20th November 1934
I first met Michael Clayton when I was a young lad and he had been a guest of my parents for a morning’s cubhunting with the Puckeridge. It was at the time that he was Editor of Horse and Hound and reported his visits in “Foxford’s Hunting Diary”, his weekly column which had a great following. Michael has remained great friends with my family ever since, and I have long admired his contribution to hunting and horsemanship.
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Foxhunting has been his life-long passion, and was the reason he made a major career change from BBC Television correspondent to become Editor of Horse and Hound for 22 years from 1973. He greatly increased the magazine’s hunting coverage, commissioning leading Masters and hound breeders to contribute articles, and giving the fullest coverage to sport throughout the season, plus reporting puppy shows and all the major hound shows in the summer. During his editorship Horse and Hound became known as “the Bible of the Hunting world”, and rose to a record circulation of nearly 100,000 weekly.
Michael also earned approval from hunting people as a strong voice in the defence of hunting against growing political threats. As well as waging a continuous campaign in the magazine, he spoke for hunting at many public meetings throughout his editorship, and used his broadcasting skills on behalf of hunting frequently on radio and television. He was especially effective in studio debates with spokesmen for the animal rights movement, and anti-hunting politicians. This resulted in a regular flow of hate-mail and other abuse from anti-hunting extremists, but he totally ignored it.
Michael was born on November 20th, 1934, in Bournemouth. His grandfather, William Clayton, and his great-grandfather were Quakers who lived at Great Dunmow in Essex where they farmed and kept a grocery shop. As strict Quakers they were somewhat unusual in being keen riders to hounds with the East Essex. Michael still has a silver mug inscribed “Rapture 1873”, presented to his great-grandfather at an East Essex puppy show for walking a successful young hound. “Of course, my great-grandfather wore a black hunting coat, and as a strict teetotaller he never attended a meet because alcoholic drink was consumed there, but would join the mounted field afterwards, “said Michael. His grandparents moved to Bournemouth where they ran a large grocer’s shop in Winton for over 40 years. His great-uncle, Hollis Clayton, continued to farm in Essex and followed the East Essex for many years.
Michael learned to ride from the age of eight during the Second World War at a riding school in Longham, Dorset, cycling there from his home in Northbourne. His mother paid four shillings an hour for his riding lessons. He went to the stables every day to help muck out and feed the horses which earned him extra free rides on a variety of ponies.
He recalls: “Life was austere during the war, and we were short of money, but road traffic levels were low, and building development ceased in the countryside. So it was easy to ride almost anywhere near my home. I was lucky to ride regularly on the beautiful moorlands west of Long Ham. I learned to jump ponies over furze bushes on the moor, and often rode bare-back collecting ponies from the fields in the mornings, which I think is an excellent way of acquiring a strong seat on any horse”.
“The Bournemouth area was bombed occasionally, and once I was among crowds of children machine-gunned by a German aircraft in Bournemouth’s Lower Pleasure Gardens. We ran into the bushes to escape. Despite this, my school friends and I regarded the war as great fun. We spent many nights in our home-made shelter in the garden. As an electrician, my father was in a reserved occupation, working on submarines built at Southampton. He commuted daily on trains often held up by heavy bombing in and around Southampton.”
Just after the war at the age of eleven of Michael bought his first pony, an unbroken gelding which he bid £15 for, at the annual New Forest Pony Sales. To help pay for grazing for the pony Michael worked as a newspaper delivery boy in the early mornings before school. At weekends he rode the pony to make the deliveries, looping its reins over front garden gates.
“I broke-in the pony myself, following advice in riding books I as Christmas presents. I knew that the Portman Hunt met within riding distance near Wimborne, and my big ambition was to take my pony hunting,” he remembers.
As a twelve-year-old, wearing breeches and gaiters, a tweed jacket , and a bowler hat provided by Hollis Clayton, Michael set off on his unclipped pony for his first day’s hunting, across Longham Moors to the woodlands at Uddens. This was at the time of Sir Peter Farquhar being Master of the Portman, a position he held from 1947 until 1959.
“Hounds had a busy cubhunting morning in the woods where I was thrilled to canter on the rides quite close behind the huntsman, “Michael recalls. “My happiness was complete when Sir Peter asked if I would like to be blooded, and I rode back across the moors with the traditional marks on my face. My mother was somewhat lost for words when I got home.”
