Manchester's forgotten sporting past exhumed

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Mancunians have long revelled in their sporting heritage. From the exploits of Bobby Charlton and George Best to the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the city rarely misses a chance to stake its claim to be the epicentre of British sport.

But ask for the whereabouts of the grave of 18th-century England's finest archer or the factory that dominated the global turnstile market for 70 years and the response is likely to be a shrug of the shoulders.

A study of Manchester's sporting history has revealed a forgotten roll of venues and memorials which English Heritage warned yesterday was in danger of disappearing. To highlight the problem, the conservation body has published a book charting the less well-known aspects of Mancunian sporting endeavour, from a real tennis court to the manufacture of lacrosse sticks.

Simon Inglis, the author of Played in Manchester, said: "We have a rich and diverse sporting heritage in this country, particularly when its comes to buildings and landscapes.

"And nowhere is this truer than Manchester. Mancunians have always made great sporting participants and spectators, but they also have been great at pushing sport forward. "The city built the first greyhound track and one of the first ice rinks in the world. There are historic swimming pools and billiard halls, but a lot of these buildings have been lost."

Manchester has been credited with setting the early pace in sports heritage after its ornate Victoria Baths, one of finest examples Edwardian public architecture, won the BBC's Restoration television contest to reinvigorate endangered buildings. Among the historic buildings uncovered by the latest study, part of a nationwide effort by English Heritage to gather information on sporting venues, is the Manchester Ice Palace, regarded as the world's finest rink when it opened in 1910.

The venue closed in the 1960s and has more recently served as a bottling plant for a dairy. It now lies unoccupied and abandoned.

Another example of the city's frontline role in the development of modern sport is the 1961 grandstand built for a race course at Irwell Castle, which contained Britain's first executive boxes. The grandstand, now student accommodation, formed the basis for the redevelopment of Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium in 1965.

English Heritage insisted that its study does not mean it will seek protection orders on thousands of defunct sporting sites, such as the former factory of the Salford firm Ellison Ltd, which supplied its "rush-preventive" turnstiles to stadiums and venues around the world until it closed in 1963.

The conservation body, which is to publish six books on sporting history topics such as lidos and bowling greens, said, however, it wanted to generate debate on the preservation of the nation's sporting past. Malcolm Cooper, the body's development director in the North, said: "At the moment, we don't understand the true nature and scale of our sporting heritage.

"There are without doubt neglected grounds and spaces that are of national, and even international, significance. We need to decide how we are going to ensure we don't lose that heritage."

One of the more unusual items uncovered by the Manchester study lies in a dilapidated churchyard in Cheetham Hill, north Manchester. The grave of James Rawson, a cobbler who overcame class barriers to excel at the elitist sport of archery before his death in 1794, lies forgotten in the cemetery behind a pub called the Robin Hood.

Inglis said: "Rawson was a working-class man who travelled the country challenging the rich to archery contests. He never lost and, in so doing, helped to change the sport."