A Day at the Races

In my last-but-one blog piece (called Flea Market Supplementary) I said I’d get back to you about two envelopes discovered inside a suitcase belonging to a wealthy Scottish sporting gentleman. One of the envelopes didn’t have anything interesting in it but is of interest in itself (well, of interest to me, anyway), and I’ll write about it next time.

This posting is about what was found in the other envelope. It’s related to horseracing, a subject which is a closed book to me.

Although I have lived for much of my life within a few miles of a racecourse, I’ve never been much interested in The Turf, or spent a day – or even a moment – at the races. Here’s the sum total of my lifetime contact with the noble sport:

  • Prince MonoluluMy parents were regular visitors to Ascot and Windsor races and invariably had a small flutter on the classics;
  • One of my cousins, an otherwise upright and exemplary citizen, has a mild addiction to attending race meetings and betting on the gee-gees, as a result of which I suspect he isn’t as financially comfortable in retirement as he and his family might have expected;
  • As a child in central London I often saw the legendary racing tipster Prince Monolulu plying his trade in the streets (you couldn’t miss him);
  • Once I went into a betting shop and rapidly came out again.

That’s it really.

Or not quite. There was a fairly recent occasion when I had a peripheral brush with a crowd of racegoers. One Saturday Frances and I travelled by an early train from Edinburgh to York. The objective was to spend a quiet, restful weekend in a nice hotel. We would wander the streets, see the sights, eat in decent cafes and restaurants, visit the fantastic Centre of Ceramic Art at the York Art Gallery or the National Railway Museum or the Castle Museum, and perhaps undertake a little retail therapy on the side in the antique shops and designer clothing outlets. We do this quite often – York has a great deal to offer.

York station
York Station. Image borrowed from http://www.docbrown.info/docspics/yorkscenes/yspage08.htm

It was a beautiful early summer day. The train was busy, and as we alighted at York Station a number of other more local trains were also arriving. We found ourselves amidst a throng, and very quickly realised, much to our consternation, that it wasn’t going to be a quiet weekend at all. Not only was it one of the busiest weekends for stag and hen parties, but it was also the day of York Races.

Image borrowed from https://travelerjournalist.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/hen3.jpg

On York weekends we have come over the years to expect to see groups of nattily-dressed young men and overdressed and sash-bedecked young women behaving more or less drunkenly and rowdily in the streets as part of their ritual preparation for marriage. We generally try to avoid undue exposure to these excesses by booking into hotels which most of the youngsters can’t afford, and by returning to our room at an early hour. It’s a hazard, and sadly one which impairs peaceful enjoyment of weekends in many beautiful British and European cities.

210820133189_Frank Dwyer
Ladies’ Day at York Racecourse. Image borrowed from https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/10628056.York_Races_Ladies_Day_fashion_pictures/

But this particular weekend was special because the groups of incoming stags and hens were far exceeded in numbers by a huge influx of racegoers. Mostly youngish, they were an altogether more affluent-looking crowd, the men typically hipster-bearded and wearing flashily-lined three-piece suits, the women with wide-brimmed hats or fascinators, tight-fitting satiny dresses, impossibly high heels, and slatherings of fake tan covering all exposed surfaces.

1County Standresize
Image borrowed from https://www.yorkracecourse.co.uk/what-to-wear.html

Now I’m telling you all of this because, as the horseracing crowd strutted and swaggered and sashayed and tottered their way out of the station, heedlessly jostling a certain grumpy old bystander off the pavement and into the path of a dangerous-looking and out-of-control hen-do, I noticed one extra characteristic about them which is germane to this piece. Most of them – or at least most of the men – wore suspended on a string or ribbon from their waistcoat or lapel buttonhole a small colourful plastic or cardboard tag. These objects came in several colours, and I took it that their purpose was to gain entry for the bearer to the various stands or enclosures at the racecourse.

It seems that these little tags are your tickets. This method of gaining entry to race meetings appears to have been developed in the late nineteenth century. The more you pay, the better class of ticket is issued to you. For the expensive stands, you get an enamelled metal badge. If you pay for annual membership, you get a really fancy one which you wear each time you attend a meeting.

Which is what my Scottish sporting gentleman did. During the period from 1891 to 1901, he took annual memberships in the most expensive stands at Hurst Park, Sandown Park, Liverpool (Aintree), Kempton Park, Hamilton Park, Newmarket, Lingfield and Gatwick racecourses (the latter occupying the site upon which the airport was later built). When each season ended and he didn’t need the membership badge any more, he put it in an envelope with all the others, and put the envelope back in his travelling dressing case.

