Bristol Downs Association Football League

Bristol Downs Association Football League


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When W.G. Grace played on the Downs (and planted some trees)

Generations of Bristolians have flocked to the Downs to enjoy leisure activities on an area of ground which has been preserved for traditional outdoor pursuits.

Besides the beauty spots, such as the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Observatory (a snuff grinding mill until 1777), and the Sea Walls, millions of people have enjoyed walking across the verdant pastureland, or listening to the speakers on a Sunday afternoon, or participating in the various sporting activities which have taken place on Durdham and Clifton Downs over the last two or three hundred years.

Bristolians and visitors to the city have also enjoyed trips to the Downs to see the annual flower show, or the circus, or one of the many special events which have taken place there, such as the numerous Royal visits, military events or more recently in 1973 the Bristol 600 exhibition.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century the Downs were still some distance from the city, surrounded by fields and country lanes, but despite this, crowds came for May Day Revels and to watch the Bristol Volunteer Infantry parading.

Little remains of the Downs’ earliest recorded connections with sport. A major attraction was the Durdham Downs horse races, which are known to have been in existence in 1718 and lasted until 1838. These meetings were usually held in May or in late summer.

Amongst the other sporting attractions were boxing, wrestling, cockfighting and foot races, all of which dated back at least to the early part of the eighteenth century. It is also recorded that in 1752 Bristol met London in a cricket match held on the Downs.

Nevertheless, it was apparent by the middle of the nineteenth century that the expansion of Bristol was carrying on at such a rate that building on the Downs was likely to happen within a short period of time. Fortuitously, Parliament passed a Bill in 1861, known as the “Durdham Downs Act”, which has preserved the Downs in the condition that exists today.

In the latter years of the nineteenth century access to the Downs became even easier with the introduction of trams running from the centre of the city to the top of the Black Boy Hill, thus allowing even more people the chance of a few hours away from the dirt and grim of the industrialised parts of the city.

At the turn of the century the Downs was a hive of sporting activity at weekends and on certain other days of the week. In summer cricket was very much the game, but in winter football, rugby, hockey, and lacrosse matches were played by the score. Indeed, Gloucestershire County Cricket Club played one first class match on the Downs; this was also Gloucestershire’s first ever match in the County Championship in June 1870. Opening the batting and bowling for Gloucestershire in this match was Dr. W. G. Grace.

W.G. Grace (“From photo by E. Hawkins & Co., Brighton” – K. S. Ranjitsinhji, The Jubilee Book of Cricket Third Edition)

Grace scored over 50 runs and took eight wickets in Gloucestershire’s 51 run win over Surrey, for whom Southerton took 14 wickets for 110 runs. It is not a well-known fact, but Dr Grace was to become the Gloucestershire Football Association’s first ever President, holding that post from 1886 to 1900.

Gloucestershire only played one match on the Downs (as they found it almost impossible to establish a paying audience), but the seven Beech trees on the water tower side (alongside what are now pitches 4, 8 and 12) are the last surviving of those that were planted to be boundary markers for the first Gloucester County Cricket Ground. See here for more info.

                                                                                                         The W.G. Grace Beeches

It would appear that sporting activities started in quantity in the 1880s, but few records remain. Competitive football in the Bristol area started around 1890. During the next ten years or so there were no less than five professional football clubs based in and around the city; Warmley, Bedminster (which amalgamated with Bristol South End), Staple Hill, Bristol South End (later Bristol City) and (Bristol) Eastville Rovers.

The most prominent local amateur football leagues in the 1890s were the Bristol & District League and the North Bristol League; the latter became the Bristol & Suburban League in 1906.

In 1896 six members of the North Bristol League tried unsuccessfully to form a Downs League; this initiative was largely because of an idea put forward by Westbourne FC.

By season 1904-05 the following clubs, who played their home matches on the Downs, were playing competitive football in either the Bristol & District or North Bristol Leagues –

Bristol & District League

Division 2 – St. Andrews (Montpelier), Seamen’s Mission, Bishopston

Division 3 – Broad Plain, Hotwells YMCA

North Bristol League

Division 1 – Bristol Dockers

Division 2 – Counterslip

 Judging by contemporary newspaper reports, conditions on the Downs must have been primitive for any sporting activity. In January 1905 a petition was handed to the Bristol Corporation: Officials representing the following sporting bodies signed the petition, which is shown below in full –

Bristol & District Association Football League, Gloucestershire Football Association, Hockey Union, Lacrosse Union, Bristol Rugby Combination

The petition stated –

 ‘To the Right Honourable Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Town Councillors of the County & City of Bristol.

The Memorial of the undersigned Athletic Bodies sheweth –

That there is urgent need for facilities being supplied for the accommodation and benefit of the large number of persons who use the Downs for cricket, football, hockey, lacrosse and other games.

That these sports attract large numbers of players at the various seasons of the year, the want being continuous.

That it is desirable that suitable accommodation should be provided for these players, to enable them to change and leave their clothes and other belongings whilst enjoying their various sports; and for shower and plunge baths for the use at the conclusion of their games.

At present many hundreds of young citizens who use the Downs for athletic pursuits are obliged to find dressing-rooms either in small private houses where the accommodation offered is both very inadequate and expensive (and the bath accommodation absolutely lacking) or on licensed premises, which is not altogether desirable, especially in the case of younger lads. At present, however, all the rooms available are quite inadequate to meet the demand.

Your memorialists respectfully submit that the provisions could be supplied by the Corporation with a reasonable prospect of the same being no charge on the rates, as the great majority of those for whom this appeal is made are in a position and willing to pay a reasonable charge per head for the bathing and other facilities herein mentioned.

The signatories to this memorial represent a large number of clubs who are deeply concerned in this matter, and append their names in the hope that early inquiries may be made and such steps taken as will meet the needs set forth in this petition.”

The petition was considered by the Corporation on Tuesday, 14th February 1905 and referred to the Downs Committee for consideration.

On Monday, 27th March 1905 the Downs Committee considered the petition and concluded that it was “unable to make any recommendation in favour of the provisions of the dressing rooms and bath for the various athletic clubs playing on the Downs”. The Downs Committee referred the matter to the Baths Committee, where it appears to have also been rejected.

Despite the fact that many football matches that were played on the Downs were friendlies, they still attracted considerable attention, and were widely reported in detail in the local press. The following is an extract from the Bristol Evening News of Monday, 30th January 1905:

“Clifton Athletic v Sneyd Park

Played on the Downs on Saturday. Clifton were the first to score from a free kick, but Brettelle soon equalised for Sneyd. Again Clifton Athletic were the first to gain the advantage, but not for long, for after several determined attacks Brown equalised. Before the second half was very old Brettelle gave Sneyd Park the lead. Each side now attacked in turn, but Sneyd Park again scored through Pope. The Athletic played to the finish gamely and were awarded by another goal, Winnie being the scorer. Although the ground was difficult the game was a very pleasant one, and was hardly contested right up to the finish.”

Although no result accompanies the report, it appears that Sneyd Park won the match 4-3