sport and leisure in the past

This series of articles, written/edited by Russell Game, look at some of the ways in which people in Shrewsbury and Shropshire enjoyed their free time in days gone by. These are listed below – simply scroll down the page until you reach the articles you are interested in.

Horse Racing in Shrewsbury

Pedestrianism – 19th century competitive walking

Shrewsbury Rugby Club

Shrewsbury Town Football Club

Cockfighting

Sundorne Castle

STFC and the Football League

Robert Cadman

Life and Death in Football

Female Boxing in Shrewsbury

The Shrewsbury Town Coracles

The Christmas Tipple 1883

Golf in Shrewsbury

Horse Racing in Shrewsbury

Article first appeared Winter 2018

The first recorded horse racing in Shrewsbury took place in 1718. Prior to this, the Shrewsbury Mercers’ Company had set aside £5 for a three-year period in order to purchase a Plate, which was the intended prize for the winner of the race. This race took place at Kingsland. Racing carried on at Kingsland until 1724. At that point the land was enclosed. Thus, the course was moved to Bicton Heath, and racing resumed in 1729.

A race at Shrewsbury took place in 1730 – a three-day meet that took place in June. This racecourse was in Copthorne and was owned by the Mytton family, but it was sold after Jack Mytton was declared bankrupt in 1825. The purchasers of the site did not wish to continue horse-racing, so a new racecourse was built to the east of Monkmoor Road. The course was flat and was a mile and 185 yards long.

Shrewsbury races developed a reputation for fixed results, and pickpockets became a serious problem. Thus, the final meeting took place in 1887 – and horse-racing in Shrewsbury came to an end. The racecourse site was unused until the Council purchased the land in 1925. By 1937 some 400 houses had been built on the land.

Today, the only part of the racecourse that remains undeveloped is the Monkmoor Recreation Ground. Evidence for the fact of the racecourse’s former existence can be found in the street names around the former site – Racecourse Avenue, Racecourse Green and Racecourse Crescent.

Pedestrianism – 19th Century Competitive Walking

Article first appeared Spring 2019

It is perhaps unexpected to introduce the Lion and Pheasant as a sporting venue. However, in the 19th century, it was – along with other public houses – a major venue for the sport of pedestrianism. This was a 19th century form of competitive walking, which was often professional and funded from betting. The modern sport of racewalking has developed from pedestrianism.

Shropshire had its own well-known pedestrian in the shape of J Thomas, about whom very little can be discovered. However,  adverts from the time attest to his pedestrianism; for example, on one occasion he promised to walk 60 miles a day  for 6 days from the Lion and Pheasant to the Hay Gate Inn in Wellington, now sadly demolished. This was a distance of 10 miles and meant he would walk between the two pubs 6 times per day for 6 successive days. He was probably skilled in avoiding, or at least dealing with, blisters…

The most notable pedestrian feat occurred in 1809 when Captain Barclay set out to walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours walking one mile in each of the 1,000 consecutive miles on Newmarket Heath for 1,000 guineas. He completed the walk in 42 days with never much more than one hour’s rest, losing some 28lb (13kg) weight in the process.

Interest in the sport, and the accompanying betting, spread to the USA and Australia, where it enjoyed great popularity. However, it had been largely replaced by the end of the 19th century by the rise of modern spectator sports, such as football, and by growing controversy about the rules of the sport, which limited its appeal as a source of wagering.

It is, however, still possible to receive refreshment at the Lion and Pheasant, just as our 19th century pedestrianism practitioners and followers were able to do.

Shrewsbury Rugby Club

Article first appeared Summer 2019

It is generally agreed that Shrewsbury Rugby Club owes its foundation to a casual chat that took place in 1908 in the George Hotel, which once stood at the corner of Market Street and Shoplatch. As a result of this, a rugby game was arranged against Stafford, which took place at Sutton on a pitch that was rented from a local farmer. Sadly, nobody recorded the outcome of that game.

The link between the rugby club and various hostelries of Shrewsbury began with the establishment of headquarters at the Unicorn Hotel at the bottom of Wyle Cop. Sometime in the 1920s the ground seems to have become established at Upper Road in Meole Brace, though the headquarters did have to move from one location to another, depending on the behaviour of the club members and/or the attitude of the landlord towards the rugby club.

