The Big Shots was commissioned over a dinner party in Knightsbridge in the autumn of 1976, when I met a young barrister called Jonathan Ruffer through mutual friends who had been at Cambridge with him. We got talking over dinner, and he seemed very knowledgeable about shooting in general and the great shots of the Edwardians era in particular, so I commissioned the book over the Port, which seems appropriate given its subject matter, and the rest, as they say, is history!
I had just purchased Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage, and this was the first book I published under the Debrett imprint. Jonathan and I worked very closely together on the book, and the Debrett imprint opened many doors for him as he travelled around the country visiting the great sporting estates, and looking at their archives, including the game books, some of which were beautifully illustrated, sometimes by the owner, some of whom showed considerable talent, like Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey.
In June 1977 we hosted a lavish Launch Party at the Turf Club in Carlton House Terrace, and as a result we generated a huge amount of publicity for the book. By Christmas that year it had become a mini ‘bestseller’, mainly as a result of consistent ‘gossip’ during the shooting season, or what would now be called ‘viral’ marketing, although the Shooting ‘grapevine’ proved every bit as effective as Facebook or the Internet, if a little slower!
In fact the slow but persistent publicity had a hugely beneficial effect on book sales, and by December that year, nearly every wife of a shooting man in Britain knew exactly what to buy him for Christmas; this was the gift for the man who had everything, and acquired an almost ‘cult’ status amongst the shooting fraternity, and was to be found in the houses of almost every keen shot in the country, including the Royal residences at Sandringham and Balmoral! Anyway, it continued to sell in good numbers for several years thereafter, and is still ‘in print’ 38 years after it was first published, which is the measure of a truly classic book.
I also published a beautiful leather-bound, strictly ‘Limited’ Edition in 1978, with a special foreword by HRH Prince Charles, with a percentage of the proceeds going to the Game Conservancy. This proved extremely popular and it sold out within days of being available to purchase.
The Big Shots also provided the basis for a fictional bestseller by Isabel Colegate, called ‘The Shooting Party’ which was made into a film in 1985 starring John Gielgud, James Mason, Edward Fox, Dorothy Tutin, Robert Hardy and Gordon Jackson. ‘The Shooting Party’ was the predecessor of films like ‘The Remains of the Day’ and ‘Gosford Park’, and was nominated for various awards (BAFTA etc).
So my little book spawned a whole cult movement based on the extravagance of the Edwardians, especially their shooting parties, which often extended into week-long events, with amateur dramatics put on by the hosts, involving the guests dressing up in the most elaborate costumes.
King Edward VII and the Prince of Wales (later George V) at Sandringham
However, such diversions did not detract Edward VII from the serious business of practicing loading with his personal loaders in the Library at Sandringham. He sometimes used three guns and two loaders just to make sure he could dispatch as many birds as quickly as possible, to add to the huge bags which were common in those days.
Manpower was cheap, and the guns were impatient so, it was not uncommon for several teams of beaters to be sent ahead to subsequent drives so that the guns could start shooting immediately they got on their pegs, and as a result all sorts of records were made during this era that have never been matched or exceeded since.
The 6th Lord Walsingham
They took their shooting very seriously. On August 28 1888, Tom de Grey, the 6th Lord Walsingham, claimed to have killed 1,070 grouse, shooting by himself, on Blubberhouses Moor, which was an ‘hourglass’ shaped moor. It is more likely that many of the birds claimed to have been shot, in fact died of exhaustion having been driven back and forth by two teams of beaters all day long!
Forty beaters were employed and 20 drives undertaken, as he shot from dawn till dusk, with four guns and two loaders. It’s often said that he undertook this feat because an invitation he had made to a VIP – reputed to be the Prince of Wales – had been turned down, because he thought that there were insufficient grouse on the moor to make the journey worthwhile.
It’s a great story, but, in fact, Walsingham had previously killed the remarkable total of 842 grouse (his brother records the total as being 843), on August 28 in the extraordinary record grouse year of 1872. On this occasion, he reputedly shot only 16 drives, and used four guns – two of which were breech-loaders, and two muzzle-loaders.
For years afterwards, doubt was cast upon this feat, and Walsingham decided to repeat the attempt in 1888.
Blubberhouses Moor is nine miles west of Harrogate, and, at the time, was remarkably productive, given its size. Only about 2,300 acres in total, the moor was split – by what is now the A59 – into a South Moor of 1,300 acres, and the North Moor of 1,000 acres. Both moors were narrow too, and because of the shape, they were never driven to more than three Guns – and, often two, or just Walsingham himself.
Driven shooting had begun in 1862, up till then the best annual bag recorded on the moor was 91 brace. By 1866, the total was 691 brace with Walsingham enjoying a solo day of 221 brace. In common with other moors in Yorkshire, there was a disastrous crash after the boom year of 1872, but in 1878 two Guns managed a day of 372½ brace.
It was in the mid-19th century that driven shooting was developed, and many of the great shooting estates followed the example of Maharajah of the Punjab, Prince Duleep Singh, who created England’s finest shoot at Elveden, near Thetford in Suffolk. All the great estates benefitted from the plentiful supply of cheap labour right up until the First World War, but the war changed everything for ever.
The Maharaja Duleep Singh of Lahore was awarded vast sums for the occupation of his territory by the British and found spending it on shooting admirable consolation. In 1863 he bought Elveden in Suffolk, where, with two loaders, he shot 846 partridges before lunch alongside brother Freddy on 23 September 1895. By the time he sold it to Lord Iveagh at the end of the century, the estate was rearing more than 20,000 pheasants a year – it still deserves its reputation.
