Hugo Meynell’s is the father of modern fox hunting: his dedication to the sport shaped the hounds we still see in the field today, and his influence arguably remains unparalleled
Dig into the history of hunting and one of the names most commonly unearthed is that of Hugo Meynell, widely regarded as the father of modern foxhunting. Deciphering the tale of his influence on the sport has not been dissimilar to what he so carefully bred his hounds for: seeking out the correct focus, checking to ensure confusion doesn’t spoil the pursuit and, at the end of it all, tracing back through events to marvel at the outcome of the hunt. Before delving into the details of how Meynell changed hunting, there’s a family tree full of parallels to unravel.
Thought to be born in June 1735, Meynell inherited his father’s estates in Derbyshire and Staffordshire aged 16. A couple of years later, Meynell moved to Quorndon (otherwise known as Quorn) Hall in Leicestershire. Then, he wed Ann Gell in June 1754 and their son Godfrey was born the following year. However, Ann died soon after and Meynell then married again, another Ann in June 1758. The second Ann was the daughter of Thomas Boothby, Meynell’s predecessor as Master of the Quorn. They had two sons, named (you’ve guessed it) Hugo and Charles. Towards the end of his tenure as Master, Meynell handed over the management of kennels and stables to Hugo, but in 1800 Hugo died and Quorn Hall and the hounds were sold.
Sniffing out the correct Meynell
Meynell died on 14 December 1808. Nevertheless, the hunting link remained through Meynell’s grandson, Hugo Charles Meynell Ingram (stay with me). As a boy he followed hounds after hare and was allowed to keep a pack of his own, consisting of small hounds drafted from the Quorn kennels on the Meynell estate near Hoar Cross. He hunted the Hoar Cross country, which he later gave his name to, becoming the Meynell Hunt, in 1816. As he aged he was troubled by sciatica, so in 1850 his son (no points for this guess) Hugo Francis Meynell Ingram officiated as Field Master. When Hugo Charles died in 1869, Hugo Francis succeeded him but died two years later as a result of a hunting accident in May 1871.
The links didn’t stop there. The Meynell hounds were direct descendants from the pack Meynell had hunted Quorn country with and the huntsmen, the Leedhams, had been from generations of the same family for more than 100 years. Now that the Who’s Who of Hugos is clearer, we can focus on the ‘original’ Meynell and his influence. While all forms of hunting have had to adapt due to the Hunting Act, the emphasis on hound work has remained the same over the centuries. The capacity for a hound to pick up a scent, speak on it and follow it convincingly among various and changing conditions is what those who breed them look for.
Sound behaviour in a hound
Meynell was a perfectionist when it came to educating hounds. He studied the breeding and management of hounds as a science. The Field archives quote the Leicester Journal, which proclaimed Meynell as “doubtless the most successful sportsman of his time, producing the steadiest, wisest, best and handsome [sic] pack of foxhounds in the kingdom”. Meynell was particular about behaviour. He would take young hounds and try them out on hare, then draft any he was displeased with. After that he walked them among riot, again drafting any that showed signs of distraction. In the early autumn he took them into fox-abundant woodland to familiarise them, and by November the pack would be divided into those above three years old and those below, unless a youngster was deemed worthy of promotion. Conformation had to be perfect, too.
“His object in breeding hounds was to combine strength with beauty, and steadiness with high mettle,” the Journal states. Meynell perceived a short back, open bosom, straight legs and compact feet to be the optimum shape for a hound. Knowing that no hound could go faster than its nose, he moved away from breeding purely for scenting abilities and progressed the speed from the slower southern hound to a fleeter northern one. With this, he changed the concept from a steady exercise in vermin control to an exhilarating extended chase.
Upping the pace
A change in the style of country that Meynell hunted accommodated this increase in speed. In Meynell’s early days, Leicestershire was virtually unfenced and he could select country ranging from the long strip of rolling, open land stretching between Nottingham and Market Harborough. Enclosures were gradually introduced by planting double rows of whitethorn seedlings protected by a rail and with a shallow ditch. As the seedlings grew, they became bullfinches for jumping through rather than over. Then in time, when cut and laid, the hedges still kept stock in but provided thrilling obstacles for riders to jump. Coverts of varying size but no bigger than 20 acres were formed to provide more places for foxes.
