10 things you didn’t know about London’s sporting history

From Tudor tennis courts to Georgian swimming pools, London’s love affair with sporting venues dates back hundreds of years. But some aspects of the capital’s rich sporting history might surprise you. Here Simon Inglis, the author of Played in London, reveals 10 lesser-known facts…

This article was first published in December 2014

19th-century cricket match at the Kennington Oval. (Popperfoto/Getty Images)

1) Had it not been for the intervention of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, the Oval cricket ground in Kennington might well have disappeared only six years after it opened

Albert intervened to stop housing being built on the site in 1851 because he had recently become a fan of the game. The name Oval, incidentally, predates cricket being played there. It was coined to reflect the layout of roads around an oval-shaped market garden. The name Oval would nevertheless become synonymous with cricket, so that there are currently around 40 other ‘Ovals’ around the world, including in New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean.

 

2) London has the oldest bicycle shop in the world (Pearsons of Sutton, established as a blacksmiths in 1860), and the second oldest cycle track in the world, Herne Hill, opened in 1891. (The oldest track is in Erfurt, Germany, built in 1885)

Herne Hill was one of eight purpose-built velodromes constructed in the capital during the first cycling boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The focal point for London cyclists was Holborn, where 22 showrooms were listed in 1901. The Pickwick Bicycle Club, formed in London in 1870, is the oldest cycling club in the world.

 

3) London and England’s oldest golf club is Royal Blackheath

Founded by Scottish exiles in the capital, the club celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2008, although the earliest confirmed records of the club’s existence date back only to 1766. As Blackheath was then, as now, a public expanse, golfers were obliged to wear red jackets in order to warn passers-by that a game was in progress. This custom is still followed by golfers on Wimbledon Common.

There are now 108 golf courses in London, covering an astonishing 3 per cent of the total land mass of the capital – the equivalent in area almost of the entire Borough of Greenwich.

 

4) London’s oldest surviving sports-related structure can be visited only by cabinet ministers and government officials

Dating from c1534, it is the northern wall of a tennis court built at Whitehall Palace by Henry VIII, which now forms part of the Cabinet Office, backing onto Downing Street. It is said that Anne Boleyn was watching a game of tennis on this court when she was arrested on Henry’s orders in 1536, and that, having placed a bet on the outcome of the match, she begged to be allowed to see who won.

Whitehall Palace was, at the time, the largest sporting complex in Europe, with four tennis courts, a cockpit, a tiltyard for jousting and a bowling alley.

 

5) Pall Mall takes its name from the French game known as paille-maille (literally ball and mallet), a favourite of James I and VI

The road was originally a pall mall alley, estimated at between 480 and 850 yards long. After the road we know today was laid out on the alley in 1661, Charles II had a replacement laid out in St James’s Park, covered in crushed cockle-shells.

Only one set of pall mall mallets and a ball are known to have survived – they are now in the safe keeping of the British Museum. One writer has described pall mall (or “pell mell”, as Pepys called it) as “virile croquet”.

 

6) The highest concentration of public and private swimming baths ever recorded in Britain was in Islington

Between 1743 and 1939, no fewer than 14 baths operated. The longest lasting was the open-air Peerless Pool (1743–1868), commemorated today by both Peerless Street and Bath Street.

A hundred yards from the site stands Ironmonger Row Baths, recently refurbished at a cost of £16.5m. Inside is the original towel chute and one slipper bath (a private bath in a cubicle). Ironmonger Row is the last baths in London to have a public laundry.

 

7) There are two games thought to be played in London and nowhere else

One is a form of Old English skittles, once popular in pubs across the South East, but now confined to a single alley at the Freemasons’ Arms in Downshire Hill, Hampstead. You can try it for yourself on Tuesday evenings from 8–11pm. The other is rugby netball. This was dreamt up by soldiers in 1907, and has been played on Clapham Common ever since. Games take place also on Tuesday evenings, but only during the summer.

 

8) London’s oldest sports building still in use for its original purpose is the Real Tennis* court at Hampton Court Palace

One of its walls dates back to 1625. Today the court is listed Grade I – the highest level of protection accorded by government.

Only one other sports-related building is Grade I, and that is the Tiltyard Tower, also at Hampton Court. Now a restaurant and cafe, the brick tower was designed as a viewing platform for dignitaries attending jousting tournaments. It was at a joust that London’s first recorded sporting disaster occurred: a wooden tower on Cheapside collapsed in 1331, causing “grievous hurt” to those gathered on the ground below.

*For the uninitiated, real tennis is a name adopted to distinguish the ancient game of tennis from its Victorian offshoot, lawn tennis.

 

9) Between 1927 and 39, London boasted no fewer than 27 greyhound tracks

At their peak in the 1930s and late 1940s, race nights at the likes of White City, Wembley, Wimbledon and West Ham drew crowds rivalling those of the major football clubs, offering facilities of a standard then unseen at most other sports venues. Not least, they encouraged women to attend!

Today only three tracks survive, at Wimbledon (opened in 1928), Romford (1931) and Crayford (1986). Perhaps the most famous relic of the sport is the 1950s neon sign on the back of the Tote Board at Walthamstow. Although the track closed in 2008, both the sign and board have been listed Grade II, and will now form part of a housing development on the site.

 

10) Sports historians have long believed that the first floodlit sports event in Britain, and therefore the world, was a football match at Bramall Lane in Sheffield in October 1878. However, my research suggests otherwise…

…it has revealed that an earlier floodlit match took place in west London, and that instead of football, it was actually a polo match, between the Ranelagh Club and their neighbours at Hurlingham. Played on the evening of 18 July 1878, the match took place on the Ranelagh Club’s grounds, where Ranelagh Gardens now lie, immediately east of Putney Bridge station.

Clearly an event only for the rich and well connected, entry was charged at 10 shillings a head (50p) – 10 times the cost of watching that year’s cup final. The Prince of Wales attended, and the experiment was reported to have been “highly successful and is likely to be repeated soon”.

Played in London: Charting the Heritage of a City at Play by Simon Inglis is published by English Heritage, and is on sale now. To find out more, visit www.playedinbritain.co.uk and www.english-heritage.org.uk

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