Fig. 1: Rounding the north-eastern corner of the course, 1954
For over a hundred years Alexandra Park Racecourse was the closest racecourse to London. This easy accessibility made it a popular choice for thousands of Londoners each year. Squeezed into a less than ideal space, the track was perhaps the quirkiest in Britain. But it was said to have had a special atmosphere that made it much beloved of its patrons. Sadly, it is now all but forgotten and its story has only been told in the baldest of terms. Last month was the fiftieth anniversary of the last race held on the course and none of us gave it a second thought. So I've dug through the newspaper archives back to the 1860s to uncover something of its story. I've also raided HoL's picture archive to illustrate it with a series of pictures and some vintage film footage. In general I've tried to place the images alongside the parts of the story they illustrate. But, I have included some images which I feel help build the picture of the course, but which aren't necessarily related to a particular part of the text: those are somewhat randomly scattered as and where I've found space. (Click any image to enlarge it)
The Starting Gate
The vigorous mid-Victorian interest in grands projets had given England the Great Exhibition of 1851. The exhibition hall was famously reconstructed on a south London hillside as the Crystal Palace. This enthusiasm for 'palace'-centred pleasure parks soon spread north of the river and before the end of the decade, plans had been drawn up to create an entertainment park, north of Hornsey, between Muswell Hill and Wood Green.
The Alexandra Park Company Ltd was formed in 1863 for the purpose of creating the venue. The company immediately bought 450 acres of the Tottenham Wood Estate from Thomas Rhodes for the purpose.
Whilst the venture may have been driven by noble notions of the health of the working man, it was a commercial project, financed with private capital and aimed at making profit. A racecourse was part of the original business plan and it was designed both to attract visitors to the park and palace as well to be a profitable venture in its own right.
The course was seen as the element of the project that could be up and running relatively quickly whilst construction of the 'palace' was going on. So, by 1864 construction of the racecourse was in hand and a goal was set to hold the first races in 1865.
Fig. 2: Brecon Reporter and South Wales General Advertiser - 14 May 1864
So confident was the company of meeting its 1865 deadline that a notice of the first races was placed in The Field magazine.
Fig. 3: The Field - 7th May 1864
However, in the event, progress wasn't as fast as anticipated and construction and licensing wasn't in place until 1868.
In the meantime, the company engaged a number of experts to set up the course. Racecourse owner and sports journalist John F. Verrall1 was employed as the clerk of the course and was set the task of preparing the track. John Frederick Clark, architect and Newmarket racing judge was given the job of designing the grandstand.2 Verrall and his younger brother George were to be involved with the management of the course until the latter's death in 1911.3
It is not clear who was responsible for the actual course design, but it seems likely that it was no single person. John Verrall supervised operations and took great pains to create as good a track was was possible. The younger Verrall also contributed to the design.
Under the supervision of Mr Verrall, the whole turf was taken up and relaid on a bed of ballast so as to improve the going and render it elastic. No expense was spared to drain and level the course.
Mr. G.H. Verrall was considerably concerned in the original designing and arranging of the Alexandra Park Racecourse and stands (the weighing stand in particular) under his brother, Mr. J. F.Verall.
Sporting Life 25th May1888
The course design allowed for its use for various race lengths. To fit the required lengths in the available space, it was arranged with a long straight length and a circular stretch at the end. This shape gave rise to the track’s nickname - The Frying Pan.4 The five-furlong course was run nearly all on the straight track; the others used the circular loop to create the required distances.
Fig. 4: Left: Plan of Alexandra Park Track. Right: Track location shown on Google Maps, satellite view (see Fig. 16 for extract from 1893 Ordnance Survey map). The five furlong starting gate is shown at the eastern end of the track as 'Start 5F'. The staring gate for the other lengths was by the winning post.
The shape of the course led to much controversy and, through its lifetime, it drew a great deal of criticism for being a poor quality course. Many jockeys hated it. Amongst them was five times British Champion Jockey Willie Carson, who famously said that the place 'wanted bombing'. Despite these judgements, for most of its life, the course was very popular with race-goers and was said to have had an excellent atmosphere.
The Kentish Gazette described the course in July 1868.
