West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Local History

THE WILLOW PARK DOG TRACK


TERRY SPENCER

In January 1938, Mr. Claude Firth, licensee of the Willow Park Hotel, wrote to the directors of Carters’ Knottingley Brewery Co., Ltd., requesting the lease of four acres of land lying adjacent to the hotel. Firth, who had been the tenant of the hotel since 1933, sought on behalf of himself and two business associates, J.W. Penty and Percy Smith, a two year lease of the site with a renewal option, their intention being to establish a greyhound racing track. (1)

The reaction of the company was favourable for the idea was not new to them. As early as 1933 the tenant of the Greenfield Hotel, Upton, had suggested the establishment of a stadium for “electric hare racing” on company owned land next to the hotel in an effort to draw the local population of the largely mining community who had considerable interest in greyhounds, as a means of boosting the trade of the hotel at a time when the economic depression of the period was adversely affecting custom. The company, equally keen to boost trade, had readily agreed to the suggestion. (2) In addition, in 1935 another greyhound racing track had been established on a company owned site adjacent to the Old Hall Inn, Great Houghton, by the licensee, Mr. J. Button. (3)

The company directors instructed the secretary to seek the best possible terms concerning the Willow Park application and not accept less than £20 per annum as rent. In the event the leasess agreed to a lease of two years at £30 p.a. with the option of renewal for a further two year period. The Willow Park Hotel was designated as the official headquarters of the new venture, the licensee’s rent being adjusted to accommodate the change in leasehold. (4) The formal agreement was signed and sealed in May 1938 and despite the increasing public concern at the prospect of war (or perhaps as a social antidote) the track was well supported and the business was successfully established. (5)

The outbreak of war in September 1939 saw the suspension of all large public gatherings such as sporting fixtures and social events as a precaution against the danger of air attack. Owing to the hiatus known as the ‘Phoney War’, marked by lack of hostile activity on the domestic front, restrictions were eased somewhat and by December events with a strictly limited attendance were allowed. The easement may have influenced the triumvirate to seek renewal of the Willow Park lease in February 1942. Initially, the company sought an increased rent of £50 p.a. but the uncertainty concerning the likely future effect of wartime conditions on public events resulted in modification of the demand and in March a renewal of the lease for a five year period at £40 per year was offered. (6) It was not until May however, that the deal was concluded and only then with the proviso that if the racing was curtailed due to the war, only half the rent would be paid while the track was closed. (7) A clause was also added to the lease banning the sale of liquor at the track without the permission of the company and to reinforce the control of the company over such sales, the Willow park Hotel was re-designated as the stadium H.Q. The agreement also provided an option for further renewal of the lease at the culmination of the specified period. (8)

Meanwhile, the Great Houghton track had fallen into disuse following the death of Mr. Button. As a result, in February 1941, the company were offered the fixtures and fittings previously installed by the deceased. The board accepted the offer and paid £200 which was then added to the tenancy valuation of the Old Hall Inn. Clearly, the company were keen to promote the continuation of dog racing at the site and in the new tenant, Mr. H. O. Butterfield, found a sympathetic client, Butterfield taking a lease on the dog track under a seemingly precarious financial arrangement. The promptness of the directors in securing the deal under such conditions suggests that the company was the prime mover, eager no doubt to promote trade at the dilapidated Old Crown Inn by securing the reopening of the equally dilapidated dog track. (10)

For a specific section of the population the race meetings provided necessary relief from the harsh realities of daily life in wartime and consequently both venues were well patronised. The economic and cultural value was greatly enhanced in 1943 when, although the war was far from over, a favourable outcome seemed assured and the existing restrictions were rescinded and regular sporting fixtures were permitted. The result emboldened J.W. Penty as early as December 1945 to seek renewal of the lease on the Willow Park stadium for a further seven years from 1947. The board, aware of the potential spending power of a public bent upon pleasure as an antidote to the effects of the recently concluded conflict, hesitated to commit the company without a careful assessment of the economic implications. The applicants were therefore requested to present a schedule of improvements which (it was assumed) they contemplated undertaking at the stadium, together with an assessment of costs. (11)

It was not until August 1946 that the details were forthcoming. The company responded by offering to renew the lease for five years from August 1947 at an annual rent of £60 for the first three years and £75 for the two remaining. (12)

The proposed improvements are unrecorded but given the material shortages, allied to the bureaucratic system of building control which underpinned the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, any proposals must have represented the triumph of hope over expectation. Realising this, and with a nod to the inflationary trend carried over from the war and the unlikely premise that the lessees’ would not “build on the land any hotel, tavern, inn or club, or any means of selling liquor” the lease was extended until 1952. (13)

With post war crowds flocking to sporting events the attention of the company was drawn by its insurance assessor to the necessity for increasing the indemnity provision on the company’s public liability insurance but with studied insouciance the directors rejected the advice. (14) However, to cover the company, the board insisted upon the insertion of a clause in the leasehold agreements placing an obligation on the dog track proprietors to undertake an additional premium payment to cover themselves, the lessors and third parties. (15) Taking nothing on trust, the company wrote to Penty to ensure the adequacy of the policy to indemnify the company by reserving the right to undertake periodic checks with the insurers in order to verify payments, policy renewal and contents. (16) In the case of the Old Hall Inn dog track, the tenants were advised to take out a joint policy covering liability, jointly and severally and a new lease was formulated by the company solicitors along the lines of that of the Willow Park stadium, restricting the use of the field to dog racing. (17)

By the early 1950s both sites had become the subject of land valuation under the terms of the Town & Country Planning Act. The Act, designed to ensure local authority control of development of open land outside built up areas, simplified compulsory purchase of any site with development potentiality at a price not exceeding the 1939 land value. The aim was to prevent speculative purchase by property developers at a price which outbid the resources of local authorities.

In January 1951 the site of the Willow Park track had an unrestricted value of £2,135 but was given a development value of £985, increased upon appeal to £1,085. By comparison, the Great Houghton site, valued in December, had an unrestricted value of £350 with a development value of £250. (18)

If the valuations were a preliminary to local authority housing development the intention was unrealised. At Pontefract such development occurred at Chequerfield on the western fringe of the Baghill estate, consequently, in February 1952, Penty applied for a five year renewal of the Willow Park lease from the following August. It was agreed that the rent would be £100 for the first three years and £115 for the remaining two. (19) The inclusion of a variable rent underlines the continuing inflationary trend which was to gain momentum with disastrous consequences for the national economy a generation later.

In 1953, a new tenant, Mr. M.T. Armin, took over the tenancy and racing track at Great Houghton, paying £200 for the use of the fixtures and fittings at the track and securing a five year lease at £25 a year with effect from may of that year. (20)

By the mid 1950s post war austerity had given way to public affluence. The advent of commercial television and the increase in private vehicle ownership opened up new vistas and pastimes, refreshing jaded tastes nurtured on traditional fare. Declining attendance at cinemas, theatres and sporting events heralded the closure of many well established venues during the ensuing decade. An early victim was Armin, who in June 1954, decided to discontinue race meetings at the Old Hall Inn site. The field was then incorporated into the tenancy of the inn by agreement with Mr. Gregory, the new licensee, but not for use as a dog track. (21) The fate of the earliest of the three ‘company’ tracks is unrecorded but the Greenfield Hotel site at Upton appears to have closed during the war, being defunct by August 1947 when the company advised the Area Planning Officer it had no plans to develop the six acre site which the hotel occupied, thereby making it available for housing development which the company probably welcomed as a stimulus to future trade. (22)

The more urban location of Willow Park stadium allied to its apparently efficient and continuous administration, ensured its survival throughout the social and economic vicissitudes and in April 1956 the proprietors, named as Smith, Penty and Loynes (Firth having dropped out of the partnership due to private difficulties) sought a further seven year extension of their lease with effect from August 1956. (23) The venue remained commercially viable and a further five year extension was obtained in August 1963.

The proximity and popularity of the adjacent Willow Park Hotel was an undoubted factor in drawing attendance to the race meetings while the clause in the leasehold agreement excluding the sale of liquor inside the stadium ensured custom for the hotel. As a result, in 1966 the hotel was renovated and refurbished by Askham & Son, the Pontefract builders, at a cost of £18,354, a vast sum at that time and one which exceeded the cost of construction and refurbishment of some of the company’s newer licensed houses. (24)

Mutual prosperity seemed assured with the provision for a further extension of the lease of the stadium from August 1968. In mid January 1964, however, following the complete integration of the Knottingley company with the parent company B.Y.B. Ltd., two years previously, it was resolved to sell the Willow park site. Provisional agreement was reached with the Tees Land Investment Co., Ltd., subject to vacant possession and local council approval of private housing development. (25) Building permission was subsequently obtained and the brewery company agreed to pay the proprietors of the Willow park stadium compensation for severance of the ongoing lease. (26) By the end of 1969 the site was vacated, the payment of a cheque for £3,000 on Monday 22nd December, formally marking the end of the 30 year tenancy. (27) Shortly thereafter, the stadium was demolished and houses and shopping arcade were built which occupy the site today.

Terry Spencer
August 2007

NOTES:
(1) West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield. WYW 1415-2 p343
(2) ibid p150
(3) ibid p172
(4) ibid p343 & p346
(5) ibid p361
(6) WYW 1415-3. pp122-23 & p125
(7) ibid p129
(8) ibid p135 & p140
(9) ibid p122
(10) ibid p131 for details of the financial arrangement between the company and Butterfield
(11) ibid p339
(12) ibid p372
(13) WYW 1415-4 p24
(14) ibid p47
(15) ibid p95 & p97
(16) ibid pp97-8
(17) ibid pp95-109 passim
(18) ibid p213, p215 & p260. Also c.f. 1415-14 (n.p.) for details in Schedule of Central Land Board re dog track site valuations.
(19) 1415-4 p272 & p282
(20) ibid p329
(21) WYW 1415-5 p12
(22) 1415-4 p61. Also 1415-14 (n.p.) Schedule of Central Land Board 9-6-1952 contains no reference to the Greenfield Hotel dog track but merely records a plot 5.30 acres in extent having a development value of £150.
(23) 1415-5 pp83-4 for details of financial problems which may have occasioned Firth’s withdrawal from the tenancy of the Willow Park Hotel and the stadium partnership.
(24) WYW 1415-6. p40.
(25) West Yorkshire Archive Service, Kirklees. 1415-11 p166
(26) ibid p184
(27) ibid items of correspondence between pp183-84


Also by Terry Spencer:

Darrington Hotel: Origins and Early History
Pontefract's Forgotten Man: Thomas J. Sides
The Hope and Anchor Inn, Pontefract
Priming the Town Pump
A Very Gallant Gentleman: Percy Bentley


 

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