History of The Devon & Somerset Staghounds

The very early days of hunting on the Forest, under the Normans and Plantagenets, are all but obscured by the mists of time. Archibald Hamilton in The Red Deer of Exmoor gives as full a picture of those times as we are likely ever to have, but still the picture is not a coherent one. Largely by virtue of old manuscripts and deeds it is known that Hugh Pollard, Elizabeth I’s Ranger, kept a pack of staghounds at Simonsbath. Later, through the Dykes and the Dyke Aclands one arrives at more recent times, and the establishment of the North Devon Staghounds in the Mastership of Colonel Basset of Watermouth. In 1784 the hounds returned to Acland hands, with the hounds kept at Highercombe. Although the pack did not yet bear the name The Devon and Somerset Staghounds, this era is the beginning of the involvement of a familiar band of local families, between whose hands the Mastership tended to pass. One such name, that of Hugh Fortescue, held the Mastership in 1812 for six seasons and left the first significant account of hunting entitled Records of the North Devon Staghounds 1812-1818. The name Fortescue went on to be closely connected with staghunting on the Forest for much of the rest of the hunt’s history though the death of the 5th Earl in 1957 has removed their name somewhat from staghunters lips in latter days.

In 1818, at the end of Hugh, 1st Earl Fortescue’s command, the staghounds passed briefly through a number of hands but the sport did not prosper. In 1812 it had been possible to ride from Dulverton to Porlock without seeing a fence, but as improvements began to get going on the Forest the sport lost it’s old attractions and the band of subscribers, mainly aristocrats not resident in the country, lost interest. At a meeting held in 1825 to discuss the future of the hunt, only three subscribers turned up. And so in 1825 when Stucely Lucas, the last Master to hold the old North Devon Staghounds, gave up the hounds, there was no one else in the country who wished to take them on, and the hunt died.

Between 1825 and 1855 a number of helpful men brought their hounds into the country, encouraged by a keen circle of Exmoor staghunters who protected fiercely the memory of their sporting traditions. But the men who came into the country – Chichester, Fellowes, Luxton, West, Theobald and Carew, were little more than caretakers, whose fleeting presence was not sufficient to protect the deer, and poaching went on largely unchecked throughout this time. By 1855 there were a little over 50 deer in the wider DSSH country and the mood amongst many had swung away from staghunting.

It was Mr Bisset who revived the deer and the sport, and who taught the farmers to look upon the DSSH as theirs by birthright. They in turn loved Bisset, fed the deer as they did their own beasts, and made the poacher an outcast in their communities. Under Bisset the staghounds, hunted first by Jack Babbage then Arthur Heal, went from strength to strength and on his departure in 1881 the DSSH was established on as firm a footing as it has ever been. The only problem that now faced the DSSH was the enormous abundance of deer – a problem that would have been a nice one to have had in the lacklustre days of the 1830s and 40s.

Mr Bisset agonised greatly about who might succeed him and eventually another Fortescue, Viscount Ebrington, took control of the country for six seasons. He was followed by Charles Basset (1887-1893), kinsman of Col Basset of Watermoth, Colonel Hornby (1893-95), late Field Master of the Queen’s Buckhounds and Robert Sanders (1895-1907), who put speed into the hounds and energy into the hunt, increasing its popularity and bringing golden times. During Mr Sanders’ time greater efforts than ever were made to bring the deer number into better balance with farming interests and he was influential in starting Sir John Amory’s Staghounds in 1896, to hunt the country to the south of the railway line, and The Quantock Staghounds in 1901, to hunt the Quantock country.

Mastership from Robert Sanders. He showed great sport, with Sidney Tucker hunting hounds and Ernest Bawden whipping in. From 1909 to 1911 Captain Adkins kept the Master’s seat warm for Major Morland Grieg, while the latter looked around for someone to take the Quarme Harriers off his hands. In 1911 Mr Pemberton-Barnes took on the Harriers and Major Grieg, the most popular of Masters, took over the DSSH until called away to service in the Great War. To the great regret of all, Major Grieg was killed during the war, along with a great many of the hunt’s followers, and at this point Mr Badco, a prosperous ship owner, took over and carried the hunt through the lean years of the Great War, sparing no expense from his own pocket.

The long span of the 1920s and 1930s will always be remembered as the golden age of Col Wiggin and Ernest Bawden, whose partnership caused the light of celebrity to shine on the hunt and produced, for the first time, an entirely home-bred pack of hounds.

Tommy Hancock took over briefly from Col Wiggin when the latter was finally stopped by infirmity. During WWII Biddy Abbot and Flo Hancock, Tommy’s wife, took over and carried the DSSH through the difficult war years with all the devotion one could ask for. The Chairman, Lord Fortescue declared in 1946 “Had it not been for Miss Abbot, the hunt would not have survived the war.”

The DSSH did not bounce back from the war years with quite the same vigour as it had from the Great War. Costs, time and bureaucracy all added greatly to the complexities of running the country and now joint Masterships became the norm. Only in the 1948-49 season did they return to hunting three days a week, with the help of Maurice Houlder, another rich ship owner, who now came into the Mastership with Biddy Abbot. In 1951 the huntsman Alfred Lenthall retired after 14 seasons, and Sidney Bazeley succeeded him, and that year Vi Lloyd and HP Hewett managed the country on behalf of the committee until 1953. Col Murphy and Norah Cox then took over and for the next decade ran things either singly or together, with Bill Lock hunting hounds for Col Murphy’s last two seasons. Bob Nancekivell and Nigel Hambro started their Mastership in 1963 with Walter Perry carrying the horn – a happy period during which Walter Perry showed great sport. Sydney Westcott joined Bob for three seasons in 1969.

Norah Harding (formerly Norah Cox) took control in 1974 and presided over a very happy era that lasted for thirteen seasons, with Dennis Boyles hunting hounds; Norah was helped in the Mastership during this period variously by Mike Robinson and Maurice Scott. In 1987 the great Scott reign began and they ran the show for the next twentysix years, with Donald Summergill hunting the hounds, and assisted in the Mastership during their long reign by a number of good people including Philip Hawkins, Mary Lycett Green, George Witheridge, Rupert Andrews and Francesca Bell. The Scotts gave up their record Mastership of 26/32 seasons in 2013 and since then Rupert Andrews has been joined in the Mastership by Loveday Miller and David Greenwood (2013-2020) and Steve Coats (2020-).