KEVIN GORDON - The early years of Lewes Racecourse

Lewes Racecourse
Lewes Racecourse

There was horse racing in Seaford, Alfriston and Eastbourne in the 18th and 19th centuries which is not surprising considering that the horse was main source of transport.

Lewes however was a large race course, the first in Sussex and one of the most important. Cheryl Lutring’s super book “Lewes Racecourse - A Legacy Lost” gives a fascinating account of this racecourse which was once the haunt of royalty.

Cheryl has found references to the Lewes Races in the 17th century. On August 8, 1765 the ‘greatest meeting ever known’ was held at Lewes.

Apparently all the nobility of Sussex were in attendance including the Duke of Newcastle. They were there to watch the King’s Plate being won by a bay-horse called Star belonging to Mrs Strode. It beat Mr Shafto’s horse Herald, Mr Vernon’s Africus and Mr Shirley’s Romeo.

The King’s Plate was a race for 12 stone six-year-old horses. It was run over four miles in four heats, the first reference to it was in 1634 at Newmarket. The prize was 100 guineas and the plate was provided by the monarch. It was first contended at Lewes in 1720 when it was won by a horse called Fox. Horses would travel from race meeting to race meeting by walking between the venues. Often the trainer and horse would spend weeks away walking across the south of England to attend races.

One year four horses even walked from Wales to attend the Lewes Races.

I doubt if there was much betting on the 1827 race, there was only one contender – Sampson a grey stallion owned by the Earl of Halifax. I wonder if he just walked around the course to claim the prize? It is clear that the Lewes races were very important to the town and were widely reported. In 1756 the Star Inn in the centre of Lewes advertised rooms for ‘Ladies, Gentlemen and others’ (!) who were attending the races.

That same year cricket matches were also held to coincide with the races.

In 1771 there were even special coaches from London. In July, 1776, it was reported that every lodging house in the town was full and more were wanting.

A few years later it was reported that the Lewes races were watched by the Duke of Richmond, the Prince of Wales (later King George IV), the Duke de Chartres, the Duke de Lauzun, The Marquis de Confains, the Marquis de Versailles and the Duke of Queensbury.

In 1806 the Prince of Wales turned up at Lewes in a large carriage drawn by four matching grey horses. Thousands of people descended on the town and afterwards the future king (who rarely missed the Lewes races) dined at the Star.

By the mid 1800s, racegoers and racehorse were arriving by train. Cheap excursion tickets brought Londoners in their thousands.

Cheryl’s book (obtainable from the Lewes Tourist Information Centre or on Amazon) recounts how important Lewes was as a racing town. Lester Piggot won his first ever race at Lewes in 1950. The book also marks the decline in racing during the 1960s.

Unlike nearby Brighton or Plumpton, Lewes racecourse had no running water, electricity or gas and the last race was held in 1964.

This week sees the 50th anniversary of the closing of Lewes Racecourse. The last race was held on Monday, September 14, 1964, and was reported in the first edition of a brand new newspaper - The Sun.

Racing has not been forgotten in Lewes. A new website by local enthusiast Barry Foulks, not only contains many photographs of the former racecourse but also details how the anniversary will be commemorated by a Carnival Day on Sunday, September 14. I am sure Barry would be pleased to see you at the event whether you be a lady a gentleman or an other!