Old Haberdashers' Sports Ground
Random Recall by Kenneth H Blessley
A few years ago, when I put together papers on some professional topic or other, I usually tried, for light relief, to open with an appropriate quotation. So, for this saga, I consulted the good book and found two which might suit: Homer's 'It is tedious to tell again tales already told' or, more happily, King Lear, at the end of the play, when he suggests to Cordelia that they should ' .... away to prison ... and tell old tales and laugh.' I am not proposing any gaol visits but maybe the rather copious notes which follow will provide a laugh or two. They cover the whole of the period under review and occasionally extend beyond it: some of what I have said cannot be challenged as I am the only survivor who was present at a particular incident or meeting. Other contributors may have different recollections elsewhere but hopefully it could all combine to make an interesting tapestry.
I was involved during all this time, playing some 80 home games between 1937 and 1952, initially for the 1st XV, more latterly for the Ex A, but also the odd turn-out for the other sides. I was a coarse referee for four seasons and very much concerned with working parties and the like, ending as chairman of the Ground Committee. I suppose the ultimate accolade came when I was selected for bar duty - but the recollections of those of us on that roster would probably provide material for a book on its own - e.g. the formula for concocting visitors' shandy! So, here goes.
George Jamieson's history gives a concise account of the negotiations leading up to the purchase of the Ground and how the target figure of £4000 was raised. I recall making a contribution of £2 in December 1935 (£60 in 1988 terms?) to Alec Welch, then Captain of the A XV, which as an unpaid articled clerk was quite a sacrifice. An interesting point which emerged only recently was when Ray Innoccnti recalled a visit from Frank Jackman to the family home in Beech Drive in, I imagine, 1935 to explain what was planned. Presumably this was done with all the householders who backed on to the ground ie in Theobald Street and Beech Drive, the other two sides still being open farmland. This was clearly a good PR exercise with only one recorded objector and one wonders if something on similar lines might have produced a different outcome in the recent operation. Quite a few of these residents subsequently opened up gates in their rear fences to provide access (unauthorised) to their own private open space, mainly it would seem, for the exercise of their dogs
Working Parties: Pre-war
George mentions the original chain gangs under Terence Parker but he relinquished his role soon after the Ground was opened and for some reason which escapes me it became my responsibility to exercise gentle persuasion in assembling week-end working parties, a task which I finally gave up in 1951, but for many years it became quite a factor in my way of life. Perhaps it would be appropriate to mention ground conditions. There were only 2/3 inches of grass and top soil above about 40 feet of solid yellow clay, ideal for building East Anglian houses but totally impermeable for surface water. Such drainage as existed was by open-jointed agricultural pipes - and not many of those – all probably clogged The ground slopes from West to East and a ditch ran from Theobald Street alongside the present 1st XV touchline and the eastern boundary to a pond known to us for some reason as Nicoll's Deep, presumably after that colourful character AEP Nicoll This 'pond' was an evil swamp with an overflow theoretically into the Beech Drive surface drainage system. Part of this main ditch was straightened and piped but 'bottoming out' was a Forth Bridge type of task which occupied one WR Tanner for many summers - probably until he obtained the post of Honorary Scorer.
Apart from ditching, there was some attempt to create a car park at the original Theobald Street entrance. Through Arthur Wilshire, we negotiated a deal with the old Elstree Studios which were being demolished (even then) and with a hired upper truck of primitive design, conveyed loads of rubble along the main roads to the ground. Progress was very slow for obvious reasons and eventually paid labour was introduced. One cannot but sympathise with the subsequent owners of the houses built on this frontage for the task they faced with the 'builders' topsoil in their back gardens.
