A guest post by Jamie Ross and Husayn Smart.
Sport has been at the centre of London’s cultural history for hundreds of years. London is the only city in the world to host the Olympics three times – but beyond the huge stadiums and global events, London’s streets and suburbs are marked by a rich and diverse history of sporting competition and character.
London’s oldest surviving sporting structure is nearly 500 years old and totally hidden from public view. Commissioned by Henry VIII in the 1530s, Whitehall Palace was a wonder of the age, designed for decadence and pleasure. The northern wall of the Palace’s tennis court remains at the very heart of modern Westminster – within the Cabinet Office itself. It is believed that Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, was watching (and betting on) a game there when she was arrested and charged with adultery. Henry could not bring himself to live at the Palace after her supposed betrayal – but it, and its custom-built sports complex, would become the proud home of his and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I.
Not that the young Queen was much of a popular sports fan – in 1572, she tried to have ‘foteball’ players banned from the City of London ‘on pain of imprisonment’, following in the footsteps of her father, who banned the sport entirely in 1540.
Much to the probable annoyance of the Tudors, football would arguably become the sport most synonymous with the city, and the appetite of Londoners for the beautiful game has not dwindled. However, the capital has lost many notable, now forgotten, football clubs – teams that fell into non-existence, whether by financial strain, obscurity, world events or a combination of pressures. The likes of Clapham Rovers FC, founded as early as 1869, won the FA Cup in 1880 yet didn’t survive beyond the First World War, whilst plucky minnows Walthamstow Avenue, who famously held both Arsenal and Manchester United to draws in the FA Cup during the 1950s, would last 88 years before merging into non-existence.
Ever heard of the Islington Corinthians? They were never quite as illustrious as their north London footballing neighbours, but their unlikely story is a remarkable example of London’s global sporting story. Picked to play a friendly against the Chinese Olympic team at Highbury in 1936, the club embarked on a remarkable global tour across the 1937-38 season. They played an incredible 95 games across the world, from Egypt to Hawaii – even meeting David Niven on a Hollywood film set! It would be war that again spelt the end of the adventure for the Corinthians – the club folded for good in 1940.
Greyhound racing hit a peak of popularity during the 1920s and ‘30s, drawing crowds as large as any football match. There were a remarkable 27 tracks across the city, but today, just three tracks remain – at Wimbledon, Romford and Crayford. Despite closing in 2008, the vintage 1950s neon signage of the stadium at Walthamstow has been listed and will be kept – even as the stadium itself becomes a luxury housing development. Retaining this history can be difficult – but where intelligent investment is made, preservation can be combined with effective regeneration. The Ironmonger Row Public Baths in Islington were built in 1931, and hosted many Olympic divers during the 1940s and ‘50s. The building recently underwent a £17 million renovation – ensuring its valuable presence in the community for the next century.
Supporting communities and cultures is one of the great things sport can do in cities like London. The capital is home to some of Europe’s finest and oldest skateparks. The Rom Skate Park in Hornchurch was built in 1978, and was the first skatepark in Europe to be given protected Listed status. Stockwell Skatepark, known as ‘Brixton Beach’, was also built at the end of the 1970s, on the first wave of skating mania – and remains a vibrant and challenging spot for skaters to test their skills. Today, this fantastic tradition continues – Better Extreme opened in 2015, becoming London’s largest indoor skatepark.
It’s easy to feel distant from some of the elite sport that happens in London – so keeping in touch with the city’s heritage is all-important to celebrating London’s enduring position as a global capital of sport.