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Weetman John Churchill Pearson
Weetman John Churchill PearsonWeetman John Churchill Pearson

Weetman John Churchill Pearson

Life & legend of the man who resurrected Cowdray Park Polo Club

April 26, 2017
April 26, 2017
By Alejandra Ocampo
Special thanks to Dr. Horacio Laffaye for his collaboration.

"Proud to be the home of British polo for over a century", boast Cowdray Park, one of the most important polo clubs the world. With a long history dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century, Cowdray has become synonymous with British polo.

The club is set in a beautiful natural park in West Sussex, less than two hours away from London, and its number one ground lies in the shadows of the Cowdray Castle ruins. The British Open Gold Cup, first played in 1956, is the club’s most prestigious tournament. Cowdray Park Polo Club’s history begins in 1910, with Weetman Pearson, the first Viscount Cowdray, whose family resided in Cowdray Estate from 1908. The club became the epicentre of British Polo, hosting competitive tournaments for aristocrats and army officers. In 1914, with the onset of the First World War, many of the club’s members joined the war. Polo only returned to Cowdray in the 1920s.  

In 1927, the property was inherited by Weetman Harold Miller Pearson, Second Viscount Cowdray. After his death in 1933, Cowdray Park was passed on to Lt Col Weetman John Churchill Pearson, Third Viscount Cowdray, the protagonist of our story; not only did he resurrect the tradition of polo at the club, but he was a polo fanatic, lauded for bringing polo back to Cowdray after the Second World War.

A POLO FAN WHO OVERCAME EVERY OBSTACLE

Weetman John Churchill Pearson was born in London on February 27, 1910 (the same year the polo club was founded), to Weetman Harold Miller Pearson and Agnes Beryl Spencer Churchill; a distant cousin, on his mother’s side, of Sir Winston Churchill. He completed his studies at Eton and Oxford, where he began to play polo. As a member of Oxford Polo Team, Lord Cowdray won the Tyro Cup, and in the 1930s he captained the English Polo Team, though not as a player. In 1939 he married Lady Anne Pamela Bridgeman, with whom he had three children: Hon. Mary Teresa, Hon. Liza Jane and Michael Orlando, current Fourth Viscount Cowdray. He divorced in 1950 and remarried Lady Elizabeth Georgiana Mather-Jackson in 1953, and had three more children: Hon. Lucy, Hon. Charles Anthony and Hon. Rosanna.
Just as polo had stopped in 1914, the sport was halted once again in 1939 with the commencement of the Second World War. Lord Cowdray enrolled in the Sussex Yeomanry, a voluntary regiment of the British Army. In 1940 he was injured during the British retreat from Dunkirk, and consequently lost his left arm. That year he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Later on, Lord Cowdray served as parliamentary aide to the Under Secretary of State for Air, Lord Sherwood, and was an officer in the Home Guard. 

Aside from his devotion to polo and the military, Lord Cowdray was chairman of the Pearson Group from 1954 to 1977, a period of remarkable growth for a business begun modestly by his grandfather. The latter, Weetman Pearson, had a hand in construction projects like Dover Harbor and built the Mexican Eagle Oil Company, which he sold at a hefty profit to Royal Dutch Shell after World War I.
Under the 3d Viscount, the Pearson empire had stakes in such widely diverse enterprises as Penguin Books, Viking Press, The Financial Times, The Economist, Madame Tussaud's, Chateau Latour vineyards and Lazard Freres, the merchant bankers.

THE REBIRTH OF COWDRAY PARK & THE GLORIOUS RETURN OF BRITISH POLO

Polo was not exempt from post war horrors, but Lord Cowdray took it upon himself to build the sport back up to its former glory. 
"He was an amazing man in lots of ways and absolutely passionate about polo!", says Danish-born Lila Pearson, the club's Vice President, and Lord Cowdray's daughter-in-law, married to his youngest son, Hon. Charles Pearson. "He would be so upset about all the problems in polo at the moment and was very aware of the importance of all the polo community in the world sticking together! That is why he paid for teams to go and play in America and Argentina, even though he couldn't play himself, as he had lost his arm by then."