The total availability of labour for these working parties was not more than 20 with about a dozen dedicated regulars. I negotiated a deal with Jenks in respect of the amber nectar (Friary). A pin (4.5 gallons) was conveyed to Elstree on Friday and charged out to the workers at the full 8d a pint. When the cost was covered, the rest of the barrel was free so there was inevitable jockeying for who bought the early rounds. I have a picture of myself drawing up a pint for Neville Burrell and for some time retained a notebook recording the finances of the 1939 summer sessions and the last sad entry in July (just before Summer TA Camp for many of us) was a note that Bertie Wearing owes 2/3d. Another 1939 photo shows the whole working party displaying digging equipment which I doubt whether some of them ever used - this would have interfered with the sun-bathing.
Working Parties: Post-war
Work was resumed on the ground in May 1946, mainly dealing with the arrears of the war years. In June a hired bulldozer dealt with the bomb craters backfilling with solid clay and no attempt to reinstate the primitive drainage system. The inevitable result was three pockets of sog along the middle touchline which became a gooey mass once the rains started. I recall setting out the pitches in August 1946 but the full schedule of working parties really started in the summer of 1947. Drainage was always a problem and all sorts of solutions were tried with field pipes, herring-bone mole drains, gypsum, sand - but improvement only came when maintenance was carried out on a contract basis.
More skilful working parties were involved in the clubhouse extension in 1951 with a team of OH steel-erectors assembling the roof, including Messrs Diggens, Kerswell, Stagg, Blessley - navy and sappers - backed by a willing (but rather undisciplined) gang manning - or at crucial times not manning - the guy ropes of a standing derrick, leading to some rather hazardous moments. The bungalow came later - probably outside the time scale of this story - but a few may recall Ronnie Diggens arriving in his Bentley and, to the amazement of the younger members, taking out tool kits from the boot of the car which he needed in order to exercise his skills as bricklayer, carpenter and joiner, plumber and general clerk of works. And I have to add a final word, even later, concerning the suspended ceiling in the main clubhouse. This was Robin Matthew's brainchild and he did all the skilled work: as his chief assistant, my task was to coat all the wood strips with a particularly revolting and sticky preservative and offer them up to Robin for fixing. I think the fumed oak effect still looks pretty good but what it conceals is another matter.
Not really a working party item but a very vital function was the beer ferry during the great London ale drought of 1947. This meant for some of us a periodic Friday collection at Paddington of a barrel or barrels of Arnold and Hancock's 'best' from
Wiveliscombe, ordered of course by Jenks and racked, hopefully, in time for Saturday evening consumption.
With 5 teams regularly in the field pre-war and after 1949 there were inevitable calls for a third pitch. At the start and end of the season, it was possible to double up on one of the pitches but in March the playing conditions were far from ideal. That irrepressible enthusiast, Terence Parker, found a field a half mile up Theobald Street towards Radlett between the road and the railway and this had occasional use pre 1939 on a hazardous surface due to certain minor ravines and also to the milking herd which had possession except on Saturday afternoons. In, I think 1950, as a result of a Jenks/Lear deal a few, very few, games were played on the field fronting the clubhouse: in its natural state it was not only waterlogged, good for rice growing, but also suffered (he same hazards as the pre-war experiment. It is ironic that for the past few seasons the third pitch which was only conceded by the LCC after much pressure and persuasion is, I suppose, an embarrassment in maintenance terms.
The LCC Compulsory Purchase Order
The factual background to this episode is well described in 'Making a Mark' but having been centre stage (in OH terms) throughout, perhaps I could add a few unrecorded details. I went to the Public Enquiry at Watford Town Hall in 1948 formally to register an objection to the order which was like putting a peanut under a road roller in view of the Government's determination to build 10,000 homes for bombed-out Londoners in a circle round the Metropolis. After a series of meetings at County Hall with officers - many of whom were in my department 20 years later - it was agreed that tire club would endeavour to identify an acceptable alternative ground which would be purchased with the compensation money: if successful, we would withdraw the objection and they would be able to build their matchboxes. So the search began, mainly by me but with Jenks and Terence Parker as additional 'sniffers'. One strong possibility was some land at Stirling Corner, owned by Laings. It was reasonably level and, for the area, comparatively well drained. Negotiations for a long lease made some progress until the question of a drinks licence came up: we were then informed by the agent, Douglas Martin of Hendon, that under no circumstances would Mr. (as he was then) Laing permit alcohol to be consumed on any of his properties. End of story.
