Joint plan to save Chantilly racing history from decay

Poorly maintained graves of British horseracing pioneers who created the world-famous Chantilly racecourse are to be restored as the local mairie and British community work on ways to preserve them and their stories for the future.

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Many of the graves in Bois Bourillon have been left untended since the racing families had to flee France during the Second World War and, as in all cemeteries, if no one is taking care of graves, the mairie can take them over and sell off the plots.

Local concerns led to the mairie doing a survey of the tombs and organising to work with the community and the Reverend Sarah Tillett of St Peter’s Church, Chantilly, on ways to clean and restore the graves.

The town publicises the cemetery as a site of ‘historic interest’ for tourists as its Carré des Anglais was “réservé aux lads, jockeys et entraîneurs” with the tombs of British racing families and their descendants, while its Carré Militaire has graves of French and German soldiers and Polish lancers. It also has the graves of many national figures.

Now, after an inventory of the tombs and with each being photographed, the mairie is working with the church and the British community to classify the tombs and the work to be done.

A third stage will see restoration started on the most urgent tombs funded by local authority grants and donations from the public and families who can be contacted.

Chantilly Hippodrome is famous for hosting the Prix de Diane Longines and the Prix du Jockey Club which bring in thousands of VIP spectators but the whole French racing industry springs from the work of many of those buried in Cimetière Bourillon.

Racehorse trainers, jockeys, stable staff and groundsmen were brought over from England, where horse racing was fully established and the first race was in 1834.

Two years later the inaugural Prix du Jockey Club, the French Derby, was held and the French Oaks, the Prix de Diane, seven years after that. Eventually a training centre and forest gallops were created to lay the foundations for today’s success.

The Carré des Anglais has the tombs of leading race families with Carter, Corring­ham, Cun­ning­ton, Flat­man, Hurst and Jennings. Some of the Aga Khan’s race stable staff are also buried in Bois Bourillon.

But catastrophe hit in June 1940 when British families had to leave as the Germans arrived, the majority never to return.

Now, with few descendants living nearby, tombs have not been maintained as upkeep is a family legal responsibility. The mairie has no duty to do repairs but has maintained the cemetery and cleaned tombs and done small repairs as it would at any other important local historic site.

A maire representative said: “It is obvious tombs this age are going to be blackened but if one is not being maintained we will put up a notice to contact the mairie. If nothing is done in three years we will take over the plot and maintain it ourselves.

“There is no question of lairs in the historic Carré des Anglais being sold off.”

The Rev. Tillett said the news was a “major step forward”.

“The mairie is looking for ways to get the racing families involved as they are responsible for maintenance but they have done a huge amount of work with details of all the tombs as well as a photographic record and details of work to be done.

“Now I hope someone in the local community will volunteer to do some historical digging to track down the families and see if they can contribute.

“It may even be possible to have a commemoration of the British community’s involvement in horse racing in Chantilly and that would be an other important step.”