At the top of the hill a pair of liveried Yorkshire gamekeepers whacked hard with their sticks at the tight thorn-bushes of the hedgerow. Fifty yards away, in a hollow, stood the owner of the land, with his shooting companion, the local vicar. As the keepers moved forward, there was a flap of bright wings, a shot, and the quarry spun to the ground. Then another type of prey emerged, flying low and fast toward the waiting guns. Again a clean kill. So, at the end of the drive, one butterfly and one bumblebee were solemnly added to the day's bag.
It was a typical day for Frederick Oliver Robinson, Second Marquess of Ripon and the deadliest—not to mention most bloodthirsty—game shot the world has ever known. Shooting insects in the closed season for other game, using cartridges loaded with dust shot, was only one of the ways in which Lord Ripon made his mark upon the shooting world. Today, almost half a century after his death, Lord Ripon is remembered as a paragon of greed, jealousy, despotism or just sheer bad manners on the shooting field. As an example, there was the day when the vicar shot more bumblebees than he did. In furious silence Ripon jumped into the dogcart and drove off, leaving the aged cleric several miles to walk home.
He was, in any case, a magnificent marksman. Unfortunately, he knew it and never hesitated to tell the world. A good shot might be pleased with a 40% kill rate; Ripon kept an accurate count and claimed 70%. Every year he had his scorecard printed and brought up to date, showing how many thousand head of grouse, pheasant, partridge and other game he had slaughtered in the previous year and in the whole of his life. Then he mailed them around to friends or whatever. "Bloody butcher!" Lord Ashburton is reported to have growled on receiving one of the cards—and then, the story goes, he sat by an oil lamp to pore over his own game books to see if he could match or better Ripon's performance in any respect. But there was little hope. In the 71 years Ripon lived he killed 556,813 head of game, from snipe to rhinoceros, including over a quarter of a million pheasant. Even assuming he'd shot for six days a week during every season from the time he was 15, it would have meant killing an average of 67 creatures every day. Most days he did much better than average.
The marquess, who was born in 1852, was a dapper, cocky little man with a pointed gray beard and a taste for expensive cigars, natty white spats and expensive Savile Row knickerbockers. He inherited the title from his father, for a short time Viceroy of India, who died in 1909. With the title came 22,000 acres of a rich estate in Yorkshire, complete with the ruins of the great Fountains Abbey. And all that game.
Ripon treated killing as a profession. It was customary for expert shots to use two double-barrel guns, with a bearer along to load the spare. Ripon used three weapons—matched, hammer, Damascus-barreled Purdeys—which required a loading staff of two. Weeks before the start of the grouse season, he would summon his loaders to his great Georgian house, Studley Royal, and lead a strenuous practice session in his bedroom. The complicated drill of loading, passing the gun, firing and reloading was gone through time and again, until the men's muscles ached. After that, there was outdoor practice with the guns loaded—firing hundreds of shots into the empty air, or at any luckless sparrows or starlings that happened to be passing nearby. Thus, when the season opened, no part of a second was lost from the business of slaughter. Ripon was timed by a stopwatch as he shot 28 pheasant in 60 seconds. He also brought down 575 grouse in one day, killed 52 partridge with 50 shots and nailed 115 pheasant in 10 minutes. All these were driven toward or over him at high speeds. At one brief pheasant drive with some fellow hunters the total bag was 47 birds. Ripon claimed 46 of the bag, leaving a single bird for the other sportsmen.
He always thought 1893 was a rather splendid season. That was the year he was invited to Hungary to help shoot the colossal estates of Baron Hirsch. In five weeks' enjoyable work he accounted for over 7,000 partridge, 240 of which he downed in one drive. By the end of that shooting season he could count a highly satisfying 2,611 grouse, 8,732 partridge, 5,760 pheasant, 66 woodcocks, seven snipes, 42 ducks, 837 hares, 914 rabbits and 166 "various"—19,135 head in all, or about 130 for each available day.
The calculated way he stalked and gunned down his prey is best illustrated by the famous instance when he saw a covey of five grouse streaking toward his blind. He killed the leading bird at a range of about 70 yards with his first shot, then changed guns in time to kill two more before the covey reached him. He changed again, and after a quick little jump (half a second quicker than shuffling round) he faced backward and killed the two surviving grouse before they were out of range. The whole affair was over in five or six seconds. Grouse blinds are normally sited about 50 yards apart. Ripon, because he was accurate enough to use guns with full charges in both 30-inch barrels, had the blinds on his grouse moor set at 80 yards. The fact that this put his guests out of range for much of the shooting disturbed him not at all.
His consumption of ammunition was prodigious. Today if you go into Hodgson's, the gunsmiths in the small town of Ripon in Yorkshire, you can see the ledgers containing his old bills for bullets, powder and shot. A season's work needed the purchase of some 30,000 or 40,000 cases. There also had to be around 200 pounds of powder and a ton of shot.
Stories about Ripon abound in these parts. Sons of old gamekeepers relate how his lordship, if he saw beaters getting out of line, was not above putting a few pellets into their legs. Or how during the long lean months between the season's end in early February and the beginning in August he ensured that no day need be spent unprofitably. Not only were there insects galore to challenge him, but if he went trout fishing he took a gun and a few cartridges—say 200 or 300—so that if the fish stopped rising he could attack the swallows swooping over the water. He would send a keeper to shoo the pigeons out of the dovecote; in a couple of days' hard work, with the three Purdeys getting so hoi that his loaders wrapped their tweed caps around the barrels, he would kill 400 or 500 of the tricky, jinking birds. One spring he was seen lying Flat on his hack on the lawn beside his house, shooting nesting house martins as they swooped in and out of the eaves.
