Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Until it was pebble-dashed over a few years ago, the faded half-time scoreboard painted on the side of a house at Grays Athletic’s Recreation Ground was something of a curio for a couple of reasons.  In the days before transistor radios and SMS text alerts, half-time scoreboards were common at Football League venues, but it was unusual to find one at an amateur ground.  More unusual still was that the scoreboard bore the name of Grays Thurrock FC, and not Grays Athletic as one would expect.   Who were these impostors and what were they doing at Grays Athletic’s long established ground? 
Amateur football was very much the order of the day in Essex in the 1920s.  Professional footballers living and working in the county had to find non-league clubs outside Essex, a situation a group of transport and dock workers based in the Grays and Tilbury area decided to do something about.   After a series of meetings a new professional club, Grays Transport & District FC, was formed on February 25th 1924, the committee being made up of men residing in Grays, Tilbury, Gravesend and the surrounding locality.  After being turned down by the Southern League, the new club, now going under the name of Grays Thurrock United, opted to the join the Kent League for the 1924/25 season, a more convenient arrangement than it sounds, as the Tilbury to Gravesend ferry was only a short trip away.  It was assumed that Grays Thurrock would move in with Grays Athletic at the Recreation Ground, but the trustees of the ground surprisingly resisted their overtures, and so preparations were made to upgrade The Lawn in Little Thurrock, a playing field that had been playing host to junior football since the late 19th century.
Located off Dock Road, close to the Bull Inn, The Lawn was just over half a mile from the Recreation Ground and, fearful that their new rivals would steal a march on them, Grays Athletic resigned from the London League and joined Grays Thurrock in the Kent League, which comprised both professional and amateur clubs.   Despite a lack of spectator facilities, an encouraging crowd of 3,000 made their way to The Lawn on September 4th 1924 to see Grays Thurrock take on Sheppey United in their first match in the Kent League. A couple of old army huts were converted into changing rooms and club offices and, as the months went by, the ground was gradually improved, with a post and rail replacing the original rope around the pitch, and a wooden grandstand coming into use in early 1925.  The first local derby between the two Grays clubs took place in December 1924, an eagerly awaited event which saw an attendance of 4,000–5,000, with some spectators using the skeleton of the not yet completed stand as a vantage point.
Grays Thurrock made another attempt to join the Southern League (Eastern Section) in 1925, and this time they were successful.  After just one season at The Lawn, Grays Thurrock signed a deal with the trustees of the Recreation Ground and became joint tenants at Bridge Road with Grays Athletic.   As part of the groundsharing deal, the grandstand at The Lawn was transported to the Recreation Ground, but only after long discussions took place with Grays Athletic about where to site to it, and how the revenue from the stand would be divided up.  The Recreation Ground in those days was a sprawling arena which also included an athletics track and a cricket ground.   There was talk of sawing the grandstand in half, but eventually space was found for it on the side opposite the main stand.  It wasn’t possible to position the grandstand on the half-way line because of the athletics track, so it was placed off-centre on the outfield of the cricket ground, a decision which forced Grays Cricket Club to leave the Recreation Ground, never to return.
Despite the strength of the opposition, Grays Thurrock more than held their own during their inaugural Southern League campaign in 1925/26 and in the summer of 1926 they left their mark at the Recreation Ground when a half-time scoreboard bearing the club’s name, and featuring two adverts in the club’s red colours, was painted on the gable end of a house facing on to the Bradbourne Road end of the ground.   The enormous costs of financing a professional team, particularly in a period of economic depression took its toll, and in an effort to stem their losses, Grays Thurrock said goodbye to the Recreation Ground in 1929 and moved back to The Lawn, taking their much travelled grandstand with them. The Lawn was to witness only one season of Southern League football however, for after finishing bottom two years running, Grays Thurrock left the Southern League at the end of the 1929-30 season, taking the place of their reserves in the Kent League. 
With Grays Athletic trying to exploit the boom in greyhound racing by building a track on part of the Recreation Ground in 1930, Grays Thurrock decided to install one of their own at The Lawn the same year, though it was hardly what one would call White City.  A fence was laid over the edges of the football pitch, and rudimentary lighting was installed around the ring.  Just how chaotic the arrangements were was emphasised by the fact that an early season match in 1931 saw the kick-off delayed while staff rushed to remove the fencing from the playing area.
It was no great surprise when Grays Thurrock United’s financial problems saw them fold at the end of the 1931-32 season.   Brief though their existence was, for a short time at least, they brought top flight non-league football to Grays, something the riverside town would not experience for another 75 years.   By 1934, The Lawn had disappeared beneath a new housing estate, though a link with the past was maintained when the builders decided to call the road Lawns Crescent. 
The Lawn being demolished in 1934.
The half-time scoreboard at the Bradbourne Road end of The Rec.  Pic Gavin Ellis.
Grays Thurrock v Grays Athletic in a Kent League fixture at The Lawn in December 1924.  The attendance was between four to five thousand.

The Lawn in 1931, showing a greyhound meeting. 
Team line-up from the first season in 1924/25, showing the Army huts that served as dressing rooms at The Lawn.

Grays Thurrock v Grays Athletic at The Rec in 1926

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Ilford FC at Newbury Park

Not only were Ilford one of the most famous names in amateur football, but from 1904 to 1977 they played at one of its most celebrated venues.  As well as being on hand to witness Ilford’s many successes, the 18,000 capacity Lynn Road ground at Newbury Park staged Olympic Games matches, Amateur Internationals, an FA Amateur Cup Final, plus countless other cup finals and representatives matches.  Ilford’s decision to sell the ground for redevelopment in 1977 proved to be the undoing of the club however.   A rash of mergers and ground sales ensued and within a few years the grounds and names of Ilford, Leytonstone, and Walthamstow Avenue had all disappeared.

Formed in 1881, Ilford played at various grounds in the south west Essex town before taking up residence at the Ilford Sports Ground in 1888.  Located in Wellesley Road, a short distance from the town centre, Ilford Sports Ground was a spacious enclosure that along with football also catered for cycling and athletics.  Though covered accommodation was limited to a tall gabled pavilion, it was at this venue that Ilford played two seasons of Southern League football from 1894 to 1896, before joining first the London League, and then South Essex League.  In 1904 Ilford were served notice to quit the Sports Ground as it was required for housing, but the club quickly secured four-acres of undeveloped land in Newbury Park to the north of the town and set about levelling a pitch.   Clapton were the visitors for the first match at Newbury Park in September 1904 but it wasn’t until November of that year that the stand and dressing rooms were ready for use.   Positioned at the south of the ground adjacent to where Lynn Road would later be built, the stand seated 400 and its initial spectator comforts included a sanded floor but not a roof. 

Ilford were founder members of the Isthmian League in 1905 and over the next couple decades became one of its most successful teams.  It was after winning consecutive championships in 1920/21 and 1921/22 that moves were made to improve the increasingly inadequate spectator facilities at Newbury Park.  Having purchased the freehold of the ground for £3,000 in 1922, a 600 seater stand was erected on the north side of the ground that same year.  Considering the amount of space that was available it was a curiously modest structure, its long, low roof supported by a profusion of unwieldy struts.  Because of the clock on its centre gable, the structure became known as the ‘clock stand’, a name that the stand retained even when the clock was replaced by a club badge.   With crowds increasing all the time, it was not long before the clamour grew for further improvements at Newbury Park.  In the summer of 1928, the original 1904 stand on the south side of the ground was demolished to make way for something much grander.  Costing £4,250, compared to the £600 spent on the ‘clock stand’, the new grandstand was built by East London building firm W J Cearns Ltd, who had recently built grandstands at West Ham United and Leicester City.  Also comprising dressing rooms and a club room, it was a luxurious structure with 850 seats in elevated tiers, while the large pitched roof also provided cover for 950 standing spectators in a paddock section at the front of the stand.   The club celebrated the completion of their fine new stand by going on to win the FA Amateur Cup in 1928/29 and 1929/30.

Newbury Park was one of the London area grounds chosen to stage matches in the 1948 Olympic Games football tournament.  The Ilford public had shown their appetite for international football earlier that year when 13,000 turned up to see England play Luxembourg in an amateur friendly.  Crowds approaching 8,000 saw the two games held at Ilford, France v India and Yugoslavia v Turkey, and for the rest of the late 1940s and early 1950s five figures crowds were not uncommon, with the record attendance at Newbury Park being recorded in May 1952, when 17,000 watched the English Schools Trophy Final between Ilford and Swansea.  By 1951 nearly all of the banking around the ground had been concreted, giving Newbury Park an 18,000 capacity with 1,400 seats, while in 1957 the covered accommodation was extended further still when a roof was erected over the terracing at the Ley Street end.  But for the installation of floodlights in 1962, the ground remained unchanged for the remainder of is existence, even retaining its splendid white wicket fencing that spanned the four sides of the ground.

The last big match at Newbury Park, or Lynn Road as it was more commonly known by then, took place in November 1974.  Drawn against Southend United in the Second Round of the FA Cup, Ilford optimistically set a crowd limit of 15,000 but in the event less than 3,500 showed up.   Plans to move to a new stadium on land opposite Fairlop Station were already in the pipeline by this time, and at the end of the 1976/77 season Ilford bade their final farewell to Lynn Road.   In the summer of 1977, the main stand was dismantled ready for transportation to the new site and the ‘clock stand’ was put up for sale.  Preparations were made to share Leytonstone’s Granleigh Road ground while the new stadium was being built but with no progress being made in that direction it soon became clear that something was wrong.  As the months wore on it transpired that Ilford had not taken account of Land Development Tax when budgeting for the new stadium.  Of the £325,000 raised from the sale of Lynn Road, £112,000 had to be paid in tax. Unable to proceed with the project, Ilford decided in 1979 to throw in their lot with Leytonstone and merge with their former Isthmian League adversaries.  Two more mergers followed, first with Walthamstow Avenue in 1988, and then with Dagenham in 1992.

Supporters and officials of the old club reformed Ilford FC in 1987.  After a protracted struggle they obtained use of the Cricklefield Athletics Stadium in Ilford High Road, a venue coveted by the old Ilford when they were thinking about leaving Lynn Road in the 1960s.  As well as being a fine little stadium, Cricklefield also provides a link to the old ground in the form of the Sir Herbert Dunnico Memorial Gates, which were moved to Cricklefield from Lynn Road when the football ground was knocked down.  At the time of going to press it looks as though the name of Ilford will soon be appearing on Isthmian League fixture lists again, as the league have offered the club a place in their Division Two next season.