America's Cup History
The First - James Lloyd Ashbury (1834 -1895)
By Hamish G. Ross
James Lloyd Ashbury holds a special place in the history of yachting both as the first challenger for the America’s Cup, the world’s oldest sporting trophy, in 1870 and 1871 and who by his force of character, shaped the competition into its present match racing format.
James Ashbury’s father, John Ashbury was the third son of a shoemaker, who established a railway carriage construction business based in Manchester with perfect timing as vast investments were being made in railways worldwide. The Ashbury Railway Company was employing four thousand people building carriages, rolling stock and turntables at the time of John Asbury’s death.
His son James Lloyd Ashbury trained as an engineer and was engaged in the business which he inherited on the death of his father in 1866. By the time of his father’s death they had rail investments throughout the world including Africa, the Americas, and Russia. The accumulated wealth gave rise to a strong determination to elevate his social position from its humble origins. His health suffered in the polluted atmosphere of Victorian industrial Manchester and sailing was suggested as a suitable pastime. He acquired a cruising yacht but quickly gravitated to the more exciting and competitive realms of yacht racing. He asked Michael Ratsey of Cowes to design and build for him “the fastest racing yacht afloat”. In 1868 an American yacht Sappho, visited England for racing in much the same spirit as America in 1851. Sappho was not as successful as America, and it was Ashbury’s victory over Sappho in his new yacht Cambria in a race around the Isle of Wight that inspired him to race for the America’s Cup which had lain unchallenged for since 1857 when invitations had been sent by the New York Yacht Club to the leading yacht clubs of Europe.
After a prolonged series of correspondence with the New York Yacht Club and the owner of the New York Herald, sportsman Gordon Bennett (whose outrageous activities were the origin of the exclamation of the phrase “Gordon Bennett!”), Ashbury agreed to race Bennett’s yacht Dauntless across the Atlantic, then race for the America’s Cup in New York in 1870 on behalf of the Royal Thames Yacht Club. Ashbury’s challenging letter was from Egypt where Cambria had been the first yacht to transit the newly completed Suez Canal during its opening celebrations. Before the races, a modified Sappho returned to England again and this time beat Ashbury’s Cambria, but Ashbury protested the fairness of the races.
Ashbury spectacularly won the trans-Atlantic race by a narrow margin of 1 hour and 43 minutes making him an instant celebrity in New York and convincing many that he would be likely to win the America’s Cup.
Thousands flocked to New York harbour on 8 August 1870 which was thick with spectator craft, while ashore bookmakers did a roaring trade as Cambria and the twenty year old America, refurbished by the US Navy for the event, were the heavy favourites. Ashbury’s Cambria was pitted against a fleet of 14 yachts of the New York Yacht Club. Unsurprisingly Cambria stood little chance against a fleet of defending yachts and the race was won by the Magic, America coming in fourth, and Cambria eighth on corrected time.
Ashbury took his defeat in uncharacteristically good heart; softened by his enthusiastic reception after the transatlantic victory. After donating trophies for racing and entertaining President General Grant onboard, he returned to England having made a name for himself. He did however recognise that only winning back the America’s Cup would truly put him on the national stage at home.
Ashbury returned the following year with a new yacht Livonia, but was quickly embroiled in an argument with the New York Yacht Club as to whether he should face a fleet or a single yacht. The Club had many members who wanted to race for the honour to defend the Cup and was reluctant to reduce the opportunity for its members. He took legal advice on the terms of the Deed of Gift of the America’s Cup, and the dispute was referred to the last living donor (owners of the yacht America), George Schulyer to resolve. Schulyer unreservedly agreed with Ashbury against his own yacht club, and ever since the America’s Cup has been a race between one defending yacht of the yacht club holding the America’s Cup and one challenging yacht. Stung by this defeat, the New York Yacht Club demanded to have four yachts on the start line, in order to choose the one most suited to the conditions of the day at the start. This enraged Ashbury who saw it, reasonably, as grossly unfair. He responded by issuing 12 sequential challenges. After much rancour, a series with the first to win four races was agreed under the challenge of the Royal Harwich Yacht Club of which Ashbury was Commodore.
(Photo credit: J.S. Johnston)
Ashbury lost the first race against Columbia, also lost the second, but protested Columbia for rounding the mark the wrong way. As it turned out, incomplete and differing instructions had been given to the yachts, but nevertheless, Ashbury’s protests where thrown out by the New York Yacht Club, further antagonising him. Ashbury’s Livonia won the third race after Columbia was damaged. The New York Yacht Club named Ashbury’s old opponent the Sappho to continue the series, which won the next two races to claim victory and to successfully defend the Cup. Ashbury refused to accept this outcome and claimed the second race was his, and that he would continue racing.
