Played in London and Leyton…

Posted: February 15, 2016 in Uncategorized

During a lull in the half term action, Captain Scarlet stumbled upon an evening of sporting history in an Haggerston church basement…..

Facebook. For some an addictive social tool and for others a trigger for heaving sighs and a bout of ‘heavy-eye rolling’ at its very inference; and yet it does have its uses when it comes to spreading the word in relation to interesting gatherings that would otherwise have limbo-ed under the weekly radar. So when Aynsley Taylor flagged up an upcoming talk by Simon Inglis -he of the seminal book of ‘The football grounds of Britain’ work of the 1980’s- and hosted by the Hackney society in St Peter’s church Crypt on a Tuesday night I felt it could be worth putting in an appearance.
Although the evening wasn’t particularly well attended (which was a real shame) it just presented the opportunity for like minded social history nerds like myself to wallow in some sporting heritage porn for two hours. So, ably assisted by the aid of a laptop and projector Simon introduced us to the idea behind the lecture and the subsequent series of books that this decade long project had spawned from it. Basically, in the run up to the 2004 Manchester commonwealth games English heritage were being badgered to chronicle the nations sporting history in relation to the structures that had hosted these gatherings as far back as Roman times. English heritage were described as a bit sniffy about this as they really only protect the historical sites that Joe public usually visit in the summer. Luckily, Simon Inglis is just the sort of bloke that anyone with half a brain would keep on speed-dial to get this project off the ground and, more importantly, do it justice. Simon admitted that in fact the idea had surfaced ten years too late as many sites had been lost already – or were about to be developed- and you only have to glance at his earlier work on the country’s football stadia to get an idea as to what he was alluding to.
London’s own sporting heritage has been reported on from as far back as 1176 when the city of London Chronicler William Fitzstephen first mentioned the populace taking part in ‘sporting pastimes such as water jousting’. We then move slightly out of town and discover that Smithfields was a regular haunt for sports lovers hosting football on a shrove Tuesday and horse racing for those more interested in action of the four legged variety. Needless to say there are parallels from times way back then with events and controversies that are still very much part of the social and sporting make up of 21st century London life today – the continuing fight to preserve the capital’s open spaces for public recreational use being case in point. Back in 1598 John Stowe recounted a tale of a movement to uproot some of the gardens and summer houses that were cropping up around the Moorfields area and restore the lost play space for the locals who were in danger of having nowhere to enjoy their leisure (if there was that much of it in the 16th century)time. A bloke dressed in a jesters outfit paraded around that area of London urging people to bring their shears, spades and tools to cut down the hedges and bushes that were partitioning the open spaces and to reclaim this common land back. An anti- gentrification protest with an Elizabethan flavour, maybe? I wonder if they had a shop in Spitalfields selling co-co pops at five groats a bowl too?
Back then most young men were also encouraged to keep their skills sharp for activities such as going to war with Spain or France. After major victories at Agincourt and Crecy, English and Welsh bowmen had developed a reputation as being some of the best in the world. The powers that be decreed that archery should be practiced at all times, so what better than to devise a hybrid game of golf/archery. Now although this sounds like the sort of idea Channel 5 would come out with on a slack Sunday afternoon this really was a sport enjoyed by a few punters who resided in the Moorfields/Finsbury/Shoreditch park area. The idea was to stroll across the open spaces and fire arrows at markers scattered across the park. Depending on how few shots you took you won the round. Only one of these markers is left today -appropriately called scarlett- and it can be found in Armoury House. Health and safety also wasn’t a big consideration, as the courses were used by ordinary pedestrians. Dame Alice Owens School, now in Potters Bar but originally from Islington, owes its existence to the shooting range at Finsbury. As a child, Dame Alice stopped to watch a cow being milked only to end up with an arrow through her hat. So in fact we have a very early example of what would be termed nowadays as a drive by – or fly by, back then.


The subject of gambling was always going too rear its head and it seems that it has and always will ever be intertwined with sport. Many years ago my working life began in a print house across from the Honourable artillery company H.Q in the City Road and I can recall the odd game of cricket being played on the lush green grass that can be found within its confines. The game had been played there since 1725 and at one stage the venue held space for between 10-15,000 spectators, but 50 years later scandal rocked the genteel world of leather and willow amid allegations of match fixing and bribery which resulted in some pretty serious public disorder. So much so that it led in turn to cricket being banned in City Road until 1840. But don’t think that London sport started and stopped north of the river. Oh no, as our friends to the south were a bit partial to those perennial south bank favourites of wagering on bear and bull baiting, an activity that can still be enjoyed today and every other Saturday at Millwall F.C from 3pm onwards.
Over the years race tracks sprung up, both for dogs and horses. Incredibly at one stage there were a staggering 33 dog tracks in London and I should think that former O’s legend, Terry Howard, has lost money in most of them. We are now down to just three if you generously include Crayford and Romford while Wimbledon’s future is unsure to say the least. We know Walthamstow ‘s track is virtually a housing estate and Hackney’s stadium was demolished to make way for the Olympic developments but given the animal welfare issues that surround the sport it’s certain its decline won’t be universally mourned. As for Horse racing the last racecourse in the capital closed in 1970 when Alexandra Park (known as the ‘frying pan’) went under starters orders for the last time and I still recall playing football there as a kid with the rider board and rails still standing in 1974. Despite pioneering evening race meetings in 1955 the course was a pretty tight and often dangerous one to ride on. One of the reasons given for its closure was the gambling and less than salubrious types the place attracted, it wasn’t much loved by some of the jockey’s either with Willie Carson famously quoted as saying that Alexandra Park “wanted bombing”. Gambling on race meetings wasn’t confined to animals either as early 19th century athletics meetings became well attended for such activity.


