West Watford History Group

History of West Watford and environs

CARACTACUS and HOLYWELL FARM


The 1862 Epsom Derby was run on 4th June with a huge field of 34 horses, the largest ever recorded at the Derby.  When James 'Jim' Goater refused to ride Caractacus in favour of Goater's brother's horse, the Sprite, Mr Snewing's stable boy John Parsons, believed to be about 16 years old and reported to be the youngest jockey ever to win the Derby, was given the ride, as he had in the horse's three previous races.  The horses made three false starts before the race got underway with Caractacus being a distant outsider. Yet Caractacus won by a neck from Buckstone and Neptunus. An objection was raised by Lord Stamford, which was not upheld and then, when all the jockeys and saddles were weighed post race, Parsons did not initially meet the 122 lbs requirement weight and only the adding of the bridle to the tack prevented disqualification.  



"Caractacus, whose wonderous shape
Sets every country mouth agape-
And if, of the outsiders there,
One horse should pass the winning chair,
Enrolled in the successful three,
Be sure Caractacus is he."
—Orange Blossom, Bell's Life 


Caractacus was described as a bay colt that stood 15.1 hands high, with a “light” neck, fine shoulders, good girth and sound feet. He had a large white blaze, a white sock on his right front foot and a grey full-stocking on his right hind leg. He had a “corky” personality and possessed refined movement, leading him to be described as a “slashing goer.”  

As a yearling, Caractacus was bought for 250 guineas by the trainer William Day, acting on behalf of a London publican named Charles Snewing who also was a veterinary surgeon. Allegedly, the colt was named 'Caractacus' because Snewing had admired a statue of the British chieftain 'Caractacus bound in chains' at the 1851 Exhibition. He is reported to have said, "If ever I try a horse good enough I'll call him Caractacus, and win the Derby with him". In spring 1861, the two-year-old colt was moved to a stable at Harpenden in Hertfordshire, where his training was managed by Robert "Bob" Smith.  After the Derby win  Caractacus was retired to stud in 1863, with Snewing retaining ownership. He was a breeding stallion first at the Highfield Paddock near St Albans for an annual fee of 20 guineas. He was moved to the Holywell Stud Farm in Watford sometime before 1872. Caractacus serviced approximately 40 mares per season while in Britain before being sold for £7,000 to Mr. Strass who exported him to St Petersburg at the end of the 1872 breeding season. Caractacus sired about 57 foals in Russia, none of which were successful racers or sires. He died in 1878 at the Russian Imperial Stud in Hrenoosky.


In honour of the Derby win, Charles Snewing hosted a Festival in honour of Caractacus at his Holywell Farm where it was "a scene of such recreation and joy as will never be forgotten by anyone who had the good fortune to be present". Apart from his own extensive circle of friends, there were invited a large gathering of the labouring men of Watford and male inmates of the Union Workhouse, to celebrate 'by jubilant feelings the concluded harvest and to pay honour to Caractacus'. The entrance to the grounds was decorated with festoons of evergreens and flowers. The bay and "centre transept" of a large barn was tastefully decorated with the light blue and white colours of the winner and with mottoes such as 'Welcome', 'God Save the Queen', 'Speed the Plough' and 'Long Reign King Caractacus'. A large marquee had been placed in the Home Field, on the slope between the hill of the homestead and the river Colne and was laid for 500 poor people, but far more than 500 enjoyed Mr Snewing's hospitality that day, which consisted of some 800 lbs of roast and boiled meat, 1,400 quarts of ale and porter and a plentiful supply of plum puddings. There were many speeches and toasts and the Watford Volunteer Band entertained the guests and the bells rang peals throughout the day by the express wish of the inhabitants of Watford and with the sanction of the Vicar and Churchwardens. 


There are several accounts of the great day and below are a few extracts:


