Preface, Foreword and Introduction


EDITORIAL PREFACE – ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ (an entirely voluntary production)

In 2022 we have celebrated the Diamond Anniversary  of the planning of Harlow Sports Centre, the UK’s first public sports centre, which then opened in 1964. Four decades later, in 2005, the K2 Centre in Crawley opened and broke new ground in the scale, design and facilities of a public centre. We have moved a million miles forward from the Wolfenden Report (‘Sport & the Community’ 1960) and Harlow, to today. There are now thousands of centres, and numerous registered trusts managing those facilities for their local authority owners. Over time public sports and leisure centres have woven their way into UK political and social history and become a phenomenon of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

I had retired in 2013 after a wide-ranging career in physical education, centre management and consultancy. I had managed centres at both ends of the spectrum – Carlisle Sports Centre, a converted drill hall, and Crowtree Leisure Centre, the largest in Europe. Over the years I had also visited over 100 centres across the whole of the UK and parts of Europe. At first I envisaged writing an article or two for a leisure magazine and in 2014 I started what became known as ‘The Sports Leisure Legacy Project’. How it has grown from those early days!  It quickly became clear that there was exciting potential to tell a full and expansive story and provide contemporary evidence for future generations. Gradually it turned into a significant history and heritage venture, and became a monumental planning, research and editing exercise spanning eight years.

It was interest in the subject, the contact with and support of numerous other professionals and the opportunity to unveil a largely hidden heritage that was the incentive. The story has encompassed the resources, places, buildings, organisations, philosophies, politics, sports and people that delivered the community opportunities offered by centres. Sports and recreation professionals across the six decades have contributed to the story. Sadly, during the Project we have lost some of the early generation of managers who contributed information. They are acknowledged elsewhere on the website.

It was important to access a broad base of knowledge, resources and experience to do justice to the subject. To start this process I organised a national launch seminar which was held in July 2015 at the K2 Centre. 26 experienced professionals who were involved with sports centres over the previous five decades attended. This included Keith Ashton, CEO of Space and Place, leading sports & leisure architects, who had by then agreed to be the main sponsor of The Sports Leisure Legacy Project. The support of all the leading national organisations representing sports and leisure management was also gained. From the seminar an Editorial Advisory Group was formed. The group has provided editorial contributions and rigour to the text and excellent advice and support throughout what turned out to be a very long, evolving and challenging exercise.

We started out from the original definition of a sports centre which was an indoor centre with a sports hall and some other facilities, which may include a swimming pool and has significant use by the general public. Over time, as can be seen through the chapters, changes saw the definition evolve a little.

Once thoughts turned to publication, modern technology took over and the concept of creating the story digitally on a website was adopted, as opposed to a more costly printed publication. Website designers were recruited and produced an eye-catching and flexible website structure. An advantage was the ability to include special sections on the website and also hyperlinks to the Chapters, providing additional interesting facts or background. A ‘book on the website’ is the clearest definition of our achievement.

What happened between 2015 and 2022? The website was launched in 2015, initially as a promotional vehicle for the Project, and the website has grown as recording of the full story has progressed. The production of the historical record has involved the most extensive research exercise ever undertaken on the subject. We arranged the loan of 300 selected national and regional publications related to sports centre development from the Sports Council Archive held by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Several small archives were also made available, including that of Harlow Sports Centre, Brighton University and records of the former ISPAL professional association. All these, plus an expanding in-house library of relevant books, revealed information that would not otherwise have fully seen the light of day.

The Project theme also sparked two Advisory Group members, former Sports  Council officers Mike Fitzjohn and Malcolm Tungatt, into research mode again. They produced two original and highly valued research documents on sports centre provision for the website. They had also visited UCLan and sourced the loan of the relevant Sports Council records. In total, in excess of 430 publications were used in the Project research. In addition, a huge amount of internet research was undertaken, especially for 21st Century facts. Mike has also produced the comprehensive Index of centres which are recorded on the website.

Overall, writing and editing the story has been like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle! I hope we have achieved an accurate and interesting professional record that will be valuable to anyone with a keen or passing interest, long into the future. We have tried to understand the past and bring it into the present for generations old and new.

I am very pleased that the long-term guardianship of the website has now passed to CIMSPA.

Gerry Carver
Project Founder and Editor
June 2023

‘HARLOW TO K2 AND BEYOND’ :: THE EDITORIAL GROUP L to R Dave Fisher, Hywel Griffiths, Jack Wilkinson, John Birch, John Thorpe, John Stride, Mike Fulford, Mike Fitzjohn, Malcolm Tungatt and Gerry Carver

‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ The Editorial Group meets


DAVID FISHER (1946-2022)

After Carnegie David taught, then in 1970 he joined Basingstoke Sports Centre as a Sports Officer, alongside Bill Breeze and Martin Rees and under the tutelage and guidance of Bill Leadbeater, Director. The Basingstoke centre was one of the first to be provided in a large shopping complex, as part of the ‘new town’ development. Dave went on to manage at Worthing Sports Centre then became Recreation Manager for Horsham DC, and subsequently Director of Leisure for Hove BC. David has an MA in Leisure Management and after Hove he spent several years in consultancy. Having entered management at a relatively young age, he is one of the few practitioners able to remember the early pioneering days and their managers.


John trained at Loughborough as a P.E. teacher (1951-54).  After teaching he attended Carnegie before joining the CCPR as Research Officer in 1965, where he was responsible for the first research on Indoor Sports Centres.  He transferred to the new executive Sports Council in 1970 and was then Chief Leisure and Cultural Services Officer for Waverley District Council from 1974. John re-joined the  Sports Council in 1980 and became Regional Director, Greater London and South East.  He was National Director of Regional Services from 1986 and retired from the Sports Council in 1994, becoming  Director of Second Innings Leisure Consultancy [1994-2004].


Hywel started in leisure management at the Sobell Centre in Islington in 1974. Unlike most of his contemporaries he hadn’t had a “proper job” before. He was fortunate to work with Harry Littlewood in the Sports Council’s Facilities Unit and worked on facilities planning and the management award among other things. Hywel then worked with John Birch at the Greater London and South East Region before joining local government. Hywel started as an assistant director in an Inner London borough and became a Director at a South Coast authority before leaving to spend time as a consultant working mainly for RQA and SOLACE. He retired in 2014 but maintains many friends and contacts in the industry.


John is the former Chief Executive of Inspire Leisure, a multi-functional IPS, and was an early Chair off the South East Region Chair of CIMSPA as a Chartered Fellow. Under John’s guidance Inspire traded very successfully as a social enterprise for 10 years. John’s first job involved working for Arun DC, undertaking playground research, as part of his DMS (Rec), under the guidance of Gwynne Griffiths and Tony Veal. He later joined Arun DC as a sports and leisure manager.


John trained at St John’s College, York, and latterly at North London Polytechnic, firstly under Tony Veal and then Fred Coalter. He worked at Redbridge Sports Centre Trust Ltd, North Devon District Council, The Sports Council and finally was Executive Head of Leisure and Cultural Services for Worthing and Adur Councils . This role involved amalgamating two district Council Leisure departments under joint working arrangements. He saw many changes in the way services were delivered and witnessed the changing priorities of Governments and Councillors. He responded to CCT, Best Value and Comprehensive Performance Assessment and saw the relentless drive towards externalisation of ‘discretionary’ services.


Jack was originally a town planner, and whilst he has not managed a leisure centre (so far) he spent much of his career in local authorities and the GB Sports Council/Sport England promoting their provision through strategies, land-use planning, project development and funding. This period spanned the first round of regional and local strategies, including the GL&SE Regional Recreation Strategy ‘Prospects for the Eighties’ [1982], through to Lottery funding. Jack moved to teaching at the University of Brighton and other recent activities include the boards of Active Sussex, (Brighton & Hove) Albion in the Community and Sussex Cricket.


Mike left his native North London to study Town & Country Planning at Manchester University (1966-1970). His first post (1970-1975) was with the newly established Research and Planning Unit of the Greater London & South East Sports Council at County Hall. In 1975 he moved to a similar post with the North West Sports Council in Manchester, where for the next 17 years he was responsible for producing an extensive range of research and policy documents both for the region and for The Sports Council nationally. In 1992 he moved sideways to become a Senior Regional Officer of The Sports Council in Manchester, leading the Facilities Team in a wide remit across the region.


Mike trained as a physical education teacher at Loughborough. After teaching he entered sports centre management at the Lightfoot Sports Centre in 1971, then became Manager at Stretford Sports Centre; Returning to the North-East, management of Concordia Leisure Centre and Blyth Sports Centre followed, on their own and later as part of a wider range of public leisure and amenity services as Borough Recreation Manager. Mike was a founding ILAM Council member serving for 20 years and is a former President of ILAM. Now retired he swims, drives and collects old toys!


