For centuries the roaring crowds, rumbling hooves and energetic buzz of the stands has drawn people in their masses to the racecourse.
The historic sport of horseracing not only holds a unique place in British culture, but in the story of Elmbridge in particular. Since the opening of Sandown and Hurst Park in 1875 and 1890 respectively, this Great British pastime has been at the heart of Elmbridge’s identity.
Racecourses have often been scenes for both celebration and controversy. This Borough is no exception. As the home of two major racecourses, important tales of fame and conflict in Elmbridge’s history have been played out on their stages.
Explore the variety of projects Elmbridge Museum has developed as part of A Day At The Races below in the following order:
A Day At The Races exhibition at Dittons Library
COMING SOON: 'Hidden Treasures' Object Video
From the Archive: Sandown & Hurst Park in Pictures
COMING SOON: 'Ask the Expert' Interview with a Horseracing Historian
Activity: Horseracing Word-search
A Day At The Races exhibition
Dittons Library, Thames Ditton
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing measures implemented in March 2020, the installation of this exhibition has been postponed. Instead, all of the content, including object pictures and descriptions, have been uploaded to our website here.
Discover the stories of Hurst Park and Sandown below - from their beginnings at the Starting Line, over challenging Hurdles, and through to the Home Straight and Finishing Line in the modern day.
'The Starting Line'. Clockwise from top left: Print from original watercolour of horse and jockey entitled "Into the First Turn", by John Skeaping; Wooden horse and jockey toy, mounted; Engraving of Sandown Races, c.1890s - note the lack of female figures in this; Photograph of racegoers at Sandown, c.1890; Photograph of an advert for a Hurst Park Race meeting at the Lord Hotham public house, 1910; Set of five Hurst Park Club badges, 1911.
The Starting Line
Competitive horseracing began in the 1600s during the reign of James I, who established the tradition at Newmarket. But it was in the 1700s that horseracing really took off. Queen Anne was a huge fan of the sport, establishing the Royal Ascot. On the founding of the Jockey Club in 1750, the ‘Rules of Racing’ were systematically enforced at competitions across the country. Yearly meetings at Hampton Racecourse – the site which would later become Hurst Park – were recorded as early as 1814.
The wooden toy (top middle) bucks the trend of the other souvenirs of its day by portraying a standing horse. Depictions of horses in motion, like the print (top left) were far more common. John Skeaping worked in the early to mid 1900s, sculpting animals for Wedgewood as well as painting them.
The growing fashion for horseracing memorabilia cemented the sport’s place in British culture by capturing popular imagination. As the Surrey Comet reports, it was in this environment of ‘bustle and excitement’ that Elmbridge’s racecourses opened their doors, demonstrated by the ‘Oatlands Racecard’ in Elmbridge Museum's collection. Dating from 1826, it is one of the earliest examples we have of horseracing in the borough. By 1875, Sandown Park had opened its doors to an enthusiastic public, and just 15 years later, in 1890, Hurst Park came into existence.
Racing was still an exclusive activity. Sandown’s perimeter was fully enclosed by a fence, allowing organisers to keep lower class ‘undesirables’ out by charging high entry fees. Likewise, the Hurst Park Club Syndicate which had been formed prior to the construction of the racecourse were all exceedingly wealthy, prominent gentlemen in the late 19th Century world. The elaborate club badges and photos demonstrate this selective audience (top right and bottom row).
Did You Know?
Sandown was the first racecourse to have a private members’ enclosure.
'Hurdles'. Clockwise from top left: Two photographs of the remains of Hurst Park Grandstand after Suffragette arson, June 1913; Copy of black and white illustration from article about "The skeleton of Eclipse", c.1790; Horse jawbone, demonstrating the scale that the skeleton of Eclipse would have been; Royal Army Service Corps Sandown meeting programme, 1920.
One warm summer night in June 1913, Elmbridge’s sky was lit up with flames. Hurst Park had become the latest victim in Britain’s developing conflict surrounding women’s suffrage.
The fire at Hurst Park formed part of a string of similar Suffragette attacks at venues across the UK, in their campaign for the female vote. Harold Hewitt ran in front of horses at Ascot brandishing a pistol a matter of weeks later and, most tragically, Emily Davison had died the day before the Hurst Park fire after trying to pin a Suffragette flag to the leading horse at the Epsom Derby.
Females were blocked from purchasing membership to the Hurst Park club at this time, just as they were largely excluded from the wider horseracing sphere. This, along with the attempt to avenge Emily Davison's death, may have been part of the reason that Hurst Park was targeted.
