I can only have been four years old, having fairly recently moved into a new council house in the Harrow section of the estate, when I asked my father what the ruined and crumbling building was. He dismissed it as just ‘an old grandstand’, as if I had any idea what it meant. Further questions established that it was something to do with racing horses (or more accurately, ponies). The building lay just south of Dabbs Hill Lane, on the edge of an area known locally as the ‘Waste Ground’. In the centre of this was a mound of rubble, known as the ‘Black Hill’, which contained all manner of dirt, concrete, broken glass and pieces of porcelain. As kids we would climb it, run over it and roll about in it, picking up minor cuts and bruises in the process but nonetheless surviving.
The building, however, seemed a bit more sinister. As all abandoned buildings were in those days, it was ‘haunted’, but that didn’t stop most of us from playing on it. From memory, it was an oddly-shaped, partially burned shell of a building, showing the remnants of a second floor which looked highly precarious, but other than that it contained the usual mix of broken materials: concrete, glass, porcelain. Regrettably, I have no photographs of the structure and even my more photographically inclined mother did not find it to be a sufficiently inspiring subject.
Within a year or two, it was gone. Most accounts indicate 1955 as the year, but it seems that the final remnant wasn’t gone until the end of 1957. The ‘Black Hill’ disappeared too. In no time houses and flats were being built on the site, and over time the ‘Waste Ground’ became playing fields and grassy open space. I forgot about what used to be there for fifty years or so, but with the availability of the internet and its search facilities, eventually I became aware that what I saw all those years ago were the last remains of what many considered the finest racecourse in the country and one of the very best in Europe.
Pony racing had been in existence for centuries in various parts of the country, but was not well regulated and had a serious reputation for cheating and corruption. In an attempt to organize and gain respect for the sport, the Pony Turf Club (PTC) was formed in 1923 and was subsequently recognized by various bodies as a legitimate regulated sport. The intent of the PTC was not only to provide venues for smaller horses to race, but also to satisfy the racing and betting needs of those with more ‘limited means’. This meant admission fees that were significantly less than those at established horse racing venues, but with facilities of a much higher standard, in an attempt to attract more female supporters.
Northolt was chosen as the national centre and headquarters for these activities, and a completely new racecourse was created for it in 1929.
In the late 1920’s when building commenced, Northolt was still a quiet, rural community that was served by a small halt on the Great Western Railway to Paddington. There were a number of farms scattered around the area, and much of the land was used to make hay. But it was its position on the edge of west London that made it the choice as the national centre for the sport, providing a significant catchment area for budding racegoers.
The racecourse was founded by William Bass (of the brewery family) and Viscount Henry Lascelles, who became stewards of the PTC. The racecourse site was 147 acres, occupying an area between Eastcote Lane to the west, Dabbs Hill Lane to the north, and the main Ealing-Harrow road (now Mandeville Road) to the east and south. The 1.5 mile course was designed by W.A. Read, later to become Vice-Chairman of the owning company, Northolt Park Racecourse Company Ltd. and the instigator of the many innovations which were to come.
The Main Grandstand and the Members Stand were in a class of their own. Incorporating elements of the modernist movement of the day, these elegant buildings were created in smooth rendered brick and concrete over an internal steel structure, all painted white with much use of glass and curved windows. The stands were designed by Oscar Faber, with Stanley Vaughan providing the calculations for the steelwork.
The key structural feature of the Main Grandstand was the cantilevered roof which was the first of its kind in Britain and the largest in Europe, with an overhang of 66 feet. This created a remarkably graceful parabolic shape in conjunction with the terraced seating area. Racegoers occupying these stands were provided an unencumbered vista of the entire racecourse. Side walls made of glass panels supplied light as well as some protection from the elements. The Members Stand was of almost identical design, but was considerably reduced in scale, though still harmoniously reflecting the graceful design of its counterpart.
Of the initial investment of £250,000 to build the racecourse, £120,000 was spent on the stands alone.
The number of race meetings was set at 56 per year – twice the frequency of any existing racecourses in the country. This included hurdles in addition to flat racing. Race days were mostly Mondays and Saturdays.
The racecourse opened for the first race on May 18th 1929 (Whit Saturday).
The Main Grandstand (often referred to as Tattersall’s), apart from providing racegoers superb views of the course and the finish line, incorporated a huge bar on the ground floor which extended the whole length of the rear of the building. Spacious lifts and stairs led from there to the well-equipped restaurant on the floor above. Other amenities included boxes, a Press room, telephone kiosks and up to date (and scrupulously clean) cloakrooms. Bookmakers were grouped in an oval formation in front of the stand, and from there was easy access to the paddock.
