29 October 2016

Alfred Vanderbilt and his Horses

Judy Middleton 2016

copyright © D.Sharp
Alfred Vandebilt’s coach Venture photographed on its last run of the 1909 season. (Brighton Season Magazine)

copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
Alfred Vanderbilt was photographed with the Venture 
in May 1908; he stands on the right and the guard 
Walter Godden is on the left.
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was born in New York City on 20 October 1877. It is interesting to note that he was the third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt (1843-1899) and the family eventually consisted of Alfred, three brothers and three sisters. He had two older brothers and people probably expected him to take a back seat as regards business enterprises. But that was not the way life turned out. His eldest brother William was only aged 22 when he died in 1892 and the second eldest son Cornelius ‘Neily’ incurred his father’s wrath by making an unsuitable marriage. Cornelius married a young debutante Grace Wilson of whom his father strongly disapproved and he took the drastic step of disinheriting his son. Thus the third son came to be heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.

At the time of his father’s death in 1899, young Alfred, having recently graduated, was enjoying a two-year long tour of the world. But when he arrived in Japan on 12 September 1899 he received the news of his father’s death and hurried home. 


It was rightly said of Alfred Vanderbilt that ‘his love of horses was a ruling passion’. When he first became interested in establishing his own stables, his father offered him a word of advice; this was never to buy greys because ‘they’re delicate and won’t stay’. Instead of taking the fatherly advice, young Vanderbilt’s curiosity was piqued. It so happened that one of the first horses he ever purchased was a grey and being pleased with the acquisition, he continued to purchase greys.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
The famous Vanderbilt greys in Trafalgar Square

In fact, Vanderbilt’s greys became legendary amongst coaching fans as well as the general public when Vanderbilt brought some over to England.

Vanderbilt became interested in the traditional coaching skills still practised in England as a sport for rich gentlemen. He became a fine ‘whip’ and when he exhibited his horses at the International Horse Show at Olympia it was described as ‘a sight to remember – never flurried, collected and cool.’

Coaching Days and the Brighton Run

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Alfred Vandebilt’s coach Venture nearing Brighton

In 1908 the conservative world of coaching in England was shaken up by the arrival of Alfred Vanderbilt. His horses were American trotting horses and were swifter than the old English coach horses. Strength was no longer paramount because road surfaces had improved; besides Vanderbilt set his horses on shorter stages so that they did not tire themselves out.

Vanderbilt’s first coach was the Venture, which started off in London and called regularly at the Metropole Hotel, Brighton. Later on Vanderbilt added the Old Times and these two coaches with their beautiful horses became one of the sights of Brighton.

copyright © Robert Jeeves
Alfred Vandebilt’s coach Venture was photographed in 1908 with the Metropole in the background. 
Note the horses’ distinctive headbands.

There was huge excitement when the first Vanderbilt coach came to Brighton and it was the ‘millionaire whip’s first business run’. The Venture left London at 11 a.m. on 8 May 1908. The first team was the famous greys with their manes braided with red and white ribbons while their heads were adorned with red and white carnations. The coach was painted maroon with red and white fine-lining.

There were eight changes of horses on the way, the last being at Pyecombe where the company adjourned for tea at the Plough. Alfred Vanderbilt occupied the box seat dressed in a grey frock coat and grey top hat. Guard Godden wore the Venture uniform of a single-breasted frock coat of French grey with maroon cuffs, collar and lappets, black gaiters, boots and a beaver hat.

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
The famous Vanderbilt greys passing through Patcham and nearing Brighton in 1908

When the Venture reached Preston Park, Vanderbilt found the road lined with enthusiastic Sussex and Brighton folk eager to see the young sportsman. They cheered when they glimpsed the coach and ‘spanking greys’, children threw flowers, and pretty girls smiled and blew kisses. This continued all the way to the Metropole and Vanderbilt never forgot the enthusiastic reception. As the Venture sped along King’s Road, Godden was observed playing the 100-year old bugle with all his old skill.

Vanderbilt’s handsome appearance and well-cut coaching attire appealed to the ladies. One young female passenger in the coach even had the temerity to gently extract his handkerchief from his back pocket while he was engaged in guiding his horses and kept it as a souvenir. This was no ordinary cotton square but a fine silk handkerchief decorated with images of horses. Of course Vanderbilt was aware of what was happening but allowed it just the same.

Vanderbilt’s many fans would wait patiently by the roadside when his coach was due and he acknowledged them with a wave of his hat or whip. There was one old woman who was a devoted fan and never missed the opportunity of waving to Vanderbilt; she had been the beauty of her village in her youth and was known as Belle of Ewell.

