Clarence Park, the home of St Albans City Football Club for almost 100 years
Dave Tavener gives an insight to how the ground has developed over time
Clarence Park came into existence in the summer of 1894 when Sir John Blundell Maple Bart, MP, generously donated the twenty-four and a half acre site to the citizens of St. Albans. Until then it had been private land with its most recent owners including the Earl Spencer, Mr Jacob Reynolds and the noted German-born horticulturist Herr Frederick Sander.
The grand opening of the park took place on a particularly wet 23 July, 1894, with the opening ceremony being conducted by the Duke of Cambridge. During the ceremony, Sir John, who was the Member of Parliament for Dulwich but had dwellings in the sumptuous surrounds of Childwickbury Manor, had the honour of being the first person to be granted the freedom of the city.
The first Saints
Football has been played at Clarence Park since the earliest possible opportunity following Sir John’s generous donation. But the first club to play on the hallowed turf was not the present day St Albans City but the original St Albans Football Club which, since its formation in September, 1881, had previously played home games at Hatfield Road, Gombards, Bernard’s Heath and the old Grammar School ground off Holywell Hill.
With Sir John having made public in the autumn of 1892 his intention to present Clarence Park to the local citizens there was speculation that the football club could be playing in the Park within twelve months but a dry summer in 1893 delayed the preparation of the playing surface and the football club, along with the other users of the Park, had to wait a further year before they could move to their new home.
The first football match played at Clarence Park took place on Saturday, 22 September, 1894, when the Saints drew 1-1 with Clarence whose members were employed by Sir John’s London based furniture store, Maples. The honour of scoring the first goal at the Park befell Frank Mardell who, unfortunately, put through his own goal to give the visitors a lead which was later cancelled out by St. Albans’ Mike Sharpe. Ever since that day, right up until 25 August, 1998, the football ground at Clarence Park gained a certain notoriety for an obstruction which stood behind the goal known as the Hatfield Road end of the ground. The obtrusion was an oak tree and in that very first match it made its mark for the match reports states that, ‘Hargroves (Clarence) put into the centre of the tree…’
George Wagstaffe Simmons
The original St Albans FC underwent a couple of names changes, to St Albans Town and then St Albans Amateurs, until meeting their demise in 1904, more of which later. The present day St Albans City, whose formation in 1908 owed much to the determination and vision of Mr George Wagstaffe Simmons, have been resident at the Park ever since although they have, through unusual circumstances, been forced on occasion to move out temporarily. During the First World War the club had to evacuate the ground as the military moved in and it was not until during the 1919-20 season that the football club was allowed to return to the ground. The next time the football club vacated its home was not until the mid 1980’s when much needed improvements to the drainage system forced the club to play its first two home matches on opposition soil.
Despite the occupancy of the variously named St Albans Football Clubs at Clarence Park, that particular corner of the Park has not been used solely for the purpose of what used to be frequently referred to as the ‘winter pastime.’ The original plans for Clarence Park made allowances for a corner of the Park to be used for the playing of tennis and during the early days the end of the football season would see the goalposts come down and tennis played on the football pitch. This practice is known to have continued until sometime in the 1920’s. During the 1930’s the football ground was also the venue for a rugby match with the aim of raising funds for the Durham miners who were on strike at the time, and in 1941 a boxing match took place to boost donations for the wartime Spitfire fund.
Improving the facilities
Since an area of the Park was made available for the use of football a great number of changes have taken place to bring about the appearance of the stadium as it is today. Barely a month after the first match had been played in 1894 comments were aired concerning the lack of shelter ‘for the ladies.’ Aware of the detrimental effect the weather could have on attendance’s for football matches during the forthcoming winter Sir John sought to eradicate the problem and with a piece of exceptionally good timing one of his horses, Childwick, won the Cesarewitch at Newmarket on 10 October and from his winnings of £1,035 he donated £100 for the construction of a small pavilion.
The erection was described as an ‘enclosure filled with garden seats and chairs.’ Another improvement made to the football ground at this time was the laying of lattice boards around the outside of the pitch for spectators to stand on.
