W. Plunket Stewart set his heart on having the greatest pack of foxhounds, his own country to hunt over and his own Hunt. The dream was hatched early when he and his brother Redmond, as young boys, owned their own pack of hounds that later became the foundation for the Green Spring Valley Fox Hunting Club in 1892.
It was his motivating force in 1910 and ’11 when he lived in Philadelphia with his wife and children, worked for Cassatt and Company and had his own pack of beagles in Radnor country. He had many days foxhunting with Radnor, as well as with Mr. Charles Mather’s Brandywine Hounds, Rose Tree, Pickering and several local farmer packs.
He also spent many hours in his touring car, driving the back roads surrounding Philadelphia, scouting country. Legend has it that he pulled over at the top of a hill one day and looked across the expanse of valley before him and knew he had found his ideal hunting country. Mr. Mather granted him permission to claim the area that before had been considered Brandywine country. Little did they know then that Mr. Mather’s consent was the key that unlocked over 100 years and counting of world-renowned foxhunting, relished by generations of Unionville area horsemen and women. The valley Mr. Stewart saw that day remains virtually unchanged today and that parking spot is now the Kennel Lawn, where horses and hounds often meet, most notably with hundreds of admirers every Thanksgiving.
Mr. Stewart bought a pack of American hounds from Frank B. Chambers on Green Valley Road. Mr. Chambers continued to hunt the hounds from his kennel until Mr. Stewart purchased the Pusey farm known as Chesterland, across the road from the current Hunt property, and built his own kennels.
For some time, Mr. Stewart had both the original American hounds and a growing pack of English hounds. In 1914 he acquired a few of the Brandywine’s English hounds from Mr. Mather and then began importing hounds from England and phasing out the American hounds. Kennels, stables and houses were built and the Hunt was on firm ground.
The pack was named the Cheshire after the English pack from the County of Cheshire. Eventually it was named Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds to distinguish it from the English hunt. At the end of World War II, Mr. Stewart had the opportunity to secure hounds from the best packs in England because hunts there were scaling back due to the war. He soon had an enviable pack of the finest English foxhounds and was building a fine reputation for his hunt.
Tireless in his pursuit to grow and open wide his foxhunting domain, Mr. Stewart bought up farm after farm, providing the perfect galloping and jumping country by replacing planted fields with grassland and wire fencing with post-and- rail. The Cheshire boundary lines ran on the east from Sadysburyville through Coatesville to Glen Hall, through Kennett Square to the Maryland border. The western border was the Octorora River.
Robert Coatesworth was hired as the first proper Huntsman in 1914, followed by his son Tom, Harry Brown, Frank Dare and then the legendary Charlie Smith in 1927.
Smith and his family had moved from England and lived in the Huntsman’s house at Chesterland until an ill Charlie narrowly escaped death when both the house and Kennels burned over the Fourth of July weekend in 1930. Amazingly, none of the hounds were lost. Opting not to rebuild at Chesterland, Mr. Stewart built a new Huntsman’s house and the Kennels across the road at the location so familiar today. But, again the Kennels burned in 1938 and, thankfully, again the hounds were saved. As J. Stanley Reeve said in his book Red Coats in Chester County, Mr. Stewart rebuilt with “all stone and cement, fireproof and the last word in modern construction and convenience.” Those Kennels, although updated, remain today.
Well connected socially and motivated to populate his Field and introduce other foxhunters to his country, his pack and his fine sport, Mr. Stewart regularly invited friends from far and wide to enjoy a week of hunting with Cheshire. Eventually many of those guests became landowners, buying farms from the Master and establishing hunt boxes in Cheshire country.
In the early 1930s Mr. Stewart had divorced his first wife, the former Elsie Cassatt, and moved from Chesterland to Brooklawn and married the recently widowed Carol Harriman Penn Smith. Avid foxhunters, Carol and her young daughters Nancy and Avie Penn Smith moved from Long Island to Brooklawn.
Mr. Stewart’s greatest success in providing hunting land was enticing Robert Kleberg of King Ranch fame to buy Lammot duPont’s 5,200-acre farm with the lure of prime cattle grazing land. When the King Ranch came to town with its Santa Gertrudis cattle, the Cheshire Hunt became more of a foxhunter’s dream than ever imagined. Eventually the King Ranch doubled its original land holdings there and over 15 square miles was open to hunting.
