If you want to go to a racecourse from Central London today you will have to travel at least 15 miles. It was not always so. There used to be one a little west of Kensington Gardens in what today is known as Notting Hill.
And it was not just any old racecourse. Although The Times decried it on its opening in 1837 as “disgusting”, a reporter for the Sporting Magazine was rather enthusiastic: “Entering, I was by no means prepared for what opened upon me. Here, without figure of speech, was the most perfect racecourse that I had ever seen…Here was, almost at our doors, a racing emporium more extensive and attractive than Ascot or Epsom, with ten times the accommodation of either, and where carriages are charged for admission at three fourths less.”
Welcome to the Bayswater Hippodrome or any of the other names the course was given during its short life, including the Notting Hill Hippodrome, the Kensington Hippodrome and Victoria Park.
It could be argued that it reached its zenith on day one – Saturday, 3 June, 1837 – when up to 30,000 people converged on it, “including a large representation from the nobility” and several thousand on horseback, which delayed the start by an hour. One of the key races was the “Hippodrome 50 Sovereigns Plate”, run over two miles. It was won by a horse called Lottery, which was later entered for the first ever Grand National at Aintree. Lottery started as favourite and won in what was described as a “hack canter”.
The racecourse had no such luck, not least because the entrepreneur who had built it, John Whyte, enclosed the 140 acres he had leased from the Ladbroke Estate with a seven foot high fence. This shut off a valued right of way, to the consternation of local residents who appealed to Parliament. This was not successful, but Whyte had to give way eventually.
But the biggest problem lay beneath the ground, where the proprietors had overlooked the fact that the subsoil was of strong clay. This was perfect for the neighbouring brick and pottery industry (hence today’s Pottery Lane nearby) but not good for horse racing, as it meant the course was waterlogged for much of the year while at other times the ground was so hard jockeys declined to take part.
This defect proved terminal. The last public meeting at the course was held in June 1841, barely four years after it started. Parts of it continued to be used for riding, particularly by women, but racing stopped and then building began on this choice land conveniently near the centre of the capital. Horse racing’s loss was Notting Hill’s gain. The rest is history. A detailed walk around the site of the phantom racecourse is documented here.
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