From 'The Field' - October 11th


Holywell Farm, Watford, was a scene of joy and merriment on Thursday; the owner of the last Derby winner opened house to a large party of friends and acquaintances and gave an entertainment to the poor of the parish that will long be remembered by hundreds  who rarely taste a substantial meal, and by all who reside within hearing of the bells of Watford ...... Mr Charles Snewing, gentleman, joined his Harvest Home with his Derby dinner and nearly half a ton of butcher's meat was cooked upon the premises and had we not seen in the farm and rick yards some clever "improved Middlesex" and lumping grey Dorkings, we should have fancied neither pig nor pullet was alive in the vicinity. Guests began to arrive at mid-day and were greeted by "Welcome" on a triumphal arch and by the band of the Second Herts Volunteers telling them to enjoy the Roast Beef of Old England .... The neighing of horses and the lowing of oxen informed the lover of agriculture that he was on a spot where those animals are well tended; and that a stroll before luncheon would repay him for the trouble of crossing a few fields to take survey of the stock. That stroll we took and were gratified at the sight of Polestar with a colt foal by Wild Dayrell, of British Remedy with a spanking filly by the same horse; and Riseber's dam with a good but not very forward colt. The little wanton herd was wild, from the notes of the Volunteers and scampered up and down their paddock when they heard sweet music. Listless, but still a trifle impatient, stood a remarkably fine hunting mare and Maid of Honour's dam on the other side of an iron fencing; the former with an eye that seemed to say "Find a fox in Oxhey Woods yonder and you'll see that I yet have spirit for a gallop".  The we turned towards the meadows and passing the home now being formed for Caractacus at the termination of his career, we came upon the shorthorns; there we beheld the red Filbert, by Marmaduke, and her beautiful (26 months) heifer by Cock-o'-the-Walk; the roan Honeymoon and her daughter Dulcibella. An Alderney kept them company and reminded us of "the big ones for the milk, the little one for the cream" given in "Silk and Scarlet" as a reply to the Empress of Russia. 

Mrs W Snewing had now set the barn in order and the clatter of plates and the flying of corks soon announced the revels as commenced. The early repast was quickly ended and the guest repaired to the large tent where the flying of flags and beating of drums announced -


That the winner of the Derby had opened his house to all,

and though he entertained the rich, he ne'er forgot the small;


for round and surloin stood upon the long tables in readiness for the keen appetites of every man employed upon the farm, of their friends and relatives and of the aged, worn-out sons of toil, who are ending their weary pilgrimage in the poor-house. 


From 'The Morning Herald' - October 10th


There were some neat speeches delivered by one or two clergymen and other gentlemen after luncheon; but the enthusiasm which prevailed amongst the workmen in the tent at dinner cannot be described; Some members of the fair sex assisted them at table - an honour and a treat they will ever remember; and when the owner of the Derby winner walked through the tent the cheering was something terrific. As each huge joint of beef was stripped to the bone, the men held up the empty dish and called out "Hurrah for the roast beef of old England!" which was immediately followed by cries of "Halloo boys! Halloo".... Such a day of rejoicing has never, I will venture to assert, been seen at Holywell Farm before, and should Mr Snewing ever run another horse in the Derby, the result will be eagerly awaited by hundreds at Watford, who will dream of Caractacus tonight, as I did two months before he won the Derby.


From the 'Daily Telegraph'- October 13th


Mr Snewing had delayed the fete until after the St Leger, as he was sanguine that he should be able to celebrate the double success of his horse for both the great three year old encounters at Epsom and Doncaster.  A more pleasant day I have seldom spent at Watford and from the beginning to end the whole thing constituted one of the most gratifying and even romantic chapters in the history or racing ..... The sound of the church bells, the strains of the volunteer band, the gaily decorated marquee and, as the Americans phrase it, the entire "surroundings" of the scene, carried one's mind back a hundred years, when such purely English festivals were far more common. ..... The farm is delightfully situated in a well-wooded valley and the cottage and out-houses are as neat and pretty as it is possible to imagine. A bright stream flows through the meadows, making a paradise well worthy of Caractacus when his turf career is terminated.


Later in the day, the entertainment being enlivened by some excellent volunteered songs from Messrs Mackney and Corri, many well-known racing gentlemen were present and all seemed highly delighted. The company then separated, some to tea and some to witness the amusements of the rustics, including hurdle and foot racing etc., etc. into which they entered with greatest hilarity.   The Watford Volunteer Band with its enlivening strains, accompanied the rural guests, who made the welkin ring*, part way to Watford and then returned, when to their inspiring music many soon mingled in the merry dance.


*to make the welkin ring - an archaic term meaning to make a loud noise or sound during revels.


The Derby was ultimately Caractacus' last start. He was entered for the 1862 St Leger Stakes, but he injured both suspensory ligaments in his front legs shortly before the running and was permanently retired from racing.





References: The County Herald - October 18th 1862

                       The Morning Herald - October 10th

                       The Daily Telegraph - October 13th 

                       The Field - October 11th

                       Wikipedia