Going to the Dogs: Mike Huggins Revisits the Early Years of British Greyhound Racing, the Smart Modern Sports Craze of Interwar Britain

Article excerpt

GREYHOUND RACING was the third largest commercial leisure activity in late 1930s Britain, after the cinema and soccer. Cinema's weekly attendances averaged over 18 million. But in 1936 the tracks regulated by the National Greyhound Racing Club (NGRC) attracted 19 million customers annually. Greyhound racing was a family entertainment, popular with women as well as men. As A.P. Herbert the novelist had written jokingly in 1926, 'Don't let's go to the dogs tonight, for mother will be there'.

The first standard history of the sport, written in 1934 by breeder Mrs C. Clarke, proclaimed that 'women have been the keenest supporters of track racing from its commencement: they form a large proportion of the huge crowds seen at the various tracks'. Spectators were attracted from across the classes. Yet the sport aroused strong opposition for its betting, its selling of alcohol, and the reputed 'fiddles' practised at the lesser tracks.

Greyhound racing on a long circular course using an artificial electric hare was first introduced into Britain in 1926. The concept was imported from the USA by American businessman Charles Munn; financial support was provided by Brigadier-General Alfred Critchley, a cement manufacturer. Other investors included former Brighton chief constable Sir William Gentle, Major Lynne Dixson, a coursing judge and veterinary surgeon, who was to supply the dogs, and American Robert Grant, a director of Barclays Bank.

The Belle Vue district of Manchester, which had been a focus of sporting leisure for almost a century, was chosen for the first course. Dog-racing was already popular in northwest England, and Altcar Fields near Liverpool was the site of the Waterloo Cup, the leading hare-coursing event for greyhounds. Greyhound-and whippet-races were regularly staged at many enclosed northern sports grounds, usually on relatively straight 200-yard courses. These races developed in the 1860s and became widely popular by the 1880s. Rudimentary starting gates were sometimes seen by the early 1920s.

British Pathe newsreel was there to record the opening day, July 24th, 1926, describing it as

   Europe's first greyhound racing track.
   All the thrills and skill of coursing
   without cruelly. Dogs chase with some
   zest an electric hare.

There were six races, four of 400 yards and two over 500 yards, with seven dogs in each race. After the early meetings this was reduced to six, each dog wearing a different coloured jacket. The first three meetings each attracted between 2,000 and 3,000 spectators. But the fourth meeting attracted 4,805, lights were introduced to allow evening racing, and by the time the course shut down for the winter of 1926, the Manchester meetings had attracted 333,375 customers.

Manchester's success prompted the company to develop further courses in London in 1927. The derelict White City, built for the 1908 Olympics, was a first target, and a ninety-year lease was secured for 125,000 [pounds sterling]. An area at Harringay, where spoil from Tube construction had been dumped, was also acquired. The new White City stadium was better appointed than most football grounds, with covered terracing all round the stadium, plenty of seats, a spacious clubhouse and restaurant seating a thousand people, and excellent parking facilities. Greyhound racing took off immediately. About 25,000 attended on the first Monday in June 1927, 30,000 on the Wednesday, and over 35,000 on the Saturday. On September 6th, 1927, The Times reported a crowd of over 70,000. The Greyhound Racing Association Trust Ltd was set up, largely composed of businessmen and 'gentlemen'. Harringay opened in September and proved almost as popular.

Dublin's Shelbourne and Birmingham's Hall Green also opened in May 1927. In August 1927 Powderhall stadium in Edinburgh attracted nearly 10,000 to its opening night. The same month entrepreneur Arthur Elvin bought the bankrupt and derelict Wembley stadium, abandoned in 1925 after the Empire Exhibition, for what proved a bargain price of 150,000 [pounds sterling]. …

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