Martin Letts with his hounds. Photo courtesy of Horse & Country
Long-Serving Master of Foxhounds, Noted Hound Breeder and Diary Publisher
By Rory Knight Bruce
John Martin Letts, 88, passed away. He was joint Master and former huntsman of the College Valley/North Northumberland Foxhounds from 1964 for 58 seasons. A highly regarded breeder of Hill hounds, the bloodlines of his Fell cross modern English foxhounds are found in many hunt kennels today, in Britain, Ireland and America. In his professional life, he was the long-serving managing director of Charles Letts & Company in Dalkeith. Founded in 1796, Letts, with his brother Anthony, is the sixth generation of the family to run the firm that employs 500 worldwide.
Letts possessed a disarming wit, often masking his huge heart. He had a twinkle in his eye and a knowledge and love of nature, the countryside, hunting and humanity. In his later years, he followed hounds on foot, sporting his signature flat cap, checked shirt and tie, heavy tweed jacket and shepherd’s crook.
Letts was raised in Kent, the elder of two brothers and four sisters. He followed his father to Marlborough College, as he recalled in his memoirs, “Memories of My Life at the College Valley.” As a child, he trailed the Tedworth and their professional huntsman, George Goodwin, on his bicycle. With Nick Wykes and James Bouskell, Letts was instrumental in establishing the Marlborough College Beagles, now flourishing as the Palmer/Marlborough.
After two years of military service in Malaya, Letts joined the family publishing firm. For six seasons, he hunted the Bolebroke Beagles in Kent and the Eastern Counties Otterhounds. On a Northumberland trip in the early 1960s, Letts was introduced to the noted Master of the College Valley and breeder of the Hill Hound, Sir Alfred Goodson (Master from 1924-79). He became his Joint Master, huntsman and successor, hunting the hounds from 1964 until 2004. He married Sir Goodson’s step-granddaughter Eildon who joined him as Master in 1987.
The Letts couple lived at Kilham outside Wooler, where they presided with hospitality and friendship. Alastair Jackson, later director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, then hunting the West Percy and William Nunneley, were frequent recipients of their kindness.
“He was one of the very best with an eye for a quality hound,” said Captain Ian Farquhar, former Duke of Beaufort’s Joint Master and huntsman. At the Blencathra, long-serving huntsman Barry Todhunter often exchanged breeding programs with Letts. “He understood the Fell hound and the bloodlines he used knitted well together for their ability to hunt on their own.” Martin Scott, the noted hound breeder, recalls College Valley Wager’91 hunting with the great Ben Hardaway III, MFH, Midland Fox Hounds, in the United States in 1999. “It was an epic hunt of three hours and twenty minutes. Hounds eventually arrived at a high fence. Wager cleared it while the remainder of the pack went underneath.”
Ian McKie joined Letts in the College Valley/North Northumberland mastership as huntsman (the two hunts had merged in 1982) in 2003, for 13 seasons. “I owe Martin. He will be remembered as a hound breeder amongst the very best alongside Sir Alfred Goodson, Sir Peter Farquhar, Ikey Bell and Sir Newton Rycroft. He was also an extraordinary judge of character and had excellent wit.”
“Mr. Martin believed strongly in the value of family,” said Colin Brown, long-serving payroll manager at Charles Letts & Company. Many of the employees were related. In his heyday, there were four hundred working in the factory at Dalkeith. He was a character but also very much respected.”
In 1972, Ben Hardaway and former MFHA President Martin Wood III, MFH, of Live Oak Hounds in Florida, took a day off from grouse shooting in Yorkshire to visit Letts and the College Valley kennels. “There began a profound friendship and hound breeding program that has lasted today,” said Wood. “Our kennels are brim-full of College Valley blood.” His wife, former MFHA President Daphne Wood, MFH, Live Oak, explained, “We have woods, swamps and wide-open spaces. You have to trust the hounds to hunt on their own.”
In 2007, the Woods invited Letts to judge the Southern Hound Show in Florida. “He arrived in a light aircraft at a local airport, fully dressed in tweeds with his shepherd’s crook in his hand,” Martin Wood said. “It was the first and possibly the last time a shepherd’s crook has been allowed to accompany a passenger.”
Such was Letts’s love of hounds that for many years he kept a photograph of College Valley Raglan’66 in his wallet pocket and a small pack of French Bassets in the paddock of their home at Hethpool.
Letts is survived by his wife Eildon and daughter Diana.