Wearside Echoes: On the ball for sports club celebration

OPENING DAY: Opening day at Ashbrooke on May 30, 1887, viewed from the slopes at the Ashbrooke Road end of the ground.

OPENING DAY: Opening day at Ashbrooke on May 30, 1887, viewed from the slopes at the Ashbrooke Road end of the ground.

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A LITTLE piece of sporting history has set the ball rolling for a landmark celebration at a Wearside club.

Members of Ashbrooke Sports Club – once known as “the Lord’s of the North” – are to mark the 125th birthday of their ground with a summer of celebrations.

And the donation of a much-prized piece of sporting memorabilia to the former Victorian members’ club has helped set the scene for the party season.

“The piece of memorabilia in question is an ancient cricket ball, given to Ashbrooke by former club president Paxton Greenshields,” said club archivist Keith Gregson.

“The ball is dated 1911 and was initially in the possession of AE Cogden, captain of the Sunderland side that won the Durham Senior League in that year.”

The sporting treasure features an original, but now rather faded, white plaque which details the team’s success 101 years ago.

It has been given an upgrade for the 2012 anniversary celebrations, however, after being placed on a plinth with a new inscription.

“The early 20th century was a remarkably good time for the club, and not just for the cricket team,” said Keith.

“The rugby team was also successful and boasted a couple of international players, while the ladies’ tennis team had a medal-winning Olympian and the bowls’ section a national individual champion.”

The origins of Ashbrooke 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 CC, and the club moved south to the Blue House field in Hendon – later the first “home” of Sunderland AFC.

A new base in Holmeside was opened in 1864, where a rugby club was formed in 1873. A move to Chester Road followed in 1876, where a tennis section was added to the club.

But Chester Road was considered a “bleak setting”, prompting organisers to search for a permanent base. Ashbrooke, it was decided, was “more sheltered”.

The Ashbrooke Sports Ground, with its entrance on the corner of Ashbrooke Road and West Lawn, opened on May 30, 1887, and quickly grew from strength to strength.

Some of the biggest names in tennis visited Ashbrooke in the 1940s and 50s, while international matches and events featuring cricket, baseball, hockey and rugby have been held at the site.

“A succession of sports has been staged at Ashbrooke since 1887,” said Keith. “Some, such as athletics, cycling, baseball and boxing made only fleeting appearances, but bowls, hockey and squash all took root.”

Ashbrooke is today described as “the Home of Sport in Sunderland”, as it remains the base of the city’s cricket and rugby clubs, as well as a home for tennis, bowls, hockey, squash and Sunderland Strollers Club.

Although no longer the “Lord’s of the North”, Ashbrooke is, however, acknowledged as a rare survivor of the mixed sport clubs which once proved so popular with Victorian fitness enthusiasts.

“At Ashbrooke, we recognise that Sunderland AFC is known the world over, but we are also very proud of the number of sports played here under the Sunderland umbrella,” said Keith.

“Few clubs like us remain anywhere in the country. Most other clubs that started like us in Victorian times either ‘went to the wall’ or were enveloped by a single sport.”

l Ashbrooke will be running a series of events to mark the 125th anniversary from May 30 onwards. Look out for further details in the Echo.