However, it was only following the formation of St Albans City that major alterations to the ground were made. In 1959 the excellent concrete terracing which is still in use today was inserted to replace the railway sleepers which had fulfilled the same task during the first half of the 20th century. The main stand is of wooden construction and was erected in 1922 at a cost of £1,400. At its peak the stand will have housed over 1,000 spectators but today’s safety standards have reduced this figure by around 40%. The stand may be in keeping with the appearance and character of the rest of Clarence Park but the view it offers football followers is poor with a large number of supporting struts obscuring much of the playing area. Down the years various parts of the stand have been modified for use as changing rooms, offices, the board room, sponsors lounge, a physio’s room and a tea bar.
Prior to the addition of changing rooms to the main stand the players had to get themselves ready for action by utilising the facilities offered by the main pavilion within Clarence Park. The most striking alteration to the stand to be seen by the naked eye occurred in 1948 when club members built the clubhouse above the dressing rooms to the back of the stand.
Saints light up
Other significant changes made to the ground down the years include the erection of a cantilever stand over the east terrace, this took place during 1962 and just a year later the club embraced the need to play night-time midweek matches with the installation of floodlights which have since been upgraded on several occasions. Many of the alterations made to the football ground have been to meet the ever changing needs of the club to keep up with higher standards required to play at a level the club wishes. Most of the ‘improvements’ have been to ensure that the club can continue to play in the Isthmian League, which it joined in 1922, but in recent years many of the changes have been with a view of preparing the club for a move into the Football Conference which is just one league outside the Football League. To this end the club completely enclosed the ground during the early part of 1999 with eight-foot high metal cladding which obscures the rest of the Park to those inside the ground. Whether this move has enhanced the appearance and ambience of the ground is open to conjecture but the discussions caused by the quick erection of this fence was nothing compared to the furore created by the felling of the oak tree in August 1998. Some five years earlier the tree, which had a preservation order on it, had been cited as the reason why the club had been refused promotion to the Conference as that league deemed it dangerous to spectators as it sat in the middle of a popular terrace. Once it became known that the tree was diseased the club wasted little time in arranging for its removal.
Clarence Park has always enjoyed a reputation for having one of the finest playing surfaces in non-league football, even the early match reports praise the high quality of St. Albans home pitch to the detriment of other grounds and down the years a large number of clubs heading for Wembley to play in the FA Cup final have stopped off at Clarence Park the day before the final for a spot of training. Even as recently as 1996, when the Euro 96 European Championships were held in England, Clarence Park was used for training by two of the competing nations. Up until 1998 the pitch had always been maintained by the local corporation but a disagreement over rising costs led to the club deciding to carry out their own maintenance, this situation still exists today.
On the playing side
On the playing side, football at Clarence Park during the early days was of a non-competitive nature with the club not playing its first cup tie until November, 1886, when the original club lost a Herts County Cup to Watford Rovers, a forerunner to the present day Watford club. The Saints did not start playing football within the confines of a league until 1897 when the club took the gamble of turning professional to compete in the Southern League. Only three players on the clubs books are actually thought to have been professional but the move was a disaster and within two years the club had folded with heavy debts. As word spread that the Town club was close to closure another local side, Campfield, applied to use Clarence Park as their home base but their application was unsuccessful and it would not be unfair to suggest that a little bit of behind the scenes dealing was done as many members of the Town club were back at Clarence Park for the start of the new season as members of the newly formed St Albans Amateurs Football Club. The new name made it plain that the club had completely abandoned the idea of being run along professional lines and the Amateurs began life in the more humble surroundings of the Herts County League. The Amateurs were in existence for four years before they too fell by the wayside and with them the name of St. Albans looked set to disappear from the football map. For the next three years, 1904 to 1907, Clarence Park was home to a local club by the name of St. Albans Abbey who had been founded during the previous decade. The Abbey side was a very successful outfit but they folded in 1907 to be replaced at Clarence Park by the Old Albanians.
The spring of 1908 saw the formation of St Albans City and connections to the previous clubs could be found in some of the personnel behind the new club whilst the Saints also benefited from the generosity of those who had run at the Abbey club as they donated goalposts and nets to the new club.