The earliest mention of horse racing in Blaydon was on Shrove Tuesday 1811 when there was racing at Newburn Haughs for a plate of £12.The keelman would go around sword dancing in the surrounding villages and the money they collected was either given as prize money or used to buy prizes.These races were held at the same time as the hoppings which were held at the ‘Spike’ ( Blaydon Haughs) with foot races run on the Turnpike between Blaydon and Swalwell. The race course was on a stretch of ground alongside the river called the ‘Guards’ or the ‘Sands’, however when the first Blaydon railway station was built on this land in 1835 racing at Blaydon ended.
But a day at the races is too good to lose and the races were revived in 1859, and of course the railway made travel to Blaydon so much easier. It was such a success that an official meeting was organised for 1861. Early June was becoming Tyneside’s unofficial holiday week. The Northumberland plate staged on the Town Moor was a racing classic – the Blaydon races were more fun and rarely graced by ‘The Fancy’. The Hoppings were really the main event with the races as an added attraction. The new race course was on ‘Blaydon Island’ which was about a mile in circumference, level and oval in shape and for the first time the fixture was listed in the British Racing Calendar, which put it on an official basis.Buses with outside seats ran every hour from Newcastle and steamers brought passengers from North & South Shields. From the railway quay there was frequent service of ferry boats bringing the railway passengers to the course and people from the south bank crossed over by pontoon bridge which was made from keels lashed together.In this way the crowds converged on Blaydon intent on a good day out!The meeting was a complete success and at night the streets were crowded with people enjoying the festivities – apparently without any evidence of drunkenness! At 9pm there was a ball held at the Blaydon Mechanics Institute with music provided by the Blaydon Amateur Band.
After this success it was decided to continue the races in following years.
So we come to 1862
The arrangements were much the same as the previous year. On the morning of the 9 June 1862 the weather was bright and warm with huge crowds using the trains and omnibus companies to get to Blaydon.The races were due to start at 2.30pm, but a tremendous downpour deluged the course and there was difficulty in getting the horses across to the course due to the sudden rise in the river-level. When racing eventually commenced nothing very exciting happened with the favourites winning every race.The two beer tents on the island were very well patronised. The Chronicle’s reporter said hundreds of people crowded into the tents…” until the canvas was strained to its fullest stretch, and people crowded together close as wax. The crowd swayed too and fro, but with great good humour.”
You can just picture the scene can’t you!
The evening ended with a concert in the Mechanics Hall where Geordie Ridley was giving a performance.
THE FINAL MEETING
The races carried on till 1865, when they were discontinued. They were revived again in 1887 but by then the course of the Tyne had been altered by Joseph Cowen snr. and the Tyne Commissioners and Blaydon Island was no more, so the new venue was Stella Haughs.In 1870 the Jockey Club had passed a rule that no meeting could be recognised if it did not have a minimum £300 in prize money. There was no way a small race course such as Blaydon could raise that amount, so the meetings were unauthorised. They descended into flapping tracks and didn’t attract “The County” but although not reputable they still attracted large crowds. Horses and jockeys entered under assumed names to avoid detection, as many of them also wanted rides at races under Jockey Club rules.
BUT !! Blaydon Races didn’t fizzle out!!!
NO they went out with a bang !!!!
A 2 day meeting was arranged for 1& 2 September 1916.Most meetings were cancelled during the first world war. Armstrong’s was then a munitions factory and thousands were employed there. The workers had been granted a holiday that weekend and The Ministry of Munitions gave permission for a 2 day meeting. The weather was glorious, over 4000 people attended and the first day was a great success. On the 2ndday, in the first race, a horse called ‘Anxious Moments’ was heavily backed to win. This horse was running under an assumed name it was known as “Impediment” under jockey club rules! It romped home 6 lengths in front. But an objection was lodged against the winner, the objection was sustained – the jockey couldn’t make his weight – and a riot broke out.
Because it was wartime there weren’t enough Police on duty and the mob took complete control.
No wonder there was a riot – can you just imagine it ?
All those tough miners and munitions workers cheering their heads off when the favourite thundered past the winning post 6 lengths ahead – then their fury when the winner was disqualified – half of them wouldn’t know why - but they did know they wouldn’t get their winnings ! One bookie had to jump into the Tyne to escape the angry hordes. The weighing house was smashed and lots of equipment was thrown in the river,the bar was broken up and they finished off by setting fire to the stand!
What a day ! So that was the last of Blaydon Races.
So if it wasn’t for Geordie Ridley and his famous song Blaydon Races would have sunk into obscurity like so many other minor provincial racecourses.The old Victorian Town Centre, the old pubs and the Mechanics Institute are no more, but, Blaydon and Blaydon Races continue to thrive and be known throughout the world.
Susan Lynn/March 2012/first published in the Blaydon Courier for Blaydon Races Festival/June 2012