Horse Racing Doncaster

As I have written articles for this site I have always chosen subjects that interest me, and only those that catch my eye. It seems that what interests me interests you too as, at the time of writing this, the site is on the brink of its 100,000 visitor milestone. When searching for obscure material and little known information it is easy to miss more commonly known subjects out which is why, I think, that it has taken me 15 months to put ‘finger to keyboard’ on the subject of Horse Racing.

Stories abound on the origins of the famous St. Leger horse race which takes place in Doncaster each September. If we mix these stories together in the mixing pot called ‘amateur history research’ then we get a broad picture of what really happened and the events that led up to the creation of the world famous horse race. The paragraphs to follow are based on facts that I have been presented with. Feel free to make your own mind up on the feasibility of them.

Doncaster is proud of its race-course with a recent new stand cum conference facility, together with its September ‘Leger’ week, which until the 1970s was a traditional miners, railwaymen, and local industry workplace and school holiday. The corporation had acquired the ‘Town Moor’ lands in 1505 when it negotiated the manorial estate from the Crown. Spur of the moment point-to-point racing began in the 16th and 17th centuries with a pot-pourri of steeds and no formal course until 1614. By he 18th century the Burghers and the local gentry began to formally organise races and in 1718 purchased the ‘Town Plate’ as a trophy at a cost of £5 7s 6d, the first of many plates (or salvers). The Corporation Plate (Doncaster Gold Cup) dating from 1766, is one of racings oldest trophies and throughout the 18th century the local and regional gentry patronised race-meetings, including the Marquis of Rockingham from Wentworth.

In 1776 Colonel Anthony St. Leger, an Irish military man of Park Hill, in Firbeck, SouthYorkshire, suggested a 3 mile race for three year old horses which in 1778 took his name: St. Leger. It’s our oldest Classic race pre-dating the Ascot ‘Oaks’ and the Epsom ‘Derby’. It required a new formal race-course as the current one on Cantley Common was a public domain. For this purpose, C. W. Childers of Cantley Hall sold the current race-course site to the Corporation. Childer’s is remembered by way of the ‘Childers’ public house, in Cantley.

John Carr of York designed a grandstand, which lasted until 1968 – its successor lasted only 36 years. A second stand was built in 1825 for the ‘noblemen and gentlemen’ of Doncaster Racing Club whose 60 shareholders and subscribers included 4 Dukes, 4 Marquesses, and 9 other peers or their sons.

Racing prior to the railway age was very much a social event in the aristocrat and landowners calendar and also of the town’s commercial and political elite. The working class looked on and attended associated travelling fairs. Until 1853, formal betting was off-course via subscription Betting Rooms in the High Street. Mid Victorian morality disapproved leading to off-course betting being outlawed. Victorian High society were often racing addicts with the St. Leger result, pre telegraph, being sent to London by carrier pigeon.

A typical St. Leger meeting in the 1820s saw the arrival of coaches with liveried footmen and outriders. A retinue of nobility, aristocrats, and landed gentry, each seeking to outdo the other: Lord Fitzwilliam; the Duke of Devonshire (Chatsworth); Sir Tatton Sykes (Sledmere); Lord George Bentinck (son of the Duke of Portland at Welbeck). The latter apparently invented the concept of horse-drawn horse boxes, as until then, horses were walked to Doncaster for the St. Leger from as far away as Newmarket. The five furlong Portland Handicap race was first run in 1859.

The commoners flocked in by walking dusty by-roads, or by carrier wagons on the turnpike for a day out at the fair and racing. They were kept under a degree of control by a tiny embryonic local constabulary. This governance didn’t always keep the peace as a riot had to be dispersed by the military in 1829. By the 1850s, the railway age allowed for faster access from London and elsewhere for all classes of society, with this came the need for extra policing. In 1876 there were 233 special excursions trains arriving in the town for the event.

