Pat Heery, Tuesday 24 January 2012
The existence of a velodrome in Putney 100 years ago comes as a surprise to many residents.
In 1888 a Mr John Davis, a local builder, took out a lease on land in west Putney and proceeded to construct the first concrete cycling track in England. Putney Velodrome opened in 1891, registered for national and international competition. For 15 years it was a very popular venue for cycling races and athletic meetings as well as being used by the community - particularly the local schools for their annual sports days. It included 12 tennis courts, a bowling green and a quoits pitch.
The cycle track itself, starting from No 1 Landford Road, turned left into Earldom Road and left again into Hotham. The western end of the track was a short stretch of Erpingham Road with Landford Road as the final stretch, the finishing line being on the site of No 1-5 Landford. The entrance to the ground was in Clarendon Drive where Nos 70A and 69a are now built, these two houses showing their Edwardian origins, among the general Victoriana of their neighbours.
Putney station and South-Western Railways gave easy access to Putney from elsewhere in London and spectators flocked from far and near. The Velodrome’s 12 and 24-hour races regularly attracted as many as 10,000 spectators.
But more significantly, the vast improvement in cycle technology prompted a craze for cycling that can only be described as fanatical – both for sport and for leisure pursuits. From 1840 onwards inventors, from engineers to blacksmiths, mainly in England and France, built, tested and refined a machine that would make society independent of the horse. Among a host of designs were twowheeled, three-wheeled and horsedrawn vehicles, going by a host of names – hobby-horses, celeripede, curricle, pedemotive carriage, velocifere, dandy-horse, celeromane, bone-shaker and, finally, the accepted tricycle and bicycle; there were even aellopodes - previously only found in Homer and Euripides - meaning ‘storm-footed.’ As one Frenchman put it, ‘a machine that would eat neither hay nor oats’ was required. But finally, the biggest single factor in promoting cycling was John Dunlop’s production of the pneumatic tyre, patented in 1888. Before the internal combustion engine stopped it dead in its tracks the cycle was hailed as the great liberator. The Scientific American had a headline in 1902: ‘Walking is on its last legs.’ HG Wells featured cycling in one of his novels, where the upper-class lady and her working-class beau cycle off, up Putney Hill and on into the Surrey countryside.
One cause for concern amongst our prudish Victorian forefathers was whether it was decent for women to ride cycles and, if so, what was the appropriate dress – ‘rational dress,’ as it was called. There was a moral element to all this, but doctors also weighed in with their opinions – ‘in young girls the bones of the pelvis are not able to resist the tension required to ride a bicycle.’
Photographs and sketches of the track give the impression of a neat, well-laid out ground with a rather smart grandstand which gave the higher-paying spectators a comfortable seat and protection from the elements. Distance walking was also a feature of the programme. On 23 October 1897 Bill Sturges set world walking records for 12 miles and 13 miles; and on the same day Jack Butler established new records for all distances between 14 and 21 miles. Then in 1905 Jack Butler set new walking records for all distance from 22 miles to 50 miles. It was not just the Boat Race that promoted the reputation of Putney in the 1900s.
But Mr Davis’ lease ran out in 1905. Money was to be had in housing and by 1907 an enclave of Edwardian middle-class housing was on the market. Putney Velodrome faded fast from the memory.
The Putney Velodrome and the Putney Velodrome Estate by Pat Heery.To order a copy ring 020 8788 0762 or email email@example.com.