The days when Croydon echoed to the sound of pounding hooves and cheering crowds are recalled in a fascinating new publication called “THE CROYDON RACES”. The author, Jim Beavis, paints an enthralling picture of the time when thousands flocked to Croydon to enjoy the steeplechase races which, in their heyday, were second only in importance to those run at Aintree, the home of the Grand National.
The publication describes the colourful history of racing in Croydon, from medieval times through to the final meeting held in 1890. The earliest reference to racing in Croydon dates from 1286, when Lord William de Warrenne, son and heir of the Earl of Surrey and Sussex, was killed in a tournament held at Duppas Hill. Races were a popular feature at such tournaments and these were commemorated locally by an inn at the bottom of the hill called the Running Horse.
In 1585 Queen Elizabeth 1 visited Croydon and a special stand was constructed at the race ground to accommodate the Royal party. The event must have been a great success for the following year a much larger stand was erected and records show that the Queen attended subsequent meetings in 1587 and 1588.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries maps show the race course occupying a stretch of today’s Brighton Road, running just south of Croydon through Purley and ending after Stoats Nest, where Coulsdon now exists.
Steeplechasing, i.e. racing over fences, became popular in the 1800s, and the first steeplechase meeting was held in 1858, at Selhurst Farm, between the Jolly Sailor and Selhurst Wood. In 1860 the races moved to Weaver’s farm in the Upper Addiscombe Road, and were staged on land now occupied by Park Hill Road and Park Hill Rise, the grandstand being built on the high ground in a meadow now covered by houses in Chichester Road.
Following the sale of the Park Hill course in 1866 for suburban development the race committee took over farmland at Stroud Green, Woodside, on which they laid out a new racecourse.
Long Lane formed the northwestern boundary of the site as far as Long Lane Wood, with Chaffinch Brook to the east and southeast. Most of this area is now occupied by the Ashburton Schools and playing fields, and the public recreation ground. The racecourse office was located at 418 Lower Addiscombe Road, behind which stood the stables and grandstand.
The race meetings were boisterous affairs and attracted huge crowds. It was not only a few lucky punters who left the course wealthier than when they arrived, as rich takings were also made by the cardsharps and pickpockets that also attended the meetings, as well as those selling ale and spirits.
By the 1880’s Croydon races had acquired a bad reputation among local residents because of the large crowds of “undesirable” people they attracted and the numerous incidents of petty crime and drunkenness which occurred there.
Local inhabitants repeatedly opposed the renewal of the licence due to “the avalanche of moral sewage” the races brought to the area and they eventually succeeded in their campaign. The last meeting was held on 25 and 26 November 1890 when the thieves had their final plunder in the form of Mr. Groves Watson, an actor, who lost his winnings to a light-fingered pickpocket within ten yards of being handed them.
The book recalls a wealth of stories about the peculiar events and skulduggery that took place on the course by riders and spectators alike, as well as incidents involving a royal death threat, controversial court cases, the death of a spectator, and a race that was literally “won by a tail”.
The publication of this book has been supported by a Heritage Development Grant from Croydon Council as part of their programme for promoting the history and heritage of the area.
This book review carries no author’s name. Ed.
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