Other possibilities which were explored included a vacant sports ground in Mill Hill at the northern end of Hendon Airfield, but here again there were difficulties over covenants; land at the foot of Brockley Hill, Stanmore (subsequently laid out as the Wimpeys Ground) and fields at Barnet now occupied by the Old Elizabethans. Special mention must however be made of' one fascinating suggestion which emanated from Terence Parker, otherwise it will be lost for all time. This was to have pitches in Regents Park on the Eastern Side (Albany Street) with the clubhouse in a war-damaged house in Prince Albert Road, There was a site meeting attended by Terence and myself, a representative of the Royal Parks, Geoffrey Eltringham's father who, I believe was connected with the LCC Park Department and the Agents for the house. There would probably have been insuperable difficulties, but the idea was killed by the OH Committee - probably Sidney Bean's distrust of Terence was a major factor. So, we might have. been the only club playing in central London. Who knows?
With all the negative responses, I went back to the LCC Valuers and asked them to put up some ideas of their own in the NW area but they had none. After a number of meetings, some a trifle acrimonious, we eventually arrived at a compromise which George Jamieson has described as an ‘honourable draw'. A major snag in agreeing the compensation, which should be appreciated by other valuers, was the existence of the lease from OHSG Ltd to the Trustees, and the LCC officers took some convincing that this should be disregarded.
The maintenance of a sports ground requires equipment - a statement of the obvious - and the Elstree collection over the years could provide material for a Beaulieu type museum. In the beginning, the only cutting was a hay crop in late August taken by the local farmer probably with a horse-drawn scythe, and then the two pitches were marked out no doubt by Jenks - if waterlogged, by brush and creosote. In 1948 we acquired a set of gang mowers for about £15 which were first vetted by the Hendon Golf Club greenkeeper. At about the same time, to provide the motive power, a Pattison 'tractor' was purchased. There is therefore no truth in the rumour that initially, members in training provided tile necessary manpower to haul the mowers around, This 'tractor' was a standard 4 wheel job with a Ford engine and a small 'upper' body, It was temperamental - a starting handle was an essential item in the kit, and I bore the scars of swinging sessions for quite a while. The gang mowers were designed and geared for horse traction and did not take kindly to being bumped over the billiard table surface at 10 or even 15 mph. Bits were inclined to drop off, being subsequently discovered when they jammed up the blades. However, this `combine' lasted, I believe, for 15 years, much of the consequent benefit accruing to the CC in their formative years with the outfield somewhat rustic but, in those days anyway, apparently acceptable The wicket itself between the touchlines of the football pitches, was hand mown by Mr. Last, the resident caretaker. There was a tendency In late summer to concentrate the mowing on the cricket area leaving pockets of grass as high as an elephant's eye in the four corners, These then required the attention of a local farmer, probably Lear, and a Jenks negotiation for the sale of the hay crop.
I was the principal honorary chauffeur of this sophisticated Formula 1 machine for 4 summers from 1948 to 1951 surrendering this sinecure position only when my left leg was in plaster from ankle to crutch as a result of that one game too many. I have a picture in my archives taken in 1950 of self and small son in the driving seat with no hard hats or seat belts. Living dangerously indeed.
