SPORT IN REGENT’S PARK & PRIMROSE HILL-PART 1- 1848 TO 2005

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PART 1 – FROM 1848 TO 2005

The Government Gymnasium 1848

In 1848 the Commissioner of HM Woods and Forests, Viscount Morpeth, commissioned the building of a “Gymnasium” at the foot of Primrose Hill.  The apparatus was enclosed and supervised by a keeper to preserve order.  The regulations were written on a large board and forbade users to take more than 15 minutes on each piece of equipment.

Skating from 1826 to 1867

Skating was a very popular sport in the 19th century.  The lake in Regent’s Park was created in 1826 and became a popular winter venue for skaters.  There was even a skaters’ clubhouse that is now the Will to Win Tennis clubhouse.  Sadly, on 15 January 1867 39 people drowned and 1 died from hypothermia when the ice on the lake broke, pitching about 200 people into icy water up to 3.7 m deep. Consequently, the lake level was reduced to a maximum depth of 1.2 m and skating ceased.  The skaters then came to an agreement with the Archers to lease their land and building as a winter archery ground for fifty guineas a year.

Archery from 1832 to 1922

The Royal Toxophilite Society flourished in Regent’s Park from 1830 to 1922. For nearly 40 years they had six acres of land between the Inner Circle and the spur of the lake that extended under York Bridge.   In 1834 a magnificent pavilion containing a baronial hall and many balconies was built and furnished at a cost of £4000.  Webster, in his 1911 book on the Park, suggests the pavilion was built on old foundations, either a farmhouse of the old Marylebone Park or an outbuilding of Marylebone Manor House. In 1874 the Society relocated to a 6-acre site now occupied by the Will to Win tennis courts and clubhouse.

After 90 years in the Park, the Toxophilites were “expelled” at the request of residents. The Royal Toxophilite Society now meet at their club near Burnham Beeches.

 The Golf and Tennis School

In 1920 Edward Holdright acquired the lease on land near Macclesfield Bridge to open a Golf and Tennis School which he ran for 50 years.  Among his eminent pupils were the Duke of Windsor and his brother the Duke of Kent.  In 1970 Ken Thom took over the school, and employed Howard Richards as tennis coach. Ralph Richardson, Heather Mills (Paul McCartney’s ex-wife) and Carol Thatcher were some notable students, and Stuart Goddard (later Adam Ant) looked after the courts.  From 1987 Chris Meadows ran the school, until the Royal Parks announced its closure in 2008 to make way for a 5 a-side football centre.  This was fiercely opposed by the Friends, led by then chairman Malcolm Kafetz, and the plan was dropped when it failed to get planning permission. Sadly, by then, the Golf & Tennis school had been closed. Yuri Ouvarov, head coach from 1992 died in sad circumstances shortly after the closure. 

Running track

The cinder running track is located on land between Regent’s Canal and the Outer Circle. The 440-yard track was built in 1930 on land formed from clay dug out when the canal was constructed.  It was financed by £1250, left over from the £5,000 given to the Great Exhibition of 1850 by Sir Howard Frank.

In the 1930s, sports events were held on the track involving as many as 500 school children but after4 WW11 it was little used.   The reasons cited were that it was the wrong size and shape, (the radius is only 43 ft whereas modern tracks are 90 ft), often waterlogged, and changing rooms were too far away.

In 1961 there was a proposal to build a new track near the Baron Pavilion, but this was rejected as the nearby track in the Paddington recreation ground was underutilised.

In 1966 and 1983 the Zoo made offers to use the land for car parking, but these offers were rejected.

Sports pavilions

There have been many sports pavilions in Regent’s Park, the Hub being the latest.  In 1887 a license was granted to Mrs Shanley (a kiosk operator) to build a movable pavilion on a site about half-way between the Hub and the Broadwalk on the north side of the east-west footpath. The specification included iron bars on the windows so cricket balls would not break them! The pavilion cost £100 and was named the Princes Pavilion.  By 1918 the building had rusted, was considered unsafe and was demolished.  It was not replaced for 13 years.

In 1931 the Baron Pavilion was opened. Sir Louis Bernhard Baronwas a local businessman who was concerned about the welfare of his workers and encouraged them to play sport.  It is believed to have been built in red brick with stone Doric columns and was “very solid looking”. Unlike the earlier pavilion that had been built for cricket, this one was for all “healthful games”. It comprised a central lounge, a tea-room, 7 dressing rooms for men plus 3 for women. 

In 1943 an RAF plane crash landed in the park and hit the pavilion.  The crew and pilot, Captain James Allen Robertson, were all killed.  The pavilion was “patched up”, but the women’s dressing rooms were lost.

A new pavilion on the same site was approved by the Ministry of Works and opened on the same site in 1965.  It cost £35,000 to build, and was opened by the Minister Miss Jennie Lee and her husband Mr Dennis Howells.   It was typical 1960’s architecture, and described in the press as “single story, a series of squares arranged in a staggered pattern with a higher section housing the water tanks.”  It was larger than the previous ones, with 11 double changing rooms plus 7 for men, 3 for women and had 25 showers. By the turn of the century the building was in bad condition and was demolished in 2004.   As the Hub was not ready, portacabins were installed as changing rooms.

In 2003/4  work on pitch renewal was undertaken, including on Cumberaland Green.  Many pitches still contained rubble dumped in WW2 which had to be removed, and new surfaces laid.  Pitches were treated with Glyphosate, a herbicide applied to remove grass and weeds in an environmentally friendly way. Grass was resown, using a specially designed mix of species according to soil types and moisture levels in damp and dry grasslands.

By 2003 the Royal Parks had most of the £3.5 million needed to build the new pavilion – The Hub.  Donations included £908,000 from the Football Association, £502,000 from Sports England (Lottery fund), £300,000 from Star Trek Hyde Park exhibition, and £75,000 from the London Marathon Trust.  At that time,the plan was to build an underground pavilion with a café on the surface.

The process of chosing a site and design for the Hub was long and complex. Initial ideas were to place it on the site of the old pavillion, It was then suggested it should be near the Chalbert Bridge.  The current site and design were finally approved in Spring 2002.

 By 2005 the Hub was complete and was opened by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.  The press reported that it was a “stunning design” that conceals the building within a grass covered mound.  It is equipped with 16 changing rooms each with showers and lockers. It also has a first aid room and rooms for management.  The Hub Café on top of the changing rooms has stunning views across the sports area of the Park.

Mark Elliott January 2021

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