With the world going through an unprecedented time of quarantine, almost all public events around the world have been cancelled. Careful planning and preparation can only ever overcome so much and one location in Wolverhampton experienced similar feelings some 90+ years ago. Monmore Green is home to Wolverhampton’s first purpose-built greyhound and motor speedway racing track. The first greyhound race was run in 1928, yet racing was originally due to commence in 1927. So what happened to cause the delay?
A Not-So-Green Wasteland
Monmore Green was historically an area of industry and wasteland, with little to remark on before the arrival of East Park in 1896. With the opening of West Park in 1881, there was a clamour for a commensurate leisure facility in the east side of the town. By 1892, the Duke of Sutherland and Sir Alfred Hickman offered 50 acres of land. The land was on the site of the former Chillington colliery, consisting mainly of collapsed or exhausted mines. It proved difficult to work and required tremendous amounts of soil to fill in the many mines below. Some of this would ultimately come back to haunt East Park for years to come.
With a design selected, the park was officially opened by the Mayor and Mayoress on September 21, 1896. Interestingly the list of people who attended the event was rather shorter than those who gave their apologies. Neither of the two land donors attended, nor any members of the aristocracy. This may be due in part to the event being on the same day that the Queen hosted Czar Alexander III of Russia. The total cost of the park was around £14,000, or £1.8 million in today’s money.
An Oasis in the East
Due to its location, East Park suffered from numerous problems from the outset. Despite the efforts to fill the old mining shafts with soil, the boating lake suffered from regular leakage and maintenance of levels proved difficult. Efforts to save the lake ceased by 1914 and the area was covered with grass by the early 1920s. The park would never be a success in the same way West Park was. Part of the reason was that it lay roughly 200 metres from the Willenhall Road, and was surrounded by rough ground until the 20th century. As you might imagine, in sunny periods the surrounding area was covered in dust and in wet conditions became a quagmire. It would not be until the 1920s that a “new” sport would take hold in Britain that would see the park gain a significant neighbour.
The Greyhound Gold Rush
Modern greyhound racing in the UK has its roots in a form of hunting called hare coursing. The pursuit of game animals by dogs dates back to ancient times, but coursing using a mechanical hare first occurred in 1876 near Hendon. It took place over a 400 yard course and was not a success. Little would be heard of the new sport until the 20th century, when a circular course was opened in California in 1919. The sport would re-debut in the UK in 1926 at Belle Vue, Manchester, the first purpose-built track in the country. Additional tracks were built in Harringay, and White City, which was converted from its original purpose as host of the 1908 Summer Olympics. Closer to home, two stadiums opened in Birmingham in 1927.
In 1926, only 3 greyhound racing companies existed; the Greyhound Racing Association, Liverpool Greyhound Club and the Greyhound Racing Association Trust. By the following year, another 116 greyhound-related companies had been established, one of which was the Midland Greyhound Racing Company.
Building Monmore Green Stadium
Monmore Green was not the first area in the town to host dog racing. An area known as the “Victoria Grounds” in Rough Hills hosted whippet racing, along with “pedestrianism” in the 19th Century. For brevity’s sake, this is a topic that merits a future article all of its own.
With the greyhound gold rush in full swing, work began on the new track at Monmore Green on 8 September 1927. It initially involved the levelling of 14.5 acres of old pit mounds, with the terrain very similar to that of East Park. Mercifully, however, it did not suffer from the same amount of subsidence-related issues. The course was designed to hold 30,000 spectators, with six stands built to accommodate 7,500 (featuring four separate refreshment rooms). The course was surrounded by c. 1,000 yards of fencing and car parking space was provided for 1,000 cars. The main grandstand was fitted with gas loop radiators, said to be “the first to be installed on a greyhound track in the country”. The track itself was illuminated by 80 lamps, each said to have “100 candle-power”. The Midland Greyhound Racing Co. was reported to have “about 200 dogs”, with names such as Canadian Girl, Watch Him Go, Beaded Primrose and Willing Girl.
