Archive for the ‘Other readers and researchers’ Category

I was pleased to get one of those occasional, random enquiries about something really obscure the other day.  It concerned a stud groom employed in the late 1880s at the Heather Stud near Bath racecourse.  The initial enquiry came in to Bath, and they passed him on to me, mentioning my book.  I had never come across it, but I dug out some information from the excellent British Newspaper Archive, which I think added a little bit to the enquirer’s knowledge.  Unfortunately for a someone who was a mere employee there’s usually a limited amount of information out there once you’ve gone beyond births, deaths, marriages and censuses.

I continue to be near the end of the full first draft of Salisbury.   Yesterday I settled down to make inroads into two discrete subjects.  Instead, I started on a third, found an old photograph that created a new mystery; solved another one that I wasn’t sure was a mystery; and found a ten-years-later epilogue to a story I thought had finished.   On balance, though, quite productive.  Yet I remain near the end, and feel just about the same distance from it as I did yesterday morning.

I made my first visit of the year to Salisbury races this week.  The first of what may be very few, as nearly all of their other meetings are weekends, evenings or days when I have other things lined up.  Something will have to give.

They have a fine new information panel on the wall of the rubbing house, explaining what it is and that it’s at least 300 years old.  As for the racing, I received a good tip.  “If Lady Rothschild is present, back her horses.” I was told this moments after she arrived in the winner’s enclosure to greet one of her horses, which had just scored at odds of 10/1.


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What follows is the full version of my review of a new book, Pitchcroft: 300 Years of Racing in Worcester.  Due to space limitations it was a shortened version that appeared in the Racing Post last Sunday.

Any book by Chris Pitt should be an automatic purchase for a keen racing fan or student of its history.  He is the author of the highly-regarded A Long Time Gone, the definitive study of racecourses closed in the 20th century and Go Down To The Beaten, little-known stories of Grand National failures.  He’s now turned his attention to the history of Worcester races, which have been run on the Pitchcroft, close to the city centre, for at least 300 years.  The river Severn, flowing alongside it, plays a major part in the story.  Flooding has been a frequent if unpredictable occupational hazard.

The course’s first heyday began when steeplechasing took off in the 1830s and the Worcester Grand Annual Chase quickly became an important race.  Its importance declined after the 1866 running, when Lord Coventry withdrew his patronage.  One of his runners had collided with a pony that strayed onto the track and he felt the management were responsible.  The race became a shadow of its former self and limped on until 1933.  It’s good to know that it’s being resurrected this year.

The flat was always low-key in comparison to jumping, but it seems perverse that racing on the level had to be discontinued in 1966 for economic reasons.  The track had more than its fair share of Saturday dates that racecourse executives would kill for nowadays, but crowds stayed away.

Nevertheless it was a good move, and a golden age from the mid-1970s brought several top-class jumpers to compete for good prize money in sponsored races such as the ATV Today Chase.  Tingle Creek, Night Nurse, Silver Buck, Wayward Lad are just some of the stars that ran at Worcester.

The quality started declining in the mid-1980s when some of the key sponsors fell by the wayside.  Happily, in the last 20 years the course has found a niche providing summer jumping..

The author can always be relied upon to find the quirky stories, like the ones about the lion fight, the five-legged horse and Sir Edward Elgar’s love of the course.  He recalls people such as Ted Skryme, John Whitt and Jack Bennett, perhaps not well known now but key figures on the racecourse in the 20th century.  Their efforts deserve to be remembered, for without them the course may have gone under, in more ways than one.

The book is nicely presented and copiously illustrated.  It is a fine record of what, until now, was a historically underappreciated sporting venue.

Pitchcroft: 300 Years of Racing in Worcester costs £13.99 + £2.00 p&p and is available from: Pitchcroft 300, Porters Hill, Droitwich, WR9 0AN. Email: pitchcroft300@gmail.com Copies are also available from Worcester Racecourse.