The Course takes the form of a figure 6. The stand itself is situated at the top of the figure, and here the horses both start and finish. It is a pity that the turns should be so abrupt, for owners are not generally willing to run the risk of racing casualties. But when it is remembered how popular Chester has been, notwithstanding the awkward form of the Rhodee, the directors of the Alexandra Park Company have little reason to fear for the future.
Kentish Gazette, 7 July 1868
Alongside the track itself, Clark designed what was lauded as the finest grandstand in the country.
Fig. 5: Sporting Life - Saturday 25 August 1888
The North London News described the building in some detail shortly before the course opened.
The general architecture of the structure externally is Italian, somewhat in unison with the Palace itself, with a bold frontage of steps, leading from the lawn to within the whole length and width of the building. The ground plan consists of an entrance hall 40 feel by 18 feet, adjoining which are two towers, containing the stairs leading to the Grand Stand room and lead flat. On this plan there are also first and second floor refreshment rooms, together with entrances to the lawns.
The Grand Stand saloon is of noble proportions, being 130 feet by 25 feet. It is situate on the first floor, and divided into private boxes and stewards’ compartment, adjoining which are the ladies’ refreshment rooms, &c. The whole of this floor is connected with the lawn by a graduated terrace or step standings, from whence everyone will have a full view of the races. Above the Grand Stand Saloon room is a graduated lead roof of the same dimensions, 130 feet by 25 feet. The lawn enclosure and Grand Stand are enclosed with iron palisading , and adjoining thereto are the usual offices for the clerk of the course, weighing jockey rooms, police room, and accommodation for mounted police.
North London News, 2 May 1868
Fig. 6: A rather grumpy looking J. F. Clark, Grandstand architect, from Racing Illustrated, 23 July 1895
The course finally opened in the summer of 1868, whilst the Palace was still under construction.
The two-day launch event, on 30th June and 1st July was a great success, attracting a crowd estimated at between 15,000 and 40,000 each day.
A Newspaper report of a racing day four years later gave a very good sense of what a day at the Alexandra Park Races was like. For this reason, I've reproduced the rather long article below in its entirety.
The Alexandra-park Race Meeting grows. Yesterday. when town is presumably empty, there was a larger gathering than in July, and there were abundant signs of that kind of broad popular interest without which no suburban gathering can be deemed successful. People are beginning to recognise the fact that London has now brought to its very doors the precise facilities for enjoyment which make the turf and its attractions dear to the Cockney, and all that can be advanced in favour of the old-established race-holidays may be enjoyed within an hour's drive from Charing-Cross. That the great bulk of the frequenters of Epsom, Hampton, and the like, have neither knowledge of horses nor love of racing per se, is too obvious for comment. Fresh air, a few hours' relief from the humdrum of everyday life, a peep at the country, and, above all, the sense of exhilaration which pleasure taken in and with a crowd seems to inspire-these are the substitutes for that "genuine love of the turf" which is supposed to be ingrained in Englishmen of every degree. The approaches to the Alexandra-park, and the portions of the enclosure abutting on the race-course, had much of that popular race-course element which has been celebrated by humourists with pen and pencil and the practical moral seemed to be that this meeting is above all things adaptable. It has the finest Grand Stand in the whole kingdom. The sorry sheds which do duty for the Jockey Club, for ladies, and for the guinea-paying public elsewhere, must always hide their diminished heads beside the handsome stone edifice which the Alexandra-park provides for its constituents. The latter has handsome balconies, tiers of stone steps or seats, spacious approaches and corridors, well-appointed refreshment rooms, and comforts of every sort. The visitor who pays for admission there may really count upon obtaining substantial value for his money, and he may, above all, make certain of seeing every race from first to last. But beyond this - and here it is that the Alexandra-park race-course is pre-eminently suited to the million - there is ample space for those who ride, drive, or walk, to see the fun. The rising ground, at the summit of which is the Palace, consists of a succession of grassy slopes, at the foot of which is the course. The result is that every man, woman, or child there can see the races. The pedestrian has but to leave the broad roadway for a few paces to secure a commanding view. He who rides can command equal advantages from many paths, while the accommodation for vehicles is such that a position equal to the Hill at Epsom can be obtained without difficulty and by an almost unlimited number.
