Sporting venues of prime significance in Leeds are few in number but of historic importance. Elland Road and Headingley Carnegie are the major players, with the long-awaited First Direct Arena becoming renowned for some supercharged nights of international title boxing, albeit with a distinctly local flavour.
The international swimming pool – a botched relic of the 1960s that was too short for top class competition because it was built a few centimetres too short – was torn down in 2009, but in South Leeds there is the John Charles Centre for Sport, which hosts swimming, athletics, rugby league and many other sports.
Between the two World Wars, however, Leeds was awash with decent-sized sporting venues. In addition to the cricket and rugby played at Headingley and a former racecourse on Pontefract Road, younger folk may be surprised to learn that the main concentration was in the Beeston and Holbeck area.
Prior to the building of the M621 between 1971 and 1975, Beeston and Holbeck were very different to the largely commercial transport hub they form now. In the 19th century they were expanded villages that had grown in population as the coal and clay mines in the area thrived, but there still remained acres of sprawling arable land, upon which farms were built and rhubarb plantations bloomed.
Of course Elland Road football ground emerged in the early part of the 20th century, then known as the Old Peacock Ground after the pub it was built opposite. The first permanent occupants were Holbeck Rugby Club, who played on the ground between 1897 and 1904.
Holbeck Rugby Club had previously played on the Recreation Ground a few yards along the old Elland Road, on land adjacent to what is now Holbeck Moor Park. They shared this ground with Holbeck Cricket Club.
The ground is now completely covered over by housing – several streets all known as the ‘Recreations’ – but in its prime was a major sporting venue in the Yorkshire area. Indeed, Yorkshire County Cricket Club played three matches there prior to Headingley becoming their home in 1890.
Yorkshire Cricket Archives
By 1897 the Holbeck Rugby and Cricket Clubs had outgrown the Recreation Ground and were frustrated by thwarted development plans. The rugby club moved to the Old Peacock Ground (now Elland Road) straight away. In 1901, the cricket club moved to a patch of land adjacent to it, over what was then a simple dirt track but in 1923 became Lowfields Road.
Holbeck Cricket Club thrived on their new ground, becoming one of the premier clubs in the local Leeds leagues, and were well settled with the New Peacock pub perched neatly on their boundary edge. A 1961 AGM, however, saw administrative issues arise and the club was cut off in its prime and ceased to operate immediately.
The ground was disused for several years before becoming council football pitches. But they and the New Peacock disappeared for good in 1974 when supporting development work for the M621 swallowed them up forever. The area is now covered up by a bus depot and industrial units.
The Old Peacock pub has always been known for its huge beer garden, rumoured to be the biggest in Leeds. It may not surprise many to learn this was for many years a bowling green of some standing and a significant community asset. This can still be appreciated at the back of the pub today.
But further westwards along Elland Road, the story of the lost sporting grounds of LS11 really hots up. Rugby had already disappeared from the area after the First World War, cricket was quite well established and football was just finding its feet. But in 1927 a greyhound stadium was built on a patch of land on the opposite side of Elland Road to the football ground.
This became a major Saturday night attraction in the boom years for the sport and saw fans flocking to it for regular meetings right up until the 1950s, when attendances would approach 8,000.
The post-war years saw interest die off, however, and by the 1970s the venue was really struggling. Hunslet Rugby League Club became tenants in 1973 and brought in some crucial revenue for what was now a rather sorry-looking sporting venue. Eventually, Ladbrokes bought the stadium but the last greyhound meeting was in March 1982, before the venue closed and was almost immediately demolished.
The land lay derelict for years before Leeds United utilised it for overflow car parking – although it was owned by the council – but in 2014 the area became the new divisional headquarters for West Yorkshire Police.
Around the same time that the greyhound stadium emerged, prior to the Second World War, the forgotten sporting metropolis of LS11 was completed by a speedway stadium on the land known as Fullerton Park. This is adjacent to the football stadium where the Valentines Fair annually lands, and was later used as training pitches for Leeds United.
Speedway was immediately popular in Leeds and weekly meetings attracting international class racers were held on the track between 1928 and 1938. Crowds of around 10,000 flocked to the stadium, and local children grew up listening to the roar of engines as they fell to sleep and spent hours playing on the dirt track in the holidays.
The speedway stadium fell into financial difficulties and didn’t operate after 1938. It was soon demolished and during the war it became a dumping ground, but was eventually cleared when Leeds United bought the land around 1950.
Today, the LS11 landscape is completely unrecognisable from the prosperous centrepiece of sport it used to be. For years, the land around Elland Road lay derelict, forgotten and ripe for development.
Several ambitious municipal schemes have been announced only to fade away without progress and Leeds United’s seemingly eternal air of stagnation has not lifted the sense of gloom. Only in the last few years has the area come back to life, with the building of the police headquarters, a park and ride scheme on part of the Fullerton Park land and the imminent arrival of an ice rink on another section of it.
It seems inconceivable that such a concentration of sporting attractions could all exist in this area today, but what was clearly a council-lead creation of a designated area of sporting importance, became an important nucleus of the city’s recreational culture. Certainly around the war years, when Saturday night TV hadn’t even caught the imagination of Simon Cowell’s Dad.
Today, apart from a football stadium that is unrecognisable from its humble beginnings and a beer garden covered in picnic benches, you would be hard pushed to find any sign that such a throbbing extra-curricular magnet in Leeds ever existed.