Obituary: Sir Michael Ansell
Wednesday 02 March 1994
MICHAEL ANSELL was an outstanding leader of equestrian sport in Britain, and former Chairman of both the British Equestrian Federation and the British Showjumping Association.
By the middle 1930s, as a young cavalry officer in the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, Ansell had already shown himself not only an exceptional and inspirational commander but an international showjumper and polo player - one of the Army's rising stars. After war broke out he became the youngest commanding officer in the British army when he took command in March 1940, at the age of 35, of the 1st Lothian and Border Yeomanry in France. Then the string of unbroken triumphs was fractured and changed to one of personal disaster.
The Lothians were attached to the 51st Highland Division and during the fighting before the retreat to St Valery Ansell won the DSO. On arrival in the town the division found no ships on which to embark, and the divisional commander ordered surrender. Determined to escape, Ansell with a few companions took shelter for the night in the loft of a barn. A party of English soldiers later entered the barn and believing the occupants above them to be Germans, discharged a hail of fire upwards.
Ansell, blinded and severely wounded in the hand, was taken prisoner and underwent agonising and prolonged treatment in unavailing efforts to save his eyes and spent the next three years in a prisoner-of-war camp. It was during those years that he began to put together his ideas about promoting equestrianism as a spectator sport after the war.
Repatriated in 1943, he took up horticulture and, typically, was soon winning prizes. Then one day he was asked to become chairman of the British Showjumping Association. Still in his early forties, and with personal international experience, Ansell proceeded to transform the sport's public image.
As far as possible he acted as if he were not blind at all, and talked quite naturally about 'seeing' people, or 'watching' competitions. He developed a formidable memory and an uncanny way of sensing what was going on around him. He grasped every opportunity to promote equestrian sport, and shrewdly realised that show jumping was a 'natural' for television. He also realised that the way to public recognition and applause was through international success.
He restarted the Royal International Horse Show, moving it from Olympia to White City. By the 1950s it attracted audiences of 80,000 (which were boosted after Britain won the team gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics). A new venture, and an almost immediate success, was the Horse of the Year Show, first at Haringey and later transferred to Wembley. He insisted, against much opposition, that Britain should enter a Three Day Event team in the Wembley 1948 Olympics. Although Britain won no medals, the Duke of Beaufort was sufficiently impressed to offer Badminton, in Gloucestershire, as a future venue for the sport. It has become the finest event of its kind in the world, and British teams were soon winning Olympic medals in eventing as well.
Tall, erect and spare, Mike Ansell emanated personality in waves. He so dominated the equestrian world that for nearly 20 years he virtually decided everything, his word was law and his personality demolished all opposition. In the international as well as the domestic equestrian scene he became a senior and influential figure. 'Colonel Mike' generated enthusiasm and confidence that, with him in charge, any enterprise would succeed.
In 1970, his wife Victoria died after a slow and painful illness, and nine months later he married Eileen Evans, the widow of his pre- war commanding officer. Six months after that Eileen was killed by a lorry which mounted the pavement on which she was walking. Even Ansell's iron determination wilted under that cruel blow.
Mike Ansell's interests were by no means confined to the horse. He loved flowers, and he was a successful salmon fisherman despite his disability. He was always deeply grateful to St Dunstan's, the society for soldiers blinded in action, and proud to be its President from 1977 to 1986.
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