Today in London’s sporting history, 1837: protestors invade the Kensington Hippodrome to re-open a blocked footpath

“From the most distant part of the metropolis they can ride in the omnibus, for sixpence, to the Hippodrome…’

“As long as the off-scourings of Kensington and its neighbourhood, backed by the redoubtable vestry of that parish, are allowed to intrude themselves into the grounds, it would seem that a much larger attendance of the police were absolutely indispensable.” (The Times)

The Kensington Hippodrome was a racecourse built in Notting Hill, London, in 1837, by entrepreneur John Whyte, who leased 140 acres (0.57 km2) of land from James Weller Ladbroke, owner of the Ladbroke Estate, who was in the process of developing much of his lands for housing. Whyte then enclosed “the slopes of Notting Hill and the meadows west of Westbourne Grove” with a 7-foot (2.1 m) high wooden fence.

The area bounded by the Portobello and Pottery lanes was laid out with 3 circular tracks; a steeplechase, a flat racecourse, and a pony and trap course; and was also to be used for training, ‘shooting with bow and arrow at the popinjay, cricketing, revels and public amusements.’ The stables and paddocks were situated alongside Pottery Lane.
The Notting Hill grassy knoll (where St John’s church now stands) was railed in as a “natural grandstand”, from which spectators could watch the races. The main public entrance was situated in Portobello Lane, at the point where Kensington Park Road now joins Pembridge Road, and through a gate at the end of Ladbroke Terrace, corresponding with the present gate into Ladbroke Square Garden.

[Interestingly, the southernmost section of the racecourse must have been built on or very close to what had been Kensington Gravel pits (which lay just to the north of modern Holland Park Tube to the west of Ladbroke Grove), where gravel was previously dug for road-laying, and also a sometime meeting place – in 1786/7: London bookbinders met there to plan a strike to try to get their 84-hour working week reduced…]

Whyte’s race course was an ambitious venture, his intention being to build a rival to the well established race courses of Epsom and Ascot. When the Hippodrome opened, Sporting magazine’s correspondent described it as “the most perfect race-course I have ever seen”, ” a racing emporium more extensive and attractive than Ascot or Epsom. . . . An enterprise which must prosper. . . . It is without competitor, and it is open to the fertilization of many sources of profit. . . . A necessary of London life, of the absolute need of which we were not aware until the possession of it taught us its permanent value.” It is stated to be eminently suitable for horse exercise especially ” for females,” for whom ” it is without the danger or exposure of the parks,” whilst the view from the centre is ” as spacious and enchanting as that from Richmond Hill, and where almost the only thing that you cannot see is London.”

The Hippodrome opened ‘under promising auspices’ on June 3 1837. ‘Splendid equipages’ and ‘gay marquees, with all their flaunting accompaniments, covered the hill, filled with all the good things of this life.’ The Sporting Magazine reporter prophetically summed up the first meeting and the area’s future with: “Another year, I cannot doubt, is destined to see it rank among the most favourite and favoured of all the metropolitan rendezvous, both for public and private recreation.” There were no drinking or gambling booths, and the prices charged were ‘strictly moderate’. Among the stewards were such ” dandies ” and leaders of society as Lord Chesterfield and Count D’Orsay.

But other reviews were less favourable; in one the horses were described as ‘animated dogs’ meat.’ The Times described the racetrack as a “disgusting … petty botheration” and cried “shame upon the people of Kensington” for permitting it.

For a (very) short while, the Hippodrome seemed on course to become a popular destination, a cross between Aintree and Glastonbury…

But, just as with Glastonbury back in its heyday, lots of people objected to paying to get in, and found other ways in – over, or through, the fence.

