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As the crowds gather for Ladies' Day at Worcester Racecourse this month how many will know that this is the site where Royalist soldiers once trained, or that one of the biggest boxing matches in 19th century Britain was held here?
The next time you are in Worcester city centre, skip the hustle and bustle of the High Street and walk the 800 yards or so to enjoy the peace and tranquillity that Pitchcroft Racecourse offers. At just short of 100 acres in size, the tree-lined racecourse nestles next to the River Severn on one side and the fringes of the vibrant city centre on the other, yet feels a world away from the stress and strain of modern life.
According to the celebrated local historian, the late Bill Gwilliam, the name Pitchcroft originates from the sites full name, Pitchcroft Ham or, more anciently, Pitchcroft Holme, meaning the inner-island, a reference to the fact that the area acts as one of the citys main floodplains. In times of flood, as seen all too often recently, the water can be as deep as three feet high across the entire site. The southern tip, now Croft Road car park, was locally referred to as Little Pitchcroft around the time
the railway viaduct bisected the site in 1852.
During the first English Civil War, Royalist soldiers used Pitchcroft as venue to recruit new members, drill and practise their archery, hence the naming of the nearby Butts, where the arrows fell at the foot or butt of the city walls. Even Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice used the site and were caught unawares one morning during a siege when, according to contemporary reports, suddenly a troop of five hundred horse attacked the Royals, who retired in confusion into the town. The military links to the site led to the area between Pitchcroft and the Tything being named Militia Meadow.
In a battle of another kind, local boxer and heavyweight champion, Tom Spring fought Jack Langan on a crowded and flooded Pitchcroft in January 1824. The fight, for a purse of 300 sovereigns, around 25,000 in todays money, drew spectators from far and wide. Some 40,000 spectators braved the freezing conditions, the flood water and a crush caused by a temporary stand collapsing, to watch the contest. The bout lasted 77 rounds and ended with an exhausted Langan being carried prone but conscious from the ring.
Of course, Pitchcroft is most famous for horse racing which has taken place on the site since at least 1718, making Worcester one of the oldest racecourses in Britain and on a hot summers day its appeal is obvious. The railways arrival only contributed to the popularity of the meets especially as a specially constructed spur-line took race-goers to within yards of the turnstiles on race-days.
The course layout has changed numerous times through its history with the once popular flat racing discontinued in 1966, but the National Hunt meetings, utilising the courses fences, continues to provide exciting racing with large fields. In a popular move with spectators and jockeys alike, summer jumping started at the course in 1995.
As well as a long history in horse racing, Pitchcroft can lay claim to be the early home venue for two of the citys most popular sports clubs. Both Worcester City Football Club and Worcester Warriors Rugby Club once called this picturesque site home.
Worcester City, an amalgamation of local amateur sides Berwick Rangers and Worcester Rovers, played their games on the site using an enclosed pitch called Severn Terrace (behind the modern-day Swan Theatre). The club played there from 1902 until they moved to their current home venue, St Georges Lane, for the start of the 1905 season.
The club, as in recent times, suffered from a number of financial issues during their early years and were rarely successful in a league containing Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albions reserve sides. Despite this, City could expect between 2,000 and 4,000 fans to cram into their often wet and muddy ground with only one shed-like stand offering protection from the elements.
Worcester Rugby Club (now Worcester Warriors) also played their home games on Pitchcroft from the early days of 1893 under the leadership of the Rev. Francis Eld, the head teacher of the nearby Grammar School. The club played here for a number of years, in a light and dark blue striped kit, before folding and then being re-formed. Times were hard and the club shared changing facilities with the near-by rowing club and even got changed at the Northwick Arms and Saracens Head public houses, where a tin bath was installed in the outside toilets, a far cry from the clubs current facilities at Sixways!
Worcester City Corporation (the forerunner to the city council) had bought the majority of Pitchcroft in 1899 for the princely sum of 7,000 and immediately fenced-in the site and, helped by the mayor, Lord Beauchamp, installed the magnificent double gate we can see today on the corner of Castle Street. The Corporation also hired a caretaker to look after the site and uphold the bye-laws banning the then popular, but gruesome, blood-sports of dog and duck and tethering as well as outlawing marches, protests and bare-knuckle boxing on the site. Fortunately, the previous owners insisted that horse racing still took place on at least 12 days per year even after the sale, ensuring a long-standing tradition was able to continue for the benefit of the local citizens.
Quite remarkably, considering the modern beauty and recreational use of the site, the Corporations main reason for buying Pitchcroft was for its value as a place to tip the citys rubbish which is one of the reasons why, today, the site appears so flat, as the rubbish was used to fill all of the natural hollows.
So, the next time you visit a weekend or an evening race meet, stroll, jog or cycle around the perimeter of the site, take a few minutes to consider all that has happened on this magnificent open space and be thankful it still isnt being used as a rubbish dump!
Judd Doughty is a Lecturer and Course Leader in Sport at Worcester College of Technology and is currently studying for a PhD in the sporting history of Worcester during the 1800s and early 1900s. During the cricket season Judd captains the second eleven at Barnards Green and regularly turns out for Worcester Hockey Club during the winter.