Sir John Astley – 1828 to 1894
Sir John Astley was a pillar of Newmarket’s community during the second half of the 19th century.
Hailing from Everleigh in Wiltshire, Sir John spent the early years of his adulthood as a soldier – which is ironic as in later life he was given the nickname ‘The Mate’, being deemed to possess a nautical air.
He rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Scots Guards, serving in the Crimean War, in which he was seriously wounded in the battle of Alma in 1854.
On his return to England, Sir John left the army and began to devote his attention to the turf, a focus which naturally drew him to Newmarket. He settled in Old Station Road on the site of the present Machell Place. Sir John initially rented the house, which had been built by the great jockey Jem Robinson, before buying it in 1870. The widow of another great jockey, Nat Flatman, lived next door, and Sir John kept his hacks at livery in her stables.
Sir John Astley was elected to the Jockey Club in 1869 before becoming senior steward in 1875. During his term at the helm of the club, he chaired a committee for revising the rules of racing and also took responsibility for re-building the decrepit grandstand on the Rowley Mile.
However, an even greater legacy was his founding of the Astley Institute, a social club for stablemen which was opened by the Prince of Wales in July 1883 after Sir John had persuaded Lady Wallace to donate the land on which the club was to be built and then raised the £3,000 needed for its construction.
His philanthropy and social conscience were further illustrated by his care of Joseph Lewis, a severely injured stable lad for whom Astley arranged re-training in secretarial duties, thus ensuring him a second career in an era in which the future for disabled manual workers was bleak.
Although not a rich man by the standards of racehorse owners of the time, Sir John owned some good horses including Peter (who won both the Royal Hunt Cup and the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1881), Windsor (successful in the same year’s Chester Cup) and Ostregor (winner of the Chesterfield Cup at Goodwood in 1867).
However, Sir John is remembered primarily for his good deeds. In the words of Richard Onslow in his classic account of Newmarket’s racing history ‘The Heath and the Turf’, “When Sir John Astley died on 10 October 1894, the whole racing community, from the stable lads of Newmarket to the Jockey Club had reason to mourn a great sportsman. His own troubles were never far away from him, yet he spent much of his time and energy helping other people, and whether they were rich or poor they could all be his friends.”