Malcolm graduated as a Geographer in 1973 and completed an M.Phil. thesis before joining a Sports Council Research Team at Durham University in 1976. In 1979 he moved to the North West Office helping to write the Regional Recreation Strategy before transferring to the Sports Council’s Evaluation Team in 1983, leading the Team from 1987 until 2006. The evaluation programme included the National Demonstration Projects, Champion Coaching, the TOP programme, School Sports Co-ordinators and Sport Action Zones. He joined Sport England’s Policy Team in 2006 before retiring in 2009 after 33 years with the Sports Council.


After Loughborough and teaching, Gerry managed the converted Carlisle Sports Centre from 1973 then moved to Crowtree Leisure Centre in 1977. He was also a member of the ARM National Executive and Editor of ARM News for 6 years. In 1982 he  joined Arun DC as Deputy, then Chief Leisure & Tourism Officer. In 1987 he moved into consultancy, founding L&R International and leading sports, leisure and tourism projects across the UK and Europe. He undertook projects for the European Commission in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland and the Middle East. Consultancy until 2013 embraced many centres, including The Oceadium (Brussels), the Paris sports centres; and, from planning to opening, the Harlow Leisurezone and the Catterick and Leventhorpe centres.


Joanne is a Master’s graduate in Tourism from Surrey University and joined L&R Leisure plc in 1988 and from 1997 worked for L&R International for 17 years. Joanne has been involved in many leisure and tourism consultancy projects. This included sports & leisure centres in Liverpool, Belfast, Harlow, Catterick, and Leventhorpe, and in successful lottery grants for centres at Budmouth and Mark Hall, Harlow. Joanne is managing the technical development of the website, linking with the website designer when required.

The Editorial Group January 2018, Littlehampton Swimming & Sports Centre

The Editorial Group January 2018, Littlehampton Swimming & Sports Centre


by John Birch, Former Director of Regional Services, The Sports Council.


It is a great privilege to be invited to write the foreword for this splendid ‘Sport and Leisure Legacy’, which documents the phenomenal growth in the provision of Indoor Sports Centres since the first centre at Harlow was opened just over 50 years ago,. For more than the half century covered in this study it has been my good fortune to have been close to the heart of this development.
In the late 1960’s, when I undertook the first research on Indoor Sports Centres, there were only five Centres that met the criteria of ‘being genuinely available for use by the public at large’. These centres were the ‘Pioneers’.
In his introduction to the report of this work, Eldon Griffiths MP, who was then Minister of Sport said:

‘It is surprising that it has taken so long for the full advantages of facilities for indoor sport to have been appreciated. In a country that suffers from an uncertain climate and in which long evenings of winter darkness limit the extent to which recreation can be enjoyed out of doors the benefits of these facilities should be obvious to all.’

From those first five centres, we are now looking at over 2,000 centres. It has been difficult to keep in touch with this burgeoning growth. Almost every town, secondary school and university now boasts an indoor facility that is available to their community. How things have changed!
Of course, there have been many other changes over the 50 years. New sports have been developed. Others, like squash and badminton, so popular in the early days, have gone out of fashion. Emphases, such as on fitness and health, have gained in importance. Attitudes to school use have changed out of all recognition – no longer is the school caretaker the ‘key holder!’ and while local authorities have remained the main provider of capital funding of sports facilities, they increasingly now look to contractors or Trusts to undertake their management. The current number of centres is a tribute to the foresight of the many professionals and politicians who have understood the need to provide places for constructive leisure through sport in local communities. However, we cannot be complacent as many are now coming to the end of their economic lives and will need renewal or replacement; let us hope that the same vision persists in the future.
In writing this foreword I would be remiss if I did not pay a sincere tribute to Gerry Carver whose idea it was to mark the 50th anniversary of these ‘pioneer’ centres. Gerry, in his ‘retirement’ from a distinguished career, in sports centre management and leisure consultancy, has, in the past seven years, thrown himself into this work with such enthusiasm that the product will surely become the standard reference for anyone interested in the history of sports centre development over the past 50 years. He has wisely appointed an experienced steering group to assist and advise him, but they will, I am sure, confirm that without Gerry’s enthusiastic encouragement and detailed output, they would have struggled to produce such an authoritative and fascinating study.

John Birch


1.  First recreation roots and growing interest

Recreation long precedes the 20th century. There were much earlier roots in the mania for recreation through swimming and athletics which goes back thousands of years, as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome. By Roman times there were nearly a thousand public or private ‘pools’. Whilst the words ‘leisure’ and ‘recreation’ became particularly associated with social change after the 2nd World War, their use was not entirely new. For example, some of the great impressionist painters of the late 19th century, including Monet at his garden in Giverney, focused their paintings on the “leisure” opportunities of the gardens they fostered and the escape they afforded from growing industrialisation.

Historic Swimming Baths Ipswich

Historic Swimming Baths Ipswich

Swimming pools, both indoor and outdoor, became popular in Britain in the mid-19th century and by the end of the century there were numerous public swimming baths across the cities and towns of the UK. Of course, whilst of recreational value, much of the provision revolved around The Public Baths and Washhouses Act of 1846, which was a response to the fact that few houses had bathrooms and the fear of the spread of urban disease. Even Parks legislation of the time was partly based on the fear of overcrowded cities leading to revolution on the French model, and Museums and Libraries Acts were measures to combat the fear of ignorance among the masses. By 1837, the year Queen Victoria acceded to the throne, six indoor pools with diving boards had been built in London. By the late 19th Century bathing machines appeared on UK beaches, with, in 1889, a segregating bylaw that stated, “no person of the male sex shall at any time bathe within 50 yards of a ladies’ bathing machine”!

The German Gymnasium Kings Cross London 2017

The German Gymnasium Kings Cross London 2017

Gymnastics has its roots way back to the early Greeks and German gymnastics of the 19th century was one of the foundations of early UK physical education. Indeed, the first purpose-built gymnasium in England was the German Gymnasium in London, designed by Edward Gruning. It was built in 1865 in what is now Kings Cross. The main hall had a ceiling height of 57’. Thirty years before the modern Olympics were revived in Athens in 1896, the world’s first national Olympian Association held its inaugural games in London in 1866. The German Gymnasium hosted the indoor events. The German Gymnasium is Grade II listed and opened as a Grand Café in 2015.

Early centre!

Early centre!

Victorian leisure and recreation was influenced by the growing opportunities for work and play. The 1833 Factory Act had established holidays, giving more time for leisure. By 1870 there were more parks and gardens, free libraries, public halls, and seaside excursions. Technological advances led to the increased circulation of books and newspapers, which spread the word about leisure time activities.

Michael Dower in “Fourth Wave “(1965) summarised progress very succinctly “Three great waves have broken across the face of Britain since 1800. First, the sudden growth of dark industrial towns. Second, the thrusting movement along far flung railways. Third, the sprawl of car based suburbs. Now we see, under the guise of a modest word, the surge of a fourth wave which could be more powerful than all the others. The modest word is ‘leisure’.”

2. 20th Century progress

The emergence of community sports and leisure centres may have come in the second half of the 20th Century, but the increase in the general public’s demand for physical activities was a phenomenon of the whole of 20th century. Leisure was, in those very early days of the century, the prerogative of those that could afford it. In the 1930s ‘leisure’ was one of the big concerns reflecting some reduction in working hours and increased disposable income, as recorded in the ‘New Survey of London’ (which followed up on an 1890 survey, when ‘life and labour’ were the major concerns). For the masses, however roller skating was the first new activity of the 20th century that seems to have been affordable to a much larger spectrum of society. Indoor skating halls were established by the 1930s, as the activity became popular and provision became profitable for a while.

The main indoor halls of any size were those on military camps. The Fox Gymnasium at the Aldershot Camp, for example, was built in 1860, and was the first of four similar halls built on the camp. In the 1968/9 season, the Fox Gym was used by Aldershot Warriors against Real Madrid in the European Club Basketball Championships!

After the 1st World War, the countries involved were recovering and rebuilding their economies. However, 1934 saw the formation of the National Playing Fields Association, followed a year later by the King George V Playing Fields Trust, signifying that a national effort was being made to ensure the local provision of outdoor playing space.

More public swimming pools, a Victorian innovation of course, had started to appear. The Victorian public baths, some of which survive today, were the nearest thing to our modern leisure centre. They often had ancillary facilities, such as Turkish baths. Many pools were designed to close as pools in the winter to fulfil other roles; Victoria Baths in Manchester, opened in 1906 and floored its pool in winter for dances (the baths closed in 1993). Armley Baths in Leeds, opened in 1932, was another such example, becoming a ballroom in winter. The baths were demolished in 2009 and the site is now the car park for the Armley Leisure Centre. Another pool in Nottingham became a roller skating rink in winter months. Smethwick Swimming Centre opened in 1933 and was boarded in winter for boxing and dancing. The baths were always known by locals as Thimblemill Baths, but more recent refurbishment uncovered the original sign of ‘Smethwick Baths’. The baths were the first in the country to display the famous ‘Will patrons kindly refrain from’ posters. The centre still operates today under the Sandwell Leisure Trust.

One example of the early London pools, York Hall in Bethnal Green, was ‘floored over’ in winter to provide a rudimentary sports hall. York Hall is still an operating leisure centre, and famous as a boxing venue. A few Victorian pools survived into the sports and leisure centre age, some having sports halls added, though even some of those have since closed. There are currently 3 old pools in England that are Grade II listed.

Over the last 60 years, sports centres have developed modern ways for clothes storage (see Baskets or Lockers). In Victorian times those with employees would bring a member of staff along to look after their clothes whilst they swam! Indeed, the Sunderland Bank Robbery in 1897 saw over £6,000 – more than £6million today – stolen by two fraudsters who managed to take keys from the unattended clothes of two bank staff while they swam, made wax casts, and then use forged keys for an overnight break-in!

3. 2nd World War watershed

Victory Hall Opened 1946

Victory Hall Opened 1946

The World War from 1939-1945 also changed the pace of development. The Armed forces did build many large gymnasia for ‘fitness training’, and many military camps, such as Aldershot and Catterick, had large areas of playing fields. Many industrial and private sports clubs and associations did great work in maintaining existing outdoor facilities. However, the immediate post war period was a barren one for any sort of new sports provision, though it is a misconception that there were no indoor spaces in which sports activities were taking place. Isolated exceptions included Loughborough College’s opening in 1946 of the huge Victory Hall, famous to thousands of its PE students (and not replaced until the 21st century). Whilst it is true there were very few purpose-built facilities for indoor sports at that time beyond the cities, many villages had small halls in which some indoor sports were thriving.

Victory Hall indoor tennis

Victory Hall indoor tennis

Many schools had 60’x40’ gymnasia and these were accommodating education authority evening classes for keep fit and dance as well as classes for specific sports. Thus, there were many such indoor spaces/halls that could be used for some sports. Sports such as table tennis and fencing were also thriving in much smaller spaces, some in church halls and youth clubs.

The development, refurbishment or replacement of largely Victorian indoor swimming pools continued through the 20th century. Nearly all were owned and managed by local councils. Alongside these developments, the National Association of Baths Superintendents was founded in 1921, and became the Institute of Baths Management in 1962. This was the first professional association of baths managers. Later, as sports centres developed from the late 1960s, new or replacement pools were often included alongside sports halls in the new breed of community sports and leisure centres.

4.  Significant post-war social change

Sports centres emerged from the multitude of social changes that followed during the immediate decades after the 2nd World War. The ground for the ‘community sports centre’ was laid by the early work of pioneers at the CCPR and Birmingham University and by the 1960 Wolfenden Report, ‘Sport and the Community’, which highlighted the significant shortage of indoor sports facilities in the UK. On the back of Wolfenden and other initiatives, the Government became positively involved in sport for the first time ever in 1964, when Denis Howell MP (1923-1998), became the first-ever Minister for Sport. [A wider perspective on sport and leisure – Terry Mack]

5.  Harlow opens the gates for thousands

The plans for the first ever indoor community sports centre, at Harlow, had been already launched by the late 1950s. By 1993 there were over a thousand such centres in the UK and by the time K2 in Crawley was completed in 2005, the number of community indoor sports centres and sports halls was close to 4,500 (reference – Sport England Active Places). The ‘sports centre’ has been one of the most significant buildings to be erected in most towns in the UK in recent decades. The development, design, and operation of such centres have changed vastly over the period, though some principles have remained steadfast. However, change continues. The story will also bring the reader right up to date, recording more recent trends, including the broader church of providers and management regimes, and the changing face of activities, participation, and finance. It will also try and look beyond to the future.

The advent and development of the UK community sports centre certainly reflects one of the numerous post-war changes. This is a unique record of the foundation in the 1950s of the idea and need for indoor community sports centres, bolstered by the Wolfenden Report in 1960, and the enormous growth of such centres in subsequent decades. ‘Harlow to K2 and Beyond’ is planned to encompass the philosophies, places, people, processes, politics, programmes, organisations, resources, buildings, and activities that have characterised such sports centres over six decades.

6. The ten chapters cover six decades

The ten chapters published here, and the associated special sections, record all the significant developments and issues for UK sports and leisure centres over a period of more than sixty years, including the following: –

  • The major impact of Local Government Re-organisation in 1974 on centre growth.
  • A broad leisure revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, including the arrival of leisure pools.
  • Arrival of jointly provided centres on school sites.
  • Important long-term implications from Compulsory Competitive Tendering.
  • A huge upsurge in new university sports centres from 2000.
  • Modern architectural designs creating striking new 21st century centres.

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