William Hutchinson’s ‘unrivalled piece of horsemanship’, 6 May 1819

On Thursday 6 May 1819, William Hutchinson, a horse dealer from Canterbury in Kent and in consequence of a wager of 600 guineas, set off to prove that he could ride from his home city to London Bridge, a distance of 55½ miles, in three hours or less. What followed was enthusiastically described in the press of the day as ‘one of the greatest, if not unrivalled pieces of horsemanship’, especially when taking into account the hills on the route.

Hutchinson’s attempt began at 3.30am precisely, setting off at a gallop from the Falstaff Inn on St Dunstan’s Street. He changed horses along the way, at Boughton Hill, Beacon Hill, Sittingbourn, Rainham, Chatham Hill, Day’s Hill, Northfleet, Dartford, Welling and lastly, at the Green Man in Blackheath. It was on this last horse that he raced up to and over London Bridge.

West Gate from St Dunstan's, Canterbury by an unknown artist (the Falstaff Inn can be seen just to the left of Westgate, a medieval gatehouse
West Gate from St Dunstan’s, Canterbury by an unknown artist (the Falstaff Inn can be seen just to the left of Westgate, a medieval gatehouse; Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries

The horses were all the property of either Hutchinson himself, or of his close friends, and some came from the stud of the Wellington coach. At each stop, Hutchinson dismounted himself and was assisted to mount the next horse which, Hutchinson calculated, took up less than 30 seconds at each stage (it must have been the eighteenth-century equivalent of a Formula 1 pit stop today!) The horse which took Hutchinson from Welling to Blackheath was the most troublesome, bolting twice while going down Shooter’s Hill and again on Blackheath, which lost Hutchinson quite a bit of time. Throughout the journey, Hutchinson was accompanied by a horseman on each stage just in case an accident befell him.

On Shooter's Hill by George Scharf.
On Shooter’s Hill by George Scharf. British Library

Two men had travelled to London ahead of Hutchinson and were in place to act as umpires. With their watches, and the watches of two more umpires present at the start of the race in Canterbury, the time was worked out accurately. And, it was found that Hutchinson had comfortably completed his feat within the allotted three hours; in fact, he ran the distance in just 2 hours, 25 minutes and 51 seconds.

William Hutchinson of Canterbury on 'Staring Tom', riding from Canterbury to London Bridge in 2 hours 25 minutes and 51 seconds on Thursday 6 May 1819
William Hutchinson of Canterbury on ‘Staring Tom’, riding from Canterbury to London Bridge in 2 hours 25 minutes and 51 seconds on Thursday 6 May 1819; Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries

Although Hutchinson bragged that he felt fit enough to return to Canterbury in less than three hours on the same day, he actually returned in more comfort, in the Wellington coach, enjoying a hearty breakfast followed by two mutton chops and a quantity of brandy at the Bricklayer’s Arms on the Kent road.

Later that day, back in Canterbury and at the Rose Inn (where he arrived at 2.45pm), William Hutchinson received the Freedom of the City of Canterbury, ‘in consideration of the extraordinary feat he has this day performed with a faithfulness as honourable to himself, as it is satisfactory to every individual concerned in the match’.

Canterbury, Kent, from St Stephen's, 1819, by James Canterbury Pardon
Canterbury, Kent, from St Stephen’s, 1819, by James Canterbury Pardon; Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries

Sources:

Sussex Advertiser, 10 May 1819

Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 7 and 11 May 1819

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