While many men have striven to excel at riding faster, playing longer, shooting straighter, gambling higher, fighting harder and wenching more lustily, George Osbaldeston seems to have excelled most extravagantly. No one has been able to touch the record of this 19th-century superman they called, simply, the Squire.
A dapper, stocky figure not much over five feet tall, he took up any challenge. He once socked a brawny 6-foot guardsman and broke two of his ribs. He put 10 pistol balls in the ace of diamonds at 20 yards, and stayed in the saddle 60 or 70 hours a week in order to fulfill his passion for fox hunting. He raced, gambled and mismanaged his way through ¬£300,000 of inherited fortune, blaming his inattention to financial matters on his preoccupations with "hunting, racing, shooting, tennis, rowing, ladies, etc."
There was one particularly glorious day in 1831 when the Squire commanded even more attention than usual. Two years before, George Stephenson had won a prize with his clanking, smoke-belching locomotive contraption named "The Rocket," which hauled a coachload of passengers at an unimaginable 24 miles per hour. Suddenly, all England became speed-conscious. In a friendly talk with an old betting crony, Colonel Charritie, Osbaldeston suggested that a man on horseback could probably go just as fast, or very nearly. In fact, he said, he could do it easily if there were sufficient inducement—say, a thousand guineas. He and Charritie set up the conditions: the Squire would try to ride 200 miles in 10 hours for the 1,000 guineas plus whatever he could pick up in side bets.
Despite his age (43), the Squire went into hard training. He also began to lay his strategy. He had no intention of really racing a train. Instead he would stage the whole affair round a four-mile track at Newmarket, changing horses after each circuit and riding the better horses several times during the day. Bets were eagerly laid over the whole country. Osbaldeston backed himself to the tune of 1,000 guineas. A few days before the event, Osbaldeston was approached by John Gully, ex-prizefighter and racehorse owner, who said that if the Squire could cover the distance in nine hours Gully could get him excellent odds against the feat: 10 to 1. It sounded good to the Squire, who promptly agreed. In the last weeks of training he rode 80 miles a day, every day, changing horses the same way he would for the event itself.
On the day of the endurance race, Nov. 5, 1831, a light rain was falling. The Squire's entourage for the occasion numbered in dozens: grooms, saddlers and men to hold, feed and water his 28 mounts. A few hardy spectators shivered in the cold drizzle. At 12 minutes past seven the Squire swung his 155 pounds into the lambskin-covered saddle of his first mount, Emma, and was off. By the time latecomers had filled the grandstand a couple of hours later, he had already covered 50 miles, and mounted and dismounted 13 times. Most men after riding 50 miles would stop to ease their muscles and refresh themselves; not the Squire, who impatiently leaped atop horse after horse while the rain steadily worsened. At the end of 31 rides and 124 miles, he came to the ground for the first spell in more than four hours of hard galloping. "I stopped for six minutes," he recalled, "during which time I ate and drank as much as I could; but the number of questions put to me by many of my friends, and even by some ladies, rather interfered with the repast."
Cutting short his meal, he left the chattering spectators and swung into the job once more. Even after such a grueling morning he was still capable of breaking his own speed record when he found a horse that could perform to his standards. He rode one of Gully's racehorses four times during the marathon, once covering the four miles in eight minutes, for an average speed of 30 mph.
The Squire kept up his fantastic performance through the afternoon: his last 25 rides consumed only two minutes more than his first 25. Then, aboard his 31st mount, came near-disaster: the horse was Ikie Solomons, a beast of notorious temper. Without warning, Ikie Solomons plunged off the track and headed for some low-growing trees on a nearby plantation. Faced with decapitation, the Squire threw himself off and let his mount crash through the undergrowth. Surprisingly, Osbaldeston had anticipated such an emergency, and stationed a couple of mounted men beside the course. One of them quickly caught the errant horse and the Squire lost only four minutes.
As his purple silk jacket, white doeskin breeches and black velvet cap hurtled round the course for the 20th, 30th and 40th times, his admiring audience grew in number. There was legitimate, organized racing on another Newmarket track that day, and from a certain ditch dividing the two courses spectators could enjoy watching a formal handicap race on one side and the Squire pounding relentlessly around on the other.
By three in the afternoon it was clear that Osbaldeston would, barring accidents, have little difficulty in performing his feat well within the time; when he dismounted creakily from his 50th and last four-mile circuit, the timekeepers noted down the astonishing time of eight hours and 42 minutes—an average of just under 24 mph, including stops and changes. In riding time alone, his seven hours 19 minutes and 34 seconds in the saddle brought an average of over 27 mph.
"I could have ridden 300 miles; I was not in the least fatigued at the end of the match," said the Squire, who next day said that only his knees and the soles of his feet were sore. He galloped down the street toward the Rutland Arms in Newmarket, had a bath and a good rubdown with oil and announced that he was hungry. He joined a merry party of 10 for dinner: "We kept it up till two o'clock next morning."
The Squire, who later in life complained of being victimized, was badly taken in the Newmarket ride. Although he collected his 1,000 guineas from Colonel Charritie for his 200-mile run, he never got the thousands allegedly bet for him by Joe Bland, his commission man. Bland whimpered that he'd only managed to place ¬£200—and then he defaulted on that. To recoup, the Squire two weeks later offered long odds—¬£20,000 to ¬£6,000—that he could ride 200 miles in eight hours. No one took him up on it.
The manic urge to compete and excel—and to bet on his successes—stayed with George Osbaldeston all his 80 years. Let him take his inch-and-a-half-bore flintlock in his hand, and he is soon knocking down a hundred pheasants in as many shots. As the fastest cricket bowler in England, he saved an important match by bowling, dead drunk, with a broken shoulder. At one time he was Master of two separate packs of foxhounds and any winter week when he failed to have six full days in the saddle was, to the Squire, a waste of time.
Other Osbaldeston amusements included a billiards match lasting 50 hours without sleep, and a game of tennis against the French champion J. Edmond Barre. Barre played with a regulation racket, while Osbaldeston played the ball with a gloved hand. 'He won.
Old age—if such a man could ever be called old—left him in comparative penury. He had to sell his Yorkshire estates to meet debts of ¬£120,000. With the poor remains of his fortune he purchased a tiny annuity, which was wisely paid to his wife—he had plunged into matrimony for the first time at 65. Each day, the Squire's lady gave him a golden sovereign to meet his out-of-pocket expenses. It usually went on betting. "He never brought a farthing home," she reported. This tireless cocksparrow of a man once took a wager on a feat that, for him, must have been the most grueling of all. Someone in his London club bet him a sovereign that he couldn't sit in a chair for 24 hours without moving. As usual, the Squire won.