Carolinas family with links to the days of Croydon’s races

The Grand National has been run in Liverpool since 1839, around the same time that Croydon races were as famous and well-attended as the events at Aintree

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Ascot. Aintree. Addiscombe…
DAVID MORGAN delves into the records to discover Croydon’s historic links with the Sport of Kings that stretch back nearly a thousand years

The tomb of Christiana Fenwick is one of many that have been long-lost, almost certainly among the many casualties of the great fire that almost completely destroyed Croydon Parish Church in 1867. But the records show that her gravestone read: “Mrs Christ. Fenwick of South Carolina, youngest surviving daughter of the late Colonel John Stuart, died on November 6th 1785”.

The story of Christiana Fenwick and her family sheds light on Croydon’s historical connection with horse racing.

Christiana was born in 1752. Her father, a Scot, had carved out a colourful and often controversial career for himself in the relatively new United Kingdom of Great Britain.

In 1733, Stuart arrived in South Carolina, what was then still a Crown colony, where he got a job as a merchant.

National Treasure: Colonel Stuart’s house in Charleston

He developed a knowledge of many native American tribes and was appointed as the King’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern District of the Colonies. During the Anglo-Cherokee war of 1759-1761, Stuart was captured and a ransom paid for his release, but he is noted for improving relations with the tribes, especially the Cherokee, between the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolutionary War.

In 1772 he built a house in Charleston, on Tradd Street, which still stands today. Known as the Colonel Stuart House it is a registered National Historic Landmark and open as a tourist attraction. It is cherished as an example of the kind of grand homes in the southern colonies from the time of the American War of Independence.

When the war began in 1775, many officials and the native American tribes supported the British cause. But Stuart’s efforts to persuade the Cherokees to fight on the side of the British made him a wanted man among the revolutionaries, and he fled to Georgia.

In was amid such turbulence that Christiana, by now 23, received a proposal of marriage from Edward Fenwick Jnr. This was celebrated by the Stuarts, but certainly not by Edward Fenwick Snr. He made a pronouncement that if his son married Christiana, then he would be cut out of his will. As the Fenwicks were one of the richest families in the Carolinas, one of the richest of all the colonies through its trade in cotton, tobacco and slaves, this was a serious threat to the son’s inheritance, and future.

Perhaps the fact that young Edward and Christiana were cousins was an issue?

Racers and chasers: the Fenwick family was involved in 18th Century horse racing, almost certainly including in Croydon. This scene shows the 1879 International Hurdle

Romance and love won through, though. Edward and Christiana were married, and Edward Snr relented with his threat to amend the will.

Almost straight away, the happy couple left for England. They were to become regular transatlantic passengers for the next few years. Of their offspring, one son died in infancy but two daughters – Sarah, born in 1776, and Mary, born in 1784 – survived.

But Christiana did not live long past the birth of Mary, and died while in England when 33 years old.

As we have outlined previously, Croydon’s Parish Church, now known as the Minster, had strong pre-revolutionary ties with the colonies, and Christiana’s funeral service was conducted by the American vicar, Rev East Apthorp. She was laid to rest under a flagstone in the South Aisle.

One of the reasons for the Fenwicks’ frequent trips to England was horse racing.

Edward Fenwick Snr had set up The John’s Island Stud in South Carolina. This branch of the Fenwick family had been strongly connected to horses and the “Sport of Kings” at least since Sir John Fenwick was appointed Master of the Horse by King Charles I.

Edward Fenwick Snr, Sir John’s grandson, was said to be the “Father of the South Carolina Turf”, setting up stables next to the family home, Fenwick Hall. The South Carolina Jockey Club was established in 1734, 16 years before the Jockey Club was formed in this country.

Stud sign: the Fenwicks’ part in the beginnings of horse racing and breeding in America is marked today

Fenwick wanted fast horses to win the rich purses on offer, so he frequently returned to England to arrange bloodstock deals. He bought horses descended from Godolphin Arabian, one of the three great stallions of that time in England, and had them shipped to South Carolina. After Fenwick Snr died, Christiana’s husband took over the running of the stables and the stud and continued to enjoy winning races at the local track.

He was by all accounts a very good rider. One sharp observer at the time thought that his skills on horseback were, in fact, his only asset.

There is still a race track in South Carolina today at Stono Ferry and they are eagerly awaiting this year’s highlight, the running of the Steeplechase of Charleston in November, a race that traces its history to 1792.

The Fenwicks, when visiting Croydon, will have been aware of a racing history here that went back even further. In 1585, ahead of a visit from Queen Elizabeth, a grandstand was erected for her and her entourage to see races on Duppas Hill, not too far from the Archbishop’s Palace, and where there were records of tournaments and races being held as long ago as 1286.