That Meynell secured an exclusive right to hunt all of this country is what sets him apart. Although squabbles over boundaries were commonplace in those times, he had the knack of courteously establishing a prerogative over land not granted to anyone else. Most hunts were beholden to the prestige of a wealthy local landowner but Meynell could play the London fashion card. In return for access over country and a promise to preserve foxes for the Hunt, he could offer invitations to London society and hospitality at his home, Quorndon Hall, which he took as a hunting seat and the Hunt became named after. While it wasn’t huge or particularly magnificent, the Hall was considered picturesque with its neat style.
Showing good sport and good taste
When Meynell made Quorndon his headquarters and showed good sport from there to people of distinction, such as the Duke of York and the Duchess of Devonshire, house prices shot up and soon properties were filled with notable families. He made it attractive to men of wealth who had the wherewithal to travel and participate. He accommodated many of his hunting friends in his house in the manner of a club, providing food and apartment-style living for the duration of their stay. Many more rented houses nearby for the season or stayed in local inns. Swathes of followers came from London and went out hunting with as much ceremony as they would to court, with their hair dressed. Indeed, for the opening Meet of the 1791 season, around 300 visitors attended, including duchesses, marquesses and earls.
As a result, Meynell’s influence took hunting in the Shires out of a provincial context. But, despite such a distinguished following, Meynell never neglected prioritising the contentment of the farmers and landowners. To have hunted a big country four days a week for nigh on 50 years is testament alone, but it is supported by an anecdote from one Meet where Meynell, recognising a horse but not the lad mounted, delayed moving off for 20 minutes, knowing that the owner of the horse was a farmer at the Leicester fair doing business before coming hunting. As a commentator at the time observed, such accommodation for those who granted permission to hunt over land was “the way to preserve a country”.
The perfect gentleman
In contrast, he would only allow a duke 10 minutes’ grace. He showed the same diplomacy when dealing with interfering followers. When two members of the field were riding in front of hounds, he commented “The hounds were following the gentlemen who had kindly gone forward to see what the fox was about.” And when some rambunctious riders tried to justify their interference in the hunt, Meynell retorted “You may be perfectly right, gentlemen, and I may be wrong, but there is gross ignorance on one side or the other.” Meynell was a man admired for his style, too. The frontispiece of the original pamphlet containing Robert Lowth’s poem Billesdon Coplow, based on the run in Meynell’s last year of mastership, bears the image of a figure in full hunting kit. It’s probable this is of Meynell, drawn from the artist’s recollection of him or from sketches made before his death. He wears a long-tailed, single-breasted coat with rolled lapels, a white collar and blue necktie, a yellow waistcoat, yellow gloves and a tall hat conventional of the period.
On one occasion his hunt attire caused an amusing slip of the tongue. He stayed out hunting so late that he arrived at a formal old lady’s for dinner without getting changed. The host, taken aback and meaning to say something civil, remarked, “Oh Sir, I assure you I can see the gentleman through a pair of buckskin breeches as well as if he were in silk and satin.” Later in his dotage Meynell may not have cut such a splendid figure, but age didn’t dull his senses. The sporting writer of the time, Nimrod, described him: “He sat a little on one side of his horse, owing to his being lame, and stooped a good deal in his shoulders.
“In this same year, I saw a remarkable instance of the correctness of his ear. The hounds were drawing a covert when one hound threw his tongue once. The field prepared for a start but nothing more was heard and the covert proved blank. Lord Sefton then rode up to Mr Meynell and asked him what hound had spoken in the covert. ‘It was Concord,’ said he. ‘Not Concord,’ replied Lord Sefton. ‘He was at my horse’s heels at the time.’ Presently John Raven, the huntsman, came past the bank on which Mr Meynell and Lord Sefton stood when the question was put to him by the latter. ‘What hound challenged in the covert?’ ‘It was Concord, my Lord,’ was the answer.”
Descendants of this man and his hounds still grace the hunting field today in the form of the Meynell & South Staffordshire hunt. At the bicentenary in 2016 there were both Meynells and Leedhams present, and this season a Meynell relation followed hounds on Ladies’ Day. Sadly, the kennels have been put up for sale, but while they may be falling silent at the end of this season, the influence of the man whose descendant gave his name to the hunt continues to reverberate through packs around the country. Many of them owe their existence to his improvements to hound standards and thrive to this day because of his dedication to the sport.