The CROOKES MOOR RACES - SHEFFIELD (c1713-1785)

"A noble racecourse, formed of hill and dale,

Grandstand and starting post fenced round with rail" - James Wills 1827

I have always enjoyed horse racing and a few years ago I came across a passing reference to the Crookes, Moor races. Sadly it was just that, a reference but a few weeks ago, in the December 1965 edition of The Sheffield Spectator there was a far more detailed article on the races and the course itself.

No-one knows for definite when the first races were run. Joseph Hunter in his book on the History of Hallamshire, states that he cannot find races taking place earlier than 1713. Other researchers have hinted that racing may have taken place even earlier in 1711 or 1712 but there is no firm evidence to support this. The Sheffield Spectator supports Hunter stating that it was the Town Trustees who initiated the races for the good of the town.  

I should point out now that Crookes Moor in the early eighteenth century was precisely that, a Moor. Sheffield itself was a small town with a population of approximately 3,000 people. West Bar marked the western edge of the town and beyond that was just moors and common land. Crookes, itself was a small village quite separate from the town.

The Town Trustees were to a certain extent the forerunners of the modern day council who performed duties such as the repair and maintenance of roads, bridges and footpaths, appointed a constable and ensured that local laws were adhered to - in short they cared for the structure of the town and its inhabitants.  Quite why the races were introduced when they were is open to a number of interpretations. Certainly racing was taken off in popularity in other parts of the country but it has been suggested that it was an attempt by the Town Trustees to divert the public's attention from more blood-thirsty pastimes such as bear baiting, cock-fighting and dog fights. The town's more prominent citizens were finding the brutality of such events distressing and possibly a little threatening. Local races also meant that they could be incorporated into annual festivals, and enable local owners to race on their own doorsteps so to speak rather than run to the time and expense of racing their horses further afield.

Bearing in mind the nature of the land, the course itself could be best described as rudimentary. A track was roughly levelled just wide enough for a few horses to race. From the information available the length of the course was about one and a third miles and was right handed in orientation. Four mile races started at the highest point of the course - the gardens of what is now nos. 6 - 8 Lawson Road and finished near to the entrance of the present day private school on Fulwood Road. The grandstand was adjacent to the winning post

Location of Crookes Moor Races using a modern day map - the route is approximate

According to R. E. Leader's 1905 account the grandstand was funded by the subscriptions of the town's wealthier citizens. Situated on the site of the former Hallam Towers Hotel on Manchester Road, it was of wooden construction and irregular in shape.

As for the races themselves nothing is known about the period between 1711 - 1763. The key article is the Sheffield Public Advertiser of August 1763. The article infers that little was done to both the track and the grandstand since the inception of racing and as a result racing at Crookes Moor was in decline. The races only took place on a few days each year and were not fixed in nature. Measures were taken around that time to invigorate racing with possibly a new course lay-out and alterations to the grandstand. The races after that date are certainly more well documented and commented on, which seems to indicate that the Crookes Moor races were regaining their lost popularity. There was a Silver  Cup to the value of 50.00 which was the highlight of the meeting which took place over three days and was held annually, sometimes in August and the other times in Spring. the races themselves were a lot different from today in that they were three to four heats for each race which meant that the winner would have raced over twelve miles or more in total. One famous winner was commemorated in the name of the long forgotten Well Run Dimple tavern that was situated in Barkers Pool

However this prosperity for Crookes Moor races was to be short-lived. 

The last race was in 1781. Some commentators pointed to the unruly behaviour of the crowds as being the cause of the cessation of racing - apart from the racing there were other attractions and "sports" which may have got out of hand. One mentioned in the 1965 article is Aunt Sally. Now the name of a pub on Clarkhouse Road, Aunt Sally originated in the blood sport of cock throwing, in which a chicken was tetyhered to a post and people took turns throwing coksteles (special weighted sticks - billets) at the bird until it died.  But most commentators point to the passing of the 1779 Ecclesall Enclosure Act as being the death-knell of the course. The Act permitted all common land in the Manor and Township of Ecclesall to be enclosed and transferred into private ownership. Crookes Moor including the race course was in effect was split up, enclosed and passed into the hands of the local gentry, nobility and the wealthy. This was nothing short of annexation of public land for private use - the practice is still alive and well today. The usual suspects such as the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl Fitzwilliam were prominent in the acquisition as were local  notables such as the Gell, Hoole and Spooner families, and of course James Wilkinson, the vicar of Sheffield. Some of these names are commemorated in present day road names. It is thought that the Enclosure Acts coupled with a particularly severe depression provided the impetus for the Sheffield Riots of 1791

The grandstand soon fell into a state of dereliction and on 22nd April 1790 it was demolished. The original materials were sold off, and the proceeds divided up amongst the subscribers. A large house was built on the site of the grandstand but this too, was demolished and the Hallam Towers was constructed. At the time of writing, this landmark structure is vacant as property developers engage the City Council in constructive and meaningful talks.

And that's about it, Crookes opportunity to be an Ascot or Cheltenham passed it by, another opportunity missed. Racing did resume in Sheffield but that was fifty years later, and in the other side of the town at New Hall.

Notes

"The Company of Cutlers is also the proud owner of the only known surviving Sheffield Race Cups which were presented to the winners of the horse races held on Crookes Moor in 1777, 1779 and 1781 - the last year in which the races were held. "

December 1965 edition of The Sheffield Spectator

Joseph Hunter History of Hallamshire page 140

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This page was updated on 13/06/12 08:56