His last words were ‘Are They Coming?’ We know that because Fred Archer was in the company of his sister when he committed suicide by putting a revolver to his mouth and firing the fatal shot. The actual account of his death surprised me as the term suicide usually refers to a lonely death yet Archer died in his own bedroom, his blood staining his own carpet. It is thought his last words were reference to his dead wife and still-born son, and who is to say they were not waiting for him ‘on the other side’?
Death haunted Archer all his life, seemingly, and he had a morbid dread of being buried alive, which might explain his extraordinary decision to end his life, even though his doctors were adamant he was overcoming the typhoid fever that had come about due to a chill he had picked up at Lewes racecourse and which had developed into a high fever by the time he reached home.
It is said as a young man Archer had his palm read by a gipsy at Chelmsford races and that she foretold that he would die by the hand she held. Even before that portentous event death had crossed young Archer’s path. In 1878 a friend of the Archer family was killed right in front of the public house his father kept in Andoversford. The following day, on the first day of the Cheltenham steeplechases, Archer’s brother William died as a result of a fall.
Nothing, though, daunted Archer when mounted on a horse and his record as a jockey is as good as anyone who followed him through to this day. He was champion jockey 13 times, with 246 wins his largest total in a single season. In all he rode 2,748 winners from just over 8,000 rides. A success rate made more notable as his only mode of transport to the racecourse was by steam train. He won the Derby 5 times and 21 classics in all, and rode one of the horses that should always be credited on any list of ‘greatest ever racehorses’ – Ormonde.
It is said his ghost can still be seen occasionally riding the lanes of Newmarket.
The crooked-spire town of Chesterfield can boast, not that anyone in the town knows, I suspect, of being the venue of Fred Archer’s first of the 2,748, on September 28th, 1870. The trainer of Atholl Daisy, John Peart, outlived Archer and never tired of telling people he was the man who started Archer on is way.
‘The Tin Man’ epithet denoted his carefulness with money, though there is many instances recorded of his generosity. A widow sent him a half-sovereign, asking him to invest it on her behalf on a horse he thought a certainty. The winnings were to be her pension. But Archer returned the money with the advice that no horse is a certainty and that half-a-sovereign was better than a torn-up betting slip. On another occasion, while waiting at a train station for a connection to a race-meeting, a man asked him for a sovereign so that he could get home to Manchester. Archer took a coin from his waistcoat pocket and walked away. The man, though, chased after him, telling Archer a half-sovereign was no good to him. Archer took back the coin, examined it and replacing it in his waistcoat pocket told the man he thought it was a sovereign, leaving the man nothing but his outstretched hand. Archer was careful with money, never extravagant but also never mean.
He was, though, without a care in a race. It is said in winning the Manchester Cup on Valour he rode so close to the rail he ripped his boot open from toe to heal and returned to the scales bleeding and sore. In the following race he rode exactly the same, ripping a second boot from toe to heal. His language, too, was ripe when riding in a race and he demanded rather asked for favours when making his bid for victory.
As it was for the age, though, death was always kin to Archer’s shadow. His first-born, a son, died still-born and in 1884, his wife, his beloved Nellie, died days after giving birth to Archer’s daughter. He later said to a friend. ‘Poor Nellie! She was my glory, my pride, my life, my all, and she was taken from me at the very moment that my happiness did really seem to me to be so great and complete as to leave nothing else in this world I could wish for.’ A tribute to his wife that is also a tribute to Archer’s true character.
Finally, when reading of the accomplishments of jockeys and trainers from another era what is crystal clear is that though there is a historical thread running through the centuries – the Epsom Derby, Royal Ascot, the Grand National etc – it is also obvious what has disappeared, and not only racecourses like Derby, Chesterfield, Shrewsbury, Northampton for example but also the major races that racecourses played host to, the Clearwell Stakes at Newmarket, a race that Archer won 6 times. The Great Northamptonshire Stakes; Nottinghamshire H’cap; the Gold Vase; Earl Spencer Plate; Great Easter H’cap; Newmarket Oaks; Great Cheshire H’cap; Epsom Gold Cup; Alexandra Plate; the Great Sapling Stakes; Manchester Cup; Royal Stakes; Whitsuntide Plate; Hartington Plate. I wonder where the trophies for these races languish. It would be nice if one or two of them could be raced for again, perhaps with the same conditions. We must never forget the past. And we should never forget Frederick James Archer. No one was more dedicated to being a jockey than him. At least until A.P.McCoy turned up.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.