There had been some vocal opposition to the erecting of the racetrack ,some of which at least seems to have been based on the loss of open fields and public rights of way. A public footpath went straight through the land enclosed by Whyte’s fences. The path led from the present junction of St. Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens, running south-easterly, crossing the hill by the curve of Stanley Crescent and descended to Uxbridge Road by Ladbroke Place, as the north end of Ladbroke Grove was called then. Described as a ” public road ” in 1820, it led through the farmyard of Notting Hill Farm and communicated with Kensington by Lord Holland’s Lane. This right of way gave people a good legal argument for ignoring the fence, and would lead to the parish officials from Kensington Vestry getting involved…

There was also opposition to the Hippodrome on moral grounds  – racing directly encouraged gambling, and indirectly encouraged drinking, smoking, indecent behaviour and probably also riotousness… The temperance and moral reforming opinion of the day was that opening a racecourse was a green light to sin.

The racetrack bordered on the “Potteries and Piggeries” of Pottery Lane, at that Point then a notorious slum known as “cut-throat lane”, where a spot of mugging wasn’t unknown. Many of its inhabitants were skint and had a loose respect for entry fees. The footpath also allowed people to avoid walking down ‘Cut-Throat Lane’, so blocking it off also annoyed a more respectable demographic…

The opening day, June 3rd, saw a mass crowd invasion through a hole in the fence. Locals cut the hole through the paling, with hatchets and saws, where it blocked the public footpath to Notting Barns farm. Of the 12 to 14,000 in attendance, it was estimated that most hadn’t paid: “some thousands thus obtained gratuitous admission.” These “unappealing visitors”, accustomed to “villainous activities” were at least in part not the class of customers that John Whyte had in mind. The Times correspondent complained of “the dirty and dissolute vagabonds of London, a more filthy and disgusting crew … we have seldom had the misfortune to encounter.”

Whyte had the hole blocked up the hole with clay and turf: but if he thought that would end the matter, he would soon think again. By this point, either the invaders had never quite been as disreputable as the Times made out, or the blocking of the footpath and unwillingness to pay to get into the Hippodrome had spread to higher castes in the parish, as parish officials now got involved.

On June 17th 1837, “local inhabitants and labourers, led by the parish surveyor and accompanied by the police”, asserted their rights to walk the footpath, taking the form of Beating the Bounds – the traditional ceremony of walking parish boundaries and marking them every year, a practical task that had over time assumed a ritual role, and was often used to note down or demolish unsanctioned enclosures, buildings or attempts to move borders and fences.

The officials may have been co-opted by a crowd, or acted out of strict respect for parish rights. In any case, they re-opened the traditional footpath, by reinstating the original entrance hole, and knocking another hole in the fence on the other side of the racetrack to make a northern exit. Once this was achieved, these community activists gathered on Notting Hill to give three loud cheers for the parish of Kensington. It was noted that the crowd was a mix of the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’: the footpath protestors “seem as a rule to have been orderly enough, but gipsies, prigs (thieves) and hawkers did not neglect the opportunity of mingling with the nobility and gentry.” As with many gardens and parks, the exclusion of the undeserving poor was a must. For lots of the local poor, the beating of the parish bounds offered a chance to cock a snook at the respectable and enjoy the sport for free…

The involvement of parish officials in maintaining the rights of way and preventing or removing what they could prove were illegal enclosures or encroachments on parish land and parochial rights may seem surprising when harnessed to invasion of the racecourse. However, this is far from a unique event – from the early days of enclosure parish busybodies were in fact heavily involved in ruling some enclosures illegal, even in actively tearing them down. The local disputes over private individuals fencing off land or blocking traditional paths and routes in their own interest led to continual splits in local bodies – not all the worthies were in favour of such landgrabs, either due to actual principled stands, local rivalries, or in some cases pedantic insistence on statute and local bylaw. Check out this enclosure battle from nearby Westminster in 1592.
And similarly, a local vicar was involved in the Richmond Park trespass in 1751.

