Continuing last week’s sporting theme, this blog is about the lost racecourses of Salford, with a few digressions along the way. Before the weather broke, I went on a very hot cycle ride to a part of Greater Manchester I’d never visited before – Broughton and Kersal.
The flatness of much of Manchester lends itself well to horseracing, and the earliest races took place on moors. Racing may have taken place on Barlow Moor as early as 1647, a racecourse that was certainly in use from 1697 to 1701. The aim of my trip was to reach Kersal Moor, a disused racecourse in Higher Broughton that I’d long heard about. But I didn’t know about the Manchester racecourse, situated in a loop of the river Irwell – in fact, initially I thought I’d already arrived at Kersal Moor. As the photo shows, the racecourse is now little more than a vast expanse of flat grass – but if you look carefully it is possible to see the sloping banks all around the racecourse where the seating and stands would have once been located.
The Manchester racecourse was established in 1847 in an area known as Castle Irwell, named after the crenellated house of John Fitzgerald, the owner of Pendleton colliery. The racecourse soon became one of the most important in the country, hosting races such as the St Leger Stakes, the Manchester November Handicap (now raced at Doncaster as the November Handicap) and the Lancashire Oaks (now raced at Haydock Park). In 1888, the winner of the Lancashire Chase was awarded £10,000, at the time the highest prize money in the country, reflecting the confidence of the regions’ wealthy industrialists. A new stand was built in 1961, but by this stage it was already facing financial difficulties and in 1963 the racecourse closed, with Lester Piggott riding in one of the last races.
Leaving the Manchester racecourse behind, I rode up towards a church that I could see at the top of a steep hill. After wandering around St Paul’s graveyard for a while I finally found Kersal Moor next to the church. The Moor is a very atmospheric place to visit, but it is hard to conjure images of its former life as a racecourse. The land is very rough, sandy, and covered in gorse, and it is pitted with hollows. Although it certainly doesn’t have the pristine flatness of Castle Irwell, this was the site of Greater Manchester’s main racecourse from 1681 to 1847. In 1745 the racecourse was closed for a few years because of church disapproval – probably because of the gambling – but support from the local gentry meant it was reopened in 1760. I discovered a second sporting link on a plaque – in 1818 the Old Manchester Golf Club, England’s second oldest, played its first game on Kersal Moor.
As well as the horse racing, a variety of sideshows added to the festive atmosphere on the Moor. Cock fighting would take place before the racing and visitors could buy “obscene prints” or gamble with dice. On occasions there were also nude male running races, based on the ancient Greek practice. Although it may sound strange now, apparently the practice was not uncommon and was also found in other parts of the country. Between 1777 and 1811 there were 35 documented nude races at Kersal, and, according to the Lancashire novelist Walter Greenwood, they took place “so the lasses can weigh up form”!
In 1780 Elizabeth Raffald, the author of The Experienced English Housekeeper, posted an advert announcing “The ladies’ stand on Kersal Moor will be opened on Wednesday next for the accommodation of ladies and gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood of Manchester, where coffee, tea, chocolate, strawberries, cream etc, will be provided every Wednesday and Friday during the strawberry season”. This provides a rather more genteel image of a day at the races in Georgian Kersal, although perhaps this was where the ladies would watch the nude races… I like the reference to a “strawberry season” – we are so used now to buying strawberries at any time of year.
But my main reason for wanting to visit the Moor was because of its links to Manchester’s radical history. Because of its size and openness, it became an important meeting place for large gatherings. In June 1812 30,000 troops camped on the Moor ready to crush Luddites, groups of hand loom weavers who were smashing the power looms to try and protect their livelihoods. In 1818 striking miners met on the Moor to call for better conditions. The most famous meeting at Kersal was a mass gathering of Chartists on 24th September 1838, campaigning for political reform. The precise numbers of people attending are difficult to gauge – the Manchester Guardian said 30,000, while the Morning Advertiser spoke of 300,000, a sizeable margin of error! But there were certainly tens of thousands gathered on the Moor to hear the great leaders of the Chartists, Feargus O’Connor and Joseph Rayner Stephens, call for votes for all working men and a fairer political system. William Henry Chadwick, the “Old Chartist “ I blogged about a few weeks ago (Lockdown Diary 4) was only an 11 year old boy in 1838, still living in Compstall, but when he joined the Chartist cause in the 1840s I’m sure he would have heard the more experienced activists reminiscing about this great meeting.
Leaving Kersal Moor on the way down Bury New Road I stopped briefly at what appeared to be a magnificent Greek or Roman temple, complete with Corinthian columns. Appropriately, the Church of the Annunciation is a Greek Orthodox Church, built in 1860-61 by the growing Greek and Cypriot community, and was the first purpose built orthodox church in the country. The church is still in use, and Higher Broughton is a fascinating place to visit, with its large orthodox Jewish population. Cycling down a side street of small terraced houses, all seemed to be lived in by Jewish families, with washing hanging from the railings and small children, the boys with ringlets in their hair and yarmulkes on their heads, playing on the pavement, I felt transported back to Victorian Manchester.