Writing to rescue of wartime racing

Author and publisher ANTON RIPPON reviews a recently self-published book on horse racing during the Second World War

On August Bank Holiday weekend in 1939, Hughie Green starred at Derby’s Grand Theatre, the band of the Life Guards played to a large crowd in a local park, and at the town’s racecourse on Nottingham Road, where Derbyshire County Cricket Club also played, “a large attendance of Birmingham folk” was present for a three-day meeting where Gordon Richards was among the jockeys.

Green would one day become a household name with his television talent show, like the rest of Britain, the Life Guards would soon be at war; and for Derby, there would never be another horse race meeting.

In 1945, the local council told Derby Recreation Company that its lease would not be renewed because racing had encouraged “too many scallywags” to the pre-war town. This is just one tiny facet of horse racing in wartime Britain, a hitherto sadly neglected tale.

However, thanks to author John Saville, a former head of revenue and benefits for Derby City Council, the whole remarkable story has been unearthed.

And, it turns out, one of the main villains of the piece was none other than the man who was arguably Derby’s most famous MP.
Saville’s new book, Insane and Unseemly: British Racing in World War II, shows how Philip Noel-Baker, himself a fine sportsman who had won an Olympic 1,500 metres silver medal, was also a high-minded intellectual with no time for horse racing. So, from the sport’s point of view, it was unfortunate that, in 1942, he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Department of War Transport.

When it came to fuel, Noel-Baker pursued the department’s message of utmost economy with almost evangelical zeal. And, as he had no time for racing, transporting horses around the country came pretty near the top of his list of targets.

In fact, in 1941 Noel-Baker appeared to say that, while he did not mind people travelling to meetings at Windsor and Cheltenham, he strongly objected to horses doing so.

He was not alone. While spectator sport was generally welcomed as a diversion for tired workers, many saw racing as a wasteful luxury. Yet, despite all the hurdles placed in its way, racing kept its integrity throughout the war. While other sports, like football and cricket, had to adapt to temporary alternatives with little significance beyond their immediate entertainment value, racing remained very much “the real thing”.

Insane and Unseemly is based on original research into Home Office and Jockey Club papers and first-hand recollections from staff who worked at the three leading stables where 12 winners of wartime classics were trained.

From the suspension and reinstatement of racing in 1940, the restrictions of 1941-42, the minimal programmes of the later years and the recovery that began in 1945, Saville relates with remarkable clarity the unseen political infighting, the murky world of unlicensed racing, the bitter anti-racing campaigns, and the Jockey Club’s equivalent of the Beveridge Report, as well as providing wonderfully evocative descriptions of a day at the wartime races, the bombing of Newmarket, and Home Guard activities in the Wiltshire racing village of Beckhampton.

The 69-year-old Saville is a long-standing member of the congregation of Derby Cathedral, and deputy chairman of the Diocesan Board of Finance.

He said: “If the Church of England and horse racing seems an odd combination, I should say that the Bishop of Repton and his wife are both keen racegoers, and that I still go racing occasionally with the former Canon Theologian.

“In fact, part of the first chapter of the book, about church and racing similarities, is something that he and I worked out in a lot more detail some years ago.

“My aim is to tell a story that has never been done at length before, in a way that will interest both racing people and readers of more general social life.” In both he has succeeded in style.

Insane and Unseemly: British Racing in World War II by John Saville is published by Matador, priced £13.99, and is available from

Anton Rippon is author of Gas Masks For Goalposts: Football In Britain During The Second World War.

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