Select Page


Information briefing……..


 A belief, statement, custom, etc., handed down by non-written means (esp. word of mouth, or practice) from generation to generation; such beliefs, etc., considered collectively.

Any practice or custom which is generally accepted and has been established for some time within a society, social group, etc. (in later use not necessarily one passed down from generation to generation); such practices, etc., considered collectively.

Oxford English Dictionary


Many “traditions” are probably harmless; the piping in of the haggis, the buying of socks at Christmas, chasing of cheese down a hill, Morris dancing……. surely these are just harmless eccentricities, even the last bastions of British eccentricity.  But should the Morris dancers blacken their faces, angry voices will be raised in protest.   The dancers insist it is not racist, but just a part of wassailing tradition.  They are simply doing what they’ve always done.  As in many disputes, historical evidence can be ignored.

Hunting is a barbaric activity still validated and practised in Britain in the twenty-first century, and regularly defended as a sacred British tradition.   It dates from the medieval dark ages.  A useful summary of key points in the history of hunting can be found at:

The very early history of hunting is very instructive, as hunters regularly insist that their “sport” was taken up by the aristocracy after the Restoration, and that Hugo Meynell (1735-1808) created the hunting type practised today in the second half of the eighteenth century.  Sycophantic accounts of Meynell’s hunting written by Charles Apperley (1777-1843) , or “Nimrod”, have been generally believed ever since, when in fact, riders have been hunting the fox for approximately six hundred years. These points are fully considered in: 

  • Iris M. Middleton (2005) The Origins of English Fox Hunting and the Myth of Hugo Meynell and the Quorn, Sport in History, 25:1, 1-16,  


An important contribution to the study of tradition was made in 1983, when Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger published “The invention of tradition”.   This is still in print.  The authors argue that many traditions, which appear to be very old, are often recent in origin and often invented for a particular purpose.   They identify three types:


(a) those establishing or symbolizing social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities,

(b) those establishing or legitimizing institutions, status, or relations of authority, and

(c) those whose main purpose was socialization, the inculcation of beliefs, value

systems and conventions of behaviour


One of the articles in the book discusses how the “tradition” of the kilt, in a tartan distinctive to the clan, and the bagpipes, in Scottish celebrations, is not of great antiquity, and was developed after the Union with England.  The whole concept of the cohesive culture of the Highlands and bonny Scotland, is retrospective.   Another chapter addresses the pageantry and ritual of royal ceremonial in England; coronations, Christmas broadcasts, royal funerals and jubilees, we are told, give us stability, prestige, continuity.    Most of these rituals emanate from Queen Victoria’s time.    The continuing deference of the media is essential to maintain this aura of authority and longevity.  Royal wedding dresses contain embroidered flowers from all the dominions and Commonwealth; Ireland may have left, the Raj has ended, Egypt is now independent, but royal wedding dresses bear embroidered Commonwealth flowers and Diana was wafted to the Abbey in a fairytale coach, which was built not in the time of Cinderella, but in 1881.

The advent of “Brexit” has given rise to a great afflatus of patriotism and longing for the days of tradition and empire. We stood alone in 1940; we will be great again.  We will meet again.  The benign Victorian society of order, patriarchy, the great country house, the manly hunter who built the empire, the playing fields of Eton….. these concepts have remarkable power.  In such a traditional world, everyone knows their place.  Excellence in rugby and hunting are the ideal prerequisites of the colonial administrator.  In Charles Kingley’s Yeast, Lancelot the hunter boasts of his lack of formal education:


“You complain that I waste my time in field-sports: how do you know I waste my time?

