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The hidden war history of the Racecourse

Hilary Scott talks to an academic who is studying how The Racecourse was turned into a military camp…

A major project researching the history of Northampton’s Racecourse during the First World War has been launched – and needs your help.

Tim Coley, Senior lecturer in Media Production at the University of Northampton, is researching this forgotten part of Northamptonshire history with the help of enthusiastic research volunteers and Heritage Lottery Funding.

Tim Coley at Northampton Racecourse, picture by Holly Charlton

The Racecourse is a 118 acre public park, but as its name indicates, it was once home to a horse-racing track. It officially ran from the mid 1700s, but had been used unofficially for the previous century on what was then known as Northampton Heath.

After a series of accidents and fatalities, due to the course’s open public access and tight turns, horse-racing was banned here in 1904.

Just ten years later, the Racecourse became the home of thousands of troops preparing to be sent to the front line during the First World War.

Tim launch

The research project, titled: In War and Peace: the changing face of Northampton’s Racecourse, aims to document the arrival of 16,000 Welsh Fusiliers onto the Racecourse in September 1914.

Using local historical documents such as newspapers, history books and testimonies of local residents, the project will research the impact of such a large number of military personnel on the local environment and its population, leading to a documentary film.
Due to the passage of time and the relative lack of photography available, there is little information on this part of the Racecourse’s history.

royal welsh

What they know for certain is that thousands of troops were billeted there from 1914 before going off to war, and that the Racecourse was dug over for allotments for the war effort three years later.

Tim said: “We have found that there is a huge gap about what was going on the Racecourse between the Royal Welsh Fusiliers infantry being there and when it was ploughed up in 1917. Some of this may be due to restrictions of the Defence of the Realm Act.

“On the advice the of the historian Jon-Paul Carr, our volunteers are about to start ploughing through old copies of the Northampton Independent to try and piece together a picture, by cross referencing news stories with the military information that we do have about who was stationed there.

Postcard war

“We are still perplexed by lots of gaps in the history, including as to how so many horses were watered and fed, how the town’s population reacted to this enormous influx of men and what happened between them leaving and the allotments being established?”

As the project is looking at a period of time over 100 years ago, Tim and the team of around eight researchers are really keen to hear from anyone whose late relatives may have talked to them about what they witnessed, or who may have documentation or photographs relating to the Racecourse at that time, or the Welsh Fusiliers.


Tim added: “The RWF infantry left in early 1915 and later went to fight at Gallipoli – where a huge number of them died. How many horses they took with them and how many remained is a mystery – we are still trying to fathom this one out. Reports say there were up to 7,000 horses.

“We hope there maybe family history that documented these details which we don’t yet know about.”

As well as the lives of the troops, the documentary will also look at the Racecourse at the time.

racecourse GV with st matthews

“There were buildings and roads on the Racecourse, one building was a winter quarters for the troops. It was apparently proclaimed open by Lloyd George’s wife Margaret and was ‘strongly built of wood lighted with oil lamps and heated with stoves’,” added Tim.

“Lloyd George’s sons may have been stationed here too but we aren’t sure on this, and would value clarification. The winter quarters were erected as a place of leisure where the men could read and smoke after their “long hours of arduous training” and a postal service was offered from here too.

“Although many of the towns retailers must have done well out of the influx of troops, there are inklings that not everyone was happy with their arrival, or in the way the Racecourse was commandeered so quickly by the Army. So we hope to find more out about this.

watkin terrace

“We also know the Racecourse was ploughed for allotments after the troops left, and we think there was a natural spring, possibly near the Masonic Hall,but again, we need help from Northamptonshire families and researchers who may be able to help verify this piece of social history.”

Tim, a proud Northamptonian who grew up close to the town’s famous park, added: “Places like the Racecourse store memories. We can return back to these places at a later time to evoke them. Places such as parks don’t often change, whereas perhaps much else around them seems to.

“Except this isn’t always true; in the last two wars, and perhaps especially the First World War, Northampton’s Racecourse, the ‘living lung,’ changed beyond recognition. Now it’s been returned to its green sameness – the adventure is to find out what it once was, albeit briefly, when it became temporary home to so many men whose lives were going to change forever.”

You can contact the research team for the project by emailing racecoursefilmenquiries@northampton.ac.uk. If you would like to post anything to the team, the address is: In War and Peace, c/o Anthony Stepniak, Avenue Campus, St George’s Avenue, Northampton, NN2 6JD.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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