Ipswich Icons: The Racecourse pub may have been transformed into a Tesco Express store but historic link with horse racing is not forgotten


Racecourse - Credit: Archant

John Norman of The Ipswich Society looks back at the history of horse racing in the Nacton Road area of Ipswich.

We don’t often refer to the housing estate along Nacton Road as the Racecourse these days. The rationale for the continuation of use was the Racecourse public house which closed in 2008 and became a Tesco Express.

The pub carried this name because it stood close to the winning post of Ipswich’s horse racing course.

Horse racing had been taking place here since 1710 when riders competed for the Town Cup, prize money £40, but it was formally recognised as a proper course in 1727. During those early years the course grew to become more established and recognised.

Initially it was a simple race between stakes set out across the heath. There was no attempt to prepare the course, fill the rabbit holes or remove the gorse bushes but in 1727 the course was awarded ‘The Royal Plate’, a race worth 100 guineas to the winner. Sometimes referred to as the King’s Plate, the course required careful preparation, definitive marking and a level surface on which the horses could run without stumbling.

The course was on the area of land between Felixstowe and Nacton Roads, a circuit of some two miles. Starting along the line of what is today Lindbergh Road, into Cobham Road and then running parallel to Felixstowe Road towards town. The runners would turn at Hatfield Road and finish alongside Nacton Road, close to where the shops are today.

The Royal Plate gave meetings credibility and the crowds increased substantially. A grandstand was built and an advertisement placed in the Ipswich Journal:

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“The public are respectfully informed that a complete and elegant stand is now finished, with an inscription ‘The Gentlemen’s Stand’, admission: two shillings and sixpence each.”

In the latter half of the 18th Century popularity decreased slightly until the garrison came to Ipswich (in preparation for the Napoleonic Wars). Race meetings were particularly well attended by cavalry officers who would compete as well as watch.

There is a story that the very first steeplechase took place between cavalry officers over a scratch course across Nacton Heath to St Martin’s, Orwell Park and back. Suffolk church towers are, confusingly, often called steeples. So, in 1803, officers of the 7th Hussars decided on a moonlit night to race from their barracks in Ipswich to Nacton Church steeple.

Supposedly wearing night caps and white gowns so they could be seen, the officers terrorised the villagers with their clatter in deciding which horse was the best. Thus the “steeplechase” was born.

The Ipswich racecourse could accommodate different types of races, flat, hunt and over the sticks (or hurdles). Hunt racing was designed to emulate open country fox hunting with the necessity to jump over hedges at field-width intervals. Younger and less experienced horses were expected to race over hurdles but these were unpopular both with jockeys and the horses. All too frequently the horse would refuse and turn and run across the front of the jump unseating the jockeys of the other horses.

A day at the races included sideshows and booths selling food and catchpenny amusements (much like the Epsom Derby today). In 1795 the sideshows included a menagerie with elephant and other exotic animals. It is likely that this was the first elephant to visit Ipswich.

Winning was all important to the owner and jockey but for spectators betting on the outcome of the race was the most significant activity on the course. This created a whole new industry of bookmaking. The bookmaker would offer ever changing odds on each horse and enter the bet (and the potential winnings) in his ‘book’.

The idea was that he could see at a glance his income (the bets placed on various horses) and the likely payout, particularly if the favourite won.

Horse racing continued at Nacton Road until 1911 when the ground was sold to Ipswich Corporation who built the estate after the First World War.

The Ipswich Society

The society was founded in 1960 following widespread concerns about the dangers facing some of our valuable old buildings and also the poor quality of the new ones. Many other towns were forming civic societies at this time.

The aims of our non-political society are to conserve what is of value in the town and to try to ensure that new work enhances the best of our heritage. To this end we examine all local planning applications and comment formally where appropriate. We also study and respond to national and regional proposals which affect Ipswich. The Society is well aware that a thriving local economy is an essential base for development of the town and encourages and supports measures to bring this about.

Our annual Awards Evening recognises particularly good quality development in the town. Architects, builders and owners are presented with certificates to mark their contribution to the ambience of Ipswich. In addition, our Blue Plaques draw attention to notable people who have connections with the town.

Members receive a quarterly Newsletter, which helps them to keep in touch with what is happening in the town, throughout the winter there are a series of Illustrated Talks on a variety of topics and in the summer there are visits to places of historic or architectural interest.

Our Annual General Meeting is usually followed by an interesting talk of local relevance. Both the AGM and the Awards Evening conclude with refreshments and socialising.

The Society provides the local organisation for Heritage Open Days which is held in early September. Members of the public can see inside interesting local buildings which are not normally open. A restored Ipswich Transport bus is often available for free rides between attractions.

To join the Society, just send either £15 for family membership or £10 (individual) to the Membership Secretary, 11 Dalton Road, Ipswich, IP1 2HT with your name and address or email secretary@ipswichsociety.org.uk or visit their website