One hundred and thirty years ago this year, jockey Fred Archer put a revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger ending his life and the inner torment which had raged within his slender frame since the tragic loss of first his baby son and then his adored young wife less than two years after their marriage.
His suicide not only shocked Newmarket, but the world, as at the time of his death, Archer, just 29, and the son of a Grand National winning jockey, was at the peak of his sporting prowess. He had been champion for 12 years, and his 2,748 winners included those of 20 Classics.
Now 62-year-old Diana Foster, Fred’s great granddaughter, who lives in Norfolk but regularly works in Newmarket as a carer, has re-imagined his story in her book, Just One More Smile, which tells how the jockey, whose successes had left him wealthy and was revered the world over, would have traded it all to have had the love of his life back with him.
“Fred’s last words were: ‘Are they coming?’”, said Diana. “In my story I believe he imagined he saw Helen and his baby son William and he wanted to join them.”
Fred and Helen were survived by their second child, their daughter Nellie, who was brought up by her grandparents and lived the early part of her life in Newmarket. In 1911 at 23, the same age her mother had been when she died, and an heiress to a fortune put at around £100,000, she married shipping magnate Max Tosetti.
They had four children of whom Diana’s mother, Susan, was the youngest. “Nellie was 42 by the time she had my mother,” said Diana, “and she was only five when she died aged 47. As she was so young she was always sad that she did not remember very much about her. Many of her memories came from her siblings who told her stories about their mother.”
Before she died Susan had put together a photo album full of fading sepia photographs reflecting the privileged upbringing the four grandchildren, of perhaps the greatest jockey of them all, enjoyed.
One of the most poignant is of Nellie, standing alone back on Newmarket Heath, which had provided the backdrop to her early life, and where her father had been so feted, but where the final years of his life must have seemed so bleak without the woman he loved and for whom he lived.
Archer’s wife Helen, or Nellie as she was known, was the daughter of popular town trainer John Dawson and the niece of Archer’s guv’nor Mat Dawson, the pre-eminent trainer of his day. In January of 1883 theirs had been the celebrity wedding of the decade. A service at Newmarket’s All Saints’ Church saw the whole town joining in the celebrations which, as the Journal reported back in February 1883, concluded with a firework display which had spelled out ‘May they be happy.”
And they were it seemed blissfully happy until early the following year. In January their first child, a son, died at birth. He was named William named after Archer’s brother, also a jockey, who had been killed when riding in a hurdle race at Cheltenham. The birth had left Nellie in a critical condition, fighting for her life. She had recovered and became pregnant again almost immediately. On November 6, 1884 she gave birth to their second child, a girl and it seemed the Archers could at last celebrate the start of their family. But just hours after the baby was delivered Helen was again dangerously ill suffering it seems, with all the symptoms of post natal eclampsia which left writhing in agony and having convulsions. Fred had received a telegram telling him of his daughter’s birth after he had ridden his last big winner of the season, Thebais in the Liverpool Cup.
“I wonder why I should be so blessed,” he said. “There really does not seem to me to be anything in this world that I can or ought to want.”
But his world was shattered as he arrived home to find his wife dying, despite the best efforts of four doctors to save her. “The convulsions continued until she died,” he later told a friend. “She did not know me and never spoke to me again.
“Poor Nellie she was my glory, my pride, my life, my all and she was taken from me at the very moment that my happiness did really seem to me to be so great and complete as to leave nothing else in this world that I could wish for.”
Virtually two years to the day later, on November 8, in Falmouth House in Snailwell Road, the palatial home in which the Archers had dreamed of living their happy family life, Fred still haunted by grief, and sick from wasting and typhoid fever, used a revolver to end his.
His great granddaughter’s book is a delicate mix of truth and fiction. It has taken Diana three years to write and she has dedicated it to the memory of her mother. “Fred was truly an incredible character, a driven sportsman but also its seems very sensitive
When she is in Newmarket, Diana often visits the Archer family grave in the town’s cemetery, to remember a family so blessed with success but blighted by tragedy.
They lie just a stone’s throw from the Rowley Mile where so many of Fred’s big winners were cheered home but where now some believe only his ghost rides the wind.
“Across the heath, along the course.
Tis said that now on phantom horse,
The greatest jockey of our days,
Rides nightly in the moonlight’s rays.”
For details of how to get a copy of the book, call Diana Foster on 07787418748.