Did you know that Leeds had its very own race ground in Stourton Park back in the 1820’s? It didn’t last long and faced criticism throughout its life span for encouraging gambling and immoral behaviour. It was situated opposite the former Skelton Grange Power Station on the south side of the River Aire and was also known as Haigh Park Race Ground.
There had been horse races in Leeds prior to this course opening and Chapeltown Moor hosted two mile long races in the time of noted historian Ralph Thoresby. However, this would be Leeds’ first permanent race course.
The race course was planned in the autumn of 1823 and by October it was staked out and the line of the course chosen. Workmen felled trees and levelled the ground, formed the course within posts and railings with the first race to be run the next spring. The Leeds Mercury reported that an ‘eminent character upon the turf has consented to become a steward of the first races’ (25 October 1823).
A colour map shows the proposed race ground which included a ferry crossing to the ground over the River Aire. It was surveyed by Charles Fowler, the future clerk of the races, in 1823, and shows the grandstand, paddocks and winning line.
Race cards were produced for each race meet and the Local and Family History Library have a collection of these cards dating from the opening in 1824 through to 1832. In the opening year there were several different lists of runners produced that caused great confusion for the gambling public attending the races. As a ‘mark of distinction’ the official race cards had a map of the race course printed on the reverse to dissuade rogue printers and were labelled ‘Todd’s Correct Card’.
Over the years the races attracted a variety of people, both gentlemen and the lower classes. The Leeds Mercury (1 July 1826) acknowledged that the racing has been ‘pretty good’ but ‘we can testify to the enormous influx of pick-pockets, gamblers, and prostitutes; who have infested our streets during the week, diffusing moral contamination wherever they approach.’ It asked the noblemen and gentlemen of the area to reflect seriously before sending horses to race in Leeds next year’s meeting.
As well as horse racing the race course was also used for other kinds of private gambling. The Leeds Mercury (11 November 1826) reports that Captain Polhill of the First Dragoon Guards, who were stationed at Leeds Barracks, ‘undertook for a considerable wager to ride 95 miles in five successive hours on Haigh Park Race Course. The Captain started at nine o’clock, and accomplished his arduous task in four hours and 39 minutes, being 21 minutes less than the time allowed’.
Foot races also took place as well as wrestling in an attempt to diversify the appeal of the race course.
However, by the beginning of the 1830’s the race course was waning. The Leeds Mercury of 28 August 1830 reports on the races being indifferently attended, not exceeding five thousand people, not more than fifty gentlemen and not one lady. Growing dissatisfaction with the people it attracted as well as its position outside the city centre may have contributed to its demise. The land was sold and Leeds residents had to once again travel out of the city to attend horse races.