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Salisbury writing has continued, and I’m now touching on the 21st century.  Which is not to say it’s nearly finished; I’m referring to one source to make an outline of events, and I will go to others in due course to fill in the gaps.  And then I’ll go back to the very beginning and feel very dissatisfied with what I’ve done and make lots of changes.

One of the discoveries I made when researching the book is, I hope, going to be announced – I might say unveiled – before the first meeting of their season on 29 April.   More about that next time.

By going to Fontwell a fortnight ago I was breaking a seven-week racing-free drought.  That’s an almost unprecedented period for me to be absent from a racecourse in the last 20 years.  I blame winter.  The cool breeze that looked like it would mitigate the effect of the sunshine wore off during the afternoon and it became almost warm.  Not as warm as in the last three or four days, though.  One of the highlight’s was Simon Holt’s commentary of the last circuit of a three mile chase.  The duel between the two leaders was wonderfully conveyed – have a listen to it on the Attheraces website.

The last of the boxes of old Sporting Lifes that Simon gave me over a year ago remains in our conservatory.  Not only have no further inroads been made for the last three months or so, but it has been surrounded by a dozen or so other cardboard boxes of non-racing archives that I’ve had to look after on behalf of a charity I’m involved with.  Some of their contents will go to a proper archive, some will be put up for sale, some will be taken to the dump.   None of it as quickly as my wife would like!

I’ve been given a new book about the history of Worcester racecourse to review.  It’s by Chris Pitt, the author of A Long Time Gone, the definitive work on defunct courses of the 20th century, and Go Down To The Beaten, a collection of offbeat stories about horses that didn’t win the Grand National.  I fancy I could write the review without reading the book, but I will do the decent thing.  It (the review, that is) should with any luck be in print in the Racing Post on the Sunday after Worcester’s first meeting of the season, which is on 10 May.

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I learned recently of the death of John Saville, the author of Insane and Unseemly, an unbeatable account of racing during the war years – mainly WW2.  It was a subject never before written about, and when I first heard about his book I thought, “Of course!”  It was obvious, when you came to think about it, what a huge and fertile field it would be for the racing researcher.  Or rather, it was obvious once he thought of the idea and carried it through.  He had burrowed through old government files to find the complete story of decision-makers that went through the should we-shouldn’t we continue the ultimate frivolity of horse racing while millions were being killed and millions more were in deadly peril.  Insane and Unseemly is a great work of reference as well as being very readable.  It’s one of the very best books about racing.

I have relied on it so much when writing my own about the history of individual racecourses.  I never met him, but he was unfailingly helpful whenever I posed him questions on wartime racing, which I did as recently as February.

I can do no better than quote from a 2008 review of his book.  “He is a long-standing member of the congregation of Derby Cathedral, and deputy chairman of the Diocesan Board of Finance.

He said: ‘If the Church of England and horse racing seems an odd combination, I should say that the Bishop of Repton and his wife are both keen racegoers, and that I still go racing occasionally with the former Canon Theologian.’

He went on, ‘My aim is to tell a story that has never been done at length before, in a way that will interest both racing people and readers of more general social life.’  In both he has succeeded in style.”

His funeral service is in Derby Cathedral at 1pm on the 13th.

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Looking at this blog’s WordPress stats yesterday I saw I had some views from Norway.  I wonder if that is my old correspondent S, who a few years ago was assiduously researching her family history, which overlapped with Binda Billsborough and the Days of Fontwell.

I’ve been making a few attempts to probe the gap between Binda’s pre-WW1 childhood in the East End and her emergence as a film star’s secretary in the 1930s. I tried looking at secretarial training colleges in central London, but there are so many listed in directories at the time and there are no records as far as I can tell.  There’s another possible person connected with Binda that I wanted to investigate, but when I went to my local library to use ancestry.com for free I found that thanks to their new computer system it wasn’t available and they didn’t know when it would be rectified.  I hope this is nothing to do with Carillion.

