Updated: Jun 29
In my last few posts I have concentrated on the history of my Hermitage Road locality and hopefully shown that even what can seem as a mundane neighbourhood could have had a varied and interesting hidden past. I have been trying to find out a bit more about how this neighbourhood was once the venue for what was an extremely popular working class sport.
At the junction of Hermitage Road and Cowley Road there was a Greyhound track which my dad had described to me as a “flap track”. The site later became a wood yard although the outline of the track was still visible. The flats of "Fylde House" now sit on the site and there e is no longer any physical evidence of the track ever having been there.
A “flapping track” is one that is unlicensed but still legal. Major bookmakers have always avoided taking large (if any) bets on “flapping” races due to its uncontrolled nature and suspicions of race fixing. Although it has been difficult to find much information about the track an entry on a "Historic Coventry" forum from 2016 gives one person's vague memories: Kaga Simpson wrote:
"I vaguely remember going to a flapping track somewhere in Wyken with an uncle in the thirties, it was all mysterious with the sound of cops and threats and not to mention it to my mother, but I remember the excitement of watching the dogs run. A few weeks after I saw a girl with a number of greyhounds on leads in Lythalls Lane, she was pulled off her feet by them as they pounced on a small terrier and tore it to shreds, put me off greyhounds for a number of years."
The description is similar to how my dad had described the atmosphere around the track and he had told me that some locals considered the site to be the "rough end" of the street!
Some unscrupulous owners and trainers have been known to drug animals and to adjust a dog’s diet to influence odds at the track and influence the predictability of a dog’s performance. One such method is that of “overfeeding” to up the dog’s weight and slow it down on track. After a period of under-performance the dog will then be put on a performance enhancing diet allowing those in the know to cash in on inflated odds.
Although it is now widely recognised that modern greyhound racing is highly regulated with the emphasis being on the welfare of the animals the sport was hit hard by justified concerns about the well being of the dogs over the years. These concerns together with a much wider choice of entertainment options has seen a general decline in spectator numbers over recent decades.
At the time of writing there are only five remaining flapping tracks in the UK. Back in the 1930s (when the Hermitage Road track was in operation) through to the 1950s there were over two hundred tracks sometimes attracting hundreds of spectators (the licensed tracks would attract thousands – 34 million people were recorded as having visited British licensed tracks in 1946). These flapping tracks allowed many working class dog owners to run their animals at low cost. In the decades leading up to, including and after WW2 greyhound racing was the second highest working class spectator sport behind football.
Many of the licensed tracks doubled up as speedway tracks as had been true in Coventry – both at Brandon and Lythalls Lane. The stadium at Lythalls Lane was opened in 1928 with a capacity for 5000 spectators to speedway and greyhound meetings. Brandon was opened a couple of years later giving the city two “speedways”. I used to regularly go along to watch the Bees during the 70s and 80s. It was the annual venue for the British Final – the country’s biggest individual event and I have been present in crowds of 15000 for those events.
The racing tracks mentioned here are just three of the city’s lost sporting venues.
Just ten minutes walk away from my Hermitage Road home is the walled Stoke Park estate. Prior to the estate being built the area was used for horse racing up to the 1830s – the track roughly following a circuit around the Ball Hill area of Walsgrave Road, Marlborough Road, Binley Road and Brays Lane. Races were sponsored by the Craven family of Coombe Abbey and included versions of the Derby trial “The Craven Stakes” which still survives as an annual major race run at Newmarket. The family were owners of Wyken’s Craven Colliery which operated from the late 17th century up until its closure in 1927. The colliery’s cricket club played at Gosford Green – just a little further down the Binley Road and a stonesthrow away from another lost sporting venue, the former home of Coventry City, Highfield Road.
There could be a whole book written about Coventry's lost sporting venues - perhaps one for the future .......