When is a week not a week?

In modern times, only a small minority of those closely involved in racing are able to devote more than one day to Royal Ascot week. In the Georgian era, however, Ascot truly became a social extravaganza and Ascot “week” was extended to before and after the meeting.

At the very least, people stayed for all four days of the festival and more and larger entertainments were laid on for them. “Public” breakfasts (only really open to the nobility and gentry) were organised in the surrounding towns such as Sunninghill and Windsor, and there were balls laid on every night of Royal Ascot.

This tradition lasted well into the 20th century, with Royal Ascot still the zenith of the social season. The authors of a history of Ascot written in 1902 report that “Ascot, Bracknell and Sunninghill still keep carnival during Ascot week.”  The book gives us a flavour of the enviable life of leisure enjoyed by the Edwardian privileged classes with this advice:

“To thoroughly enjoy Ascot, there is no better way than to rent one of the numerous mansions in the vicinity, and so great is the demand for houses for the race week, that the majority of habitable properties are secured months in advance.

“Ascot week is an elastic term and may include anything between the four days racing and a week previous or later. After the attractions of the races themselves, garden fêtes and dinner parties claim the long evenings…”

A tented village takes shape

In the 21st century, the term “racecourse” tends to refer not just to the track, but also to the many buildings and stands surrounding it. In the late 18th century there were no permanent stands or buildings at all, so large booths or tents were put up – some with galleries. Most were erected by private speculators who each donated 2 guineas to the prize fund (or 1 guinea for drinking and gambling tents). Workmen would start erecting the tents a fortnight before, and by the time the week of racing started there were about 200 canvas booths, 30 or 40 of which had two storeys and a viewing gallery.

Violent side shows for the Ascot crowds

The only sport you would expect to see at Royal Ascot in 2011 is racing, but boxing and wrestling were popular additional attractions in the 18th century, and surprisingly violent considering the gentility of the Ascot crowds. On the last day of the races in 1777, a boxing match was held on the course, for the huge prize of 500 guineas. Mr Woods the weaver beat Mr Selway, a sawyer, who unfortunately lost an eye in what was a very bloody and violent contest.

And in 1820 a fight was held after the races in front of the betting stand, lasting a gruelling 47 minutes and 30 rounds. A Mr Gardner was the winner, but apparently “both combatants were severely punished.”

Queen Victoria has a smashing day at the races

It is almost impossible to imagine Royal Ascot without The Queen. But for almost 40 years after the death of Prince Albert, the mourning Queen Victoria could not bring herself to attend the races she had once so passionately enjoyed, out of deference to the fact that her beloved Albert had not enjoyed racing himself. In the last few years of her reign she became so opposed even to The Prince of Wales attending that she banned him from staying at Windsor Castle during Ascot week.

Writing as Princess Victoria in 1834 her diary reveals that she was “very much amused indeed” by her first visit to the races. In 1854 she was so eager to follow the finishing stages of one race that she tried to lean out of the window of the box, which unfortunately someone had just closed. The glass shattered, but The Queen was unscathed and joined in the “merriment” of the incident with the rest of the occupants of The Royal Box.

Does anyone know who won that race?

Today every jockey has to ride in the colours of his or her horse’s owner, but up until 1783 riders wore whatever they liked, which naturally led to some confusion. That year a rule was made that each jockey had to declare the colours he would ride in so it could be inserted in the printed papers.

It would still have been hard for spectators to tell one horse from another as it was only in 1897 that number cloths were seen for the first time at Ascot – in fact probably the first time they had been used anywhere.

DID YOU KNOW? The fashionable ladies of Royal Ascot were immortalised by the film ‘My Fair Lady’ in 1964 after designer Cecil Beaton was inspired by the mourning dresses with simple white accessories worn at ‘Black Ascot’ in 1910 following the death of King Edward VII. In 1984 James Bond came to Ascot, when scenes in ‘A View to a Kill’ were filmed at the racecourse.

 

 

 

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