Both the young Penn Smith girls loved to hunt, but it was Nancy who became her stepfather’s protégé. She soaked up every bit of knowledge from Mr. Stewart, Huntsman Smith, the stud groom and kennelman. She knew the hounds and the breeding program. In 1945, not long after marrying John B. Hannum, she became Mr. Stewart’s co-Master. She also organized the first Cheshire point-to-Point at Chesterland that spring. When her mother died suddenly in November 1949, followed less than two months later by her stepfather, it was Nancy Penn Smith Hannum who became lady Master of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds.
Before the start of her first whole season as new Master, Mrs. Hannum retired Charlie Smith as Huntsman. From that point on she not only was Master, but often Huntsman as well, continuing the traditions Mr. Stewart had begun. Her reputation and that of her pack of English hounds grew and grew. Breeding the finest hounds and producing great sport were her life. She spent every moment of every day trying to perfect it, while preserving the hunt country her stepfather had cobbled together.
Mrs. Hannum was known for her ability to persuade the most undeterred landowner to protect, rather than develop, his land. When the King Ranch wanted to sell, it was the Brandywine Conservancy and the generous members of the Cheshire Hunt that found a way to protect it from massive development. The Hunt has been fortunate in retaining almost all its original country.
In 2003 Mrs. Hannum stepped down as Master. She held the role for 58 years, one of the longest terms in the history of American foxhunting. A new era had been ushered in. It took three new Masters to fill Mrs. Hannum’s boots -Nina Gill Strawbridge, Bruce Miller and Russell Jones.
It was the beginning of a new era. No longer were the hounds an English pack. Today it is a mixed pack and Huntsman Ivan Dowling cross-breeds the finest qualities of the English hound with those of the Penn-Marydel to create what is increasingly being called the Cheshire Hound. Ivan has hunted hounds very successfully for 12 of the last 14 years. Today the pack is entirely his own, all Cheshire crossbreds born since his arrival as Huntsman. Sport has been excellent. The hounds prove themselves time and time again.
Mrs. Hannum died on the last day of the 2009 – 2010 hunting season at the age of 90.
When Nina Gill Strawbridge stepped down as a Master, Michael Ledyard stepped in, joining Masters Miller and Jones. At the end of the Centennial season of 2012 – 2013, Jones and Miller both retired. Sanna Pell Neilson and Anne Kelly Moran joined Ledyard as Masters until he stepped down after the 2013-2014 season.
Sanna Neilson and Moran were joined by Louis "Paddy" Neilson and W.B. "Dixon" Stroud, Jr. for the 2018-2019 season at the end of which, Moran stepped down. Sanna Neilson and Dixon Stroud remained Masters when, sadly, the much loved and admired Paddy Neilson died in the fall of 2019. Dr. Phoebe Fisher joined Sanna Neilson and Stroud as the third Master before the 2020 – 2021 season.
Huntsman Dowling stepped away from his role at the end of the 2015-2016 season. The Board of Directors hired Barry Magner as Huntsman that spring, as well as Mary Taylor Miller as Whipper-in. Magner introduced dog hounds to the pack and hunted until February 2018 when the Hunt was fortunate to have Ivan Dowling return as Huntsman. He led the team of Mackenzie Wertman, First Whipper-in; Dr. Celia Goodall, Honorary Whip; Remy Winants, Field Master and Barn Manager; Michael Beeson, Road Whip and jack-of-all-trades for the Hunt and its property. Dowling retired as Huntsman in Spring 2022.
Mackenzie Wertman stepped up as Huntsman for the 2022-23 season. David Beecher and Kathy Malm whip-in. Michael Beeson continues to be invaluable in his many hunt roles. Kelley Ford is behind the scenes keeping the Hunt operation in good order as Hunt Secretary
The Hunt team continues to provide great sport and carry on the traditions now well over a century in the making.
~ Prue Draper Osborn
The unabridged anecdotal history of the Hunt can be purchased through -
Scarlet on Scarlet, 100 Years of Hunting with Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds by Prue Draper Osborn was published in 2012.