Chester races sparked controversy and protest
A gathering of the 'vilest and most degraded' characters
in England !
Chester's famous Spring horse race meeting is often described as
the "Ascot of the North", a great social gathering generating business
and prestige for a city which already has more to offer visitors
than most of its English counterparts. Chester without its racing
is unthinkable, but it has not always been so!
During the 19th century, nonconformists and ecclesiastics of the
city literally breathed fire and brimstone to persuade the authorities
to abolish racing ... and they almost succeeded. Declaring the sport
to be a "damnation" and, apparently, the source of every evil deed
in Creation, the objectors constantly lobbied councillors, organised
protest meetings, wrote column upon column of letters to the local
Press, and distributed pamphlets to unsuspecting citizens, most
of whom enjoyed the racing, and could hardly read, in any event!
The Dean of Chester, J.S.Howson, writing in 1870, left little doubt
of his opinions when declaring: "Each season seems to indicate an
increasing tendency to fraud, obscenity, profanity and debauchery,
and an increasing necessity for the vigilance of the police." Good
Shepherd that he obviously was, the Dean was concerned with the
"moral harm" inflicted on the citizens of Chester by the races:
'There sets in, among the inhabitants, at this time, a state of
wild and reckless excitement, which, with too many, obliterates
the sense of right and wrong," he added. The races, he insisted,
caused some of the "vilest and most degraded" characters of England
to descend on the city, "like an army of locusts". At least the
Dean's arguments were balanced with an appeal for calm consideration
and an acceptance that the city council had, indeed, managed to
introduce measures to curb some of the evils which, apparently,
manifested themselves in the scores of tents, boxing booths and
menageries sited on the Roodee during Race Week.
On the other hand, William Wilson, a nonconformist, was far less
charitable when issuing stem words on the "demoralising influence'
of racing in general and Chester Races in particular. Quoting at
great length from the Bible, and pointing the way towards Hell,
Mr Wilson advocated that racegoers should actually visit a Lunatic
Asylum to see for themselves the fearful wrecks of humanity..."the
Turning to Chester Races, he declared: "...that short week has sown
misery in a thousand breasts, has robbed many an inexperienced youth
of his better principles, and many an unguarded female of her purity;
has left many a parent to mourn over the victims of immorality,
and has registered a thousand crimes for the Great Assize. Brawling,
drunkenness, gambling, theft, fornication, suicide, and every vice
denounced by the divine authority are invariably the results of
the present racing system."
Mr Wilson even summoned up a Coroner's inquest, concerning an iron
works manager who shot himself at the Hen and Chicken public house,
in Birmingham, after "unfortunate speculations'. "Who can say,"
he asked, "how many of those hundreds of gamblers who throng the
vicinity of the Royal Hotel, on Cup days and the preceding evening,
go home with disappointed hopes, and terminate their existence in
a similar way?"
If Mr Wilson is to be believed, Chester was a veritable Sodom, what
with vast numbers of prostitutes plying their trade along the Rows,
and corpses littering the roads after a few favourites had gone
down on cup day! At least, he saw some salvation... Thank God there
are signs of its decay which are unmistakable, and the races are
now only because they have been."
How wrong he was! The strongest reasons for retention of the races
was considered, at least in the most influential quarters of the
Corporation, to be the fiscal benefits, due to a massive increase
in the volume of trade during Race Week, and the "unofficial" holiday
which the Roodee festival created.
Of course, not everyone shared these convictions and one unnamed
city trader went into print to forcibly put the other side of the
case, especially against the holiday, whilst proffering an opinion
that the 'humbler classes" should be told how to play, as well as
work: "It maybe said that Lancashire has its Whitsun-week, and its
six days of unproductive labour, but I fail to see that the comparison
injuriously affects our position.
The Lancashire operative spends the week in healthful excursions,
and pleasure-seeking of a harmless kind, in company generally with
his wife or sweetheart. The Chester artisan spends his week in selfish
rioting, drunkenness and debauchery, bringing misery and trouble
upon his wife and family, and unfitting him for his work.
"What return has our Chester Race-going artisan? Has he informed
his mind or given healthful recreation to his body? Does he settle
down to his work after his week's dissipation invigorated with rest?
Alas, it Is a sadder man that he begins to work again. Would that
we could think a wiser one!" Adding weight to the protests (with
a literary attack) was Canon Charles Kingsley of Chester, novelist
of Water Babies' fame and a self-confessed opponent who described
racegoers as 'knaves and black fools", prone to wriggle from their
responsibilities with far-fetched excuses.
Aiming his attack at the "young men of Chester" (though he might
have been better advised to bend the ears of visiting bookmakers),
Canon Kingsley put forward some interesting opinions on the 'evils
of betting', a means, he contended, of procuring money out if a
neighbour's ignorance. "If you and he bet on anyevent, you think
that your horse will win; he thinks his will, or he knows the winner.
In plain English, you think that you know more about the matter
and try to take advantage of his ignorance,' he argued.
At least the local Press did not share Canon Kingsley's views on
betting for, shortly after publication of his pamphlet, we find
the Cheshire Observer comnenting: "It may be information worth the
Canon's notice,' suggested the Editor of the Observer, "that the
real mischief is done by unprincipled owners of horses and their
Whatever the merits of the Observer's arguments, or indeed those
of the turf opponents, Race Week continued to be the highlight of
the year for most Cestrians, and hymn-singing protestors made little
impression on the great crowds.
One 19th century diarist was probably speaking for the majority
when he wrote: "Chester Races, once foremost amongst provincial
sporting events, for a while j jeopardised by the cant of a clique
of miserable maw-worms, have at length been restored to their former
good report. Emerging from the Watergate before you in all Its natural
beauty, and with all Its charming accompaniments, spreads the Roodee,
placed just where a racecourse should be, under the walls of the
'Although there are shows, menageries and Thespian things in lots
for the holiday folk, they in no way mingle with, or obstruct the
more serious business, the course being exclusively used for the
purpose peculiar to it."
The arguments and counter arguments were just the skirmishes for
what was later to become a fierce battle as commercialism began
to creep into Chester Races !
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