The national aristocracy settled for race week in local country houses often in the Dukeries (Welbeck, Rufford, Thoresby, Clumber, Newstead), travelling daily by coach on the Great North Road, and returning for formal country-house dinner parties if not staying over in the town after a ‘Mansion House’ event, or a marquee repaste, or a ‘cold collation’.

The race-course site has served the town well. Alongside its basic function it provided an out-of-town site for fairs, trade display events, early 19th century air shows, and a golf course, whilst over the Great North Road a ‘Tattersall’s bloodstock sales business flourished (initially in front of the Salutation Inn on South Parade. In due course Bell Vue and Doncaster Rovers football club.

Until the building boom in Cantley and Bessacarr post 1920, the  race-course was very much an urban fringe site surrounded by agricultural land to the south and east with Corporation owned ‘Moors’ and ‘Carrs’ to the west.

John Hayes St Leger (Col Anthony St Leger’s nephew) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Doncaster race-course has seen a host of horse racing highlights including the famous ‘Ormonde’ in 1886, and Nijinsky in 1970 (with ‘Lester Piggot) and others winning the St. Leger. Charles Dickens visited in 1857 in race week noting the rowdy ‘mob lunatics outside the Betting Rooms, families ‘cashing in’ by letting expensive lodgings at 15 – 20 guineas, and the impressive new Grandstand’. By 1906, hundreds of trains providing a crowd of 400,000+ people, most of whom walked from the station race-course sidings to the south of the main platforms.

All boroughs now had a duty under Robert Peel’s reforms to establish Police Forces on public watch with an overseeing ‘Watch Committee’. Thus by 1859, a Doncaster force consisted of a Chief Constable, Superintendent, Inspector, 2 Sergeants, and 9 Constables paid a rather miserly £1 per week. Extra ‘Bobby’s’ were recruited to handle the masses during race week. Incidentally, by 1914, there were 40 regular policemen, and 3 detectives, but as yet no police cars.

7 responses to “Horse Racing Doncaster

  1. Interesting site my grandfather was a jockey in 1907 I believe he won his first race at Doncaster would like to know more about him but don’t know were to look!! His name was Edward Cunningham and he rode for a Mr botterilltt

  2. This is from J. Colver of the Friends of Firbeck Hall:
    Was excited to read your article on the St Leger as I own just a small part of Park Hill and the estate that once belonged to Col Anthony St Leger. Park Hill is actually in the village of Firbeck and we are and always have been in Yorkshire, not Nottinghamshire as in the article. There is an oval field slightly out of Firbeck village and legend has it that the first St Leger was run in this field prior to moving to Cantley. Also, just wanted to point out that the portrait you show is of John Hayes St Leger (Col Anthony St Leger’s nephew) by Sir Joshua Reynolds to whom he left Park Hill but he (John Hayes) died in 1800 in India and was unmarried. Wonder if you’ve read Moya St Leger’s book called ‘St Leger, The family and the Race’ which I think you can still get on Amazon. As far as I am aware there is no image existing of Col Anthony St Leger.

    Anthony was the nephew of the 1st Lord Doneraile or Doneraile in Co Cork Ireland and I was there last week looking round the grounds, sadly the house is owned by Irish Heritage (or something similar) and not enough money to refurbish it but it has a new roof and windows.

  3. wishing you continued success with the website. Interesting and informative.

  4. just wishing you continued success with the website.

  5. I didn’t, but now that I do I’ll take a look-see as I’m down there quite regularly anyhows. Many thanks.

  6. Hi Symeon, congrats on the surge of visitors, well deserved. Did you have any luck on those Balby and Hexthorpe ( preferably Balby ) photographs by the way ??
    Keep up the good work. 🙂


    • Hi Carl. Thanks for the kind comments. Did you know that upstairs in the Central Library Waterdale (top floor) has a comprehensive collection of photographs that you can view (and sometimes copy) indexed by street. I’ll keep a look out too though. Take care,


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