I don’t know why his period of attachment to the noble sport of horseracing was limited to just ten years. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe after 1901 he simply threw out his old badges.

2019-02-03 16.39.06Or maybe he lost so much money (as evidenced by his betting notebook which was also found in the suitcase) that he made himself kick the habit. Or maybe he curtailed his racegoing after his health broke down in July 1900, which we know about from the doctor’s letter, also found in the case, warning him off fast living and booze.

We do know, however, that he survived for another 30 years or so, during which time he travelled widely throughout the world, retaining leftover pocket change from his travels in a cigar box which he also kept in the case.

After his death, the case was stored away for the next 80 or 90 years. Since it was re-opened a few weeks ago, I have been selling its contents on behalf of Sally the present owner in order to raise money for charities for the homeless. If you’ve read the previous posting, you are aware that I sold the pocket change and was able to donate £1,383 to three Edinburgh good causes.

Selling the coins was easy because I know about coins and how to sell them. If you want to know how I know about coins, then I recommend you to read Chapters 6 and 8 of my book Random Treasure (available here). But now I had about a dozen racecourse membership badges to sell, and I knew nothing about them. I didn’t even know that they were a thing, and I certainly didn’t know if they were collectable.

So I looked on eBay which I expected to be an ideal place to sell this type of item. If it’s something which is possible to accumulate into a complete collection, if it’s small and easily packaged and sent through the post, then collectors from all over the world will gather on eBay to buy it and sell it. That’s how and why the coins sold so well. But would this also be true of racecourse badges?

Screenshot 2019-02-03 23.08.24Sure enough, once I had discovered the correct listing category (Sports Memorabilia > Horse Racing Memorabilia > Badges/ Pins), it appeared that there are indeed many buyers and sellers of these objects. Today, as I write this, there are 2,427 listings on eBay UK, mainly fairly recent badges which are remarkably similar in design and quality to the century-old badges found in the envelope. Looking at prices achieved, I note that a Sandown Park badge from the 2017-18 season sold recently for £10.99, and a set of ten Newmarket badges got £15.

I was thus encouraged that I would be able to sell the badges, but at the same time discouraged because I didn’t think that collectors would wish to pay very much for them.

How wrong I was! Within less than an hour of listing the first badge on eBay, I was contacted by the UK’s (or the world’s) top collector, and after a small amount of pleasant negotiation I agreed to sell more than half of the collection to him for a staggering price. He already owned examples of the other badges, so I listed these on eBay and sold them all at excellent prices after strong bidding competition. Overall result:

  • Gross proceeds £1,428.01
  • Net proceeds to be donated to charity: £1,379.17.

Who would have thought that someone would happily pay £450 for an 1891 Liverpool Racecourse leather-covered season ticket with matching Lady’s badge? Or £300 for a boxed set of 1894 Gatwick Club membership badges? Or £200 for an engraved ivory (yes, ivory) Newmarket badge for 1891?

Hardly anyone would have thought it. Indeed it appears that in the world of racecourse badge collecting, paying such amounts for badges is exceedingly rare. But that’s because the badges themselves were exceedingly rare.

The collector who bought the majority of the pieces is delighted. He has them proudly displayed on his website, where many of his badges are available for sale. But:

“Three of the badges I bought from you are too important for me to ever sell, the Liverpool Pair are clearly very special to me … but they are also so important that others can visit my site and see that badges were being used even in the 1890s. Another important one is the Newmarket ivory 1891 badge because it is the earliest Newmarket badge I have ever seen and it is in ivory, which is most unusual … The third badge I bought from you which is of great importance is the Gatwick 1894 trio. I had not realised until this point that Gatwick produced a Trio. The earliest evidence of a Trio was previously Sandown at a later date.”

So, in addition to raising an amazingly large sum for charity, the disposal of the gentleman’s small collection has produced a significant advancement in knowledge in the somewhat rarefied world of racecourse badge collecting. A most satisfactory outcome.

Although I have learned a smattering about racecourse badges from this experience, I am not certain that my newly-acquired knowledge will be put to any future use because it is most unlikely that I will ever again encounter another badge. Nevertheless, all learning is useful, and I’m extremely grateful to Sally for allowing me the opportunity to benefit so amply from diving deeply into her late relative’s suitcase in my search for random treasure.

2019-01-11 15.50.20My next blog posting will be about the second envelope discovered in the case. Not about what was in it, but about what is printed on it. It’s not a story about treasure. It involves our Scottish gentleman, a Lounge Lizard, and a Lord who has featured elsewhere in this blog.

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