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Short sporting lifetime

By This is Leicestershire  |  Posted: February 01, 2010

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I wonder how many readers know that two years before the opening of Abbey Park in 1882, a sports ground opened in Belgrave Road, Leicester.

It covered about 10 acres, but had a relatively short life, as in 1901, part of the British United Shoe Machinery Company's premises were built on the site.

I came across this information while browsing through Jim Sharlott's book, On the Starting Line: A History of Athletics in Leicester.

He says of the ground: "The Belgrave Road Cricket and Bicycle Grounds were opened on Saturday, May 15, 1880, by Colonel Burnaby, Lord of the Manor of Somerby, and patron of athletics in Leicestershire, who arrived with his wife in a carriage drawn by a pair of greys.

"Principal partners in the enterprise were Mr Billson, the rope merchant of Belgrave Gate, whose former premises opposite Abbey Street carried his name until a few years ago; Mr Illsley, landlord of the Black Lion, in Belgrave Gate; and a Mr Newton, who negotiated a 13-year lease of the land with owner George Harrison.

"The trotting track had a width of 25 feet and three laps to the mile. Inside this was the bicycle course and athletics track, 44 yards on the inside lane or four laps to the mile. For sprint races a track 200 yards long was expected to be 'exceedingly useful'.

"A stand holding 3,000 people was planned and also a gymnasium.

"The inaugural meeting lasted three days and included athletics, cycling and pony trotting. On Monday, the second day, over 10,000 people were present. Harry Hutchens, of Putney, the famous London professional sprinter, was the star attraction...

"At Belgrave Road, Hutchens ran in the 120 yards handicap for a first prize of £20. He was the backmarker in the handicap, having to give a 25-yard start to W Lambert, and he failed to get up.

"The referee and timekeeper for the meeting was Mr G W Atkinson, of the Sporting Life, a sheet catering for the horse racing and gambling fraternity.

"The colonel, in his opening address, had expressed a wish 'that the grounds be honestly conducted and all races fairly and pleasantly fought'. It was clear what he had in mind for in one of the professional sprints there was an objection to the winner, on the grounds that he was 'not the Greensmith he had represented himself to be'. Clearly the ugly head of impersonation had already reared itself.

"The Belgrave Road ground flourished for several years, and handicap meetings on summer evenings and Saturdays were held regularly. Leicester football Club – the Tigers – played on the Belgrave Road ground in their first season in 1880 and the Leicester Fosse FC also played there in 1887-88.

"Inter-club races over road and country were run from the ground, and on the cycling side, there were many international challenge matches."

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    Andy Salkeld, Leicester  |  February 03 2010, 1:45PM

    Roger Lovell at Cyclemagic can tell you all you need to know about the Cycling history of this and other tracks in the City as well as details of Leicester & Belgrave's first Cycling Superstar Bert Harris. See - www.cyclemagic.com