He advised he would be at the start for next race. And he was, joined there by Dauntless on the 24th October in what was a private match won by Dauntless by 10 minutes and 31 seconds. The loss to Dauntless was a mere detail for Ashbury and later he claimed she was not an official defender. As there was no official defender at the start line, he claimed the race having sailed the course. A second race with Dauntless was arranged for the 25th but bad weather forced the yachts to stay in port. Ashbury nevertheless claimed no defender was sent out and claimed this seventh race as well and demanded the Cup having won 4 races to 3.
He was met with silence which was broken on his return to England after he wrote accusing the Club of “unfair and unsportsmanlike proceedings” and claimed “that the Americans were too cute to conduct races on the moral level that existed in England”. The British Press and yachting establishment, led by Dixon Kemp a renowned contemporary English yachting authority, tended to agree with him.
The New York Yacht Club responded by returning several trophies Ashbury had donated during his stay the year before, claiming its members could not compete for them with any respect. Ashbury then published a pamphlet outlining the history of his dealings with the Club and its failings. The Club attacked Ashbury as a gentleman – a very severe nineteenth century accusation – in a published letter addressed to the Royal Yacht Squadron. This was a carefully chosen recipient, as it was one yacht club that Ashbury would have been desperately keen to become a member of to improve his social standing. After apologising for failing to correctly publish all the correspondence between the New York Yacht Club and Ashbury in an earlier report, the New York Yacht Club charged “there are certain acts a gentleman cannot commit. Whatever the cause, Mr Ashbury evidently thinks otherwise, and with apparent unconsciousness that it ought to give offence, he seems to look behind every action for an unworthy motive, and seek in every explanation evidences of concealment and want of candor”. This complaint is not uncommon from America’s Cup defenders.
Such was the ill feeling generated by the dispute that further challenges from England for the America’s Cup seemed very unlikely and indeed none from Britain were received for 14 years.
The following year while visiting France, the owner of Sappho found himself facing Ashbury’s Livonia in a race. He promptly withdrew from competition such was the depth of feeling against Ashbury, however to prove a point, he sailed the course anyway and defeated Livonia and the rest of the fleet.
Ashbury, the first challenger for the America’s Cup, did not challenge again and had nothing further to do with the competition although his opinions on later disputes were occasionally published. He was elected to Parliament as MP for Brighton in 1874 but lost his seat with Gladstone’s Liberal landslide in 1880.
Ashbury travelled to New Zealand in 1883 and again twice in 1885, but did not settle there. He took an interest in Maori complaints against the confiscation of their land following the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860’s (much to the annoyance of the local administration), and purchased Merrivale, a sheep station of 26,000 acres in the South Island of New Zealand. He returned to New Zealand for the last time to attempt to settle a dispute with the vendor. Unfortunately, due to lack of direct management supervision and injudicious appointments, the profitable farm quickly turned into a financial disaster for Ashbury, from which he never recovered. He failed to meet payments on promissory notes he had issued to the vendor and lost subsequent Court actions during which he claimed the profitability of the station had been misrepresented to him by the vendor. He maintained to his death that the former owners had tricked him as to the farms profitability.
His other investments began to fail and then his friend and lender of funds, who supported him during his legal claims, died suddenly and he was faced with bankruptcy. He committed suicide on 3rd September 1895 and was reported in the local press to have “… died, with a half empty narcotics bottle at his side”. His doctor more kindly recorded heart failure on the death certificate as the cause of death.
Ashbury was a man of new wealth desperately seeking social advancement in a class ridden society and he was partially successful in this endeavour. As the presence of Lord Walter Campbell, third son of the Duke of Argyll, and afterguard onboard Livonia testifies. However, his combative and augmentative nature kept many doors closed for him. His lasting contribution to the America’s Cup was to drag out of the New York Yacht Club the principle that the Cup would be raced between two vessels and not a lone challenger against a fleet. In the next challenge the New York Yacht Club conceded it would defend with only one selected yacht.
Two generations later, a prominent member of the New York Yacht Club, was to pass judgment on past members, “In one short year (since 1870) American sportsmanship had began to emerge from its Palaeozoic ooze [but] we reserved the right to select our defender from a string of yachts of varying weatherly abilities. Ashbury, who had only the sole challenger for all weathers, failed to see the justice of this arrangement. He was prejudiced.”
Much, if not all, is now forgiven, and Ashbury was inducted into the New York Yacht Club dominated America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 1997 on the basis that he “has to be given credit for the removal of the injustice of sailing [against ] more than one vessel” .
While Ashbury never achieved the social elevation he was seeking, he gained immortality, as the first challenger of America’s Cup, and will always be remembered in yachting as the man who shaped the competition for the oldest sporting trophy into a match race between two yachts.