All this is beginning to be thoroughly understood. The "traps" yesterday were of all kinds, from the fast-trotting pony cart from Whitechapel to the heavy barouche from the suburban residences hard by. Outside the little Wood-green Station there were swings, shows, knock-'em-downs, and the 'omnium gatherum' which fringes race-courses. The motley crowd which springs into life at these times was in the fullest force. By what means many of their brethren obtained admission into the park, there to give life and vivacity to the scene, must for ever remain a mystery. They paid their admission fee, no doubt. They were decidedly useful as accessories, and they gave that air of reality to the proceedings which relieved the meeting from the charge of being "toy races." There were the a familiar knock-'em-downs on the hill. The classic warblers who sing to carriage-folk, the fortune-tellers, the vendors of magical odds and ends, the list keepers were all in form. And the public patronised them merrily. Perhaps, if one might hint a want, it was-hampers. The Alexandra-park is a so near town, and the means for refreshment on the spot so ample, that few of the carriages were provided in the usual race-course style. The result was that the men "refreshed," and the ladies remained desolate. There was little of that agreeable hob-nobbing which makes the Derby Day a gigantic picnic. To wander among the traps in the enclosure was a comparatively dull proceeding. The usual company was the same, but that odd air of welcoming all-comers and taking wine with the universe, all round which distinguishes the famous Hill, were wanting. But against this, one had family groups in an even greater profusion than usual. Parties composed of all ages and both sexes were more numerous than those sets in drag or private omnibus who come down to the races for "a lark". Not a Dutch doll was to be seen in a single hat. Not a trumpet or penny whistle was to be heard. Blue veils and white overcoats were noticeable for their absence. The very contiguity of the Alexandra-park makes it possible for its frequenters to perform the best part of a day's work before taking their pleasure on its race-course, and it seemed all through the afternoon as if this had prevented many of the thousands there from devoting themselves to the day's pleasure with that forethought and assiduity which are so remarkable at the great open-air festivals which London has from, long prescription made its own.
The betting ring was as other institutions of its kind. There were the old vehement shoutings and desperate endeavours. The list-keepers who were not admitted to the ring, or whose connection is of that class which invests shillings rather than pounds, stood in a long line at the back of the Stand, and drove a rising trade-literally and metaphorically. Within the ring the odds against particular horses were hurled at the heads of possible investors with all the anxious eagerness one is accustomed to see at Epsom or Doncaster and the betting man who was seized with an epileptic fit after one race, and who recovered to gasp out that he had won three hundred pounds, gave one a grim example of the effect upon the human system of the excitement which boils and bubbles about the betting ring. Of course there were the usual scenes with "Welshers". One poor wretch having been chased half-way down the course by a crowd of pursuers in full cry, was over-taken, kicked, bonneted, and left bleeding and torn in the hands of his rescuers the police. What would happen to the most respectable and solvent man in the world, he were on a race-course, and a poor relation with a spite against him were to shout the terrible war-cry, "A Welsher ?" There is no time for explanation none for indignant repudiation, or retaliation. The mere accusation is enough, and any man in the ring, if he is not particularly well known, is at the mercy of any other who chooses to charge him with the un-pardonable sin of making bets he cannot pay on the spot. There was not a tittle of evidence yesterday in the case of the poor wretch who was treated worst of all, A dirty, foul-mouthed person shook his fist in his face and yelled, "Welsher- yah! Welsher I" A second and dirtier man hit him on the hat, and a third gave him a blow in the region which the Game Chicken assured Mr Toots was Mr. Dombey's most vulnerable part. This was enough. Everybody's blood was up on the instant, and the accused man was punched almost to death. There is neither reason nor argument in a racecourse crowd. If this particular man was not a Welsher, there are a good many Welshers about, and it is useful to make an example pour encourager les autres. So the pummeling, clothes-tearing, and chasing went on, and in a far shorter time than it takes to read these lines what had been a decently clad man became a bleeding scarecrow running for dear life. It is surely time that means were devised for putting an end to this phase of Lynch law. Every other criminal has his chances of defence, and is considered innocent until his guilt is proved. But a Welsher is accused, condemned, and executed off-hand, and it is impossible to believe but that mistakes occasionally happen and that an innocent person suffers.
