Hunting in Sopwell

J.F. Sartorius – Coursing in Hatfield

In medieval times Sopwell was part of a wood called Eywood. As well as providing timber and fuel the woods were also used for hunting – at that time mainly deer. The Abbey monks and the nuns from Sopwell Priory would have hunted there. Also, Dame Juliana Berners, allegedly one of the Prioresses, wrote the Boke of St Albans all about hunting hawking and heraldry. The area between Cottonmill Lane and Holywell Hill would definitely have been used for hunting animals for food. Hunting of foxes and hares as a sport came a lot later. There is a reference in 1423 to the Duke of Gloucester spending Christmas as the guest of the Abbot where some of his servants poached the Abbots deer in Eywood and were duly punished by the Duke.

In Cottonmill Lane opposite the Nunnery ruins near the Cottonmill Allotments and where Old Sopwell Gardens is today, there used to be stables and kennels and many residents remember seeing the hunt leave from there.  They were the Aldenham Harriers Hunt. All the land stretching from the river right across to Prospect Road was called Sportsman’s Hall Field owned by the Verulam estate. Sportsman’s Hall refers to the place where the hunt goes after a day’s hunting. There is a reference to the term ‘Sportsman’s Hall’ in the following extract from Fox Hunting in the past which backs up this theory:
‘The jovial fox-hunters portrayed by Rowlandson belong to the rough and tumble days of the chase, when hardships in the pursuit by day, and hard drinking when the “brush” was brought to “Sportsman’s Hall”, were the order of the programme.’

Thanks to the Gorhambury archive we know that the Marchioness of Salisbury from Hatfield, who was known as a very keen sportswoman hunted on Sopwell lands as this correspondence in 1791 with Lord Verulam, master of the St Albans hunt, confirms: “As you have been so good as to allow me to hunt your covers and have preserved foxes for me, I must beg leave to acquaint you with what I dare say you do not know, that your harriers have lately made a practice of hunting fox, and are very assiduous in getting bag foxes ;they turned out one yesterday that was dug out at New Barnes, and have now two more. I have this information from Mr. Smith, of New House, and should be much obliged to you if you would put a stop to it. If you should find any difficulty in so doing, I can’t doubt that your mentioning the real fact, that you have promised to protect foxes for me, would effectually prevent their hunting anything but hare.”

Postscript: — “It is really very essential that you should interfere without loss of time, as digging foxes at this season would be annihilation of sport next year.” (The hounds used in hunting hares were called harriers whereas those hunting fox were foxhounds. Lord Verulam’s pack were harriers.)

This is Lord Verulam’s reply : “Independent of the practice of harriers hunting foxes being, I well know, high treason against the laws of sporting, the intimation of your wish on such a subject was perfectly sufficient to induce me to endeavour to put a stop to so unfair a procedure. I was extremely happy in receiving your letter before I left Gorhambury, as it gave me an immediate opportunity of personally hinting to the manager of the St. Albans hounds the impropriety of such a conduct. I have done so this morning, and they assure me they will leave the foxes to be handsomely killed by your ladyship’s hounds.”

The Marchioness could have hunted with the Duke of Wellington in Sopwell. She was 19 years older than him but he was close to both her and her daughter in law.

Below is a photograph of harriers exercising in Cottonmill Lane in the 1930s taken by Betty Terry.

John Buckingham’s father worked in the kennels in the 1920s  and rode with the hunt. John said that his father wasn’t a cruel man: “He would never see anything suffer. He used to go with the hunts because he used to ride horses and he used to have a favourite horse. When it got to a river, it would sit down. I always remember him telling me that…. I don’t remember him ever saying about huntsmen…They used to go out in their red togs. Somebody said that the hunt used to go over to Wall Hall…and if you think of it you can go right through the valley to it. It’s not so far and that’s the sort of day they would have [had] – the hounds and the hunt pack cutting through. They would have gone over Brown’s farm, following the river basically and they could have cut through…”

Gerry Dunham recalls a memory of the hunt when he was about 8 years old in 1942: “On a Sunday morning they came out [to the] sound of horn all dressed up lovely.  They were ever so smart with the dogs. They met down where the stables were and that’s where they started. They used to toddle off over the wasteland over the fields towards Park Street over farmland, Hedges Farm.”

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