Where it all began.......?
Little is known about when and how athletics initially started within the City of Gloucester. The Athletic Club’s origins can probably be traced back to the Spa ground (now home to the Spa Bowling Club and Gloucester City Winget Cricket Clubs, Spa Road). This seems to have been the original main venue for organised sport in the City after it opened in 1862.
Up to 1862
The area now occupied by the Spa grounds was originally open ground as it was outside the city walls at the time, and had been used for archery practice until the 17th century. A spring was found in 1814 in an area of land known as Rigney Stiles Field and the Spa was developed, including a pump room and baths together with landscaped pleasure grounds and paths, by the landowner Sir James Jelf in 1815; although he went bankrupt that year, the spa was bought out by shareholders and the spa, together with nearby associated building developments, thrived through the 1820s.
However, the spa eventually became overshadowed by the spa in Cheltenham and was also made less attractive by the industrialisation and development of the nearby docks due to the opening of the canal in 1827. A billiard room and bowling green were opened in 1836 but failed to improve the spa’s fortunes. A railway line was also built next to it in 1848 (on the route of the present Trier Way) which further diminished the spa’s appeal, carving off a big corner of the grounds in the process.
In 1861 the spa’s proprietors sold it to the city corporation who included it, together with adjacent land, to form a public park (now The Park) - this was opened on 15th September 1862 and from this time became the city’s principal recreation area, encouraging popular sporting activity.
The opening of the Park encouraged several different sports activities and it was used by a number of local clubs.
Cricket in one form or another had been around in the county since the 16th century, the earliest definite reference to cricket in the county being a game in Gloucester played on 22nd September 1729, and a cricket club is known to have existed in 1816. The Gloucester Cricket Club established its ground at the Spa from 1863. The County team regularly played first class games there from 1882 to 1923.
A gymnastic society formed in 1863 held athletics events at the Spa and swimming races in the Gloucester and Berkeley canal. It was apparently wound up in 1872.
The Spa was used for the first time for rugby (then known as football) in 1864.
A bowling and quoits club was established there in 1866.
A pavilion was built in 1869 and then replaced by a larger building in 1883.
On 15th September 1873, following years of the unorganised playing of rugby in various parts of the city, the Gloucester Rugby Football Club (then called Gloucester Football Club) was formed and played their first game on 4th October 1873 against College School (now Kings School) on the grounds of the College School in Deans Walk, and then played a return match on 22nd October 1873 at the Spa, where they continued to play their home matches. They shared the use of the ground with the incumbent Gloucester Cricket Club who were the leaseholders of the ground.
Gloucester's first lawn tennis club was begun in 1878 and the Spa grounds included several courts by the mid 1880s.
On 30 January 1879, the rugby club experimented by playing a match under floodlights – however, on the night, one of the four lights that were set up failed and the other three constantly flickered on and off. Many spectators in trying to obtain a better view of the game trampled on and damaged the shrubs and paths in the Spa, to the extent that the City Corporation gave the rugby club notice to quit. The rugby club got together a petition signed by 3000 people and they were allowed to remain at the ground.
Gloucester Athletic Club was founded in 1880. We do not know the precise date, but we can be sure of the year from a testimonial to Frank Brown as follows:
John Francis (Frank) Brown, who played for the Rugby Club from 1875 to 1885, captaining the team from 1876 to 1883, moved to London in 1883. He had been instrumental in the establishment and development of the Rugby Club, and also was heavily involved with the organisation and development of other sports clubs, being captain of the Gloucester Cricket Club from 1875; in 1879 he helped form the County (Rugby) Football League. He organised the County Cricket Club, was Chairman of the Lawn Tennis Club and was connected to the Rowing Club. He is also noted as organising the Gloucester Amateur Athletic Association.
On Boxing Day of 1883, the Rugby Club presented him with a gold watch and chain in recognition of his services to not only the rugby club, but also to all the other clubs he had made significant contributions to over the previous 10 years. The presentation was reported in the Gloucester Journal of Saturday 29th December 1883, part of the report stating:
"...In the year 1880, he was successful, in conjunction with others, in establishing the Gloucester Athletic Club, and they all knew what success had attended that club. Owing to his exertions, and also to the exertions of others with him, sufficient money had been advanced for the erection of their new pavilion, of which they were so proud, and which was a credit to the city of Gloucester..."
