Lord George Wigg

28 November 1900 - 11 August 1983

Lord George Wigg
Lord George Wigg
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George Wigg was a politician who served in relatively junior Cabinet roles, but was greatly influential in the government of Harold Wilson. He left Parliament as Baron Wigg of Dudley; and it was in his role in the House of Lords, and also as Chairman of the Horserace Betting Levy Board (he was appointed in November 1967), that Lord Wigg was influential in protecting the future of Epsom Downs.

George Wigg won a scholarship to Queen Mary's Grammar School in Basingstoke, but poverty prematurely curtailed his education. He served in the Royal Tank Corps from 1919 to 1937, and re-enlisted on the outbreak of the Second World War. On his return to the Army he was commissioned into the Army Educational Corps.

In 1945 he was elected as Labour M.P. for Dudley, and during the Labour government of Clement Attlee was Parliamentary Private Secretary to "Manny" Shinwell. In Opposition, Wigg took a keen interest in military and security affairs. In March 1963, Wigg, made a speech where he referred to rumours that the M.P. John Profumo was having an affair with Christine Keeler. Profumo subsequently made a statement denying any impropriety, but following a series of press articles Profumo was forced to admit to having misled the House and resigned.

Wigg had a reputation for ensuring that Labour leader Harold Wilson was "kept informed" of events within the Labour Party. When Labour won the 1964 election, Harold Wilson appointed George Wigg as Paymaster General, and later made a Privy Councillor. The Paymaster General title covered a multitude of tasks: continuing his role of liaising between Wilson and the backbenchers, he was also Wilson's link to the Security Services.

George Wigg had for many years been involved in horse racing, having shares in horses trained by H.E. "Ted" Smyth who trained at Down Cottage in Burgh Heath Road, Epsom. Lord Wigg had his first winner as an owner in August 1968 when Blue Iris trained by Ted Smyth won at Folkestone.

Lord Wigg's role as Chairman of the Horserace Betting Levy Board got off to a difficult start when racing was cancelled from November 1967 to 5th January 1968 due to the outbreak of "foot and mouth" disease. The Horserace Betting Levy Board was designed to collect a Betting Levy from off course betting to help finance horse racing. While the Jockey Club saw the Levy Board's role as simply collecting the money, Wigg thought he should have some say in how it was spent, and in April 1968 a Joint Racing Board was set up with Wigg as Chairman. Lord Wigg amended the scheme for raising Levy from the betting industry, from profit based to turnover based, at the same time proposing a doubling of the contribution from the Off Course betting industry. The additional money raised, Lord Wigg proposed to use to introduce starting stalls, more camera patrol coverage, a training scheme for apprentice jockeys and racecourse managers, increased prize money and veterinary research. In March 1969 Lord Wigg predicted that Sunday racing was "inevitable", although it was 25 years before it happened.

In April 1969 Wigg directly challenged the racing establishment when the Levy Board made a bid for United Racecourses (Epsom and Sandown). Lord Wigg said that both tracks needed money spent on them, (highlighting plans for an underpass at the junction of Langley Vale Road and the racecourse), and that he aimed to establish racing for all time at both tracks. Wigg's proposal for Sandown involved the building of a new grandstand; at that time several investors were buying shares in the racecourse with a view to using Sandown for residential development.

Lord Wigg, who had been working with Epsom trainer and landowner Stanley Wootton on the future of the Downs, said that "the cornerstone of the idea lay in the generosity of Stanley Wootton, the trainer, and owner of Walton Downs, who had offered to assign his property to the Levy Board on a 999 year lease." Wigg added pointedly that if United Racecourses would do the work needed the Levy Board would not pursue the bid.

Stanley Wootton was born in Australia, and came to Epsom in the early part of the 20th century with his father Richard Wootton. Stanley Wootton succeeded his father as trainer at Treadwell House, Epsom. In 1925 the Epsom Grand Stand Association, who were responsible for promoting racing on Epsom were offered the opportunity to buy the Freehold of the parts of Epsom Downs that had hitherto been leased to them.

While it was commercially essential for the E.G.S.A. to complete the deal, they needed to raise finance. Stanley Wootton was aware that the E.G.S.A. had surplus land (notably Walton Downs), but were lacking finance; and on 2nd March 1925, Stanley Wootton instructed his solicitors to write to the Epsom Grand Stand Association enquiring if they would be prepared to sell to him the training gallops on Six Mile Hill on Walton Downs. The negotiations, sometimes acrimonious, continued for fifteen months.

In June 1926 the E.G.S.A. wrote to all Epsom trainers to confirm that Stanley Wootton had taken over the Six Mile Hill gallops on Walton Downs. The purchase price was £35,000. At the same time Wootton took a lease on the Winter Gallops, i.e. those within the racecourse.

In November 1967, after a somewhat uneasy truce of forty years, the E.G.S.A. gave Wootton notice to quit some of the land on Epsom Downs that he was leasing from them. He contested the notice to quit on the grounds that agricultural land was outside of the landlord and tenant ruling. This was upheld in the courts.

Wootton's objective was to preserve horse race training and racing at Epsom, and at the same time allow the public access. His relationship with both the E.G.S.A. and the Jockey Club had been at times fraught, but he admired the way Lord Wigg had taken on the established interests in racing to improve the sport, and worked with him to secure the future of the Downs.

By offering the Six Mile Hill gallops on Walton Downs on a 999-year lease to the Horserace Betting Levy Board at the rent of "a peppercorn if required," and with Epsom and Walton Downs now under one administration, Wootton was satisfied that the future of the Downs would be preserved.

Stanley Wootton said, "In handing over the gallops, I have in mind what the people of England have given the Wootton family."

In December 1969 the long running feud between Lord Wigg and the Jockey Club was giving public airing when the Duke of Norfolk responded on the Public Address system at Ascot to Wigg's radical plans.

In September 1970, the Levy Board bought Kempton Park racecourse, and at the same time Wigg's three year term of office was extended.

With the Epsom and Walton Downs Conservators Act due to expire in 1984, Lord Wigg asked the government, in 1980, for a five-year extension for proper consultation to take place. In May 1982 when the Bill came up for debate Lord Wigg moved an amendment to control the use of the Downs by hack riders. Lord Wigg stated that if Epsom ceased as a training centre it would be the end of the Derby, and he objected to the proposal that hack riders "go where they liked, when they liked, and how they liked." If his amendment was accepted "it would establish the rights of the trainers; under properly controlled conditions training and racing would continue, and money would be available for the development and conservation of the downs free of any charges on the public." He continued, "You cannot have all-weather gallops being used by valuable racehorses, running with a few inches or yards of people on hacks. To do that is to invite disaster." Lord Wigg's amendment was carried by 92 votes to 33.

Following the completion of the transfer of the lease on Walton Downs, Lord Wigg said, "I stood up there and I looked over that marvellous hill and over the trees on Walton Downs and there was Headley Church standing up tiny against the sky, and I thought, 'Why not for ever?' and by God we've done it."

In the car park on Epsom Downs where the best view of London is afforded, a viewing point has been erected in memory of Lord Wigg, and Stanley Wootton in recognition of the work they did to preserve the Downs.

Bill Eacott
December 2012




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