Northampton Racecourse

The “Northamptonshire Nonconformist” was the successor publication to the similarly titled “Northampton Nonconformist”. The two publications together ran from 1889 until 1910.1 The publication appeared monthly and contained articles of interest to the Nonconformist community in the town and surrounding area. This typically included news of events together with biographical and historical articles. It appears to have been largely a Baptist enterprise operated from College Street Baptist Church but was supported not just by the Baptists but by many of the Nonconformist churches in the town and some surrounding villages. In later years it was published by the “College Street Young Men’s Society” subtitled “A monthly magazine published in the interests of the Free Churches of Northamptonshire.”

Racecourse, Northampton (1899)

The January 1893 edition includes the first of a five part series on the history of The Northampton Races by Rev. Felix Taylor. Taylor was the Unitarian Minister at  King Street Unitarian Chapel and had been in Northampton since 1891. Taylor was 34 years old in 1893 and was born in Birmingham. Previously he was minister of Hamilton Road chapel in Liverpool. In 1895 he moved from Northampton to Ashford Road chapel in Tenterden in Kent.

Why did a nonconformist take such an interest in what was a secular pastime and take considerable time and trouble to research the historical origins of horse racing in Northampton? There had been some discussion and discontent in the town on the impact of the races on the townsfolk. Felix Taylor’s approach was to research the legal basis for the races taking place. It was enshrined in two Acts of Parliament, one a Private Act of 1778 enclosing the open fields of the parishes to the north of the town. Its full title, “An Act for Dividing and Inclosing the Open and Common Fields, Common Pastures, Common Meadows, and other Commonable Lands and Grounds, within the Parishes of Saint Gyles, Saint Sepulchre, Saint Lawrence and Saint Andrew in or near the Town of Northampton in the County of Northampton some or one of them, and which are commonly called or known by the name of Northampton Fields.” And the second, the Northampton Corporation Act, 1882.

Race day, Northampton c. 1896

Felix Taylor begins:

A few days after my settlement in Northampton I was made aware that the race meeting which was then taking place was viewed with anything but satisfaction by the more religious men and women of the town. That was in April 1891, and on several occasions since then, in the columns of the local papers, in political meetings, and elsewhere, I have seen and heard the question of their continuance discussed. And while I have met with scores of men who would gladly see them done away with, I have also met with a general feeling, among those who might be expected to know the circumstances of the case, that the town was at present legally obliged to hold the races, or to make provision for them, every year. I was told that the Council incurred this responsibility when, in 1882. it took over the Racecourse from the Freemen, and that to refuse to accept it would involve the giving up of the ground to some other authority. This state of things seemed to me to be so utterly absurd that I made several attempts to obtain a copy of the Act or Acts upon which this settlement rested. For a long time my efforts were in vain, but a few months ago a friend very kindly placed in my hands a copy of the Act of This was one step gained: the next was to get at the local Act, 18 Geo. III., cap. 77, which is referred to in the Act of 1882, and the rights and responsibilities named, in which the Corporation are said to have taken over. This proved a somewhat difficult task, but at length, by the kindness of a London correspondent, a lengthy abstract of that Act is in my hands, taken from the copy in the British Museum. And in order that the readers of the “Northamptonshire Nonconformist” may know how the whole matter stands I propose to give such portions of both Acts as are of importance to the matter in hand, and, in a subsequent number, to point out some of the conclusions which may be drawn from their perusal.

Taylor then continues by detailing the relevant clauses from the 1882 Act which commences by referring to the earlier 1778 Act.

Race day, Northampton c. 1896

Northampton Corporation Act, 1882.

Whereas in pursuance of Local Act 18 Geo. 3, called ‘An Act for dividing and inclosing the open and common fields common pastures common meadows and other commonable lands and grounds within the parishes of Saint Giles Saint Sepulchre Saint Lawrence and Saint Andrew in or near the town of Northampton in the county of Northampton some or one of them and which are commonly called or known by the name of “Northampton Fields” it was enacted (among other things) that the Commissioners thereby appointed should set out and award one plot or parcel of ground at upon near the lands whereon the races for the town of Northampton were commonly run and commonly called the New Course and to contain the same or near the same number of acres which plot should for ever thereafter be left open and undivided (except the fence therein mentioned) and be vested in the persons therein mentioned as Trustees for the use of the Freemen being inhabitants of the said town of Northampton and for a race ground and to subject to such stints rules orders regulations and restrictions as the said Trustees or the major part of them should from time to time find necessary to make and appoint. And by the award dated the twenty-fourth day of 1779 and made in pursuance of the said Act by the Commissioners thereby appointed the piece or parcel of land described in the first part of the first Schedule to this Act annexed was set out and assigned and thereby vested in the said Trustees for the purposes mentioned in the said Act:

And whereas it is expedient that the said Race Ground and the Meadows hereinafter specified be appropriated for public parks and recreation grounds subject to the existing right of holding public races on the said Race Ground and for the purposes of such parks and recreation grounds that the Corporation be authorised to construct walks fences buildings and conveniences and that the Corporation be authorised to sell or let the remainder of the lands described in the second part of the said first Schedule and not so appropriated:

8. The lands and hereditaments commonly known as the Northampton Freemen’s Common or Race Ground which are shown on the deposited plans and all the estate and interest therein of the Freemen’s Trustees and of the Freemen and Widows of Freemen of the Borough of Northampton and of any other persons or person in trust for or for the benefit of the said Freemen and Widows are hereby transferred to and absolutely vested in the Corporation and their successors free from all trusts and incumbrances in favour or for the benefit and al rights and interests present and future of the said Trustees Freemen and Widows of Freemen and all rights of the public except those reserved or granted by this Act of and in the said Commons or Race Ground but sublet and without prejudice to all leases occupation and contracts legally existing of or relating to the said Commons or Race Ground Provided always that nothing in this Act contained shall authorise the Corporation to take away diminish or restrict the right of holding races upon that part of the Freemen’s Commons or Race Ground which by the Award made in pursuant of the local Act 18 Geo. 3 chapter 77 for the inclosure of the open and common fields of Northampton was allotted (among other purposes) for the holding of public races.

12. The Corporation from and after the passing of this Act and subject to the provisions thereof shall pay a perpetual annuity of eight hundred pounds to the trustees appointed by this Act and their successors [on behalf of the Freemen and their Widows].

14. The annuity shall be a charge upon the General District Rate and District Fund upon which they shall rank next after the charges upon the said Rate and Fund subsisting at the date of this Act.

17. The Corporation may from time to time sell or exchange or otherwise dispose of any part of the meadows shown on the deposited plans and described in the second part of the said first Schedule except such parts thereof as under the provisions of this Act are to be appropriated as public parks walks or recreation grounds.

48. Subject to the provisions of this Act the Freemen’s Commons or Race Ground the Cow Meadow the Midsummer Meadow the Foot Meadow and the Miller’s otherwise Gates’ Meadow are hereby appropriated and dedicated for ever as and for public parks and recreation ground and the Corporation thereon from time to time may construct enlarge maintain repair or take down and remove such walks walls fences places for cricket and other games gymnasiums refreshment rooms buildings works and conveniences as they think proper and for the purposes of such parks walks and recreation grounds may stop up and discontinue and divert any footpath road or way in through or over the said commons meadows or lands or any part thereof and may level drain sewer light pave flag gravel plant or otherwise improve all or any part of the Commons meadows or lands so appropriated for public parks walks or recreation grounds and may do such other acts and things as appear to the Corporation necessary for the proper formation maintenance improvement and use of every such public park walk or recreation ground.

49. Every such public walk and recreation ground shall be open for the use of the public free of charge for admission (except as hereinafter provided) during the whole year on every day of the week Sundays included except during necessary repairs or alterations Provided always that the Corporation may from time to time let any part of such parks or recreation ground for agricultural exhibitions or shows or fetes or musical or other entertainments or amusements and may from time to time upon any public occasion or the giving of any entertainment therein or on fête or gala days close the entrance gates of such part of the said parks and recreation grounds as may be so let and may demand and receive a sum in gross in respect of all persons or a fee from every person for admission to the same or part thereof on any such occasions or days as the Corporation think fit and may let the exclusive right of supplying refreshment in such parks and recreation grounds upon such terms and conditions as the Corporation think fit but the Corporation shall not so let any part of such parks and recreation grounds for a number of days exceeding in the whole twenty-eight in any year.

22. From and after the passing of this Act and subject to the provisions thereof and to any lease or other right or interest not belonging to the Freemen’s Trustees or Freemen or Widows of Freemen which may be legally subsisting of or in the said Freemen’s Commons or Race Ground it shall be lawful for the Corporation to exercise and carry into effect all powers rights and privileges by the said Act 18th Geo. 3 chapter 77 or the award of the Commissioners under the same Act or otherwise granted to or vested in the Freemen’s Trustees or the Clerk of the Course or any other person or persons for the purposes or with respect to the Race Ground therein mentioned and the Corporation may manage and regulate the said Race Ground and the stands refreshment rooms buildings and conveniences for the time being thereon and receive fees and charges for the same and for those purposes may employ all such persons and may make all such rules and regulations as they shall think necessary or desirable and may pay out of the receipts arising therefrom and out of the district rate all expenses incurred by them with respect to such Race Ground stands rooms buildings and conveniences.

23. For the purposes of enabling the Corporation to exercise the powers by this Act given to them with respect to the said Race Ground the Corporation may purchase by agree and hold the Race Stand and any other property rights and interests now vested in or belonging to the Company for building and managing the Northampton Race Stand.

Turning to the earlier Act of 1778, which is that referred to in the Preamble of the “Northampton Corporation Act, 1882.” This was a “Private Bill” Local Act 18 George 3rd, Cap 77 and was for the purpose of enclosing the open fields and commons.

The Preamble explains that there are certain common and open fields, common pastures, &c., containing together about 840 acres, from 93 acres of which a certain Robert Peach is entitled to tithes of corn, and over all of which the Freemen of Northampton “have time immemorially claimed or enjoyed a right of Common jointly with the proprietors thereof respectively from the open time or the time the harvest in the fields is got in until certain other stated times in every year.”

The significant parts of the 1778 Act relating to the Racecourse are:

And whereas the said Meadows contain in the Whole Ninety-three Acres or thereabouts, and the several Owners and Proprietors thereof being willing and desirous that the same may be divided and inclosed, and specific Parts and Shares may be allotted (to be held in Severalty) and to be exonerated and discharged of all Common Right in, upon, and over the same, have agreed to contribute and allow, out of their Open Field Lands and Estates, or otherwise, such a Parcel of Land or Ground as will be sufficient to make up the same Number of Acres as such Meadow Grounds contain; and the greatest Part thereof (so to be made in lieu of such Rights or Claims for Common) are to be laid out on or near the Ground where the Races, called Northampton Races, have for several Years last past been run, and commonly called or known by the Name of New Course, and are to be vested in Trustees, in Manner as hereafter is mentioned, as and for the Commons for such Freemen, being Inhabitants as aforesaid, and also as a Race Ground for the use of the said Town of Northampton and the remaining Parts thereof are to be laid out for Pits for getting of Stone, Sand, and Materials for Buildings, for the use of the Inhabitants of the said Town of Northampton, and which are to be in full Satisfaction and Compensation for all Common Right which the said Freemen have claimed and enjoyed, not only in the said Meadows, but in ail other the said Open and Common Fields, Lands, and Grounds, by this Act intended to be divided and inclosed:

And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid. That the said Commissioners, or any Two of them, shall, in lieu of the Freemen’s Rights of Common in the said Fields and Meadows, set out, assign, award, allot, and appoint, the following Parcels of Land or Ground; (that is to say) One Plot or Parcel of Land or Ground, at, upon, or near the Lands whereon the Races for the said Town of Northampton are commonly run, and commonly called the New Course, and to contain the same or near the same Number of Acres; and which Plot, so to be laid out, shall for ever thereafter be left open and undivided (except the Ring Fence, and such temporary Fences as may be necessary to be made in laying down the same with Grass Seeds, and making the same into a Common) and shall be vested in the Mayor, Two Justices, the Two Bailiffs, and Chamberlain of the said Town of Northampton, for the Time being, and also Five Inhabitants of the same Town of Northampton, being Freemen, to be chosen by the Inhabitants of the said Town, being Freemen, Annually, on Easter Monday, in Manner following, videlicet2, Two for the Parish of All Saints; One for The Parish of Saint Gyles, One for the Parish of Saint Sepulchre and One for the Parish of Saint Peter, in the said Town, for making the same into a Common, to and for the use of the said Freemen, being Inhabitants of the said Town of Northampton, and for a Race Ground, and to be subject to such Stints, Rules, Orders, Regulations, and Restrictions, as the said Trustees, or the major Part of them, shall, from Time to Time, find necessary to make, order, direct, and appoint also to the above-mentioned Trustees and their Successors, for the Time being. One or more Plot or Plots of Land or Ground, which are to contain such remaining Number of Acres, or Quantity of Land or Ground (as the said Meadow’s contain by Statute Measure) to be used as and for public Pits, for diggings And  getting of Stone, Sand, and other Materials, for the use and Convenience of the Inhabitants of the said Town of Northampton. Wanting the same therein, they paying the usual and customary Prices for such Stone, Sand, and Materials, and no more; all which Lift above-mentioned Plots of Land or Ground are to contain an equal Number of Acres as the said Meadows called Rushmill and Barnes’s Meadows admeasure, and are to be in full Satisfaction and Compensation for all Claim, Enjoyment, or Right of Common, which the said Freemen, being Inhabitants of the said Town of Northampton, ever had, or were entitled unto, not only in the said Open Fields hereby intended to be inclosed, but in the said Meadows called Rushmill and Barnes’s Meadows.

Provided always, and be it Enacted by the Authority Aforesaid, That nothing herein contained shall extend to prevent or hinder a public Horse Race, or Horse Races (called Northampton Races) being run over or upon the said Plot of Ground so to be laid out for the Commons, at any Time between the Twentieth Day of July and the Twentieth Day of October, in every Year, but at no other Time, without the Consent of the said Trustees; but that the same shall be made and remain free from Obstructions; and Booths and other Conveniences may, from Time to Time, be erected, with full Liberty of Ingress, Egress, and Regress for all Persons, as heretofore, attending such Races (subject only to the usual Payments and Acknowledgements by the Clerk of the Course, and no more)  

In summary from the 1778 Act we can derive the following facts:

  • areas, presumably adjacent to the Race Ground, were allocated for the purposes of the extraction of stone, sand and building materials.
  • The ground “shall [be] for ever thereafter be left open and undivided (except the Ring Fence, and such temporary Fences as may be necessary to be made in laying down the same with Grass Seeds”.
  • Trustees are appointed to manage the course, comprising of the Mayor, two Justices, two Bailiffs, Chamberlain and five freemen, two from All Saints, and one each from St Giles, St Sepulchre and St Peter.
  • A Horse race or races was permitted to run between 20th July and 20th October and only at other times by consent of the trustees.
  • Any booths or “conveniences” erected should be temporary and the ground to remain open to the public at all times.

And from the 1882 Act that the Racecourse was:

  • formerly known as “Northampton Fields”, “New Course”, “Northampton Freemen’s Common” or “Race Ground”.
  • previously owned by the Freemen of the town as Trustees.
  • transferred to the Corporation for the sum of £800.
  • along with Cow Meadow (Beckett’s Park), Midsummer Meadow, Foot Meadow and Miller’s Meadow  “dedicated for ever as and for public parks and recreation ground”.
  • to be open to the public free of charge, seven days a week, all year except for a maximum of 28 days when the ground could be let for events for example, agricultural exhibitions, shows, fetes, musical, other entertainments or amusements.

Felix Taylor then moves onto his analysis of the origins and arrangements for the horse races.

It will be evident to every reader of the extracts which I have given from the Local Acts of 1778 and t882 that the Northampton Races have a history, and that a long one. It is hardly within my province to write such a history, but it seems to me that a few facts concerning it may not merely prove interesting, but also serve a useful purpose. In dealing with any ancient institution, especially in the direction of removal’ or reform, it is very necessary to know how long it has existed, and through what developments it has passed. Being still but imperfectly acquainted with Northampton literature, I cannot, of course, be certain that I have reached the origin of the Races, but the earliest I can find of them is in the following extract from Bridges’ “Northamptonshire” which is quoted in Wetton’s Handbook:

“The Corporation of Northampton, by deed bearing date 16th January 1632. in consideration of the sum of two hundred pounds paid by William, Lord Spencer, and other gentlemen of the county, obliged themselves to provide yearly a gilt silver cup and cover of the value of 16l. 13s. 4d., to be ridden for on Thursday in Easter week yearly; with covenant that upon notice given on the Friday in the race week they will return the said money within the year following, then they shall not be tied, so are the words of the deed, to provide the said cup any longer.”

How long this covenant lasted, of course, we cannot tell, nor can I discover whether it is recognised as valid at the present day. Nor does it greatly matter, since the town is certainly neither so conservative of ancient customs as to retain an abuse simply because it is 260 years old, nor so wanting in independence as to fail to pay over the £200 and free itself from the responsibility were it necessary to do so.

Probably the Civil Wars, and the Puritan ascendancy which followed, put a stop to the Races for a time, but almost as soon as there was a newspaper published in Northampton advertisements appeared in it respecting the Northampton Races. In the issue for October 2nd, 1721 of the “Northampton Mercury” (which began in 1720] the following appeared: “On Tuesday, the 19th of this instant, will be run for on Pye-Leys, near the town of Northampton, a plate of £10 value, by any horse, are or gelding carrying 10 stone weight, including bridle and saddle, the best of 3 heats, 4 miles each heat, the winning horse to be sold for £20. And on Friday, the 20th, will be run for on the same course, a plate of £20 value, by any horse, &c., carrying 10 stone weight, including bridle and saddle, the best of three heats, 4 each heat, the winning horse to be sold for £40. The horses to be entered on the Saturday before the days of running at the Market Cross, Northampton, before the Clerk of the Race, between the hours of 3 and 5 in the afternoon of the same day. Each horse. &c., that runs for the £10 plate to pay one guinea entrance, and for the £20 plate two guineas entrance. The horses, &c., to stand at such persons houses who subscribe half-a-guinea to the said plates, from the day of entrance until the days until the days of running.”

There is in addition to one of these early advertisements which throws considerable light upon the nature of the meeting in 1721.

“N.B.There will be hunting each morning of the race-days, and each night there will a play acted by Mr. Tollit’s company, who is gone to London for a set of able players purely for the entertainment of the gentlemen and ladies.”

It is quite evident from this that the Races were then an innocent amusement –  and episode in a day’s pleasure. To the advertisement of 1722 an addition is made which still further confirms this statement.

“N.B.A cup of value £5 will also be run for by horses belonging to the farmers in Northampton.”

The difference between the hearty laughter of those who beheld the race of the heavy farm horses, and the painful excitement of the betting spectator of our races to-day can hardly be regarded as the measure of an advance in civilisation.

It will be interesting to know how the case stood in the year 1778, when the Act was passed which handed- over the present course to the Freemen. The races were held in that year on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th September. [There was then, as in previous years, only ONE meeting.] On the Wednesday there was one race — for the Gentlemen’s Subscription Plate of £50. On the Thursday there was one race — for a Free Cup, given by Nicolls Raynsford, Esq., value 50 guineas. On the Friday there was also one race only — for the Town Purse of £50. Here again, and in several previous years we meet with the Town Plate.

One particular issue that Felix Taylor raises is the Spring race that took place before the dates specified in the 1778 Act. How did this come about?

It will be remembered that the Act of 1778 makes provision for ONE meeting yearly, and names two dates between which, and these alone, it may be held. It is a noteworthy fact that up to the time of its discontinuance the Autumn Meeting was always held, as by law allowed, “between the twentieth day of July and the twentieth day of October.”

When did the Spring Meeting commence to be held? In the year 1836. True there had been earlier Spring Races, but they were held in connection with the Pytchley Hunt, and were confined to gentlemen riders. The earliest reports of these Pytchley Hunt Races which I have been able to find appeared in the “Northampton Mercury” for March 5th, 1808, and is as follows:

“A Handicap Stakes of 50 guineas was run for over one course on Tuesday, by Captain Wallace’s bay horse, Southton, and Mr. Gage Rookwood’s brown gelding, Banco (two miles). The first heat was well contested, and so difficult was it to decide which was the-winner that the judge declared it to be a dead heat. The second heat was won by Southton. A Subscription Purse (for hacks) was afterwards run for and won at three one-mile heats by Mr. Brograve’s chestnut mare beating Mr. Wallace’s brown mare.”

There was no previous advertisement of these races, nor was there any in the year, although in 1809 there was an editorial notice of the Hunt Ball, which was to be held at the George Hotel. In 1810, however, an advertisement did appear (“Mercury,” March 10th), in which the only thing that concerns us is the announcement: “No jockies allowed to ride.” And every subsequent advertisement this statement, or the variation: “No hired jockie  will be allowed to ride.” So that we may conclude that meeting was throughout a meeting of gentlemen, who rode their own horses, and raced more for the sport itself than from any visions of the prize.

But in the “Mercury” of March 12th, 1836, appeared the following startling announcement:

SPORTING EXTRAORDINARY.

Two days following the Pytchley Hunt Races
Steeplechases and Trotting Match.

NORTHAMPTON.

On Wednesday and Thursday, 23rd and 24th of
Grand Steeplechase of Ten Sovereigns each,
with 50 sovereigns added by the town,
On Wednesday, the 23rd of March, 1836. Free for any horse. Four miles across a line of country ending within a mile of Northampton, &c. &c.

STAG HUNT.

At 12 o’clock the Right Honourable Lord Southampton
will turn off a Stag within a mile of the town.
On Thursday, Trotting Match of 5 sovereigns each
with 25 sovereigns added by the town.
For horses have never won a Steeplechase.

Then follow the regulations, &c., in which is to be noted that there is no restriction as to riders— the professional jockey is admitted, and a race-meeting proper is commenced. On March 26th, a report of the meetings appeared, which shows very clearly that while the old Pytchley Hunt was for gentlemen, the new venture was a professional affair. Horses owned by Lord Southampton, the Marquis of Waterford, and the Duke of Gordon ran in them, and there is special mention of “Lady,” “the celebrated Birmingham mare.” Theatricals and balls made the week a time of pure festivity, and the town was consequently filled with “a most motley collection of spectators, in vehicles, on horseback and a-foot.”

This meeting was held every year thereafter, and its success soon began to tell upon that of the meeting. In the “Mercury” of August 31st, 1839 we find the following report: “It was not until nearly the middle of the day on Wednesday that we observed anything to indicate a race-meeting: no carriages driving up to the George, filled with elegantly dressed ladies of the old aristocratic families driven quietly by their coachmen, were to be seen. The harvest prevented the farmer and his family from attending, and when we inform our readers that only one carriage drove up to the Grand Stand they may picture to themselves the ‘falling off’”. Still more dismal is the report of three years later – 50 years ago. “The Summer meeting commenced on Wednesday [August 24th, 1842] and a miserable meeting it was …. we have seen more company at a donkey race. There is no disguising the fact that the races are going to the dogs.” A few years later they actually did “go to the dogs” so far as the Autumn meeting was concerned, for in 1849 Wetton tells us that “The races in many other towns being held about the same season, and being found to interfere injuriously with the sport, it was at length deemed advisable to incorporate the Northampton Races with the Pytchley Hunt Races, which were much encouraged, and they are now held in March, at the close of the hunting season.” (Handbook, p. 241.)

Felix Taylor’s first significant conclusion was that the Corporation was acting beyond its authority in permitting the Spring Races.

And thus it came about that the meaning of the Act of 1778 was disregarded, and a race-meeting held outside the dates which were therein specified took the place of the one to protect which the special clause was framed. The Freemen’s Trustees were within their rights in permitting the Pytchley Hunt to hold their yearly meetings, and in allowing the promoters of the Spring Races to establish theirs, but the fact remains that they were twenty years in discovering their right to allow a second meeting to be held, and were nearly fifty years before they permitted a second professional meeting to take place. It was not until 1885 that the Autumn meeting was revived, and then it was fixed for a date which places it outside the meaning of the Act. The plain inference from these facts is that at the present time the old race, provided for by the Act of 1778, is not held; but that there are two race-meetings held in this town yearly, which are not provided for by the terms of that Act. At present they are promoted by the Corporation; they having entered into an agreement with Messrs. Frail Brothers for their being carried on. I contend that they had no right to grant the lease for these TWO meetings, which are outside the specified dates, and only one of which can possibly represent the old legalised meeting, without first consulting the wishes of the rate-payers.

That is my first deduction from the foregoing exposition and summary of the Acts. The Corporation are doing an unjust thing, and it rests with the burgesses of the town to point this out to them.

He then turns to his second major issue, that the Corporation was actively promoting racing in the town.

In the next place it would not appear to be beside the mark to enquire how it comes about that the corporation have become the active promoters of these two race meetings. The Act of 1778 does not stipulate that the Freemen shall promote a horse race yearly, it only says that nothing “shall extend to prevent or hinder a public Horse Race or Horse Races being run over or upon the said plot of ground.” We are well aware that a large sum of money (£600 yearly) is paid by Messrs. Frail for the lease, and there would probably be some outcry if the corporation refused their application for a renewal without giving a reason for their action. But would not the ratepayers be ready to meet this deficiency in the income of the town, if by so doing they could relieve themselves of the troop of betting men, welshers, and blackguards, which swoops down upon us twice a year?

We then read Felix Taylor’s main concern, that of the impact of betting and its associated activities on the townsfolk of Northampton.

The corporation can do nothing to prevent a horse race being held upon the course once a year, between the 20th of July and the 20th of October: that fact cannot be gainsaid. But the Act of 1882 says that “the corporation my manage and regulate the said Race Grounds, and the stands, refreshment rooms, buildings, and conveniences for the time being thereon …. and may make all such rules and regulations as they shall think necessary or desirable.” They purchased the grandstand in order to enable them the more completely to do this. Now, it is, unfortunately, the case, that betting is not in itself illegal, and it is very doubtful whether it can ever be made so. A Bill was drafted for the purpose during the last Parliament, but the dissolution put an end to its chances. So that the corporation cannot say that no betting upon these races shall take place. But it is possible for the Watch Committee to prevent betting taking place in a given spot, whether this be of a public or a private character. As a matter of fact posters are put upon the walls at every race meeting forbidding betting except in certain places. Why does not the Watch Committee say instead that there shall be no betting on any part of the course? Why limit it to the neighbourhood of the grandstand down to Tattersall’s corner, when they could just as easily put an end to it altogether? They would have a big job! But what of that? If the thing is an evil it ought to be coped with, however big it may be, and however great an amount of work it might entail. Suppose it was prostitution that had thus become licensed by no other power than ancient custom — would the magnitude of the evil prevent the police from coping with it? And this betting mania is, in its way, as great a curse as the other. It is even a fact that our police are negligent in their duty respecting betting in private houses — information has reached me of a huckster’s shop in the neighbourhood of Harding Street, which does a recognised business in bookmaking during the racing season. If there is one, why not others? And what could the Watch Committee say to such an establishment, when for four days in every year they make elaborate arrangements for the peaceful carrying on of just such a business on a plot of ground which is under their control?

What can we do in this matter? The time is drawing near when the question of renewing the lease will come on — if, that is, Messrs. Frail Bros, desire its renewal. We can ask the mayor to call a town’s meeting to consider whether the renewal shall be granted; or, better still, we can ask that the corporation shall take a poll of the ratepayers to ascertain whether they desire the races to be thus provided for. If the rent which Messrs. Frail Bros, pay be lost to the town, the burden will fall on the ratepayers, and if they consider that it would be better to pay the money themselves and be rid of this evil, which brings no good to the town, but only an incalculable amount of harm, let them have the opportunity of saying so.

Then, if the races are to be continued, under whatever auspices, let the Watch Committee declare that there shall be no betting of any kind on any portion of the course, grandstand, enclosure, paddock, &c., let them stipulate that the race meeting shall be held for the purposes of sport alone, that it shall be such an one as used to be held in 1778 when the Act was passed, a trial of horse-flesh, and a source of innocent amusement. The crowd of racing men, welshers, prostitutes, and their dupes, with the attendant pickpockets, and others of the like character, would not find it worthwhile to attend such a meeting. If they can be thus purified I do not think the most puritanical amongst us would object to races being held. It is not the sport which we desire to put a stop to, but the evils – which do come in its train.

Felix Taylor may have been ahead of his time, but it was not a social concern of the effects of betting, but the open nature and rights of way across the Race Ground that led to its demise as a Racecourse. Following several fatal accidents, racing was suspended on 31 March 1904 before being permanently withdrawn in September 1905.


1 A partial set is available at the British Library and some years are also held by the Northamptonshire Libraries

2 Latin: “it is permitted to see”

© 2020, Graham Ward. All rights reserved.

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