Horseracing Research 1998 and 2018 Compared:

The Shift to Digital History


All historians are living in a digital age now, and having to come to terms with digital technology. Some of us find it a real challenge to our scholarship. Last week I re-read the excellent collection Sport History in the Digital Era edited by Gary Osmond and Murray Phillips, and Dougherty and Nawrotski’s Writing History in the Digital Age. It made me realize just how far things had moved on in terms even of my own use of digital material from the time I wrote my first book on horse racing Flat Racing and British Society 1790 to 1914 (2000) to my most recent one, Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century (Boydell, 2018).


Young researchers reading this may not even be aware that to use newspaper material then I had to comb long series of actual newspapers at the then Colindale British library. Each year’s volume had to be ordered separately and arrived on a trolley about half an hour later, then physically read page by page. To go through just one regional newspaper for six months of racing news could take a full morning. References were often limited, scattered and easy to miss. Some newspapers were on rolls of film, which had to be scrolled through. To read printed material I had to search actual library shelves in London, Cambridge, Manchester, Edinburgh and elsewhere. I had to visit the National Archives in London and county archives right across the country and look through their card and microfiche catalogues before actually ordering up any material. To analyse data I had a card index.

But my recent book on the long eighteenth century was so different in its approach.


Use of newspapers has changed.  It has certainly given me a completely new sense of eighteenth century print culture, now that thousands of newspapers, magazines and periodicals are available on line. My regional lending library, Lancashire County Libraries has an on-line digital site which gave free access inter alia to British Library Newspapers from 1730, and the Times Digital Archive from 1785.  I could purchase access to other searchable sites such as Gales’ 17thand  18th Century Burney Collection or Eighteenth Century Collections on Line.  Digital scanning was so easy, so long as I was careful to generate a multiple range of potential keywords: ‘races’ for example, threw up horse races but also material about ethnicity. The word ‘jockey’ had multiple meanings in the early eighteenth century and was further problematized through its fashion featuring as a ‘jockey cap’.


But searching opened up new research opportunities, so long as I retained my awareness of the broader context. So for example, it was easy to compare the number of horse races across time in a single English county reported in the contemporary racing calendars with those in the regional press.  There were often twice as many race meetings reported, a reminder that racing calendars only reported the more socially prestigious meetings.  I was able to take existing chronology of racing’s development backwards: finding a Newmarket Jockey Club was in existence well before its claimed start in the 1750s, for example. Because on line newspapers had regional coverage I was able to see how far the cultural popularity of racing and its coverage varied from region to region very easily: very popular in Yorkshire, Durham or Suffolk, but gaining little interest in Wales or Devon.


When I was studying jockeys and training grooms I could use their name coupled with associated words like ‘races’ or ‘Newmarket’.  Because jockeys’ names were regularly recorded in the surviving Newmarket match book from 1744 to 1769.I was able to put the material on an Excel table, and identify for each jockey when they rode, on which horse, for which owner and in which racing colours, and have some possibility of finding them elsewhere. The ability to search for wills on line, as for example, in the National Archives, turned up fascinating data on the wealth on death of leading jockeys, their ownership of land, their families and the high status of their witnesses and executors. Further material could be found on owners, breeders, and racing officials.  Digital genealogy platforms such as Ancestry and Find My Past often helped track down their social origins. The very detailed advertisements for meetings provided important material about the complex changes in racing’s codification, regulation and administration.

Fully searchable court records such as Old Bailey Online, which covered the period from 1674 onwards, also proved useful, showing how race meetings surfaced in evidential discourse regularly: as a time to date from, as offering opportunities for employment and various forms of criminality such as robbery or pickpocketing, and showing the way some criminals followed race meetings and fairs through the summer.


Culturomics approaches allowed me to track broad cultural trends to accompany these more qualitative approaches. Searching newspapers allowed me to track mentions of the ‘thoroughbred’ horse right through the long eighteenth century, from its first appearance round 1720 in newspapers like the Stamford Mercury. Such broad trends could also be tracked using the content of Google books and the piece of software known as Ngram Viewer, which tracks the normalized frequency against the date of publication, providing statistical and graphical representatiosn. This showed peaks in the 1720s, between the 1740s and 1760s and a greater increase in the later 1780s.  The word ‘jockey’, little used before the 1720s, really took off from the1750s as Newmarket racing expanded.


Alongside such material was the proliferating amount of material on the internet in terms of historical resources for horse racing as the past circulated into the present. Google is awash with racing material. There were excellent visual representations of racing and horses in sites such as the fully searchable collections of the  Yale Centre for British Art  or the Royal Collection Trust which helped give an insight into the way artists such as Stubbs or Rowlandson responded to demand for racing pictures.  There were material remains shown on line in museums like the Palace House National Horse Race Museum at Newmarket. The site maintained over 2000 jockey biographies. The Equine History Collective links equine knowledge into the larger concerns of historical research.  And there were many, many more


But I still needed traditional qualitative analysis to back this up. Those of a deconstruction mind-set like Doug Booth have tended to see ‘fragments’ as the appropriate form of post-modern cultural analysis. Admittedly it is much easier to explore, and I can enjoy that too, but it is good sometimes to take a wider view of a long past sporting world such as earlier racing, something that might have a appeal beyond the fairly narrow community of deconstructive sports historians. So I travelled the country, from Scotland to Devon, visiting archive departments, searching urban records, gentry archives, letters and diaries for references. I had faced problems of typography, print and typeface in looking at newspapers, but they palled before the challenges of palaeography, spelling, and syntax in written texts of the period. And I visited ancient racecourses and training grounds, to get a stronger sense of place.

The change has been frightening for those of us beyond retirement age. And I still need lessons!!!!!!

Article © Mike Huggins