James, Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II and Lucy Walter, was a keen amateur rider and was reputed to have won a ‘Chester Cup’ although the meeting was more likely to have been at Wallasey rather than Chester. His uncle, James II also had a penchant for the Turf, although political problems gave him little time, and certainly politics were dominant in 1685 when Monmouth returned from exile in Europe to try to wrest the throne from James. Setting up his standard in Taunton, the Duke proclaimed himself the rightful king of England and received the plaudits of the citizens of the West Country town and the attentions of twenty young ladies ‘in their best clothes and in their brightest beauty’.

The Shoreditch Selling Handicap Hurdle 1927

Mr T Rayson’s BAALBEK ridden by M Rayson, winning the first race held at Orchard Portman on Wednesday 21st September 1927 by 3/4 length from Miss M F Cautrell-Hubbersty’s LANCING ridden by S Ingham.

Mr T Rayson’s BAALBEK ridden by M Rayson, winning the first race held at Orchard Portman on Wednesday 21st September 1927 by 3/4 length from Miss M F Cautrell-Hubbersty’s LANCING ridden by S Ingham.History does not record whether or not Monmouth took advantage of the situation in the way in which his father would certainly have done, but it was probably his last happy evening on earth; having moved on to Bridgwater Monmouth’s rebel army of yokels armed with pitchforks and scythes was slaughtered by the King’s forces at the battle of Sedgemoor. Monmouth was executed on Tower Hill and Judge Jeffrey’s was despatched to Somerset to dispense rough justice at the Bloody Assize held at Taunton Castle, while the King amused himself with a race meeting at Winchester.

Today the 12th Century Castle still stands and a few miles to the south of its brooding walls and their gory memories lies Orchard Portman, a parish on the Shoreditch road and the present home of Taunton races. There has been racing somewhere in Taunton area since the eighteenth century and in 1788 there were races at Broomhay, probably Broomhay at west Monkton. This first venture failed, possibly because of the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, and although the handbills for the 1812 meeting desperately tried to provide something for everybody with ordinaries (dinners) and balls for the gentry and ‘Single stick playing for 5gns on eachday of the races’ for the proletariat, the result seems to have been nothing for anybody and the meeting was discontinued.

It fell to nearby Bridgwater to pick up the fallen baton in 1813 and racing continued by the River Parrett until Edwardian times, when it was the the home of the Bridgwater Hunt meeting. Taunton was revived in 1825, chiefly through the efforts of a Mr. J E White and the following year the Sporting Magazine’s reporter at the August meeting was enthusing: ‘At Taunton Races the company was more numerous and brilliant than ever before assembled in that part of the country: some of the equipages were very superb, and the number of vehicles, filled with fashionable company, conferred on the scene peculiar animation: between eight and nine thousand thronged the course’. There is a further graphic account of a raceday in Edward Goldsworthy’s “Recollections of old Taunton”.

“The races, when I first recollect them, were held on the Shoreditch road, on the site of the present King’s College and what is now called Mountlands. The racedays were general holidays for all classes, except a few who thought racing was sinful. The town on the days when the races were going on looked as quiet as a village, but as soon as they were over it appeared full of life. The race-course itself presented a very animated appearance. There was the Grand Stand with a row of carriages, phaetons, gigs and carts on each side of it. On the other side of the course stood booths, shows, timble-riggers, tumblers, sword-swallowers, gypsies and “Punch”.

Men ran up and down the course, crying out “Bradshaw’s correct list of the horses, names, weights and colours of the riders – gentlemen sportsmen”, and Harry Hatchwell (the clerk of the course) rode up and down smacking his whip as if the race depended entirely on the amount of noise he made. Whilst the horses were running the thieves were busy in easing the spectators of their purses and the carriage people of their silver tankards. I saw a fellow steal a silver tankard from a carriage belonging to the Misses Patton; he must have past it to an accomplice, as it was not found upon him. The thief was captured and taken to the “Crown and Mitre”, where he frightened me out of my senses by telling me I was about to swear to what might hang him, make his wife a widow and his children fatherless. I thought it all so dreadful that I said I was not quite sure that he was the thief”.

1838 was a critical year for the Mountlands course, torrential rain washed out the races and presumably the race ball as well which is recorded as being a total failure, and in 1840 the races moved to Trull Moor where they lasted until 1855.

Racing continued beside the River Parrett at Bridgwater until the early part of the present century when the Great War created a gap which was not filled until 1927. In that year, on 25th July, seven men met at the Paddington Hotel in London to found the Taunton Racecourse Company and thus create a new racecourse on land owned by Viscount Portman.

Orchard HouseThe location is of historic interest as Orchard Portman House, demolished in 1840 and the former seat of the Portman family, stood on the site of the present back straight with formal gardens sloping gently down to the small church, which was within the grounds and parts of which date back to Saxon times; its tower can be clearly seen from the stands today. The first meeting at the new course was held on September 21st 1927 and the first race. The Shoreditch Selling Hurdle, was won by Mr Rayson’s ‘Baalbek’.

The course on Orchard Great Field has been transformed over the years. Spoil from the M5 motorway was used to build up and extend the bends and the back straight, while the Somerset clay soil has been well drained to provide the best possible going throughout the season. Facilities for spectators have been spectacularly improved from the early days, when viewing was from a small wooden stand, often surrounded by a sea of mud.

(Extracts from “Chasing around Britain” – John Tyrell)