IT was exactly 125 years ago today that Sunderland’s Ashbrooke Sports Ground opened its gates for the very first time.
Those particular gates may now have disappeared, but the home of Ashbrooke Sports Club is still growing from strength to strength – flying the Wearside flag for a host of sporting activities.
“Few Victorian clubs like us have survived,” said Ashbrooke’s historian and archivist Keith Gregson. “Most have either ‘gone to the wall’ or been enveloped by a single sport. But we are still home to a wide range of sport, from rugby and cricket to hockey, squash, tennis, bowls and athletics – and we intend to mark the club’s lengthy survival in style!”
The origins of Ashbrooke Sports Club date to at least 1808 – the year the importation of slaves was banned in America – when details of Sunderland Cricket Club were first documented.
The club was officially constituted in 1834, as Bishopwearmouth CC, with matches initially played at Hendon Lane. A merger with Hendon Terrace CC soon followed.
A change of name accompanied the merger, to Sunderland Cricket Club, and the club moved south to the Blue House field in Hendon – later the first “home” of Sunderland AFC.
“Sunderland CC is now acknowledged to be the oldest established sports club in the Tyne and Wear area,” said Keith, a former teacher and author of several local history books.
“There may have been some cricket played locally during the wars with Napoleon, but the firm club records upon which sports historians base their judgement exist from the 1830s onwards.”
A new club base in Holmeside opened in 1864, where a rugby club was formed in 1873. In 1876, however, railway developments forced players to move west to Chester Road.
The wind-swept spot, where members played in the shadow of the town’s workhouse, was not a popular choice – as the Echo’s cricket correspondent pointed out.
“The ground is found by some to be too far, and to others rendered objectionable by its bleak position,” he reported on May 17, 1887.
As officials started to hunt for a new base, so the leafy suburb of Ashbrooke was flourishing. When the chance to move to up-and-coming area was offered, the club jumped at the chance.
“Many of the club’s cricketers and rugby players already lived there,” said Keith. “There were tennis players, too, who had courts in the Thornhill area.
“The club’s remarkable archive contains a small book with the names and addresses of members in 1881, including my own grandmother’s first cousins – the Pottinger sisters from St Vincent Street.”
Just days after the Echo’s cricket reporter dismissed the Chester Road ground as “bleak,” the club was moved lock, stock and balls to Ashbrooke.
A Whitsuntide Sports Meeting was held on May 30, 1887, to mark the ground’s official opening – with visitors charged 6d to watch the races from the grassy slopes.
“Ten acres of land had been purchased from five different owners, and preparatory work was carried out under the control of timber merchant John Thompson Junior,” said Keith. “According to the local press, the first ever sporting event on the ground was a 100 yard foot race won by local lad W Jenkins.
“I suspect that he was still running six years later, as we have records of someone of that name from Suffolk Street competing in the Whit Sports off a very low handicap.”
Ashbrooke’s founders set out their objectives as “The practice of cricket, football, gymnastic and athletic exercises, lawn tennis and quoits, the physical training and development of the human frame.” This determination to “promote healthful exercises” was to prove an instant success. Ashbrooke soon became home to other sports too, such as hockey and bowls, with squash and even baseball following.
“Ashbrooke’s bowling green opened in 1889, two years after the ground’s inauguration, and by 1905 had attracted enough support for the bowlers to club together to build the current pavilion,” said Keith.
“Costing £267 and opened on May 18, 1906, it was designed by architect Hugh Hedley, who lived close by, on The Grove. He is otherwise remembered as the architect of the Londonderry pub.”
Although Ashbrooke was seen as an exclusive club in its early years, and indeed was known as the Lord’s of the North, officials were always keen to host fund-raising events. A 1930s exhibition match between Canadian and Yorkshire baseball players proved spectacularly unpopular, but a military tattoo in 1951 was rather more lucrative, as was a display of Cossack sword dancing.
A two-day Durham v Australia cricket match in 1926, however, was to break all records. The game drew a packed house of 20,678 spectators – with many more watching from neighbouring windows.
“In recent years the annual fireworks, Split Festival and Beer Festival have seen large crowds – in some cases matching the 7,000 that used to turn up for the Whit Sports in Victorian times,” said Keith.
“Mind you, I think we would struggle to cope with the thousands who turned up to see the Durham v Australia cricket match in the 1920s!”
Today Ashbrooke is one of only a handful of Victorian multi-sport clubs to still survive in Britain – with the growth of specialised training schedules seeing many others fold, or focus on fewer sports.
And, with the club’s cricket team flying high in the region’s top league and its rugby club’s 3rd XV boasting a recent league championship, Ashbrooke’s place in the hearts of sporting Wearsiders seems secure.
“It is correctly labelled ‘The Home of Sport in Sunderland.’ There has always been great public support for events here,” said Keith.
“There is nothing better than sitting outside the pavilion on a warm summer’s evening and watching the cricket
“The ground has an atmosphere than is uniquely English – perhaps that is why it has meant so much to so many people across the years.”