The story is told in The Church & Parish of Rudby-in-Cleveland by the Rev Arthur Eddowes (1924):
The following account of a Middleton "worthy" is copied from one of the many interesting "sporting" articles contributed by Mr Fairfax Blakeborough in the Darlington and Stockton Times:–
Mr Rowntree, – a famous Cleveland fox-hunter and racing man, – is perhaps the only man in England who had a trial at law to prove that he was a gentleman. He won a gentleman's race at Stokesley and the prize was withheld on an objection being raised that he was not eligible for the race, not being, – it was argued, – a gentleman according to the general acceptance of the term and meant to be implied in the conditions of the race. The trial took place before Mr Baron Thompson at York in 1803 and the following is an account of it written at the time:–
“At an Assize trial held at York to decide whether one Christopher Rowntree, of Middleton-on-Leven, the celebrated fox-hunter, was a “gentleman," the only evidence against him was that he was blind of one eye, wore leather breeches, and when he came to Stokesley market dined at an ordinary with the farmers at one shilling or eighteen-pence a head, – the best joints of meat there never being sold by butchers at more than fourpence a pound, and eggs being retailed in our market at twopence a dozen during the season.As to his worldly wealth, and unblemished character, these were fully admitted by his opponent (though they doubted whether he could be said to keep a pack of foxhounds, as each of his tenants fed a few, and the horn was blown to gather them together when they had to assemble for a hunt).The counsel on behalf of Christophr. Rowntree declared that a gentleman remained such wherever he dined. Those wishing to hold from him that title to which his client possessed every just claim ought to prove, – not where he dined and paid, but whether he dined and left without paying, then, – guilty of such an act as that, – he would have lost all right to have been considered a gentleman. They, – his opponents, – should have proved not that he went about in leather breeches, but without any at all, then that truly would have stamped his client as no gentleman.”
Mr Eddowes continues
Christopher Rowntree was evidently buried elsewhere as there is no record of his burial in the Parish Registers. Gentleman, or no gentleman, he was certainly of real old stock, as there are records of the family as far back as 1631, when the Rowntrees then lived at Hilton.The story also appears in two of John Fairfax-Blakeborough's books.
In England's Oldest Hunt (1907) he comments that
This Rowntree seems to have been one of the old free-and-easy sporting squirearchy, who kept his pack of hounds, and the reasons set forth to prove his lack of claim to the title are not a little quaint.and concludes
He won his case, having Mr Sergeant Law as counsel, Mr Sergeant Cockle being the barrister on the other side.In Northern Sport and Sportsmen (1947) Fairfax-Blakeborough added the extra information:
The Sporting Gentleman of that year said, regarding the trial
“A match was to be rode by gentlemen only; but the person who won it was not admitted to be a gentleman, and the amount of the sweepstakes was therefore refused to him. On this the action was brought. He had a verdict in his favour.”A New Hunting Song, made on a fox chase written 1783, and included amongst the Roxburghe Ballads (and given in the Badminton Library volume of verse) refers to Rowntree thus:
Rowntree, a noted old sportsman as good
Who brags of his Grey-tail, that choice bit of blood,
How at Stokesley so clever she won every race,
And how that she’s equally famed for the chase.