If you’re thinking of taking up a new sport or joining an exercise class this January, then you’ll be in good company! St Neots has a proud sporting heritage, much of which is celebrated in the museum with displays on some of the town’s sporting heroes…
Until the industrial revolution of the early 1800s, everyday life was strenuous enough to keep most working people fit. Many local men were farm workers, and women’s lives, before the invention of the modern washing machine and vacuum cleaner, involved daily heavy labour. It was during the early Victorian period, as the population increased dramatically and people began to move away from the land and into towns, that organised team games for men (sadly there were very few organised women’s sports at that period!) began to become popular.
When the Reverend William Maule became the Rector of Eynesbury in 1851, a talented and experienced sportsman arrived in the town. Maule excelled at cricket and rowing, and while at Trinity College, Cambridge he’d been President of the Trinity Boat Club. By 1865 he had established St Neots Rowing Club which produced many fine rowers, including Laurie Evans, who was a member of many winning crews in the 1920s and 1930s.
As the enthusiasm for organised sports grew, many new clubs were formed in the town. St Neots Cricket Club, dating back to the 1840s, has had a chequered career, but other sports thrived. Cycling also took off as a sport in the late Victorian period, after Dunlop patented the pneumatic tyre in 1888, and the St Neots Cycling Club formed as early as 1887. An early champion of the club was E. J. Bass of Eynesbury who was a rider of national importance. The photograph below is thought to show him in 1899 after he had won the mile race at the Spring meeting of the Surrey Cycling Club, held at the Kennington Oval (one of the most important meetings of the cycling calendar). The First Prize of a silver claret jug and silver beakers can be seen in the photograph.
Another talented sportsman who threw himself into the sporting life of the town was C.G. Tebbutt, who moved to the town from Bluntisham in 1889. Not only was he a gifted skater and ice hockey (bandy) player, he was also an outstanding speed skater holding three world speed skating records in 1891. At different times in the 1890s, Tebbutt captained both the St Neots football club and the cricket club.
Champion jockey Otto Madden was also educated at the Eaton Socon Academy, Peppercorns Lane in the 1880s. He was the most successful British jockey between 1888 and 1918, and Champion Jockey in 1898, 1901 and 1903.
Women were also keen sports players, but found it much harder to break into the world of organised sports. However, Eaton Socon Ladies’ Hockey Club formed in late 1898, and already by 1894, St Neots Golf Club (founded 1890) was holding a Ladies Monthly Prize competition, with a final in the April of the following year.
Football became an increasingly important part of national life in the 1950s and 1960s, several local boys became professional players, including Chris Turner, Terry Oakley and Christopher Jones. The most well-known of our local footballing hero’s was John Gregory of Longsands school, who played for England in the 1983 – 84 season and later went on to a successful career as a team coach and manager.
As the opportunities for ice hockey declined with warmer winters, and with the development of the Little Barford Power Station upstream of St Neots Common, field hockey became a popular sport, with the St Neots club boasting teams of both men and women players. The town’s moment of glory in the hockey world came when local player, Anthony Ekins, was selected to play for both England and Great Britain between 1966 and 1972. He played for Great Britain in the 1968 Mexico Olympics and captained the British team at the Munich Olympics in 1972. More recently, the triumph of the GB women’s hockey team, who took Gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has made hockey the fastest growing participation sport in the UK.
Many other sports flourished in the post war period. Philip Cole played table tennis at county level and was National Student Table Tennis Champion in 1982. The St Neots Outdoor Bowls Club was formed in 1920, and member Joyce Brittain, nėe Hodson, was a very talented outdoor and indoor bowls player. She reigned as the Cambridgeshire Ladies Singles Champion for most of the 1950s, and played outdoor bowls for England to International level in 1961 – 63. Her son, Roger Brittain, was also an excellent bowls player at both club and county level.
Finally, in the twenty-first century running has become an increasingly popular sport, with thousands of people taking to the pavements. The St Neots Riverside Runners were established in 1987 and remain a very successful club, organising many local runs including the Riverside 10K run and the St Neots Half Marathon.