After the Second World War, matches were played at Longden Road or Shrewsbury School until the club moved to the West Midland showground in the 1946/47 season. During the 1960s the team was essentially unbeaten. This sporting success allowed for successful fund raising, which permitted the club to purchase the current ground at Sundorne in 1964. Shrewsbury RUFC has remained there since that date.

Shrewsbury Town Football Club

Article first appeared Autumn 2019

The earliest records for Shrewsbury Town Football Club reach back to 1879, when a team playing under the name of ‘Shrewsbury’ took part in the Shropshire Challenge Cup. This team disappeared from the scene, however, after they proved unable to raise a team to play against Newport.

There were some 40 teams playing in Shrewsbury at this time, of which, perhaps, Castle Blues were the leading side. In 1886, Castle Blues lost a cup match against Wellington, which signified little until Wellington were drawn against another Shrewsbury side – Castle Rovers – about a month later. This game saw a pitch invasion by some spectators and some of the Wellington players were assaulted. There were several arrests, including three Castle Blues players! As a consequence, Castle Blues went out of existence at the end of the 1885/1886 season.

In May 1886, Shrewsbury Town was founded, with several former Castle Blues players. Initially the football club played its home matches at the Racecourse Ground in Monkmoor, but they ended up with the Copthorne Barracks Ground as their home venue in 1895.

Over time, the football club continued to improve, and 1938 they won the Midland League at the first time of asking. Disregarding the war years, when football was suspended, Shrewsbury had mixed fortunes, with some successful seasons and others less so.

As the club developed, it began to look for a bigger ground. Shrewsbury Town moved to the Gay Meadow in 1910 and stayed there until 2007. The first competitive game played at Gay Meadow was against Wolverhampton Wanderers Reserves, which Town lost 2-1. The first win at the Meadow came in the next home game, when Shrewsbury beat Halesowen 2-1.

In March 1950 the Football League met in London and agreed to extend the Third Division by four clubs. In those days the Third Division was divided into a ‘North’ and a ‘South’ Division, so Shrewsbury Town were looking to be one of two sides joining the Third Division North. This involved being elected by the Football League – and Shrewsbury Town came top of this election, and so duly entered the Football League, alongside Scunthorpe United.

Town’s first game in the Football League was against Wrexham. There was a record crowd of just over 16,000, who watched Town come out 2-1 winners.

Cockfighting

Article first appeared Winter 2019

Cockfighting was a so-called sport, the passing of which few people would mourn, though its history can be traced back some 6,000 years. Two cocks, often referred to as gamecocks, fought each other in a ring, called a cockpit. Because such cocks possess inherent aggression towards other cocks of the same species, it was not difficult to encourage such birds to fight. Wagers were often taken on the outcome of the fight.

However, cockfighting is a blood sport, and the birds could experience physical trauma even in those instances where one of the two cocks did not die. As a result, it came to be seen as cruel and was slowly banned as a sport in many parts of the world. In England and Wales cockfighting was banned outright in 1835 (it took another 60 years for Scotland to follow suit).

However, a legal ban does not always lead to immediate compliance. In 1857, the Staffordshire Advertiser reported that cockfighting had taken place in May at the Lion and Pheasant in Shrewsbury. The report claimed that 150 people were present, with five people taken into custody. These five people were later fined 50 shillings each. The police also found some 200 birds on the premises.

A man called Thomas Darlington was accused of reporting the event to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. However, he was to write indignantly to the Shrewsbury Chronicle (published 15 May 1857) denying that he had given any information about the event to the Society or to anybody else and that he had known nothing about the event in any case.

It is perhaps possible that he protested too much, but it certainly cannot be proved that he did tip anybody off, so the informant seems to have been lost in the mists of time. What is certain is that no incidence of cockfighting in Shrewsbury was ever reported again.

Sundorne Castle

Article first appeared Spring 2020

Sundorne Castle is not a sporting or a leisure venue. It isn’t even a real castle. However, its close proximity to Shrewsbury Town’s training ground and to Shrewsbury Rugby Club gives it an honourable mention in this section.

Today, Sundorne Castle has farm buildings leaning against the back of its walls – though the entrance to the farm is pretty spectacular. The battlemented wall is terminated by a chapel building. It was originally built as a country house for John Corbet in 1766 and was originally just called Sundorne House. It was John Corbet’s son, also called John, who extended and redesigned the property so that it looked like a castle.

