One night in 1829, John Woodcock Graves sat in his parlor with John Peel, a farmer, horse dealer, and foxhunter whose hounds were highly celebrated by the local sheep farmers. From the adjoining room, Graves overheard his son's granny singing an ancient Irish melody to the child. Graves took that old melody and wrote a new set of lyrics to honor his friend, John Peel.
"I sang it to poor Peel," Graves wrote, "who smiled through a stream of tears which fell down his manly cheeks, and I well remember saying to him in a joking style, ‘By Jove, Peel, you’ll be sung when we’re both run to earth!’"
Forty years later, William Metcalfe, Choirmaster of Carlisle Cathedral, heard the song at a banquet. He set down the tune in musical notation for the first time together with Graves’ words, composed a piano accompaniment, and had it performed locally. He went on to London with his choir and on May 22, 1869 performed the song at the dinner of the Cumberland Benevolent Society from whence it spread quickly over the English-speaking world, propelling John Peel into the most famous foxhunter of all time.
John Peel’s hunting country was in the County of Cumberland in the northwest corner of England near the Scottish border. Peel lived with his wife in the small village of Ruthwaite in the rugged Cumbrian Fells east of the Lake District. The country was inhabited at the time by a "greyhound" type of red fox, now mostly extinct, that did great damage to young lambs. That John Peel spent sixty years of his life hunting and killing foxes made him a local hero to the sheep farmers of the area.
It is told that foxhunting always took precedence over any other obligations Peel might have had. On the night of November 14, 1840, his son died. At daybreak he received word that a fox had been astir worrying local geese. John Peel mustered his hounds, got them on the fox’s drag, and hunted and killed it. Upon returning home, he was faulted by neighbors for going hunting with his son lying dead in the house.
"Aye," said Peel. "The lad’s dead. If he had been alive he would have been with me. But I’ve got the fox’s brush, and it shall go in the coffin beside him. It will be a fitting trophy to take on his last journey."
Peel’s last great hunt was recorded as having taken place on his seventy-eighth birthday. It was a long and arduous hunt over the rugged steeps, but Peel prevailed and carried his fox in triumph to Tom Bell’s Sun Inn at Ireby where over their glasses the hunters relived the feats of John Peel’s hounds as they had done for the past sixty years.
[From The Songs of Foxhunting by Alexander Mackay-Smith, 1974, The American Foxhound Club.]