I went back to Chippenham the other day to take another look at a plan of Salisbury racecourse that I’d drawn a rough sketch of on my first visit there. Now it was desirable to get some photos of it to see if it threw any light on the great reinforced concrete stand conundrum.  I also had the joy of looking through some old City Council accounts.  This was in order to look for references to the City Bowl, a race that the local authority has supported since the 17th century.

A further close-up look at 1900s photos with a grandstand semi-obscured in the background still encourages me to think it’s the current Tatts stand. It’s frustrating that we can find no written evidence to verify it.

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I always wanted to work in racing, and it’s ironic that now I’m retired from my proper job I find myself now with four weekly writing assignments as well as other planned and impromptu tasks.  Having to study websites such as the Racing Post and watch TV racing under the guise of “work” is a dream come true.

In fact, this work and the necessary preparation has significantly reduced the time available to compose the Salisbury book. Whereas I used to have “plenty” of time, it’s now moved along the spectrum towards “more than enough”.  The rough first draft already goes up to the end of the 19th century.  Even though I will have to backtrack to write discrete chapters about certain subjects that don’t fit into a strict chronology, and the 20th century is the one with most material, I am well on the way.  Days or half-days with no appointments or outings are often earmarked for Salisbury.

I was pleased to see my latest book review in the Racing Post last Sunday, especially as the editor hadn’t made too many alterations!  (And those he made were absolutely spot-on.)  It was kind of the author to get in touch to thank me for it.  To quote myself, the revised paperback edition of The Scots and the Turf, by Alan Yuill Walker, has “a huge amount to interest racing fans regardless of their nationality and it is excellent value at a very reasonable price.”

Racing history can pop up unexpectedly. During a guided walk along the course of the now-underground river Fleet that flows from Hampstead down towards the Thames, our very knowledgeable leader spoke of a racecourse at Kentish Town.  She seemed to think there were still traces of it.  This surprised me, as I’d have placed the racing there circa 1730 and when I got home to look at some old notes they confirmed my understanding.  Perhaps she means Alexandra Park, but while they are both north London they are not next door to each other.  I’ve emailed this to her; I will be intrigued to see what the answer is.  A new defunct racecourse?

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Hats off to my architect chum Neil’s brother, who kindly spent a day going to a university library 20 miles from where he lived in order to wade through the archives to try and throw light on the Salisbury concrete question.  The conundrum is that, according to newspaper reports, a new stand was built in 1898-99.  Neil and an engineer friend are sure the current Tattersalls stand dates from about that time and that it is reinforced concrete – yet, try as we might, we can find no independent written evidence that it was built that way at that time.

The inventor and patent holder, a Monsieur Hennebique, licensed others to use his technology to create new buildings in other countries. A book listing 36,809 such works in the UK between 1897-1917 has no entry for Salisbury racecourse, unless it has been categorised in a very peculiar way.

We need to be absolutely sure that the current stand is as old as I think. We’ve got a 1931 photo of it.  There are others from earlier in the century that may show it, but it’s obscured by objects in the foreground.   So I will need to revisit those early sources and see if there’s another picture where the stand is more visible.  That would strengthen the case for it to be one of the oldest surviving reinforced concrete structures in this country.

At Kempton yesterday, I was reminded over the controversy of a year ago when the Jockey Club announced plans to close the track, sell it for housing and use the proceeds to finance other major projects. Opposition from within racing was considerable and the local authority and residents were even more anti.  I was and still am puzzled by the apparent lack of public access to acres and acres of space formerly used for the Jubilee course, beyond the limit of the currently used track.  It seems to me there is no loss of public amenity if all that green space is off limits.  Houses could be built there and the existing track could be retained.  The whole subject has been dormant for some time but will no doubt flare up again unless the Jockey Club decide to abandon any redevelopment plans.

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