Vanderbilt’s enthusiasm for the sport can be gauged from the fact that he once shipped across the Atlantic 26 horses, 16 coaches plus a team of grooms and assistants.

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
The coach Old Times was photographed outside the Metropole in around 1913 when Lord Leconfield had purchased it from Vanderbilt. Ted Fownes stands in the centre to the right of the notice.

In 1913 Vanderbilt sold the Old Times to Lord Leconfield, Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, who was also a keen sportsman and relished the chance of driving the coach, which still came regularly to the Brighton Metropole.  

Coaching Itinerary

 copyright © J.Middleton
Hotel Metropole, the destination for Vanderbilt's coach run from London

Vanderbilt ran his coaches for a six-week period from May to June, working from Tuesday to Friday; for the remainder of the week he handed over the reins to his friend Mr Van der Host Kosch.

The Press stated that the grand total for Vanderbilt’s excursions to and from Brighton came to an incredible 2,000 miles. But nobody who was in a hurry took a Vanderbilt coach to the coast because the journey lasted all of seven hours; you left London at 11 a.m. and reached Brighton at 6 p.m. all being well. Compare this with the luxurious train the Brighton Belle, which could make the journey in an hour. There was also the question of cost. The Vandebilt coach cost 15/- for an outside seat and £1 for an inside seat for a single journey whereas the equivalent train fare was 6/-. But of course for horse aficionados a trip on a Vanderbilt coach was worth every penny as well as being a valid reminder of the old coaching days.

In 1908 there were nine stops on the way from London to Brighton:

Green Moon, Putney
New Malden
Surrey Yeoman, Burghs Heath
White Hart, Reigate
George Hotel, Crawley
Red Lion, Handcross
Castle Hotel, Hickstead
Plough, Pyecombe
Black Lion, Patcham

In 1910 the route was changed to go via Dorking.

Life at Brighton

copyright © D. Sharp
9 Eastern Terrace, Kemp Town, Brighton

While Vanderbilt was running his coaches from London to the coast, he and his wife occupied a house in Kemp Town at 9 Eastern Terrace. Vanderbilt ensured he took a long weekend from driving his coaches in order to spend time with his family.

The house belonged to Rear Admiral Sir Hedworth Meux, formerly commander of the royal yacht, and brother of the Earl of Durham. During the Great War the house was utilised as a war hospital for wounded soldiers.

When Vanderbilt lived there, he took pleasure on a Sunday morning in driving his friends ‘in a pair horse buggy’ along the seafront and then for a short tour of the countryside before lunch.

Young Master Vanderbilt had his own private brougham with a basketwork body and the paintwork in Vanderbilt maroon. The youngster was often seen taking the air in this carriage accompanied by his nurse and two male servants. Locals were amused to see that the servants on the box wore white hats whereas an English servant in that situation would have worn a black silk hat.

Mrs Vanderbilt was Alfred’s second wife. His first wife was Ellen ‘Elsie’ French whom he married on 11 January 1901 and their only child William Henry Vanderbilt was born the same year. But the marriage was short-lived and ended in April 1908 in acrimony when Elsie filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Alfred married Margaret Emerson on 17 December 1911 in London; she was a wealthy American divorcĂ©e. They had two sons, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, junior, and George Washington Vanderbilt.

The Great War

The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 brought the glory days of coaching to an abrupt end. It must have been a heart-breaking time for Vanderbilt because the Army commandeered the horses from the Venture and the Old Times. Vanderbilt was very attached to all his horses and understood the temperament of each one.

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove 
A section of the 4th Royal Sussex Regiment on the march past the Hotel Metropole Brighton in April 1915.
The British Army requisitioned over 460,000 horses and mules during the First World War from across Britain 
and Ireland.

But Vanderbilt was nothing if not generous and he came up with the idea of providing ambulances for use on the front line. He did not wish to delegate the task and intended to supervise the undertaking personally. On 1 May 1915 he set sail on the ill-fated Lusitania, which a German submarine torpedoed on 7 May.

When the Lusitania began to list badly, there was general panic aboard as people scrambled to get aboard the lifeboats. By contrast Vanderbilt appeared quite calm, dressed in a grey pin-stripe suit with a polka-dot tie as if he were going to Ascot. He instructed his valet to gather together all the children he could find and Vanderbilt was seen hurrying to the lifeboats with two children in his arms.

