For a long time Cuckfield has been associated with
record attempts between London and Brighton. But did you know that the first such recorded race was by the Prince Regent?
An accomplished horseman, the Prince Regent, at the age of 22 set a record that was not to be beaten for a quarter of a century.
Charles Harper picks up the story in ‘The Brighton Road the classic highway to the south’: ‘ … the feat accomplished by the Prince of Wales himself on July 25th, 1784, during his second visit to Brighthelmstone. On that day he mounted his horse there and rode to London and back, he went by way of Cuckfield, and was ten hours on the road: four and a half hours going, five and a half hours returning.’
This was a remarkable achievement especially considering that this was before the new Brighton Road via Hickstead had been built and roads were in a sorry state of repair. Just weeks later the Prince then decided to have another go but this time to change his mode of transport as Harper explains:
‘On August 21st of the same year, starting at one o’clock in the morning, he drove from Carlton House to the “Pavilion” in four hours and a half. The turn-out was a phaeton drawn by three horses harnessed tandem-fashion - what in those days was called a “random”.’
These runs undoubtedly will have followed by a hefty wager after a few drinks most likely from his closest associates. As Harper portrays them clearly, ‘the notorious trio of brothers, friends of the Prince Regent and companions of his in every sort of excess - the Barrymores, to wit, named severally Hellgate, Newgate, and Cripplegate, the last of this unholy trinity was so called because of his chronic limping; the two others’ titles, taken with the characters of their bearers, are self-explanatory.’
‘Twenty-five years passed before anyone arose to challenge the Prince’s ride, and then only partially and indirectly. In May, 1809. Cornet J. Wedderburn Webster, of the 10th (Prince of Wales’s Own) Light Dragoons, accepted and won a wager of 300 to 200 guineas with Sir B. Graham about the performance in three and a half hours of the journey from Brighton to Westminster Bridge, mounted upon one of the blood horses that usually ran in his phaeton.
‘He accomplished the ride in three hours twenty minutes, knocking the Prince’s ‘up’ record into the proverbial cocked hat. The rider stopped a while at Reigate to take a glass or two of wine, and compelled his horse to swallow the remainder of the bottle.’
By this stage roads will have significantly improved since the Prince’s record-making runs. A few years earlier, in April, 1793 Harper tells us that there was another curious race.
Clergyman wins race thanks to Cuckfield stage
‘A clergyman at Brighton betted an officer of the Artillery quartered there 100 guineas that he would ride his own horse to London sooner than the officer could go in a chaise and pair, the officer’s horses to be changed en route as often as he might think proper. The artilleryman accordingly despatched a servant to provide relays, and at twelve o’clock on an unfavourable night the parties set out to decide the bet, which was won by the clergyman with difficulty.
‘He arrived in town at 5am, only a few minutes before the chaise, which it had been thought was sure of winning. The driver of the last stage, however, nearly became stuck in a ditch, which mishap caused considerable delay. The Cuckfield driver performed his nine-miles’ stage, between that place and Crawley, within the half-hour.’
Some of these runs may have taken Cuckfield by surprise - but the chances are that word will have got out particularly when the preparations for the Prince’s runs were being made - and no doubt locals were cheering him on. The Regent may have made the first such run, but many more on all kinds of transport have been made since, even to this day.
Source: The Brighton Road the classic highway to the south, Charles Harper, 1922.
Caption: King George IV when Prince Regent (1762-1830), facing left in the red uniform of a Field-Marshal in a painting by Henry Bone, August 1816.
Image: HRH the Prince Regent, later King George IV (1762-1830) and [in the background] Colonel the Hon. Charles Wyndham (1796-1866) [Public Domain image].
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.