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Sports and games

​In medieval England, sport meant the hunting and fishing activities of the upper classes. Northamptonshire was a popular destination, known for its well-stocked lands and central location. Although ordinary people had less time and energy for pastimes, they became increasingly common. Indoor games, such as cards and dice, and outdoor games, such as football and hockey, were popular. Unlike modern sports, there were few rules and injuries were common. Games were also controlled by the government. It was thought games would lead working people astray or make them unfit for the army. In the 18th and 19th centuries, recognised rules were developed, leading to the modern sports we have today.

Click on the images below to learn more about these well-known sports, teams, and stadiums in Northamptonshire. The images and text are from Icons of Northamptonshire, published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council. Copies are sold in Northamptonshire Libraries.

  • Cricket Cricket

    ​First there is county cricket. When the Cobblers moved in 1994 to their new home at Sixfields, it gave the County Cricket Club the opportunity to expand and remodel. Previously, the club had shared its grounds with the football club. This next phase in the ground’s history started with the opening of the Lynn Wilson Centre in August 1998.  Over the last 14 years the redevelopment has continued steadily, with new stands, the conversion of the Bowling Green into a fantastic outdoor netting facility and the installation of floodlights in April 2010. The most important event, however, must be the purchase of the ground in March 2012 after a 126 year lease!

    What we have now is a sporting venue we as Northamptonians should be proud of. It has become a landmark in the town, visible for many miles and home to a great cricket team.

    Then there is village cricket. The traditional picture in any cricket lover’s mind is of a village green dotted with men in white, the sound of leather on willow, egg and cress sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, the clinking of china teacups and the sound of polite applause rippling across the breeze. The county is full of beautiful village cricket grounds. If one was asked to describe an iconic English summer scene, one would have to go a long way to better the image of Northamptonshire village greens on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in the summertime.

    Image and text © Icons of Northamptonshire, published by CPRE Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council - copies are sold in Northamptonshire Libraries

  • Football Football

    ​Football has been popular in Britain since the 8th century. However, unlike the modern sport, there were few rules. The game varied by region, but it was usually played by large numbers of players across fields and towns. It was unruly and violent, and injuries were common.

    For several hundred years, it was also controlled by the government. During the Hundred Years’ War, many kings banned football so that it would not distract men from archery. In the 16th century, Oliver Cromwell also outlawed the sport because he believed it led to idleness. However, it was never fully suppressed.

    In 1863, the Football Association was founded, rules were agreed, and the modern sport was born. Four years later, Wellingborough Town Football Club was formed, making it the oldest club in Northamptonshire and the sixth oldest in Britain.

    Today, the Northamptonshire County Football Association has over 1300 clubs. They cover children and adults, men and women, able-bodied and disabled players, and amateur and professional leagues.

    Image: Corby Town Football Club, 1964 © Northamptonshire Archives Service

  • Hunting Hunting

    ​The landscape of Northamptonshire has been shaped by hunting. Early on, the great forests of Rockingham in the north and Whittlewood and Salcey in the south provided deer for the royal packs of hounds. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of fox hunting, the planting of thorn hedges transformed the appearance of the countryside. Until the mid-1700s, the main preys were deer and hares. Foxes were seen as vermin to be killed by farmers. However, with the deforestation of large areas, the number of deer fell. By the 1750s, the excitement of pursuing the fox across a succession of daunting fences and brooks had taken a firm hold among the upper classes. Hunting was formalised and the famous packs were established.

    It was not always just the hunted who got hurt. In the early 19th century, the 1st Lord Spencer’s horse, Merry Tom, died having broken his back in the heat of the chase and was buried fully tacked up.  A stone on his grave read “To the memory of Merry Tom,” - to which someone added, “ridden to death by foolish John.”

    Image © Northamptonshire Archives Service

    Text © Icons of Northamptonshire, published by CPRE Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council - copies are sold in Northamptonshire Libraries

  • Silverstone Silverstone

    ​For over the last 65 years, Silverstone has become synonymous with international motor racing and the Formula One British Grand Prix in particular.

    Motor racing first took place – officially – at Silverstone with the running of the RAC Grand Prix in October 1948.  In a country starved of motor racing for the best part of a decade, the response to an international motor race was inspiring. Spectators came from far and wide in extraordinary numbers to witness the speed and excitement of this first Grand Prix. Such was the success that there was a repeat the following year. In 1950, Silverstone had the honour to host the first round of the newly formed FIA Formula One World Championship in May that year. The race was attended by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Great Britain is now the only country to have hosted a round of the Formula One World Championship every year since its inception.

    Down the years the circuit has witnessed some of the great duels in motor racing. All the truly great names in the sport have sought to tame what has always been revered as a hugely fast and demanding lap. Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton are all British world champions who have won their home Grand Prix at Silverstone and helped create a legend.

    Alongside Wembley and Wimbledon, Silverstone is one of the biggest sporting venues in the UK.

    Image and text © Icons of Northamptonshire, published by CPRE Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council - copies are sold in Northamptonshire Libraries

  • Skittles Skittles

    For a local sport you cannot get much more distinctive than Northamptonshire skittles. The game spills across the county boundary into neighbouring counties but has its roots and its strength in the central belt of Northamptonshire.

    The earliest record of the game is a newspaper report of 1896, but doubtless it was going long before it reached the newspapers.
    There are 42 skittle leagues in the county, each made up of 8, 10 or 12 teams. Games will be played every night of the week somewhere. It used to be an all-male sport, and in Northampton Town it still is, but in most leagues the teams are mixed, with men and women competing on equal terms. The Women’s Institute have their own league.

    The skittle table or board is 2ft 2in high and 3ft wide, with leather ‘cushes’ like an armchair along its sides, and a back net behind. On the table, 9 pins (skittles) are set in diamond formation. The player’s task is to knock down all the pins by throwing 3 “cheeses” from a standing position 10ft back from the board.

    At its peak in the 1950s, there were 1000 skittles tables in Northamptonshire towns and villages. However, the number declined when pubs wanted room for eating and customers began to complain about the noise from skittles. With sound absorbent materials in the back net reducing the noise, the numbers of tables are picking up again.​

    Image and text © Icons of Northamptonshire, published by CPRE Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council - copies are sold in Northamptonshire Libraries

  • The Northampton Saints The Northampton Saints

    ​In 1888, the Reverend Samuel Wathen Wigg formed the Northampton Rugby Football Club in the St James area of the town. Since then it has been known as ‘The Saints’. Wigg not only coached the boys, but also started up what he called improvement classes with the motto ‘nothing without labour’. In short, he wanted to do something positive to keep the naughty boys off the streets.

    In those days, rugby was an amateur sport and stayed so until the mid-1990s. During this period the Saints grew and prospered, producing players destined to play international rugby.

    The chairman of the club says: “In the mid-nineties club rugby was amateur with average attendances in the top flight of less than 5000. Yet with a need to attract and pay the best players there was also a pressure to improve and expand the spectator facilities. This led to the English game turning professional at the start of the 1996/1997 season. Northampton Saints have met these challenges with more success than most as we embraced the opportunity to expand and keep our proud heritage and traditions whilst developing a dedicated rugby stadium with great facilities for our supporters. This approach has been the foundation upon which Saints have managed to develop a business model which has enabled the club to be financially viable, returning a profit for each of 14 consecutive years; a unique achievement. It is this financial viability which gives the Board the confidence to maintain and develop its investment into the playing effort, which in turn improves the Club’s ability to compete for honours on the pitch.”

    Image and text © Icons of Northamptonshire, published by CPRE Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council - copies are sold in Northamptonshire Libraries

  • The World Conker Championships The World Conker Championships

    ​Like many colourful and quirky traditions, the World Conker Championships originated in a pub. In October 1965, in the Three Horseshoes at Ashton, two locals noticed conkers falling from a tree on the village green and decided to try their skills in a match.

    Within a week, a knockout competition was organised and watched by a small group of spectators. Ron Marsh, a local man, became the first World Champion and was awarded the large silver cup that is still the trophy nearly fifty years on.

    A second tradition accompanied this revival of the sport. It was decided to pass round a hat for a collection for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). Over the years, the modest total of £20 has grown to over £430,000. Local charities also benefit.

    Stalls selling a wide variety of goods added to the attraction. Women’s, junior, and team competitions are now held. Teams are also encouraged to wear fancy dress, and weird and wonderful combinations have emerged.

    Over the years, more than forty different nationalities have been represented. Over 400 adult participants now compete and crowds of over 4000 come to watch.

    Image and text © Icons of Northamptonshire, published by CPRE Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council - copies are sold in Northamptonshire Libraries

  • Towcester Racecourse Towcester Racecourse

    Towcester Racecourse dates back to 1876, when the Empress of Austria stayed at Easton Neston. The Empress was a keen rider and passionate about hunting and she stayed at Easton Neston in order to hunt with the local packs.

    When she arrived at Easton Neston, it was decided to hold a steeplechase meeting in her honour. This so delighted the Empress that she decided to establish a race meeting of her own to be held at Easton Neston on Easter Monday in 1876. A course was laid out in Easton Neston Park and a stand erected for guests. The event proved such a success that it was decided to hold a race meeting every year at Towcester on Easter Monday from then on.

    In 1928, the first Lord Hesketh incorporated TRC and established the racecourse under National Hunt rules.

    Towcester is a right handed course of one and a half miles round with a steady climb at the end. Towcester is considered to be one of the toughest National Hunt courses due to the uphill finish.

    Towcester is one of the most popular racecourses in the country and holds seventeen National Hunt fixtures a year. Admission is free apart from Bank Holidays and May meetings.

    Image and text © Icons of Northamptonshire, published by CPRE Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council - copies are sold in Northamptonshire Libraries

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If your question is research-related, please contact the Northamptonshire Archives.