Harpenden Races

From the 1830s to 1914

Race Day in Harpenden - c.1900
LHS archives, cat.no. HC 00008
Racegoers arrived by train - walking down Station Road c.1900
LHS archives, cat.no. B 3.63
Racegoers walking up the Common, c.1900
LHS archives, cat.no. B 3.68
The Grandstand
LHS archives, cat.no. B 3.64
The officials walking the course
LHS archives, cat.no B 3.72
Here they come!
LHS archives, cat.no. B 1.85
The Horse & Jockey pub (St Albans Road) - the course passed behind the pub
LHS archives

See also Eric Brandreth’s booklet, Harpenden Races. A few copies still available through Our Publications

Horse racing was a popular and rapidly growing sport during the first half of the nineteenth century, and this part of Hertfordshire was well to the fore in its development.

Occasional races were held on Harpenden Common during the 1830’s and 40’s.  Sir Thomas Sebright, Master of the Hertfordshire Hounds arranged one there in August 1834.  Henry Oldaker was also organising occasional races in the area, and there is a record of one of these finishing on the Common.  This was run on Tuesday 10th December 1839, from Friars Wash to Harpenden Common via Rothamsted Park and was won by Captain Becher.

First regular meeting – 1848

But regular racing on the Common did not become established until 1848.  A committee consisting of local farmers organised a meeting on the common on Wednesday 21st June 1848.  It consisted of four races, and was followed by a dinner at the Bull for the committee and others.  About 10,000 people were present at this first meeting: it was such a success that a more permanent committee was formed to make it an annual event.

The course was in the shape of a long narrow horse shoe starting on the Common near what is now the Golf Clubhouse; crossing Walkers Road, which was covered with straw for the occasion; then sweeping out into the country beyond Cross Lane; over the fields of the Childwickbury Estate behind what is now Horse and Jockey Farm, but was in those days a public house; and then turning near Ayres End Lane to come back along the Common.

Not all the races were run over the same distance.  There were eight races in 1863: three were over a two mile course, three over a course of just over half a mile, one over a mile, and one over a mile and a half.  Some races attracted more horses than others.  The Wheathampstead Stakes, run at four o’clock over a course of four and a half furlongs, attracted six runners.  Each owner staked five sovereigns to enter, and an extra thirty were added.  The second horse kept its stake, the winner took the rest, but had to pay two sovereigns into the funds.  It was a rule of this race that the winning horse was to be sold by auction immediately after the race.

Harpenden races were run under jockey club rules and stewards were appointed to see that the rules were observed.

Excursion trains for a gala day

These were the days before radio, television and the cinema; days when people made their own amusement, and any excuse for a gala day was gladly seized upon.  The day of the races was such a day.  Anyone who could take a holiday did so, not only to see the races but also to enjoy the various sideshows that were set up, rather like those that attend a fair nowadays.

On the day itself the railway companies ran special trains with cheap excursion fares, and great crowds came from London and round about.  Amongst them were many roughs, card sharps, pickpockets and other riff-raff of humanity.  Fights and uproars were very common both on the course and in the evening in many parts of the village when the races were over.

The crowds arriving at the Midland station were met by rows of horse drawn waggonettes (rather like a rank of present day taxis) for those who didn’t want to walk up across the common.

Last race in 1914 – course dismantled in 1918

The last race meeting on the Common was held on May 7th 1914.  The meeting for 1915 was advertised, but in the middle of May the Government cancelled all racing except that at Newmarket.  The reason given for the ban was ‘the necessity of keeping the railway system free for the rapid and unimpeded transit of troops and munitions’

It became apparent during the war that the Jockey Club did not approve of open courses such as Harpenden; partly because there was no way of making people pay to watch, as there is on enclosed courses, but also because they did not like courses with temporary structures such as Harpenden’s grandstand.  There was a doubt as to whether or not a licence would be granted after the war.  So, on the 8th August 1918 all the equipment was auctioned on the Common and the proceeds given to the Red Cross.  When racing was resumed nationally in 1919, the Harpenden Races were no longer part of the Racing Calendar.  All that can now be seen of the course is a square of trees surrounding a car park on the edge of Limbrick Road, these mark the site of the paddock.

HMS Harpenden

There is though, a postscript to the story of the Harpenden Races.  During the first world war, the Admiralty ordered a fleet of thirty two paddle minesweepers, and named them all after racecourses.  HMS Harpenden was commissioned in 1918, and served in Home Waters and the Baltic until December 1919, when she was paid off at Sheerness.  She was then, in January 1920, berthed at Harwich for disposal, and eventually sold for scrap in 1928.

The ships bell was acquired by the Right Honourable J C C Davidson MP for Hemel Hempstead Division, and presented to Harpenden Library in 1930, where it still remains as a reminder of the races which were an important day in the life of the village for sixty seven years.

Comments about this page

  • The inscription on the trophy reads:

    ‘Salt Fish Winner Hunters Plate 40 Sovs. Harpenden 1876’

    There was nothing in the Society’s archives that related to the cup but research has revealed the following:

    ‘Salt Fish’ was owned and ridden by Mr Henry Bailey and won the race for a Farmers Hunt Plate at the Hertfordshire Yeomanry Races held on Harpenden Common on 9 June 1876.

    The Hertfordshire Yeomanry (formed from the separate North Herts and South Herts units by the Cardwell army reforms of 1870) organised annual races during the 19th century at various locations, including Harpenden in the years 1876 to 1883. A feature of these races was a Hunters Plate for:

    ‘half-bred horses, the bona-fide property of farmers or sons of farmers since January 1st last and occupying not less than 100 acres within the limits of the Hertfordshire Hunt and the Old Berkeley Hunt, to be ridden by gentlemen farmers or sons of farmers’

    The race was 2 miles on the flat, entry fee ‘one sov’. Salt Fish had a 12 stone handicap and won by two lengths. After the race horse and rider ran through a gap in the rails, knocking down several people – none however were ‘seriously injured’.
    (Herts. Advertiser, 10 June 1876, page 6)

    Henry Bailey (1836 – 1901) was a keen foxhunter and horse breeder. He was part-owner of a coaching company that operated between London and various destinations including Brighton, Oxford and Windsor. He described himself as a provisions merchant in the 1881 census and as a wine merchant in 1891 and 1901.

    He resided at Cuckmans House, on the farm of that name near St Albans, now called ‘Old Cuckmans’ at Ragged Hall Lane.
    The 1876 meeting was in part organised by Bailey – entries were to be sent to him care of the Peahen Hotel, St Albans.

    Under the terms of entry for the race Henry, like all the other owners, rode his own horse. He won both the prize money and the cup. Prize money was quantified in ‘sovs’ (sovereign – a gold coin, face value one pound, until the UK left the gold standard) and in those days was actually paid in said coins.
    If you have any further information please let us have them via ‘Contact us’

    By John Wassell (08/04/2023)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.