London - Mortlake - Sheen House

Richmond Park : SW14 8LR London - Mortlake - Sheen House : Map credit National Library of Scotland London - Mortlake - Sheen House : Image credit Grace
The Sheen House Cycling Club was set up in 1897, using Sheen House and 22 acres of grounds, in Richmond Park, as its headquarters. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of February 6th 1897 describes the formation of the exclusive club and "a splendid cycle track is being constructed by the engineer who was responsible for possibly the two best cycle tracks in existence, namely the Crystal Palace and Catford Bridge. The outer track will be of cement, twenty-five feet in width, the inner track of cinders, fifteen feet in width, with an enormous lawn in the centre." The 440 yards track was intended both for amateur races and to induce professionals to race at Sheen. The other facilities were archery, croquet and lawn tennis, a stage for music and theatre was also planned. Thirty bedrooms, a dining room and smoking room was provided in the house. Facilities for the storage, cleaning and overhauling of bicycles was planned together with a riding school for new cyclists and the hire of bicycles. Sheen House catered for the fleeting fashion of bicycle riding by the upper classes in London*.

The Sheen House Club opened officially on 15th May 1897 and 2,000 members and friends were present. The cycle track was not finished, so the planned bicycle races took place on the tennis lawn. Annual membership at Sheen cost 5 guineas, £700 in today's prices. The photograph shows a charity fair at Sheen House, the concrete track can just be seen in the background.

The first use of the new track was on 4th July 1897 with a match between Oxford University and the Sheen House Club. There were three bicycle races; a quarter mile, one and five miles. There was also a paced 5 miles open handicap match race between Maxwell of the Lavender Wheelers and Mearer of the Catford. The meeting was obviously a ‘society event' and the Sporting Life commented that "cycling has no greater devotees than in that portion of society known as the Upper Ten**"

The first motor tricycle races took place on the oval cycle track at Sheen House on 29th November 1897. The motor tricycle shown in the photograph is on the Sheen track at what was probably the first motor cycle race in the country.

Bicycle polo was also popular at Sheen and the 1898 match against Oxford University was preceded by a bicycle polo match. Bicycle racing at Sheen was usually by invitation, in July 1898, Sheen hosted Dublin University and United Hospitals teams for 1, 3 and 10 miles races. Oxford and Cambridge also held a match at Sheen with three races.

Oxford University BC beat the London BC on 17th June 1899 in one and ten mile races. These invitation races with the usual clubs continued until 1900. By this time cycling had become very popular with the general public and bicycles were cheap enough for working people to buy. This made bicycle riding unfashionable among the upper classes and all bicycle racing at Sheen House stopped after 1900.

The demise of Sheen House Club is well described in the November 22nd 1902 issue of The Field "The racing members of the club, however, were not sufficiently numerous to afford sport except on three or four occasions in the year. The experiment of inviting the aid of racing clubs from other London tracks proved by no means acceptable to the membership. Bicycling, moreover, had by this time lost any special claim to be a fashionable pursuit." Sheen House survived longer than the Trafalgar and the Wheel bicycle clubs after the novelty of bicycle riding had been abandoned by the upper class after 1896.

The contents of Sheen House were auction in November 1902. In 1903 it was the headquarters of the Croquet Association, but was demolished in 1904 and housing was built on the site at what is now Shrewsbury Avenue.

* The bicycling craze in the upper classes started in 1895 and several exclusive bicycle clubs opened in London, including Sheen House, Trafalgar Bicycling Club and the Wheel Club.

** Upper Ten originally referred to the wealthiest 10,000 people in New York

London - Mortlake - Sheen House : Image credit Illustrated London News London - Mortlake - Sheen House : Image credit classicandsportscar.com
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Photos : Grace's Guide, Illustrated London News, classicandsportscar.com
Maps    : National Library of Scotland