Egham sits just outside Windsor, not a million miles away from the current Kempton Park, and its first established races took place in 1734. Three races were held on consecutive days in September.
No-one quite relates why only one race took place each day, but the prize money of £25 across 3 races, worth about £3,000 in today's money, or 250 days' work for a skilled artisan. Several heats would take place before the main event.
Such was the popularity of the races that they continued to be staged each year until 1770, when a change in venue from Egham Meadow to Runnymede allowed a greater crowd and more confidence in the future of the event. The main prize had increased in value to £50. The races acquired titles like the Magna Carta Plate, Gentlemen's Subscription Plate and Town Plate. There is also some evidence of proper rules, an inference perhaps to race-fixing hitherto.
The races also developed commercially at this time. Entries had to be made at the local Red Lion pub, so cock-fighting was introduced to ensure owners dwelt longer than they should. Booths were created for hire at the races so the nobility didn't have to mix with the working class.
Sadly the 1773 races ended in tragedy when a spectator was trampled underfoot and died of his injuries. At this juncture there was no railing of the racecourse, nor any public address. The poor fellow had just been trying to discover the winner. The same happened a second time 5 years later, but happily no serious injury occurred.
However, being trampled turned out not to be the only element of danger around the races. Pickpockets and highwaymen adopted the races as an easy touch where gentlemen were carrying a little too much cash to be safe.
And as with all aspirational racing fixtures, royal connections adopted the sport. The London Times wrote in 1786, "Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York were at Egham races on Wednesday; when a greater concourse of the Nobility and Gentry was also on the race-ground, than perhaps was ever remembered on a like occasion. The sport was excellent."
It would appear the royal family took a shine to Egham, as the Times reported again 18 years later in 1808, "Her Majesty and the Princesses have been highly entertained at Egham Races, where the Dukes of York and Clarence presided as Stewards of the Race. A handsome platform was by their order prepared for the accommodation of the Royal visitors, and nearly adjoining an elegant marquee was erected, in which her Majesty, the Princesses, and the Dukes of York, Clarence, and Cumberland dined." Egham had become a copycat Ascot.
In 1814, Parliament passed an act allowing the enclosure of lands at Egham. However, such was the importance of the annual races that this patch of land was specifically excluded to allow the races to continue.
George IV continued attending the races, after he ascended the throne, attending all three days in 1829 when he entered ‘his favourite mare Fleur-de-lis’, and his brother William IV, formerly the Duke of Clarence, continued attending in the 1830s. The royal attendance in 1833 was recorded in the Berkshire Chronicle;
‘The delightful state of the weather combined with the promised visit of their Majesties attracted a very full and fashionable attendance … The races have always been a source of considerable profit of the town … By one o’clock the assemblage on Runnymede was scarcely inferior to the best days of Egham; the sides of the course were lined – that next to the river with the stands and marquees (including Tippoo Sultan’s magnificent tents) the other with an immense number of carriages and other vehicles."
This was likely the summit of Egham's popularity. When Queen Victoria ascended the throne, racing was somewhat lower in her estimation. The 1837 fixture was wet and windy, and like race meetings everywhere, did not fully recover the following year either.
The loss of royal patronage continued the downward slide of Egham, although the commercial success was maintained by the growth of the railways that allowed spectators to travel from London to Staines and Egham by the mid 1850s. Sadly though, the trains also brought ne'er do wells with them and the pickpocketing and thievery began again.
Without royal support, the local constabulary was less than anxious to resolve the situation and ceased to attend the fixture after the conclusion of the 1884 fixture, upon which the meeting was transferred to nearby Kempton Park, which was fully enclosed and secure.
The inhabitants of north London have been poorly served by racecourses within easy reach until Chelmsford was created under the name Great Leighs in 2008. Anyone looking for a day's sport would have to travel north to Newmarket or Huntingdon for their entertainment, or to the west and south of London.
Yet London, and Hertfordshire especially, has always enjoyed a vibrant racing scene. In the height of the Victorian era, before the urban sprawl of London absorbed much of outer London, there were dozens of racecourses. As in some rare countries of the world now, like Mauritius, racing was the leading sport, surpassing sports like football and rugby, which didn't categorize their rules until the early 1860s.