Along with accomplice Clara Giveen, experienced arsonist and radical Suffragette Kitty Marion was convicted of setting fire to the grandstand. The damage depicted (top left and middle) took five fire crews to extinguish, and cost an enormous £7000 to repair. Remarkably, the racecourse was back to normal use just 6 weeks later despite extensive damage to the stands, kitchens and dining room. Just 23 years after opening, Hurst Park had narrowly escaped ruin. The repaired grandstand is visible in the photo to the top right, taken in 1950 around 40 years after the fire.
Suffragette violence was not the only challenge - Hurst Park had made losses of roughly £2,300 before expanding to include flat racing in 1891. Both parks also faced a temporary pause in activity due to the First World War. The programme above (bottom left) is from one of the first meetings after the end of the war, marking a return to normality after Sandown had been used to grow crops and as a base for the Royal Engineers and Welsh Guards from 1914-18.
Eclipse was one of the earliest celebrity horses. He rocketed to notoriety in 1770 after winning 18 races in just 17 months, with records testifying that he could cover 25 metres a second. The article at bottom right demonstrates the relic status of his remains after his death in 1789.
The left jawbone also gives an idea of the scale of Eclipse, every inch of which was examined by experts keen to discover the secret to his success. The Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park was famously named in the star’s honour, and it is thought that 95% of thoroughbreds are descended from Eclipse, with many of his relatives seeing success racing in Elmbridge.
Did You Know?
The Jockey Club only began granting women licences as trainers in 1966.
'The Home Straight'. Clockwise from top left: Two photographs of the Queen and Princess Elizabeth at Hurst Park, c.1950; Brown leather riding boots with canvas leg covers - belonged to the vet and jockey Boyce Barrow (1847-1939); Front and back cover of Sandown's official Centenary Day Racecard, 25th April 1975; Front cover of Sandown's Trafalgar's Day Racecard, 17th June 1978; Front cover of Sandown's Coral Eclipse Stakes Racecard, 8th July 1978.
The Home Straight
As the 20th Century went on, the exclusivity which had made racecourses a target for protest gradually disappeared. Although still expensive, the popular pastime gradually became more inclusive with the introduction of female memberships to the Hurst Park club in the 1930s. For both racecourses, the late 1900s would bring widespread press, regular royal visits, further successes and struggles - and would end with one even shutting its doors for good.
The Royal Family were often seen at both Hurst Park and Sandown in the mid– to late-1900s. The Queen Mother proved one of the most prominent patrons of the sport, with a total of over 500 race winners. Royal visits attracted masses of press attention, and it is likely that the above photos (top left and middle) were taken during the royals’ 1950 visit to the Hurst Park Queen Elizabeth Chase, where the Queen Mother's first horse, Monaveen, won the race.
The Finishing Line
Both racecourses survived a 1930s decline. At this time, brown riding boots became more common than traditional black due to a reduction in formal racing - the brown boots to the top right belonged to the jockey Boyce Barrow. Both courses were involved in the Second World War, with the Royal Engineers mobilising at Hurst Park and the Welsh Guards based at Sandown. Despite enduring and surviving a second war, Hurst Park finally closed in October 1962 after being sold to property developers.
Unlike its unlucky neighbour, Sandown continued to thrive. After a huge refurbishment in 1972, the racecourse celebrated its centenary with a series of races in 1975. It continues to prosper as a venue for horseracing, concerts, and many other large events today.
Did You Know?
In 1947, Sandown became widely known as the first racecourse to have a race shown live on television.
Coming soon: 'Hidden Treasures' Object Video
Keep an eye out for our latest object video, which explores the hidden horseracing treasures in Elmbridge Museum's archive! Coming soon to this online exhibition page.
From the Archive: Sandown and Hurst Park in Pictures
A picture can speak a thousand words, so take a look through the lens of some of Elmbridge Museum's best historic photos of Sandown and Hurst Park in this online photo album, and gain a glimpse into the development of the two racecourses throughout the ages.
Sandown and Hurst Park Photo Album
Coming Soon: 'Ask the Expert' Interview with a Horseracing Historian
To gain some expert insight into Elmbridge's racing history, we interviewed horseracing historian Stewart Nash. Stewart has previously given lectures at Molesey Local History Society and is author of 'Plumpton: An illustrated history of Plumpton Racecourse, 1884-2000'.
Watch out for the video here, coming soon!
Activity: Horseracing Word-search
Can you find the horseracing-related words in this word-search? All 10 words feature somewhere on this page!