In the late 19th century, horse-racing continued in popularity and the top jockeys were amongst the best-known of professional sportsmen. Earnings could be considerable – not only for the jockeys themselves but also their followers. Most famous of all was Fred Archer, the finest jockey of the Victorian era and probably the most celebrated sportsman of his day. The manner of his death still shocks. Archer, aged just 29, reached for a revolver kept in a bedside cabinet and shot himself through the mouth.
Fred Archer was born in a small cottage in Cheltenham. His father was the landlord of the King’s Arms where a memorial plaque records the inn where Fred Archer “swallowed his earliest porridge”. He was, from age 11, apprenticed to the trainer Matthew Dawson in Newmarket. He rode his first public winner in his very first ride at age 13. By the end of his young life at age 29, Fred Archer had been champion jockey for 13 consecutive years - from 1874 to 1886 - and had ridden an astonishing 2,748 winners with 21 Classic victories (including five Derby winners).
Why did he take his own life? Was it fear of money troubles, the relentless strain of a tallish man (5’8” or more) striving to make a difficult riding weight or, more likely, continued depression at the loss of his first child shortly after birth and then, a year later, the death of his wife giving birth to their second child - all compounded at the end by bed-ridden days with a fever? We shall never know. He is buried in a simple grave in Newmarket.
Now, a delightful glass-stained window of Fred Archer, colourfully crafted by Ann Sotheran, is included in the set of ‘champions’ that surround the interior of The Champions pub in central London.