My mother called last week to tell me about some possessions of my late Grandfather she had found. Whilst reminiscing about the “good old days” of traveling to Australia and living there for 6 years, being taken to Brighton on seaside jollies on their return and going to the track with her father, my mother exclaimed that she’d like me to look at some of the photos to see if I could find out where they were located. Seeing as they where racecourse photos I thought it a great challenge to investigate.
At the time of writing this I don’t have the photo’s with me, but once I have them in my possession (and with the kind permission from my mother) I will post them in an article in memory of my Grandfather.
In the mean time it got me thinking…
As a lot of you will know my grandfather taught me all I know about horse racing and betting, and I’ve been fascinated with history and the life my grandfather led.
As I have many of his photo’s and memoirs already I thought I’d go about researching a little history into “What Happened To Horse Racing During World War II.”
A little funny footnote here. I found it a real eureka moment when I realised that people kept memoirs, more recently referred to as diaries. Of course this simple notion of keeping track of ones movements and thoughts is the very simple concept of Facebook, but with Facebook you share it with the world in an instant.
The difference between paper and tablets/computers is that with memoirs you get a real sense of nostalgia and a kind of comforting feeling that can be enjoyed for hours upon hours as you read about loved ones thoughts and reflections. That’s been lost in recent years as it’s all on screens.
Anyway I digress…
Looking at some of the early photos and memoirs of my Grandfather I went about trying to piece together what happened during the war to our beloved sport.
On September 3rd 1939, Prime Minister Chamberlain went onto the airwaves and announced that war had been declared between Britain and Germany. This was the start of World War II and, I imagine, a terrifying announcement to the British people. As many would have witnessed the atrocities of World War I, this would have been a time of upheaval and fear. Although it is in these times that people pull together and do what they can.
My Grandfather, having been born in 1921, would have been 18 at the turn of the war and immediately enlisted into the RAF. His father was a policeman in the East End of London and an avid racing fan who had taken my Grandfather to many meetings at Gatwick racecourse (which is now the airport!), Lewes racecourse in East Sussex and a course called Wye in Essex.
All of these course are now completely unrecognisable. In fact, researching some of these courses I found that there were some 90 courses operational even though some may only have had one meeting a year! These are now generally either commons or recreational parks.
Who’d have thought that a two day meeting was organised on the first weekend of August on Southampton Common!
Racing was huge and a lot less governed than it is now. But, it was a very popular family sport that people enjoyed at the weekends.
So with the onset of war for the second time within two generations you may wonder why a sport loved so much by a nation was outlawed?
The outlawing of racing was proposed when the fall of France was declared in 1940, and was championed by Philip Noel-Baker the secretary to the Department of War Transport.
This was most likely based on the vitally important role the horse played in the 1st World War.
Whilst the Jockey Club rallied in their petition against the proposed ban, it was nevertheless banned but… reinstated in the same year (dates unavailable at the time of writing).
There were however sanctions put in place that restricted and minimised the amount of racing that was allowed. It was these sanctions that saw the end of most of the 90 odd race courses that were around at the time.
Of course, this led to illegal meetings being staged. Some clubs and pubs would masquerade themselves as such but the punter was able to have a flutter in what was still Britain’s life long sporting enjoyment. In 1941 one hundred and thirty three premises where raided in London alone under suspicion of taking illegal bets.
Of the few meetings that were allowed to go ahead there was a famous runner known as the Blue Peter horse. This horse had already won the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby and was heavily fancied to win the St Leger at Doncaster. Sadly the meeting was abandoned and thereafter he was retired meaning he never got the chance to prove his Triple Crown achievements.
Hotspur, the Telegraph’s racing correspondent, wrote at the time:
“Blue Peter is the greatest three-year old I have ever seen and there has never been any doubt in my mind that he would have won the Triple Crown.”
Many years later after the war Blue Peter’s owner, Lord Rosebery, declared:
“He was the best horse I ever had and was the best I had ever seen and he had only half a career as a racehorse.”
Because of the times my Grandfather, whilst serving all over Europe, was never to see a racecourse in its proper use until the late 40’s. He did however spend plenty of time at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile course where he was stationed for a while during its RAF hangar base days.
Other courses around the country were utilised in the same way. Bath was used as a landing field for the RAF, Nottingham housed the 7th Leicestershire’s and Ascot was even used as a German Prison of War Camp.
The Grand National was also abandoned between 1941 and 1945 and racing wouldn’t return to normal until the day of the Japanese surrender on 2nd September 1945.
On that day there was a meeting at Stockton which would have been the last meeting of World War II.
Sadly during April 1945 my grandfather suffered serious shrapnel injuries from a bomb whilst in battle and was discharged before the end of the war.
Being honourably discharged he left the RAF with two medals and a hip flask with his initials and the date of discharge on. I still use that hip flask to house a fine single malt when I go racing in memory of my grandfather!
It always had a dent in it and as a child he would tell me it saved his life from a bullet. Of course I now know that he had it after the war and was actually dented when moving house.
Shortly after the war my grandfather married my grandmother and they went on to have six children. One of them being my mother who was born in 1948.
She was 6 when they emigrated to Australia and lived there until she was 12. My grandfather was a musician and visited Australia after writing the original advert jingle to Johnston’s Wax. He wrote many a jingle for various companies in Oz but after six years his real calling was back in the UK.
Racing was back…..
Over the next couple of weeks I will be writing another article about how my grandfather came back and managed to make a living in the racing world and a look at what happened to racing as while it was still illegal and when it was reinstated as Britain started to thrive.
I hope you enjoyed this post and please let me know of any thoughts or if I’ve missed any vital parts out in the history of our beloved sport as I continue to research the history of horse racing.
P.S. A photo of said hip flask. (I know I need to clean it but it’s well used and it is 70 years old!)
The dent is in the back of the flask but doesn’t really show in the photo so I won’t show 😉