Chatham Lines Races
During the early 19th century the race meeting on the Lines (technically in Gillingham although called Chatham Lines) in late summer was a well known event in the Racing Calendar. On Thursday August 29th, 1822 Robert Pocock wrote "there were races for a plate of £50 when, it is said, twenty thousand persons assembled and where a poor woman was killed by a horse and cart going over her."
Wright, in his Topography of Rochester, Chatham and Strood (1838) tells us:
"The races are held in August under the auspices of the country and borough members, on an extensive plain on the summit of the height without the lines; they continue about two days, and the scene presented to view is one of considerable animation, being numerously attended by a gay assemblage of rank and fashion of the surrounding country. During its continuance there is an almost total suspension of business; for great and small are equally attracted to the stand, and all are alike intent on the exciting nature of the sport."
The meeting was eventually banned because of the amount of crime and disorder it caused.
Rochester and Chatham Races were held on the Chatham Lines for part of the 19th century. They took place late August, early September, and like the yearly military Siege Operations held on the lines, the races were also very popular. Huge crowds of people came to the events, many from London, who took Steamers to Gravesend, then the rest of the journey would be made by stagecoach and later on by trains.
Regulations were very strict, and unlawful Betting was strictly prohibited, but no doubt it often took place. Grandstands and booths were erected as were many stalls selling food to eat whilst there. Bands played and there was much pomp and ceremony. With the huge crowds pick-pocketing and other crimes were a risk so Metropolitan Police Officers had to be hired to keep an eye on things. Robert Pocock noted on Thursday 29th August, 1822 that a woman was killed by a horse and cart going over her at the races, and in 1848 Thomas Kenning was committed to prison for ten days as a rogue and vagabond for playing at an unlawful game of chance on the racecourse.
The races continued for a number of years, but eventually they were banned because of the increasing amount of lawlessness.
Rewritten in my own words from Sources: Bygone Kent, Volume 19, Number 11 and “The Gillingham Chronicles” by Ronald A. Baldwin
From The Times: Wednesday, August 27, 1834
Friday the town of Chatham was thrown into the utmost confusion owing to a body of Sailors and other persons parading the town armed with bludgeons. This disturbance arose from a serious riot that took place on Chatham Lines the preceding evening when the privates and the non-commissioned Officers belonging to the 88th Regiment advanced in complete battle array towards the booths where the people were enjoying themselves after the races.
The soldiers armed with bayonets plunged them indiscriminately into every individual within their reach, thereby wounding about 30 persons. A warrant officer belonging to his Majesty’s ship Tribune now lies at the Royal Naval Hospital, Brompton, in a very precarious state; and James Parr, a stone mason, received two severe sabre cuts in the head, which nearly proved fatal. There is a drummer lying at the hospital, and no hopes are entertained of his recovery. The scene on the Lines was terrific, men, women and children were trampled and cut about in a most horrid manner.
A public meeting is to take place on the subject; a requisition has been presented to the High Constable, signed by many respectable inhabitants. The following are the words of the requisitions;- ” We, the undersigned, request that you will call a public meeting of the inhabitants of the borough, to take into consideration the steps necessary to be adopted to protect themselves from the violence, and to prevent, if possible, a repetition of the outrages which have been recently committed by some of the troops at present forming a part of the Chatham Garrison, who have in several instances wounded many persons with their bayonets.”