Fig. 7: Looking across the paddock and grandstand on a race day, c1895
The one great fault yesterday was the condition of the ground. Prompted by mistaken zeal, the officials of the Alexandra-park, or those responsible for the racing, had had the course watered for several hours before the meeting. The result was, with the dry weather we have had, to render it greasy and slippery to an almost incredible degree. The horses stumbled and the jockeys fell to a painful extent in the early part of the day, and out of two races there were five accidents. Some of these were trivial, others more or less serious, - the greatest sufferer being the well-known jockey Canon, who was picked up severely stunned. It was thought at first that his collarbone was broken, but after at careful examination by the doctors some severe bruises and a shaking which kept him laid prostrate and half insensible for a considerable time was reported to be the extent of his injuries.
London Daily News - 21 Sept 1872
The one sour note sounded by the London Daily News reporter in 1872 was the incident of the 'welsher' being roughly treated. Newspaper reports suggest that such events were common through the nineteenth century. Several newspapers even carried reports of a particularly nasty incident during the opening event.
Fig. 8: Racegoers leaving the park at the end of a day's racing, 1875. The Field magazine wrote of a similar scene some years later, "Probably on no other occasion can so many hansom cabs be seen together at one time as on an Alexandra Park Saturday, it being well recognised that the nicest way of reaching the course for those who can afford it is to charter the London gondola"
Fig. 9: Detail from 1875 Map of Alexandra Estate, showing the racecourse with labelled buildings (British Library)
Fig. 10: Alexandra Palace looking across the racecourse, marked out by the white fencing, 1875. The building in the middle ground on the right of the picture was one of the racecourse 'refreshment bars'. To its left, you can see the peaked roof of the bandstand
Trouble on the Track
Alexandra Park racecourse successfully hosted race meetings throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, but it was hampered by the Jockey Club's refusal to license only five or six days' racing each year.
From the mid-1870s, with its earning potential restricted as a race course, the management let out the course for a range of other activities.
From mid-1873, the racecourse was the site of the annual Great Horse Show with its displays of horseflesh and horsemanship, including show-jumping.
Fig. 11: Advertisement for the first Great Horse Show, Morning Post 20th March 1873
Although Alexandra Park garnered much praise as venue for this type of event, it never quite established itself as the home of the horse show and attendance dwindled. The last show was held in 1883.
Fig. 12: Advertisement card for 1878 Great Horse Show and trotting meeting
In 1875, the 'first' Alexandra Park Hounds Show was held around the course. Its success might be judged by the fact that there was never a second show. In its place, the following year, the course hosted the Alexandra Park Collie Dog Trials: sadly, that too was a never-to-be-repeated event.
In 1874, the directors of the Alexandra Palace Company announced their "desire to make the Alexandra Park the headquarters of trotting, and to promote and elevate the sport in England" 5. Accordingly, they constructed a trotting track in the centre of the Frying-Pan and the first trotting races were held in 1875.
Fig. 13 Trotting at Alexandra Park, 1890, (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, June 27, 1891)
Trotting lasted twenty years at the Park, but it was judged to have been a key cause of the general decline of the racecourse experienced over this period. On 8th April 1899, Field magazine opined,
The trotting meetings did much in forming the unsavoury reputation that attached itself to meetings at Alexandra Park
The Field was a publication aimed squarely at the huntin'-fishin'-and-shootin' set, or those with pretensions to join it. So, the writer may have provided a less than unbiased view of trotting. But, it is without doubt that he spoke for a significant portion of the racing public and it is evident that trotting at Alexandra Park had taken a hold in the public's imagination. In 1895 Alexandra Park was being described as the 'mecca of trotting'6 In the same year a popular musical, Toffy's Trotter, was launched by the Paragon Theatre based on a theme of trotting at Alexandra Park.
Fig. 14: Music Hall and Theatre Review - Thursday 11 April 1895
The Era wrote a review of the show which gives a flavour of what it may have done for the Park's branding.
Fig. 15: 1895 Toffy's Trotter The Era - 27 April 1895
With the powerful notions of class and respectability prevalent at the time, it's not hard to imagine how this sort of reputation attaching itself to Alexandra Park course would have discouraged a good segment of race-going London.
