One Morning in 1911, when Edwardian England waited in breathless suspense to discover how the House of Lords had voted on the Liberal budget, Lord Ripon came down to breakfast at Southleigh and demanded: ‘What are the numbers?’ Lord Knutsford replied: ‘Two thousand six hundred and fourteen partridges.’
For once, Knutsford had answered the wrong question. But it was unjust of Ripon to be cross, since there was precious little evidence from the rest of his life to suggest that he possessed anything like as much interest in affairs of state as he did in the massed slaughter of wildlife. Even those of us who are today fond of shooting reel at the insane excess of the Edwardian sportsmen.
What can one say of Lord Ripon, that peerless marksman, who instead of an annual Christmas card sent his friends a note of his personal bag for the season, who at the end of his lie had killed 556,813 birds and beasts? Probably the most extravagant present-day British sportsman, the Lincolnshire seed merchant Sir Joseph Nickerson who declares that he shoots a hundred days a year, in his newly published memoirs admits to a mere quarter of a million corpses.
Ruffer’s book, which is now reissued in a new edition, achieved something like cult status in sporting circles when it first appeared more than a decade ago. It chronicles the activities of the ‘big shots’ during the mercifully brief period between the perfecting of the modern shotgun and the beginning of the First World War, when English society cherished an obsession with killing the greatest possible quantities of game – chiefly reared pheasants – at a single standing, so to speak.
It was a form of exhibitionism, encouraged and keenly shared in by Edward VII and George V. Lord Walsingham, who matched Ripon as one of the finest shots of his day, bankrupted his estates to support his sport and entertain his monarch. The Maharajah Duleep Singh did likewise. Walsingham once killed 1,070 grouse to his own gun in a single day, having the wretched birds driven hither and thither over his head by two teams of beaters. The uncharitable claimed afterwards that some of his supposed score was made up of birds that merely collapsed exhausted.
Ruffer’s book, in which the text is mingled with splendid and wittily captioned period photographs, has now achieved the ultimate accolade of a foreword from the Prince of Wales. The jacket cheekily highlights Prince Charles’s endorsement ‘splendid’, alongside the Guardian’s ‘disgraceful’, and Harpers & Queen’s ‘jolly spiffing’. The new edition will no doubt join the old as the favourite bedside reading of the country sloane, despite the intrusion of a tasteless colour photograph of Edward Fox in that dreadful film The Shooting Party.
The anecdotes are irresistible. The Duke of Devonshire of the day once raised his gun to finish off a wounded pheasant, and found himself dispatching a pursuing labrador, wounding its handler and winging the Chatsworth chef. The Duke was greatly disturbed by the incident, fearing that it might render the chef incapable of doing his duty at dinner.
An Edwardian ‘big shot’, writes Ruffer, ‘combined the opportunities of a Vimy Ridge machine-gunner with an infinitely better lunch’. To recall those days now makes many of us laugh, but also shudder. It was a deplorable period, whose excess had nothing to do with sport and everything to do with Edwardian vulgarity at its worst. It is pertinent to notice that, when Ruffer’s book first appeared, it seemed generally accepted that the era of the big shots was vanished and unregretted.
Yet today, amid the new riches of the Thatcherite era, there is a resurgence of enthusiasm for huge bags and meaningless slaughter in the shooting field. The greed of these £15 a bird men is the biggest threat to field sports in Britain today, and one of the nastiest byproducts of the Eighties.