The 2nd Marquis of Ripon – known as ‘Lord de Grey’ for most of his life – was the greatest shot of the pre-First World War era. He was the Bradman of shooting – so far ahead of his peers that everyone else was second-best. Hitherto, he has been largely written off as a man dedicated solely to the destruction of furred and feathered game – and anything else that moved.
Needing a project, I started researching the Marquis of Ripon, and soon discovered that there was, at first glance, very little original material about him. The title had died with him, and there were no family muniments to trawl. Ten years ago, I would have given up, but Internet search engines proved fantastic at finding references to obscure archives, and to books long out of print, but often available to read online, or from the dusty bowels of the Bodleian Library. One lead led to another, and I was lucky to find that Ripon’s two closest friends in his youth – Regy Brett (later Lord Esher), and Lewis ‘Loulou’ Harcourt – had both kept journals, the latter, especially, writing in great depth about both the political and social scenes.
What to call Lord Ripon in my book was the first challenge: he was born Frederick Oliver Robinson, and received the courtesy titles of ‘Viscount Goderich’, and later ‘Earl de Grey’ from his father, on the latter’s elevation to a Marquisate in 1871. He was known as ‘Olly’ to his parents and close friends, so that is how I titled my biography.
In 1885 he married the remarkable – some would say ‘notorious’ – widow, Gladys, Lady Lonsdale. She was a prolific writer, and much more of her output has survived, together with that of three of her brothers, two of whom became Earls of Pembroke. Their marriage was an interesting one, to say the least.
Gladys de Grey, in 1892
During my research, I discovered that Olly was a much more rounded character than history has portrayed him: he was an astute businessman; a connoisseur of the arts, and collector of porcelain; and, together with Gladys, was responsible for the renaissance of the Royal Opera in the 1890s. He was also an incredible shot.
I had finished the book in early 2012, and felt that I had done as good a job as I could with the material I had managed to find. My main disappointment was that I had never discovered who had bought Olly’s gamebooks at Sotheby’s in 1986. He filled in a leather-bound book every season from 1871, and I knew that a biography could hardly be definitive unless I had seen them. The collection had been bought anonymously, and shipped abroad.
Olly’s gamebooks, and one of his guns.(Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s)
Finally – literally 24 hours before I was due to give the printer the go-ahead – a friend phoned me on a Saturday evening, and told me he was shooting with one of the family who had bought the collection, and would I like to see them?
I spent the next week reading, and photographing, the books, which added a whole new dimension to my biography, with large parts needing re-writing as a result. Not only the sheer numbers were of interest, but Olly was an accomplished artist, too, and his early books are adorned with whatever caught his eye. Sadly, he didn’t continue with this after the late 1880s.
It was disappointing, too, that his observations of each day’s sport were limited mainly to the numbers he had killed, and his notes were nothing like as detailed as those of Lord Ashburton, for example, who made often highly critical – but fascinating – entries describing the shoots he had attended, and his fellow Guns.
Despite this, the gamebooks proved invaluable, and allowed me to fill out many details hitherto missing. Olly lived a privileged life, during an extraordinary period of British history, which culminated in the terrible years of The Great War. Gladys died in 1917, but Olly lived on until 1923, when he died – as he would probably have wished – on his grouse moor, Dallowgill, collapsing after a successful grouse drive.
Olly’s final butt can be seen on the left;
the cairn marks the spot where he died.
‘Olly’ has been published privately, in a Limited First Edition of 1500 numbered copies.
220 pages, with over 120 black and white illustrations, and 12 pages of colour.
To order your copy, please click here