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Hurdles in history of racing at the Maze

The long and eventful story of a local institution


A postcard dated 30th September 1908 depicting the Maze Racecourse. A lady known only as Millicent had been corresponding with a Monsieur Francisque de Boisse from Toulon sur Allier, France. 

A postcard dated 30th September 1908 depicting the Maze Racecourse. A lady known only as Millicent had been corresponding with a Monsieur Francisque de Boisse from Toulon sur Allier, France. "Here you see one of our Irish race courses, it is in Co. Down, not far from Belfast and a very popular meeting...."

ANYONE interested in learning more about the mid 19th century history of the area in which they or their ancestors resided can now go online to There you will discover a set of online valuation maps and lists of occupiers' names, immediate lessors, property description, acreage and rateable valuation of tenements.

The Maze, found under the parish of Blaris had almost 200 houses listed in the Griffith valuation in the 1860s. George Bradbury occupied a house and was owner of a brick-field in the Maze town land at that time. The Bradbury surname had a long association with the area. In July 1799 Samuel Bradbury placed an advertisement in the Belfast Newsletter informing readers that he intended "keeping an ordinary at his house, during the week of the races for the accommodation of gentlemen, and is supplied with good wines...."

An ordinary was another term for an inn or public house. Over forty years later, in July 1841, Thomas Frazer, the proprietor of the Shakespeare Hotel advertised his business informing "noblemen and gentlemen" who intended to visit the Maze racecourse, that he would have a pavilion erected on the ground, formerly occupied by his brother-in-law Hertford Livingston. Thomas claimed that the accommodation would be "in all respects superior to any hitherto offered on the Race Course. No expense shall be spared in procuring Viands of the best quality, and supplying them at very moderate charges." The Griffith Valuation from the 1860's records that a stand-house and race course occupied a total of just over 22 acres within the Maze town land. The Corporation of Hillsborough were listed as the occupiers. The history of racing at the Maze has been covered extensively over the years. The Down Royal Corporation of Horse-breeders were founded in 1685, establishing a course under the Royal Charter of King James the second. Articles written in 1948 by Alfred S. Moore remind us that the racecourse had its own courthouse within the grounds providing for "that disorderly eventuation." He also refers to the fact that the Corporation had powers to hold race meeting and combine a six-day fair with the July races. Eventually when towns instituted their own fair days, the race week fair was abandoned as "superfluous and bringing together a rabble of rag, tag and bobtail characters who made Maze and Hillsborough plague stricken bedlams during their stay." There were many incidents in connection with the racecourse highlighted in the local press.

Henry Addis lost his life in July 1827 at the course. His death was investigated as a murder and led to John Gordon, Sarah Gordon and John Tipping being charged. There were numerous witnesses called at the trial, held at Carrickfergus. All three were be acquitted. In July 182 9it was reported that a respectable middle aged farmer, who resided near Saintfield, was killed on the race course as a resuite of a fall from a horse. He had come into contact with another horse galloping in the opposite direction. Four years later Armstrong Edmonstone appeared at the County Antrim Assizes, Carrickfergus, indicted for the theft of gold sovereigns at the Maze course. He was found guilty and transported for seven years. In another incident that July at the course John and William Beggs appeared at Downpatrick court charged with an assault on John McGivern. They were found guilty of riot, fined 20 shillings and imprisoned for two weeks.

Despite the bad publicity over the years, the race course attracted a large following. In October 1839 the Ulster Railway Company had altered their timetable for four days to accommodate those travelling to the races. The first train left Belfast at 7am, calling at Lisburn at 8am. It was the first of nine trains departing from Belfast on each of the four days horse racing.

In 1841 a letter dated the 12th July appeared in the Belfast Newsletter addressed to the editor from "a Presbyterian" requesting the subject of the Maze races be brought to the attention of the ministers and elders of The General Assembly. The writer informed readers the Rev Josias Wilson of Belfast had addressed the issue the previous Sunday at Annahilt and Lisburn Presbyterian churches and the General Assembly were being urged to do the same and "lift up its voice like a trumpet against this sin."A week later the assembly resolved to take the most active measures for bringing those Corporations responsible for the racing as "moral nuisances", before the nobility and gentry of the country. The gentry and nobility not only attended the racing, but were known to provide various prizes for races.

The appeal appeared to have no effect. The railway reported that on Wednesday 2Ist July that year which was a fair day in Lisburn over 3000 people had been conveyed along the line during the day. During the forthcoming week in the aftermath of the racing several tragic stories emerged. Initially it was reported that an inhabitant of Moira had died from the effects of a beating received on the Maze Race course. A subsequent inquest revealed that in fact the deceased had "indulged in extreme acts of drunkenness and dissipation when there" and that doctors deposed he had in fact died as a result of disease and not sustained injury. Another death was reported on Sunday 25th July after the Maze race. The unfortunate man on that occasion was a blacksmith. He was found also to have "indulged in every act of dissipation, which he finished on the Maze races and thus terminated his existence..." It would later be reported that there were four or five deaths on the course or returning from it that July. One of the deaths would be the catalyst for a sustained campaign against horse racing at the Maze. On Thursday 22nd July 1841 James Patterson, aged 16 years and 8 months from Bridge Street, Lisburn, an apprentice to Richardson of Glenmore fell from a train returning from the Maze races. He subsequently died as a result of his injuries. Initial reports at the time stated he had been intoxicated, had attended the race without his father's permission and whilst returning home by train, he had seen his father board the same carriageway. It was alleged that as a result of this, and in order his presence being detected by his father he had "endeavoured to get outside upon the steps" but had missed his hold and fell. The circumstances as reported were later described as misrepresentations and the father of the deceased, also called James Patterson took what was an unusual occurrence at that time and placed a lengthy obituary in the Belfast Newsletter outlining the circumstances of his son's death.

Readers of the obituary were informed that young James had left Lisburn at 5.30pm in the company of an unnamed young man and they had taken the train to the Maze racecourse where they became parted. James wandered about for a short period and met another acquaintance and they returned to the entrance of what was then referred to as the "new station" and boarded the train returning to Lisburn.

As the train approached "the Causeway End new bridge" there were some people on the bridge and some people who were on the outside of the train's carriage begun "to huzza."

It was reported that James stood up and lent out of the carriage window to see what was happening and in doing so he lost his balance. As he fell he managed to catch hold of one of the steps and he was dragged along causing some lacerations to his head and face. It was believed the train wheels had passed over his feet. He was rushed to the County Antrim infirmary where his left foot and a toe on his right foot were amputated. Ten days later he succumbed to lockjaw, followed by seizures. He passed away on the morning of the 5th August.

His father concluded the obituary by stating - "We believe the deceased was led to that place of iniquity by the excitement of the moment, to see a crowd, as it was too late for the racing, and he had never been at such a place before. He was taught the evil of sin in general - he had read the Holy Scriptures from a child - his habits were regular, moral, and kind - in his family he was always very affectionate; and in his master's business attentive, and progressing in improvement..."

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Next: A tragedy on a train journey from the Maze Racecourse in 1841 leads to public outcry.