That date was noteworthy as Lord William de Warren, the son and heir of the 6th Earl of Surrey, was killed when jousting at the event. Such meetings were held frequently enough for a nearby inn to be called The Running Horse.

The Queen’s further visits to see the Croydon races in 1587 and 1588 cemented the area’s standing as a regular venue for organised events. Maps from the 1600s and 1700s show that there continued to be a track here, occupying a stretch of today’s Brighton Road.

In the later part of this period, as steeplechasing – cross-country races literally from one steeple to another – became increasingly popular, with huge amounts being wagered on the outcome, so one regular race was run from just south of Croydon, through Purley to a finish at Stoats Nest – a distance of almost four miles.

King James I continued the royal patronage of Croydon racing on his visit in March 1610, though there was never any record of a “Royal Croydon” meeting, as there is Royal Ascot today.

And they’re orf: Horse racing, and gambling on it, was hugely popular through the 1700s and 1800s.  This painting of a scene in Epsom, The Start for the Memorable Derby of 1844, by John Frederick Herring, is from the Museum of Croydon collection

Land sales and development meant that in 1858 a new course was laid out at Selhurst Farm, between the Jolly Sailor and Selhurst Wood. Two years later and another course was laid out, at Weaver’s Farm, on the Upper Addiscombe Road, where Park Hill Road and Park Hill Rise now lie. The grandstand was positioned where Chichester Road is located. Races were held here both over jumps and on the flat.

In the Illustrated London News for the second week of August 1878, only two race meetings in England are listed for the 10th: Ripon in the north and Croydon in the south.

Race day specials: the new train service provided cheap transport to the races from London

The first two-day meeting was staged on Croydon’s new track on December 4 and 5 1860.

The meetings attracted some of the top racehorses around: Shifnal, the winner of the 1878 Aintree Grand National, what is now regarded as the world’s most famous horse race, was also a winner of a ‘chase at Croydon.

Steeplechase and flat meetings were regularly held over the next 30 years, with the final flat meeting being held in October 1890. The meetings were attracting larger and larger crowds – many of them travelling to a specially built station at Woodside for the new railway from London – and local residents were becoming noisy in their opposition. You can read more about it by clicking here and visiting the Norwood Society’s website.

The licence to race was not renewed in 1890 due to local pressure. The wrong sort of people were attracted to the racing, with pickpockets, drunkards and petty criminals invoking outrage from those living nearby. It all seems a little closer to Peaky Blinders than the genteel elegance of the royal enclosure at Acot.

National winner: Shifnal won at Liverpool, and at Croydon

With the new-fangled railways providing “cheap” and relatively speedy transport, the Croydon races would attract folk from all over London, with special trains being laid on from Victoria, Kensington, London Bridge and Liverpool Street. A station was built at Woodside (where today’s tram stop is) for them to alight, and the platform was even adapted to allow racehorses to be transported to the course more easily.

The very last flat race to be held at the Croydon race track was on Wednesday October 15. The Welter Handicap, run over a mile, was won by Lamprey, owned by Mr W Heasman and ridden by Arthur Nightingale, beating Jarretieres, owned by Mr J McKenna.

The final jumps meeting was held on November 26, 1890.

A newspaper report of the day stated, “After a sharp frost, the morning opened anything but pleasant. A thick mist enveloped the course but little could be seen of the racing. There was, however, a very large company present to assist with the last meeting at Woodside.”

The final National Hunt race was won by Bedfellow, beating the favourite Royal Duke into third place.

Runners and riders: the International Hurdle at Croydon in 1886 even had a poem written for it

Just think if Croydon could have kept its racecourse, what a great sporting venue it might have become.

Back in 1886, a poem was written to highlight the runners in the Croydon International Hurdle and help punters to choose which of the horses to back. It’s not exactly the approach you’d expect today from Timeform and the Racing Post, but…

We may take in hand The Frigate
And the market we may rig it
And if nobody should prig it (there you are).
Or Pizarro you may go and try your luck with, I should say
You may even do the same along with Ducat, Tral lay lay,
And it’s possible The Minster,
Hasn’t anything a’ginst her
So let bachelor and spinster, fire away.
I am not the one to go and make a hero (or to try)
Of that overweighted animal Bolero. Tral li li

Read more: From Massachusetts to the Minster: Americans in Croydon
Read more: Addington’s ancient church has a place in nation’s history
Read more: 200-year-old documents reveal story behind the graves
Read more: Cleric who faced court at time of Pepys, plague and puritans

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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