In the year when we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, we will be regularly reminded of the ways in which every aspect of life in Britain was affected by the conflict. Where much professional sport was concerned, the impact was severe; it ceased for the duration.

Football kept going until the spring of 1915, long enough for Everton to claim the First Division title and for Sheffield United to beat Chelsea 3-0 in the FA Cup Final, but after that there was nothing until the autumn of 1919. After Surrey’s triumph in the 1914 County Championship, there were four years when no first-class cricket was played.

While what was erroneously described as ‘the war to end all wars’ was being waged, there could hardly be an excuse for such frivolities. The proper place for fit young men was in the armed services, fighting for King and country.

Controversially, there was racing throughout the conflict. What some might have considered the most frivolous pastime of all kept going, albeit on a much-reduced scale. Whereas the governing bodies of other sports accepted a suspension of activity was appropriate, the Jockey Club stood firm in its resolve to carry on. Carrying on regardless was too strong a term for its stance, but, unsurprisingly, that was how many interpreted it.

Three race meetings. And a war
Britain’s declaration of war on Germany came on August 4, 1914, a Tuesday when racing took place at Birmingham, Brighton and Ripon. Fixtures scheduled in the following weeks went ahead, while a considerable body of public opinion built up in opposition. The Jockey Club could not ignore what was commonly expressed; they called all members to a special meeting on September 16 to discuss the matter.

The view held by the stewards – Henry Greer, Lord Wolverton and Viscount Villiers – was plain. They wanted racing to continue and were quick to make it clear that their wish had nothing to do with providing a spectacle for those who found amusement in racegoing. Their concerns were, rather, that a cessation would throw thousands out of work and would be damaging to the nation’s breeding industry.

After some debate the motion put to the meeting was that the fixtures scheduled at Newmarket and elsewhere should be carried out where the local conditions permitted, and the feeling of the locality was not averse to the meeting being held. The motion was carried unanimously, the lack of a single dissenting voice suggesting to some the Club had acted with insensitivity. Its message seemed to say the privileged classes were not going to be deprived of their fun, whatever the circumstances.

By the time of the Jockey Club’s next special meeting, March 16, 1915, there had been developments outside the sport. Most notably, Lord Kitchener, recruiter in chief to the armed forces, had argued that racing should cease, and those who worked in it might be employed in other roles more in the national interest. There were arguments among Club members this time, and just finding agreement on the wording of motions proved difficult, but finally the members voted to stand by the resolution it had passed the previous September.

But another, more powerful, club was yet to have its say. In May the subject was debated in the House of Commons, and members on both sides condemned the continuation of racing. The upshot was a communication from the President of the Board of Trade to the Stewards of the Jockey Club, stressing the necessity for keeping the whole of the railway system free from congestion for the rapid and unimpeded transit of troops and munitions. Accordingly, all race meetings should be suspended for the duration of the war, ‘except at Newmarket, the peculiar circumstances and industries of which, dependent as they are entirely on racing, combine to make this exception expedient.’

There was no arguing with that. After the Windsor card on May 22, only Newmarket staged racing in England in 1915. The situation changed again early the following year. Just why there should have been any relaxation of the ban it was hard to know, but neither the War Office nor railway companies objected to the staging of a limited number of meetings at Gatwick, Lingfield, Newbury and Windsor. Between them they had 24 days racing in 1916.

You’ve had your fun
In February 1917 a similar schedule seemed to have been agreed, but at the end of April there came a missive from the Ministry of Food, stating ‘the War Cabinet had decided that it was necessary, in the national interest, to request the Stewards of the Jockey Club to take steps to prohibit the holding of all race meetings after the week ending May 5.’ The wording seemed extraordinary – asking rather than ordering – but that was probably because the government was conscious of reneging on the agreement it had made two months earlier.

Perhaps even more extraordinary was the reaction of some members of the Jockey Club, who turned angrily on the Stewards, blaming them for not having sufficiently impressed on the government the real importance of the breeding industry and the necessity of racing. Could those members not see that, in the prevailing circumstances, the provision of feed for the cavalry’s horses on the continent must take priority over that for thoroughbreds at home?

In fact, there was soon another turn of events in favour of racing. Needled by the criticism of their members, the Stewards of the Jockey Club sought a meeting with the Prime Minister, and that took place at Lord Derby’s London residence on July 4. This time they made their case for the need for more racing to good effect, Lloyd George consenting to the staging of 12 additional racedays, divided between Ayr, Brighton, Manchester, Stockton and Windsor. Newmarket had already staged its Craven and first spring meetings, and there would be five extra meetings there before the three regular October fixtures.

Further relaxations were sanctioned for 1918, permission being granted for meetings at Birmingham, Gatwick, Haydock, Lewes, Wolverhampton and Worcester. Those courses, in addition to Lingfield, Manchester, Stockton and Windsor, had all staged meetings before the axe came down again at the end of May.

The letter of May 17 from the Board of Trade to Lord Jersey, by now Jockey Club Senior Steward, was similar to its predecessors, up to a point. It stated: ‘The government fully recognise the national importance of horse breeding, and also realise that to maintain the thoroughbred breeding industry of this country a limited amount of racing is necessary.’

However, the letter went on: ‘But in view of the great strain on the facilities available on the railways for dealing with essential traffic, it has been decided that no Flat racing should be allowed after May 31, except at Newmarket… and that no extra trains should be run to Newmarket for the conveyance of racegoers.’

The government was not asking this time; it was issuing a command. And the Jockey Club made no further representations for the restoration of fixtures outside Newmarket, where the season ended on November 1, ten days before the carnage in Europe ceased. Looking back, it is easy to recognise why much ill-feeling was generated over the continuation of racing, when so many other sports shut down for the duration. There was a case for carrying on, on a limited scale, but its necessity as the proving-ground for the horses with parts to play in a significant breeding industry would have been lost on those who could not see beyond the upper classes being determined to preserve their amusement.

I have often wondered what my grandmother would have thought. The black-edged card which she received expressing condolences over the death in action of her husband bore the signature of the Secretary of State for War. He was Lord Derby, one of those most influential in the continuation of racing during the conflict.