Fred Archer – 1857 to 1886
Born in Cheltenham on January 11, 1857, Fred Archer was fourth of the five children of National Hunt jockey William Archer, who rode Little Charley to victory in the 1958 Grand National. His parents kept a pub, the King’s Arms in nearby Prestbury.
It was soon apparent that Fred Archer, who was riding in local pony races and with the Cotswold Foxhounds aged eight, was an outstanding rider. His father duly arranged for him to be apprenticed to one of the leading trainers in the country, Mathew Dawson of Heath House in Newmarket.
William Archer took young Fred to Newmarket in February 1866, shortly after the latter’s eleventh birthday.
Fred Archer had his first race-ride aged 14, but it was only once he had finished his apprenticeship (still aged only 16) that he enjoyed his big break: in 1873 Dawson put him forward to Lord Falmouth as successor for the latter’s jockey Tom French, who had died of consumption. Archer had already ridden the Mathew Dawson-trained Salvano to win the previous year’s Cesarewitch, but with the backing off Lord Falmouth his career really took off.
Fred Archer became champion jockey for the first time in 1874, aged 17. Thereafter he remained at the top of the table until he died 12 years later. He rode his first Classic winner that year, taking the 2,000 Guineas on Atlantic for Falmouth and Dawson, as well as riding the winners of two of the biggest handicaps, the Lincolnshire Handicap and the Stewards’ Cup.
In 1875, Falmouth, Dawson and Archer won two Classics (the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks) with Spinaway; while two years the same team took the Derby and St Leger with Silvio. This was the first of Archer’s five Derby victories, with wins on Bend Or, Iroquois, Melton and Ormonde following between 1881 and 1886.
Enjoying unparalleled success and popularity, Archer prospered, living in style in Falmouth House at the top of Newmarket High Street and building his own stable Falmouth Lodge (now Pegasus Stables) in the Snailwell Road. However, his size made his life a living hell.
Although he had made the weight of 5 stone 7lb when winning the Cesarewitch on Sansovino in 1872, adulthood saw Fred Archer grow to 5’9”. His determination to ride at light weights saw him living off virtually no food or drink, and regular laxative doses.
In January 1884 his wife Nellie,23, niece of trainer Mathew Dawson, bore him a son who lived only a few hours. Nellie herself was in a critical condition after labour but she was very soon pregnant again and on November 6 that same year she gave birth to a daughter. All seemed to be well with mother and daughter right up until 8am the following day when according to a report in the Newmarket Journal she was “seized with convulsions and unconsciousness intervened.” Despite the efforts of four doctors Nellie died shortly before midnight. Her death left Archer bereft and he was never the same again.
Weakened by the strain of riding St. Mirin at 8 stone 7lb in the Cambridgeshire Handicap 1886 (in which he was beaten a head, carrying 1lb overweight) Archer contracted a severe chill and fever, leaving him at as low an ebb physically as he was mentally.
On November 8 1886, almost two years to the day he lost his beloved young wife, Archer, the greatest jockey of the 19th century, perhaps of all time, put a revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. An inquest ruled he was “temporarily insane when he committed the act. He was just 29 year old.