The name ‘Fontwell’ has its origins in Roman times, they called it ‘Fons’, as it was the only spot between Chichester and Pevensey that had drinking water. The Saxons later added ‘well’ to the name.
Fontwell racecourse as we know it was started in 1924 by Alfred Day, the son of a horse trainer who had been lured into a career in horse racing, despite starting out his career in medicine. In 1887 he bought a property, The Hermitage, a few miles from Arundel.
At the end of the First World War, as Alfred was approaching 60, he was walking in the garden one evening with his nephew, Meyrick. Alfred intimated he was thinking of retiring as a horse trainer. Meyrick suggested that the training ground around the house could be converted into a racecourse. Frederick H, Cathcart, of the racecourse management company Pratt & Co, was then approached.
The notion had possibilities despite failed efforts being made in Bournemouth to establish a racecourse in the 1920s; there had been a racecourse at Portsmouth but, during the war effort it had been requisitioned by the Government and used as an ammunition dump. It didn’t re-open. Alfred’s first application for a licence to the National Hunt Committee was declined. His second application outlined that one of the benefits and reasons for the application was that it would be a replacement for one lost from Portsmouth. A licence was eventually granted for racing in May, 1924.
About 250 people applied to become members of the Fontwell Park Club, many being from the higher echelons of local society. During the interwar years a pattern meet, the best in flat racing that do not contain barriers, hurdles or jumps , was set for a two-day event in May and then again in September. When Alfred Day died in 1935, his widow, Elizabeth, and daughter, Daisy, continued running the farm at Fontwell while Meyrick became chairman.
Due to the Second World War, racing was suspended at Fontwell from March, 1940. As Fontwell was a few miles from Tangmere, the course saw its own action. After one bombing raid on the RAF station in which living quarters were hit, some officers of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) spent several nights in the racecourse stands. Fontwell was also used as a holding station for wounded personnel and dances were held in Fontwell House. The centre of the racecourse was also used for grazing cattle due to food rationing.
On October 25, 1945, the first race after the war was held. Fontwell had survived relatively unscathed, whereas other courses, like Derby and Gatwick, did not resume National Hunt meetings.
Initially, there were problems in finding suitable horses for jumping and the particularly cold winter of 1946-47 also held things back.
The Day family had largely disappeared following the deaths of Elizabeth (in 1943) and Daisy (in 1949) and Fontwell had been inherited by a cousin, Binda Billsborough.
Meyrick Good died in 1962 but had seen Fontwell prosper where others had failed. From 1962, Fontwell began attracting sponsors with a new race the Ovaltine Cup which ran on December 22.
Pratt & Co were still in business as racecourse managers, running both Fontwell and Plumpton racecourse in East Sussex, but had been bought by millionaire businessman and racing enthusiast Isidore Kerman in 1961.
At this time, Goodwood made overtures to purchase Fontwell, meaning that Pratt & Co would no longer have the franchise to run it. Kerman was able to outbid Goodwod’s offer and Fontwell shareholders, including Bina Billsborough, accepted Kerman’s offer. He retained ownership throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
By 1991, a new grandstand named after Kerman was completed at Fontwell. Unfortunately, this coincided with an economic slump and by 1996 Pratt & Co had gone out of business. The Lingfield Park management group took over the running of Fontwell but had little spare capital for investing in Fontwell, which went through a spell of stagnation.
In 1998, National Hunt racing ended at Windsor, meaning Fontwell was the last figure-eight course left in Britain. In March, 1998, Kerman sold Plumpton in the hope of being able to invest money back into Fontwell. Unfortunately, he died, aged 93, before this was possible. His son, Andy, set up a new company, Sussex Racecourse Management (SRM) which took over management of Plumpton and Fontwell Park. By 2002, Andy Kerman’s main business interest meant he had less time to devote to Fontwell so he sold his shares to Northern Racing which was, with investment, able to make improvements, including a new 90 box stable yard and a 40-bedroom hotel and pub/restaurant.
There are currently over 20 race meetings a year and the course facilities are also used for many non-racing activities including weddings, markets and concerts.
This article was written using information gathered from ‘History of Fontwell Park’, by Jim Beavis (pub. 2008).
The Chichester Post would like to correct the Changing Times article of Issue 173 regarding St Richard’s Hospital where West Sussex Record Office were not credited for providing the images.
By Pat Saunders, volunteer at the Novium Museum