The earliest definite reference we have at present to the Athletic Club’s existence is the following article that appeared on page 5 of The Citizen newspaper on Saturday 4th September 1880. The article is reproduced here exactly as it was written in the newspaper. The reference in the article to a “football” club being formed in the city is actually the rugby club mentioned above, as “football” then was what we now know as rugby football.
The Citizen, Saturday 4th September 1880 (page 5)
ATHLETIC SPORTS AT GLOUCESTER
The large company which assembled in the Spa cricket ground on Thursday afternoon to witness the athletic sports arranged for by the Gloucester Athletic Club, testifies to the interest taken by a large portion of the Gloucester public in athletic exercises. Whether that interest is due to education or whether it was latent and only needed development, is a matter of opinion. Certain it is that it has grown steadily and without intermission for the last four or five years. Half-a-dozen years ago practically the only field sport in this city was the game of cricket. Football flourished elsewhere, but the game was seldom played in Gloucester; small towns like Tewkesbury and Evesham could boast of rowing clubs of fair repute, but boatracing craft were seldom seen on the Severn at Gloucester, or on the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal. The state of things athletic is now very different. Something like six years ago a football club was formed in the city, and during the winter months matches are played at the Spa almost every week, and attract thousands of spectators. So successful has the club been, that for the last two or three seasons it has won the majority of matches which it has played, and it is now recognised in football circles as one of the leading clubs in the west of England. A rowing club was formed two or three years ago, and now under the valuable captaincy of Mr W Stout, erewhile the champion amateur sculler in England, has attained such success that a few days ago a four oared crew from the club carried off one of the leading prizes in an open competition at Tewkesbury Regatta. The bicycle fever has for some time been prevalent in the city, and latterly a goodly number, including not a few of the tradesmen of the city, have been affected with the tricycle epidemic; and now there are clubs for those who patronise both kinds of machines. The latest development of this love of athletic exercises is the formation of the Gloucester Athletic Club, a club which can show a good roll call of working members, and which has the benefit of the patronage of several local gentlemen of influence and position.
A more favourable day for the visitors could not have been desired, and the Spa field has seldom presented such an animated experience. Those who took part in the events would probably have preferred the sun a little less scorching, but even for them glorious sunshine also meant a hard and good going course. This was of special advantage to the bicyclists, for turf is far from being the best running ground for bicyclists, and when it is wet and soft the labour involved in driving the machine is considerable. As will be seen from the appended returns, some capital time was made by the bicyclists, a result not a little due to the favourable state of the ground. The arrangements for the meeting, both for those taking part in the events and for visitors, were of the most excellent character, and reflected the utmost credit on all concerned. The course for the long races was more or less circular, and measured five laps to the mile. For the 100 and 120 yards races the course was straight. The band of the Gloucester Artillery was stationed in the orchestra, and played up an excellent selection of popular music.
The following were the officials of the meeting:- Starter, Mr W Chirm; handicappers, Mr J E Reay and Mr H H Griffin (bicycles); referee and timekeeper, Mr C Herbert; judges, Mr W Stout and Mr J Bryan; hon. secs., Mr P Barrett Cooke and Mr J F Grimes; hon. Treasurer, Mr J P Moore. Mr W C Mann, of the Cross, also acted as timekeeper. Subjoined are details of the events; where no address is given the competitors are residents in Gloucester:-
100 YARDS FLAT RACE (LOCAL)
Tradesmen’s prize – 1st prize, value five guineas; 2nd, value £1 10s.
First heat. – 1st, H J Berry; 2nd, R J Beddoe. Berry led, and maintained his lead throughout; Beddoe was only a foot behind at the finish. Time, 11 seconds
Second heat. – 1st, R L Grist; 2nd, W Snushall. A close race, and Grist won by only a few inches. Time, 10 2/5ths seconds.
Final heat. – 1st, R L Grist; 2nd, H J Berry. A close race for the first and second place, Grist winning by only six inches. Time, 10 4/5ths seconds.
ONE MILE BICYCLE RACE (LOCAL)
1st prize, value five guineas; 2nd, value £1 10s.
