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HEY CLARISSA! JOHN PEEL'S
COAT WAS GRAY, NOT RED!

Clarissa Dickson Wright, "one half of the Two Fat Ladies*, and one of the undisputed characters of TV cookery," should change the colour of her car from red to gray. In naming it JOHN PEEL she has perpetuated a popular myth.

She wrote in the London Telegraph on July 26: "This summer, with its beautiful weather, sees me driving round the country in my lovely red Saab convertible with the roof down and the air-conditioning on, feeling very much as if I live on the open road.

"This car, for those of you who are interested in such things, is called John Peel, after the great Cumbrian huntsman. The car has its coat so gay, its horn, its horsepower and - due to the fact that its colour is known in the motor trade as 'dog-knob red' - its hounds as well, and I am usually far, far away in it."

We're sorry to tell you, Clarissa, that you've fallen into a common error, in believing that English men and women chasing foxes (the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable, to quote Oscar Wilde) have always worn pink or red jackets. Contrary to popular belief, John Peel's coat was gray, as can be seen in an illustration on the website of Sterling Times ("the virtual scrapbook of British nostalgia").

Peel's friend and fellow huntsman, John Woodcock Graves, wrote this rollicking song, which is still often sung by school children and homesick British expats around the world, and is highly recommended to bathroom tenors for singing under the shower. Note that the key word is GREY, (often spelt GRAY, which is correct in the U.S., but to spell the word GAY, as many do, is wrong):

Do ye ken John Peel with his coat so grey?
Do ye ken John Peel at the break of day?
Do ye ken John Peel when he's far, far away
With his hounds and his horn in the morning.

Chorus:
'twas the sound of his horn brought me from my bed
And the cry of his hounds has me oftimes led
For Peel's view hollooo would wake the dead
Or a fox from his lair in the morning.

Eighty years ago, James Walter Brown wrote (Round Carlisle Cross, Series 3, 1923) a long and fascinating article about John Peel, which can be read in full on Stephen Bulman's Cumbrian website. Brown wrote:

Of course Cumbrians know that John Peel's coat was gray, and why it was gray, and all about it, but the proof does not always lie to hand when wiseacres state the contrary; so it may be well to place on record here some clinchers wherewith to meet the fallacy of the pink one.

In the first place John Woodcock Graves, who wrote the song, hunted with John Peel continually, and must have known what his coat was like. There are plenty of undoubtedly authentic autographic copies by him, all of which have "gray." Was Graves colour-blind ?

Then the late Sir Wilfrid Lawson, who in 1850 "joined John Peel, keeping a few hounds of his own, the hounds often hunting together," and who, after Peel's death, became the possessor of the entire pack of hounds, wrote "I have seen John Peel in the flesh, and have hunted with him. He was a tall, bony Cumbrian, who, when I knew him, used to ride a pony called 'Dunny', from its light colour. . . . Peel's gray coat is no more a myth than himself, for I well remember the long, rough, grey garment which almost came down to his knees."

Lady Mabel Howard, who wrote the article on "Fox Hunting" in The Victoria History of Cumberland (1905) said of him, 'I have talked with several people who know this famous sportsman... They have narrated to me their recollections of the familiar figure: the blue-grey coat with its brass buttons, the white beaver hat and choker tie, the knee breeches, which were joined by a pair of long stockings, and then, most curious of all, the fact that he always wore shoes, to one only one of which a spur was attached.'

Finally as all Cumberland folk know, there was an excellent reason why Peel's coat should he gray, for "hodden gray" was the everyday wear of Cumbrians of his class and period, it being woven from the farmers' own wool, a mixture of undyed black and white. It was a mill for that purpose which John Woodcock Graves ran at Caldbeck, and the probability is that he himself wove there the cloth for the "coat so gray" about which he sang.

The picture "John Peel and his Hounds," painted by John Woodcock Graves himself, shows Peel in a long gray coat...

George Allison, a Californian whose great-great-grandparents migrated to Canada from Cumbria in 1858, has researched the John Peel story. He writes "John was said to have been a tall man, standing at over six feet and as the song says, in his coat so grey. Grey being the color of the wool, woven from a mixture of the undyed black and white wool of the Herdwick sheep. The Herdwick sheep has been around since the 12th century and are still grazed on the commons, although their meat is now more valuable than their wool. John must have been a striking figure with his blue eyes, long grey coat with brass buttons, white beaver hat, choker tie, knee breeches and long stockings."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Popular though the folk-song became, it nevertheless proved too galling for the militant anti-blood sports protesters, for in 1977 they went up to Caldbeck one night and cracked John Peel's headstone in the churchyard, dug a hole in the grave and threw the head of a fox into it. The gravestone has been repaired, and the Peel family's remains were found not to have been disturbed, but the evil desecration caused a severe loss of support for the anti-hunting lobby. - Posted by Stephen Lewis, who says "I live near Coventry. I am a horse owner/rider and enjoy a good gallop at the weekend during the summer/autumn months."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

John Woodcock Graves, who wrote the famous song, sailed from England with his second wife and six children in 1833, to settle in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). An Australian historian wrote "Life was tough, and he finally ended up a broken man living with one of his sons in West Hobart after spending a lot of time in the Port Arthur region."

A Sydneysider who visited the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, recently wrote, "I noticed that the iron railing fence around St David's Park was formed in five horizontal lines, like music staves. Into the stave was worked a design of musical notes forming the opening bars of D'ye Ken John Peel. I was told that this was because the park had been the graveyard of St David's, the Anglican cathedral church of Hobart and was the burial place of the author of the song."

The Fox and Hounds Hotel at nearby Port Arthur is proud of its John Peel's Bar. We're not sure how often its customers burst into song, but when they do, there's no prize for guessing what it will be.

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Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted September 2003

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