The ‘castle’ once had extensive gardens, and – according to 19th century maps – it also had fishponds and a lakeside boat house.

In 1741 the Corbets inherited the estate of Haughmond Abbey, which boasted 3,162 acres and included 12 dairy farms, and the Corbet Arms pub in Uffington. This estate has since been lost.

Many of the inner buildings have been used as barns in the modern period. The chapel has also been used for cattle. Originally the chapel joined onto a large mansion. This mansion was blown up in 1955, supposedly because the owners no longer had enough wealth to maintain it.

The Shrewsbury Town training facility became operational in 2017. Shrewsbury Town FC chairman Roland Wycherley had owned this land from 1996 until 2016, when it was passed on as an asset of the football club.

STFC and the Football League

Article first appeared Summer 2020

It was earlier in June 2020 that a vote was held by all League One football clubs. The 2019/2020 football season had been suspended in March because of the growing coronavirus crisis, and the vote was held in June to determine how the season might be brought to a conclusion. A simple majority of the 23 clubs1 was needed for any decision; in the event, 18 of the clubs voted to end the season prematurely on the basis of a points per game formula. Shrewsbury Town were one of those clubs who voted with the majority.

However, this was not the first time that the future of Shrewsbury Town hinged on a vote of other clubs. Before 1950, Town were a strong team in the Midland League, emerging as champions in 1938, 1946 and 1948. It was in 1949/50 that the football club started to look to move to the next level, even though Town had only finished in 10th spot that season.

It was in that season that the Football League announced that they were looking to expand their lower divisions. Shrewsbury were looking to join the enlarged Third Division North, but they were up against a total of ten other clubs, who harboured similar ambitions for advancement.

In the event, Shrewsbury easily won the vote, gaining 30 votes. Wigan and Warrington came joint second with 19 votes, whilst Scunthorpe came in fourth. Though – in the event – Scunthorpe won a second ballot, thus joining Shrewsbury in the higher tier in the 1950/51 season. Ironically perhaps, that season drew Shrewsbury away to Scunthorpe for their first ever league match. The result was a 0-0 draw, which was watched by some 12,000 fans.

Town’s first home game at the Gay Meadow was against Wrexham. The official attendance was for 16,070 fans, though some maintain that at least 20,000 fans turned up. The result was a home win (2-1). Shrewsbury ended up in 20th place (out of 24 clubs). It was their only season in the Third Division North – they were shifted to the Third Division South in 1951 and stayed there until the reorganisation of 1959, when the two third divisions became Division Three and Division Four.

1 – League One normally comprises 24 clubs. However, in August 2019, Bury FC were expelled from the league following on from financial difficulties, leaving just 23 to carry on.

Robert Cadman

Article first appeared Winter 2020

Tightrope walking is no longer very popular, though it was once quite an attraction, with records of tightrope walking in the Square dating back to Tudor times. In 1881, the Shrewsbury Flower Show advertised one ‘Bon Bon’, who was to walk a tightrope some 150 ft long and 40 ft above the ground.

Robert Cadman was an 18th century steeplejack and ropeslider. His particular trick was to slide down a rope from St Mary’s Church, passing over the river and landing at the Gay Meadow, which he did between 1732 and 1739 – until it all went wrong…

Robert Cadman was an 18th century steeplejack and ropeslider. His particular trick was to slide down a rope from St Mary’s Church, passing over the river and landing at the Gay Meadow, which he did between 1732 and 1739 – until it all went wrong…

On 2nd February 1739, as he was hurtling back to the Gay Meadow, the rope broke. Cadman fell to his death.

There is a commemorative plaque to this event at St Mary’s, which reads: “Let this small monument record the name of Cadman, and to future times proclaim how by’n attempt to fly from this high spire across the Sabrine stream he did acquire his fatal end. ‘Twas not for want of skill or courage to perform the task he fell. No, no, a faulty cord being drawn too tight hurried his soul on high to take her flight which bid the body here beneath good night.

Febry 2nd, 1739 aged 28”

Life and Death in Football

Article first appeared Spring 2021

Those keen football fans amongst the membership will be well aware of the rule that insists on an automatic red card for any player deemed to have committed a reckless challenge which could threaten serious injury to another player.

