London’s Sporting Heritage along the Thames

From its first century Roman amphitheatre to the 21st century Olympic Stadium at Stratford, London has always been a city of spectacle and sporting fever. Historian and author Simon Inglis gave a talk at Pier House and told us the story of sport through the ages in London – with a particular emphasis on the Thames and West London.

Simon explained how, in the 12th century, Londoners would gather at Smithfield (then called ‘Smooth Field’) to watch horse racing and ball games. In Tudor times, crowds flocked to the tiltyards of Whitehall and Westminster to enjoy jousting, while in the 17th century the Stuarts were keen exponents of a game with the familiar name of Pall Mall (an early version of croquet!)

The Thames has always been an important sportscape within London and Simon explained how the river was first used for boat races. The Doggett's Coat and Badge race started in 1715, and is now the world’s oldest rowing race. It has always been a race between professional watermen, and was initially run by the Fishmongers Association. Back in those early days of racing, the Thames was much wider (Bazelgette’s embankments had yet to be built) and the Thames was home to many races, and there was a growth in the sport of rowing. Over time, the river became too busy, too polluted and too narrow to support all this activity, and rowing moved further down the Thames. And so, a particular stretch of the Thames in West London became home to the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. First raced in 1829, this event has been held annually since 1856, and covers the 4.2-mile stretch of the Thames from Putney to Mortlake. Simon explained that the race starts in Putney simply because of the layout of the piers at Putney which suited the dimensions of the boats. The race soon became a big event spectators when the arrival of a train station at Putney in 1846 meant that workers – who in those days worked on a Saturday morning – could catch the train and watch the start of the race for themselves.

It was the arrival of another train station that led to the development of so many sporting clubs closer to home, in Dukes Meadow. Before the opening of Chiswick Station, Dukes Meadow was a large, unpopulated rural area filled with orchards. Today, it is home to many sporting clubs and fields. These were originally built by the large employers of the day including the Civil Service. They built their own sports clubs around the more rural and open areas of London to cater for the demand of their male workforce to continue playing the sports they had so enjoyed at school and university. The sports clubs were an incentive to recruit workers, and keep them loyal. It also allowed for the workforce to socialise together and became the place to meet your future husband or wife. Not bad for a subscription of two pence a week!

Upcoming ‘Talks by the Thames’