Walsall Arboretum and Lake Company was formed in 1871 to set up a public pleasure ground. The company attempted to raise £4,000 share capital in 1871, but they attracted less than half that amount. In 1873, they took out a 99 year lease from Lord Hatherton on seven acres of ground at Reynolds Hall to build the Walsall Arboretum. The leisure ground was constructed with boating and fishing lakes, two lodges, a boathouse, bandstand, several summerhouses, a tree lined promenade, space for dancing, a flagpole, croquet lawns and a cricket ground. The Walsall Arboretum was a misnomer, because the grounds did not contain a collection of trees. In order to make a profit, the company charged 2d for entry to the Arboretum. This video shows a short history of the Arboretum.
The Arboretum opened officially on May 4th 1874, but visitor numbers were poor because people objected to paying the 2d entry cost and complained of a lack of facilities, particularly for sporting events.
The first bicycle racing there was at a Grand Fete on July 12th 1875, which featured a one mile handicap event. There were impressive amusements, a balloon ascent, a wire walker, a brass band, a comic and singers and dancers. There was a further gala on September 6th 1875, which again included a one mile handicap and a swimming race in the lake.
To boost visitor numbers, a cinder bicycle racing track was built in 1876. The first meeting on the new track was on Easter Monday April 17th 1876, organised by the Walsall Oak Bicycle Association*. The bicycle events were open 1 and 3 miles handicap races, a 1 mile Club race and the Arboretum Directors' Champion Cup.
1876 was an extremely busy first year on the track, with lots of bicycle race meetings. On June 19th 1876 there was a one mile handicap open to all England' with 20 guineas prize money. On 26th June a 250 yards race for a silver watch. The Walsall Oak Bicycle Association held 1 and 3 miles handicap races on September 23rd 1876. At the 26th September meeting there was a 1 mile open handicap race and a 10 miles match race between John Keen and C Thouilett for a silver cup.
There was a 6 day cycle race at the Arboretum, which ended on October 14th 1876, between Camille Thuillet of Paris and Frank White of Wolverhampton. Both men rode from 6 am to 6.30 pm each day and White had a 40 miles start. The race finish was close, with White winning by less than a lap. The opinion of the Wolverhampton Express was that "the race was not altogether on the square."
On October 16th 1876 there was a 15 miles race between Thouilett (on a 54 inch machine) and E Skelton of Wolverhampton (on a 55 inch) for £20. Thouilett won easily in 54 minutes. Racing continued until late into the year, when there was a meeting on 11th and 13th November with a 1 mile handicap for 12 guineas in prizes.
Early in 1876, the company reported that it had lost money in the previous two years and was £3,000 in debt. There was an unsuccessful attempt to raise more capital, but the company was wound up at the end of the year. Lord Hatherton, the owner of the land, and a group of local businessmen took over, but the venture was still unsuccessful.
After the very busy year in 1876, the following season was particularly quiet. A race meeting on May 19th was advertised and there was a Grand Fete on July 2nd 1877 at which the Club Captaincy of Walsall United Bicycle Club was decided. There was a second Gala in September, which advertised bicycle races. Do doubt that the financial losses in previous years had an effect.
There was a large sports meeting on June 8th 1878 but only one bicycle event was included, a two miles handicap race. Bicycle racing continued to 1880, but on a much reduced scale. In October 1881, heavy rain badly damaged the cycle track.
There was very little bicycle racing at the Arboretum after 1880. The Arboretum was taken over by Walsall Council and officially re-opened on 21 July 1884 as the "people's park". The cycle track was improved in 1889. Last bicycle racing at the Arboretum was probably on August 8th 1899 at the Second Annual Sports with bicycle races'
Over the years, the Arboretum has been extended and now covers 80 acres. The Arboretum is still a popular park and is now a conservation area. In the early 2010's, the park had a major restoration programme financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
* Walsall Oak Bicycle Association held their meetings in the British Oak pub, 101 Lichfield Street, Walsall, from which the club probably took its name.