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August 2012 Item of the Month

Durham Sands Races, and Old English Games. 18-19 April 1938.

As a little light relief from the professional sporting achievements of the world’s Olympians in the capital and on our screens this month, our featured document takes us back to the races that used to take place on the Sands in Durham City. The poster catches Durham and the nation at an interesting moment, both looking back with nostalgia to a series of ‘Races and Old English Games’ and at the same time welcoming the still fresh Walt Disney imports Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. (ESPN Disney recently lost out to NBC in a bid for the 2014-2020 Olympic US broadcast rights: the winning bid totalled $4.38 billion.) From the late 17th century Durham also used to host horse races on the nearby moors and latterly at the Racecourse on Smithy Haughs to the east of the city.

The Sands is a small open park beside the River Wear owned by Durham County Council and managed by the trustees and wardens of the Freemen, and on which the Freemen still retain rights of herbage (i.e. grazing): a circus and various live events still visit the Sands every year. The Freemen are the representatives of the city’s guilds which used to regulate trade in the city, and whose members were the sole franchise for the city’s two MPs until 1836: the Freemen’s and the Guild records are among the Special Collections held by this library. A picture taken at the Sands Races in about 1913 is reproduced below. The helter-skelter is echoed in Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower in the Olympic Park at Stratford.

Image of a poster for Durham Sands Races, 1938. Ref: DCG 10/14.
Durham Sands Races poster, 1938. Ref: DCG 10/14.

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