I should mention a couple of new recent connections arising from my Salisbury research.  One chap is a member of a family that has sponsored a race there in honour of an ancestor for many years.  He is busily trying to find out all he can about his relative, who started as an illegal bookmaker.  This was in the days when the only off-course betting was via credit.  Before the introduction of betting shops in 1960 the vast majority of people relied on the local bookies’ runner to go round pubs, clubs and workplaces to collect their little cash bets and to pay out any winnings.  From ths sound of it there’s a good story to be told and there may be detailed records lurking in another relation’s loft.  My contact’s main problem is finding time to do this as well as the day job.

Another lady who is writing a novel asked me to help check some of her descriptions of racing in another era, which form part of her story. I confirmed some things, gave her a few pointers, and added to her information about actual results in the year her story was set.  I will be intrigued to see how much she adds fact to fiction.  The draft excerpt she sent me looked very good and when the book comes out I will report it here.  I hope it will do well (and have my name among the Acknowledgements).

My own Salisbury work continues to consume lots of hours sneakily. One doesn’t notice how many fly by.  Time in the British Library Map Room yesterday was fruitful, though it will mean returning to already-dredged sources to look again, using different search terms.

I was glad to hear after a long interval from D, who encouraged me to start this blog, despite having no interest in racing. The family health issues she has had to contend with put the triviality of racing research into perspective.  Her new blog should be required reading for anyone with a very elderly relative.  If she gives me the nod I will post a link to it.


My search for historical Salisbury racing material took me to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham last week.  Wiltshire can’t be doing too badly to afford a place like this.  It’s a modern building, with a generous amount of space, plenty of staff, all of whom were efficient and friendly.  Copious local records, indexes, general, county and town history books were on the shelves.  The archived documents I requested were provided within ten minutes.  Facilities in the reception area included a drinks machine, water cooler, lockers, a place to chat and eat your packed lunch, clean loos … there’s even a sandwich van that apparently stops by at midweek lunchtimes.  It’s open for eight hours, five days a week.  There’s an upstairs too but I had no time to explore that.  Others like me who were waiting on the doorstep at 9.30 looked like members of a club in all but name; they had all been working on their own family history trails for a while and were pally with each other.  They swopped stories about their recent holidays.  One of them, I heard, had had trouble with a nit abroad.  Foreign nits, that’s to say of the bug variety, are clearly not to be laughed at, as this chap was bitten so badly he needed medical attention.  You can never know what strange new insights your research may bring forth.

Next to the main archives area was a large adjoining roomful of people who, I learnt, were volunteers typing up sundry Wiltshire records for digitisation. Bravo, I say, making research easier for others, like me.

Inevitably not every item I requested was useful.  Some was racing-related but didn’t apply to Salisbury.  Others were relevant but trivial.  Even so, there’s a place for trivia in my books.  I found a few maps of the racecourse but one in particular has puzzled me, as the clearly-marked outline of the track doesn’t seem to be in the right place.  The scale was marked in chains, each of which is 22 yards, or a tenth of a furlong, and north wasn’t at the top.  Intriguingly it was overlaid with pencil marks that show the shape of the track that I expected, though that implied the scale was very different.  I have a photocopy and will need to study that more alongside other old maps.

I have a the usual sheaf of scribbly notes to type up and I must get on with them before they become indecipherable and I forget what I wrote down.

It makes so much difference to be able to walk the courses that I write about, in order to get a proper feel for them.  I regret only having walked Windsor, and that was unaccompanied.  I went round my other courses several times; I never tired of them.  On Thursday I donned the wellies and stomped round Salisbury with Jeremy, the executive director and clerk of the course, and one of the stewards.  Its undulations and turns are now much more real to me.  I knew the mile-long straight course is not actually straight, and bears gently to the right; I could see that on TV.  Yet in situ I found the last three furlongs were straight.  I’d heard of a dip somewhere in the straight, and now I’ve seen it – or I should say I’ve seen a little rise, but the descent into it I thought was hardly perceptible.

I also now appreciate their problem with golf balls.  The golf course is alongside much of the track and within a loop at the far end.  During our walk we found seven or eight balls lying on the racecourse.  The length of the grass is such that you can’t see them until you’re almost on top of them.  They are potential hazards, if one should be kicked up by a galloping horse into the face of a horse or rider following.  Jeremy recalled an occasion seeing golfers playing shots from the racetrack back onto the golf course and was indignant and the notion of them churning up his beloved turf. In any case they were were technically “out of bounds” and should not have been playing a shot from there.

More contacts have been made who I hope can provide me information about Salisbury’s past, and there’s been one particularly thought-provoking email from a lady seeking historical information from me.

That major statistical exercise I mentioned before is finished, and now the stats only need regular maintenance.  “Only” implies there’s not too much effort, but judging by the first week’s updates it’s amazing how much time rushes past when doing it.  That second newspaper column is also now part of what has quickly become a weekly routine of racing work alongside the Salisbury research.

Since my last post I appear to be getting even more racing-related work offered to me. I find it hard to turn down.  At the moment I’m in the middle of a big statistical exercise involving spreadsheets and formulas which I hadn’t used since I was at (proper) work, and I’ve discovered a few handy Excel functions that have made quite a difference to the time it’ll take to complete the job.  There are also two new racing book projects in the air which I could happily start immediately if it wasn’t for Salisbury.  Not, of course, remotely commercial, but each would be of interest to a select few, and interesting for me to do.

