Saturday, October 3, 2015

How they managed massive traffic comprising royalty, celebrities and commoners for the Epsom Derby back in 1934. Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’

The huge crowd at Epsom Downs on 6th June 1934
Derby Day has been a huge occasion for Britons right since the last two decades of the 18th century. Not only is it their greatest race – arguably the greatest horse race in the world – it is a wonderful occasion, a day of fun and frolic. There was no way of knowing how many people, from the King and Queen to the common citizens, converged on Epsom Downs that first Wednesday of June, 1934. Various newspapers drew up estimates between a quarter and a half million people. So how did they manage this mass of humanity moving from dawn to dusk?    

Lincolnshire Echo reported, “Elaborate arrangements had been made by the police to deal with the thousands of people who arrived by car. All along the roads to the course policemen were on duty controlling the traffic and directing the cars to the many parking places. Overhead an auto gyro, with a traffic officer in it, directed by wireless messages the control of the long moving line of vehicles. The pearly ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ moved through the crowd carrying collecting boxes on behalf of charity. The famous hill resembled a gigantic fair ground with roundabouts and cocoanut shies. The great trek to Epsom began very early, as with the break of dawn people were already arriving on the Downs. Picnic breakfasts on the Downs were indulged in and itinerant vendors of comestibles found early and eager buyers. The flow of motor coaches carrying loads of passengers and motor-cars set in at an early hour and there was keen competition for good parking positions on the rails from which to obtain a good view of the race. The gipsy encampment on the hill had awakened very early and race cards were being sold to buyers an hour or so after dawn. People arriving by cars provided their own amusement. In one of the car parks a party of fashionably dressed women breakfasted to the strains of a gramophone; while nearby another party sat in a car and played bridge. While the roads to Epsom were filled with cars the Southern Railways carried their quota of racegoers from the London terminal, more than 130,000 passengers having been conveyed by train at ten minutes’ intervals before 11 o’clock. Lord Derby, who always entertains on a lavish scale on Derby Day engaged a special train from Victoria for his guests.”

The Maharaja of Rajpipla, on his part, gave a holiday to thirty of his employees and chartered special motor-coaches for them and their friends so that they might see his horse win, leaving just five behind to look after his estate. Commercial Daily Mail reflected the mood at Windsor on Derby Day, June 6, 1934, “The Maharajah of Rajpipla, owner of Windsor Lad, has arranged for all the employees of his Old Windsor riverside residence to witness the Derby, and has arranged motor-coaches for their conveyance to Epsom. The majority of inhabitants of Old Windsor are ‘having a flutter’ on Windsor Lad, for the Maharajah has made no secret of his confidence in his horse.”

There was no dearth of celebrities either. Greenoce Tele noted, “From where I stood in the crowd below the Royal Box, all the leaders of what is called the “sporting world” could be seen going up the stairs to their places in the stands. Mr. Tom Walls, the actor (“Good old Tommy”, they shouted), and Lord Lonsdale seemed to evoke the most enthusiasm, and the Aga Khan the most interest.”

Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla leading Windsor Lad after the exhilarating victory, with trainer Marcus Marsh beside and Charlie Smirke astride
In his book Pageant of Life (Wilfred Funk, Inc., New York, 1941), Lowell Thomas wrote, “They had a big time in England. The three things that solid Britain took most seriously were the King, the Empire and horse racing, and the jockeys rode the galloping ponies in the Saint Leger Stakes, one of England’s major racing classics. The winner was Windsor Lad. As Windsor Lad had also won the Derby his victory in the Saint Leger Stakes made him England’s greatest horse. It also made an Indian Maharajah England’s greatest horseman. The Maharajah of Rajpipla, the wealthy prince of India who owned Windsor Lad, was the toast that night of England’s horsey millions. He was the ruler of a kingdom not far from Bombay, with powers of life and death over a quarter of a million people. He spoke perfect English and played polo. When he was in England, he lived next door to the King's own Windsor Castle.”

The Aga Khan, who had three runners in the race Umidwar, Alishah and Badruddin, was among the first to congratulated his good friend the Maharaja of Rajpipla on his splendid victory
In the aftermath of the race, Manchester Dispatch observed: “Within the special enclosure one ran across all the known men in the horsey world. Lord Derby, whose ancestor was responsible for establishing the most famous of all races, beaming amicably as usual; Lord Rosebery, who told me it was the grandest race he had ever seen; Lord Glanely, not at all down-hearted, who said that as he had won the Derby once he must not be greedy; Lord Crewe, Lord Lonsdale, Sir Walter Gilbey, wearing his funny curl-brimmed hat, and others with their pretty ladies - as fine a gathering of English gentle folk as you can find.” The Times of India reported that, “Among the notables who watched the race were General Bahadur Sham Shere Jung Bahadur Rana and other members of the Nepalese Mission.”

One of the few accidents of the day befell the 77-year-old Earl Lonsdale, the uncrowned king of British sportsmen, whose car skidded into a ditch in Ewell, Surrey, outside of Epsom. Lord Lonsdale was not hurt and continued his journey in a friend’s car which overtook him immediately after the accident. He was soon in the royal box being congratulated by the King and Queen and their entourage on his escape. Two buses collided while on their way to Epsom and five people who were in them were injured.

The Daily Mail described the ingenuity of people yearning to see the big race but unable to get leave from office: “You do not need to steal a day from your work to see the Derby nowadays. A city friend yesterday did all the morning’s work at his office. He left in his car at 1.15 p.m., when all the crowds had already arrived at Epsom. He found the roads almost empty and was in the stand before 2.30 p.m. He left as soon as the Derby was over, again met little traffic on the road, and was back in his office by 4.30 p.m.” That is how important the Derby is to the people of Britain and racing fans the world over.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh - grandson of Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla - can be contacted on email and His other blog is

A Maharaja’s Turf  
Published by Sporting Links
ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6

Distributed in India by :  
Variety Book Depot, 
AVG Bhawan, M-3, Middle Circle, Connaught Circus,
New Delhi - 110 001.  Tel. +91 11 23417175, 23412567.