On Saturday afternoon, 11th November 1893, Shrewsbury Town were playing at home against Madeley. In those days, the town’s football pitch was on Sutton Road. In later testimony, Herbert Evans, from Greenfields, Shrewsbury, stated that he had been playing at right half-back (for those old enough to remember that particular position) when he saw his team-mate, John Morris, collide with William Evans, the Madeley half-back. There was no statement made to suggest that the Madeley player had acted unfairly, and no kick or blow was landed on Mr Morris. The referee did not caution either player involved in the collision.

Nevertheless, the Shrewsbury player had to be carried off the field of play and was eventually taken to the Unicorn Hotel, where he told Herbert Evans that he was feeling a little better.

 A second witness was Joshua Andrew, from the Mount. He stated that he had gone to watch the match, and that there was no more animosity between the players than was usual at such games. He claimed that John Morris had first been taken to the Infirmary (then situated by St Mary’s Church), but Mr Morris refused to stay there, which is why he was later taken to the Unicorn Hotel.

However, Morris had to be taken back to the Infirmary, where he later died from his injuries.

At the inquest held at the Clarendon Hotel in Shrewsbury (Pride Hill), the coroner heard that Mr Morris had died from the injuries he had sustained on the football field. The acting house surgeon at the Infirmary stated that the body of the deceased had shown no external marks of violence. Although no post-mortem examination had taken place, it was his considered opinion that death was brought about by internal haemorrhaging. A verdict of accidental death was duly recorded.

The funeral of the dead footballer saw hundreds of people line the streets to pay their respects, along with representatives from many of the other football teams in the county. Madeley Town FC sent a wreath that read “Sincerity and sorrowing friends”. There was never any indication that the Madeley player, William Evans, had collided with John Morris with any malign intent, and it was unlucky that the collisions had led to the fatal internal bleeding of a Shrewsbury player.

History does not seem to have recorded the psychological effect on William Evans thereafter, but it is likely that he would have been less willing to engage in physical challenges for some time. It is also worth noting that, had Evans deliberately brought about the fatal collision by virtue of a reckless challenge, it was likely that he would have been charged with manslaughter…

Female Boxing in Shrewsbury

Article first appeared Summer 2021

In March 1868 Mary Callaghan met with Alice Davies in a field close to the river but outside the loop that was Shrewsbury Town Centre. It was not unusual for two women to meet up with each other alongside the River Severn, but in this case, the two women were rivals and had met in the field for a boxing match. This had come about after their various supporters in pubs in the town had boasted about which of the two women was the better fighter. It was subsequently decided that they would fight it out for a prize of five shillings.

On the day in question the women arrived on time, accompanied by a bottle holder, whose purpose was to sponge down the fighters and to provide water between rounds. Once they were ready, bets were placed on the winner and the rules of the fight were made clear.

It is difficult to know which rules were actually followed. The famous Queensberry Rules for boxing had been published in the year before this fight, but, given the rushed nature of this bout, the different way in which the rules may have been interpreted across the country and the lack of enforcement of the rules in any case, it is quite likely that the women simply made up their own rules. It was likely that the use of hard objects held in the hand was prohibited, along with all forms of gouging, butting, scratching, kicking or hitting an opponent whilst they were down.

Whatever, it remained the case that the fight was strictly illegal.

According to the Illustrated Police News of 21st March 1868, which reported this event, the fight was fair – until the third round, when Mary. said to have been ‘smarting from a well-aimed blow’, sank her teeth into Alice’s arm. This infuriated Alice’s supporters, who shouted out in uproar that Mary had breached the rules…

This uproar brought the whole event to the notice of the field’s landowner, who intervened by threatening to call the police. This did temporarily interrupt the fight – but only until everyone had moved to a different field. Thereafter, the two women continued to slug it out for four more gruelling rounds – until the police arrived and scattered the crowd.

The police arrested the two women and were also able to apprehend three of the spectators. All five were brought before Shrewsbury magistrates, who fined the spectators varying amounts from 15 shillings to one guinea.

Mary was sent to prison for 21 days for her part in the fight. Alice, on the other hand, was not able to appear before the magistrates – she was already in prison by that time awaiting trial for another crime. She had been working as a prostitute in Mardol, which was then the centre of Shrewsbury’s red-light district, and she had been accused of robbing a drunken client at a brothel down Mason’s Passage.

