Oliver & Gladys

Literary pictures of life in the great age of Victorian and Edwardian shooting—fact, fiction, and fantasy.

by Terry Wieland

It’s time to recommend another book:  Olly, by Rupert Godfrey, is “The life and times of Frederick Oliver Robinson, 2nd Marquis of Ripon,” according to the subtitle, and it is all of that and more.

Mr. Godfrey feels comfortable referring to Ripon throughout the book as “Olly,” as he was known to his friends, to differentiate him from his father, the first marquis, who is known throughout the book as George.  For my part, I’ll refer to him as Ripon, since his father will not play a part here, henceforth.

For those who have not studied the history of wingshooting, suffice to say the 2nd Marquis of Ripon was the greatest wingshooter of all time.  Spare me the arguments in favor of Fred Kimble or Nash Buckingham or Captain Bogardus; by comparison they hardly signify.  Even in the white-heat intensity of competitive shooting in the Victorian and Edwardian ages, Ripon stood out not just for numbers—more than 550,000, documented and witnessed—but for his extraordinary skill with a shotgun.

Legends abound, some simply unbelievable:  Seven pheasants dead in the air at one time?  Or even five?  Mathematically near impossible, calculating the time it would take for the first pheasant 35 yards up to hit the ground before the seventh (or fifth) was whacked.  Even with three guns and two loaders…well, believe it if you will.

Such legends grow around all such larger-than-life characters from history, and it says something about Ripon’s reputation at the time that they not only emerged and grew, but were generally believed—much like Babe Ruth pointing to the upper decks in left field (or was it right?) and putting the very next pitch into the seats.

There were negative legends as well, many being aired in an article in Sports Illustrated in 1972 entitled “The Game Hog of Dallowgill.”  This was a hatchet job of the first rank, replete with minor inaccuracies, and awash in the inverse snobbery Americans reserve for Englishmen who do something better than they do.  The article has no byline, so it’s hard to know who to blame, and anyway, not long afterward Sports Illustrated foreswore coverage of anything much except team sports, the Olympics, and bikinis—much to the relief of shooters tired of the serial misrepresentation.

But back to Olly.

One of the anonymous verbal assassin’s accusations was that he was “wretchedly unsportsmanlike,” which is at odds with every other description of him as a perfect gentleman.  In the circles in which he moved—upper-class England in the belle epoque—a very high value was placed on gentlemanly behaviour.  Ripon was a shy man who was uncomfortable in crowds and preferred antique shops and fine porcelain to the glitter of London nightlife.

To everyone’s astonishment, Ripon married Gladys, Lady Lonsdale, one of the great beauties and society ladies of the age.  While Gladys (pronounced GLAY-dis) undoubtedly had many love affairs during their life together—the pursuit of other people’s wives being another great sporting love of the Edwardians—they seemed contented.  He was devastated when she died in 1917, leaving him a widower his last six years.

Gossip aside, Lady Ripon’s reputation was greatly enhanced by her activities on behalf of wounded soldiers from 1915 to 1917, and her death is at least partly attributed to exhaustion from her tireless nursing duties.  She was also largely responsible for turning country houses into rehabilitation hospitals for the long-term wounded, as recently portrayed in the series Downton Abbey.

The British shooting scene from 1860 until the 1920s has been written about in many books, both personal memoirs by those who were there, and histories drawing on those memoirs.  Lord Ripon did not write a book himself, and in fact left very little in writing except a few letters.  Concequently, Rupert Godfrey was left to rely on other people’s letters and recollections to piece together his biography.

Sorting fact from fiction, and life from legend, was no easy task, but Godfrey put together a book that’s invaluable for anyone who has an interest in Ripon and the shooting world of which he was a prominent part, or in Victorian and Edwardian high society.