1st, H Moffatt; 2nd, J P Moore. As bicycling has become such a favourite sport in the county, considerable interest was manifested in the race, in which men comparatively well-known to all competed. At the report of the starter’s pistol, Moore drew away, and looked like winning, keeping his lead for the first two laps, when Moffatt, who was riding in good form, crept past him in the third round, and coming opposite the pavilion Moore spurted again and succeeded in passing Moffatt. Here the training began to tell, and it was plain the Moffatt was “fit”. At this point the excitement was very great, when Moffatt, having his machine well in hand, again passed Moore, and led to the finish, the victor of a well-fought struggle. Moore was close behind, ran Moffatt hard through the last two laps, and came in a good second, a few yards separating them. Time, 3 min 44 ¼ seconds.
120 YARDS FLAT HANDICAP
1st prize, value six guineas; 2nd, value £2.
First heat. – 1st, H J Berry, 9 yards; 2nd, S Halsey, 7 yards. Berry led all the way and won by three or four yards. Time, 12 3/8ths seconds.
Second heat. – 1st, W Snushall, 8 yards; 2nd, F S Perry, Cardiff, 4 yards. Snushall ran to the front when half the distance had been covered, and won a good race by three yards. Time, 12 2/5ths seconds.
Thirs heat, - 1st, F Turbeville, Worcester, 13 yards; 2nd, E Frost, Mid Kent Bicycle Club, 10 yards. A good race. Time, 12 1/5th seconds.
Fourth heat, - 1st, S Sheppard, Walsall, 2 yards; 2nd, R H Wickham, Ariel Rowing Club, 7 yards. Time, 12 2/5ths seconds.
Final heat. – 1st, H J Berry; 2nd, F Tubeville, Worcester B C. Time, 12 seconds. Dead heat between E Frost, Mid Kent B C and Tuberville for second place, but on the race being run again the latter won by a foot.
ONE MILE BICYCLE HANDICAP
1st prize, value five guineas; 2nd, value £2.
First heat. – 1st, F Smith, Pershore, 25 yards; 2nd, W S Powell, Drybridge, 50 yards. Seven ran, including F G Wright and R O Harris of Gloucester. Smith had a capital start, and soon passed the rest, except Wright, who had a long start. In the third round he passed Wright, and won very easily. Wright held second place until the fourth lap, when he was passed by Powell, who was a good second. Wright barely maintained third position. Time, 3 mins 30 sec.
Second heat. – 1st, F Moore, Balsall, scratch; 2nd, S G Smith, Eckington, 75 yards. In the third round Moore ran into second place, and immediately afterwards into first, and maintained his lead to the end. Smith was a good second. Time, 3 min 19 sec.
Third heat. – 1st, H West, Carlton Club, 45 yards; 2nd, J J Hansford, Poole, 25 yards. In the second lap West ran into first position; in the next lap he lost his lead, but in the last lap he regained it, and won an exciting race by a few inches. Time 3 min 24 ½ sec.
Final heat. – 1st, F Moore, Balsall Heath B C; 2nd, H West, Carlton B C. Time 3 min 20 seconds. All the competitors kept close up, but Moore, who started scratch, kept the lead to the end, though passed in the last lap by West.
220 YARDS FLAT HANDICAP
1st prize, value five guineas; 2nd, value £2.
First heat. – 1st, H J Berry, 16 yards; 2nd, A C Harmer, 9 yards. Berry maintained his lead all the way, Harmer a good second. Time 22 5/8ths seconds.
Second heat. – 1st, W Snushall, 14 ½ yards; 2nd R L Grist, 6 yards. Time 22 2/5ths seconds.
Third heat. – 1st, A P Firminger, London, 14 yards; 2nd, C R Groome, London, scratch. Time 23 2/5ths seconds.
Fourth heat. – 1st, R H Wickham, Bristol, 11 yards; 2nd, T Wheeler, Banbury, 10 yards. Time 23 2/5ths seconds.
Final heat. – 1st, H J Berry; 2nd, A P Firminger, London A C. Time 22 4/5ths seconds. This race was a sharp contest; Berry obtained the lead and kept it. Firminger was a very good second.
THROWING THE CRICKET BALL (LOCAL)
1st prize, value four guineas; 2nd, value one guinea.
1st, F J Brown, 102 ½ yards; 2nd, C L Turnbull.
120 YARDS HURDLE HANDICAP
1st prize, value five guineas; 2nd, value £2.
First heat. – 1st, H W Strachan, London, owe 12 yards; 2nd, F S Perry, Cardiff, owe 6 yards. Time 22 3/5ths seconds.
Second heat. – 1st, E Frost, Mid Kent Bicycle Club, owe 5 yards; 2nd, S Sheppard, Walsall, owe 5 yards. Time 20 1/5th seconds.
