CANTER back in time 200 years and the most eagerly awaited highlight on the social calendar was the local horse race meeting.
Races were so popular they drew thousands of spectators. In Essex alone meetings are known to have been held in Brentwood, Maldon, Southminster, Braintree, Colchester, Witham, Coggeshall, Tiptree and Epping.
Chelmsford, for a time, had two courses - at Galleywood and Writtle. These were by far the most popular in the county. Now the history of horse racing in Chelmsford is set to be shared, thanks to a new book by author David Dunford entitled FULL CIRCLE - The Rise, Fall and Rise of Horse Racing in Chelmsford.
David was born in Chelmsford and attended the University of Essex, graduating with a degree in Government in 1972. He joined Essex County Newspapers in Colchester as a reporter and later became an assistant editor.
In 1978 he moved to the BBC in London where he worked in the Radio Newsroom writing news bulletins for all domestic outlets.
After taking early retirement from the BBC he became a visiting lecturer in radio journalism. Then in 2014 David returned to Essex University to study for an MA in History. This book grew out of the dissertation written for his masters degree.
Readers will discover how racing at Chelmsford has an incredibly interesting and often shocking past.
In the early days races had something for everyone across the great social divide - not just the racing itself but also the many social events that came with it.
However horse racing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was very different to the sport we know today. Organised gambling was unknown and betting was largely confined to the upper classes.
Due to the number of heats and the length of the races, horses often began at a trot then moved into a canter and only began to gallop over the last mile or so. So it was not surprising that race meetings evolved to feature other attractions.
David said: “For the great mass of working people, far too poor to ever attend the great social events of the day, the races themselves offered a good day out and the chance to meet friends in a carnival atmosphere. The racecourse was crammed with sideshows – small theatres, boxing booths, jugglers, acrobats, card sharps and many beer tents.”
A by-product of this meant they were also a magnet for the criminal minority. Documents show a meeting in July 1833 led to enough people being hauled into court to fill an entire column in the Chelmsford Chronicle. These pickpockets, drunks and swindlers would often find themselves banged up in Chelmsford County Gaol.
Cockfighting was also an element of Chelmsford Race meetings. They were often held at the Saracen’s Head in the town centre as well as on the course and attracted huge prize money. But as people began to become concerned about animal welfare cockfighting died out – it was last recorded in Chelmsford in 1833.
David tells in his book: “Despite the widespread competition, Chelmsford Races, held on Galleywood Common, were by far the most successful. This may have been in part because they were the only ones in Essex to boast royal patronage, having been awarded the annual Queen Charlotte’s Plate, worth one hundred guineas, by George III.
“In the early nineteenth century they were seen as preeminent in the county and the ones to which other towns and villages aspired. A few years earlier spectators had described Galleywood as ‘equal to any race ground in the country’ and the course was so successful that it had permanent grandstands, the first of which was erected as early as 1770.”
At one point Chelmsford Races were so popular that the Bishop of London postponed a planned confirmation service in the nearby village of Great Baddow until after the meeting was finished.
However as the 1900s progressed and the aristocracy declined, the races took a hit too. In 1924 just two members of the aristocracy were listed among the officials in the race programme.
David added: “Despite the massive popularity of horse races throughout the county, by the early years of the twentieth century only those at Chelmsford remained and by 1935 even they had gone.”
The history of Chelmsford races might have ended in the dark days of the 1930s had it not been for a local entrepreneur, John Holmes. In 1997 he bought the old Essex Showground at Great Leighs, five miles to the north of Chelmsford. A £30- million all-weather track was built and marked the return of racing to Chelmsford for the first time in more than 70 years.
Sadly, the venture faltered and the course went into administration in 2009. However a syndicate headed by Fred Done rode to the rescue and the New Chelmsford City Racecourse was born.
In 2015 the racecourse held more than 60 meetings. It also began hosting other events such as concerts, comedy and murder mystery nights – social events that echo those associated with horse racing in Chelmsford 200 years ago.
The course also commemorated one of the most amazing race meetings in its history- the 703-1 hat-trick of win at Galleywood on March 26, 1924 of jump jockey Len Lefebve.
n Full Circle is being officially launched at the New Chelmsford City Racecourse on Thursday at 3.30pm. The book - ISBN 9780993108358 - costs £12.99 and is available in bookshops and online and is published by Essex Hundred Publications. Visit essex100.com/fullcircle.html