The Aston Cross Tavern opened in 1775 as a public house and tea garden and had a pleasure garden attached to it with a football ground, running track and cycle race track. These sporting facilities were behind the pub at the corner of Rocky Lane and Aston Road North.
A race billed as The Championship of the Midlands was held there in April 1870, the competitors included John Henry Palmer and John Prince of Derby the event attracted a crowd of 3,000 people.
On Whit Monday and Tuesday 1871, a Championship of England contest was held there which attracted the best riders in the country, racing for £30 prize money. The riders were JT Johnson** of London, E Shelton of Wolverhampton, James Moore of Paris and John Palmer, H Westwood and H Swann of Aston. Most of the competitors had 47 inch machines and it was reported that all the competitor's bicycles were made by Wright of Birmingham. The final was between JT Johnson and John Palmer, with betting at 6 to 4 on Palmer at the start. Johnson led all the way and won by 25 yards, collecting £20 for the win and Palmer £5 for second place.
The sporting events must have provided a good income for the pub, which charged an entry fee of 2d (£2.40 in 2020 prices) and could attract up to 3,000 spectators. The pub sponsored a football club, Aston Shakespeare, who enjoyed success for a few years and met Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA cup 2nd round on 5th Nov. 1887. Sporting events at the Aston Cross Tavern went into decline in the late 1880's, the football team moved grounds and no later cycle race results appear. It could have suffered by the popularity of the Aston Lower Grounds which was less than a mile away.
The area around Aston Cross in the 1870's was industrial, housing Ansell's brewery, HP sauce factory, Dunlop Rubber and Hercules cycles. The Aston Cross Tavern building still exists, it was known as the Golden Cross from the 1880's and then as O'Reilly's pub (now closed). The sports grounds are now occupied by Aston Cross Business Park.
** John Thomas Johnson was a professional bicycle rider from London, he came 8th in the first Paris-Rouen race on November 7th 1869, behind the winner James Moore. As well as winning the English and Belgian professional bicycle championships, he was reported to be the first man to hold the world Hour record, recording 13 miles 600 yards at Aston Cross on May 20th 1870. After he retired from racing, JT Johnson was a bicycle builder.
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Bob Johnson, Birmingham Forum
Old-Maps.co.uk historic maps