Like many current pub landlords, the 19th century Thomas Sears of the (Old) Tiger’s Head was keen to increase income by diversification. This included a series of sporting activities including ‘foot racing’ – running races with handicaps which the blog will return to in the future, pre-Queensbury rules boxing and horse racing – the Lee Races.
Lee Races were a series of local horse races based initially, and finishing In 1845, at Lee Green behind the Tiger’s Head (left picture below – note 1) but then with the same or similar names moving to
- Harrow Fields, which were nearer to Eltham
- Shooters Hill Road between the Sun in the Sands and the Earl of Moira (right picture below (2) which was the former name of the Brook, which is now a Co-op) public houses; and
- An unclear location in Eltham – presumably somewhere near Eltham Green.
The July 1834 races were based in the two large fields behind the Old Tigers Head at Lee Green, in whose garden was the grandstand, effectively between what is now Lee Road and Lee Park. The fields were probably those marked “Lee Green” in John Roque’s map (3) from a century before below. The area would now include streets around Heathlee Road.
The 1834 races were described in the pro-racing New Sporting Magazine
The inhabitants of Lee, Blackheath etc got up some very good races … (the course being laid out in two large fields in front of the houses at Lee), which brought a large assemblage of people…amusing and enjoying themselves happily and innocently…the first Lee Races having gone off so well, we hope that steps will be taken to ensure a repetition of them.
The report in the New Sporting Magazine skirted over the death of a Greenwich pensioner who crossed the road during a race and was run over, and possibly a rider (4). The ‘large assemblage’ clearly wasn’t peaceful enough for the relatively gentile people of Lee and the following year the races moved to Harrow Fields.
There is some debate as to where Harrow Fields were located. Kincaid (5) has them in the area around Crathie Road (top left of photos below) and Scotsdale Road to the south of Eltham Road. However, the ‘History of Lee’ suggests that they were in an area where substantial houses were built there before 1882. That would put them a little further to the west and north of Eltham Road – around the current Southbourne Gardens (bottom right in photo below), Courtlands Avenue (top right) and, possibly, as far east as John Roan Playing Fields. The were Harrow Cottages marked around there in the 1870 OS 6″ map. Sutcliffe Park was, of course, formerly known as Harrow Meadow.
Meanwhile, the ‘Shooters Hill races’ started in 1836 with separate organisers who attempted to link to those in Harrow Meadows. They were known as the Lee, Lewisham, Greenwich and Eltham Races and were reported on in the Morning Chronicle in 1836 (quoted in the Lewisham Heritage blog) with The Greenwich Borough Cup won by a horse called Eliza Thornville.
These races only had three annual meetings and, according to Kincaid (6), there were strong suggestions of fixed races and ‘intolerable nuisance in the neighbourhood.’ (7)
The 1837 ‘Eltham’ event was overshadowed by something other than the racing – an early attempted parachute jump which went badly wrong a couple of weeks before the races – this was covered before in the blog.
The races seemed to degenerate after Sears stopped his involvement in 1838 – possibly due to being convicted in 1837 of, what appears to have been, selling alcohol without a licence on the course.
Sear’s wasn’t the only criminal activity – 1838 Old Bailey case records note several cases relating to the Races including John Bridger who was imprisoned for 6 months for the theft of a handkerchief; a William Richards was ‘confined’ for 5 days and whipped for stealing a horse cloth; and John Ebbs was imprisoned for the theft of a bunch of keys and a bag of money. The sentences handed down the following year seemed harsher and included a George Smith who was convicted of theft with violence, oddly against another George Smith, and transported for 16 years; and John Wood was transported for 10 years for the theft of a handkerchief, although he did have some ‘previous.’
The racing seemed to of a relatively low quality too – James Christie Whyte’s ‘History of the British Turf’, quoted in Wikipedia, described Lee’s 1840 races as “only of local interest”
By 1841 at a new venue nearer Eltham, the races were described as ‘a most miserable affair altogether’ and the course described as ‘shocking’ (8).
The races returned to Lee Green in 1844 with a moderate degree of success, but much less so in 1845 race where numbers were sparse and it was to be the last year. Lee was changing with Lee Road and Lee Park were beginning to be developed.
Horse racing was changing too, until the early nineteenth century it was a sport that took place at the local level as moving horses any distance was difficult. The growth of the railways changed all this as the movement of horses and spectators became much easier. The 1838 Derby saw the first horse racing special rail services.
Derby Day in the 1850s (9).
Permanent horse racing tracks began to be developed, including those at Sandown Park, Lingfield and Kempton which offered income from gate receipts as well monies from selling rights to gambling and alcohol sale.
Lee wasn’t the only location in the area to lose its racing – courses at Tunbridge Wells and Rochester & Chatham had also disappeared by the end of the century.
Finally, the late nineteen century historian of Lee, F. H. Hart, after describing the clientele as the “lowest classes” and highlighting the “many accidents” concluded, 37 years after the final race, that
We cannot be too thankful that the long list of these nuisances is now abolished, and that we live in more refined times.
- Picture of (Old) Tigers Head – from an information board at Lee Green
- Picture of Earl of Moira – source Culture 24
- Map from an information board at Lee Green, the original was published in 1740
- Kincaid, D (2001) ‘Lee Races’ in Lewisham History Journal No 9, p34
- Kincaid, p35
- Kincaid, p44
- Kincaid, p52
- Kincaid, p53
- Source Wikipedia