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Lillie Bridge - the day the stadium burned down


VICTORIAN Londoners were always attracted to sporting events, particularly when gambling was involved. Gentlemen loved to predict the outcome of contests and back up their forecasts with cash, and book keepers loved to collect the money and wager the odds. Sadly this habit led to the demise of a great stadium one autumn afternoon in 1887.


Two British professional sprinters named Harry Gent and Harry Hutchens were due to race each other over a distance of 120 yards at London’s Lille Bridge on 19 September. There was much interest in the event, and having read about it in the sporting press of the day, over 15,000 people poured into the stadium to witness this classic foot race between the two men.


Yes, it’s true: thousands of spectators turned up to witness just one race lasting less than 15 seconds. Bookies collected odds on the possible outcome, and as the stadium filled up, a brass band played and vendors made a tidy profit selling ice creams and meat pies.


But the race did not take place. It was said that the two athletes and their backers could not agree on a suitable purse, and called the event off by quietly sneaking away - they were bundled into separate carriages and sped away from the scene. Later Gent revealed that bookies backing him had threatened to murder him if he attempted to race - when it was revealed that he was secretly harbouring an injury after breaking down in training days earlier.


“They stood over me with open knives and bottles as I was being massaged”, he told Sporting Life; “there was nothing for it but to get away from there as quickly as possible.”


The crowd quickly grew restless as the news spread and rougher elements, feeling cheated of their afternoon’s entertainment, proceeded to wreck the grandstand and fittings. Soon a large fire was started and the entire wooden stadium was eventually burned down as roughnecks prevented firemen from attempting to put out the blaze. It was said that the smoke cloud could be seen from as far away as Highgate in north London.


This was the end of a splendid sporting enclosure which had been opened on 18 March 1869 with the sixth annual athletics meeting between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, an event that in those days could attract of audience of over 30,000 people.


The new Stamford Bridge Stadium, home of Chelsea Football Club (founded in 1905) was soon erected near the ruins and Lillie Bridge itself is now a London Underground maintenance depot.


The re-match between Gent and Hutchens eventually took place a month later on 29 October 1887 at Eslington Park in Gateshead.  Gent won the 120 yards race in 11 ¾ sec (11.8). But perhaps his best performance on record was his time of 11 3/5 sec (11.6) over 122 yards (!) in Sheffield on 31 May 1887.


(Adapted from an article in Track Stats)

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