice Thomas, Joint Master of the South Tetcott from 1989 to 2000, has recently completed his massive tome, which was launched earlier this month by local MP Geoffrey Cox.

It is a testament to the care with which the South Tetcott has documented its activities down the years, since Squire John Arscott began hunting the country that straddles the Devon-Cornwall border, in the 1700s.

It also reveals that over 300 years, right up to the present day in the wake of the ban, hunting has been an integral part of country life in this remote and far flung corner of the Westcountry.

The story begins around 1740 when Squire John Arscott owned the pack of hounds and all the land over which it hunted, extending from Hatherleigh in Devon to Pencarrow, near Bodmin in Cornwall.

Author Maurice Thomas reflects on those days in his introduction. "It must have been a wonderful time for the Squire and his friends," he writes. "Go where you like, no barbed wire, no motor cars, no railways..."

You can still see a plaque to the memory of Squire Arscott in the parish church at Tetcott, not far from where hounds have been kennelled for the best part of three centuries.

Early huntsmen took their lives in their hands tending to hounds it seems, which were not the gentle, people-friendly creatures we know today. Maurice describes how huntsman Dick Down, in charge of a pack of staghounds then kept at Tetcott leapt from his bed early one morning to break up a dogfight. He never made it back to bed.

"A search was made and nothing was found but a skeleton in the kennel, well picked and denuded of every particle of flesh and the hounds looking on, satisfied and full..."

Squire Arscott, or Bold Squire Arscott as he was apparently known, hunted stags, foxes, otters, badgers and hares. But he had a soft spot for animals too, reportedly keeping a tame toad called Dawtry by his front door, which would come and be fed when called, and a spider in his church pew, which he also fed during sermons.

He also kept a jester, Black John, whose job it was to entertain the Squire's guests. He reputedly slept with the hounds or curled up at his master's feet. Bold Squire Arscott's rein ended on January 14 1788 with his death. The hunt, in various forms, went on, however.

John Russell, later ordained as Parson 'Jack' Russell, kennelled his own pack of foxhounds at Tetcott for a while and hunted a considerable portion of country now acknowledged as the South Tetcott.

He was among the most famous hunting parsons in the country at the time, when skilled huntsman had almost celebrity status. His enthusiasm for the sport lasted well into old age. When he had a house guest who complained it was raining too hard to go out hunting, Jack Russell apparently told him: "Young man, you have a long life before you, but I am 75 years of age and I cannot afford to lose a single day's hunting. Get ready as quick as possible for we must be off in ten minutes."

Parson Jack's successor was Tom Phillips who ran a pack called the Landue Hounds. On one well-documented run, celebrated in a drawing, a pursued fox and many from the following pack plunged 40ft into an abandoned mineshaft on Bodmin Moor. A miner was sent down on a rope and rescued first the fox and then each of the hounds. "It was a ticklish mission" Maurice Thomas records, but ultimately successful.

In its next incarnation the South Tetcott took to otter hunting the streams of its country in summer, reverting to the fox in winter. It also became famous for breeding top quality hounds and around the turn of the 19th century, Mr Scott Browne took over as Master. His hound, Ranter, won best dog in show at the West of England Hound Show in 1910. Both Ranter and another of Scott Browne's hounds, Harebell, were depicted in the book, Foxhounds of the Twentieth Century by the artist Cuthbert Bradley.

Scott Browne described his hounds thus: "My dog hounds are active with no great lumber, averaging twenty-three-and-a-half inches, their shoulders are good, bone fairly well down, for they are not massive. The bitches are stuffy and big, colouring black, tan and white..."

In the 20th century the records of successive Hunt Masters are extensive and author Maurice celebrates them and the prominent hunt supporters, including names, like Kivell and Calmady-Hamlyn which are still known in the district today.

A celebrated huntsman, Phil Back, is credited with using his diplomacy to keep landowners and supporters on side during difficult years for the hunt. In his final season as huntsman he "hunted 44 days, killed sixteen brace, marked seven brace to ground with no blank days recorded." In May 1932 his prowess was rewarded; he retired from the post of huntsman and was appointed field master. "From that point on," Maurice Thomas records, "the hunt went from strength to strength".

