This month marks the closure of a failure, an attempt to build a luxury horse racing track comparable to the best in England, right in the heart of London.

Of course, at the time, in the 1830s, the heart of London was still fields, but developing fast, and how different would Notting Hill and North Kensington be today if there was a large raceground in the middle of the housing estates?

London and its environs, B Davies – 1841 —  (the Hippodrome is the racecourse)

In 1837, the entrepreneur John Whyte leased 140 acres of land just to the north of Notting Hill and started to enclose the area for his grand horseraces. When it opened a few months later, it was described by the Weekly Chronicle in June 1837 as “a park of singular beauty”, the public entrance was near the Kensington gravel pits in Portobello Lane, with the horses arriving at the extremity of Ladbrook Place[1].

Described as being upwards of two miles in circumference, it had two courses for races — one being a rougher grass for steeplechases, and the second being for faster races. For the paying public, a large hill had been piled up in the middle to create an elevated viewing area. To emphasise that this is a posh racecourse, the Chronicle noted that gambling and drinking were banned, and staff were not allowed to accept tips.

The first race took place at 2pm on Saturday 3rd June 1837, with around 30,000 people attending. As was the style of the newspapers of the time, much praise was heaped on the nobility who attended, and much criticism of “a large body of the very lowest classes of society” who managed to gatecrash the opening day in protest about how a long-existing footpath had been enclosed by the racecourse with an — reportedly inferior — footpath provided around the outside of the racecourse[2].

The issue of the footpath eventually became so serious that in the end it ended up in Parliament to pass a bill formally allowing the footpath to be closed[3]. In April 1838, despite strenuous opposition, the Notting Hill Footway (Hippodrome) Bill was finally approved by 162 votes in favour to 123 against and that allowed the stopping up of the footpath against the wishes of the local residents[4].

However, despite its initial success and the proximity to the wealth of London, the racecourse was a complete failure.

Part of the problem was its proximity to the Kensington potteries, which should have warned the owner that land which is ideal for clay pots, is often really bad for racing, and the thick clay under the soil often left the racecourse waterlogged. It’s a poetic irony that part of John Whyte’s argument for closing off the public footpath for his racecourse was that the footpath was often waterlogged and unsuitable for people to walk along. It seems that he never realised that if the footpath was unsuitable to walk on, then so would his racecourse be for racing.

In the five years that the racecourse operated, just 13 meetings were held, with jockeys often refusing to take part, saying that the heavy clay ground made riding too dangerous.

In March 1842 it was announced that plans to resume races had been abandoned and that an old mortgage had been foreclosed. The property had gone “into hands more inclined to speculate in bricks and mortar than in turf vacillations”[5].

The last steeple chase – painted by Henry Alken Junior

By July 1842, newspapers were talking of how the grounds of the racecourse would be landscaped into pleasure grounds and villas in a manner similar to Regent’s Park[6]. In fact, the owner of the land, James Ladbroke eyed the land up for denser housing, and started developing the land soon after the horses had moved out. Just a year later, hardly anything is left of the Hippodrome, and you can see the housing developments of Ladbrook Grove slowly taking over the land.

There are a few remaining hints to the lost racecourse though – in the short road, Hippodrome Place, and the central hill for the spectators although much reduced is still there, and St John’s Notting Hill sits on top of it.

Sources:

1] Weekly Chronicle, Sunday 18th June 1837

2] Morning Chronicle – Monday 5th June 1837

3] The Examiner – Sunday 6th May 1838

4] The Atlas – Saturday 7th April 1838

5] Bell’s New Weekly Messenger – Sunday 27th March 1842

6] Weekly Chronicle – Saturday 30th July 1842

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4 comments
  1. nigel says:

    You can also see a preserved pottery kiln in Walmer Road on Google Street View, not far from the junction of Pottery Lane, Hippodrome Place and Walmer Road.

    • JP says:

      Even better, you can get off the Central line at Holland Park, turn left, left then walk northwards for about five minutes and see it for yourself. In real life.
      Not a gee-gee in sight though. Anyway, they’d only annoy the neigh-bours.

  2. Jon says:

    Is he the same “Ladbroke” that started the betting shop business?

  3. Jen says:

    Piling up a hill to create an elevated viewing area in west central London – that idea has possibilities, you know, even without the horses.

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