Dunstall Park

An early race meeting.

The Old Course

For the first 50 years of its life, Wolverhampton Race Course was situated at Broad Meadows, an area of marshland just north of Tettenhall Road, and to the west of Wellington Road, now known as Waterloo Road.

The old course had many facilities including a handsome grandstand, built in 1827 and a row of stands and booths which stretched for a quarter of a mile.

There were side shows, shooting galleries, and even a cock-pit for cock fighting.

Race meetings were held at Broad Meadows until the lease ended in 1878, when West Park was built on the site.

It took several years to find a suitable location for a new race course.

An unforeseen set of circumstances however, soon led to the acquisition of an ideal piece of land.

The Grandstand.

Sir Alexander Staveley Hill lived at Dunstall Hall, after being born there in 1825. He vigorously opposed the building of the Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railway which approached Wolverhampton just beyond the northern edge of his estate. He also greatly objected to the building of railway workshops, offices, and locomotive sheds on Dunstall Hill. The railway opened in November 1849 and became part of the Great Western Railway in September 1854. He must also have been extremely annoyed when the railway company extended the facilities on Dunstall Hill to include a locomotive works.

His father, Henry Hill, inherited Oxley Manor in 1870. When Henry died in 1872, Alexander Staveley Hill decided to move to Oxley, and put the Dunstall Estate on the market. Dunstall Park was an ideal location for a new racecourse. It covered 130 acres of flat land in an excellent locality, on the northern side of the town, with good access.

Two prominent horse racing enthusiasts, Robert Hermon Hodge, M.P. for Accrington, and Mr. John Lees, J.P. decided to set up a public company to purchase Dunstall Park and build a new racecourse there. The new company, Wolverhampton Racecourse and Dunstall Park Limited held its first meeting on 16th June, 1887 in London. Within a few weeks the estate had been purchased for £36,000. The money raised was as follows: £15,000 came from the sale of 3,000 shares at £5 each, a further £15,000 from a debenture, and £6,000 cash. When the transaction had been completed, Alexander Staveley Hill joined the board and became the company’s first permanent chairman in October 1887.

Dunstall Hall by John Fullwood.

The site would prove to be just right for the new course. Even before the land had been acquired, a small two-day race meeting had taken place in October 1886 under National Hunt Rules.

The facilities at the time were extremely poor, the main attraction being the Wolverhampton Hurdle with prize money of only £70.

Even so a number of famous riders took part, and the scene was set for future events.

The Early Years

By early 1888 arrangements were put in place for the building of the course. Henry Willcock, a Wolverhampton builder secured the contract to build the stands, and John Sheldon of Birmingham became the first Clerk of the Course. The first meeting had been arranged for 23rd April, but this had to be cancelled because a lot of building work still had to be done.

The first meeting actually took place on 13th August, the first event being the five furlong All-Aged Maiden Plate, which was won by Tommy Loates riding “Silver Spur”. Other races included the Albrighton Welter Plate and the Bushbury Selling Plate. Right from the start many well known figures in the racing world came to the race meetings, which were a great success.

One famous personality, who came in 1894 was Lillie Langtry the famous actress who had a great interest in horse racing and owned a number of horses. Although she is well remembered as the mistress of the Prince of Wales, she also had other affairs. One of her many lovers was Scottish iron-mining millionaire George Alexander Baird, a staunch supporter of Dunstall Park, who rode his own horses under the name of “Squire Abingdon”.

The location of the racecourse.

On the western side of Stafford Road canal bridge (Gorsebrook Bridge) was a wharf. Originally it contained a limekiln, and a smithy, presumably catering for the horses that pulled the canal boats. From the early 1940s, through to the 1960s, the Stafford Timber Company was located there.

The affair ended after a fit of jealousy when he lost control of his temper and beat her so badly that she ended up in hospital for 10 days, with many injuries including two black eyes. He beat her on several occasions and would apologise afterwards, giving her large sums of money or expensive gifts. On this occasion he gave her a 200ft. luxury yacht called the “White Lady”. As a result she dropped all charges against him and the yacht became known as the “Black Eye”.

On an earlier occasion he gave her a fine chestnut colt from his stable, called “Milford”, who won his maiden race at Kempton Park. Lillie raced her horses under the name of “Mr. Jersey” and during her 1894 visit to Wolverhampton she won the Dudley Plate with her horse, “Montpensier”.

