Taunton - Taunton Athletic Club Grounds
Priory Lane : TA1 1JT
Taunton - Taunton Athletic Club Grounds : Map credit National Library of Scotland Taunton - Taunton Athletic Club Grounds : Image credit somersetlive.co.uk In September 1880, the lease for Taunton Cricket Club's old ground had expired, with no option of renewal. The club decided to lease an 8 acre site behind St James' Church from Mr John Winter for a term of 14 years at an annual rent of £40. In February 1881, a contract was awarded to Mr Morley of Nottingham to level and lay a cinder track at a cost of £190. The cricket club arranged a meeting of Taunton athletic societies to help prepare the ground for multiple sports and a company called The Grand Stand and Pavilion Company was formed to raise subscriptions for the ground.

In early 1881 it was proposed to amalgamate the athletics, cycling, cricket and football clubs under the title of Taunton Athletic Club. The new club would build a ground at Priory with a cinder track and the club was seeking donations to cover the cost of works, estimated at £200 to £300. The ground was duly completed and opened on Whit Monday 1881, the Taunton Courier described the track "One of the features of the ground is a new cinder racing track eighteen feet wide, four laps to the miles, with a finishing straight of 150 yards. At the time of opening, the track was completed, but there was much more work to be done including ground preparations for other sports, a perimeter fence and tree planting.

The opening of the ground commenced with a procession of 100 bicyclists from Castle Green to the ground at North Street. A crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 spectators paid one shilling entry fee to watch the fourteen events which included three bicycle races and a tricycle race. The two miles amateur handicap race attracted 25 entries and was run in three heats. The race was won by FJ Best of Bridgwater (riding 56" wheel) by a yard from ADM Gowie (52") and JP Jarman (56"). The open five mile race for a first prize of £10 had only three riders and there was some suspicion of race fixing. The two miles handicap race for Taunton clubs had ten starters and the tricycle handicap race had five competitors. The evening finished with an impressive fireworks display by WJ Wilder of Birmingham "the celebrated pyrotechnic artistes of the Midland counties", the display was accompanied by music from the band of the 2nd Somerset Rifles Volunteers .

On Monday August 15th there was a match race between John (Happy Jack) Keen** and F de Civry* over 15 miles for £200, the Frenchman receiving a minute start. Keen rode a 57½ inch machine weighing 31 lbs and de Civry a 57 inch machine weighing 33 lbs. Unfortunately the race was a failure as Keen had fallen heavily at a Wolverhampton meeting the previous week and retired after nine miles. The event include a full card of top class racing featuring GT Edmunds and Bradley Keen, John Keen's brother and a race for the 2 miles County Challenge Cup. The attendance for the event was 3,000 and a new thousand seater grandstand had been erected.

On Wednesday August 24th 1881 there was a ten miles match race between F de Civry the French champion and GT Edmunds the Welsh champion for £10 a side. The Welsh man had one minutes start, which was one and a quarter laps, de Civry quickly caught Edmunds but was unable to drop him and Edmunds ran out the winner.

The Athletic Club annual sports took place on September 15th 1881, all the bicycle events were handicap races over two miles. There were three new cups on offer, the County Challenge Cup for Somerset and Bristol riders, the Local Challenge Cup for Taunton local riders and the Taunton Challenge Cup for Taunton Athletic Club riders. The cups were subsequently competed for monthly. In addition there was a two miles open handicap race. In the Local Challenge Cup there was an unfortunate accident that was caused by a hole in the track, this resulted in three riders crashing, one sustaining a broken collarbone and another a severely cut arm. The meeting was followed by an evening of music, dancing and a fireworks display.

At the end of 1881, Taunton Athletic Club reported a loss of £150, which was considered satisfactory because of the large expenditure incurred in setting up the ground. The club resolved to borrow £400 from the bank, guaranteed by its members, £150 to pay existing bills and £250 for a new grandstand and pavilion.

The principal race meetings from 1882 were the Easter Monday and August Bank Holiday sports. Quite lavish entertainment was laid on at the sports, which one year included the Latelles aerial bicycle act, wire walkers, trapeze artists, a comic singer and a fireworks display. In 1883, the NCU 25 miles Championship of England race was held at the ground.

By 1884, the Company had debts of £300 and the five guarantors of the Company wished to be relieved of their liabilities. The situation was resolved by forming a new company, called ‘The Taunton Athletic Company' and raising share capital of £1,200 by selling £1 shares to members. Taunton Bicycle Club were obviously unhappy at how things were going and voted to distance themselves from Taunton Athletic Club and the bicyclists, as a body, withdrew from the athletic ground, which affected bicycle racing at the ground.

It seemed obvious that the cricket club would eventually take over the ground and in 1886, the Athletic Company sold the lease of the ground to Somerset County Cricket Club with the intention of the Cricket Club keeping the tennis grounds and cinder path in use. Rumours started to circulate in 1888 that the cricket club were planning to do away with the cycle track and the cricket club did not maintain the track. In 1889, the cycle track was turfed over.

There was very little bicycle racing after the cricket club took over the ground. Taunton BC was much less prominent by 1890 and they organised a series of races at the ground to try and revive interest. The last of this series was a 20 miles handicap race on September 18th 1890 in which all competitors had to ride on solid tyres with a machine no less that 30lbs in weight.

The main meetings at the grounds were the Taunton Harriers annual sports which were held from 1890 and included bicycle races. At the 1891 meeting 6,000 people watched the bicycle events which were half, one and three miles handicap races and a five miles scratch race. The Harriers meetings continued until the early 1910s and the Harriers were disbanded by the start of the First World War. The Somerset Constabulary Sports were held at the ground until 1923.

After many years, cycle racing returned to the ground with a meeting on September 9th 1950, organised by Taunton Athletic Clubs' and Somerset Road, which attracted 150 cyclist for the grass track racing. The main cycling event was a ten minute Australian pursuit race for which eight top riders were invited. The other events were handicap races over 550 yards and one mile and scratch races over 1,000 metres and 5 miles. This was probably the last cycle racing event to be held at the Taunton ground.

The cricket ground still exists as Somerset County Cricket Ground and hosts high profile cricket matches.

* de Civry was the French National sprint champion in 1881 and 1882, the ‘world' 50 miles champion in 1983 and the French National stayer champion in 1886 and 1887. He won 211 of his 331 races and he died of tuberculosis aged 32.

** John Keen, known as Happy Jack, lived in Surbiton and was the professional champion of England. After racing in America in 1876, Keen was recognised as the fastest rider in the world. When Keen retired, he became a bicycle manufacturer in Surbiton and built machines with the brand name Eclipse. Keen was believed to be the first rider to use toe-clips on his pedals

Taunton - Taunton Athletic Club Grounds : Image credit Somerset Cricket CC
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Photos : somersetlive.co.uk, Somerset Cricket CC
Maps    : National Library of Scotland