The final short-lived side-venture attempted at the racecourse was hunting (drag-hunting to be precise).
The horn of the hunter was heard on the hill of Muswell Hill on Saturday last, when, as advertised, the Alexandra Foxhounds met.
Sporting Times, 10th December 1881
Fig. 16: Ordnance Survey Map of 1893 (rotated several degrees clockwise to better fit page), showing tear-shaped trotting track in the right of the map (Click map to open enlarged map in new tab)
With its reputation besmirched and its racing days restricted by the Jockey Club, the track struggled to earn sufficient income and it began to suffer from a lack of investment. By the 1890's, the course was becoming noticeably run down.
Then, in 1895, well-respected racecourse management company Pratt & Co succeeded in securing a fourteen year lease on the course. Their management remained in place until the course closed in 1970.
Pratt's quickly set about making improvements and refocussing activity on the core purpose of horse racing. Trotting events were halted and all notions of winning back the horse show were set aside. This left the management free to make improvements that would be most welcomed by the racing public.
The old pavilion and horse show stand were removed to give a better view of the race course, the old paddock was turned into a newly-formed club enclosure (Tattersalls) which was raised to give a better view of the racing. A new pavilion for the accommodation of members and a members' stand were also constructed. In addition a new, larger paddock was created to the north west of the grandstand (today the site of the Paddock Car Park). On the track, the loop of the course was enlarged, the straight was straightened, and a watering system was installed.
A series of photos were commissioned from photographer F Baker to memorialise the improvements.
Fig. 17: Grandstand, 1895
Fig. 18: Club Enclosure, 1895
Fig.19: New Paddock, 1895
The Field magazine wrote an article enthusiastically praising the changes:
If the excellent firm of Pratt and Co. were capable of any more elated frame of mind than that of satisfaction at having done their duty by their numerous patrons, they would be holding their heads very high indeed at the universal and thoroughly deserved encomiums that have been passed upon their success with Alexandra Park. Remembering, as one does only too vividly, the dreadful state into which most suburban race meetings fell, which rendered their further existence impossible, and knowing, as we do, the numberless difficulties that beset those embarking upon such an undertaking as that at Muswell Hill, it is impossible not to be struck with the results there achieved. They have been attained by the pursuance of a very simple course, namely, the determination to provide the people of London with a peaceable day's racing such as, for instance, is vouchsafed so continuously to the more fortunate inhabitants of Paris, who attend their several suburban racecourses with the same absence of trouble and the same sense of security that attend a visit to the theatre.
The Field, 1st April 1896
Fig. 20: Horses being led towards the track, with the grandstand beyond and the Palace in the background, c1897
Fig.21: 'Hawfinch' winning the London Cup, 1899
Fig. 22: The old paddock, c1895
Despite the much better management provided by the new lessees, the racecourse continued to face challenges.
An ongoing issue was licensing. Because the course was within 12 miles of Charing Cross, under the provisions of the 1878 Licensing Act, Alexandra Park was rquired to get licences from both the Jockey Club and the Middlesex County Council.
Fig. 23: Wording from the 1878 Licensing, explaining the reason for the Act, York Herald, 2nd March 1877
This requirement proved to be a rocky road for Pratt & Co. Religious groups who objected to racing on moral grounds and local pressure groups who didn't welcome the disruption the races brought locally, lobbied hard to persuade the Council to refuse licences. For its part, the Jockey Club created uncertainly by apparently continually being on the point of refusing to renew the track licence. Fortunately for Pratt, the course survived both threats and successfully held on to both licences.
In 1900 the holdings of the Alexandra Palace Company were taken into public ownership to be run by a trust, with the controlling share owned by Hornsey Borough Council. Pratt & Co retained their lease.
The move was probably helpful to Pratt in the long-run. The Palace as a whole continued to face severe financial pressures. The trustees earned £3,000 a year on the lease of the racecourse and this gave Pratt a certain security. In addition, the course was only used for five or six days a year and for the rest of time it was available to the public. The trustees recognised that the racecourse offered them a good deal: to loose the lease money would entail a politically difficult increase in rates.
