Just over 118 acres and one of the largest landmarks in the town, the Racecourse has played a large part in the towns history. The remains of the town fields are seen in the Race Course, once Northampton Heath, between the Kettering and Market Harborough roads, where the freemen had grazing rights down to 1882.
Horse races had been held on
the site unofficially since 1632 while the official
meeting was held at Harlestone and Dallington Heath.
However, because of the number of accidents these were
stopped in 1681.
With the popularity of the interest in race meetings waning, meetings came to a halt only to be resumed in 1727 by Lord Spencer and in 1737, the first official race meet was held on the new course and included the popular three day meets. These races were very popular and frequently visited by Royalty, including the Prince of Wales, later Edward Vll. New stands were erected in 1844 at a cost of more than £2000.
With the development of the Racecourse saw the development of the surrounding area with large houses being built for the ardent race goers including a public house. To the far side of the park is the White Elephant public house. It started life as the Kingsley Park Hotel and was built to serve the racing fraternity when the Racecourse was used for horse racing. Following the death of spectators, the Jockey Club closed the course for race meetings in 1904 and the hotel was left out on a limb and became a "white elephant". Jokingly, this became its usual name among locals and the brewery bowed to popular demand and officially renamed it The White Elephant.
Races were not the only
spectator event held on the site. From 1715 until 1818,
the site was used for public executions. One such well
known case was of the notorious Culworth Gang. For two
decades in the Eighteenth Century, people as far and wide
as Oxford and Northampton were terrorised by the Culworth
Gang. The gang was a notorious brotherhood of about
fifteen men who set about as highwaymen. After a long
reign of terror, eventually seven men were arrested, but
one got away. The gang had escaped capture for twenty
years until two men, William Pettifer, alias Peckover,
and Richard Law, arrived to stay the night at an inn in
Towcester. They claimed that they had been cockfighting
and that their bags contained fighting birds. However the
landlord became suspicious and checked the bags after the
men had gone to bed. He discovered the notorious masks
and smocks used to hide their identity instead and
summoned a police constable.
Nothing was done initially, but after a robbery in nearby Blakesley not much later, the two men were served with search warrants at their houses and stolen property was discovered. They were promptly arrested and surrendered the names of other members of the gang whilst admitting to forty-seven similar offences. Four men were subsequently hung at Northampton Racecourse at midday on the 4th August 1787. A crowd of five thousand people turned up to witness the hanging.
As was the fashion of the time, the convicted were supplied with drink at the last inn on the way to the Racecourse—the Bantam Cock on Abington-square. The last executions on the Racecourse, that of James Cobbett and George Wilkin, took place on Friday, March 27th 1818, found guilty of passing on forged bank notes. A large crowd assembled, as usual, to witness the scene.
Hundreds of executions were carried out over the years; some quite bizarre and frightening. The huge and ever increasing crowds that went out of Northampton to see the executions on Northampton Heath (Racecourse) were getting too large and too unruly, and the march of the condemned through the streets was getting too hot to handle. Thereafter executions took place at the County Gaol, at the rear of the County Hall.
The Wild West Show came to the Racecourse in 1903, featuring Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull complete with rodeo.
By 1912 the Council started to develop the area as a sports ground with tennis lawns and bowling greens but by 1914 the area was converted into an army camp of stables and tents to billet the Welsh division of sixteen thousand men and seven thousand horses during world war 1
1917 saw the Racecourse ploughed to provide war-time allotments. Following its use as an allotment, the racecourse is now preserved as an open recreation ground for the town. By 1923 a new playground was built and in 1930 the old Racecourse stand and law house was converted into the changing rooms and restaurant.
During the Second World War
the Racecourse once again became an army camp with huts,
roads and barracks. During the war in 1941, a Stirling
bomber crashed in Gold Street. Wreckage extended to
George Row, but no serious damage to All Saints Church.
the crew had baled out over Northampton and escaped
unhurt except for the pilot – his body was later
found on the Racecourse. It was not until 1953 when the
huts and barracks where demolished and once again the
Racecourse was brought back to its green state with tree
planting and re-landscaping. With its listed Pavilion,
the park forms Kingsley Conservation Area.
In 1974 the Racecourse hosted the International Heat of the Eurovision contest Jeux Sans Frontiers and since 1990, the sky over Northampton Racecourse is filled with colour as more than 70 hot air balloons take to the air for the Northampton International Balloon Festival held annually in August .
Addendum: My thanks go to a Mr Graham Smith of Northampton for adding his thoughts and clarification to a comment made above.
Dear Mr Doyle
As I was brought up in Northampton from 1934 to 1958 I have been most interested to read the various sections of the history of the town. There is, however, one slight mistaken suggestion in the history of the Racecourse of which I am aware. You say that it was 1953 before the area was brought back into use as a sports area after the war. However, I played rugby for The Heathens on the Racecourse (picture at the top of the article) from 1948 and then from about 1949.... or even possibly earliert.... there were 3 other football pitches near St Georges Avenue and 7 cricket pitches just across the path from the rugby pitch and near the Pavilion, where all the players from all the games had tea between 5.00 and 5.30. During the war years ( aged about 7-12 ) I used to accompany my father there to 'mark the jack' while he played bowls with his friends on the three greens near the pavilion which appear in one of the photos.
However, about 1953 a further section of the Racecourse a little further down St Georges Avenue was brought back into use after, presumably the army, left and I can remember these extra ( 3 or 4 ? ) pitches coming back into use.
All probably very unimportant but I felt that I should perhaps mention it to you.
Many thanks for the clarification, Graham. Hope you don't mind the use of your text here because I feel real life accounts add character and colour to our heritage.