Inner city racecourses, like the Kensington Hippodrome, in Notting Hill, west London, allowed the growing population of working class industrial London to enjoy the Sport of Kings close up.
But generally speaking, the racecourses were further out of town, where suburbanization had not yet spread so dramatically that hunting had ceased. There were race meetings held consistently at venues like Northolt Park, Egham, Croydon, Harrow, and Hertfordshire was a hotbed of entrepreneurs, eager to stage an event where money could be made and the finest sport enjoyed.
In this series of articles focused on London's former courses, the details of some nineteenth century events are somewhat sketchy, but here are a few to savour.
The racecourse stood on what is now one of London's most fashionable areas. In the late C18th, the Ladbroke Estate, spanning from western Bayswater nearly to Holland Park and down the hill toward the bottom of Ladbroke Grove (scene of the famous Notting Hill movie) was owned by a Richard Ladbroke, of Surrey. When he died childless, the estate passed to his nephew James, who saw plenty of development opportunity around the growth of housing in London.
Through a private act of Parliament, he was able to traduce his uncle's express wish for leases only to extend to 21 years, and began a development programme based on 99 year leases, much of which remains today in the leafy streets, crescents and squares of the area, where I was fortunate enough to grow up.
But sadly for James, the housing boom petered out in the twenties, so that when entrepreneur John Whyte offered to lease a large tract of land to create a racecourse in 1837, he was welcomed with open arms. His prospectus for the course reads as follows," An extensive range of land, in a secluded situation, has been taken and thrown into one great park,and is being fenced in all around by a strong high paling. This park affords the facility of a steeplechase course,intersected by banks and every description of fence; and also a racecourse distinct from the steeplechase course; and each capable of being suited to a 4 mile race for horses of the first class." There was little doubting Whyte's ambition to rival Epsom and Ascot right in the western end of London.
The site between St John's Church and Ladbroke Square gardens would serve as a natural grandstand to view the races.
The Sporting Magazine, self-evidently well-lavished with backhanders to give good reviews, wrote as follows," Entering, I was by no means
prepared for what opened upon me. Here, without figure of speech was the most perfect race-course that I had ever seen. Conceive, almost within the bills of mortality, an enclosure some 2 miles and a half in circuit, commanding from its centre a view as spacious and enchanting as that from Richmond Hill, and
where almost the only thing that you can not see is London.
"Around this, on the extreme circle, next to the lofty fence by which it is protected… is constructed, or rather laid out – for the leaps are natural fences – the steeplechase course of 2 miles and a quarter. Within this, divided by a slight trench, and from the space appropriated to carriages and equestrians by
strong and handsome posts all the way round, is the race-course, less probably than a furlong in circuit.
"Then comes the enclosure for those who ride or drive as aforesaid; and lastly, the middle, occupied by a hill, from which every yard of the running is commanded, besides miles of country on every side beyond it, and exclusively reserved for foot people.
"‘I could hardly credit what I saw. Here was, almost at our doors, a racing emporium more extensive and attractive than Ascot or Epsom, with 10 times the accommodation of either, and where the carriages are charged for admission at three quarters’ less. This great national undertaking is the sole result of individual enterprise, being effected by the industry and liberality of a gentleman by the name of Whyte...
"This is an enterprise which must prosper; it is without competitor, and it is open to the fertilisation of many sources of profit."
With such a glowing review, how could such a racecourse stumble? The first fixture took place on June 3 1837 to much fanfare, the hills being covered by marquees promising all the fun of the fair alongside the races. All this despite considerable opposition from local people of every strata of society.
And the worm was to turn very quickly.
Not all reviews were favourable; in one the horses were described as ‘animated dogs’ meat’, in another, ‘save Hokey Pokey, there was nothing that could climb or hobble, much more leap over a hedge, and as to hurdle, it was absurd to attempt one.’ There was also a crowd invasion through a hole in the fence. Illustrating the age old problem of policing the Notting Hill Carnival, on the morning of the first meeting locals cut the hole through the paling, with hatchets and saws, where it blocked the path to Notting Barns farm (at the junction of Ladbroke Grove and Ladbroke Square). Of the 12 to 14,000 who attended, several thousand were freeloaders. Plus ca change, eh?