Fig. 24: The western part of the racecourse shot from the Palace terrace, c.1910
When the First World War started, the Palace building was quickly pressed into use to house Belgian refugees. For the first months of the war, however, horse racing carried on in the Park.
Fig. 25: Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 2nd November 1914
By the following year, however the racecourse was pressed into service as a Military base. Between February and April of 1915, it became the headquarters for what was charmingly referred to as the Middlesex Regiment's Navvies Battalion.
Fig. 26: Daily Citizen (Manchester), 5th March 1915
Fig. 27: Daily Mirror, 27th February 1915
Racing, however, seems to have co-existed with the navvies up till the Spring of 1915, after which no further meetings were held until after the war. The following article was published in April 1915.
Post-war racing resumed on 27th April 1919 and was in full flow again by the twenties, as the newsreel clip below shows.
Fig. 29: Newsreel footage of the last race of the season in 1921
The aerial shot below was taken in the same year. The grandstand building cluster is in the lower left of the picture The Hornsey Reservoir and filter beds are at the top of the picture, towards the opposite corner. Fig. 30 is a birds-eye view image from Google Maps showing the best recreation I can make of the 1920s shot. It shows how strong ghost of the old course remains, almost exactly a half-century after it closed.
Fig. 31: Aerial shot of the Alexandra Park Racecourse, 1921
Fig. 32: Aerial shot of the site of the Alexandra Park Racecourse, 2020. The golden brown patch in the foreground shows where the grandstand was once sited
In the same year that the aerial photo was shot, a shooting of a different kind, brought back some unwanted notoriety to the racecourse.
Fig. 33: The Scotsman, 4th April 1921
Just before the Second World War, in 1937, a death was announced connected to Alexandra Park Racecourse. Whilst it may not be a key part of the story, my seeking out information on the a cottage next to the racecourse, in connection with another story, is what led me to being sucked in to researching the history of the Alexandra Park course.7 The cottage was mentioned in connection with the 1937 death. So, whilst the story covered in the article may only be of passing interest, I mention it by way of doffing my cap, to its role as enchantress, enticing me to research the racecourse. (The cottage, by the way, was sited just behind the trees next to the track towards the top left of the 1921 aerial photo, directly above the 'a' in the 'From a..." watermark.)
Fig. 34: Gloucestershire Echo, 22nd September 1937
Fig. 35: Race meeting, 1935 (click picture to enlarge it)
Just over twenty one years after the end of First War, the nation was at war again and the racecourse was once more pressed into service.
Newspaper reports show that the course was still in use as a racing venue until the Spring of 1940, but it was then again in use as a military depot.
Racing resumed in February 1946.
Fig. 36: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 13th February 1946
Fig. 37: Crowds at a race meeting in 1947
Immediately after the war, and well into the sixties, the crowds at the racecourse were very large. The small course packed in 25,000 at its re-opening meeting in July 1947.
From 1955, Alexandra Park started floodlit evening meetings. They were initially popular, with a crowd 12,000 at the first evening. However, they could not reverse the declining popularity of attending racing meetings.
Fig. 38: Tic-tac men signalling the odds to the bookmakers below, 1956
In 1951, a British film called Galloping Major was shot at the racecourse. It offers a few views not replicated elsewhere and a handful are reproduced below. (Thanks to Stephen Middleton for the suggestions).
Fig. 39: Screenshot from Galloping Major - Rear of the Grandstand
Thanks also, for your additional screenshot suggestions.
Fig. 40: Screenshot from Galloping Major - Rear of the Grandstand with car park
Fig. 41: Screenshot from Galloping Major - Queuing for entry
Fig. 42: Screenshot from Galloping Major - Starting Gate
Fig. 43: Screenshot from Galloping Major - rounding the north eastern bend of the course
Fig. 44: Screenshot from Galloping Major - Towards the Wood Green Gas holders
The full film can be watched online, but I can't vouch for the safety of the site or the legitimacy of the stream. (You have to turn the sound on in the bar at the bottom of the video. I originally provided a link to the full film on YouTube. But it seems that this has been removed due to a claim by Romulus Fiims).
The ongoing decline of the Alexandra Palace course was hastened by the withdrawal of support by the Horserace Betting Levy Board in the 1960s. Racing at the course slowly fizzled out as the the decade drew to a close.
