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'All the mob-lunatics out, crowding the pavements of pretty and pleasant Doncaster, all degrees of men, peers and paupers, betting incessantly' David Ashforth burrows through the archives to recount the experience of the Victorian era's greatest writer at Doncaster races.

Byline: David Ashforth

ON THE morning of Monday, September 14, 1857, two men caught a train from Leeds to Doncaster. The younger of the two, Wilkie Collins, was limping. A few days earlier, his companion, Charles Dickens, had insisted that they climb Carrock Fell, in the Lake District. Collins slipped on a wet stone and twisted his ankle. He had to be helped down the hillside, but Dickens was determined to continue their tour and reach Doncaster, where he had booked rooms at the Angel Hotel.

Monday marked the start of St Leger week, the week when, according to The Doncaster Chronicle: "Doncaster is the beau ideal of a sporting town, when the tocsin sounds for its autumnal revelries."

The four-day racemeeting started the following day, but racegoers were already pouring into Doncaster. Dickens reported that, during their train journey, "no other business than race-business any longer existed on the face of the earth. The talk was all of horses and John Scott" - Yorkshire's champion trainer, who had already won the St Leger 13 times.

When they reached Doncaster station, barriers had been erected to control the crowds. Dickens wrote: "Forty extra porters were sent down for this present blessed race-week, and all of them making up their betting books in the lamp-room or somewhere else. All work but race-work was at a standstill."

The celebrated author wanted his visit to pass unnoticed, which was unlikely. Collins, aged 33, had not yet written the first of his successful novels, The Woman in White, but Dickens, a youthful 45, had already produced popular classics such as The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield and Bleak House.

As they made their way to the hotel, Dickens found the town likeable enough, but its occupants repellent. He noted: "All the mob-lunatics out, crowding the pavements of the one main street of pretty and pleasant Doncaster, crowding the road, particularly crowding the outside of the betting rooms, whooping and shouting loudly after all passing vehicles. All degrees of men, from peers to paupers, betting incessantly."

The evening brought no respite. "Town lighted up," Dickens recorded, "more lunatics out than ever; a complete choke and stoppage of the thoroughfare outside the betting rooms. A vague echoing roar of 't'horses' and 't'races' always rising in the air, until midnight, at about which period it dies away in occasional drunken songs and straggling yells.

"Tuesday morning, at daybreak. A sudden rising, as it were out of the earth, of all the obscene creatures who sell 'correct cards' of the races."

Every day, when Dickens looked out of his hotel window, he saw "the lunatics, horse-mad, betting-mad, drunken-mad, vice-mad".

They had come for the racing and the revelry. Dickens had not. He was determined to be in Doncaster during race-week, but the attraction was not the racecourse and the horses but the theatre and the actresses - in particular, Nelly Ternan.

Earlier that year, Dickens and Collins had collaborated to produce a successful play, The Frozen Deep. In August, when the play moved to Manchester, the cast included several members of the Ternan family, including Nelly, aged 18. Dickens, whose marriage was breaking down, quickly became obsessed with her. Nelly Ternan was to be an important but secret part of Dickens' life until his death in 1870. When he learned that Nelly had been booked to appear at the Theatre Royal in Doncaster, he made his plans accordingly.

On their first evening in the town, Dickens and Collins went to the theatre, for a performance that ended with a dance by girls dressed as jockeys. The writers were spotted by The Doncaster, Nottingham and Lincoln Gazette, which reported: "The distinguished author of The Pickwick Papers - his greatest work - was evidently the lion of the evening."

There were other visits to the theatre, but Wednesday was St Leger Day, and Dickens went racing, almost certainly in the company of Nelly and her family.

THE Chronicle reported that a "great stream of humanity began to pour into the town at an early hour. The arrivals from all parts of the country were incessant, completely blocking up the main thoroughfares of the town". The Gazette added that, at the racecourse: "The attendance was immense, never on any former occasion so great. As for the grandstand and enclosure, they were literally 'crammed to suffocation'. The demand for admission exceeded all anticipation, not a ticket was left."

The Gazette put this down partly to the attraction of Blink Bonny, who had already won both the Derby and Oaks and was favourite to add the St Leger. "So famous had Blink Bonny become in the minds of the racing community," claimed the Gazette, "that the deepest interest was manifested in all parts of the country, as well as in Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere, even to get a look at so extraordinary an animal."

Despite the crowds, Dickens found the racecourse "a most beautiful sight, with its agreeable prospect, its quaint Red House, its green grass and fresh heath". He backed three winners, but also fell into "a dreadful state concerning a pair of little lilac gloves and a little bonnet that he saw there", a reference to Nelly Ternan.

Blink Bonny, the 5-4 favourite, finished a well-beaten fourth behind Imperieuse, a 100-6 shot despite having won the 1,000 Guineas and being trained by the great John Scott. The Gazette noted: "When at length No.9 went up as the winner, a funereal stillness almost prevailed."

Blink Bonny's jockey, John Charlton, was believed to have been paid to lose and, two days later, when Blink Bonny won the Park Hill Stakes, the Gazette reported that "an attempt was made to mob Mr I'Anson the owner and Charlton, on account of the time being less for this race than for the St Leger".

Dickens was at the racecourse and, presumably referring to the losing jockey in the St Leger, wrote that, after Friday's big race, there was "a violent scuffling, and a rushing at the losing jockey, and an emergence of the said jockey from a swaying and menacing crowd, protected by friends, and looking the worse for wear".

On Saturday, when there was no racing, Dickens walked to the course. "It is quite deserted," he wrote. "Heaps of broken crockery and bottles are raised to its memory, and 'correct cards' and other fragments of paper are blowing about it."

The following day, Dickens took Nelly on a trip into the country and visited the ruins of Roche Abbey. On Monday, while Nelly returned to the theatre, Dickens and Collins caught the 11am train to London, their eventful experience of Doncaster race-week over.

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Charles Dickens: thought Doncaster racecourse "a most beautiful sight" and managed to back three winners
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 11, 2007
Words:1126
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