County Ground at Taunton replacing old with new
PUBLISHED: 16:31 25 August 2015 | UPDATED: 16:31 25 August 2015
With the County Ground at Taunton replacing old with new, KERRY MILLER looks back over more than 130 years when the much-loved ground was slowly taking shape
This summer sees the final slice of Victorian life erased at the County Ground, home of Somerset County Cricket Club, when the old wooden pavilion behind the bowler’s arm disappears and is replaced with a state-of-the-art grandstand.
That it has survived and given such faithful service for 133 years is testament to the builder, a Mr Allen with significant input from Alfred Spiller, who had a hand in a number of projects around that time and lived a short stroll away. There is a pleasing symmetry in that the brand new build is in the hands of RG Spiller Ltd, another local Somerset contractor and a close relation of Alfred.
Not only has the old pavilion been consigned to history, but all the ancillary buildings behind and adjacent to it have gone as well, taking with it the days of barrels of cider alongside the outfield and wooden benches around the ground for the less well off.
Back in 1880, cricket took off in the town with Taunton CC, Taunton Vale CC and every college in action from April onwards. For Taunton CC the optimism did not last as they were forced off their ground at Bishops Hull but they were given a lifeline as they were offered the chance to move into Priory Field, or Rack Field, next to St James Church and smack in the middle of the town, next door to their original home by the river. At first they were given sole possession by the owner of the field, a cricketer himself called John Winter, who lived in what later became Cedar Falls, and the press hoped that ‘cricket would flourish for many years’. With no cattle or horses trampling the surface, Somerset CC were soon coveting the ground and very soon not only were plans in place to develop the field into a fully-fledged athletic ground, but the respective sports clubs who had many moons earlier met to discuss an amalgamation, were very close to accomplishing it. The cricket club’s basic pavilion was moved once again from Bishops Hull and a new 14-year lease was handed over, which allowed work to begin on laying a quarter-mile round cinder track for the athletes and cyclists, which encircled the cricket and rugby area. What was to be Taunton CC’s home for the foreseeable future, indeed until the days of Jarvis Field, began to take shape.
Opening day, Whit Monday, June 6, 1881, saw an athletics festival of bicycle and foot races on the new cinder track inside the eight acre ground, which had an entrance on Priory Lane with a substantial gateway big enough to allow carriages. Quoits, tennis and bowls would be catered for on an area between the entrance and the cricket and rugby pitch once it had been levelled, with the main area surrounded by iron piping fencing borne by stout posts. The GWR ran cheap trains from Exeter, Weston-super-Mare, Barnstaple, Minehead, Chard, Ilminster, Yeovil and Glastonbury and all the villages which helped swell the attendance at the grand opening to more than 5,000 who paid £173 for the privilege. At noon more than 100 cyclists rode through the town before the festivities began.
Things moved on at the Athletic Ground and it was proposed to borrow £250 as a mortgage to build a permanent pavilion and grandstand using personal guarantees from 20 prominent people connected with the Athletic Sports Club, with Somerset County CC set to move in and the touring Australians booked to play a prestigious game the following summer.
The main attraction was going to be the new pavilion and a company was formed, named The Taunton Grandstand and Pavilion Company, registered under the Companies Act, where 400 shares at £1 each could be applied for. Designed by CH Samson, the new build was impressive, with the ground floor pavilion, ‘a noble apartment’, at 58 feet by 17 feet, with an average height of 12 feet six inches, just enough to accommodate Joel Garner a century later. The floor was raised above the paddock by two feet and the front was protected by glazed sashes with two dressing rooms at the rear. There was a ‘commodious bar’ to the left with a caterer’s room with private bar for the paddock. A 15 feet by 13 feet committee room and a ladies room completed the downstairs build. Above were 400 wooden seats with two flights of stairs, with the rest made mainly of wood with an iron roof.
By March 1884 the Athletics Company Ltd was in serious financial trouble, which put the very future of the impressive Athletic Grounds in grave doubt. The company increased its capital shares to £400, but only £7 was collected and a week later the company met again at Hammett Street, and with little choice left open to them, voted to wind up the company and offer the ground to the County Cricket Club. Soon, Henry Murray Anderdon, secretary of the county club gathered a group together to try to salvage the club on a voluntary basis and the county club took over the lease and subsequently purchased the ground.
The pavilion was the club’s pride and joy and although the late Victorian mania for sports and athletics days faded quite quickly in the subsequent years, it continued to be a popular place to watch cricket and be watched.
Later, the cricket club ousted the rugby and cycling clubs and at one point the original owners of the ground, Taunton CC were put on notice that their tenancy was not to be renewed and later still, after much wrangling, the cinder running and bicycling track was taken up and the outfield expanded. Somerset CCC were well and truly up and running and although the playing fortunes fluctuated, the ground went from strength to strength up to the outbreak of the Great War when everything changed.