Meanwhile, at Holkham, which marches with Sandringham, in North Norfolk, Lord Leicester’s great-grandfather was trying to match Elveden.
At one shoot at Holkham, the old Lord and his seven guests spent the entire morning walking through woodland, pushing the birds into an outlying clump, not firing a shot. After lunch came the first and only drive of the day. The guns lined up three deep and a keeper slowly flushed out the birds. The bag for the day – that drive, in other words – was more than 500 brace, including 760 pheasants.
Holkham, which for years has been renowned for its wild partridge shoots, is still owned by the current Lord Leicester and looked after by eight bowler-hated keepers. It remains the greatest all-wild bird (not reared) shoot in the country, a phenomena which I shall be discussing in a forthcoming article called ‘Ducal Greys’ about some of the most successful ‘wild bird’ shoots.
There is much debate about who was the ‘biggest shot’, the greatest gun of this era, and the list of candidates includes:- HRH Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII; The Earl of Leicester; Lord Walsingham; Lord Ripon; Lord Ashburton; Sir Ralph Payne-Galwey; The Earl of Caernarvon; Prince Duleep Singh; Sir Harry Stonor.
I am not sure if all the above ever shot together as a team, but had they done so, it would have been the ‘dream team’ of the Edwardian era.
Victor Duleep Singh shooting with Lord Carnarvon at Highclere
Lord Carnarvon hosted a record three-day bag at Highclere in November 1895, taking a staggering 10,807 head of game with five other Victorian heavy hitters, including the Duleep Singh brothers.
Lord Ripon was a fast, accurate shot, who was noted to down 28 pheasants in sixty seconds as a shooting party guest on the Sandringham House Estate. He also holds the record of the greatest recorded lifetime bag of birds shot – 556,000, including 241,000 pheasants. He died aged 71, having collapsed on Dallowgill Moor near Studley Royal Park, after shooting 52 birds that morning, and was buried at St. Mary’s, Studley Royal.
Sir Harry Stonor was a member of the exclusive Sandringham Set, and shot extensively with the finest game shots of his day, notably King Edward VII, King George V, the Earl of Leicester, Lord Ripon and Lord Walsingham.
He was the Grandson of the 3rd Lord Camoys and spent much of his youth at Sandringham where he developed his capacity for shooting. He became Gentleman Usher to Queen Victoria in 1883, a position he continued to hold under King Edward VII and King George V. He was deputy master of the King’s Household from 1918 until his retirement.
He was placed fourth in the 1903 Bailey’s Magazine list of the twelve best shots in Great Britain, a list headed by The King, and Lords Ripon and Walsingham.
Lord Ashburton astonished the shooting world in October 1887 by killing 4,109 wild partridges (with six other guns) over four days at The Grange, near Alresford, in Hampshire. In contrast, remarkably on one day a particularly luckless gun shot only five! Similar achievements since, include the late Joe Nickerson’s team at Sandringham who shot 2119 partridge in a day in 1952.
Sandringham – An Invitationn here was particularly valued, because it was the home where Edward VII entertained his friends
Anyway, as a result of writing The Big Shots, Jonathan Ruffer eventually became one. He went from being a barrister when I first met him, to being a trainee merchant banker with Schroeder’s. By the time the book was published he was shooting as his employer’s guest on their estate on Islay with assorted ‘Royals’ and was living a life akin to the Edwardian Era of which he had written where he was invited to shoot at the best places and with the best people.
There was a plethora of large shoots in East Anglia, each of whose owners competed for the sport it could offer Edward VII. These included the Earl of Leicester at Holkham, Lord Walsingham at, Prince Duleep Singh at Elveden etc.
However, Edward VII travelled much further afield for his shooting, and the House Parties which were arranged around his shooting circuit became ever more ambitious and elaborate, with fancy dress parties and amateur dramatics on a large scale.
Anyway, the Author, Jonathan Ruffer, as a result of some enviable shooting invitations, cleverly managed to parlay his new found fame and fortune, into the beginnings of a highly successful career as an Investment manager. He was rated the 257th richest man in Britain, in the Sunday Times Rich List for 2014, with £380 million, up £60million from the previous year, which makes him richer than the Queen. So, I can genuinely claim to have launched his career on the strength of the numerous shooting invitations which he received as the Author of The Big Shots.
The Kaiser at Windsor, 1907. The Kaiserin preferred to show her profile and behaved accordingly!
The Big Shots documented the excesses of the Edwardian shooting party, and the way in which competing for the patronage of Edward VII cost several families their houses and their estates as they bankrupted themselves in the quest to have the biggest and best shoots with the largest ‘bags’ and the best house parties and entertainment.
The Big Shots were a curious phenomenon which dominated the winter months of English Society for almost 40 years, but left no visible trace except for all the tree planting done specifically for shooting on so many of the great estates.
Those who took part in this slaughter on such a massive scale felt guilty about it in later years. The Duke of Portland said: ‘When I look back at the Game Book I am quite ashamed of the enormous numbers of pheasants we sometimes killed. This is a form of shooting I have no desire to repeat.’
Fortunately, in recent years there have been some very successful projects to reintroduce, and encourage the Grey, or English Partridge, most notably at Holkham, which has always been in the vanguard of sustainable shooting, and their success has been repeated elsewhere especially at Arundel and Alnwick where parts of the estates acres were set aside for these Partridge projects which have proved a great success.
In years to come, I think there will be many challenges which the shooting man will have to face, and a more sustainable way of enjoying driven game shooting will be required, so these initiatives will become the models to follow.
Robert Jarman, Editor and Founder of The Vintage Magazine