His gamekeepers hail standing orders on the grouse moor that whenever Ripon had guests in for a shoot, their employer was always to have the best blind, an eight-foot circle of stone slabs known as Caley's Fort. The birds were to be driven to him and never mind the welfare of the guests. He permitted one deviation from this arrangement. In 1913 King George V. an excellent shot, indicated that he'd like a day at Dallowgill, and Ripon allowed Charlie Julian, the head keeper, to put him in Caley's Fort. But he had Julian make another blind in a hollow just behind His Majesty for himself. It is against all the safety rules to have a crooked line of grouse butts, but Julian did as ordered. And on the opening day of the season the packs of birds streamed over the King, suffering some damage, only to find his lordship waiting in the heather to attack the survivors; Ripon's personal bag for the day was far better than that of the royal guest.
One of his favorite customs at the start of the pheasant season was to walk round some of the estate boundaries, shooting any bird that might later stray onto his neighbor's land. On such sorties he usually was accompanied by a young keeper, each man carrying a game bag. the understanding being that each would carry what the other shot. This normally meant a heavy load for the keeper, but one keeper who had been tactlessly accurate got his lordship a little hot with his shooting—not to mention the bulging game sack he was forcing him to carry. Finally, after the gamekeeper plugged yet another pheasant, Ripon whirled and fired a quick barrel into a grazing sheep.
"All right, you bugger," he shouted a I the keeper. "'Now carry that!"
For all his bad manners and wretched sportsmanship, Ripon was invited to the best shoots in the country. Well, his performance was beautiful to watch, and there was the chance of getting a return invitation to Dallowgill, the best grouse moor in Britain. Such invitations were coveted. Seldom did the season's bag fall below 2,000 brace; individual days of 500 brace were not uncommon. At lunchtime James Burge, the butler, would arrive on the moor with a simple repast of soup and stew, dessert, cheese, whiskey, beer and wine. With the elaborate evening dinners to follow, it kept the 15 indoor domestics fairly busy, for as soon as the best weeks of the grouse were over, the pheasant were ready to be shot, and there had to be lavish house panics for that.
Every spring the keepers toiled hard in the woods, raising pheasant chicks by the thousand to fill the woods in autumn. Any self-respecting landowner liked to have at least one day on which the bag ran into four figures; if the birds could be made to fly high and fast, so much the better. Studley Royal was ideally suited for such sport, and no more exquisite setting could be imagined than at the famous stand called Abbey Rise. Here in a deep gill lie the ruins of Fountains Abbey, close beside the tiny River Skell. Towering 200 feet up the steep banks on each side are ancient woods of oak and beech. Scores of beaters drove the pheasant forward in hordes to make them take wing across the valley. Most marksmen, discouraged by the altitude, let the birds pass. But Ripon, with his fully choked barrels, brought bird after bird tumbling onto the close-cropped grass. Nonshooting houseguests would stroll out to watch the performance. Sometimes, with luck, they could see their host, with three dead birds still in the air, upping his gun to kill a fourth.
One of his few rivals as a marksman was Prince Freddie Duleep Singh, son of a maharaja. He and Ripon met several times a year, in some deep valley underneath screaming, high pheasant or behind a hedge in Norfolk while driven partridge whistled overhead like bullets. For many years the two men would not speak to each other, the result of a feud that started at Lord Carnarvon's shoot at Highclere. in Hampshire. Ripon was placed at the foot of a steep hill while Duleep Singh had the star position at the top. Early in the drive the Prince shot a high bird crossing his front, which fell dead and nearly struck Ripon. Ripon stormed up the hill, yelling various imprecations, including "bloody nigger." Duleep Singh thenceforth downed only such birds as were flying toward his fellow guest and shot them so that the marquess, bombarded by several pheasant corpses a minute, was quite distracted from his own performance. It took all the fun out of the shooting at Highclere that year, but no matter. Ripon was there for three days' shooting in 1895, when he and the other five sportsmen shared the killing of 10,807 head, including 5,671 pheasant and 5,033 rabbits and 38 "various," including crows, jays, cats and vermin in general.
Beside his favorite blind, Caley's Fort, in the heart of windswept Dallowgill, there is a memorial to this remarkable man. It is dated Sept. 22, 1923. That day he went out shooting grouse with his old crony, the Reverend Morris, and his estate agent Oswald Wade. There were to be seven drives. Because the keepers were still told to concentrate all the-birds on their employer's blind, Ripon shot over three-quarters of the bag. In the first five drives he shot 40, 17, 25, 17 and 25 grouse. In the sixth he did best of all, but when the retrievers returned with the quarry Ripon reckoned that two of his grouse were still to be found, not to mention a snipe. Fuming at the gamekeepers' incompetence, he sent his own two spaniels out into the heather, and each brought back one of the missing birds. "You'll have to get some better dogs," he snarled at Julian, furious that he might have been deprived of his kill. Then Lord Ripon fell to the ground. At 71, he was dead. The 53 grouse he shot in that drive were never officially added to his lifetime total. He would have been furious.
They brought him down from the moor on a wooden gate prised from its hinges at a nearby stone dyke, and it was on the horse-drawn game cart that his coffin was carried to the heather-covered family vault. He had no children; the title died with him, and a cousin inherited Studley and Dallowgill.
Today if you go to Studley, Charlie Julian's daughter Win may show you Lord Ripon's last hunting entry in the Studley Royal Game Book, the one for "22nd September 1923." It includes the information that the party of "Ld. Ripon; Mr. Morris; Mr. Wade" bagged 215 grouse and one snipe. It concluded with this succinct note under "various": "Lord Ripon died."