Michael progressed to the Portman Pony Club, and hunted occasionally, when the hounds came to hunt the country between Wimborne and Bournemouth. He bought and sold several ponies to keep riding and hunting in his early teens, and picked up prize money in local gymkhanas and jumping classes. He even rode in the New Forest pony races at Burley.
Sir Peter Farquhar was a legendary Master and hound breeder at the Portman and Michael remembers him fondly as someone who did much to encourage the young to hunt and to enjoy it. “He was particularly keen on encouraging us to learn about hounds as well as horses, and I thoroughly enjoyed his talks at the Hunt Kennels,” says Michael . “I resolved to follow the Portman in their stiffly fenced vale country when I was old enough to ride horses.”
In the post war austerity years grants and finances were scarce, and he left Bournemouth Grammar School at the age of 16, having decided that journalism was his calling. “I literally got on my bike to get a job,” he says. “After drawing blank at the Bournemouth newspaper offices, I rode 25 miles to New Milton near the New Forest where I called, without appointment, at the somewhat rickety offices of the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times. It was the luckiest draw in my life. “I was immediately ushered into the office of the Editor and proprietor, Charles Curry, a brilliant and forthright journalist. To my utter amazement after a short interview he offered me a job as an apprentice reporter at two pounds per week! He wasn’t interested in my School Certificate passes. When I asked if I was on trial, he just said: ‘You’re always on trial here. However, Mr Curry insisted I went to a college to learn fast shorthand and touch typing within three months.
“With another young reporter, Ian Wooldridge – a great friend, who became a famous Daily Mail sports columnist– I worked six days a week. On Friday mornings we took our jackets off to help unload and tie-up the bundles of papers from the printing press. We certainly acquired the smell of printing ink in our noses. I reported from the Courts, local government, and all other aspects of life in the New Forest coastal area. It was a marvellous training in a demanding regime , which gave me a wonderful grounding in journalism . Charles Curry’s son, Charles junior, succeeded as Editor of the Advertiser and Times. Aged over 90, he now is the oldest working editor in Britain. I speak to him regularly on the phone, and it brings back my youth as if it were yesterday.”
Michael took a great interest in the New Forest Foxhounds and Buckhounds, and managed some hunting on borrowed horses, but had little spare time. During two years’ National Service with the RAF in Germany he did some broadcasting for the British Forces Network in Cologne. He kept up his riding regularly on horses loaned to him by German farmers. After National Service, he moved swiftly from the Bournemouth Times to the Portsmouth Evening News where he reported from the Chichester office. At the age of 23 he secured his first job in Fleet Street, as a reporter on the London Evening News, then producing up to ten editions a day. “I learned to cope with the pressure of reporting crime and many other stories against the clock. Because of my experience with horses I was sent to the Grand National and the Derby to cover those two great races. On Epsom Downs early one morning I had a scoop when one of the Derby runners collapsed and died in front of me while on the practice gallops. At Aintree I interviewed Mrs Topham on whether the cash-strapped Grand National would actually take place and I was at Royal Ascot on the day that the Queen and her party galloped down the course before racing. I seemed to get a lot of royal stories: at Cowes I had another scoop when I was on hand as Prince Philip was tipped in the water when his racing dinghy capsized. “
Having married Mary Watson, a New Zealander journalist working in the Evening News features department, Michael accompanied her on a trip to see her family. He stayed in New Zealand for nine months, working as a reporter on the New Zealand Herald in Auckland, admiring New Zealand’s hunting with Harriers. This was when the riders crossed a sea of grass to jump bare barbed wire fences.
Back in London he secured a reporting post on the London Evening Standard, again covering top-class race meetings as well as many hard news stories such as the Great Train Robbery and aspects of the Profumo affair. He was soon promoted to Deputy News Editor, and now had more regular hours, so that he could take up hunting regularly with the Old Surrey and Burstow. “I drove from my home at Blackheath down into the Old Surrey country, which was still very open in the 1960s, before the arrival of the M25 motorway and other urban development. I bought a wonderful roan cob called Ballyn Garry who was a great jumper over the Old Surrey’s timber and fly fences. We had tremendous fun following Jack Champion who hunted hounds with great gusto over some lovely country in Surrey and north Kent. I made many hunting friends, and was warmly welcomed by the Joint Masters Sir Ralph Clarke and Uvedale Lambert, father of Stephen Lambert who became Joint Master and huntsman of three packs of Foxhounds as well as the Marlborough College and Trinity Foot Beagles. He is now Chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association. Diana Barnato Walker, who had been an intrepid wartime female pilot, was a special friend as well as being Joint Master”.