The Times, already heavily prejudiced against the opening of the racecourse, was further enraged by the involvement of the parish officers in this action:

“The great annoyance experienced by the respectable company at the Hippodrome, from the ingress of blackguards who enter by the ‘right of way’, ought, at once, to convince the Kensington people of the impolicy, as well as the injustice of the steps they have taken in reference to this ground… The very urchins who were made the instruments of this piece of contemptible parochial tyranny, will, in after life, blush for the action. We allude to the little boys who accompanied the beadles and ‘old women’, in beating the boundaries of the parish. The reckless injury occasioned to the property, perhaps, is a minor consideration, when compared with the inconvenience attendant now upon the impossibility of keeping out any ruffian or thief who may claim his ‘right of way’ on the footpath… shame upon the people of Kensington!’”  (The Times, 1837)

The Times also reported somewhat inconsistently on the 4th Hippodrome meeting: “It is true that a large portion of the assemblage consisted of the dirty and dissolute, to whom the disputed path affords a means of ingress; but there was still a sufficient muster of the gay and fashionable to assure the proprietor that a purveyor of manly national sports will find no lack of powerful and flattering support from the largest and richest metropolis in the world… As long as the off-scourings of Kensington and its neighbourhood, backed by the redoubtable vestry of that parish, are allowed to intrude themselves into the grounds, it would seem that a much larger attendance of the police were absolutely indispensable.”

Local feeling was still very much against the racecourse. Petitions to close it were circulated, the Kensington Vestry asked Parliament for the closure of the racecourse, and the question was discussed by the Court of King’s Bench and before Parliament.

In order to pacify both the moral opposition and the local roughs, Mr. Whyte and his business partners promised to reform certain evils on the premises, and to admit the public free on Sundays, and for a charge of twopence on certain holidays. However, the moral reformers saw the latter proposal as a desecration of the Sabbath, when they thought no sport should take place at all. Although there restrictions on gambling and drinking within the Hippodrome, it merely took place instead in nearby “gambling houses, gin-shops, beerhouses, etc.,” which had increased in number, attracting all sorts of undesirables, “the scum and offal of London assembled in the peaceful hamlet of Notting Hill.”
Reminding us of the local middle class petitions against Camberwell Fair and other annual shindigs.

A year later the pathway was fenced off by an iron railing. But before the beginning of the 1839 racing season, Mr. Whyte gave up the contest and abandoned occupation of the eastern half of ‘Hippodrome Park’, which included the disputed pathway. However, the race-course was extended to the north-west, just avoiding the footpath from Wormwood Scrubs, (now St. Quintin Avenue). The Park became a bulb-shaped piece of land which reached as far as Latimer Road, and the race-course formed a loop on the western side of the training ground.

Portobello Lane was now connected by road with a new entrance on the top of the hill. (Part of this road was unearthed when a potato patch was made in Ladbroke Square Garden in 1916.) As part of this new extension, the old public way from Notting Barns to Uxbridge Road seems to have been cut through and done away with without any protest.

Apart from losing income to ‘trespassers’ and now having pissed off the parish sticklers for probity, Whyte had other serious problems, however. The next scheduled race-meeting had to be suddenly relinquished on account of the death of William IV on 20th June 1837. The sale of the royal stud after the king’s death was also a serious blow to horse-racing in general.

The ground was also shifting beneath Whyte’s feet… Heavy clay soil was characteristic of the neighbourhood, which was how the neighbouring Potteries had evolved – high quality clay was dug for brick making at Pottery Lane. This made for poor drainage, which meant the training ground became regularly waterlogged and was unusable for long periods. From 1837 to 1842 just 13 race meetings were held, with many jockeys refusing to take part, saying that the heavy clay ground made riding too dangerous.

A drawing by Kathleen McIlvenna showing the racecourse superimposed upon a modern street plan.

Two stewards of the Hippodrome, Lord Chesterfield and Count D’Orsay, attempted to improve the deteriorating image of the racecourse by changing its name to “Victoria Park, Bayswater”, after the new Queen Victoria. But in order to pay for the extensive alterations the charges for admission had to be doubled. Pedestrians paid two and sixpence instead of one shilling, and a four-wheeled carriage cost ten shillings instead of five.

However, the Hippodrome continued to haemorrhage money, and in 1842 Whyte gave up the struggle, and relinquished his lease back to James Weller Ladbroke. The summit of the hill quickly reverted to open country. Shortly thereafter Ladbroke resumed the development of the Ladbroke Estate, building crescents of houses on Whyte’s circular race track.