When London Went To The Dogs
It looks like London’s last greyhound stadium will be going soon.
Dog racing, which proved hugely popular from the late 1920s to the 1940s, is in terminal decline, especial after a scandal in 2006 revealing that old greyhounds were being put down after becoming too old to race. Tracks in Catford, Wembley, West Ham, Clapton and Hackney disappeared, and when Walthamstow shut in 2008, Wimbledon was the only place left for race-goers. Now that will be shut to make way for a football stadium, new homes and the dreaded ‘retail’. There were once 33 greyhound stadiums in London alone. In their heyday, before the legalisation of betting shops in the 1960s, stadiums attracted large crowds, and even celebrities.
But maybe it’s time for them to go. Between 2000 and 2012 the number of tickets sold in Britain annually dropped by 58%. It was always seen as London’s most working class sport, and always featured in movies like ‘Steptoe and Son Ride Again’, ’50/50′, ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’, ‘Calendar Girls’ and ‘Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter’ with Herman’s Hermits. (If you watch the trailer below you have only yourself to blame).
When my mother was trying to make a name for herself in the legal field, she ended up taking temporary employment. Jobs were scarce, however, and the only available part-time work was inappropriate for a sensitive, well-spoken young woman. She became a cashier at Catford Greyhound Stadium, where she was nightly sworn at and spat upon by punters who failed to complete their jackpot combinations before the race bell, which made the tote operator responsible for the money rung up before the ‘off of the leg’. Often she came home with an empty purse, her docked pay amounting to more than her wages, and had nothing to show for her evening other than another extravagant selection of bellowed abuse.
Perhaps it would have been nice to have one remaining stadium – except that racegoing would then become an ironic in-quotes kind of night out – an ersatz event. The end of an era, perhaps, but the sport was prone to illegal activities and proved a gathering spot for criminals. It’s a scruffily romantic notion more than a sport, in the bracket of circuses and funfairs – and as space becomes ever more valuable in London, perhaps it’s one that the city can ill afford.
Read Alexander Baron’s powerful novel about a greyhound gambler, ‘The Low Life’, to get a real taste of this very urban sport.