The Grand National Anomaly, 1836-1838
The Grand National is coming up soon – living in Liverpool as I do, this is a big deal in the city, although I’ve never been myself.
I was reading up about the history of the event and the provenance of one of the most infamous jumps of the race – Becher’s Brook. It was named after Captain Martin Becher, who won the first Steeplechase at Aintree in 1836, on a horse called The Duke. However, this race and the following two are now disregarded as part of the history of the Grand National proper. The first “real” Grand National was officially in 1839, although it was then called The Grand Liverpool Steeplechase. Becher also entered the 1839 race, riding on Conrad, and fell at the first brook. He survived by lying in the brook until all the horses had passed and later remarked how the experience had made him realise that “water tastes disgusting without the benefits of whisky.”
Becher sounded like quite a character – his party trick consisted of leaping onto a mantelpiece from a standing jump. Now that I’d have liked to see. Maybe he would have done better on the Brook without the horse?
We all know the Grand National is held at Aintree, which is charmingly described below as “…in the winter season not fit for the dwelling-place of a snipe possessing a sense of what is due to snipe-hood.”
But was it always at Aintree? This question throws up a surprising amount of confusion which I am going to try to unravel.
This little article from The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser explains how the first three races didn’t count, although it doesn’t explain why. Here’s the first confused facts you’ll see in this post – the 1839 race was actually on 26th February, not 24th:
The first Steeplechase was in 1836, and held annually every year after that, and apparently all of them were called The Grand Liverpool Steeplechase until 1847. At that point, the name was changed to The Grand National Handicap Steeplechase, which is still its official title today. According to those who know, the 1836, 1837 and 1838 races originally counted as official races, but their status as official Grand Nationals was revoked at some point between 1862 and 1873. The official Grand National site states that this is because the race was originally run at the Maghull racecourse and moved to Aintree in 1839 – hence being essentially the same race from that point on, run on the same ground. But where the races were actually run from 1836 to 1838 are the subject of some dispute – Wikipedia says:
“There is much debate regarding the first official Grand National; most leading published historians, including John Pinfold, now prefer the idea that the first running was in 1836 and was won by The Duke. This same horse won again in 1837, while Sir William was the winner in 1838. These races have long been disregarded because of the belief that they took place at Maghull and not Aintree. However, some historians have unearthed evidence in recent years that suggest those three races were run over the same course at Aintree and were regarded as having been Grand Nationals up until the mid-1860s. To date, though, calls for the Nationals of 1836–1838 to be restored to the record books have been unsuccessful.”
The “some historians” include Mike Mutlow, whose site is possibly the definitive one on the subject – here. It seems to be now agreed that the 1836 race was at Aintree, but Mike says that 1837 and 1838 must have also been there, as the Maghull course closed in 1835. Which ties in with this note I found in The Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent from the start of 1835:
“Why would so many mistakes creep into the records of the world’s greatest steeplechase? Basically because steeplechasing was not really recognised until the late 1860s, after the National Hunt Committee was formed in 1866. The records of the Grand National were then officially compiled, but from memory only, some thirty years after the event, which is when the mistakes first crept in. These errors were then duplicated….T.H.Bird’s book (One Hundred Grand Nationals) attempts to sidestep the issue by suggesting that the 1837 and 1838 races were run over a course that stretched from Aintree to Maghull, but this is geographically impossible.”
OK, my British Newspaper Archive finger is all atwitch. Let me add my findings to the debate. Looking at the newspapers, The Grand National was a sensation right from the start, and massively popular.
Firstly – it seems to be agreed now that it was in Aintree in 1836, and so it states in the Westmorland Gazette and Kendal Advertiser:
But it’s still written in various places, including in in the official annals, that the 1837 and 1838 races were at Maghull. Well, not according to the Leeds Intelligencer in 1837:
Or the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, which also agrees it was at Aintree:
The Preston Chronicle says it was run on the Aintree course in 1838:
The London Morning Post agrees and gives details about what the actual course was like, even stating “The line of country chosen was the same as that run over on former occasions of a similar nature at Aintree.”
The information I’ve read says that date and place confusion arose in the 1860s when histories of the event were written for the first time, from memory, and that the previously accepted races of 1836-38 were discounted at this point because of a belief that they had been run at Maghull racetrack. But discrepancies and disagreements arose earlier than that. Most of what I could see seems to class the 1839 race as the first one almost as soon as it had been run. But not because the previously ones had been run at Maghull – there is no mention of any of them being run anywhere but Aintree. It seems to me it was for a different reason.
Here’s Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper mentioning the 5th anniversary in 1843 – making the first one 1839, and ignoring the first three.
And so also says The Coventry Standard. Perhaps it was promoted as the 5th anniversary specifically by the organisers of the time as there were numerous newspapers describing it as such.
But just to confuse things further, here’s an article about the 17th anniversary in 1853, making the first one 1837:
HOWEVER, in 1842 reporting was fairly widespread stating it was the 4th anniversary of the race since it gained the distinction of being called “national”, although the details in the different newspapers seem to come from the same report. So in 1839, the designation of “national” was bestowed for the first time, hence it being officially a “different race”:
And indeed, the name may have officially changed to “Grand National” in 1847, but it’s called “national” for the first time in 1839, at least in some newspapers:
And in 1840, and beyond:
So, if its title and designation changed in 1839, it is justifiable that the races before that were not part of the history of the “Grand National”. But there is no reference that I can see in contemporary accounts to the 1837 and 1838 races being run at Maghull at all, and indeed the racetrack seems to have closed in 1835. It wasn’t in the 1860s that the history of the event changed, as far as I can see – it was right from the start.
But why was Maghull raised as a possibility at all? Here’s a couple of clues. In 1937 The Grand National, rather controversially, designated that year the centenary. Obviously at some later point, it officially changed its mind about that date and reverted to 1839. Why 1837? Because the 1837 race was the first one written on an old raceboard hanging in the stands at Aintree (1836 somehow fell through the gaps). It also said the race was at Maghull, which is possibly where all the confusion first arose. I suspect this scoreboard wasn’t written at the actual time of the race, otherwise why do all the newspaper accounts mention Aintree instead?
And then this became a local urban legend, propagated by local farmers. Although in this case, perhaps it could be better called a “rural legend”. There was still dispute over this – many different farmers claimed the race was run over their fields, basically graffiti-ing “The Grand National woz ‘ere” over their walls:
Confusion reigns at the end of the day, but in matters of detail I tend to trust the contemporary accounts. Aintree was a newer course, and so I don’t think it would have just been assumed that the steeplechase would have been held there. Admittedly, the fact the two villages were not far from each other could have caused some kind of geographical confusion in the newspaper reports. But despite that, none I saw mentioned Maghull at all. That course had already closed down.
But despite the lack of “national” status (however that was bestowed), I feel the first three should count, they certainly are reported as being run over the same course after all. Give Captain Becher his due as the first Grand National winner! There’s such a poignant line from his obituary in The Lancashire Gazette – at his last public appearances “he was in his usual spirits but it was clear he had almost run his race.”
Finally, there’s nothing new under the sun and all that. Here’s a complaint about the race’s cruelty, way back at the time of the first official race, in 1839: