Category: boxing

Stumbling upon sporting landmarks in London’s docklands

By , 15th March 2017 23:40

Visitors arriving at London’s Excel Centre by the Dockland Light Railway from the City usually alight at the Custom House station.  For the time being, redevelopment of Custom House to accommodate Crossrail – aka the Elizabeth Line which is due to open in 2018, means that visitors are alighting at the Prince Regent station one stop further east.  This means more people will get to see how the London exhibition centre commemorates its role as a sporting landmark: Excel was venue for boxing, fencing, judo, taekwondo, table tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling during the London 2012 Olympic Games.

 

The commemoration includes hand prints of Boris Johnson, London Mayor at the time of the Games, Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London Organising Committee, and for Olympic champions who won gold at the venue: Jade Jones (taekwando 57kg); Nicola Adams (boxing, flyweight); Luke Campbell (boxing, bantamweight) and Anthony Joshua (boxing, super heavyweight)

A short walk further east, just past the London Watersports Center where another Olympian, 2008 double scull gold medallist and Steward of Henley Royal Regatta Mark Hunter is an ambassador for the London Youth Rowing charity, is another unusual sporting landmark commemorating the evolution of the sport of polo.

Polo Royal Albert Dock

The “Polo Group Sculpture” by Chinese artist Huang Jian, was unveiled in 2012 features two ancient Chinese and two modern British polo players playing against each other.  The Chinese statues are said to depict “Emperor Ming Huang and Lady Yang Playing Polo”.

When it was unveiled, the local newspaper, the Newham Recorder, reported that the group sculpture will continue  to expand to mark future Olympic Games.

The plaque alongside the statues reads:

2012 London Polo
China is the birthplace of ancient polo which was popular among royal families during the Tang Dynasty. The U.K. gave birth to modern polo, which became an Olympic sport in 1908 and popular all over the world.  In 2008, famous Chinese sculptress Huang Jian created for the Beijing Olympic Games “Emperor Ming of Tang and His Concubine Yang Yuhuan Playing Polo”, the only permanent large sculpture in the Beijing Olympic Park.  Four years later, Huang created the sculpture of “2012 London Polo”, in which Chinese lovers of ancient polo and British lovers of modern polo travel through time and space to gather in the London Olympic Park for a friendly polo match. 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the U.K. and is also the year for the London Olympic Games. The sculpture symbolises the friendship and cultural exchange between the two countries.

 

 

In search of John Graham Chambers: sport’s serial law maker

By , 10th February 2016 09:30

On 10 February 1866, an article appeared on the front page of a new weekly newspaper welcoming the establishment of a new athletics club in London.

The Amateur Athletic Club wouldn’t be an athletic club as we would understand the term today.   It’s “object” was to establish “a ground at which numerous competitions in Amateur Athletic Sports and Foot Races may take place.”  It was also intended that as soon as funding allowed, club members would be able to enjoy the use of “a Club House, Gymnasium, Racquet Courts, Swimming Bath &c.”.

The AAC saw itself assuming the same role in athletics “that the Jockey Club holds toward racing or the Marylebone Club towards cricketers.”  One of its earliest resolutions was to organise “an Annual Champion Meeting for Athletic Sports on the day before the Boat race between Oxford and Cambridge”.

Land_And_Water_Masthead

Appearing in just the third issue of Land and Water, the article represents something of a landmark in the history of organised sport.  The article’s author was John Graham Chambers, then 23 years of age and a recent graduate from Cambridge University. A double rowing blue and former president of Cambridge University Boat Club, Chambers had also been one of the instigators of the first Inter-Varsity athletics match in 1864.

Although his personal interest wasn’t declared in the article, Chambers – who would later become editor of Land and Water – was deeply involved in establishing the Amateur Athletic Club. He was appointed to the working committee and would become the general manager of the Club’s grounds, once they had been secured.

Land_and_Water

Chambers’ leading article from Vol I, No.3 of Land and Water, 10 February 1866

He was one of the first to write a rule-book for athletics.  A contemporary at Cambridge and close friend of the Marquess of Queensberry, he was the principle author of the eponymous rules of boxing.  He was part of a group that revised rowing’s rules of racing and also took an interest in the rules of billiards.  As a member of a sub-committee of Stewards, he devised a management structure for Henley Royal Regatta that was later adopted by de Coubertin for the International Olympic Committee.

As well as the first national championships in athletics, Chambers would also stage the first boxing tournaments under the Queensberry rules and some of the earliest track cycling races – when the only bikes were penny farthings.  He would also host the second F.A. Cup Final.

Chambers’ name crops up in all sorts of sporting histories of the 1860s and 1870s but the numerous strands of his own story don’t appear to have been pulled together.

His involvement in sport touches on a number of sporting and societal themes that resonate loudly 150 years later:

  • Governance of sport and governing bodies
  • Betting and its threat to the integrity of sport
  • The close relationship between sport and the media
  • Accessibility and inclusivity
  • Economics and sustainability of sporting venues
  • The influence of Old Etonians
  • Full beards being fashionable!

In his personal life, Chambers missed out on what would have been a substantial inheritance – due to the illegitimacy of his father.  As it happened, he only survived his father by a year: even by Victorian standards, his death at the age of just 40, must be considered premature.  If histories are written by the winners, perhaps Chambers’ story has not been told because he died too young to write it himself.

I’m already indebted to several historians – some professional and others enthusiastic amateurs like myself – who have provided leads, tips, advice and encouragement.  If any readers have come across any other references to Chambers, please share them with me by leaving a comment.

Thanks.

Silversmiths and FA Cups

By , 17th May 2014 09:01

First published 17 May 2011, Updated: 5 November 2012 & 17 May 2014

The FA Cup celebrated a centenary in 2011.

The silver trophy familiar to football fans worldwide, was designed by Fattorini & Sons of 21 Kirkgate, Bradford and manufactured in Sheffield.

Tony Fattorini, a member of the Bradford branch of the Fattorini dynasty in the 1890s, was a major force in the Yorkshire city’s sporting life. He represented Manningham Rugby Club when it joined the 1895 breakaway from the Rugby Union that ultimately led to the formation of the Rugby League. In 1903, he was involved when Manningham changed codes again, dropping rugby in favour of association football to become Bradford City AFC. Also involved in athletics – he is listed as a timekeeper for athletics and gymnastics in the official report of the 1908 London Olympics – Tony emphasised the importance of fitness and stamina conditioning at the young football club. The team’s endurance played a significant role in the 1911 FA Cup run that made Bradford City the first winners of the Fattorini-designed Cup: City beat Newcastle United 1-0 in a replay at Old Trafford after a goalless draw at Crystal Palace. The Centenary of Bradford City’s FA Cup victory was celebrated with an exhibition in Bradford Museum.

Fattorini had secured the commission to create a new FA Cup through a national competition after the Football Association decided to retire the previous trophy on the grounds that its design had been pirated: even a century ago, sporting authorities had an eye on protecting their commercial rights! Fattorini had already established credentials in sport having made Rugby League’s Challenge Cup in 1897. The present day business, Thomas Fattorini Ltd, now headquartered on Regent Street in Birmingham’s Jewelry Quarter, continues to maintain the Challenge Cup to this day. Fattorini’s have also produced Lonsdale Belts [pdf] for British boxing champions since they were instigated in 1909.

This advert shows Fattorini’s two Bradford premises in the late Victorian period. The properties occupying these sites today can be seen on StreetView:

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The Westgate/Goodwin Street building appears to be still standing.


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After 80 years of wear and tear at the hands of sometimes over exuberant Cup winners, the original Fattorini FA Cup was retired after the 1991 Final. The Cup presented to winners from the 1992 Final is an exact replica of the Fattorini trophy commissioned by the FA from Toye, Kenning & Spencer. Toye’s London showroom on Great Queen Street is opposite the Grand Connaught Rooms built on the site of the Freemasons’ Tavern where the FA was founded at a meeting on 26 October 1863.

On the eve of the 2014 Cup Final between Arsenal & Hull City, the FA announced that silversmiths Thomas Lyte of London had crafted a third edition of the Fattorini design.  Thanks to this FA video, we can learn something about the individual silversmiths – Kevin Williams, Chris Hurley and Colin Hines – and the silversmithing, chasing, polishing and plating crafts employed in creating this latest FA Cup.

The ThomasLyte website reveals that the company also cares for the Ryder Cup and the William Webb Ellis Rugby World Cup.

The original FA Cup

First presented to the Wanderers at the Oval in 1872, the original Football Association Challenge Cup measured 18 inches tall and was made at a cost of £20 by Martin, Hall & Co at the Shrewsbury Works, 53 Broad Street, Sheffield Park. Known as the ‘the little tin idol‘, it was famously stolen on 11 September 1895 from the premises of William Shillcock, a football outfitter at 73 Newtown Road in Birmingham. It had been on public display following Aston Villa’s victory in the tournament that year and was never recovered.

Fortunately, Wolverhampton Wanderers had commissioned Birmingham silversmith, and former Aston Villa player & England international Oliver Howard Vaughton to create miniatures of the original cup to celebrate their 1893 victory. From these Vaughton was able to manufacture a replacement which was used until 1910.

This second FA Cup was subsequently presented to Lord Kinnaird in recognition of long service as FA president. It was eventually sold at auction in 2005 to David Gold, currently one of the co-owners of West Ham United, for $478,400. Gold loaned the Cup to the National Football Museum where it is on permanent public display.

So the trophy presented at Wembley in 2014 becomes the fifth FA Cup presented to a winning finalist.

The complete list of FA Cup winners since 1872 can be found here.

Guardian Writer’s Relay – Day 51: honouring St Albans champion of golf

By , 8th July 2012 09:24

The Guardian has been celebrating the Olympic Torch Relay with its own online writer’s relay. Each day, guest writers are asked to describe what it means to them to see the flame visiting their own home town.

For the Torch Relay’s journey through St Albans on Sunday 8 July, SportingLandmarks was asked to contribute.

Update: On 27 July, the day of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, the Guardian summed-up what turned-out to be a great project.

Will London 2012 give Britain’s sporting heritage its Moment to Shine?

By , 21st December 2011 13:27

The ‘towns on route’ have been announced and 6800 torch bearers have been unveiled. The complex planning process for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Torch Relays is entering its final stages. Over the next couple of months, the planning team must agree the street-level routes with local authorities across the country. But will the organisers miss the chance to create a legacy that would benefit the nations tourism industry beyond 2012?

The curtain-raiser to the Olympics since the infamous Berlin Games of 1936, the Olympic Torch Relay was transformed into a major sponsorship property by the Los Angeles Organising Committee in 1984. LA’s controversial ‘Youth Legacy Kilometer’ initiative also pioneered the idea of torch-bearers being nominated by the public: nominations were invited from individuals or companies who made a $3,000 donation to a special youth sport fund. Since LA, the fund-raising element has been dropped but the operational model, with incremental refinements, has been passed on in relay from one Games to the next.

LOCOG first outlined its vision for the Relay to “connect people to the Olympic Games, its heroes and its spirit,” in May 2010. “The Olympic Torch Relay will bring the 2012 Games to people’s doorsteps and showcase the best of the UK from dynamic urban areas to places of outstanding natural beauty and sporting and cultural landmarks.” To their credit, the LOCOG planning team appears to have bettered its initial target of the Relay route passing “within a one hour journey time” of 95% of the British population.

LOCOG’s initial Relay announcement bore an almost uncanny resemblance to the equivalent announcements from Vancouver, Beijing, Turin, Athens, Salt Lake and Sydney and even the Commonwealth Games Baton Relays of Delhi, Melbourne and Manchester. Strict observance of the established operational model appears to be stifling originality to the extent that sporting relays have become formulaic.

In their efforts to capture the public imagination and differentiate one Relay from the next, recent organisers have resorted to uplifting taglines. The invitation to “Light the Passion, Share the Dream“, was possibly misconstrued by the demonstrators that were attracted to various international legs of Beijing’s relay. London positions the Relay as “A moment to shine”.

Sadly, LOCOG appears to be in danger missing a trick. Britain’s unique sporting heritage gives LOCOG the opportunity to give the 2012 Relay a very distinctive feel and re-connect it, and the watching public, with the origins of many modern sports.

History is important to the International Olympic Committee. The Olympic Museum in Lausanne is currently the only permanent publicly accessible manifestation of the Olympic Movement. It is in the midst of a £30 million refurbishment.

DeCoubertin, who was inspired to re-establish the Olympics by William Penny Brookes, an octogenarian GP from Much Wenlock in Shropshire, once said that “holding an Olympic Games means evoking history”.

It is the century of iconic sporting moments and the spirits of athletes like Spiridon Louis, Dorando Pietri, Harold Abrahams, Jessie Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Ogla Korbut, Mark Spitz, Kathy Freeman, Steve Redgrave that underpin and sustain the Olympic brand. It’s the heritage that keep the IOC’s corporate sponsors and the world’s media coming back for more, decade after decade.

Without this heritage, a latter-day de Coubertin would find it impossible to persuade a single country, let alone a single city, to invest the billions required to host simultaneous world championships for so many different sports.

When inviting the world’s athletes to come to London during the Year-to-Go celebrations in Trafalgar Square on 27 July, IOC President Jacques Rogge talked of the Games “coming to the nation that invented modern sport and the concept of fair play.”

The IOC website acknowledges how Britain created, codified or popularised 15 out of the 25 current summer Olympic sports. Thanks to Scotland’s role as the home of both golf and rugby sevens, the tally will rise to 17 at Rio 2016. It’s an unfortunate oversight that the Relay route bypasses the birthplace of sevens at Melrose.

In recent years, history has been out of fashion within Britain’s educational establishment. In spite of this, the subject has remained popular with the public and continues to attract respectable audiences on television, even in our multi-channel age. Television historians have been elevated into the ranks of celebrity. Given the chance, history can still engage and excite school children – especially when there are local and sporting dimensions.

The final presentations to the 2005 Olympic Congress that secured the Games for London were littered with references to Britain’s sporting and Olympic pedigrees. However, LOCOG’s enthusiasm for history appears to have waned.

Yes, LOCOG did name their official mascots after the aforementioned Much Wenlock and the Buckinghamshire birthplace of Paralympic sport at Stoke Mandeville. But, beyond including these two towns and a handful of other sporting venues in the Relay, references to sporting heritage have largely disappeared from more recent Relay announcements. The only reference to “heritage” in the towns-on-route announcement relates to one of the presenting partners.

While retaining the ambition to make the 2012 Games themselves “historic”, LOCOG has placed modernity at the heart of its brand values. Unfortunately, to its international audiences, “modern London” has taken on new meaning since the summer riots of 2011.

Places all over the country have significant associations with the development of sport. Incorporating just a selection of these places into the detailed street-level route could provide a narrative thread running through the 2012 Torch Relay that would demonstrate to the nation and the wider world how deeply sport is embedded into the DNA and landscape of these islands.

This needn’t be chauvinistic. The Relay provides a unique opportunity to celebrate the places all over the country and the diverse, if sometimes flawed, characters that helped shape world sport. A deeper understanding of our own sporting heritage would help prevent future embarrassments like the FA’s failed World Cup bid.

Examples are many, varied and often surprising. The magnificently named Major Walter Clopton Wingfield reputedly demonstrated lawn tennis for the first time at Nantclwyd Hall near Wrexham. John Graham Chambers, who drew up boxing’s Queensbury Rules, and was the driving force behind the first national championships in modern athletics, was born in Llanelli. Matthew Webb, the man who arguably did more to popularise swimming than any other person by conquering the English Channel unaided, was born in Dawley, just a few miles from Much Wenlock. He learned to swim in the River Severn in the shadow of the famous Ironbridge.

Charles Alcock who conceived the FA Cup and international football and also hosted the original Ashes cricket test match in his capacity as secretary of Surrey CCC, was born in Sunderland.

The story of Harry Clasper challenges the stereotypical perception of rowing as the preserve of public schools, Oxbridge and the Thames. At different times a miner, ships carpenter, wherryman and publican, Clasper became a folk hero on the Tyne racing against professional watermen from the capital. He also revolutionised racing boat design, introducing keel-less hulls and outriggers – the forerunners of the boats that will race at Eton next year. More than 100,000 Geordies are reported to have turned-out for his funeral in 1870.

The Sydney 2000 Olympic Torch Relay was instrumental in transforming scepticism among Australians outside the host city into widespread enthusiasm nationwide. In Britain, many who live outside the M25 tire of the continual, often subliminal, assertions of the cultural and economic superiority of London. Actively celebrating the sporting contributions of the communities along its route could help protect the Relay and the Games from such cynicism.

It’s also a sad reality that Torch Relays rarely generate much media coverage outside the host nation. The exceptions are as they enter the host city towards the end of their journeys or when they attract protesters.

As the 2012 Relay unfolds, a hundred or more overseas teams will be arriving in the UK for pre-Games training camps. Involving some of these visiting athletes as torch bearers at landmarks associated with their own sports would give the international media the stories that would justify covering the event. When even the Economist is questioning the tourism benefits of the Games, extending the world’s gaze beyond London could help transform the nation’s sporting heritage into a lasting sports tourism legacy that benefits the whole country.

In her 2011 RTS Huw Weldon Lecture, Bettany Hughes said, “It is the purpose of history to allow us to look confidently into the future.” Her observation that “History is essential to nourish the next generation,” echoed the aspirations that Seb Coe had for sport when he addressed the IOC in Singapore in 2005. Reconnecting the British people with their own local sporting heritage could give a boost to another struggling 2012 legacy programme by inspiring more people to take up sport themselves.

LOCOG’s own campaign to encourage the public to nominate unsung heroes as torch bearers was branded “Moment to Shine”. London 2012 still has the opportunity to give Britain’s unique and fascinating sporting heritage its own moment to shine.

The All-Male SPOTY 2011 nominees

By , 7th December 2011 00:02

BBC Sport opened a hornets nest when it managed to produce an all-male shortlist for its 2011 Sports Personality of the Year Award. Chrissie Wellington, who secured her fourth Ironman triathlon world title in October 2011, provided one of the most thoughtful critiques of the nomination process, the underlying gender-bias of Britain’s sporting media and its domination by football and a handful of other sports.

The Sports Journalists’ Association has highlighted that its members have a rich selection of female British world champions to choose between when casting their votes for its own Sportswoman of the Year Award. The favourites for their Sportsman of the Year Award closely resembles the SPOTY shortlist.


View SPOTY 2011 – the nominees in a larger map

In its annual effort to discern possible voting patterns, Sporting Landmarks has once again mapped the home towns of SPOTY nominees. All four home countries are represented in this year’s SPOTY shortlist and cycling’s road race world champion Mark Cavendish represents the Isle of Man for the third year running.

Once again Northern Ireland has two nominees who will be seeking to keep the trophy in the Province after AP McCoy’s victory last year. However not only will the loyalties of Northern Ireland voters be split two ways between Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, Hemel Hempstead’s Luke Donald will also be competing for votes from golf.

Both ‘Londoners’ were actually born in Africa. Mo Farah, atheltics’ 5000m World Champion was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, although he moved to the East End as a boy. He is still affiliated with Newham & Essex Beagles according to UK Athletics although his training base is currently in Portland Oregon in the USA. Andrew Strauss arrived in England aged six having been born in Johannesburg, South Africa: Lords has been taken as the spiritual home for the Middlesex and England cricketer on the map.

Dai Greene from Llanelli will have to compete with Farah for the athletics vote but should have the first call on votes from Wales. Andrew Stauss will need to see-off Gloucester’s Alastair Cook for the support of cricketers.

Andy Murray looks to have a clear run at both Scottish and tennis votes while Amir Khan is the only boxer and the only finalist from Northern England.

The 2010 results also suggest that non of last year’s contenders – or their supporters – managed to fully exploit twitter to mobilise support even though nine of the ten finalists were tweeters. Graeme Swann had more than 116,000 followers in December 2010 but only came 9th with 13,767 votes. The winner, AP McCoy, secured 293,152 votes – nearly 42 percent of the total poll – but had only 971 twitter followers – the second lowest. Will social media be any more influential in 2011?

BBC SPOTY 2010 – the nominees

By , 15th December 2010 23:17

Last year SportingLandmarks mapped the home-towns of the nominees for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year and speculated on the extent to which block votes might influence the result.

Unlike 2009, all members of the 2010 shortlist were actually born in the British Isles.  While Northern Ireland will celebrate two nominees this year, Scotland and Wales – which provided the winners in 2008 and 2009 respectively – have none.  David Haye is the only Londoner – compared with three in 2010 – and Mark Cavendish flies the flag for the Isle of Man for the second year running.


View SPOTY 2010 – The Nominees in a larger map

If block votes are significant, the psephologists will be interested to see how the golfing vote will be divided by Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell.

Last year, SportingLandmarks also pondered the importance of social media in mobilising the electorate.  This year, only Amy Williams has no obvious twitter presence.  Tom Daley and Jessica Ennis both have more than one ‘official’ twitter profile while @jessicaennisftw which appeared shortly after @SporLand tweeted about SPOTY last year has been resurrected to renew their campaign for a Jess victory in 2010.

If the number of twitter followers is significant, a quick survey – undertaken on 15 December – suggests Graeme Swann looks to be in poll position to pick-up the trophy. Ryan Giggs secured the 2009 title with 151, 842 votes – a 29.4% share of the total.  Swann currently has approaching 120,000 followers and the vote takes place in the middle of the third Ashes test in Perth at a time when the nation’s enthusiasm for cricket is high.

The SPOTY 2010 nominees and their twitter followers:

Graeme Swann, cricketer.  Born: Northampton, 24 March 1979 @swannyg66 (116, 197 followers)

David Haye, boxer.  Born: Bermondsey, 13 October 1990  @mrdavidhaye (81,794)

Lee Westwood, golfer. Born: Worksop, 24 April 1973  @westwoodlee (64,563)

Graeme McDowell, golfer.  Born: Portrush, 30 July 1979  @graeme_mcdowell (62,267)

Tom Daley, diver. Born: Plymouth, 21 May 1994  @tomdaley1994 (29,228) @TomDaleytv (1,327)

Jessica Ennis, heptathlete. Born: Sheffield, 28 January 1986  @j_ennis (19,343) @JessicaEnnisNet (1,378) @JessicaEnnisftw (307)

Mark Cavendish, cyclist. Born: Douglas, Isle of Man,  21 May 1985  @cavendishmark (17,649)

Phil Taylor, darts player. Born: Burslem, 13 August 1960  @PhilDTaylor (8,112)

AP McCoy, National Hunt Jockey. Born: Moneyglass, 4 May 1974  @apmccoy (971)

Amy Williams, Bob Skelton. Born: Cambridge, 29 September 1982  (not on twitter!)

SportingLandmarks forwarded some of SporLand’s #SP09 tweets Carl Doran, SPOTY’s editor last year. In his reply, Carl admitted that he was not, then, twitter-savvy.  However @BBCSPOTY is now live and promoting this year’s show: 888 followers as of 15 December.

Heenan v Sayers: Boxing’s first ever world title fight

By , 15th April 2010 10:53

First ever world title fightFrank Keating of the Guardian has written about an important anniversary for boxing on 17 April – the date in 1860 of the first ever world title fight between James Carmel Heenan of the US and Englishman Tom Sayers.

Most reports describe the fight as having taken place in a “Hampshire field” near Farnborough.  As with the 1833 fight between Simon Byrne and “Deaf” Burk, information about venues for prize fights were only passed on by word of mouth in order to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities: prize fights were illegal even thought many establishment figures were enthusiastic spectators.

Rushmoor Borough Council, the modern local authority for Farnborough, suggests the fight was fought near the Ship Inn, which is about three-quarters of a mile from the Farnborough mainline station.  Special trains had been organised to transport thousands of spectators from Waterloo Station in London to see the fight.

Can anyone pinpoint the site of the fight more accurately? Leave a comment if you can.

St Albans, the Grand National and a fatal fist fight

By , 6th April 2010 20:43

Former Turf Hotel, Queen's Hotel, Steeplechase, St AlbansUpdated 23 July 2014 Thomas Coleman (c 1796-1877) a noted racehorse trainer moved to St Albans around 1820 and became licensee of the Turf Hotel at 8 Chequer Street. Under his stewardship, the Turf became renowned for its “good chef, choice cellar and, especially welcome after a long day in the saddle, the rare luxury of a hot bath.”

Like many landlords of the period, Coleman was an entrepreneurial spirit who organised a variety of sporting events to attract custom. In 1829, he started organising flat races on Nomansland Common on the road to Wheathampstead, to the north of St Albans.

The following year, Coleman staged the first Great St Albans Steeplechase – considered by many to be the first steeplechase in England. (The sport and its name date back to a race between Buttevant and Doneraile church steeples in County Cork, Ireland, in 1752.)

According to Robert Grimston, son of local landowner James Walter Grimston, 1st Earl of Verulam (whose family was later to negotiate a lease with Sam Ryder for the extension of the Verulam Golf Club), the race was instigated by officers of the 1st Regiment of Life Guards while dining at the Turf. One theory suggests that the officers may have encountered steeplechasing while on leave in Ireland. An alternative theory credits the Hertfordshire Militia, which had served in Ireland from 1811 to 1813, as having suggested the race.

Although organised from St Albans, the first race was actually in Bedfordshire, between Harlington Church, 18 miles north of the Turf Hotel, to the obelisk in Wrest Park.  Later races were centred on Nomansland Common, which lies between St Albans and Wheathampstead.  Some of races may have been an “out-and-back” course between the Turf and the Common.

By 1834, Coleman’s organisational skills had made the Great St Albans one of the sporting highlights of the year, attracting horses and riders from all over the country. The 1834 race itself was won by the controversial cricketer and hunter, the Rev. Lord Frederick Beauclerk. He was famous for never allowing his clerical duties as vicar of the St Albans parish of St Michael “to interfere materially with the claims of cricket”. He had entered the race as ‘Mr Band’ to avoid displeasing his bishop!

William Lynn, proprietor of the Waterloo Hotel in Liverpool, was so impressed by Coleman’s success that he decided to venture into steeplechasing himself. A consortium led by Lynn had already laid out a race course and built a grandstand on land leased from Lord Sefton in the Liverpool suburb of Aintree. Flat race meetings had successfully been staged there since July 1829. Assisted by Captain Martin Becher, Lynn staged the first steeplechase at Aintree in 1835.

Initially, Lynn and his Grand Liverpool Steeplechase struggled to compete with Coleman until rising costs and growing resistance to the disruption the race imposed on St Albans brought an abrupt end to the Great St Albans Steeplechase after the 1838 race. Aintree staged what is officially considered to be the first Grand National on Tuesday, 26 February 1839.

However, Coleman’s influence was profound – even if it is now largely forgotten: within a decade of the first Great St Albans, more than sixty steeplechases were being held across England.

Given its steeplechasing heritage, it was perhaps fitting that for several years up to 2014, the Turf Hotel was the St Albans branch of the Cheltenham & Gloucester!

My thanks to the Revd Stephen J Williams of Harlington Church whose extensive research into the Great St Albans has cut through the confusion over the venues for the races that was reflected in earlier versions of this post.   The history of the National as described in Visit Harlington’s guide to the village is based on Stephen’s work. 

View The Great St Albans: the first steeplechase in England in a larger map

As well as horse racing, Nomansland Common was a popular venue for a variety of other sporting contests and wagers including hare coursing, shooting matches and prize fighting.

The last prize fight on the Common was organised by Coleman in 1833.  By all accounts, this was a brutal encounter between Simon Byrne, the Irish champion and ‘Deaf’ Burke. Byrne was eventually knocked out after a marathon battle – which lasted three hours and 16 minutes according to one account. When he died three days later, Burke and his seconds were charged with manslaughter. The defendants were acquitted on medical evidence: a surgeon testified that the death had not been caused by the boxing injuries.

This contemporary broadside report placed the fight 150 miles from London up the Great North Road. At the time, prize fights were often stopped by local magistrates – or the interfering ‘beaks’ referred to in the second paragraph. The whereabouts of a fight would kept secret until the last possible moment and would only be made known by word-of-mouth at London’s sporting clubs or at pre-arranged meeting points on the road.  By reporting an inaccurate fight location, the publisher may have been attempting to protect a successful venue for future use.


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