Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places - Sport

Historic England

England is home to many iconic historic sporting venues. The influence of sport in England has spread far and wide, affecting millions of sports fans at home and abroad. This exhibit showcases the photographs of the Historic England Archive that illustrate some of our sporting heritage's great places.

Horse Racing
Horse racing is an ancient sport and was established in England by the Middle Ages. It became more organised in the 16th century and its popularity grew in the late 17th and early 18th centuries with royal patronage, and the founding of racecourses throughout the country. The establishment of the Jockey Club in 1750 led to the creation of a set of rules for racing and the regulation of breeding. There are currently fifty-two racecourses operating in England, offering spectators, trainers, breeders and owners an array of settings in which to enjoy the thrills of flat and jump racing.

Newmarket Racecourses

King James I is recorded as attending his first horse race at Newmarket Heath in March 1619. Since then his royal patronage shaped Newmarket as the headquarters of racing worldwide.

Newmarket Racecourses

Newmarket is home to the Jockey Club, the sport's former regulating body, and has the largest cluster of training yards in the country. The racecourses host two of the country's five Classic Races - the 1,000 Guineas Stakes and the 2,000 Guineas Stakes.

Aintree Racecourse

Aintree Racecourse is situated to the north of Liverpool, one of England's great sporting cities. Originally a course for flat races, it hosted steeplechasing, or jump racing, from 1836.

Aintree Racecourse

Aintree is rightly famed for hosting one of the world's most famous races, the Grand National. However, it has also hosted five British Grand Prix motor races, music concerts and boasts a nine-hole golf course.

Like horse racing, rowing has ancient origins. The modern sport of rowing in England originates from the early 18th century. Competitive amateur rowing began towards the end of the century, particularly with the advent of school and college teams and gentlemen's club teams. The first Boat Race between Cambridge and Oxford universities took place in 1829 and ten years later the first Henley Regatta was held. Rowing has taken place at the Olympic Games since 1900. The father of the modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, supposedly modelled the International Olympic Committee on Henley Regatta's Stewards.  

Henley Royal Regatta

Henley Regatta's first royal patronage was given by Prince Albert in 1851. Since then each reigning monarch has become Royal Patron.

Over the years, Henley has had four courses. The current Straight Course was first configured in 1924 and is 1 mile 550 yards (2,112 metres) long.

Although the origins are obscure, records of the sport of cricket date from the late 15th century. Beginning in the south east of England cricket has evolved to become one of the world's most popular sports. Taken abroad by colonists from the 16th century, international cricket matches have a long history, the first being played in 1844 between the USA and Canada. Professional cricket in England is based on competitive matches between eighteen clubs traditionally representing historic counties, seventeen in England, one in Wales. Several grounds throughout the country host county and international matches, two of England's most famous are featured here.   

The Oval

The Oval has been home to Surrey County Cricket Club since 1845 and is one of the country's most historically important sporting venues.

It was the venue for the first Test Match (the longest form of the game) in England, when in September 1880 England defeated Australia by five wickets, and is where the Ashes were created in 1882.

The Oval is also a significant venue in the history of football. In 1870 it hosted the first ever international football match in England, when England beat Scotland 4-2. Two years later, the first every FA Cup Final was played here, with The Wanderers defeating the Royal Engineers 1-0.

Furthermore, the Oval was the venue for the first home international Rugby Union match when England hosted Scotland in February 1872.


Named after its founder, Thomas Lord, the current Lord's cricket ground is the third to bear the name. Opening in 1814, it is regarded as the 'headquarters of cricket' and even the 'cathedral of cricket'.

Owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club, it is home to Middlesex County Cricket Club and the England and Wales Cricket Board, and is England's most prestigious test match venue.


Dominating Lord's are two of cricket's most recognisable structures - the Pavilion and the Media Centre.

The Pavilion was built in 1889-90 by Thomas Verity and Frank T Verity for Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Constructed in brick with pink terracotta facings, it provides viewing accommodation for MCC members and team dressing rooms.

At the opposite end of the ground is the Lord's Media Centre. Designed by Future Systems, it utilises boat-building technology in its unique aluminium construction. Opening in 1999, it provides accommodation for over 100 journalists and for television and radio broadcasting.

Lawn Tennis
Having varied historical and quirky origins, the world's first lawn tennis club was established in Leamington Spa in 1874. The following year lawn tennis and its rules effectively became codified in England in 1875 when the Marylebone Cricket Club produced its 'Rules of Lawn Tennis'. That same year the All England Croquet Club in Wimbledon, London set aside one lawn for tennis, and within two years had changed its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, adopted the rules and established the first Lawn Tennis Championship. 

All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

Home to the Wimbledon Championships, one of the four Grand Slam international tennis tournaments, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is a private members club.

Established in 1868 at the height of the croquet craze, its first home was off Worple Road in Wimbledon, London. It moved to its present site in Church Road in 1922.

As well as hosting the Championships, the club has been the venue for lawn tennis for the 1908 and 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

Motor Racing
Racing is almost as old as the invention of the automobile. The first recorded race took place in Lancashire in 1867 but it was not until the 1930s that the first specialist racing cars were developed. The first races were on roads but restrictive laws in England ended this and in 1907 the first purpose-built motor racing circuit opened at Brooklands, Surrey. Grand Prix races have been held in England since 1926, and since the introduction of the FIA Formula One World Championship in 1950, only the Italian and British Grand Prix have been held continuously in their respective countries. 


Like several of racing circuits in England, Silverstone was built on the site of a Second World War airfield. Its first race was staged in 1948 and in 1950 it hosted the first FIA Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix.

From 1955 the British Grand Prix alternated between Silverstone and Aintree, and later Silverstone and Brands Hatch but since 1987 Silverstone has been the permanent venue.

