When Chester races sparked controversy and protest
A gathering of the 'vilest and most degraded' characters in England !

Chester's famous Spring horse race meeting is often described as the "Ascot of the North", a great social gathering generating business and prestige for a city which already has more to offer visitors than most of its English counterparts. Chester without its racing is unthinkable, but it has not always been so!

During the 19th century, nonconformists and ecclesiastics of the city literally breathed fire and brimstone to persuade the authorities to abolish racing ... and they almost succeeded. Declaring the sport to be a "damnation" and, apparently, the source of every evil deed in Creation, the objectors constantly lobbied councillors, organised protest meetings, wrote column upon column of letters to the local Press, and distributed pamphlets to unsuspecting citizens, most of whom enjoyed the racing, and could hardly read, in any event!

The Dean of Chester, J.S.Howson, writing in 1870, left little doubt of his opinions when declaring: "Each season seems to indicate an increasing tendency to fraud, obscenity, profanity and debauchery, and an increasing necessity for the vigilance of the police." Good Shepherd that he obviously was, the Dean was concerned with the "moral harm" inflicted on the citizens of Chester by the races:

'There sets in, among the inhabitants, at this time, a state of wild and reckless excitement, which, with too many, obliterates the sense of right and wrong," he added. The races, he insisted, caused some of the "vilest and most degraded" characters of England to descend on the city, "like an army of locusts". At least the Dean's arguments were balanced with an appeal for calm consideration and an acceptance that the city council had, indeed, managed to introduce measures to curb some of the evils which, apparently, manifested themselves in the scores of tents, boxing booths and menageries sited on the Roodee during Race Week.

On the other hand, William Wilson, a nonconformist, was far less charitable when issuing stem words on the "demoralising influence' of racing in general and Chester Races in particular. Quoting at great length from the Bible, and pointing the way towards Hell, Mr Wilson advocated that racegoers should actually visit a Lunatic Asylum to see for themselves the fearful wrecks of humanity..."the racing victims".

Turning to Chester Races, he declared: "...that short week has sown misery in a thousand breasts, has robbed many an inexperienced youth of his better principles, and many an unguarded female of her purity; has left many a parent to mourn over the victims of immorality, and has registered a thousand crimes for the Great Assize. Brawling, drunkenness, gambling, theft, fornication, suicide, and every vice denounced by the divine authority are invariably the results of the present racing system."

Mr Wilson even summoned up a Coroner's inquest, concerning an iron works manager who shot himself at the Hen and Chicken public house, in Birmingham, after "unfortunate speculations'. "Who can say," he asked, "how many of those hundreds of gamblers who throng the vicinity of the Royal Hotel, on Cup days and the preceding evening, go home with disappointed hopes, and terminate their existence in a similar way?"

If Mr Wilson is to be believed, Chester was a veritable Sodom, what with vast numbers of prostitutes plying their trade along the Rows, and corpses littering the roads after a few favourites had gone down on cup day! At least, he saw some salvation... Thank God there are signs of its decay which are unmistakable, and the races are now only because they have been."

How wrong he was! The strongest reasons for retention of the races was considered, at least in the most influential quarters of the Corporation, to be the fiscal benefits, due to a massive increase in the volume of trade during Race Week, and the "unofficial" holiday which the Roodee festival created.

Of course, not everyone shared these convictions and one unnamed city trader went into print to forcibly put the other side of the case, especially against the holiday, whilst proffering an opinion that the 'humbler classes" should be told how to play, as well as work: "It maybe said that Lancashire has its Whitsun-week, and its six days of unproductive labour, but I fail to see that the comparison injuriously affects our position.

The Lancashire operative spends the week in healthful excursions, and pleasure-seeking of a harmless kind, in company generally with his wife or sweetheart. The Chester artisan spends his week in selfish rioting, drunkenness and debauchery, bringing misery and trouble upon his wife and family, and unfitting him for his work.

"What return has our Chester Race-going artisan? Has he informed his mind or given healthful recreation to his body? Does he settle down to his work after his week's dissipation invigorated with rest? Alas, it Is a sadder man that he begins to work again. Would that we could think a wiser one!" Adding weight to the protests (with a literary attack) was Canon Charles Kingsley of Chester, novelist of Water Babies' fame and a self-confessed opponent who described racegoers as 'knaves and black fools", prone to wriggle from their responsibilities with far-fetched excuses.

Aiming his attack at the "young men of Chester" (though he might have been better advised to bend the ears of visiting bookmakers), Canon Kingsley put forward some interesting opinions on the 'evils of betting', a means, he contended, of procuring money out if a neighbour's ignorance. "If you and he bet on anyevent, you think that your horse will win; he thinks his will, or he knows the winner. In plain English, you think that you know more about the matter and try to take advantage of his ignorance,' he argued.

At least the local Press did not share Canon Kingsley's views on betting for, shortly after publication of his pamphlet, we find the Cheshire Observer comnenting: "It may be information worth the Canon's notice,' suggested the Editor of the Observer, "that the real mischief is done by unprincipled owners of horses and their confederates."

Whatever the merits of the Observer's arguments, or indeed those of the turf opponents, Race Week continued to be the highlight of the year for most Cestrians, and hymn-singing protestors made little impression on the great crowds.

One 19th century diarist was probably speaking for the majority when he wrote: "Chester Races, once foremost amongst provincial sporting events, for a while j jeopardised by the cant of a clique of miserable maw-worms, have at length been restored to their former good report. Emerging from the Watergate before you in all Its natural beauty, and with all Its charming accompaniments, spreads the Roodee, placed just where a racecourse should be, under the walls of the town.

'Although there are shows, menageries and Thespian things in lots for the holiday folk, they in no way mingle with, or obstruct the more serious business, the course being exclusively used for the purpose peculiar to it."

The arguments and counter arguments were just the skirmishes for what was later to become a fierce battle as commercialism began to creep into Chester Races !