The hole in the fence came about through local people protesting that a public right of way had been blocked, even though the footpath led nowhere in particular. And what seems such a minor issue blew up into a massive controversy. The location of the footpath also brought the great and good of London, dressed in their finery, into direct conflict with the working classes where otherwise they might have been separated. Imagine a silver ring clientele in the Royal Enclosure to make a modern-day comparison.
After the death of William III forced the abandonment of the third fixture, the argument continued to rage through the early years of Victoria's reign. Whyte's reputation took a poor turn when he was unable to control unlicensed drinking establishments popping up, and there were reports of children betting, all of which did little to quell local opinion.
The footpath issue was finally resolved, being fenced outside the curtilage of the racecourse, which was moved to a more northerly position, but other problems manifested themselves. The clay soil made training on the site impossible for much of the winter, and meetings were avoided by the top riders of the day like Gem Mason.
In 1841 there were two more fixtures, featuring the grandly named Hyde Park Derby, the Notting Hill Stakes and Kensington Free Plate. But after the June two day meeting, John Whyte admitted defeat. He'd managed to run just 13 race days in five years.
He relinquished the lease, in time for James Ladbroke to continue his building programme in partnership with architect Thomas Allison. Yet whilst there is little sign of the racecourse other than in the occasional street name, the configuration of the building designs owes much to the layout of the racecourse. Visit Portland Road now to visualize the home straight of the course.
And it didn't need a film with A-lister stars like Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant to allow houses in the area to grow monster prices that have made Notting Hill one of the most sought-after areas of London.
Racecourses disappearing under the bulldozer? Maybe not just a twentieth century phenomenon.
Hertfordshire is not a county where National Hunt racing is in the forefront of sporting prowess, but that may be about to change for the better. Bradley Gibbs is a Welshman now converted to a Home Counties lifestyle, and living in Lemsford. But that lifestyle has him set upon becoming a professional National Hunt trainer, which won't come as any surprise to followers of Point-to-Point racing in the UK, as Bradley already has an impressive record since he first burst on the scene in 2011.
Just 26, he is sitting in third place in both the Gentleman's Championship, with 4 winners, (Alex Edwards leads on 7), and the Trainers' Championship on 3 (Mel Rowley leads with 9). But in what would have been a definitive season for the new set up, Bradley would have every right to feel aggrieved at the way the season has been sabotaged by Covid once again. After all, this is a man who's already ridden 169 winners between the flags.
Bradley hails from Pontypridd, part of that rich seam of racing success that runs along South Wales, fostering trainers of the calibre of Rebecca Curtis, Evan Williams, Tim Vaughan, Peter Bowen and a thriving if homely Point-to-Point scene around venues like Howick, Llanfrynach and Dunraven Stud, home to the king of Welsh Pointing, David Brace.
In fact, Bradley is a graduate of pony racing in Wales, and enjoyed his first ride between the flags whilst the ink was still wet on his 16th birthday cards. It took a year to achieve a first winner, but then, like London buses, three came at once the same weekend. "After my first, on Cinaman at Ystradowen, I picked up a spare in a Maiden that same afternoon which won. Then I won at Cothelstone the day after, so went from none to three in 24 hours," he explained to Jake Exelby earlier this year.
So what's the Hertfordshire connection then?
Bradley's partner is Claire Sherriff, whose father Julian farms in the county. He grew up attending the Enfield Chace meeting when it was held at Friars Wash, and needed little encouragement when Claire and Bradley were looking for new and larger premises. He owns 4 of the 12 horses at the yard on his farm, but they have plans afoot to extend this to 24 - a first step in pursuit of a professional licence. They made the move to Lemsford this last summer.
And that ambition came a little closer this afternoon when able Intermediate horse Rio Bravo rewarded Bradley's long drive to Catterick with a 2 1/2l victory in the Hunters Chase there under fellow Pointing graduate Connor Brace, now a Conditional rider with Fergal O'Brien in Gloucestershire.
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