Bob Sadler’s Plaque

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Between 1853 and 1864 there was an extraordinary athletics venue just off Garratt Lane. This was still largely an area of fields and farms adjacent to the small mill communities of Garratt and Summerstown, but crowds in their thousands flocked regularly to attend sporting spectacles at Robert Sadler’s Copenhagen Running Grounds. A few drinks and a wager on some of the biggest sporting celebrities of the age played a large part in this and Bob slaked thirsts and ran his enterprise from Althorp Lodge, opposite Tesco on the site of what is now Burmester House. Once, a prominent location on the sporting history map of south London, there is now no trace of it and for many years local historians, although aware of its existence, could not pinpoint precisely where it was. The runners, known then as pedestrians, came from all over the country and much further afield, most famously the native North American known as ‘Deerfoot’ who ran in his traditional costume. As well as the elite runners of the era, there were all sorts of odd challenges and events to witness; a man running against a horse, barrel-rolling events, even competition between disabled athletes. The founder of this establishment, Robert Sadler, was a man of many hats, a Garratt Lane entrepreneur whose contribution to the area’s life, industry and development of Summerstown will hopefully now be more widely known and appreciated.

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Robert Sadler’s plaque unveiling, part of the Summerstown Celebration on 16th September was a joyous occasion that showed the presentation of community history at its best. The story of this ‘lost’ running ground, which was ‘found’ so splendidly in Kevin Kelly’s book, has always got a mention on our Summerstown182 Walks and people can scarcely believe the tale. The tranquil millenial housing estate which now occupies this site, between the Anglo American Laundry and Garratt Green, gives away no clues to its former existence but its possible to close your eyes and imagine this birthplace of the world of athletics ‘track and field’ that we know today.

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Remarkably in the summer of 2012, the Olympic Flame passed by the site on its way down Garratt Lane. Hundreds of people packed the streets that evening in a scene which would not have been dissimilar to that at one of Bob’s big events a century and a half before. As the sporting historian Simon Inglis put it so magnificently in his speech at the unveiling ceremony ‘Everytime you go past this spot, just imagine you can hear the roar of the crowd as Deerfoot comes round the bend and hundreds of your ancestors lose vast amounts of money’.

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Kevin Kelly is in regular contact with descendants of the Sadler family and it was no problem persuading his Great Great Grandson, Robin to come over from the Isle of Man to perform the unveiling. He was joined by his wife Margaret and daughter Ruth, herself once a keen athlete. Also there for the grand unveiling was local wordsmith John Byrne to read a few verses he had penned especially for the occasion. The Victorian pedestrian community was represented by the Great Great Grandaughter of Teddy Mills, once the most famous runner in England who had graced this circuit so many times.

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After the unveiling we trooped up Keble Street to St Mary’s Church to showcase some of the work we’ve done in our year of Heritage Lottery Funding. Much of this involved local schools and a short film made by students from Burntwood School featured The Corner Pin pub, once managed by Bob Sadler, his family living in the cottage next door. His legacy is everywhere. Anyone need to pop into Tesco? This was for one hundred and fifty years The Prince of Wales public house and the Sadlers were once in charge there. The day rounded off with a Beer Festival at By the Horns – yes, Bob was once there too as this was the site of the Sir Jeffrey Dunstan where post running ground, the great man dispensed local ales to thirsty Summerstowners.

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We identified this story as worthy of a plaque and funds to pay for it were raised via two Wandsworth Heritage Festival walks which attracted over one hundred people. One of these was called ‘The Industry of Garratt Lane’ and fitted the bill perfectly as few were more industrious in this area than the versatile Bob; a pugilist, printer, pedestrian promoter, publican, property developer – he did the lot and if one name deserves to be remembered for his part in the development of this Wandleside hamlet, then Robert Sadler is the man.

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We had a lot of fun promoting it and come the glorious day there must have been two hundred people outside Burmester House to witness a few short speeches followed by Robin and Ruth unveiling the plaque. The family really enjoyed themselves that weekend, running the full gamut of former Sadler locations; The Corner Pin, By the Horns, Tesco Express. They even followed up on his printing and dyeing career with trips to Merton Abbey, the site of the Garratt Printworks next to the Wandle and the Liberty shop in Regent Street. They also called in on his splendid grave in Wandsworth Cemetery. ‘Here lies a man who was loved by all and despised by none’.

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Its wonderful now that in an era when promoting physical activity is more relevant than ever and in an area where so many families live, that we now have this permanent reminder of our sporting heritage. The fact that we have chosen to celebrate and remember it sends out a powerful message to anyone who cares to look up and read it. A big thank you to all the councillors who supported this initiative, the residents and businesses who rallied round to promote it, the people who came on the Walks and some who didn’t but chipped in anyway to help pay for it. Once again we were blessed to have the support of Integral in Wallington who held cake sales and dress-down days to add their contribution. Thanks also to Tooting PRSS, Wandsworth Radio, Wandsworth Borough Council and Brightside who pumped out the publicity.

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Althorp Lodge was demolished around 1900 and Kevin Kelly and a possee of local historians have searched fruitlessly for some kind of image or impression of it. An artist’s interpretation on the back cover of the publication is as far as they’ve got, but it would be wonderful if we could locate an illustration or photo. There must be one out there, the building graced this site for nearly one hundred years and played such a significant role. In the mean time though, the plaque will do, informing many more people of the running ground’s existence and introducing a whole new generation to its remarkable story.  Simon Inglis had some advice to youngsters when they see such a reminder of the past ‘Stop! Read it, have a little think, because its plaques like these and stories like Kevin’s that bind us all to the past and help to give us greater appreciation of where we live.’ Most important of all then, thank you to Mr Kevin Kelly who through his dilligent research and extraordinary publication has given us all the priceless gift of this extraordinary piece of Wandsworth history. Go on… if you haven’t done so already, show your appreciation by buying a copy of his book, details below. 

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