Herne Hill was the idea of George Lacy Hillier who, with financial backing, negotiated a lease for 9 acres of land from Dulwich Estates, a charitable trust. The track was built by William and John Peacock in 1891 and cost around £5,000; it was 3½ laps to the mile, made from loamy red earth and fine burnt ballast, which was rolled flat with bankings 5 feet high. A grandstand for 220 was constructed and a distinctive white picket fence was constructed around the track. Gas lighting was added for night racing. Inside the track there was a 440 yard cinder running track and a football field. Herne Hill is the second oldest functioning velodrome in world.
The Inaugural track meeting was held on 23rd May 1891 and all races except one were for ordinaries, as Hillier was prejudiced against the safety bicycle. In the same year Monty Holbein beat the national 24 hour paced record, covering 326 miles. In 1892 the Cuca Cup was donated by the Cuca Cocoa Company, which was won by Frank Shorland who covered 414 miles in the 24 hour race. In 1893, Jack Stocks set up a new hour record covering 25 miles. A vast array of National and World track champions have raced at Herne Hill, including Leon Meredith, Jimmy Michael, Jef Scherens, Toni Merkens, Reg Harris, Fausto Coppi, Tom Simpson, Chris Boardman, Graham Obree and Bradley Wiggins.
Herne Hill was dubbed the fastest track in the world' but this title was quickly usurped when the concrete track at Putney open just 3 months after Herne Hill. Betting at cycle tracks was widespread in the 1890's and Herne Hill had many problems trying to eject bookies, usually by force. The Hub in 1896 comments that the average mid-week gate was 500 to 1,000 and double or treble that for a weekend meet. The record gate was 30,000 for Shorland's Cuca Cup 24 hour ride.
In 1893, in an attempt to make the track faster, it was covered by pitch pine planks 43mm wide, 25mm thick, laid across the track, bolted together with 6mm cork washers to allow for expansion. The planks were not laid on the original track, but on a "substratum of concrete and cement". The track was 25 feet wide and measured 502.857 feet around. The straights were slightly banked, making the transition from straights to banking much easier. The first race on the planks was on 29th April 1893 but unfortunately the planks were slippery and dangerous if wet and the planked surface was replaced by a concrete track surface in 1897.
With the advent of the motorcycle in the late 1890's, motor paced racing now became the most popular type of track racing. However, the popularity of track racing declined in the 1900's and one of the reasons Herne Hill survived was because the land was owned by a trust and could not be sold for speculative housing development, a fate that closed several other tracks such as Catford.
Herbert Goodwin took over as promoter in the 1920's and ran the track in a more commercial way. The 1923 Good Friday meeting attracted a record attendance of 7,000 to watch Bill Bailey, the US champion Willie Spencer and the French champion Paul Didier.
In the 1930's a mid-week track league was started which ran for the next 60 years. Crowds for big events at this time sometimes exceeded 10,000. The management of Herne Hill tried really hard to attract crowds and publicity, the singer Gracie Fields brought showgirls to the track for a novelty event and waitresses in uniform from Lyons Corner House raced there.
Herne Hill was requisitioned for use during WWII which resulted in the track deteriorating badly. It was resurfaced in 1944 with tarmac and track racing enjoyed a post-war boom with 10,000 spectators at the Good Friday meet. The stadium was used for the 1948 Olympics where Britain won 2 silver and 2 bronze medals from the 4 track events. This video shows racing at Herne Hill in 1949.
Fausto Coppi, Il Campionissimo appeared at Herne Hill in 1958. Coppi had a massive following in the UK; he was twice Tour de France winner, 5 times Giro winner, World champion, winner of numerous Classics and World Hour record holder. Coppi attracted a crowd of 12,000 to Herne Hill.
Surface cracks appeared on the track so it was covered with Resmat in 1951. In 1969 the Resmat was stripped off and relayed. It was again stripped and relayed in 1970 because of softness problems. In the 1970's several new tracks were built in the UK, hastening the decline of Herne Hill.
The track was remodelled and rebuilt in 1992 by Ron Webb. The old track had one 12° banking and the other 9° and unequal length straights. Webb rebuilt the track at 450 metres with 26° bankings, the surface asphalt with an epoxy resin skin.
With the building of the Manchester Velodrome, Herne Hill had lost its popularity and was deteriorating. In 2005 the stadium was temporarily closed due to problems with the lease.
In 2011 a new 99 year lease was negotiated by British Cycling and the track was resurfaced with MasterTrack, a Tarmac developed material. New lighting and a 250m junior track were added in 2013. A new £1.75M pavilion, designed by Hopkins, was built in 2017 using six of the original cast iron columns to support the grandstand roof.
This much needed refurbishment has given Herne Hill a new lease of life and top quality track meets, a track league and derny racing are now held there. The VC Londres club is based at Herne Hill and organises training sessions on the track. This video shows the current track at Herne Hill.