Hunt Masters duel over loveliest girl in England

Hunt Masters duel over loveliest girl in England

IT WAS THE SPICIEST scandal of the mid-Victorian era. The beautiful, petite Lady Florence Paget – the ‘Pocket Venus’ – was to be married to Henry Chaplin, the Squire of Blankney in Lincolnshire. But on the eve of the wedding, she ran off with the Marquis of Hastings.


The story of the men’s rivalry is told in Paul Mathieu’s new book Duel, available through independent bookshops at £20 as well as at from 24th August.


Chaplin and Hastings were chalk and cheese. Chaplin was handsome, imposing, a friend of Royalty. Harry Hastings was dissolute, unhealthy and addicted to reckless betting on his string of racehorses – which gave Chaplin the cue for his first act of retaliation. He spent heavily on expensive young bloodstock. Hastings was fixated with winning the Derby: Chaplin intended to forestall him.


Hastings’ counter-punch was brave, but foolhardy: he decided to outshine Henry Chaplin in the hunting field. Chaplin had hunted from almost before he could walk; he took the Mastership of the Burton Hunt in his early twenties. By contrast, Hastings’ leisure hours were spent in cockpits and drinking dens. Yet his eye was caught by a hunt in decline, adjacent to his Leicestershire estate.


It was the Quorn. Hastings offered to be its Master, paid the subscriptions and covered all expenses. A new huntsman and hunt staff were recruited. It turned out to be a disaster. Hastings was seldom awake early enough to be at the meet on time.  The hunt followers composed insulting verses about their wayward Master, who was assessed as perhaps the worst that ever led the Quorn. After two seasons he resigned: having set out to rival Chaplin, he finished up a laughing stock.


The two men’s feud reached its climax in the Derby of 1867. Chaplin had a runner, Hermit, which Hastings decided to bet against – heavily and for months before the race.  His total liabilities amounted to over £10 million in today’s money. His boldness seemed to have been rewarded when Hermit was injured shortly before the big race, but the horse recovered – and won.


That was the end of the duel between Henry Chaplin and Harry Hastings. One man would serve his country with distinction – and continue hunting into his seventies. The other was dead a year later, his possessions in hock to money lenders and his health wrecked.


Duel has 320 pages and 34 colour and black-and-white illustrations. It will be published on Friday 24 August.  It can be bought via as well as via independent book shops including The Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury.