In the style of many an early British racecourse born out of pure luck and humble beginnings, the now world-famous Aintree began life as a concept, bolstered by enthusiasm and chance meetings, and then had the fortune of acquiring a wealthy backer to build the dream into reality. Situated outside of the city of Liverpool, in England's north west, Aintree village clung on to its rural status until the 1900s, after which modern industry brought an influx of business and people to the area, pre and post-World War Two.
Its name originates from the Saxon 'ain tree' meaning 'one tree, alone'. Other variations include: 'Ayntre' and 'Eyntre' (from around the late 13th Century) and the 16th Century 'Ayntrie' and 'Ayntree'. Sat atop a nondescript flat plain, and prone to regular flooding from the nearby River Alt, Aintree's mix of sand and clay readily leant itself to the then bog-like conditions that prevailed across much of Merseyside. The Alt Drainage Act put paid to that when the river was straightened, and the surrounding land went over to farming in 1779. By the late 1800s, Aintree's population numbered around three hundred people, but by the time factories began moving in, housing for workers was springing up. Aintree's proximity to Liverpool and its busy docks continued to attract industry, providing over twelve thousand local people with jobs by the early 1950s.
Aintree's expansion can also be attributed to its legendary racecourse of the same name. In 1829 Mr William Lynn, owner of Liverpool's Waterloo Hotel, had an idea to host horseracing at Aintree, and so began a leasing discussion with local landowner Mr. William Molyneux, the Second Earl of Sefton (known fondly as 'Lord Dashalong'). A keen racing man, Sefton consented, and Lynn went on to complete his grandstand in time for an inaugural flat meeting on July 7, 1829.
With financial assistance from Sefton, syndicate members and the Jockey Club committee, racing at Aintree flourished, drawing in around forty thousand spectators. These successful flat events soon had William Lynn thinking about the merits of jump racing. In 1835 the first race of that nature took place at Aintree, to great aplomb. It was here that a certain Captain Martin Becher partnered a hurdler called Vivian for dual victories and allegedly caught the ear of Lynn with his story of an existing race called the Great St. Albans Steeplechase, a pointing event of four miles (considered by many to be the first 'true' English steeplechase).
The ever-enthusiastic Lynn then teamed up with Captain Becher to host Aintree's own version, officially called the ‘Grand Liverpool Steeplechase’, which took place on February 29, 1836; a race of ten entrants, all carrying twelve stone, with the winner sold, by request, for two hundred sovereigns. The contest was won by the privately-trained The Duke, ridden by Captain Becher (for whom Becher's Brook is named) and owned by Mr Sirdefield, landlord of the George Inn in Great Crosby. But it is here that matters become contentious. The 1836 event is considered by some historians, including John Pinfold, to be the 'first' running of the Grand National in its early form. To others it is one of three 'unofficial' precursors up to 1839. And to further compound matters there are claims that these races were not even run at Aintree.
The Duke won the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase again in 1837 and Sir William took the honours the next year. But the fly in Aintree's historical ointment was the nearby racecourse at Maghull, in the same borough of Sefton. In 1827 landowner John Formby began racing horses on the flat there. And although beset by boggy conditions (made worse for spectators by heavy showers) it still managed to attract crowds. But after the summer meeting of 1828 and in light of requests to upgrade the course, the Racing Committee advocated taking the horseracing from Maghull to the proposed Aintree site. Despite a fierce rivalry between the courses for some time, John Formby and his racecourse simply could not compete with the wealth of the Earl of Sefton, the brawn of the Racing Committee at Aintree, or the superior ground and spectator-friendly conditions. Furthermore, the Maghull May meeting coincided with the popular Chester fixture. Maghull racing was said to have finished late in 1835. It hasn't stopped a few sources, including historian Reg Green, from claiming that some, or all, of the 1836-8 contests were staged there.
Other research points away from Maghull. Newspaper accounts of the time suggest that Aintree indeed hosted the trio of races. In any case, the 1836-8 renewals are omitted from the Grand National's formal record books.
By 1839, Aintree had experienced a surge that took it beyond its home-grown roots. Liverpool had by now gained a railway, and the course was a popular destination for locals and outsiders eager to experience the action. A committee had been created to publicise the event, and with powerful financial backing from Sefton’s aristocratic friends, the race of 1839 was well publicised in advance. Additionally, the popular Great St. Albans Chase had run its last in 1838, thus handing the baton to Aintree.
In 1839 the first 'Grand National' (although it was still called the 'Grand Liverpool Steeplechase' up to 1847) received a staggering fifty thousand spectators, huge press interest and a top field of seventeen starters. The mare, The Nun started as favourite at 6/1, but came down on the second circuit after being brought down and remounted on the first. The winner was the 9/1 shot, Lottery, ridden by Jem Mason, who was successful by three lengths, followed in by Seventy-Four and Paulina, both at 12/1.
In the ensuing years, the event went from strength to strength, though William Lynn's health went with it, and his enthusiasm for the sport waned. Syndicate member and handicapper Edward William Topham stepped in to take over the reins of influence at Aintree. By 1843 he had turned the 'National' from a weight-for-age into a handicap race and in 1848 he took on the lease. Just before the turn of the 1850s the Topham family bought the course lock and stock, thus concluding the early part of the Grand National story.