Tonbridge History

Tonbridge Races

In July 1850 Tonbridge people learned that horse-racing was coming to the town. A one-day meeting was planned for 14th August, when three races would be run on a Course marked out on fields near the castle. (The area is now known as The Racecourse Sportsground, but was in private hands in 1850.)

Not everyone was pleased about this development. According to a local paper, the South Eastern Gazette, ‘considerable excitement has been manifested in this town, for some weeks past, regarding the races advertised to take place on the 14th inst., many respectable inhabitants having protested against them publicly, believing them to be prejudicial to the best interests of the town’. Detractors even arranged a rival attraction to keep ‘great numbers of children away from the races’, by treating ‘children belonging to the National and Independent Schools … with plumcake, &c., in a field near the Pinnacles’.

'The racing was ... excellent'

The local opposition only made the organisers more determined, and detailed plans were prepared. No gambling booths or tables were allowed, and no refreshment booths unless by consent of the committee. Entrance to the Course was 2s 6d for four wheeled carriages and 1 shilling for two wheeled carriages and saddle horses. The South Eastern Railway offered tickets to Tonbridge at a flat rate from London, Dover, Ramsgate, Canterbury and all its other stations.

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Late 19thC map showing the position of the race course. The Castle is at top right.

In the event the meeting went off well. The Gazette reported that ‘the racing was considered to be excellent.’ Six horses started in the first race, the Town Plate. Next came the Hurdle race in which ‘the whole of the horses [took] the leaps in first-rate style’. The last event, a Sweepstake, was an ‘admirable race’. The Course itself was described as ‘one of the best that could be imagined, situated between two arms of the river Medway; it commanded one of the most delightful prospects imaginable. The castle, with its ancient keep, the beautiful woodland scenery which adorns the sides of Quarry-hill, interspersed with fields of golden grain, were objects well calculated to feast the eyes of the assembled thousands, independent of the attractive sports of the field’. Afterwards ‘a number of gentlemen met together at the Rose and Crown Inn, where a most excellent dinner was provided …’

Annual event

The annual race meeting would grow to be a major event in the Tonbridge calendar for the next 24 years. In 1851 ‘weather, attendance, and sport’ combined to ensure success. ‘In addition to an immense number of fashionables from the Wells, the county folks thickly assembled for the purpose of being participators in this truly exciting and interesting enjoyment’. For the 1855 meeting, when the day was ‘exceedingly fine’ and the racing ‘exceedingly good’, ‘large numbers of visitors poured into the town from the railway station, and many in their respective vehicles from the villages adjacent. It is calculated that during the afternoon there were between 5 and 6,000 persons assembled on the ground. Many of the carriages of the neighbouring gentry were on the ground, and the Stewards' and Visitors' Stands were crowded. There were several refreshment booths, all of which were well filled, the principal one adjacent to the Grand Stand being that of Mr. R. Montague, the Bull Inn. Edmond's Menagerie [a travelling zoo] and numerous other exhibitions of a minor description were on the ground, and appeared to receive their full share of public patronage’.

A magnet for petty criminals

From the start, the races seem to have been something of a magnet for petty criminals. In 1850 a pickpocket, Edward Barratt, was seen at Tonbridge Races ‘attempting the pocket of several persons, and while committing this robbery was apprehended’. He was sentenced to six months’ hard labour. On the same evening Peter William Russell and John Holman were charged with tendering a false half-crown at the Rose and Crown tap. They had come down from London by train with two other men, knowing it was race day. A parcel containing 50 counterfeit half-crowns, all dated 1844, was found among their possessions. Both men were committed for trial. By 1855 help was needed to keep the peace, and ‘a body of metropolitan police (R division) under the direction of Sergeant Pearson were in attendance.’

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1874 Racecard

Tonbridge Races continued at least until 1874, in which year Sporting Life reported that ‘the easy distance from London attracted many metropolitan ‘turfites’ and on each day there was a good attendance, while the course was good going and the sport fairly up to the average … The weather was showery on both days, but the local support both in ‘lads and lassies’ was as notable as ever’. According to the same report, ‘racing has not a very strong hold in Kent, although the county generally is noted for its encouragement of sport.’ Tonbridge had ‘gone some way to redeem the failings of the … Canterbury Races held earlier that year.

Despite the apparent success of the 1874 meeting, no later mention of the Tonbridge Races has been found.