Then there was the roller. After a 'normal' season much of the playing area between 25s resembled a cattle crossing with deep hoof marks - some said with boots at the bottom - and there was a plaintive call for rolling. Frank Jackman again came to the aid of the party and negotiated the release of a horse (one) drawn roller with shafts from his tennis club in, I think, the Gladstone Park area. As the Club was horseless, I'm not sure how this managed to get to Elstree, possibly a Sidney Bean low loader helped. This appliance required about 4 second row forwards to move it and the trouble was that it was really too light to do much good when the ground was just right, moreover it could sink up to its axle in more normal conditions, So there was another negotiation, this time with the Brondesbury Cricket Club and we acquired a splendid petrol-driven Aveling Barford road-roller, licensed to travel. As a teenager in the early 30's, 1 can remember it rolling the wicket at the Brondesbury, driven by one Todge Woodward. The idea of driving it from Cricklewood to Elstree, even in 1950, is somewhat mind-blowing, but it got there - who was the hero who accomplished this epic journey? It became another of my responsibilities and a right sod it was to start: on some occasions it had to be towed behind the Pattison round the car park to get it going - I can't recall who was the other intrepid driver. Although far more effective than the `horse' version here again the ground conditions in spring and autumn were rarely suitable for a heavy roller.
In an attempt to overcome the starting problem, I put up, as a solo effort, a lean-to shelter (known to intimates as my 1950 erection). This should have been a listed building protected by the planners but some philistines demolished it, I have no idea what happened to the roller itself - I know that McLoughlin found it an intractable item, I hope it found a final resting place in a museum and not in a scrapyard.
George's history recorded the wartime occupation of the clubhouse, first by an evacuated insurance company and then by the ATC but did not mention what happened subsequently regarding the wooden hut put by the ATC which stood by what is now the Croxdale Road entrance. We found this occupied by a Mr and Mrs Parfitt - he was, I recall, a London taxi-driver. The hut had no kitchen, bathroom or lavatory so that when the need arose in any respect, a quick (very quick?) trot across to the clubhouse was, hopefully, the only solution. The Parfitts were not very co-operative in any respect and did nothing on the ground or in the clubhouse. Attempts were made to get possession which they resisted and eventually legal action was taken leading to a Court hearing at Barnet in March 1948 attended by Jenks and myself. Typically, Jenks in fact negotiated a last minute deal with Parfitt in the corridor, money changed hands and the Club was in possession. The Parfitts were succeeded by Mr and Mrs Last who, I believe, had been employed by Frank Jackman's local tennis club. They were more co-operative in carrying out fairly simple duties on the ground and in the clubhouse. The Lasts stayed for some time until rehoused by the local Council to be followed, I believe, by the Proberts, who eventually became the first occupants of the bungalow. The hut was dismantled and re-erected under Ernie Smith's direction at the end of the car park to become an equipment shed! Someone else will no doubt deal with ground maintenance which in the 60's was taken over by McLoughlin leading to a steady improvement in playing condition s both for football and cricket.
The Lighter Side
George didn't have space for the 'social' side or maybe that was not within his remit but there were a few events not directly connected with the fixture card. For example. pre-war programme notes refer to the occasional pavilion supper and even to informal 'supper dances' but memory (and imagination!) fail to recall how such events were set up within the limited confines and facilities of the clubhouse as originally planned. Then, of course, there was the summer fete of 1938, the inspiration for which came from GBJ as a money-raising effort. In the event there was not a large profit but it was fun and, in a way, educational. There were a number of sideshows hired from a certain Smith, the Wizard of Potters Bar. He briefed those who were to be in charge of the stalls on the best method of fleecing the punters, ensuring that the minimum number of prizes were given and no coconuts conceded even to persons with a throwing arm like Jack Thorpe.
I think the 1939 summer event was a dance and I believe this was the occasion when a number of us, charged with clearing up responsibilities, decided to stay the night in the clubhouse. Needless to say, this was not a teetotal affair and, as sleeping facilities were the floor or two wooden benches side by side, much was the need for some form of tranquillisers. In current conditions, twelve young men ovemighting together might be considered a gay party but in 1939 no eyebrows were raised and no reputations tarnished. However that night did establish two of the Elstree legends, inevitably embellished with the passing years. According to those who still survive, WRT did sleep on a bed of broken glass under one of the benches in the opposition middle changing room and Bertie Wearing did lake offence at some critical comment around 3 am and left in a huff to walk home to Hendon.