He died a hero’s death because although he could not swim, he insisted on giving his lifejacket to Alice Middleton, a young nurse who survived the disaster. Vandebilt’s body was never recovered although his family offered a reward of 5,000 dollars for its discovery. Altogether, 1,195 people were lost in the sinking of the Lusitania.

The Brighton Gazette had this to say:

 copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt
‘It was with the greatest sorrow that Brightonians realise that Mr Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who has been for so many years such a well-known figure in the town, now is no more. His calmness under all circumstances was remarkable, and this was often shown by the manner in which he handled his horses at moments when calm judgement was the one thing that evaded a possible accident.’

The Brighton, Hove & South Sussex Graphic (17 June 1915) summed up his character as follows:

‘He possessed a certain shyness and un-ostentation of manner that was, when one knew him, a great personal charm’.

A poignant memorial was erected on the A24 London to Worthing road with the following inscription:

‘In Memory of Alfred Gwynne Vandebilt, a gallant gentleman and a fine sportsman, who perished in the Lusitania May 7 1915. This stone is erected on his favourite road by his British coaching friends and admirers.’

It was an ironic twist that Vanderbilt should drown at sea because he had narrowly avoided that fate three years previously. On that occasion he had booked passage on the RMS Titanic for his return trip to the USA but for whatever reasons, he suddenly cancelled at the last minute. Indeed his name was still on the list of passengers issued to newspapers and it was duly reported that he was a casualty of the disaster.

Sale of Vanderbilt’s Horses in the United States

Not much time was wasted between Vanderbilt’s tragic death and the dispersal of his stables. Nearly all the horses were sold and just two old favourites were taken to Rhode Island to live out the rest of their days.

Sadly, the sale included seven English hackneys that Vanderbilt had imported the previous autumn with the intention of bringing them out at shows in 1915.

It is not clear why there was such haste in selling the horses especially when it was reported that such fine animals did not reach their full market value because many wealthy potential buyers were away at that time of year.

The sale was held on 15 July 1915 at New York and George A. Bain was the auctioneer.

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove 
Hamlet and Laertes
Bay geldings, Hamlet and Laertes, £100 each
Bay gelding, Endymion, £120
Bay mare, Electra, £185
Bay mare, Stamford Lille, £180
Bay mare, White Lady, £65

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove 
Pireno and Duke
‘Beautiful ladies appointed pair’ Pireno £585 and Duke £100
Monona (Pireno’s brother £120
Brown gelding, Alert, £65
Brown mare, Lady Bonny, £70
Brown mare by Mackay Wilkes, £30
Chestnut gelding, Boston, £72
Chestnut gelding, Polonius, £70
Chestnut gelding, The Lad, £47

copyright ©  Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove 
Lady Warley
Chestnut mare, Lady Warley, won 1st class for hackney horses’ £220
Chestnut mare, Lucara, ‘both riding and driving, accustomed to all sights on the road’ £82
‘Combination mare broken to harness and saddle Old Maid £77
‘Good pair of useful horses, used to city driving’ Uncle Sam £45 and Columbia £100
Grey gelding, Silver Fox, £160
Hackney, Buckingham, English import, ‘a horse of splendid conformation’ £127
Hackney pony, Mel-Valley Flame, English import, ‘one of the finest going and fastest ponies in the world’ £520
Hackney, Julia Jane, ‘good-mannered and well-bred’ £55
Hackney, Luminator, English import, £75
Hackney, Seaham Forester, ‘good sire and also one of the fastest hackneys in America, £80
Hackney stallion, Galloping Major,  ‘fine type’ £310
Pair of ‘fine goers’ imported from England Queen of Earth and Holyport Brunella, £810 the pair
‘Two horses described as wonderful actors, such was their action’ Melbourne Lady Ursula £330 and Fairy Tread £165
Useful mare by Mackay Wilkes £30

This account of the horses and their sale price appeared in the Brighton, Hove and South Sussex Graphic; it was felt that local readers would be interested in the article because some of the horses were once a familiar sight on the London to coast roads.

The net value of Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s estate, after all expenses had been paid, came to an astonishing $15,594,836.32.


Brighton Gazette (12 May 1915 / 15 May 1915)
Brighton, Hove & South Sussex Graphic (17 June 1915 / 19 August 1915
Brighton Season Magazine 1908 / 1909
Hickey, Des & Smith, Gus Seven Days to Disaster; the Sinking of the Lusitania (1981)
Hunt, Dick Bygones (1948)
Internet searches
Robert Jeeves (Step Back in Time 36 Queen’s Road Brighton)
Middleton, Judy The Brighton Metropole (1992)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp