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New Race Course, Manchester

Transcript from the
Illustrated London News,
29 May 1847

The new Manchester Racecourse (ILN, 1847) - click for enlargement [Click thumbnail for enlargement]
This new Course, allowed to be "one of the finest in England," lies in Broughton, two miles from the Manchester Exchange, on land belonging to Mr. Fitzgerald, of Irwell Castle, immediately below the old course of Kersall Moor. It is almost surrounded by the river Irwell, is nearly on a level, and upwards of a mile in length. It has three approaches: one from Mancheser, by the Suspension Bridge; another through Wallness; and the third by Pendleton.

The Course is held on lease by 24 proprietors, at a rental of £500 per annum. The cost of the Stands, Stabling, &c., designed by Messrs. Starkie and Cuffley, of Manchester, has been upwards of £8000; and about £2000 has been expended on the course, roads, &c. The first stone of the Grand Stand was laid by N. Slater, Esq., in March last; it is an elegant structure, and has been substantially built by the executors of the late Mr. W. Tees; it will contain 1000 persons; and there are, also, two other Stands, which will accommodate 7200. The races commenced on Wednesday.


Not too many specific links concerning the racecourse itself unfortunately. A number of sites mention it as part of more general articles connected with racing or Manchester's history and give more or less the same basic facts, and a few have a little more information, but there seem to be no dedicated pages we can refer you to. There are some photographs online however, and links to these, along with pages on associated topics or in relation to the Salford area, are provided further down the page.

So, without the benefit of any local knowledge of the area or detailed research, we have attempted to put together the following potted history by combining various snippets seen around the web. Please note however that no facts have been confirmed, and there are certain discrepancies between different sources, so you should treat the following only as a guide and not as 'gospel' :)

There are records of horseracing at Barlow Moor and Kersal Moor from the 17th century; and Kersal Moor was also the scene of the 'White Fell Race', the last of which was run in 1846. The Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists separately assembled in huge meetings at Kersal Moor, we believe at the racecourse, in the general period of agitation and riots associated with these movements in the late 1830s and 1840s.

In so far as the sport of kings is concerned, the anti-racing lobby succeeded in stopping the sport in Manchester for a period in the mid-18th century, but it resumed at Kersal Moor in 1760. The Manchester Cup was first run there in 1816, and a few years later there were permanent stands and rings.

Then, as the ILN piece above describes, a new course was built in 1847 at nearby Castle Irwell, in a pronounced bend of the river. According to a newsletter at the Chalk-NDC site, 'Castle Irwell got its name not from a castle, but from the large castellated brick house built in 1826 by John Purcell Fitzgerald, then owner of Pendleton Colliery.'

By 1867 the Castle Irwell site had been inherited by someone opposed to gambling (one source indicates this was John Fitzgerald's son) who would not renew the lease, so the company was forced to relocate its venue, though not far away, to 100 acres purchased at New Barns in Salford. The first Manchester November Handicap was run in 1876; and in 1888, at the inaugural running of the Lancashire Plate, the prize money of £10,000 was the highest in the country at the time. In steeplechasing the Lancashire Chase run at Manchester on Easter Mondays, once it became established, was a serious rival to Aintree's Grand National in the late 19th century. [NB: we have not been able to establish if the Lancashire Plate and the Lancashire Chase were the same or different races.]

The Salford City Reds Rugby League Club also has ties with the New Barns site. Founded in 1873, its home was at several different sites in the earliest years, but the first home match at a field just north of the racecourse was played against Widnes in October 1879, an event commemorated by the same two teams with a centenary match in October 1979 – the result was a draw on both occasions.

When 'Buffalo Bill' Cody took his Wild West Show to Salford, Lakota tepees erected on the banks of the river Irwell became a familiar sight for about six months over the winter of 1887/88: they stayed longer than intended as the show was so successful with the populace. We assume this was the Castle Irwell site, at this time vacated by the racecourse company. When the show revisited in 1903, one of the company, a Blackfoot Indian by the name of Charging Thunder, decided to stay behind and settle in Salford, and his descendants are still in the city today. For more information about various native American individuals and other aspects of these two visits, see 'Story of the Salford Sioux' in the links list below.

On 1st January 1894, after six years of construction, the Manchester Ship Canal was opened to shipping, and in May the official opening ceremony was performed by Queen Victoria from the deck of the Royal Yacht Enchantress at Mode Wheel Lock, followed by a 21-gun salute fired from the New Barns racecourse adjacent to the canal.

In 1899 the Canal Company sought to compulsorily purchase the course in order to construct a new dock and warehouse, and their acquisition was ultimately successful though interest from another buyer had forced the matter to litigation. In 1905 the new No. 9 Dock, the largest of its kind at the time, was opened by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The site of No. 9 Dock is now occupied by the Lowry Centre at Salford Quays.

The Manchester Racecourse Company had meanwhile been able to purchase its former venue and, after reconstruction, the first meeting back at Castle Irwell was held in 1902. As part of the redevelopment of the new course, the building known as 'Castle Irwell', from which its name had been taken, was demolished.

Despite its situation virtually surrounded by the river Irwell, which was not always ideal (one commentator remarks it was 'both foggy and boggy'), Castle Irwell was to become one of the country's foremost courses. The Lancashire Oaks was first run there in 1939, and in 1941 it was host to the oldest English Classic, the St Leger Stakes, the only occasion a Classic was run in Manchester (it was moved around to different venues during the war years). However the course was evidently then taken over by the military: a contributor to the BBC's WW2 People's War pages, recalling childhood memories of the Manchester Blitz, and living in a Salford pub at the time, remembers that 'Black US troops were in evidence, quartered on the nearby Manchester Racecourse at Castle Irwell. Some of the local landlords refused them admittance but my father was more pragmatic, maintaining that their money was as good as anyone else's.'

In 1951 England's first evening race meeting was held at the course; and in 1961 a new stand with a cantilevered roof was built for members, designed by a young architect from Manchester, Ernest Atherden. It was the first sporting venue in the country to offer 'private viewing' boxes, or what today we know as executive boxes. Shortly afterwards Atherden went on to 'sell' the same idea to Manchester United FC who had commissioned him to redesign the Old Trafford ground. As one site comments: 'Thus was born the modern age of corporate sporting hospitality.'

Manchester Racecourse, meanwhile, was experiencing financial difficulties, and the cost of the new stand cannot have helped. The decision was taken to sell up to developers, and, little more than two years after the stand had been built, the last race meeting before the course closed was held on 7 November 1963. Lester Piggott and Scobie Breasley were among the jockeys competing on that occasion. In fact the developers' plans at the time for housing did not pass a public inquiry. This must have been why the racecourse was still available in 1964 (according to one reference seen) as a venue for a wedding reception — presumably in the members' stand?

Today the former racecourse is a residential village complex for well over 1500 students of the University of Salford, and the Pavilion (the innovative members' stand built in 1961) is run by the students' union, and includes a bar, disco and other social facilites. More than one site mentions the 'Pav' being haunted by a ghost! — some say of a punter who hanged himself after losing all his money, others that it's a jockey. The red brick turnstile and ticket block, built when the racecourse was redeveloped in 1901, is now a students' launderette, but apparently 'its original purpose is still clearly identifiable'. A section of the Irwell Sculpture Trail follows the riverbank around part of the perimeter of the former course.

The Manchester November Handicap was moved to Doncaster racecourse, where it is still a fixture today as the November Handicap, though it is said to have lost its former prestige; the Lancashire Oaks was transferred to Haydock Park (£90,000 prize money was awarded to the winner in 2005); but the Lancashire Chase disappeared into history when the course closed in 1963.

The fact that the course was known as 'Manchester' apparently still rankles in some quarters. In the Autumn 2001 issue of Salford's LifeTimes Link, recalling one of their two greatest assets (the other being Salford Docks), they say of the racecourse: 'Smack in the middle of our city but our neighbours stole its name. A place where folk from far and wide would flock to see the races. It was the second of our assets that put pride on the Salford faces.' From a reference elsewhere it also seems that Eccles in turn is aggrieved that it has been 'appropriated' by Salford.

In 2001, as part of a larger recreational and leisure scheme to be developed between Worsley and Boothstown, and to be known as Salford Forest Park, an application was submitted to Salford City Council by Peel Holdings (owners of the Trafford Centre) to bring racing back to Greater Manchester after 40 years, but there has been fierce opposition on conservation and other grounds (for some details, see this page and also here). Revised plans were unveiled in 2004 but two years on, as far as we can tell, the proposals are still undergoing detailed assessment and the application has not yet been determined. Information from Peel Holdings' perspective about the new racecourse, other equestrian facilities and all the other proposals can be found at their Salford Forest Park site.

Other links:

(a) The Greyhound Derby site has several old pictures of the Castle Irwell course: from the list of closed courses choose the links for Manchester. The 1935 page in particular has two good photos (information on pages for all years seems the same, only the pictures differ), and there's also a map of the course at the pages for either 1890 or 1950.

(b) Transport Archive: an old photo showing the racecourse at New Barns on the far side of the Manchester Ship Canal. A long list of other archive photos to view of the Canal, Manchester Docks, Salford Quays, Trafford Park, etc, is available from the same site here.

(c) Thoroughbred Heritage:
Steeplechasing in Great Britain
Lancashire Steeplechase (results)

(d) With reference to the visit of Bill Cody's Wild West Show to Castle Irwell, see Salford City Council, Local History:
The Story of the Salford Sioux, with a link from there to Know your Salford Sioux.

(e) Among a gallery of many interesting photos taken around Salford in 2000, there were several shots available at Paul Teague's pages (here) of the pavilion and turnstiles, but unfortunately the site was offline as of early Nov 2006.

(f) The Lowry Centre has a timeline for Salford Quays and No. 9 Dock in particular, and beneath that a brief history of the Manchester Ship Canal.

(g) Manchester Ship Canal home site (a subsidiary of Peel Holdings).

(h) The Greater Manchester County Records Office (GMCRO) has a large gallery of photos of the Manchester Ship Canal.

(i) Pennine Waterways: Salford Quays - Waterfront Virtual Tour

(j) Wikipedia:
Manchester Ship Canal
Salford Quays

(k) University of Salford: Castle Irwell student village.

(l) Salford, my home town.

(m) The BBC's Where I Live section for Manchester has a page, Is Manchester Racecourse a non-starter?, which includes an artist's impression of the proposed new grandstand. Comments on the scheme were invited, and plenty made.

(n) A phantom motorway also apparently goes (or went) straight through the former course/present Salford students' village. If you ever wondered why there used to be no Junction 16 on the M62, this piece and maps at the Pathetic Motorways site (and comments in response) explain it all . . .

(o) Salford Reds Rugby League Club: history.

Chartists: the Chartist Ancestors site has a wealth of material about the development of Chartism, in which the Manchester area played a pivotal role ('The first great Chartist rally took place on 25 September 1838 when a crowd ... gathered on Kersal Moor to elect delegates to the first Chartist convention.'):
Manchester Chartists
Chartists and the Corn Laws

We have seen a reference to a book, but have no information other than its title:
Farewell Manchester: History of Manchester Racecourse.
There is also a history of the hamlet of Kersal, The First Place: A History of Kersal, by Mary Connor.

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