Throughout November and December, advertisements were placed in newspapers to solicit for dog owners. Various schemes were offered for purchasing the dogs, with enquiries to be directed to the Midland Greyhound Company’s office at 16 Temple Street, Wolverhampton. A trial involving 6 of the company’s dogs was held on Friday 23rd December and everything appeared set for the venue’s grand opening on Boxing Day, 1927.
The Best Laid Plans
Whilst it is a tradition for many to wish for a “White Christmas”, the weather of the 1927 festive period proved the old adage of “be careful what you wish for”. By the evening of Christmas Day, a blizzard of almost biblical proportions had descended. The weather was reported to be the “wildest in living memory” and forced the cancellation of multiple sporting events. Transportation was devastated, with one GWR train from Wolverhampton “snowed up from wheels to the funnel” for five hours. The Midland Greyhound Company’s preparations for the big day at Monmore Green were all for nothing.
Whilst Wolverhampton was affected by the blizzard, things were much worse for those in the South. Whole villages were cut off, and the thaw afterwards caused the Thames and other waterways to flood.
Monmore Green would eventually go on to host its first event seventeen days after its false start, on the evening of Wednesday 11th January, 1928. The event attracted c. 10,000 people and spectators witnessed 7 races. All were held over a distance of 500 yards, with five flat races and two races over hurdles. Winners on the night included Shawn Buidhe, a winner at the earlier trials, and the wonderfully-named “Mixed Grill”. The final race of the night was appropriately enough, named the “Wolverhampton Stakes” and was run over the flats. Towards the end of the race, two dogs – Salmon and Two Syds – snapped at each other, causing the race to be disputed. For a venue that got off to such an inauspicious start, it is perhaps appropriate that the final result of the opening night was declared void.
A Duality of Purpose
The rush to establish greyhound companies became so frenetic that by 1929, the Daily News published an article warning of a “Greyhound Racing Bubble”. One notable example was the Greyhound Racing Associated Trust, shares in which reduced from 6s 6d to 6d (a reduction of 30 pence). Many companies did not even make it to the track, and the Home Secretary himself believed that the sport itself would soon expire. Thankfully, Monmore Green had already managed to diversify its events.
The first speedway or “dirt track racing” event would be held on Wednesday 30th May, 1928 and featured a race between pioneering Californian Lloyd “Sprouts” Elder and domestic rider, Ivor Creek. The race took place just three months after the inaugural speedway meeting at Epping Forest, in February, 1928. In keeping with the false start of the venue itself, Sprouts machine failed to start and he ended up borrowing Creek’s machine to show off his skills to the large crowd.
In addition to speedway, Monmore Green hosted various boxing events during the 1930s, although again, weather (rain, on this occasion) caused the odd cancellation.
Despite its false starts, Monmore Green Stadium remains to this day, whilst many of its contemporaries have long since succumbed to the machinations of housing developers. Whether it is greyhound racing or speedway, the stadium has provided entertainment to millions of fans in its 92 years of existence.
At a time when every organisation has had to cancel its events, Monmore Green’s false start is a reminder to everyone that, whilst it may not be alright on the night, it will be eventually. To anyone reading this during the Covid-19 outbreak, although times are hard, they will pass. And to those reading in the future, never forget that time we all had to stay in our houses for months – you’re living through a significant historical event!
If you want to learn about a local rider, Tommy Deadman, Bev Parker has an excellent article on his website, including lots of wonderful images of Monmore Gren-related memorabilia :
When the coast is clear to go out again, details of events at Monmore Green Stadium can be found here:
If you want further sports reading during lockdown, the latest episode of “The Coroner’s Casebook” is about boxing:
- Birmingham Daily Gazette – Saturday 24 December 1927
- Birmingham Daily Gazette – Tuesday 13th September 1927
- Going to the dogs: A history of greyhound racing in Britain, 1926-2017, Keith Laybourn
- Birmingham Daily Gazette – Tuesday 27 December 1927