Which English racecourse was built in preference to a lunatic asylum?
When it held its first meeting on April 22, 1875, Sandown Park Racecourse, in Esher, Surrey, had the distinction of being the first purpose-built, enclosed racecourse in the country. However, in 1870, when the land on which the racecourse now stands came up for sale, local inhabitants faced a dilemma.
The three proposals tabled for the development of the land were the construction of a model town, a lunatic asylum and, most controversially of all, remarkably, a racecourse. Of course, in the late nineteenth century, racecourses had an unenviable reputation as gathering places for ne’er-do-wells from all walks of life. Furthermore, the proximity of Esher to London – approximately 14 miles from London Waterloo – was thought likely to increase its attraction to members of London Society, which made the establishment of a racecourse even less desirable in the eyes of detractors.
Nevertheless, despite considerable opposition, the Williams brothers, Owen and Hwfa – who, if they were any doubt about the venture, enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Wales – went ahead in their attempt to raise the image of horse racing. By enclosing the course in a boundary fence and charging admission, they achieved their ambition of making Sandown Park a safe place for women, ‘without the slightest fear that they would run the risk of social shipwreck or be exposed to a rough and tumble.’