From the Evening Standard Michael Clayton went to Southern Television as News Editor at their Southampton studios. He rented a house in the New Forest and was able to resume hunting with the Portman. His roan hunter proved able to cope with the Portman’s huge fences and ditches in their Saturday and Wednesday vale country below Shaftesbury. He became firm friends with Stewart Tory, Joint Master and huntsman, and his sons Percy and Michael who were Joint Masters, with the Woodhouse brothers, John and Richard, who succeeded in the Mastership. “I kept my horse in Sue Mitchell’s superb livery yard at Sturminster Newton , and was able to enjoy visits to the Blackmore Vale, South Dorset and the Cattistock . The hunting in Dorset was marvellous, nearly all grass, though deep riding. They were a wonderful sporting crowd in the mounted field, and again I made many good friends. If you enjoy hunting you will soon make friends anywhere in the British countryside. It is a marvellous form of cement holding together the rural community. ”
Clayton kept up hunting with the Portman whenever possible after moving back to London in 1964 to take up a post as a BBC staff television and radio reporter. He spent a hectic eight years covering major news stories at home and abroad, ranging from the Aberfan coal mining disaster in South Wales, to the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Middle East, and the Indian sub-continent. He was the first reporter on the scene after three airliners were hi-jacked by Palestinian terrorists. “To supplement the costs of hunting I wrote my first book in 1967, ‘A Hunting We Will Go’, an anatomy of modern foxhunting, “ he recalls. “ Through the interviews necessary for the book I met and became firm friends with Ronnie Wallace, Chairman of the MFHA and the great Joint Master and huntsman of the Heythrop, and Dorian Williams, Master of the Whaddon Chase, and the BBC’s equestrian correspondent. Both were to prove instrumental in my future in journalism. Later I hunted with Ronnie Wallace on Exmoor for many years, and Dorian was a close friend until his untimely death.”
One day in late 1972 Michael was invited to lunch at the Reform Club by Walter Case, Editor of Horse and Hound for 30 years. “Walter told me he had to retire the following year, and invited me to succeed him as Editor,” he recalls. “Both Dorian Williams and Ronnie Wallace had written letters to the management recommending me as the next Editor. It seemed a strange and ill-advised career move to friends and colleagues at the BBC, but I heard myself say ‘yes’ immediately, and sure enough I took over the Editor’s chair late in the following year. It was a very difficult time: the Heath government was battling against the miners; fuel was rationed; many firms were working a three-day week. There were constant power cuts, and I sat at my desk illuminated by candles. Somehow we got the magazine out. I was so glad I had a thorough training in print journalism, so different from broadcasting. I was already enjoying writing Horse and Hound leaders and developing the magazine’s coverage.”
Although taking over a demanding new post, he continued to broadcast for the BBC as a freelance – three days a week as a joint presenter on Radio 4’s “Today” programme in the mornings, and as a frequent member of the “Any Questions” team on radio. “I used to get up at 4 a.m. to work on Today and started work an hour later in Broadcasting House in preparation for our live radio stint from 6.30 am to 9 am when I would snatch a sandwich and coffee before dashing to the Horse and Hound office for a full day’s work. I usually partnered the urbane John Timpson, and later Brian Redhead or Robert Robinson. After about 18 months a producer said to me, that I should really make up my mind whether I returned to broadcasting full-time, or remain Editor of Horse and Hound because the two would not mix indefinitely. He was right of course – and I unhesitatingly chose to stay with the day job where I was already very happy. After covering tragedies and wars it was wonderful to work in a world where I was made welcome, and I was making many more new friends, including Col Sir Mike Ansell, the legendary head of the horse world. Best of all, I was able to extend my hunting and horsemanship interests considerably . We had some wonderful contributors, such as John Oaksey on racing, and Bay de Courcy Parry who wrote on hunting as “Dalesman”, and Dorian Williams who wrote a weekly column under the pen name “Loriner”.