Final heat. – 1st, S Sheppard, Walsall F C; 2nd, F S Perry, Cardiff. Time, 19 seconds. Very close running to the last, both men rising together at the last hurdle, but with a sharp run Sheppard forged ahead.
220 YARDS HANDICAP YOUTHS’ RACE (UNDER 16)
1st prize, value one guinea; 2nd, value 10s.
1st, C A Berry, Newent Grammar School; 2nd, S Butt, College School. Butt led until within thirty yards of the winning post, when Berry passed him, and won by two or three yards. Time, 27 3/5ths seconds.
ONE MILE FLAT RACE (LOCAL)
1st prize, 8 guineas, presented by Mr W A B Bingham; 2nd, value £2.
1st, W Brown; 2nd, W F G Webber. Brown started off with the lead, which he maintained for some distance, when he was passed by Webber. In the third lap Brown again came to the front and maintained his lead to the end, winning easily. W A Boughton ran well for third place. Time, 4 minutes 58 1/5th seconds.
440 YARDS FLAT HANDICAP
1st prize, value seven guineas; 2nd, value £2.
First heat. – Walk over, there being only three competitors.
Second heat. – 1st, A P Firminger, London A C, 19 yards; 2nd, W Stevenson, London A C, 14 yards; 3rd, E R Ford, 22 yards. Time, 53 seconds. This was a close race. Firminger led by two yards, and a few inches only separated the second and third.
Third heat. – 1st, F E Little, Stroud F C, 18 yards; 2nd, R H Wickham, Bristol Ariel A C, 11 yards; 3rd, G F Harding, Newport C and F C. Time, 52 1/5th seconds. This was also a very close race, very little space being between the three.
Final heat. – 1st, F E Little, Stroud F C; 2nd, G F Harding, Newport C and F C. Time 46 2/5ths seconds.
TWO MILE BICYCLE HANDICAP
1st prize, value six guineas; 2nd, value £2.
First heat. – 1st, F Moore, Balsall Heath B C, scratch; 2nd, W L Powell, Drybridge C C, 90 yards. Time 6 min 54 seconds. An excellent start was made. In the fifth lap Moore, who was riding splendidly, overtook all his opponents, and this lead he maintained until the end, winning easily.
Second heat. – 1st, S G Smith, Eckington C C, 145 yards; 2nd, J J Hansford, Poole, 45 yards. Time, 6 mins 50 1/8th seconds. At the second lap Smith assumed first place, and kept it all through, riding in excellent style. There was a hard struggle for second place, and Hansford did not obtain it until the last but one lap.
Final heat. – 1st, F Moore, Balsall Heath B C; 2nd, J J Hansford, Poole. Time, 6 mins 59 3/8ths seconds. In the second lap the third man had a “cropper”, and retired. Moore, who was scratch, began to draw on Hansford, and then commenced a fine race, both men riding their fastest. At the last lap but one Moore drew ahead, and continued so to the end.
ONE MILE FLAT HANDICAP
1st prize, value ten guineas; 2nd, value three guineas. Presented by the ladies of Gloucester.
1st, W Stevenson, London A C, 35 yards; 2nd, H E Bickerton, Worcester B C, 65 yards. This race was looked upon as being one of the great events, as some athletes from the L A C had entered for it. Apart from that, everybody was eager to know who might be the lucky individual who should carry off the most coveted prize of the day. The London man was in good form and though some were handicapped far in front of him, he looked as though he would make the running. Nor were we deceived for at the start his form was still better displayed. The first two laps, during which the lead was held by H Bailey (Stratford F C), showed no great alteration in the running, then Stevenson pulled himself together and began to pass his competitors one by one. There were many to pass, and after a good race Stevenson, who had judged his powers accurately, had passed them all in the last lap and came in easy winner by several yards. Bickerton showed good running, and came in a good second. There were 29 entries on the programme, and 19 started. Several local gentlemen entered their names but did not start, most of them having run in the local mile race. One of the entrants who did not appear, the only one placed to start at “scratch” was S K Holman, of the London A C, the champion three quarter mile. Time, 4 min 29 sec.
FOOTBALL RACE (LOCAL)
1st prize, value four guineas; 2nd prize, value £1 10s.
First heat. – J F Brown. His opponent, S Halsey, kicked the ball several times out of boundary, and, having to retrace his steps, got all behind.