Slowly but surely, Lord Cowdray got back in the saddle after having his left arm amputated, and he continued to play with a 4-goal handicap. He played until the age of 70, aided by a custom made prosthetic which helped him grab the reins. Lord Pearson was also President of the Hurlingham Polo Association between 1947 and 1949.

Polo officially returned to Cowdray in the summer of 1947, with three-players teams. In 1948, alongside his three sisters, Angela, Daphne and Joskyll ("He wasn't crazy about women playing polo," Lila smiles. "But he had to let his sisters play after the Second World War as there weren't enough men at the time to make up the teams.") 
and his brother in law, John Lakin (married to Daphne), who was one of the best players of the time, they set up the first official post-war tournament in Cowdray Park, The Challenge Cup, which was originally founded in 1911. Lord Cowdray won the tournament alongside Major Colin Davenport, Daphne and John Lakin. Watching from the stands were Lewis Lacey (the second Argentine player to ever reach 10-goals, in 1915) and Jack Nelson (1924 Olympic champion in Paris), who had invited Lord Cowdray to travel to Argentina.

In 1949, Cowdray Park Polo Team, representing England, played a 24-goal international tournament in Palermo, with a lineup including Jack Traill (son of John Traill, the first Argentine to reach 10 goals, in 1913), John Lakin, Bob Skene and Humphrey Guiness. Teams of Chile, Argentine Civilians and Argentine Military also competed, and the Argentine Military ran out the champions.

The experience was greatly beneficial for Lord Cowdray, as he made friends who helped him bring polo back to his club. He travelled to Argentina many times, buying horses, recruiting players and polo managers. Cowdray began to blossom, with several tournaments, thanks to the help of friends such as Arthur Lucas, Tito Lalor, Antonio Heguy, and later on, in the 1960s, from Eduardo Moore, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The Royal Family also played a big part in the renaissance of the club; the Duke of Edinburgh and his son, the Prince of Wales, were regulars in the club’s tournaments, while the Queen always attended their games. In 1966, Queen Elizabeth was the one to present The Gold Cup to her husband after he won the British Open with his team Windsor Park. 

In 1951, Lord Cowdray brought the Coronation Cup back, the important trophy donated by the Ranelagh Club in 1911, to commemorate King George’s coronation. A tournament was played to mark the Coronation of HM The Queen in 1953, mainly at Cowdray Park. Argentina, composed of Eduardo Braun Cantilo, Ernesto Lalor, Alejandro Mihanovich and Juan Carlos Alberdi, claimed the trophy. 

In 1956, Lord Cowdray founded the British Open Gold Cup, which would go on to become one of the most important polo tournaments in the world. The competition attracted the biggest names in polo, and gave the club world-class polo status. The first team to claim the prestigious cup were Argentine’s Los Indios, composed of Juan Echeverz, Antonio Heguy, Pablo Nagore and Jorge Marin Moreno. They had all helped Lord Cowdray on his endeavour to rebuild Cowdray’s polo reputation after the war.

The Gold Cup was a great success, but Lord Cowdray always worked to continue improving the club. Argentina played a fundamental role in Cowdray’s development; in the 1960s and 1970s, the club began welcoming Argentine grooms. These went on to teach the English a thing or two about training and working the horses. "He used to come to polo, come rain or shine, regardless of what level of polo was being played," states Lila.

Today Cowdray Park represents great polo, both nationally and internationally. The club’s grounds are considered some of the best in the world, and players from all over the globe aspire to play on the club’s grounds. Tournaments of all levels are played from April to September every year.

Weetman John Churchill Pearson, the man who resurrected polo in England in the second half of the XX Century, died in 1995, in Midhurst, West Sussex, due to a bronchial neumonia. But his legacy will always live on at his home, his world, Cowdray Park Polo Club, through Lila, her husband and their children. "I'm so sad he wasn't around to see my polo career take off and even more so to see my children, his grandchildren, passionate and playing the game he loved," says Lila. "He didn't encourage his daughters to play, but when I came along, he realised - I think - that I had his passion and was probably the family member most likely to carry on the tradition, and he became my biggest supporter!"