“But Horse and Hound had no full-time hunting correspondent, so I appointed myself , using the pseudonym “Foxford” after a brilliant hunter I had bought from Billy Oliver in the Whaddon Chase country where I was now hunting regularly with Dorian Williams. I kept up my connections in Dorset but travelling there regularly was very difficult, so I subscribed to the Whaddon Chase which still had a splendid country north of London, the “Londoners’ Leicestershire”. Later the spread of Milton Keynes robbed it of much country, and of course it amalgamated with the Bicester. I then enjoyed hunting as a subscriber with the Heythrop for the last five seasons of Ronnie Wallace’s Mastership. I saw at first-hand his genius as a hound man, and his organisational skills in running a large hunting country at its best.
“Writing Foxford’s Hunting Diary I hunted with well over 200 packs, forming a strong partnership with Jim Meads who had started
photographing hunting with his father, Frank H. Meads. Jim became a life-long friend, a great companion as well as a photographer, whose pictures are still so popular with the hunting world in the United Kingdom and far beyond. We hunted throughout Britain, and every season visited Ireland where we were made welcome by Lord (Toby) Daresbury at the Limerick, and many others. Later Trevor Meeks accompanied me on several trips with great success, and he has become a leading equestrian and hunting photographer.
“I hunted in Canada, and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, and with Ben Hardaway and Marty and Daphne Wood in the South. It was always fun in North America where there are many excellent hound men, and the hospitality is wonderful. Riding strange horses in strange countries is quite a challenge, and I suffered more than a few falls, but only injured myself severely once: riding a horse of my own with the Belvoir during cubhunting on firm ground when I smashed my tibia and fibula after crashing over a fence in the Vale which I should not have attempted in those conditions.
“As well as the hunting world, I managed to immerse myself in the varied politics of the horse world. It seemed to operate in different compartments from which few people strayed. Yet the Editor of Horse and Hound is expected to know them all, and to understand their problems and their needs. So the summer months were spent in a hectic round of horse shows, eventing, and major racing occasions. But the nuts and bolts of turning out a busy weekly are demanding. I was essentially a “hands on” Editor, which meant that I lived in a London flat, and dashed madly from town to country cottages. Fortunately we built up an excellent, hard working staff, and I was so fortunate to have superb deputy Editors in Hugh Condry, and later Arnold Garvey.”
After the failure of his first marriage, in which he had a son and a daughter, Michael married the former Jane Ryman in the Meynell country where they both hunted. This marriage did not survive, and in 1988 Michael achieved a very happy marriage with Marilyn Crowhurst whose previous husband, the late Arnold Crowhurst, was a Joint Master of the Ashford Valley and later the Cattistock. They have made the Cottesmore country their home since 1988, and Michael served as Chairman of the Cottesmore for five years. They still live happily in Rutland, and very much share their hunting and equestrian interests.
In 1993 Michael became Editor-in-Chief of Country Life, Field and Shooting Times, as well as Horse and Hound, and a main board director of their proprietors, IPC Magazines, the largest magazine publishers in Europe.
Then after retirement in 1996, he took on an exacting role as Chairman of the British Horse Society, which was in deep trouble at the time, following the departure of its competitive riding disciplines. He served on the Board of the British Field Sports Society, and later as Midlands Chairman of the Countryside Alliance. He says the Hunting Act 2004 was a “bitter blow” after so many years of campaigning, ending in the seasons of marches and demonstrations against a hunting ban. But he is thrilled that all Hunts have survived and that there is still hope of repealing the “abominable Act”.
Altogether Michael has written and published over 22 books on hunting and equestrianism, including “Foxhunting in Paradise,” and “Endangered Species”, a detailed history of hunting in the 20th century. Recently he produced a handsome illustrated history of the Belvoir Hunt, and in 2013 he and Alastair Jackson produced a new history of foxhunting. He continued to write frequently as a freelance for the sporting magazines, and reported all the major hound shows for Horse and Hound until his late seventies. Michael is chairman of the Museum of Hunting Trustees at the Melton Carnegie Museum, Melton Mowbray, where the scope of the hunting exhibits has been greatly increased, with a strong on-line archive on hunting history.
He says: “My greatest regret is the erosion of so much of the fabric of the British countryside since I began hunting. I was fortunate to enjoy so much hunting before this happened. I have three grand-daughters, among five grand children, who fortunately ride and hunt in New Zealand where there is no attempt to ban hound sports.
“Despite our difficulties I am pleased that many young people are still enjoying the hunting field, and riding sports, in Britain. I hope we shall see the repeal of the Hunting Act in a more tolerant society with greater understanding of the countryside and its ways.”