The four Ashton brothers, who sailed from the Antipodes in January, 1930 to compete in the English polo season, created not only polo history but fired the imagination of the sporting world. They came unknown, with 25 ponies weary from a 48 day sea voyage over 13,300 miles to pit themselves against the elite of the polo players from England, America and India.
A prime factor in the Ashton brothers introduction to polo was the fact that Markdale was in the same area as a property owned by Colonel McCartney, a retired army officer from WW1 who had formed the Goulburn Artillery Club to attract volunteer artillery reservists with the idea that each player should bring a pony or two on Saturday afternoons with the promise of a game of polo. From such a modest start the four Ashton brothers had become the Goulburn team by 1926 and by 1929 finalists, though beaten by the Harden team for the Australasian Gold Cup. By now they were tossing up the idea of tackling the ‘international league’ overseas polo scene. Once the Hurlingham Polo Association assured the Ashtons they were welcome as a 24 goal team, provided they came as a private tour and bringing their ponies, the decisions were made. With the blessing of the Australian Polo Association, they would represent Goulburn. An astute businessman, Ashton realised there could be a depression in Australia in 1930 and so no polo. If his four unmarried sons were able to have this trip and sell the ponies at the finish of the season, it would be worthwhile.
The task of selecting the horses and arranging shipping to England was a major undertaking. The horses had to be kept fit in a sand yard on the ship and during one storm loose boxes were smashed and one horse swept half overboard, only to be manually hauled back. The horses were then exercised by walking the deck. In due course they were off-loaded at Hull and railed to the Beaufort Club in the south of England.
To the wonder of the other internationals, the Ashtons won 15 of the 21 matches played and their tropies included the Whitney, Ranelagh Handicap and the Hargreaves Cups plus the Indian Empire Shield. However, as finalists in the Champion Cup at Hurlingham they were beaten (9-7) by the combined Anglo/American team, the Hurricanes. King Alfonso XIII of Spain was so impressed by James Ashton Snr’s ‘sporting enterprise’ in encouraging the venture and his sons ‘brilliant display’ that he presented a special trophy to them following final play.
Although the now famous brothers were feted in England, they were dismayed at the low price of their Markdale wool clip as the Great Depression had also hit Australia and in England there was now no market for high-goal polo ponies.
The Americans had extended an invitation to play seven matches at Long Island and, although homesick and worried at the expense of once more moving horses by sea and the unknown cost of their visit, they accepted. With parents and ponies, the now 26-goal rated brothers sailed for America in the Minnewaska and won five of the seven matches.
The auction of their 25 ponies on Long Island in August 1930 exceeded all expectations by realising $US77,000 ($US1,074,000 today). This capital was left in New York for one year and appreciated 60% against the Australian pound thus clearing all the expenses incurred by the great gamble, In addition, four unknown ‘colonial’ brothers had made polo history!
Still determined to gain the Champion Cup the four Ashtons, with Bob Skene as reserve, set out in 1937 for the English polo season. Jim and Geoff were now married, so, as part of a pre-determined plan to consolidate their 1930 successes, the bachelor brothers Bob and Phil had played in England the previous season, taking with them 17 ponies to be stabled there for the winter. They returned to Australia in January to assist in the final preparations for the next trip, leaving with the 13 extra ponies in the Melbourn Star, with Jim and his wife Irene, Geoff and Janet Ashton following later.
Once again their daring horsmanship and superb teamwork wound up a successful season and they won against the British Army (6-5), one of their hardest games. This year the coveted Champion Cup at Hurlingham, was won by the Australians with Jim, Bob and Geoff Ashton and Bob Skene, replacing Phil.
The strong family teamwork which was needed for the four Ashton brothers to successfuly run Markdale helped consolidate them as a ‘single’ force on the polo field. The last time the four brothers played together was in 1939 when they won the Countess of Dudley Cup in Australia for the fifth time.
A link to the Four Horsemen documentary can be found below: