In the early 1890s Hyde Farm, Balham was set to become one of the premier cycling tracks in London. By 1896 it had closed with the land to be used for housing, a victim of construction to saturation point of cycling tracks in the good times, cycling’s sudden decline in popularity, and a champion cyclist’s determination to make Herne Hill the capital’s number one venue.
Before we unpick South London’s Victorian cycling track history we start our story in medieval times. In the beginning was an area called Friday Grove. On its southern boundary lay a 60-acre field (about the size of 30 football pitches) called Friday Field, better known as Hydefield. Owned by Merton Priory, it was sold in 1587 to the recently founded Emanuel College, Cambridge who developed Hyde Farm and rented out to provide income.
The farm was leased out to a succession of farmers until the late 19th century, when in the face of falling profits from agriculture, the farm was turned over to pig farming and the field to sport and recreation.
The newly formed Hyde Farm Athletic Grounds hosted a wide variety of sports including football, lacrosse, rugby, golf, athletics, cricket and most unusually baseball.
Baseball was enjoying a period of popularity following the formation of the London Baseball Association (LBA). An article in the 2 March 1895 edition of London and Provincial Entr’acte, estimated that The London Baseball Park, Hyde Farm would host 60 games. A who’s who of music hall artistes played at the official opening of the ground (see cutting). RG Knowles, the popular musical hall comedian was treasurer of the LBA and played many games there. The London Thespians Baseball Club won the championship in 1894 in Balham in front of several thousand spectators (a phrase I never thought I would write…ever).
From the South London Harriers archives – a famous Athletic club that continues today – we can deduce that the athletic track at Hyde Farm was grass and the club used it for training in the 1890s. This shouldn’t be confused with the Balham Athletic Grounds in Oldridge Road, Balham. Home to the Harriers from 1884, these grounds were to play host to a number of world records set in the early days of competitive athletics.
Walter Besant describes the baseball, athletics and cycling grounds in London South of The Thames. “To the West of Thornton Road stretches the great level of Hyde Farm…approached from the New Park Road by a rural lane with high banks leading past the Baseball Park to the old buildings of the farm. Of these, three very picturesque cottages remain, more or less dilapidated and used as dressing rooms by some of the clubs of the common, to whose members they offer refreshments.
“The Farm itself, stretching to Dagmire Lane boasts of golf links and a cinder track for bicycling, whilst the greater part is rented to Athletic clubs.”
Cycling on the farm
The cinder track played host to a number of club race days. A newspaper cutting from the 21 July 1895 issue of Lloyds Weekly Newspaper shows Clapham Ramblers CC used the venue and from the DeLaune CC records we learn “A two mile handicap race was held on a track at Hyde Farm, Balham, apparently by arrangement with the De Laune Harriers, to whom a fee of 7s 6d was paid.”
15-plus clubs are listed in the 1894 Cyclist Year Book as operating in the Clapham, Wandsworth, Balham, Tooting area. It is likely such a landmark track would have been used by the likes of Tooting BC, Clapham CC, Clapham Park CC, Clapham Ramblers CC, New Wandsworth CC, Streatham CC and Balham CC. The latter of course of particular interest who’s details are listed below:
1894 Balham CC Headquarters: Balham Conservative Club Honorary Secretary: Albert E Garnham Address: Beulah Hill, Norwood Captain: WA Farnham Uniform: Grey Suit and Cap with Silver Badge First Minutes 1892
Newspaper diarist Anol D Ryder, gives us a further insight into the cycle track and the owner’s ambitions for it. Writing in the 16 August, 1895 edition of the Salisbury Times he declares, “Going down by road on Saturday afternoon last to Hyde Farm, Balham, I was fortunate enough to witness some half-dozen cricket matches, as well as a Club 10-mile cycle race on the track there. Many of my readers may have forgotten that this track was intended for the venue of cycling, instead of Herne Hill, and great preparations were made and heaps of money spent to make the track a fine one (three laps to the mile). Such is fate! The Balham track has practically become a dead letter, and there is every possibility of Herne Hill going ditto. Of course, the track is now at Catford, where they hold sports of some kind of another every evening of the week.”
Hyde Farm was positioning itself as the premier track in London in a London cycling boom. In the 1880s and 1890s cycling in all its forms was becoming increasingly popular. In Ride! Ride! Ride! we’re told it “Brought a plethora of temporary and permanent circuits on surfaces ranging from grass and cinders through to wood and cement…Fulham, Chiswick, Crystal Palace, Surbiton, Alexandra Palace, Kennington, Wood Green, Paddington, Kensall Rise, Balham, Bow Grounds, Stamford Bridge and Sheen all held regular race meetings.”
George Lacy Hillier, the high profile former cycling champion, race organiser, journalist and cycling pioneer, had opened Herne Hill in 1891. He had initially wanted to establish a first class venue at the downtrodden Crystal Palace track where he had been involved but drew resistance from the owners.
More tracks appeared in London in the mid-nineties at Putney, Canning Town, Westminster and Olympia. In the winter of 1894/95 the first track with banking was built in Catford with a grandstand for 1000-seated spectators. It was the largest track in Europe at the time.
By this time the number of tracks had hit saturation point, leading to a decline in attendances and sponsorship. At the same time cycling’s popularity was dipping as the upper and middle classes were drawn towards the motorcar. All track owners faced similar financial difficulties in the face of dwindling sponsorship and attendance revenue. With the suburban population increasing sharply most were able to sell off the land for housing development. The Catford track lasted 5 years.
Emmanuel College, owners of the freehold for 309 years, sold the site at auction and Hyde Farm was demolished in 1896. Hyde Farm Estate was built between 1899-1904 on the roads now called Hydethorpe, Cambray, Midmoor, Pentney, Scholars, Radbourne, Telferscot, Fieldhouse, Glenfield, Haverhill and Burnbury (see map). In Clapham Past we’re told “The sale made it clear that the land was to be cleared for building purposes and thirty years later old inhabitants still spoke of the difficulty in pulling down the old oak beams.”
In promoting the development it was claimed that Balham was one of the healthiest places near London – being on high ground and surrounded by open spaces. The properties were advertised as ‘high class’ and ‘exceptionally well built’ and were in the main occupied by City clerks who paid from 10 shillings a week for a flat to 18 shillings for a six-room house. These days you would get no change out of one million pounds for a terraced house.
Anol D Ryder was right about the Hyde Farm track’s slow death but it wasn’t Catford that did for the Balham track. George Hillier’s wily efforts ensured Herne Hill would become the focus for track cycling in London until the Lee Valley Velopark opened for the 2012 Olympics.
Do you have any info on the Hyde Farm Cycling Track? Email me at email@example.com, drop me a line in the box below or add a comment on the BBC Facebook page. I would love to hear from you.
The South London Harriers Club history page
Newspaper archive at FindMyPast
Books plundered for this article were: Twixt the Commons – The development of a Victorian suburb
Details about cycling clubs from the 1894 Cycling Year Book can be found on the Veteran Cycle Club online library
The pic of George Lacy Hillier is from his Grace’s Guide web page
The 1885 Clapham Map from the London Ancestor website. Original Source 1885 Report of the Boundary Commissioners for England and Wales
The 1862 Map is from Stanford’s Library Map of LONDON and its SUBURBS in 24 sheets
The DeLaune Cycling Club history page