Heritage: Why there’s no racing at Navestock

The racecourse was destined not to rival Epsom or Aintree. Picture: David Davies/PA

The racecourse was destined not to rival Epsom or Aintree. Picture: David Davies/PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Prof Ged Martin tells the story of a controversial decision and a crime spree that ended horse-racing at Navestock.

We might have had a racecourse just three miles from Harold Hill, but Navestock’s race meeting collapsed in 1877.

Cricket was played on the tiny village green at Navestock Side from the eighteenth century. By 1835, there was a “horse-race ground” behind the Green Man pub (now a restaurant).

The “pleasant country meeting” was held on the Tuesday of Whitsun week, a traditional holiday.

In 1871, Navestock races were “looked forward to with considerable interest by the country folk in this neighbourhood”.

In 1872, crowds included “a fair sprinkling of the sporting fraternity” from London.

In 1874, a police contingent kept order among “a large assemblage of persons from the neighbouring towns and villages”.

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In 1875, in wet weather, came the first signs of trouble.

“The betting fraternity” appeared “in rather strong force.”

The 1876 meeting attracted a national politician, Sir William Harcourt, later the Chancellor who introduced death duties.

The event was moving up a gear, with an extended course and increased prize money, subsidised by local gentry.

A “new and valuable feature” was a grandstand for 600 paying customers.

Navestock, it seemed, might become a major racecourse – maybe even an Essex Epsom.

In fact, that grandstand was part of the crisis that destroyed the event.

Erected slightly short of the winning post, its location meant that most race-goers watched close finishes from a reverse angle.

On 22 May 1877, there was a large attendance.

Overcoats were needed against “a cold searching wind”.

But Navestock’s race meeting was still “the popular annual holiday” locally.

The grandstand was packed.

Lord Carlingford of Navestock’s Dudbrook House sponsored one race.

Prize money and a silver trophy for another came from Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard, the eccentric horsey baronet of Belhus at Aveley.

He was brother-in-law of Kitty O’Shea, mistress of the Irish leader Parnell.

The owner of Pyrgo Park near Havering-atte-Bower, General Fytche, was one of the stewards. He was the retired Governor of Burma.

The key decisions were entrusted to a judge based at the finishing post, “Mr A. Hunt”.

This was almost certainly Alfred Henry Hunt, a South Street Romford solicitor, who was secretary of almost every committee in the town.

He’d judged the races at Navestock for several years, and was respected for his experience.

The second race was not the big event.

A handicap with little prize money, it drew just four entrants. A filly, Susannah, was 5 to 4 favourite, but smart money backed Bay Malcolm at 3 to 1.

The mile-and-a-half race, with six hurdles, took the runners twice around the course.

Entering the home straight, Susannah had a slight lead, but there was a “splendid” finish as Bay Malcolm’s jockey challenged hard.

As the nags thundered past the grandstand, Bay Malcolm seemed a clear half length ahead.

But, at the post, Mr Hunt awarded the race to the favourite, insisting that Susannah had just regained the lead at the finishing line. Bay Malcolm’s owner protested, angrily backed by a large section of the crowd who’d backed his horse.

Politely described as “turf adventurers”, these men of “desperate character” became “violent and threatening”.

The meeting was almost abandoned in disorder.

Eventually calm was restored and the card resumed.

Not only were the “betting fraternity” present “in rather stronger force than usual”, but the meeting had attracted more “cardsharpers, pickpockets, and other questionable characters” than ever before.

Despite the police presence, two gold watches were pilfered, one from an Army officer and the other from a clergyman.

Another race-goer returned home to find his house had been burgled.

Standards for race meetings were rising, with pressure for more prize money, and stricter rules about the number of fences per mile.

But, after the souring events of 1877, there was no enthusiasm for upgrading Navestock races.

The racecourse on Havering’s doorstep came to an inglorious end.