Second heat. – C Turnbull, who was closely followed by H Tandy.
Third heat. – W Snushall won easily.
Fourth heat. – J F Grimes, a walk in.
Final heat. – 1st, J F Brown; 2nd, W Snushall. Brown a good first. Grimes pressed Snushall for second place.
This was a novel feature in athletic sports. The team “football race” does not quite give one the idea intended. Considerable amusement was afforded by this event, to win which the competitor had to “dribble” the Rugby ball round the enclosed course, not touching it with his hands, except to replace it when he was unfortunate enough to kick it out of bounds. This was indeed a trial of patience. Some started with a good kick, but the ball went out of the enclosure, and it had to be brought back to the place where it went out, and started again. Brown (the captain of the G F C) had his own way, but there was an exciting race for second place between Snushall and Grimes, Snushall eventually obtaining second prize.
1st prize, value four guineas; 2nd, value £1 10s.
1st, H W Strachan, London A C; 2nd, E Cook, Evesham. Though six entered for the event, two only competed. They started at 7ft, and both cleared it well, Strachan’s style being the more graceful. 7ft 6in was put up, which Strachan cleared, Cook failed at his first attempt, but at his second he succeeded. 8ft was raised and both cleared it well, but at 8ft 6in, Cook failed three successive times, and was beaten, for Strachan easily cleared it, and at request he cleared the bar at 10ft. This splendid feat was justly applauded by all.
As this is the first athletic meeting in Gloucester it will, perhaps, be interesting to notice the success of local competitors. In the 100 yards (local), the prizes fell to two G F C men, R L Grist and H J Berry. In the 120 yards flat handicap (open) H J Berry carried off first prize. In the 220 yards flat handicap again H J Berry succeeded in obtaining the first prize. Two G C C men carried off prizes for throwing the cricket ball, and two G F C men were successful competitors in the mile (local) race. Young Berry won the boys race with Butt as second.
Although the programme was a very full one, anything like tediousness was averted by the excellence of the arrangements and a commendable enforcement of punctuality. Thus the interest of the great gathering was sustained without a break to the last, and nearly everybody remained to witness the agreeable ceremonial which fitly crowned the successes of the day. This was the distribution of prizes by Mrs Charles Sumner, in an improvised enclosure hard by the winning post. Mr T Commeline introduced that lady, and took occasion to congratulate all concerned upon the great success, unalloyed by any accident – which had attended the inaugural meeting of the Gloucestershire Athletic Society. He elicited loud cheers by announcing that the gathering would be made an annual one. Mr Sumner, speaking for his wife, expressed the great pleasure she had in responding to the invitation, and said her hope was that the losers of this year might be winners next time, and that the winners of this occasion might be champions on the next. Mrs Sumner then distributed the prizes to the successful competitors, who were cordially cheered on coming up to receive the guerdons of their skill and powers. The gift was in each case made more acceptable by a few accompanying words of congratulation and encouragement. At the close hearty cheers were given for Mrs Sumner and for the committee of management, and the proceedings closed about six o’clock.
Regarding the time of 4,29 for the mile race noted above, this was an exceptional time. The British Record and UK All Comers Record at the time was 4,23.2 by Walter George set at Stamford Bridge on 16 August 1880.
As we know from the testimonial to Frank Brown, the Athletic Club was established in 1880, although we don't know the precise date it was formed, and this was the first event organised by the club, an event that was to become a regular and highly regarded feature. Unfortunately, there are no copies in the local archives office of the Citizen in 1880 prior to 19th June, so we are unable to research the newspaper for any articles that might mention the the actual date of formation of the club. It was, however, likely to have been in the spring.
It is also not unreasonable to assume that the club’s members were probably running for some time leading up to the actual formation of the club – indeed the article suggests that participation in athletic sports steadily grew over the five or six years leading up to the formation of the club, so the club’s genesis may well have gone back to around the time of the formation of the rugby club, or even earlier as the Spa had become a sporting and recreation area in 1862. It may well be that, considering the position held by Frank Brown in the various clubs, members of the cricket and/or rugby club trained together to improve their running, this ultimately leading to the formation of Gloucester Athletic Club. Certainly many of the competitors at the athletics sports event reported in the Citizen article were members of the rugby club and it is possible they were also members of the athletic club.
As various sports were played at the Spa ground it seems reasonable to assume the Athletic Club trained here as well.