All our yesterdays – Moving home: Part one

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Kingsley Hyland’s fascinating series of rugby reminiscences this week takes in the 1955-56 season, when Gosforth FC moved into their ‘New Ground’.

For a club that will celebrate its 150th year in 2027 it is remarkable that what is now Newcastle Falcons has had only two homes of its own.

Founded as Gosforth in 1877, the club’s early existence was a nomadic one. Early matches were played at a variety of venues in Gosforth including Ashburton Meadows and the South Northumberland Cricket Club ground in Roseworth Terrace, with the teams changing in a back room of the County Hotel.

In 1883 the club merged with the Northumberland club but reverted to the Gosforth name in 1887.

Such were the club’s financial difficulties in 1894 that they had to sell their goalposts to a group of the players resulting in another change of name, this time to Gosforth Nomads, the name later adopted in better times by the club’s veterans side.

Following the acquisition of the Northumberland County Ground at the west end of Hollywood Avenue in 1932 home matches were played there, alternating with Northern until the latter acquired their current ground at McCracken Park shortly before the Second World War.

The war had a massive impact on player numbers at all rugby clubs and Gosforth were no exception, but both numbers and performance levels had picked up noticeably before the end of the decade.

With the exponential improvement in terms of both player numbers and quality, the next challenge was to find and fund a permanent home for the club, with a minimum three pitches being an essential pre-requisite.

Starting with a ground fund of just £48, a War Memorial Appeal was launched which secured donations totalling more than £1,500. Driven by Martin Milligan, club captain in 1947-48 and Secretary between 1947 and 1953, various fundraising activities raised a further £10,000, and in 1951 the freehold of a 10¾ acre site to the west of the Great North Road between the City of Newcastle Golf Club and Fencer Hill Park was acquired.

The land had been the site of a Victorian rubbish tip and bottle bank, and so the decision to proceed was not without risk. Nevertheless, the minutes of the General Committee meeting of July 31, 1950 recorded that the decision to go ahead with the acquisition was approved ‘unanimously and enthusiastically’. The site is now occupied by the upmarket Greystoke Park.

A small Ground Committee oversaw the work of preparing the site for use. Almost 100,000 tons of earth had to be removed. The work of levelling, draining and preparing the pitches was undertaken by Messrs Sutton & Sons of Reading. Fortuitously, Armstrong Vickers were keen to prototype some new earth-moving equipment, and so availed themselves of the opportunity to undertake that task at the ground. A brochure and menu card produced for the 75th Anniversary Dinner at the Newcastle Guildhall on 31st January 1953 recorded as follows:

“Through the good offices of various friends of the club, many thousands of pounds were saved at this stage; but the saving made the organising work of Sutton’s more difficult than it would normally have been. Understanding our needs, however, they never complained and the result today is a magnificent stretch of level turf fully drained and banked by the first team pitch ready for terracing and stands. The ground will boast two full sized pitches (believed to be the only ones in the County which can give the full 25 yards dead ball line) as well as a third pitch which will be well above the average size of those played on today.”

Those playing at the ground in its final days in the late 1980s may struggle to recognise the description of a ‘magnificent stretch of turf’. One notorious seeding mishap produced more turnip than ‘magnificent turf’.

Much of the work was in fact undertaken by club volunteers including senior General Committee members. Their work was immortalised in a cartoon in the pages of the Newcastle Journal. All of the work and the accompanying charges were paid for in full, leaving a small balance carried forward to a building fund which would eventually see the construction of a clubhouse and changing rooms.

A ten-year mortgage was taken out to enable the clubhouse to be completed and an appeal went out to club members and friends to raise another £4,000 for the erection of a stand and ancillary work. The stand, that could seat 500 in some discomfort on wooden benches, provided the only covered spectator accommodation, and that remained the case until the club moved to Kingston Park in 1990 following a year in exile at Percy Park.

The clubhouse was officially opened in September 1955 by the President of the RFU, Joe Brunton. The concluding remarks in the dinner brochure gave little clue to the success that the club would enjoy in what would prove to be its home for 38 years:

“All this has been achieved by the devotion to the club of those who have pride in its past and hope and belief in its future. The fact that at least a further £10,000 will have to be raised in the next few years in order to pay for the Club House and stand daunts nobody. The game of rugby football is in itself an inspiration. The club which today celebrates its 75th Anniversary has provided, over the years, good rugby football for many hundreds of players. Some come and go like ships which pass in the night. Others, taking root, feel the pull of a club that has never been brilliant, never been studded with internationals, but has set out to allow the largest possible number of boys and men to play the game in the way it should be played. The record is one of which the club is proud and the future is one in which the club has confidence.”

September 1955 proved a popular time for new clubhouses in the county. Whilst Gosforth got in first with their official opening on September 1, Percy Park opened a new clubhouse on September 10, with Tynedale following suit on the 22nd. Tynedale’s new clubhouse was at Dene Park in Hexham. It would be over 20 years later before they moved to their current site at Tynedale Park in Corbridge.

The 1955-56 season was to prove a seminal one in the Gosforth’s development.

In addition to the opening of the new ground and clubhouse the Northumberland Senior Cup was won for only the second time in 1956, with three Smith brothers – skipper John, Douglas and Norman – all in the side.

What the match lacked in scores it more than made up for in late drama. After a drawn game, Gosforth won the replay 6-3.

Following a pointless first half Northern appeared to have won it with a try from full-back Wood, who was playing his last ever game. With less than two minutes remaining Gosforth levelled the scores at 3-3 when Bill Charlton kicked a penalty for offside to send the game into extra-time. With time running out and a further period of extra-time beckoning Gosforth seized on a Northern error and went the length of the field for a match winning try from winger Doug Smith.

The club was later to dominate the competition until the mid-1980s when the growth of league rugby and, in 1995, the arrival of professionalism, saw the competition devalued.

PHOTO CAPTION: The Gosforth team that won the 1956 Northumberland County Cup, beating Northern 6-3 in a replayed final which went to extra-time.

Back row (left to right): M.S.Vernon; B.Howstan: R.Hollings; D.Bradbeer; K.Richardson; D.F.Kay; G.N.Smith; D.Crawshaw; J.P.Sturgeon; B.J.G.DeZwaan; E.C.Hilton (President).

Middle row: D.Smith; J.J.Fenwick: J.M.Smith; W.Charlton; M.A.Pearey.

Front row: W.H.Swales; F.Armstrong; T.Bourn.

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