Then there were what our West Country opponents would call 'charity games'. In March 1939, DA Blessley's OH Pussycats played doctor Husband's Nottingham All Stars who included Alan Ingram. And soccer matches were played, one against the Harlequins AFC for whom Maurice Daly, Ken Chapman and, surprisingly, Gilbert Husband appeared. Positively the last game played at Elstree pre-war was on April 23rd 1939 when the OHAFC took on Stanley and John Thompson's XI which featured Beniston, Gurney and Tanner plus an OMT friend of the OH, Cyril Eden. The OH squad for these games comprised: Alexander, Blessley D, Blessley K, Blunsden, Colquhoun, Gaywood, Gittens, Grossman, Gurney, Ingram F, Jackman MJ, Mallison, Mead, Steele C and Wilshire. Others will no doubt comment on post-war events such as the Donkey Derbies.
A natural follow-on to the previous item. Elstree was not planned for the attendance of ladies as is clearly demonstrated by the single 'facility' which had to suffice until 1952 when the present luxury suite was formally dedicated: all the same, we did have more than is currently provided in the Members Pavilion at Lords. And in practical terms, the original layout sufficed pre 1939, except for rare occurrences such as a dance, because lady supporters were virtually non-existent. I think in the 1st and A XV's there were perhaps 3 married players and their wives had commitments at home, but in 1938/39 there was one girl friend who came to all games, even on tour, known to a few of us as the 'Shadow', whose subsequent marriage ended during the war in the most tragic way. The situation changed significantly in 1946/47 with strong touch-line support, even leading to the attendance of expectant mothers on tour. Mention must be made of one or two 'mature' ladies - or so they seemed at the time -who in the early days helped with the teas and one recalls of course Vera Jenkins and Mrs Manton (senior).
This was quite comprehensive in the pre-war and, to a lesser extent, the immediate post-war seasons with each week, full team details in the Times and Telegraph and regular reports in the Sunday and Monday nationals. On two occasions. Bank of England 1937 and London University Vandals 1939, team photographs appeared in the Tatler, not usually considered to by OH reading material. Then there was the full page report in the Evening Standard on the Metropolitan Police game in November 1938 with action photographs. Weekly programmes in 1937/38 included a chatty note by Jenks and quite a few adverts for local shops and businesses, none of which appear to have survived. The 1938/39 programmes failed to attract similar support but some adverts were included in the early 50's mainly from OH members.
This is an open-ended item and each contributor will probably have his own particular memory or incident to recall. I am happy to leave this to others except perhaps for two things: one was a visit in, I think, 1938 by John Paterson. a former captain of the 'A' XV, who went out to Venezuela. He arrived at Elstree on leave driving a Ford V8, 2 seater. He dismissed the club beer as innocuous but on leaving the old car park into Theobald Street he succeeded in removing the hubcap from a local resident's vehicle turning into his drive. John failed to stop and it took all of Jenks' diplomacy to placate our neighbour. John apparently went on to the Brondesbury CC, drove to the end of the car park which was full, and managed to cannon off 6 cars in reversing out. An expensive visit.
All of us can recall injuries on the field, some nasty, and I certainly remember my final game, Easter 1952, but one of the worst was to Alan Burton in January 1938, an outstanding scrum half, whose knee was split open by a glass fragment, finishing his playing career.
If asked to identify the outstanding personal memory of these Elstree years, probably most members would select a particular game, won or lost, but for me I think it was the atmosphere at the working parties towards the end of July 1939. Most of those attending were in the TA - Middlesex Yeomanry, Sharpshooters, RE - and were due to go to camp in August. I doubt if anyone then had an illusions about the prospects for a 1939/40 season and indeed I suspect that quite a few shared my feelings that our hitherto somewhat carefree life style would not return. That may sound like hindsight but it was so and it was rather sad.