Rugby Union
Before 1871, 'rugby-type' games were played with varying rules by a number of clubs in England. In January 1871 representatives from twenty-one clubs met with the intention to form a code of practice. The result was the formation of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the codification of the sport. In 1907 the RFU purchased land in Twickenham, London, and started building what would become the home of English rugby union the following year. It hosted its first match in 1909 and its first international, between England and Wales, in 1910. Twickenham has undergone several transformations since this photograph was taken in 1935. Its current (2017) capacity of 82,000 is second only to that of Wembley for sports stadiums in England.
Association Football
The origins of football go back centuries but the form we know it today dates to 1863 and the founding of the Football Association (FA). Club representatives met at the Freemasons' Tavern in Camden and after a series of gatherings the FA and laws of the game had been established. County and District Associations, the FA Cup and international football soon followed, and in 1888 the founding of the Football League ensured that football would become England's national sport. England's Football League is the oldest professional football league competition in the world. With clubs from all over the country representing their locales, having a distinct identity is important. One element of a club's identity is its home ground, and here we feature Old Trafford, home to one of England's most famous football teams, Manchester United.     

Old Trafford

Manchester United moved to its Old Trafford site in 1910. The ground was laid out by the country's leading football architect Archibald Leitch and had a capacity of 80,000.

In 1915 it hosted the FA Cup Final and its first international, England versus Scotland, in 1926. Wartime bomb damage meant that United shared Manchester City's Maine Road for three seasons before returning in 1949.

A redevelopment scheme was put in place in the 1960s (prior to the hosting of World Cup matches) and changes to the ground throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries have resulted in Old Trafford becoming English football's largest club ground, with a capacity of nearly 76,000.

Multi-Sport Venues
In this section we feature three sites in London that were developed as places where a variety of sports and leisure activities could be enjoyed by participants and mass spectators. The first, Crystal Palace Park, was created to house the relocated and extended Crystal Palace, which originally housed the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. The pleasure grounds, seen here in a 1928 aerial photograph, hosted an archery ground, gymnasiums and a cricket ground that was also used for athletics. It was home to the first Crystal Palace Football Club, formed in 1861, and was the venue for the 1895 FA Cup Final. In total twenty FA Cup Finals were held here, with the 1901 Final watched by 110,000 spectators, and over 120,000 for the 1913 Final! Other notable sporting events include hosting the first recorded cycle race in 1869, early car time trials in 1896 and the 1904 World Cycling Championships. 

Crystal Palace Park

In 1951 the London County Council took over the site and engaged the director of the Festival of Britain, Sir Gerald Barry, to advise on the best use of the land. One proposal to develop sporting facilities was taken up and as a result the National Recreation Centre (now National Sports Centre) was built.

As the south of England did not have an Olympic-size swimming pool, this became the focus of the centre, together with an adjacent multi-functional sports hall. Listed Grade II*, it is one of England's most significant 20th century sporting venues.

Empire Stadium / Wembley Stadium

A tower larger than the Eiffel Tower was planned for Wembley in 1892, but the unfinished structure was demolished in 1907.

Wembley Park became the site for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition and the ground on which the tower was begun became the site of the exhibition's multi-functional sports stadium.

This aerial photograph from 1922 shows the early stages of the stadium's construction among the bunkers of Wembley Park Golf Course. The Park had previously played host to cricket, trotting races and polo; the golf course was laid out in 1912.

Empire Stadium / Wembley Stadium

Most well known for hosting England international football matches, including the 1966 World Cup Final, FA Cup Finals and Rugby League Challenge Cup Finals, Wembley has been home to a number of sports.

Greyhound racing was introduced in 1927 (kennels for 360 dogs was built adjacent to the stadium) and from 1929 until 1971 it was home to the Wembley Lions speedway team.

Wembley was also the main venue for the 1948 Summer Olympic Games. Thirty-three athletics events were held in the stadium. It was here that the American Alice Coachman became the first woman of colour to win a gold medal at the modern Olympics.

Empire Stadium / Wembley Stadium

The Empire Stadium was designed by architects without experience in stadium design. Consequently, it had many practical shortcomings, including poor sight lines, lack of cover and too few toilets.

It was eventually completely roofed by 1963 and became an all-seat venue in 1990. However, views remained poor and seating cramped.

Wembley was demolished in 1990 and an entirely new stadium built. Opening in 2007, the new Wembley offered unobstructed views and plentiful facilities.

The stadium's prominent arch functions structurally to support the stadium roof and provides an alternative symbol to the iconic twin towers of the old stadium.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Developed for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was built for the Games and for a sustainable legacy.

The Games provided a catalyst for the regeneration of an area of east London in the Lower Lea Valley that had formerly been one of London's most industrialised areas, populated with chemical and bone works, foundries, ink works and match works.

The result was the transformation of a largely neglected and contaminated area into an Olympic Park with world-class facilities for athletes, spectators and broadcasters. However, it shouldn't be forgotten that some local businesses and residents fought compulsory purchase orders and eviction.

This aerial photograph from September 2012 shows much of the Olympic Park in the aftermath of the Games. Prominent in the view are the Olympic Stadium (now London Stadium), the ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower and the London Aquatics Centre, designed by architect Zaha Hadid.

Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places

It's not just about the FA Cup and the 2000 Guineas, national stadiums and classic racecourses. From municipal sports grounds to private clubs, we think everybody should know about the places in England that have witnessed some of the most important historic events.

Historic England's Irreplaceable campaign, sponsored by specialist insurer, Ecclesiastical, aims to highlight the places that have changed England and the world.

Image: A merry-go-round at Epsom Racecourse, Epsom Downs, Surrey
York & Son has recorded one of the amusements available to racegoers during Derby Day at Epsom.

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