During World War II staffing at the hunt kennels was dramatically cut while Harry Back, Phil's son, continued as huntsman with the support of his father

In 1958 the hunt structure was re-organised under a new committee and there followed eight successful years under Masters Mrs Colin James and Mr HF Craig-Harvey. Support dwindled during the mastership of Mr Derek Crossman, Maurice Thomas reports. "Mr Crossman was an excellent huntsman but rather a law unto himself when hunting hounds," he writes. "Due to his manner much of the local support waned and it was subsequently left to his successor to re-establish harmony in the country."

That successor was Richard England, who took over in 1971. He had already founded the Bolventor Harriers, later amalgamated into the East Cornwall, and went on to hunt the Clifton-on-Teme, the Tetcott and the South Tetcott until his retirement as joint master of the South Tetcott in 1982.

In the late 1980s, Dennis Downing was appointed professional huntsman and during his time in the position Norman Axford, who began his hunting in 1919 received a silver salver in 1990 to mark 70 years in the saddle.

Maurice Thomas was master of the South Tetcott for ten years and describes one full hunting season, his first, in detail. His diary contains many descriptions of individual hunts, commenting on the weather, characters, countryside and all-important fund raising events, including shows and point-to-point meetings.

The winter of 1990-91 was a cold one with hail, hard frosts and snow. Some meets were delayed or even cancelled but there was success as well, with a number of foxes accounted for. In one incident, however, Maurice records the fox that got away, having gone to ground. "The terriermen set about their duties in an orderly fashion, sealing up the exits in the hope of preventing the fox from bolting," he writes. "Unfortunately in their enthusiasm someone who will remain anonymous removed a spade that was blocking one of the holes. Out popped a fox, followed by the hunted one, both of which escaped unscathed..."

This book illustrated with hundreds of archive photographs, and drawings and hundreds more from more recent years, will be treasured by members of the South Tetcott, past and present. It is also a fascinating look at the way the countryside and country people are so bound up in hunting, even today when – in spite of the ban – many hunts have more members that ever and most are thriving.

Copies of the book can be ordered from Mr Thomas at £39.95 each, plus £6 p&p from Burdon Cottage, Burdon Lane, Highampton, Beaworthy, Devon EX21 5LX

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2 comments

  • harveypaulger  |  December 04 2013, 11:09AM

    Oh dear........insulting comments from an anti hunter. Nothing new then. Unfortunately, such remarks devalue the anti hunting argument and simply make it unworthy of consideration. Hunting is certainly a contentious and complex issue, worthy of well information discussion. I would like to find an anti I can have a reasoned conversation with about it. I to, 'live in hope'.

    |   1
  • daviesm0001  |  November 22 2013, 12:10AM

    Will you please stop calling this sport. Sport is where each party has an equal chance and wants to participate. This is just embarrassing historical cruelty. I know evolution takes a while and some are evolving faster than others but I live in hope.

    |   -1
  • daviesm0001  |  November 22 2013, 12:09AM

    Will you please stop calling this sport. Sport is where each party has an equal chance and wants to participate. This is just embarrassing historical cruelty. I know evolution takes a while and some are evolving faster than others but I live in hope.

    |   -1
  • daviesm0001  |  November 22 2013, 12:05AM

    Will you please stop calling this sport. Sport is where each party has an equal chance and wants to participate. This is just embarrassing historical cruelty. I know evolution takes a while and some are evolving faster than others but I live in hope.

    |   -1
  • daviesm0001  |  November 22 2013, 12:04AM

    Will you please stop calling this sport. Sport is where each party has an equal chance and wants to participate. This is just embarrassing historical cruelty. I know evolution takes a while and some are evolving faster than others but I live in hope.

    |   -1
  • daviesm0001  |  November 22 2013, 12:02AM

    Will you please stop calling this sport. Sport is where each party has an equal chance and wants to participate. This is just embarrassing historical cruelty. I know evolution takes a while and some are evolving faster than others but I live in hope.

    |   -1

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