[. . .] I feel that the exercise of freedom, activity, foresight, daring, independent self-

determination, even in a few minutes’ burst across the country strengthens me in mind

as well as body [. . .] hunting does me good. (p30)


This manliness was essential for the running of the empire and for Britain’s place on the “world stage”.  Robert Smith Surtees gave this description of a master of foxhounds:

He should have the boldness of a lion, the cunning of a fox, the shrewdness of an exciseman, the calculation of a general, the decision of a judge, the purse of Squire Plutus, the regulation of a railway, the punctuality of a time piece, the liberality of a sailor, the patience of Job, the tact of an M.P., the willingness of a diplomatist, the politeness of a lord, the strength of a Hercules, the thirst of a Bacchus, the appetite of a Dando, the digestion of an ostrich, the coolness of a crocodile, the fire-enduring powers of a salamander or  Mons…… what a combination of qualities!   The Hunting Field,

Such a man is a natural leader, both at home and abroad, and his march into foreign and pagan lands will bring order, benevolence, authority and peace.  In the traditions of the hunt, the Englishman could establish his superiority, and his overwhelming entitlement to rule the world.   This is the figure of the Sahib, the relentless pursuer of dangerous or verminous animals, and the benevolent protector of the pitiful native.     Surtees is slightly more reticent in describing the violence and savagery of this ideal Englishman.    The tradition of the “Sahib”, however, had to evolve as the number of magnificent carnivores to shoot dwindled, and native opposition to the British increased. The colonial administration then had to display its benevolence by opening sanctuaries and parks, positing themselves as conservationists, the saviours of wildlife.

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, there was no concerted opposition to the concept of the hunt as the traditional expression of quintessential Englishness.   The extraordinary savagery of the war, however, began to generate slowly-forming different social attitudes to cruelty and killing.  This can be seen in the work of George Bernard Shaw, and of Henry Stephens Salt, founder of the Humanitarian League.  In “Killing for Sport”, Salt identified hunting as a manifestation of debased and primitive behaviour which promoted war and slaughter:

 “In spite of all the barriers and divisions that prejudice and superstition have so industriously heaped up between the human and the non-human, the fact remains that the lower animals hold their lives by the same tenure as men do, and that there is no essential difference between the killing of one race and of the other. The tigerthat lurks in all of us will not easily be tamed, so long as the deliberate murder of harmless creatures for “ sport ” is a recognised amusement in every “ civilised ” country. Once open your eyes to the kinship that links all sentient life, and you will see very clearly the relation that subsists between the sportsman and the soldier.”   Killing for Sport, page 192

Seigfreid Sassoon’sMemoirs of a Fox Hunting Manis a long dirge for the lost world before the war, when the social order seemed immutable, and the barbaric disembowelling of a helpless and terrified animal could be described like this:

“However inhumane its purpose, it was a kindly country scene”

Such a world, with all its entrenched traditions, was shattered, its structures were gradually losing their power; the anti-hunt movement had begun, and was gathering strength.  After a long struggle, in 1976, the RSPCA adopted a policy of opposition to hunting, and public attitudes have strongly supported environmental and ecological concerns since the 1950s.  Traditions are being questioned, and the position of the white hunter as a superior being at the top of the pile is no longer accepted.  Nor is it meekly accepted that animals are on earth for homo sapiensto do as he likes with them. 

This dilution of once-immutable tradition can take many forms. Traditionally, for a man to become a warrior in the Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania, he had to kill a lion.  Since 2012, the group has held “Olympic games” instead.   They do not want to deplete the number of lions, a declining species, and they realise too, that their culture and environment have changed.  The tradition is no longer appropriate, and no amount of bluster, or yearning for the past, will make it so.    The Maasai, to their great credit, have moved on, from slaughter, from “doing what we’ve always done”, from puerile reliance on an idealised past.  


Further reading

David Cannadine,  Ornamentalism : How the British Saw Their Empire (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Carr, Raymond, English fox hunting: a history, Weidenfield, 1976

Griffin, Emma   Blood sport, Yale UP, 2008

 Itzkowitz, David, Peculiar Privilege  Edward Everitt, (1977)

Kingsley, Charles, Yeast

Salt, Henry S  Killing for sport, 1915

Sassoon,  S Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man  (1928)

Surtees, Robert Smith,  The Hunting Field

Thomas, Richard H   The politics of hunting,   Gower, 1983

Tichelar, Michael. “‘A blow to the men in Pink’: The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Opposition to Hunting in the Twentieth Century.” Rural History, vol.22, no.1, 2011, pp. 89–113.

 Tichelar, Michael. The History of Opposition to Blood Sports in Twentieth Century England: Hunting at Bay. Routledge, 2017.