In 1895 Dunstall Park became the only course in Staffordshire to stage flat racing due to the closure of the Lichfield course. The following year the racecourse company persuaded the Great Western Railway to build a station at Dunstall and contributed £500 towards the cost of the building, which came to just under £5,000.

1910 got off to a bad start. The first race meeting was cancelled as a mark of respect to King Edward VII who died in May. This was followed by the dismissal of the racecourse company’s secretary, Edward Cresswell for embezzlement. He had been company secretary for 23 years


In June 1910 the first all-British flying meeting took place at Dunstall Park, only 4 years after the first ever flight in Europe. The newspapers reported that by the beginning of the month 6 hangars had been erected and Bleriot, Humber and Star machines were already there. A Mr. Hartill of Cleveland Street, Wolverhampton  constructed a machine especially for the event.

Unfortunately there was almost no flying because of high winds, heavy rain, and a dispute with some pilots over payment of their hotel expenses.

The meeting began on 27th June and lasted for 5 days, ending on 2nd July. It was held under the auspices of the Midland Aero Club, which had been formed the previous year. Its headquarters were at the Grand Hotel in Birmingham and the club president was the Earl of Dartmouth. The official programme listed a varied selection of events. Prizes were awarded for the flight of the longest duration, cross-country flying, passenger carrying, figure flying, bomb throwing etc.

A postcard especially produced for the event.

The first flight was made by Captain Dawes, on leave from the army to learn how to fly. He decided to fly around the trees at the end of the park, but could not turn in time and sailed over the fence to end up in a field beyond.

Thanks to the atrocious conditions there were a number of spectacular crashes. James Radley’s Bleriot crashed in a gale and Alec Ogilvie’s Short-Wright aircraft fell to the ground from a height of 60ft. Radley and Gibbs also crashed, but luckily survived without injury.

Prizes were distributed on the last day. Graham White made the first circuit flight and won the duration prize by keeping his aircraft in the air for 15 minutes and 38 seconds. Mr. Boyle won the monoplane class by flying for nearly 8 minutes. Mr. Grace won the prize for the highest flight, reaching nearly 600 feet. Mr. G. B. Cockburn won the prize for the shortest take-off in his Farman biplane over a distance of 100ft. 5 inches.

The most successful local man was Mr. Barnes who kept his machine in the air for 77 seconds. A Wright biplane won the speed contest, piloted by Mr. C. S. Rolls, one of the founders of Rolls Royce. Unfortunately he was killed less than two weeks later during a similar contest at Bournemouth, which highlighted the danger involved in such events. Granville Bradshaw piloted the locally built Star monoplane, which unfortunately failed to fly.

Other pilots included Mr. Davies, A.V. Roe, Mr. Gilmour, Mr. Mander, Mr. Lane, Mr. Cody, Mr. Holder, Mr. Frances, Mr. McArdle, and Mr. Maxfield. Music was provided by the South Staffordshire Regiment and the Wolverhampton Military Band. The event proved to be very popular and aviation meetings were held at Dunstall Park for several years.

The locally built Star monoplane returned in 1911 with Joe Lisle, son of the company’s owner, Edward Lisle, at the controls.

This time the aircraft successfully flew and Edward was so alarmed at the sight, that he banned his son from flying again.

The Star monoplane.

A Brief Return to Racing

In 1912 the company’s chairman, John Lees died at the age of 89 after suffering a stroke. He was succeeded by Henry Staveley Hill, M.P., son of the first chairman. The facilities at the course were improved in 1913 with work on the stands and the construction of the club premises. The Shifnal Selling Handicap was held in October and this resulted in a dead heat between Steve Donoghue riding “Kinglet” and Sidney Seymour riding “Tramp IV”. On such an occasion it was customary for the owners to divide the stakes, if the owners did not agree to do so, a deciding heat had to be run. On this occasion a deciding heat was run and “Kinglet” ended in first place by three quarters of a length.

The summer meeting in 1914 was cancelled due to the outbreak of war. Although the racecourse company offered the buildings and grounds to the government to help with the war effort, the offer was declined. In 1916 Courtaulds purchased a strip of land on the edge of the course, for the building of their new factory. As a result races were then restricted to 5 furlongs and 190 yards.

Between the Wars

Racing resumed in May 1918, six months before the end of the war. The event included the Madeley Handicap, The Bradford Two-Year-Old Plate, and the Dunstall Juvenile Selling Plate. All three races were won by Steve Donoghue in the colours of Mr. Frank Curzon.

Jumping resumed at the course in January 1919 and many famous horses took part in such races as the Walsall Handicap Steeplechase, the Oteley Handicap Steeplechase, the Wyfold Hurdle, and the Staffordshire Steeplechase.

The grandstand.

In September 1919 there were only two runners in the Autumn Handicap; Lady Torrington’s
“Rich Gift” ridden by Freddie Fox, and Brigadier Charles Lambton’s “Pallene”, ridden by George Hulme.

The race resulted in a dead-heat and the owners decided to share the stakes.

A famous visitor to the course, Sir Gordon Richards, paid his first visit on 18th June, 1922 when he came second in the Apprentices’ Stakes, riding “Knight of the Orient”.

A tragedy took place at the Christmas meeting in 1924 when Captain “Tuppy” Bennet took a fall in the Oteley Handicap Steeplechase while riding “Ardeen”. He was kicked in the head and died without regaining consciousness. As a result the wearing of crash helmets became compulsory in steeplechase and hurdle events.

Sir Gordon Richards came to the August meeting in 1935 and became the star of the event. He won the Bushbury Plate, the Himley Selling Plate, the Shrewsbury Selling Plate, and the Walsall Handicap. Quite an achievement.

There were many other memorable events and successful meetings in the 1930s, but it all came to an end in September 1939 at the outbreak of war, when all meetings were cancelled.

After the War

During the war the ground had been neglected, and more seriously the company had no reserves of capital. Luckily they wisely invested what little they had and within 5 years they accrued an impressive £150,000.

The race meetings continued to be a great success. In July 1950 another famous visitor Lord Astor had a successful meeting. His chestnut gelding “High Stakes” won the Shrewsbury Stakes. The next day Lady Baron’s horse “Tangle” ridden by Tommy Hawcroft won the Deepfields Plate with odds of 50 to 1.

Further improvements were made at the course in the mid to late 1950s. In 1955 and 1956 the stands were covered, and in 1957 the Champagne and Oyster Bar was built. In 1958 the Paddock Buffet Bar opened, and in 1959 three round courses for flat racing, hurdling, and steeple chasing were constructed at a cost of £3,400. The improvements continued the following year with the installation of a modern watering system, and better amenities in the bar under the Silver Ring stand.

On 14th September, 1964 the Queen had her first success at the course when her horse “Menai”, ridden by Geoff Lewis won the Bushbury Maiden Plate.

In October 1966 Wolverhampton staged the National Hunt Hurdle Cup as part of the celebrations of the first 100 years of the National Hunt Committee. The race was won by Mr. K. F. Alder’s horse “Saucy Kit”, ridden by Roy Edwards.

The grandstand in the late 1960s.

A meeting in the late 1960s.

The new Club Building opened in 1968 with a weighing room, jockeys changing room, and a banqueting suite.

In 1970 the young Pat Eddery won the Dunstall Derby, which was to be the first of many such wins during his outstanding career.

Recent Times

During the 1970s and 1980s the course went from strength to strength, with the racecourse company achieving record profits in 1986.  By the late 1980s Dunstall Park’s future was threatened by plans to turn it into a shopping centre. The new owners RAM racecourses resisted the proposal and took advantage of City Challenge funding to greatly improve the facilities at the course. The £15.7 million scheme included the addition of floodlighting, the laying of a Fibresand all-weather surface, and the building of a hotel and exhibition hall. The all-weather circuit is almost completely flat, oval-shaped and about a mile in length. The first event after the completion of the work took place on 27th December, 1993, when 10,000 people attended the meeting. In 1999 the racecourse and hotel were purchased by Arena Leisure Plc.

In 2001, the track was further improved with the laying of 7,600 tons of Fibresand over 140 new lateral drains, and in 2004, the Fibresand and turf track were replaced with a Polytrack surface. Since that time, only flat, all-weather racing has taken place there.

Unhappily during 2006 doubts were cast about the safety of the polytrack surface due to 6 incidents which took place over a period of 5 weeks, resulting in 5 horse fatalities and several injuries to riders. The course was inspected by an inspector from the Horseracing Regulatory Authority, and was given a clean bill of health.

Dunstall Park is now the last surviving racecourse in the West Midlands, and is Britain's first floodlit racecourse. It is extremely busy, hosting around 100 meetings a year, including its themed Saturday evening events. There are bars, restaurants, and a busy Conference and Exhibition centre, even having a licence to perform civil weddings. The course also has it own hotel, the 'Holiday Inn Garden Court' with 54 rooms, a restaurant, fitness room and conference suites. It is very successful, and hopefully will continue to thrive in the future.

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