The smaller Members Stand also contained bars, restaurants and cloakrooms, all accessed by lifts and stairs, and of the highest standard. The Members enclosure later featured an ornamental garden and tables complete with umbrellas for those between-race refreshments.
The main Totalisator building was next to the Main Grandstand, and was fully automated and electronically operated – the first of its kind in Britain. Three public stands of conventional design were erected alongside, served by a smaller ‘Tote’ building close by.
One innovative feature was the location of the main paddock, placed in front of the stands so attendees could easily view the ponies being saddled and paraded prior to the race – no horse racing venue at the time placed the paddock in such a convenient position.
The facilities provided at Northolt Park continued to evolve over a period of just a few years, as aerial photography shows:
The Tote Stand proved popular with racegoers as it offered the most elevated view of the racecourse.
Also in 1936, the Members Stand was totally remodelled by adding another restaurant on top of the structure and extending this level beyond the rear of the existing building, supported by an array of pillars. At the same time, the seating area was rebuilt as a two tier structure, completely destroying the symmetry it had once exhibited with the Main Grandstand.
The innovations continued. In 1934, an automated electronic clock was installed which provided highly accurate race timings, the winning pony or horse stopping the clock by interrupting a ray of light focused on a photo-electric cell. This was the first of its kind in Britain.
Also around this time, a Stewards’ Stand was installed opposite the winning post, featuring a hexagonal design supported on a central column. This was also the first in Britain, and according to the PTC, first in the world.
In 1935, a new type of starting gate was installed, designed to prevent injuries to horses and riders, and operated by the starter by treading on a foot pedal. Known as a ‘Benjamin Barrier’, this was its first appearance in Britain. A year later, plans were in place to install the first ever photo-finish camera system.
In 1937, also for the first time ever, a live race commentary was provided by a racecourse official standing on the roof of the Tote stand with a microphone, which continued for every race until the course closed. This innovation was not adopted by mainstream (Jockey Club) horse racing for another 15 years.
In June 1938, the BBC televised the Northolt Park Derby race, only the second live broadcast of a race in the country and it was hoped, a source of much needed publicity for the sport. They returned in September to broadcast the British Empire Cup race, though with some technical difficulties.
Celebrities were attracted to Northolt Park right from the start, and George Formby actually raced there. The racecourse appeared in a small number of films, including the following:
‘Dandy Dick‘ (Associated British Picture Corporation, 1934) – starring Will Hay
‘Thank Evans‘ (Warner Brothers/First National Productions, 1938) – starring Max Miller
‘I’ve Got A Horse‘ (British Lion Film Corporation, 1938) – starring Sandy Powell
‘Come On George‘ (Associated Talking Pictures, 1939) – starring George Formby
The racecourse was accessed from Dabbs Hill Lane, an ancient byway that petered out at the western end of the racecourse. Beyond this point a footpath originally led across the fields and the railway to a location on Eastcote Lane, close to Northolt village. The road itself was upgraded so it could accommodate cars, taxis and buses (shuttling to and from the station at South Harrow). To the north, an area was fenced off for parking of 6000 cars, according to publicity statements. There were entrance gates at the point where Dabbs Hill Lane joined Petts Hill, and these were presumably kept locked when no race meetings were scheduled. There was another entrance on the racecourse side of Ealing (now Mandeville) Road between the railway bridge and the Load Of Hay public house.
In addition to Northolt Halt on the Great Western Railway, a completely new station was opened on the London and North Eastern Railway in 1926, to serve and promote new housing development in the area. It was initially named ‘South Harrow & Roxeth’, before being changed to ‘Northolt Park’ in 1929 in deference to the new racecourse, though not as conveniently sited as racegoers would have liked.
Dabbs Hill Lane was extended in 1935 to improve transit between the racecourse and the newly-opened Western Avenue (A40). It passed beyond the racecourse to the point where Eastcote Lane took a right angled turn. An additional set of entrance gates were installed there, reportedly a duplicate of those at the other end of Dabbs Hill Lane. To get past the racecourse site a creative solution was employed; the road was lowered into a cutting, adding a bridge over which riders could pass, unimpeded by traffic.
Also in 1935, Dabbs Hill Lane was re-aligned at its eastern end to accommodate the construction of a new road of private houses in the narrow strip of land between it and the railway. This was named ‘The Heights’, and there was provision made for another entrance to the racecourse complete with gate pillars, though it is not known if gates were ever installed there. The gap in the houses remained for many years before a new house was constructed in its place.
Attendance records do not appear to be available except for 1937 and 1938, but it has been reported that, after a lacklustre first couple of years, attendance tripled between 1931 and 1936. In 1937, a record year, they show that 235,942 passed through the turnstiles, but in 1938 the numbers dropped to 207,391.
The Tote turnover figures tell a similar story. The following amounts are approximate:
The latter figures were healthy numbers compared with any other horse racing venue in the country, though skewed by the fact that the number of race meetings at Northolt was at least twice as many. Nonetheless, Northolt Park had become the highest grossing legal betting venue in Britain by this time, surpassing Ascot in 1935.
Some races, such as the Northolt Derby, were highly popular and attracted attendances of over 20,000. However the average attendance over the season was only in the region of 4,000 overall.
The following photographs show a well-attended event in June 1934. It is clear from these that a visit to the races at Northolt Park could be a spectacular day out.
In addition to advertising on posters and in local papers and magazines, there were occasional mentions in regional and national newspapers.
In the May 1936 edition of ‘The Illustrated Sporting And Dramatic News’ magazine there was a two page spread of this painting of the racecourse by A. Egerton Cooper.
It was accompanied by the following text:
“In spite of considerable scepticism on the part of more conservative racegoers, sport under Pony Turf Club rules in England has gone from strength to strength, and this season, in addition to Northolt and Portsmouth Park, an additional course has been added by taking over the old steeplechase course at Chelmsford. The class of ponies racing has been consistently good, and a glance at the race-card at any average meeting will show breeding as good as is to be found at the biggest of meetings under Jockey Club rules. One of the reasons why Northolt Park has become so popular is undoubtedly the excellent stands and splendid refreshment accommodation. A first-class lunch is provided for half-a-crown, served in a restaurant, which is tastefully decorated, by smartly uniformed waitresses who are a welcome relief from the hoary-faced brigands who tout for tips from overcharged and uncomfortable visitors to many meetings under the rules of Racing and Steeplechasing.
Northolt Park possesses a fully mechanised, electrically operated Totalisator, and, on that part of the extreme right of the picture, each unit invested on the runners in a race is recorded as the tickets are issued. There is also an electrical timing apparatus from which the public can see the time in which each race is run. This year under Pony Turf Club rules, a horse which interferes with, say, only one or two other runners may be “distancé” as in France, instead of being automatically placed last on disqualification. There has already been such a case up to the time of writing, and it will be interesting to see how the experiment, which has acted admirably in other countries, works out over here. Mr. Egerton Cooper’s masterly studies of Epsom and other courses are as well known as his portraits, and his exhibitions at the Leger Gallery are always well patronised.”
Towards the end of the 1937 season, the expenditure on the innovations along with high running costs came to a head, and bankruptcy loomed. In September, a Receiver, W.P. Grimwood, was appointed as manager and W.A. Read resigned. Drastic cuts followed (though these have not been specified), but pony racing continued at Northolt Park, albeit with reduced attendance numbers through 1938 and 1939. The planned installation of the photo-finish equipment was cancelled.
In 1938, Danemead, the house which had served as offices and club house for the racecourse, was demolished and private housing built on the site. This was presumably instigated by the Receiver to raise additional capital. The new road was named ‘Danemead Grove’.
The War Intervenes
World War II was declared at the start of September 1939, and forced a premature end to the 1939 racing season at Northolt Park. Despite this, racing was tentatively resumed in April of 1940, but the invasion of France in June signalled the end of pony racing for the duration of the war. The racecourse was requisitioned by the Royal Army Ordnance Corp (RAOC), who used it to manage and store munitions and other military supplies. One contemporaneous account also describes the racetrack area being used as an emplacement for anti-aircraft guns. Later, an Italian POW camp was built on some parts of the site. Allegedly the racecourse buildings were put to good use and not neglected, while the track area was also kept in reasonable condition. Nothing seemed likely to prevent the resumption of racing when peacetime eventually came.
Fight For Survival
By the end of the war, plans were shaping up to resume pony racing at Northolt Park, at least for the 1946 season. The membership had a number of ideas of how to improve attendance at the racecourse, mostly by relaxing some stringent PTC rules and scheduling more evening races, which had proved popular in the past. The Receiver was still in charge, but his work had been successful, and finances were considered to be in good order.
An offer to purchase the site for £240,000 for the explicit resumption of pony racing (by Mr. Neal Christey) was being given serious consideration. However, at a meeting with the Receiver, the attendees were shocked when it was disclosed that the London County Council (LCC) had expressed an interest in a compulsory purchase of the site for housing. At the time, it was downplayed as being too expensive to be seriously considered for that purpose. However a further jolt came in the form of subsequent newspaper reports that the Ealing Council had actually obtained permission to purchase the site, completely bypassing the Receiver, the potential buyer and the LCC.
At this point, it is important to be reminded this was a completely new Labour government, elected in 1945 and undoubtedly keen to prove they could get things done for their constituents. The housing shortage was extremely serious, and it transpired that James Hudson, the Labour MP for Ealing West, had directly approached Lewis Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country Planning, to give the council permission to purchase the site for 900-1000 houses. From the point of view of the PTC, it didn’t help that Mr. Hudson, a quaker, was vehemently opposed to gambling.
A series of appeals, letters and meetings followed, and the counter argument developed that there was a larger site in the general area which was one third of the cost per acre of the racecourse site. This referred to the Down Barns area of Northolt, which was at the time cheap agricultural land. Representatives for the Ealing Council countered that this land was less suitable for building (though no clear reasons were given), and development there would violate the ‘Green Belt’ scheme of the Abercrombie Plan for Greater London. This last argument was tenuous at best, as the racecourse site was also designated as Green Belt open space.
Nevertheless, it is easy to see why the Ealing Council had a preference for the racecourse site – it was within walking distance of two railway stations, one of which was soon to be on an extension of the Central Line, providing fast electric trains to central London. The Down Barns site had none of these benefits, the only thing within walking distance being the White Hart pub and a few shops.
The original bidder for the site (Mr. Christey) argued, apart from being the best equipped and best designed racecourse in the country, when not in use for racing its facilities could be used by local residents as a kind of civic centre. Whist drives were proposed, along with dances in the park area, with swimming, tennis, football, and amenities for scouts and boys brigades all being offered. Moreover, he had produced a plan which would preserve the racecourse and provide housing at the same time. He offered an area of 25 acres in the north west of the site (actually the ‘Harrow’ section) for 300 houses, and the whole frontage of Mandeville Road, 2500 feet in length, where houses and flats could be built with views across the racecourse.
Ultimately these discussions led to a Public Inquiry, which took place on May 7th 1946. The same arguments were presented by each side, but the compromise plan offered by Mr. Christey was dismissed as promoting ‘ribbon development’, which was not a concept popular with town planners.
The result of the inquiry was announced on August 15th 1946. The racecourse supporters had lost the fight. The Minister of Health approved the Ealing Council’s application for the compulsory purchase of the racecourse site for council housing. Racing at Northolt Park came to an end after an active life of only 11 years.
The only hope on the horizon for the PTC and its supporters was that it purchased the racecourse at Hawthorn Hill, near Maidenhead, with the intent of relocating pony racing there. Racing started in April 1947, and some of the state-of-the-art equipment from Northolt Park was transferred there. Despite this, in 1948 requests were made by the PTC to rent the Northolt racecourse from the Ealing Council for £17,000 per year for three years, but these were declined. Ultimately, the sport never recovered from the loss of Northolt Park and the PTC went into liquidation in 1956.
It was the Harrow council that moved first, and starting in 1951 the north-west corner of the site was developed into 177 council houses and four shops, connecting to ‘The Heights’ which had already been built there. This did not directly affect the racecourse buildings and track as these were on the Ealing side of the district boundary.
The Ealing council got development under way a little later. The estate which was eventually constructed was by no means a high density development and made very effective use of open space. Large areas were left unbuilt upon, including the ‘backstretch’ of the racetrack adjacent to Mandeville Road, and a significant part of the area in front of the stands. All of the new roads in the estate were named after racecourses which existed at the time, a touching tribute that probably did little to appease the pony racing community. Harrow council didn’t bother with such sentimentality (except for Doncaster Gardens which was an extension of Doncaster Drive). The whole area became known, inevitably, as the ‘Racecourse Estate’.
By 1954, the Ealing Council had exhausted all efforts to find alternative uses for the stands. The now neglected and deteriorating structures were looking forlorn and out of place amid the newly built houses and flats encroaching on them. What were once the pride of pony racing were now viewed as eyesores.
Demolition of the stands and other buildings began in the summer of 1955. The Tote Stand was dismantled and re-assembled, minus much of its concrete facing, at Brands Hatch. The cutting containing Dabbs Hill Lane was filled in again (possibly with debris from the stands), but it is unknown whether the bridge was demolished or just built over. Either way, the gradient of the road became noticeably steeper than it was before. The Jockey Stand was the final structure to disappear, after a fire in 1957.
The entrance gates at the end of Dabbs Hill Lane by Petts Hill have remained in place ever since, though the original supporting pillars are gone, and the gates were replaced by replicas in 2001. They now serve only to allow pedestrians to gain access to the estate. In a final nod to their origins, replacement plaques were installed on each side, one with the initial ‘N’ and the other with the initial ‘P’.
Fortunately, a number of Pathe Newsreels of races at Northolt have been preserved and uploaded to YouTube. These provide many views of the facilities at Northolt Park as well as bringing it all to life.