Fig. 45: One glorious day before closure - the local donkey derby, 1967!
In 1968, the Jockey Club dealt the final blow when it refused to renew the course licence.
“in view of the need for major improvements to the track, where the interest to the safety of horse and riders is paramount, and also to the administrative buildings, and taking into account the questionable viability of the whole project on a long-term basis, the stewards have decided not to grant a licence to Alexandra Park”.
Coventry Evening Telegraph, 23rd September 1970
This brought to the end to over a century of racing at Alexandra Park. The final meet was held on September 8, 1970 when the crowd was just 2,749.8
Fig. 46: Grandstand, shot from behind, 1965
Fig. 47: Grandstand, looking west, 1965
After the racecourse closed, the facilities wer used on the odd occasion.
In April 1971 CND’s second Festival of Life was held on the racecourse, making use of the old grandstand building. The Royal Court Theatre attended and performed Edward Bond’s play The Passion, written specially for the occasion. The Gay Liberation Street theatre and many others also performed.
Fig. 48: CND Festival of life, across the old racetrack to the grandstand, 1971
Fig. 49: CND Festival of life, looking north-east across the grandstand terrace, 1971
Shortly after the festival, the grandstand was torn down and the stables demolished.
A couple of attempts were made to restart horse racing or horse related activity in the Park, but neither met with success.
In 1999, locals Noel Farrar, Jim Fahey and Jon Kanareck, set out a proposal to resurrect the course under the name FFK Racing.
Interviewed for the local press at the time, Kanareck said
It would be marvellous to bring horse racing to London, to create a day of outstanding entertainment in the heart of the capital and bring the sport to people who perhaps don't have the opportunity to enjoy it as often as they like.
Haringey Independent, 28th November 1998
Among the idea's most fervent supporters was the racing pundit, John McCririck, who was a fan of the course. "Part of me died when Alexandra Park closed in 1970," he has said, "I’ve never recovered from it". McCririck has since asked that his ashes be scattered at the furlong post.9
Sadly, the bid was rejected by the British Horse Racing Board in September 1999 and the idea has never been resurrected.
More recently, in 2011, a group called Riding in Haringey hoped to bring an equestrian centre to the grounds of Alexandra Park. It would have included a riding track, jumping arena, stands for visitors and stables for up to 40 horses. It aimed to provide lessons and opportunities for pupils and disabled children to go riding. Local Lydia Rivlin, spearheaded the campaign. It was supported, as one might expect, by John McCririck. Unfortunately, it too was unsuccessful.
September 8th 2020 saw the 50th anniversary of the last race at Alexandra Park. The day came ad went unnoticed by us all. This short history is my way of raising a glass to the now long-gone course.
1. John had become part owner of the Croydon Steeple Chases in 1860 and wrote as 'Sentinel' in the Sporting Life. He died in 1877 and is buried in West Norwood Cemetery.
2. The Clark and Verrall families became linked when the architect's daughter married the younger of the Verrall brothers in 1879.
3. George Verrall became a director of Pratt and Co (aka Pratt, Verrall and Cathcart). Initially as Pratt and Barbrook, the company was closely involved in the running of the Alexandra Park racecourse from 1875, before leasing the course in 1896 and managing it until it closed. John Pratt became Clerk of the Scales Course at Alexandra Park in 1874. The following year, Messrs Pratt & Barbrook were appointed as clerks of the course. In 1882, Pratt, Barbrook & Co became Pratt & Co. The reformed company took over the role of clerks of the course.
5.Norwich Mercury - 6th June 1874
6. Stonehaven Journal - 11th July 1895
7. The story I stumbled across on a forum of former residents remembering was about 'Jock's Wood'. Here is the thread:
Note: I wonder if the rifle memory is not accurate. There used to be a rifle range right next to the cottage and I wonder if somehow this got mixed up in childhood fantasy or adult memory.
8. Gerald Hammond, At the Races, London review of Books, Vol. 19 No. 13, 3 July 1997
9. See Wikipedia entry
A map near the start of your massive research showed two starting points for the race course, one at the eastern end, although the text below spoke only about starting near the grandstand. Could this have been a second starting point? Could this be some justification for the pub opposite the station to be named the Starting Gate?
