In medieval times, the boundary between ‘sports’ and military training was very blurred. While the ruling classes competed in tournaments – with Harry Hotspur possibly being the first national sporting superstar for jousting – ordinary men were encouraged to practice archery. This was carried out on the open public grounds of Green Batt and the Arrowbutts, the land outside the walls, between the Clayport and Pottergate Towers.

Early Popular Sports

From the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a national decline of popular sports of the period. Alnwick in general survived this decline. In the late eighteenth century Catnach stated “many of the feudal customs, which have since disappeared [nationally], were in great repute [in Alnwick]. Bull baiting, cock fighting were always sure to draw together a gazing throng”. Such barbaric blood sports eventually disappeared, due to public opinion, statutes and religious objections.

Other sports were relatively uncodified, and as a result, quite ‘rough’. St Marks Day the ancient Freeman’s ritual of ‘running the well’ practised for centuries on a Freeman’s Hill was once described as an ‘old barbaric sport’, and until 1828, the ancient Shrovetide football game was played through the streets of Alnwick.

Although popular throughout England, bare knuckle or prize fighting has little history in the area. Boxing booths were common at visiting fairs. A rare fight in the town was reported in 1821. A William Davison handbill advertises a boxing exhibition at the Turks Head Inn in 1819. A similar handbill advertised pugilist training at the Blue Bell in December 1822.

Horse racing was carried out on a course near Hobberlaw. The last local horse race on the Racecourse was run in 1793 due in part to Church dissenting opposition and the massive involvement of gambling.

From the 1790s Bowmen of the Chevy Chase Archery competitions used Alnwick Castle as a venue. In October 1792 John Bell, esq., of Gallow-hill successfully shot for ‘Captain of Target’ and ‘Captain of Numbers’. The Duchess of Northumberland, honoured the meeting by her attendance watching the shooting from the ramparts of the castle.

The Rise of Codified Sports

From the nineteenth century and in particular the second half, the codified development of modern sports was evident in the town. Unlike the rest of the country, Alnwick did not suffer the effects of industrialisation in terms of sport and the resulting loss of space to play. Also, most significantly where popular sports suffered from the deprivation of earlier elite patronage, the opposite was the case. The Recreation Ground, which, in 1760, had been allocated by the the Duke of Northumberland and the Freemen as a place for ‘public amusements’ became the location for various athletic and gymnastic events.

In 1828, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland saved the traditional town Shrovetide Football match by granting a pitch on the North Demesne. In 1837, Alnwick Cricket Club was founded by the Duke who had enjoyed cricket in London and introduced it to the landowners and farmers of the county. From 1844, successive Dukes were the main patrons of the Alnwick Gymnastic Games. In 1873, the 6th Duke was fully behind the opening of the Baths and Washhouse. Four years later he became the 1st Patron of Alnwick Bowling Club in 1877 and was likewise the Patron of the Hotspur Rugby Football Club founded in 1880. In the case of both the cricket and bowling club the Dukes provided the playing areas.

Alnwick Town FC can trace its roots back to 1879, Alnwick Rugby Union FC to 1880, Alnwick Tennis Club was started in 1884 and the Golf Club in 1907.

Recreational swimming took place in the Aln, at the Haugh, the `hole` midway along the pastures, the Sump and Hesleyside Deeps (eventually favoured for the club championships due to its 80-yard length and greater spectator viewing. Competitive swimming events also took place from 1876, though on a small scale, in the Baths and Washhouse on Clayport Street.

As with the country in general the opening of Alnwick Railway Station in 1847 soon played a huge part in the cricket, bowling and football clubs travelling further afield to fulfil fixtures. Likewise attendance and entries at competitions such as the Gymnastic Games grew considerably.

Popular Sports

From the 1790s Bowmen of the Chevy Chase Archery competitions used Alnwick Castle as a venue. In October 1792 John Bell, esq., of Gallow-hill successfully shot for ‘Captain of Target’ and ‘Captain of Numbers’. The Duchess of Northumberland, honoured the meeting by her attendance watching the shooting from the ramparts of the castle.

In the 19th century, there two rifle ranges in the town; the Alnwick Moor Rifle Range and Moorlaws Rifle Range, neither of which are still operating

1872 Hardy Brothers opened a new fishing tackle factory and shop in Paikes Street. They were already famous Gunsmiths in the town. Not long after an Alnwick Angling Association was formed.

Ice Skating was popular on the Aln when frozen and Curling was possible on a frozen pond near the River Aln adjacent to the Wooler Road. A club was formed in 1879. Curling was also reported being played on the frozen River Aln in 1906.

1879 – Alnwick Amateur Bicycle Club founded, with the Market Place a regular meeting place. The club ‘uniform’ consisted of a navy blue knickerbocker suit, with helmet and silver monogram A.A.B.C.

From 1887 a Roller Skating facility was available at the Corn Exchange. A world record over two miles was attempted (no result recorded).

The Star Hotel also in Fenkle Street until it burned down was a very popular meeting venue for many sports clubs in the town. The Star was one of five premises in the town with a Billiards table – Mechanics Institute (two tables), Nags Head, The Plough and The Working Men’s Club. From the 1880s tournaments were held and from 1900 the Club team played in the Burroughs and Watts Northumberland Miners Billiards League North Division. Billiards was very popular in the Northumberland mining communities.

Physical Culture. In the autumn of 1902, the Alnwick Physical Culture Society was formed with the well being of the town in mind and in particular the advancement of youth, under the auspices of the British Amateur Weightlifting and Physical Culture Association. Earl Grey was the patron of the society. Activities included dumb bells, Indian clubs, weightlifting, physical drill, ‘posing’, gymnastics, fencing, boxing and feats of strength. The landlord at the Plough made the large dining room available for training carried out by Joseph Arkless (Colour Sergeant of the Northumberland Fusiliers) and John Whellans (also a successful long distance walker in local competitions marshalled by the amateur cycling club). Display teams were sent around the north east and regular events were put on locally at the Corn Exchange as part of choral and entertainment evenings. Bodybuilding improvement competitions were measured in inches. The first local exhibition took place in December 1903 at the Corn Exchange and John Whellans and Charles Martin the Alnwick Hercules (see Alnmouth Weightlifting) were always the star acts when touring venues further afield with the display teams.

In the early months of 1904 Alnwick Hockey Club for both sexes was formed. Their first game was away to the established Berwick Club, losing 2-4. Two weeks later Alnwick lost 1-5 in their first home fixture. Interestingly the Alnwick Mercury reported Alnwick’s solitary goal followed a ‘scrum’. The club’s home ground was at the cricket club (see Cricket). In November a men only team lost 4-2 at the Pier Field Berwick.

Other nineteenth century sports included Quoits with pubs providing pitches in their yards – The Star Quoits Club was formed in 1866 for devotees of ‘manly sports’. A Homing pigeon club was formed in the early 1900s and the birds were regularly despatched from Alnwick Railway Station.

School Sports

Physical activity later to become physical training following the Forster Education Act for Elementary Board Schools (State) Schools In 1870 was in the form of military drill. Games were not covered under the code, schools were lucky to have a small outside playground never mind any other playing facility. Following the ‘Model Course ‘ in 1902 exercises were added to the military drill instructed by army NCOs. These early syllabuses of physical training (PT) were monotonous and in 1909 simple games were added to relieve the dullness and tedium. Interestingly in the history of the Duchess’s Girls School drill and games were included in the afternoon school syllabus for girls between 6-13. The drill was conducted by a sergeant from the Northumberland Fusiliers.For the senior school 13-17 gymnastics and drill took place in the morning. A report on Physical Exercises sent to the county education authorities in 1914 stated ‘ various mistresses take drill in the hall. There is no apparatus of any kind and dancing is not an extra’. As a result a qualified county teacher of gymnastics was later appointed to teach one day a week for a salary of £26 a year. At the turn of the century both the Duke’s and Borough Schools included drill and games (against trends elsewhere) in their curriculum. When the Dukes School’s new building was opened in 1904, the school had the bonus of extensive playing fields and the opening day ceremony included a cricket match. In 1910 the Dukes School employed a part-time cricket professional.

Football was popular throughout the year. From 1856 press reports regularly include notification of a Shrovetide game for Duke’s School pupils on a separate part of the demesne. In 1857 this was recorded as an inter school match – Duke’s School v Borough Schools In 1857. When Association Football started in the town there are regular reports of football involving the Duke’s School. In November 1882 a junior section was formed playing their first game against the Borough School. The Dukes School Old Boys team later became Percy Rovers playing on the South Road. In the early days of the cricket club, juvenile Canongate and Hotspur teams were reported. Inter school cricket matches between the Borough and The Dukes School were regularly played. Pre WW1 both Alnwick Harriers and Alnwick Swimming Club regularly published their junior results in the local press. The swimming club in particular was to give encouragement to the boys and youths of the town to learn aquatic skills. This later included girls. In 1913 Alnwick Tennis Club started a junior section.

Women in sport

Throughout the country in the nineteenth century sport predominantly was pursued by men. The female dimension of the sporting revolution was primarily middle class. In general awakened by educational and recreational experiences they also had the time and financial means to participate in games such as golf and tennis. A late 1700s watercolour picture by William Beilby of Denwick Bridge including women fishing from a boat, uniquely highlights this social class issue. One letter printed in the Alnwick Mercury in 1911 sums up the attitude to women’s sport in general – Alnwick Swimming Club ‘ it is hoped that the ladies gala be an open event in the river, instead of a semi private affair in the Baths’. This was not a unanimous proposal – ‘ some of the girls are in favour of an event near Denwick Mill, but others threaten to leave the club if it takes place. A great comment occurred when the first lady skater appeared on the Aln. It was then considered unwomanly and completely out of place for a woman to skate! When cycling was first commenced by ladies some held up their hands in pious horror and said it was indecent. Others again professed to be shocked when ladies commenced to ride horses astride and mixed bathing at the seaside was roundly objected by some. As for mixed swimming at the public baths this was considered to be a matter for the police’. The following year the Alnwick Ladies Swimming Club numbered 71 members.

Women’s races at local athletics events were few and far between. The WAAA was not formed until 1922. Locally, Shilbottle Gymnastics Games occasionally included a ladies race. Alnwick Hockey Club formed in 1904 included the odd mixed matches. Tennis club competition results were predominantly mixed doubles.. In 1907 Alnwick Golf Club opened with 138 members including 39 women, although it wasn’t until 1934 before there was evidence of a ladies section. The subscription and green fees were £1 1s for the men and the ladies paid 10/6d. In the clubs’ first competition in 1907 Mrs Watson Smart was the winner of the ladies silver spoon. Alnwick Bowling Club had ‘Ladies Days’ but that didn’t involve any active participation and it wasn’t until 1913 that a ladies section was proposed at the club. Not long after the club’s foundation a suggestion that a Croquet lawn be laid alongside the green for use by member’s wives was met by ‘a lamentable lack of enthusiasm’ and the proposal was dropped. One press article describes one Bicycle Club event where the ladies had beautifully decorated cycles and were dressed in pretty costumes.

Ladies regularly attended major local events in large numbers such as the Gymnastic Games and Shrovetide Football and were played a major roll in the running of local clubs. Alnwick Association Football Club charged 3D for important games with ladies receiving free admission.

Sporting related sites courtesy of Archie Jenkins