ONE hundred and fifty years ago this week one of the most anticipated days in the St Helens sporting calendar took place.

That was the so-called "Race Friday", which was treated as a holiday in the town when shops shut and huge numbers journeyed to Newton Races on special trains.

However, the final day of the June meeting had a dreadful reputation for bad behaviour. In 1835 the Rev. Thomas Pigot, the Vicar of St Helens, wrote about the "sad excesses" of the event, claiming: "Very many poor sinners have confessed to me on their death beds that they commenced their wicked career at Newton races".

The meetings were renowned for drunken behaviour and were a magnet for pickpockets, prostitutes and other criminals.

St Helens Star: The earliest known newspaper report on Newton Races from Aris's Birmingham Gazette June 29 1752The earliest known newspaper report on Newton Races from Aris's Birmingham Gazette June 29 1752 (Image: Stephen Wainwright)

Writing on June 28 1873 about that year's event, the St Helens Newspaper wrote: "It seems a pity that so noble a pastime as racing should be brought into disrepute by the vile practices to which it has given rise. A racecourse has come to be a place which is not calculated to improve the morals of young or old."

And so the church organised counter attractions to keep people away from Newton Common – where the races had been held since at least 1680.

The Newspaper described how on Race Friday 1873 huge numbers of children had gathered at their schools in St Helens before dispersing to different rural destinations, adding: "For nearly two hours the streets were gay with children in holiday dress, with flags, banners, streamers, bands, and all the accessories of such a demonstration.

The air was constantly echoing music from the bands which seemed to have gathered from all points of the compass to do duty for the day."

St Helens Star: n illustration of Newton Racecourse on Newton Common in 1831n illustration of Newton Racecourse on Newton Common in 1831 (Image: Image: Stephen Wainwright)

Up to 10,000 children and adults were involved in marching through the streets of St Helens in glorious weather. The youngsters of the Parish Church schools journeyed by special train to Hale, where they were able to play games and sports in the grounds of Hale Hall.

The children of St Thomas' schools processed to the cricket field in Boundary Road and those connected with Parr Church were permitted the use of the then private Sherdley Park.

St Helens Star: The location of Newton Racecourse in the late 1840s on Newton Common with Crow Lane on the rightThe location of Newton Racecourse in the late 1840s on Newton Common with Crow Lane on the right (Image: Stephen Wainwright)

The children from Parr Mount were taken to a field belonging to a Mr Naylor at Ravenhead and Windle Schools were allowed the use of the grounds around Col Gamble's residence at Windlehurst.

Meanwhile, the Independent school kids played on the lawn of Windle Hall and the children of the Baptist congregation proceeded to Laffak, where they had been lent a meadow.

There were then no public parks or other recreational facilities in St Helens and so being allowed access to such places would have been quite a treat. At any other time venturing into such fields would likely have resulted in a court appearance for trespassing.

St Helens Star: The grandstand at Newton RacecourseThe grandstand at Newton Racecourse (Image: Stephen Wainwright)

Horse racing on Newton Common would continue until 1899 when Lord Newton accepted an offer from a Manchester-based syndicate to rent land in Haydock to establish a new course that we know today as Haydock Park.

Stephen Wainwright's latest book 'The Hidden History Of St Helens Vol 2' is available from the St Helens Book Stop and the World of Glass and online from eBay and Amazon (free delivery). Volume 1 of 'Hidden History' is also still available. Hidden History Vol 3 will be available in September.