Beccles Racecourse

The first mention of Beccles Races that I have found is in the Norwich Gazette, dated 24th July 1709. It reports on a race meeting that took place on Monday the 4th July. Other races took place in subsequent years with the newspapers reporting what seems to have become an annual entertainment. The races were obviously popular as by 1718 it had become a two day event with a variety of supporting entertainments. Cock fighting at the Falcon Inn, which was on New Market, is one example, but plays, music, dancing and evening entertainments were also included. The races were for prize money, as much as £50 being on offer for some of the more important races. The Racecourse was located on Beccles Common and the races were typically of three, four or five horses and a 2 mile race was one of the more popular distances.

The first records of a race in the museum collection are contained within Volume 33 of the Rix Collection. There is a sketch of part of the racecourse with buildings for officials and spectators. Rix kept a copy of the Ipswich Journal of the 2nd July 1743 which details the 19th July plans. A prize of £50 is to be awarded to any Horse, Mare or Gelding, carrying 12 stone. It will be run on the Beccles course over three heats. The horse must have been the property of a Suffolk or Norfolk gentleman for at least six months and must not have won any previous prize above £10. The horse cannot have been raced at Newmarket. On the second day another race, also for £50, would be run; this time they would be more experienced horses and allowed to have previously won larger prize money. As well as the racing there would be “Cock Fighting at the Falcon Inn, an Assembly with Ipswich Music at the Town Hall as usual”.

In Gowing's Diary extracts, which Rix also documents, these races continue through the late 1700’s into the 1800’s. Most of the races seem to be two day events and became increasingly well supported with ever more elaborate supporting activities. London entertainers from the English Opera House and Theatre Royal Drury Lane performed, there were fireworks and people carrying balloons. Rix details the costs of the 1844 race meeting. Income and outgoings balanced at £222 for the two day event.

The 1849 race seems to have ended the long running series of events. It is not clear why they ended. In 1856 there was an announcement of a meeting to discuss restarting the races. Local dignitaries supported the cause with the benefits being stated thus: “a social pleasure, typically English, it will generate trade, entertains the working man, and will help revive a once flourishing town”. However, there is also strong opposition from the Rector of St Michael's Parish Church. When he is asked to allow the ringing of the Church bells to mark the start of the event, he refuses. Much heated debate takes place and protest meetings are held. The Mayor is quoted as stating that “the people are taxed for the church, taxed for the steeple, taxed for the bells, but the people have no say on their use. Taxation and representation go hand in hand and the bells should be allowed to ring”. The concerns of the Rector seem to be that races led to immorality, betting, cards and dice. There is a suggestion that a notorious crime known as the Palmer Murder case, also known as the Rugeley Poisoner, may have had a bearing on the Rector's views. Doctor William Palmer was found guilty in 1855 of the poisoning of his friend, the possible poisoning of family members and defrauding his wealthy mother. The crimes were committed to obtain money to repay debts incurred through horse racing. Doctor Palmer was found guilty and hung in 1856. Despite the Rector's objections, the races took place. But racing was short lived and the final race meeting, one year later, was on the 9th September 1857.

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