London - Kennington Oval
Kennington Oval : SE11 5SS
London - Kennington Oval : Map credit National Library of Scotland London - Kennington Oval : Image credit The Cycling World Illustrated The Kennington Oval ground opened in 1845 as the home of Surrey County Cricket Club, the ground was built on land leased from the Duchy of Cornwall for £120 per annum.

The first ever cricket test match was played at the Oval in September 1880, when England defeated Australia and WG Grace scored a century. Two years later, England lost and a mock obituary on the death of English cricket was published in the Times, which stated "the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia." A few years later, a small urn, said to contain the ashes of a wooden bail, became the unofficial ‘Ashes'. In 1870, the Oval staged the first football match between England and Scotland and the FA Cup final in 1872. Other sports that have been played at the Oval include rugby, hockey, baseball and bicycle racing.

The first bicycle race at the Oval was at a two day Athletic Sports meeting on August 28th and 30th 1869, which was organised by Mr Hill of the Surrey Tavern at the Oval. There were 200 competitors at the meeting and a total prize value of £200. A bicycle was awarded to the winner of the half mile handicap bicycle race, which was run on a grass track. The final, after four heats, was won by DL Le Voi from the favourite JC Gee, with Gee "losing one of his treadles in the race, he was never able to get near the Frenchman." There was open betting at the meeting, with Gee being backed heavily at 2 and 3 to 1. There was another bicycle race on the second day of the sports, which was won by R Mansell, who received a silver cup, value ten guineas. Miss Nelly Smith and Master Edward Barber from the Agricultural Hall "went through some graceful evolutions upon the bicycle." The cricketer WG Grace competed in the sports, easily winning the prize for throwing the cricket ball with 117 yards. Admission to the meeting cost one shilling and the band of the 1st Surrey Volunteers enlivened the proceedings. The event was unashamedly exclusive and The Sportsman advertised entry restrictions "open to amateurs only, officers of the army and navy, members of universities, public schools, civil service, recognised amateur athletic, cricket, football, or rowing clubs, and to any gentleman introduced by one of the committee."

On September 18th 1872, the Licensed Victuallers' held a close of season gala and fete, which included a bicycle race over 4½ miles, the meeting was organised by the recently formed Surrey Bicycle Club, whose headquarters was at the Oval Cricket Ground.

The Surrey BC organised a club race meeting on 8 Nov 1873. The club then started to organise regular club and open race meetings from 1874 and the club formed a strong relationship with the Pickwick BC and they had joint runs and races. The club races were very popular with 2,000 spectators attending the event on 25th July 1874

The Oval was always looking to generate money to improve the ground and an asphalt roller skating rink was built there in April 1876 and skating races were held soon after.

The first Surrey Challenge Cup (value 50 guineas) was put up for competition by Surrey BC in 1877, the cup was competed for twice a year at the spring and autumn meetings. The winners of the Surrey Cup over the years, reads like a who's who of track racing and includes HL Cortis, G Lacy-Hillier, CA Palmer, HA Speechley, Percy Furnival, J Platt-Betts and Harry Reynolds

There was an amateur charity meeting in aid of the Abercarne Colliery Explosion Fund** on 19th October 1878, with one and three 3 miles handicap races and a 5 miles scratch. The competitors at the meeting included HL Cortis, W Wyndham, GL Hillier and WP English, there were 2,000 spectators.

The Sydney Challenge Trophy was presented by the Australian club, Sydney BC in 1885. It was run over various distances, more often over one mile. Again the list of winners is impressive, including H Synyer, A Du Cros, Bert Harris and HA Speechley.

The pneumatic tyre made its first sensational appearance on a London track on 19 April 1890 at the Surrey BC meeting, in front of 8,000 spectators. A pneumatic machine was ridden by GL Morris in the one mile safety handicap race to win his heat, then two further riders used his machine to win their heats. Frank Shorland was also riding pneumatics on a geared Facile and won his heat. In the final, Morris rode his own machine and Shorland reverted to solid tyres, but still won the event from Morris. The Evening News and Post commented "After this exhibition of the powers of the pneumatic on soft grass tracks, the handicapper will be fully justified in letting out the starts 100 yards in the mile".

The Autumn meeting of 1892 attracted over 15,000 spectators and contained the usual four events - a one mile first class open handicap, won by F Pope, a one mile second class handicap, won by JE Ridout, a one mile scratch race for the Sydney Challenge Trophy, won by AW Harris^^ and a ten miles scratch race for the Surrey Cup, won by Harris from AE Good.

The Simpson lever chain was creating massive interest in 1896 and had previously been ridden by Linton, Michael and Platt-Betts. At the Surrey BC meeting on 18th April 1896 the chain was used by Harry Reynolds of Dublin, who won the ten miles scratch race and T Osborn who won the five miles professional race from AE Walters and AA Chase. There was a massive crowd of 12,000 spectators. Later in the year, the famous 'Chain Matches' were held at the Catford track.##

In the 1890s, Surrey BC began to hold some meetings at tracks other than the Oval. This could have been because the Oval was not available, these tracks were Herne Hill and Crystal Palace.

In 1899, relations between the Surrey BC and the NCU seemed to be difficult, it was considered that Surrey BC thought they were a law unto themselves. The NCU suspended Surrey BC because one of their members, GW Atkinson, who had acted as a judge at 32 consecutive race meetings, was not qualified as a judge by the NCU. The club declined to remedy the situation and this was considered to be a rebellious attitude by the club and following a standoff, the club was suspended. As a consequence, the club's Autumn Race Meeting was not held. The situation was eventually resolved, Surrey BC apologised and the suspension was lifted.

As there was no Surrey BC Autumn meeting, the South London Harriers held a race meeting at the Oval on 9th September 1899, at which there were two cycle races, a one mile handicap and a five miles scratch.

1900 Surrey BC Autumn Meeting at Crystal Palace was very poorly attended, with just a few hundred spectators. South London Harriers moved their spring meeting to the Oval from Tufnell Park in 1891 and started including bicycle races in their meetings from autumn 1904. In 1905 8,000 people watched a three miles match race between Leon Meredith and AE Well, which Meredith won.

The last bicycle racing at the Oval was probably at the Harriers Spring meeting on 4th April 1914, when AR Steel won the Dunlop Cup in the one mile high bicycles race and HE Ryan won the ten miles race for the Surrey Cup. After this, the Harriers moved their meetings to Stamford Bridge.

When the Oval stopped hosting cycle racers, the Surrey Cup was competed for during the Surrey County Championships meeting at Guildford and HE Ryan of the Polytechnic won the cup outright on May 14th 1921. This was probably the last time that the Surrey Cup was competed for.

The original Oval cricket ground is still used and has been extensively developed in the 21st century.

** An explosion occurred in the Prince of Wales colliery, Abercarne on September 11th 1878 in which 268 men and boys were killed.

^^ AW (Bert) Harris was a record breaking cyclist who turned professional in 1894. He rode for the London Polytechnic Club and was coached by Sam Mussabini. Harris was a very successful professional but crashed during a race in 1897, he never regained consciousness and died two day later. It was reported that ‘tens of thousands of people turned out to see his funeral cortege.

## The Simpson lever chain was invented by William Spiers Simpson in 1895 and he claimed that his chain provided a mechanical advantage over normal chains because of leverage. Simpson managed to recruit top riders to use his chain, which attracted massive publicity. This culminated in the ‘Chain Matches' at Catford track in June 1896. The match was a series of paced races in which the Dunlop team paced riders used normal chains and the French Gladiator team paced riders used Simpson chains. The results were inconclusive and the Simpson lever chain was subsequently shown to offer no advantage at all. The company went out of business in 1898. The Chain Matches were the subject of a Toulouse-Lautrec publicity poster, which showed a rider being paced by the Gladiator team, with Lisette Marton, a Simpson chain professional, on the back seat of a pacing machine.

London - Kennington Oval : Image credit Paul Darby London - Kennington Oval : Image credit Paul Darby London - Kennington Oval : Image credit Sterba
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Photos : The Cycling World Illustrated, Paul Darby, Sterba
Maps    : National Library of Scotland