There are other research problems I hear others talk about, like being unable to find out when a certain person was born or died, to which I say I’ll have a go. Why I should do any better than them, though?  The case I’m thinking about would help prove my gratitude to one of the people who between them filled a day for me in Salisbury and the vicinity, sharing their memories of racecourse history.  This lady kindly offered me tea and an hour and a half of her time when her husband was unable to meet me as planned.  It won’t hurt for me to try and solve her question.  She and the others I met that day, as is wont to happen, also said, “You should talk to so-and-so,” and, “What about Mr X?” As a result phone numbers have been obtained, so-and-so and Mr X have been alerted to expect me to get in touch, phone calls have been made and plans are afoot to meet others.  I have to repeat my long-held assertion that people are wonderfully willing to help when racing history is the subject at hand.

Recalling my last post, cutting back on going to the races is not my only option if commitments grow further, although critics may say that four trips in the last fortnight is a schedule that could and indeed should be reduced quite easily.  Another is to reduce the frequency of this blog.  Let’s see how the next fortnight goes.

Albums to go

I’ve finished going through a bulging folder labelled “History” that’s normally kept in the Salisbury racecourse office.  Borrowing it has allowed me to note, copy and scan its assorted contents.  Amongst the goodies there are photos from the 1930s onwards that could wind up in the book, copies of old racecards and newspaper articles, and a large photograph of a splendid 1802 painting, unfortunately spoiled by a big crease.  That could be a job for Photoshop.

Four years ago I bought a couple of Victorian photo albums owned by Binda Billsborough in the hope there’d be clues that would add to my knowledge of the Alfred Day family and help me complete the family tree.  To be frank, my study of the photos didn’t yield much to my benefit.  S, another researcher of the Days, showed some interest in them but nothing more came of it.  I’ve decided to let them go, and put them up for auction with Henry Adams of Chichester on 11 May.

I was pleased to bump into one of the Racing Post’s top features writers at Fontwell races the other day, a chap I’d met briefly a few times before.  He gave me some valuable pointers about interviewing people, writing to a deadline and the address of someone who may be able to contribute to the Salisbury book.

It looks like I may be getting a second regional newspaper column to ghost-write each week, and some other statistical work.  So, what with the reports I do already for two courses’ websites of their race meetings plus Salisbury research, the amount of time I spend on racing is increasing to the extent that I might have to rein back on actually going to the races!

John Powney

I was saddened to read in the Racing Post last month about the death of the former trainer John Powney.  I first got to know him in 2011 when researching Bath.  John had lots of roles in the racing world over many years but he was best known for training for the TV entrepreneur David Robinson in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Robinson made a fortune out of his chain of shops renting TVs, at a time when they were far too expensive for most people to buy.  He was one of the biggest owners around before the oil-rich Arabs came on the scene.

John’s father Hugh trained too, as did his uncle John. His grandfather, another John Powney, owned horses and trained across the road from Bath racecourse.  He died there in 1894, in the same room as he was born 86 years before.  His best horse was The Hero, who won a host of races in the 1840s.  He was a generous soul who kept open house and wasn’t very well off by the end of his life, thanks to betting.  His motto was, “We’ll win it back next year,” but in the end he hadn’t!  Many of the Powneys are buried in a remote churchyard in the hills above Bath.

The 19th century John Powney married into the Day family, and like many others of that clan “my” John was interested in the family’s history. He kept cuttings albums about his ancestors’ exploits more than his own, and allowed me access to them to help with my books about Bath and the background of Alfred Day.  He was already in his eighties when I met him but very sprightly, helping out at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket.

He was a gentleman of the old school, but not fixed with crusty “it was better in my day” views. I knew his health had deteriorated in the last few years but the report of his death still came as a shock; I thought of him as almost indestructible.  I wish I had met him and his wife earlier, as it was always fun listening to their old racing memories.  I should have taped all his stories for posterity.  There’s another tribute to him on the blog of Newmarket trainer and former Mayor John Berry.  http://stable-life.blogspot.co.uk/ and look for the entry headed “second hand news” posted on or around 13 March.

Having titled the last post “The Galloping Major” I noticed last week that, by coincidence, the Talking Pictures TV channel was showing a film of the same name.  It’s a black and white film made in 1951; I’d never heard of it, and I had to watch it because it’s a comedy about people who live and work in a London suburb who buy a racehorse.  I’m afraid that nowadays a lot of the action and humour would only amuse young children and people at the other end of the age spectrum who’d be interested in the film’s nostalgia value.  It was a good illustration of how, as recently as the early 1950s, horses were not an uncommon sight on city streets and there were still stables tucked away in built-up areas.  You could also watch out for a host of not-yet-famous names in bit parts such as Kenneth More, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey.

It would also amuse those of us interested in old racecourses, as the film gives us a lot of action at the old Alexandra Park track – where they went round and round a tight circle before dashing up the straight to the finish – and later on at the Grand National. The leading jockey Charlie Smirke has a speaking role, as does Raymond Glendenning, the best-known commentator prior to Peter O’Sullevan.

I get the impression that there’s a fair number of cheap and cheerful racing-themed films made in this country in the middle of the twentieth century.  I’ve got the DVD of one of them, a rather more grown-up 1954 production from Ealing Studios in colour called The Rainbow Jacket, which has scenes at Newmarket and Lingfield and stars Honor Blackman, Robert Morley and Bill Owen.  They may not be great works of art but they’re good clean fun, and for the racing historian they provide a chance to see not just shots of racecourses but also the way people looked and behaved on them.