The Shrewsbury Town Coracles

Article first appeared Autumn 2021

The old Gay Meadow football ground, one-time home to Shrewsbury Town FC, was the nearest stadium to a river anywhere in the football league. Naturally, this could cause problems with flooding – leading to several postponements and consequent fixture congestion, which was one of the reasons for the construction of the new stadium on the Oteley Road.

Possibly on a more mundane level, there was also a problem with footballs being kicked high into the air, out of the stadium and into the river. It is this reality that led to a unique aspect of footballing history in England.

Fred Davies was a keen follower of Shrewsbury Town and was also a maker of coracles. It was this that led to him being paid by the club to use his coracle in order to retrieve footballs that had found their way into the River Severn.

Fred would sit at the ground and watch the game until his services were required. This was captured in a Nationwide TV feature from 1975, which is now available on YouTube. (You can watch this by clicking on the following link: (2) Nationwide 1975 – Shrewsbury Town – YouTube)

So unique was this feature of Shrewsbury’s history that the original coracle used by Fred was for several years housed in the National Football Museum in Manchester.

In 2016 Shrewsbury Town received what might have been the last coracle that Fred Davies made. He made it to demonstrate coracle building at Acton Scott Working Farm Museum. The coracle had been in the keeping of Tim Speller, who had been working at Acton Scott at the time when Fred built the coracle.

The original coracle was returned to Shrewsbury from the National Football Museum in 2020. This coracle is thought to be more than one hundred years old and is on display in the corner of Shrewsbury Town’s Sovereign Suite.

Fred Davies died some while ago, and the coracle is no longer needed to fetch lost footballs from the river. Nevertheless, the story of Fred and his coracle lingers on the memories of many a Shrewsbury Town supporter…

The Christmas Tipple 1883

Article first appeared Winter 2021

It is perhaps a tradition – at least before Covid 19 restrictions – for people to enjoy a few tipples in the run-up to Christmas. However, in December 1883, people might have wondered at the sudden proliferation of posters declaring ‘war’ on ‘sin and Satan’.

These were posters put up by the Blue-Ribbon Army, which was a radical Christian group that demanded a complete ban on alcohol, which they considered to be the cause of all societal ills. It was a group that targeted several towns across Britain, and it was part of the temperance movement that had grown in popularity in the late 19th century.

On 11th December they arrived in Shrewsbury, where they based themselves in the Baptist chapel on Wyle Cop. Their leader, the self-styled captain, J E Kay, then decided to deploy his ‘troops’ in the Market Square, where he hoped to spread his message. Instead, he walked into a riot.

The posters had certainly had an effect, but not in the way intended. Kay was confronted by a very bad-tempered crowd, which was not impressed by the efforts to deny them their pre-Christmas drinks. The Blue-Ribbon Army was driven from the Square, and then decided to withdraw to their chapel, where they looked for sanctuary.

Unfortunately for them, the rioters had got there first, and when Captain Kay and his ‘troops’ arrived, the building was already full of screaming, enraged people. Kay tried talking to the rioters and handing out hymns, but this failed as the crowd tore apart hymn books, bibles and prayer cushions. Significant damage to the building was also done as seats, windows and even clocks were smashed by the mob, which then threw some of the debris about, hitting several people.

Kay and the others did manage to gain refuge in a back-room, but they were unable to escape until the police arrived and restored order. The police then escorted Captain Kay and some others to their homes, but the rioters followed them, throwing flour and eggs at them until they got bored. Nobody was arrested during the riot, though there may have been some after the event.

Captain Kay was not downhearted by this setback and began planning a huge parade around Shrewsbury on Christmas Day. This apparently went along Mardol, where it was not received at all well…

Golf in Shrewsbury

Article first appeared Spring 2022

The first golf course in Shrewsbury was at Hencote, which is to the north of the town. According to Shrewsbury Golf Club’s website, it had 46 members, but the course was ‘very short, very rough, very wet and very dirty’, so, in 1892, a new nine-hole course was laid out at Meole Brace. This grew to an eighteen-hole course in 1920.

Although the course was expanded further after the Second World War, the development of the A5 bypass in the 1960s compelled the club to consider its future. As a result, a site at Grange Farm near Condover (some three miles south of Shrewsbury) was purchased, and a new course was opened in 1972.

The site at Meole Brace was not lost following the construction of the bypass because it became a municipal course, and it remains as such to this day. Meole Brace Golf Club has no club fee – instead it welcomes all who wish to play golf, gain a golf handicap or just to socialise.