There is no getting away from the fact that the area that our beloved O’s resides in is steeped in sporting tradition and culture and in my opinion we take it a bit for granted. We all know that Brisbane road has been our home for near on 80 years and it has seen some memorable moments (along with some spirit crushing ones along the way) and our history is well documented in the book and in magazines such as the ‘Ear. But alongside our tenancy in the district there have also been some little known but equally important events and venues that have complimented our residency here. Going through Simon’s book there is a whole section devoted to sport in the Lea Valley and of course football is well represented throughout. Many of you reading this will of course be familiar with the massive Amateur football scene that flourished during the post war years. Name checks are given out to a resurgent Clapton F.C (or ‘Hipster F.C’ depending on your point of view), Romford, Leytonstone and Ilford, Leyton F.C and Walthamstow Avenue who each get name checks and pictures along the way. Romford F.C even applied for membership of the football league 10 times between 1960 and 1972 but eventually ended up financially crippled with their dreams exchanged for a housing estate on their Brooklands ground in 1977.
Older readers will of course recall the days that county cricket was hosted at Crawley road just a couple of minutes walk from Leyton Midland Road station and indeed the ground with the famous grade 2 listed old pavilion was Essex C.C.C headquarters up until 1966. Those of you who love ‘Test Match Special’ might be interested in the fact that the first BBC cricket commentary came from Leyton in May 1927 during an Essex v New Zealand tour match and five years later a new first class record stand for a first wicket partnership of 555 was recorded -somewhat dubiously- at the ground. The final County championship match was held here in 1977 when Essex (a decent side back then) took on Glamorgan who had rising star javid Miandad in the side. As an aside the cricket ground also hosted league football for one fleeting moment when Arsenal took on Leicester Fosse in March 1895 after the gunners ground was closed due to ‘crowd trouble’ which in today’ s parlance would mean ‘somebody standing up’ at the emirates ground.
Away from the big two sports almost every local sport or society which is in the locality is covered in no small detail. Eton manor running/ rugby club, rowing clubs, athletics and speedway all get the same treatment from the author and it has to be said that the two hours spent at the talk could easily turned into four or five but that, like the book, would have been just too much to digest in one evening.


Sporting legacy is a phrase so overused and manipulated by politicians and administrators over the past ten years that it is quite tempting to dismiss it as the usual bullshit coming from people who don’t really give a toss about sport or the people who participate in it. However, there is quite a deeper meaning given to the phrase and you can look at it in two ways. People like Boris Johnson see a successful Olympic legacy as the Westfield centre slap bang next to the Olympic stadium with the high rise flats that very few can afford being built next door to the stadium. Now that they have gifted West Ham a state subsidised tenancy (one that is so generous that nobody else is being allowed to fully scrutinise it) 2012 Olympic park project can now be held up as a success and not a ‘white elephant’ that will be empty for 50 weeks of the year. Job done and everyone now needs move on according to Dame Tessa and cuddly Boris. Well, not quite.

The flip side is to examine the wider social implications to all of this and how something like the so called 2012 legacy of a giant shopping centre and limited access to what’s left of Olympic facilities measures up to the legacy left by the formation of the London County council in 1889. The LCC devoted time and money in providing civil amenities for a growing populace to use and enjoy for the best part of 80 years. Everything from wash houses to outdoor Lido’s (London wide 75 were built to stop people drowning in London’s polluted rivers and water works with only 12 remaining in 2015) became available to a growing adult and burgeoning child population which wasn’t done with just spreadsheets and knighthoods in mind. Many of the public parks we enjoy today were only saved by a combination of public protest (much of it pretty hard core) and the London county council coming up with the money to purchase the land to enable future generations to have somewhere to kick a ball around for free. I would also hold up the role played by some of Britain’s biggest companies and financial institutions by promoting the health and social welfare of their workforces (and starting sporting clubs up in some of the poorer areas of London) during the inter war years by developing their own sports and social clubs, some which are still going strong in the 21st century. That is what I would describe as a true ‘legacy’ and the one overriding impression that I came away from Simon Inglis’s lecture with.


Well it was a decent way to spend a couple of hours. Simon was incredibly knowledgeable and I think he’s even forgiven me and Tom Davies for badgering him about all seater stadiums when I last met him at a book launch twenty years ago. He also had a few kind words for the O’s as we went along and that makes him all right by me. For those with a few quid spare or a Christmas present that needs being taken care of I would definitely get a copy of this book. At over £20 it is pricey, but for anyone with any sort of interest in sport an absolute essential read.

(This article first appeared in the Leyton Orientear, December 2015)


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