The HSA… It’s Come A Long Way

Sunderland Hunt Sabs were a force to be reckoned with.

Next year, the Hunt Saboteurs Association celebrates its 60th anniversary. It’s fitting, then, that a veteran hunt sab recently acquired a huge archive of HSA material that had him reflecting on just how far we’ve come in the fight against hunting.

“I was recently contacted by a long-lost member of the HSA Committee who had two large crates of ‘sabbing’ stuff he needed shot of ASAP. I went over to see him and left with a mountain of paper that I’ve spent the last month going through. It’s been a real trip down memory lane that illustrates just how far the HSA has come…

The files start in the mid-80s. There are desperate letters from student groups seeking help from the HSA to set up and get going. The HSA had very little money back then – there are reports from sales goods of £43 for a whole year of the junior wing of the organization. Pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, a lot of the letters are begging for help from an organization that could do little to assist when most of its members were students or unemployed.

A small selection from the archive.

The youth unemployment era of the 1980s was a great time to be alive. The Labour Party hadn’t brought in league tables, so schools hadn’t started to terrify students with tales of a life of under achievement if you didn’t do well in physics. University, if attainable, was free and council grants paid maintenance, so there was no debt. We weren’t pressurized and a few years on the dole while you worked out what to do was fine. There was only one careers officer in County Durham who told me I could get a job in the land registry. Young people had more time, and hunt sabbing was something worth putting time and energy into!

The files contain the fruits of that labour. There are thousands of newspaper cuttings and snippets of information (from obscure things like university library microfilm archives) on hunt meets, members and masters. There are laborious, pain-staking maps of hunt countries, hunt links with magistrates, coppers, local authorities, and quangos. There are advertised hunt meets – imagine that – a multitude of meet cards, careful correspondence between sabs and hunt supporters and a lot of clandestine stuff I’ve already burned.

Sunderland Hunt Sabs were a force to be reckoned with.

There are hundreds of articles from the bloodsport press, many about “antis”. At no point are any of them in the slightest bit concerned that there may ever be a ban. All are condescending, aloof and inherently privileged.

There are then dozens of minutes from HSA Committee meetings. I admit I’ve not read them all, but these date from the saving of and revival of the HSA from the attempted coup of the late ‘80s. The HSA that emerges needed to borrow £5k from its own Treasurer to get HOWL printed – the organization was saved by a sab physically grabbing the membership files from the old committee as they fled the EGM. That alone kept us afloat and put the HSA back into the hands of active sabs who supported the volunteer ethic that still marks us out from other anti-bloodsports groups.

There are (or were, now burned), an intriguing number of letters from hunt supporters. It seems that petty internal squabbles and bickering, not to mention infidelity within the hunt, led to a huge volume of information flowing to the HSA. I had always thought that Tyneside sabs had an incredible knack of always knowing where the Tynedale Hunt was. To read the letters – from a hunt rider disgusted with the importing of “dog fighters and cat killers” from Ashington to attack sabs, I see that just wasn’t the case. Hexham residents were alarmed by the high rate of missing cats – something that persists to this day – and a mass of information poured in to the HSA regarding this. I’ve had to burn it, but Hexham police’s engagement in acute favouritism is a very long-standing problem I hope someone eventually exposes.

This was a riot!
This was a riot!

Then a farmer is sending Leeds sabs the Bramham Moor meet card every year because he hates them, a female rider groped by the drunken hunt official at the Border Hunt ball, you couldn’t make some of this stuff up! Sorry for burning them, but I thought it right to protect the anonymity of those that helped us out…

Then the endless background information on everyone ever associated with the hunt. Host a meet and you’re on it, and so is your business and everything about it. Appear in any hunting rag and you’re on it. In pre-computer days, it’s impressive to collate information like this. It enabled one sab to produce a list of magistrates linked to hunts in a court case: all three on the bench had declared themselves impartial, yet after the list was produced, only one remained seated! There are numerous other instances recorded – the obsessive research really did pay off.

It was great to read all the “£15 and a packed lunch from Linda McCartney” stuff from the bloodsport lobby, I remember the arguments we had in the sab van about whether to perpetuate this myth or not. It was great to read hunting commentator Willie Poole’s unbelievably ignorant grasp of the environment around him, there really cannot be a greater example of an ignorant “countryman” than Willie. It is great to read the BFSS – forerunner to the Countryside Alliance – bragging about their success and their condescension towards “the great unwashed”.

But there is another side to it all. There is an underlying element of fear, of futility and desperation. Thatcher is in power, then Major, and attacks on sabs are unending and go unpunished. Instead, the government move to introduce legislation against sabs. With few cameras around, police never arrest anyone for the continuous violent assaults, but some forces do regularly wait for sabs to be discharged from hospital to arrest them. No one can see a change of government – any chance of a ban is a long, long way off. The HSA is a skeleton organisation barely holding together, propped up by determined individuals in too deep to give up.

HSA instruction manual for blowing the horn.
HSA instruction manual for blowing the horn.

And yet. There are contacts mailing lists (burned) with the addresses of all the people in every town and city who collate information, guides to “bucket washes” (don’t ask, blame Leeds sabs) to raise money for vans, there are gigs, benefits, raffles, donations. A network of people working together with their backs to the wall and a huge uphill struggle. It’s a remarkable story because we really had nothing. I’m proud – not just of my younger self for having the balls to do it because I was scared – but my now old friend’s younger selves and their unbelievable drive; you can throw anything you fucking like at us, we’re not going to stop.

The HSA now is a professionally (though still volunteer) run organisation that relies on keeping an ear to the ground to gather information on its enemies. It has adapted its tactics, technologies, and strategies to put the hunt on the back foot in a way that seemed unbelievable in 1989.

Hats off and huge respect to the active sabs today, and remember, you are standing on the shoulders of legions.”

We’ve been fighting bloodsports for 59 years and we aren’t going anywhere till the job is done: join us here.

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