As I said in the text above the map (Fig. 4), Chris, the five-furlong was run on the straight. This would have started at the eastern end of the track to ensure, like the other races, it finished by the grandstand. So, yes, as I understand it, owing to the odd shape of the course, there were two starting gates. Sorry for not making that clear.
Thanks to your question, I've now clarified it in the caption under the map.
Whether the position of the second starting gate was the reason behind the name of the pub, I'm less certain. It might just be that the publican chose a racing track related name due to the proximity of the course. He, like I, may have been playing with words when he used the term, inferring that his pub was close to the start of the racegoers journey.
The Victoria Stakes pub at the bottom of Muswelll Hil is presumably named after a race at Ally Pally?
I wasn't able to find any evidence for that, Jeremy. There certainly seems to have been a race called the Victoria Stakes, but contemporary newspapers seem to associate it with the Kempton and Pontefract racecourses.
The current owners of the Victoria Stakes pub have apparently been unable to find any evidence either. Their website offers the following rather limp and unconvincing explanation.
Rumour has it the name originates from the 3.05 race at Alexandra Palace race course. The Hornsey gent, with his winning stake, brought the pub and named it after his lucky race.
Whether or not a lucky punter was able to buy or build the pub out of his winnings, I don't think it had anything to do with the naming of the pub. The business started its life in the early 1870s, just a few years after the course opened, as The Victoria Hotel.
I suspect that the 'lucky gent', if he existed, got about as near to naming the pub after a horse race as any ploughman did to a ploughman's lunch.
The pub retained the original name until 1971 when it was renamed Victoria Stakes. This was just three years after the racecourse closed. Having spent almost its first hundred years, whilst the racecourse was operating, as the plain old Victoria Hotel, I'd guess that it was given the new name as a romanticised gesture to commemorate the recently demised track.
The London phone directories of 1971 and 1972 recorded the change.
By the way, in the early part of the twentieth century the pub was managed by one of the Christey brothers. Another brother managed the Maynard for several decades and a third the Lordship Tavern in Wood Green.
What an interesting eye opener that is. I lived down by The Salisbury '49 - '72, frequently visited and played at The Pally as well as attending various events there over the years but knew nothing of a race course being there.
Thanks again Hugh for another interesting feature.
A brilliant article that obviously took a lot of time and effort.
Unfortunately, the video has been removed from YouTube.
Thank you for your nice feedback.
The removal of the film from YouTube was discussed on the first page of comments (which I'd forgotten about - and before rediscovering that, I found another stream of the film which is still available online, linked to above in the original text - grab it whilst you can!)
Galloping Major seems to be available again here:
It is an enormous privilege to HoL to have your contributions Hugh. This is a wonderful exposition of the history of the Pally course. My parents, especially dodgy grandfather used it occasionally. But none of us, as we left the area in 1964, expected it to close before the decade was out!
Thank you, Richard. Good to have you still in the area virtually.
Thanks to HoL member Gordon Hutchinson for sharing the following anecdote via and old university friend whose father Jack Waterman, was the Evening Standard’s racing correspondent for many years. He wrote a book called The Punters Friend: A Guide to Horse Racing and Betting, which included the following anecdote.
Ally Pally had a conformation that was quite unique: the horses started in front of the stands, galloped away up the straight, went round and round a very tight circle at the end (how many times depended on the distance of the race) and returned the way they came towards the winning post. It was called 'racing around the frying pan, and up the handle' and hoses that ran there supposedly 'finished dizzy'. Cider Apple developed a liking for Ally Pally, not matched, perhaps, by the majority of its patrons. As quite an old horse he was still capable of giving the younger ones a trouncing over its longest distance of 1 mile 5 furlongs and a few yards, and he won there so many times that a race was named after him. Sadly, Cider Apples name is no longer commemorated because racing ceased at Alexandra Palace in 1969.
The wisdom of the internet can only offer that Cider Apple won London Cup at Ally Pally in 1949, 1950, 1952, but that gives us a rough idea of when he was racing.
Thank you so very much for this detailed and informative article! I've enjoyed reading every minute of it.