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.
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