Recalling the days of horse 
racing, athletics and pick-pockets

Crawley History
Crawley History

In recent months, the country has been in the grip of ‘sport fever’, but does it compare to the life and excitement of the early Crawley Sports Day gatherings?

This was a yearly event, held from the mid-1800s.

Few persons know that, from the 1860s until the First World War, an area of the town was designated and known as Crawley Sports Fields.

There are no early photographs of this area of the town, and buildings were sparse.

Running and horse racing are the earliest sports of which there are records, though not on the type of track with which we are familiar.

Crawley Athletics Sports Club was founded in 1866 and their strip was red and black stripe shirts.

Events included both running and road walking races, no field events existed but sometimes obstacle races were included.

The programme featured gives a glimpse of the 1886 event held on Town Mead field. Entrance to this field was opposite to the end of Northgate Road on the west side of the High Street, the field 
extending from the leisure centre complex to The Driftway

Horse races and athletic meets were combined, and these brought contestants and spectators from far and wide.

Along with the crowds came the pick-pockets.

One notorious gang – the Croydon Boys – were frequent visitors.

Their method of operation was to start a fight between two of them and, whilst the crowds gathered around to watch the brawl, the rest of the gang got to work.

There were also the bookies – many from London – also sometimes dubious.

One well-told tale relates to a local gentleman who had a gold watch and Albert prominently displayed on this waistcoat until racing started when, by some means, they both disappeared.

The police became active without success.

However, the majority of ‘The Boys’ spent the night at The Baytree Coffee House, kept by Charles Messer, who promised that he would recover the watch.

Just before midnight, Mr Messer lifted the little trapdoor and said what he wanted and, if the items appeared on the outside ledge within five minutes, then no more would be said.

Otherwise, the police would enter and strip-
search them.

The items duly appeared!

The horses, in the main, belonged to local farmers or hunters from the gentry, so were well known. And there was much rivalry.

According to the length of the race, some of the tracks were across neighbouring fields.

A favourite was by the way of what is now known as The Driftway, Small Lane to the railway crossing Horsham Road then down Spencers Road (which did not exist at that time) and back down to Town Barn field.

In order to win the coveted Crawley Cup, owners sometimes entered a different horse to that named on the entry form.

It may have been the same name but not the same horse but a borrowed one.

Not only a silver cup but prize money of 12 guineas was the winner’s prize. A princely sum in those days equivalent to approximately £250.

Horse racing events were discontinued after 1893 due in main to the increased house building on fields and the increase in mechanised traffic causing a problem.

With food and drink stalls erected on the lower greens by enterprising local tradesmen and swings for the children, an enjoyable day out was a highlight of the year.