My Search for the Flying Fox

Readers of this blog may remember a post written a few years ago about the fascinating story of Flying Fox which is proudly displayed above the Royal Alexandra Hospital. to read this article again click here.

Mr Rodney McCully has kindly shared with us an interesting piece that he has written about this famous racehorse, its importance in the history of the hospital and his trip to France.

“The Principal tutor, Mr Ron Girling, first brought attention to this legendary horse the “Flying Fox” as we settled into start our nurse training, a group of 12 young women and men. It was 1969. The Rhyl School of Nursing had been established in 1963 and had adopted the Flying Fox as an emblem on the hospital badge that nurses would wear after successfully passing their final examination.

The history of the horse went back 70 years when the 1st Duke of Westminster, Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, whose love of racehorses led him to purchase the Flying Fox – the foal of Orme (dam) and Vampire (sire) – which reputedly became the Duke’s most successful racehorse. The Duke was a generous benefactor to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, previously known as the Children’s Convalescent Home, which had adopted the title in 1882 after Princess Alexandra, wife of Edward V11, had become patron. Prior to the horse competing in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park in 1899, the Duke made a promise to the matron; if the Flying Fox was to win he would donate £10,000 to the hospital fund. Flying Fox obliged and the money was a welcome amount towards the £40,000 building cost of the first central section of the hospital. Months after this profitable win, the Duke fell ill and died at the age of 75. Flying Fox was sold for a record 37,500 guineas, the highest price ever paid for a horse at auction. The buyer, Edmund Blanc, stabled Flying Fox at his stud farm Haras de Jardy in France, west of Paris. There he sired other classic winners such as Ajax, Flying Star, Gouvernment and Adam, with his progeny earning £203,400 in prize money. Flying Fox died in France in 1911 but his skeleton was preserved.

“Flying Fox 1896 – 1911″ photo credit wikipedia 

In the mid-1990’s I was in conversation at Glan Clwyd Hospital with a gentleman, Mr James, whom I had known for some years. I was wearing my uniform, proudly displaying as always my hospital badge, when Mr James remarked, “Isn’t that the Flying Fox”? After a positive reply and to my great surprise, Mr James told me that he and his wife had seen the Flying Fox displayed in an equine museum in the town of Saumur in the Loire Valley, France. From that moment, it was to be my goal to see this magnificent horse for myself but only on my third attempt would I accomplish this mission. Early in 2012, I made contact with Mme Nathalie Gadbin, Assistant Curator of the Chateau Musee de Saumur. Mme Gadbin was most helpful in my quest to visit and see the Flying fox and a date in September that year was agreed. Hotels and ferry crossings were pre-booked. However, one week before the journey I was informed by the ferry company that the return ferry crossing had been cancelled. No alternative plans could be made in time, so the visit was postponed.

In September 2017 my second journey was thrown into jeopardy when, following a detour to visit a friend in Switzerland, my car unfortunately broke down and the journey was finalised by a flight home from Geneva. The visit was now planned for May 2018 – which finally proved sucessful.

In 2017 I had the good fortune to have contact with, and be assisted by, Mrs Louise Benson, archivist at the Eaton Estate, Chester. Mrs Benson was of outstanding help in identifying the memorial to the Flying Fox at Eaton Hall and also gathered together other artefacts and information valuable in complementing the story. After each race had been won, a shoe would be taken from the horse and mounted on a plinth recording the event. Mrs Benson assembled together these mementoes adding spice to a rich history. One other connection could be noted between the Eaton Hall of late 19th century and the Royal Alexandra Hospital, Alfred Waterhouse being the architect responsible for the design of both buildings.

On Tuesday 15th May 2018 accompanied by my good friend Selwyn Jones, we left North Wales at lunchtime and travelled to Portsmouth for the overnight ferry to France. Our appointment with Mme Gadbin was at 11 am Thursday 17th May. Our hotel, on the banks of the Loire, was overlooked high above us by the impressive Chateau de Saumur. On a beautiful Thursday morning we walked to the Chateau to be warmly greeted by Mme Gadbin and Ms Janis Upsher, who was to act as our interpreter. Our reception overwhelmed us as we toured the Chateau and were guided to this exceptional horse. As the Chateau was approaching the end of a three year refurbishment the Flying Fox was standing gracefully in a third storey room, flanked by the displayed skeletons of a prehistoric horse and a an Arabian stallion.

Prior to actually seeing the Flying Fox, with the help of the interpreter, I gave an account of the history associated with the Royal Alexandra Hospital. There was mutual interest because the museum hadn’t realised the connection the Flying Fox had with the hospital and what an enormous part it had played in the funding of its building and of the place it had in the hearts of so many. I had amassed a dossier of information that I was able to systemically present to, and leave with them. Selwyn gave a comprehensive account of the building, history and infrastructure of the town of Rhyl.

Entering the room and seeing the Flying Fox for myself I could feel the warmth of a tear in my eye. It had been almost fifty years since my first encounter with this horse and over twenty years since I had made the promise that one day I would see for myself this legendary animal. My journey had reached a fitting finale.

Our departure was mixed with joy and sadness. On leaving, Mme Gadbin presented me with the most splendid wall chart titled “Tableau Indicatif des Maladies du Cheval et des Remedes”. It stays with me as a constant reminder of a horse forgotten, yet remembered by many whose lives were influenced by this great stallion.”

For more articles about the Royal Alexandra Hospital:

A seaside nursery for the little ones of our land.

Gertrude Ffoulkes

Edith Vizard

More on Edith Vizard

3 Comments

Filed under Buildings/Location, Memories

3 responses to “My Search for the Flying Fox

  1. Darrell

    I was a patient on the children’s ward of The Royal Alex in around 1969. I remember dropping of to sleep whilst being able to see a huge oil painting of a magnificent horse on a wall. I didn’t know the story of Flying Fox until years later. Is the painting still at the hospital? I also remember seeing a red neon ‘hotel’ sign from my bed. I presume it was on the Marina hotel.

    • Andrew

      Yes, the kid’s ward, as we called it ran alongside Grosvenor Road. Thus you could look east, outwards to the Marina from a first floor vantage.

  2. Andrew

    Back in the day, say, the early seventies, a new catering officer was appointed. I cannot remember the young man’s name. He was keen to supplement the canteen menu. Chris was the Head Cook and between them they conjured up extra rations (for extra cash!). It was quite a success at first but I don’t remember it lasting too long, once the novelty had worn off. But the extra section of the dining room was called the Flying Fox Restaurant.

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