02 November 2013

Victoria Recreation Ground, Portslade

Judy Middleton 2015 revised 2016

copyright © J.Middleton
This charming view of the north side of Victoria Recreation Ground and the Old Shoreham Road was posted
on 12 October 1909. 

Beginnings

In April 1897 landowner J. Eardley Hall offered to sell to Portslade Council nine acres, one rood and two perches at a price of £2,350 for the purpose of creating a Recreation Ground. The land was bounded on the north by the Upper (Old) Shoreham Road, on the west by Holes Road (later renamed Beaconsfield Road) and on the east by brickfields. The area was smaller than the present day Recreation Ground, which measures 13.4 acres.

During the 19th century the land in question was in use as a brickfield from at least 1867. In around 1876 men were busy digging for brick earth on the north west side, south of the road and three furlongs west of Portslade Railway Station, when they uncovered twenty or more Romano-British cremation burials. The graves were three feet in length and eighteen inches wide and were formed by layers of flint on which cinerary urns and two or three vessels were placed. There were seventeen complete vessels with some cremated bones and fibulae and John Dudney donated everything to Brighton Museum. But in 1988 when enquiries were made about these items, it seems there were only twelve and perhaps the missing five had been wrongly catalogued as being found in Aldrington.

An ancient pathway or drove road crossed the area and has been lost, although the remainder of the route can still be traced. Originally it probably began in Wellington Road and then pursued a north westerly direction to take the traveller or drover up onto the Downs. In Station Road the twitten between the sandwich bar and jeweller’s was part of the route, although today diverted at the north end by Tesco’s; then it passed underneath the cattle arch (built in 1840 only because the path was much frequented) and over the Recreation Ground and across the Old Shoreham Road to the twitten behind Sellaby House. There it takes a sharp turn left (a diversion created by the owners of Loxdale) and across the Village Green; it continues behind houses in Mile Oak.

The Recreation Ground

The Hove Gazette (17 September 1898) estimated the costs of laying out the Recreation Ground at £1,365.

On 11 August 1902 Mr C. Rose, Chairman of Portslade Urban District Council, officially opened Victoria Recreation Ground. He was presented with a silver key to commemorate the occasion. The event happily coincided with the coronation of King Edward VII and over 1,300 children took part in the opening games. Mr Rose said in his speech that all the time he had lived in the area ‘there had not been a piece of ground the size of a tablecloth to call their own.’ It became the only public open space in the whole of Portslade until the Village Green and Vale Park were acquired in the 1930s.

Almost at once the council was inundated with requests from various clubs for permission to use the ground. The Southern Cross Cricket Club was the earliest applicant in March 1902 only to be informed the ground was not yet ready. In 1903 it was stated that Portslade Cricket Club could play four matches on Wednesdays and Thursdays during the season. Also in 1903 Portslade-by-Sea Baptist Cricket Club played on alternate Saturdays, the Portslade Alliance Football Club held their walking match, the Western Rovers Football Club used the pitch in winter and Portslade Fire Brigade held their competitions on 3 August.

Portslade Band was allowed to play on weekday evenings although not on Sundays. But councillors had a change of heart and by July they could play sacred music after 5 p.m. provided that no collection was taken. In May 1907 it was stated the Portslade Band was to be allowed to play on either Tuesday or Wednesday between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. each week during the summer near the shelter on the east side. In May 1930 a decision was taken to demolish the dangerous portions of the east shelter.

By the winter of 1903 three football clubs were playing on the grounds. In October 1903 the surveyor reported that glass in the shelters had been damaged during the past two months. The council decided to knock out the broken panes and leave the openings clear for the time being.

In January 1904 it was decided the trees beside the footpath leading from the east to the west shelter should be removed and planted on the west border. By the summer of 1904 six cricket clubs were playing their matches at the grounds. In June 1904 it was reported that a boy had broken a finial on top of one of the shelters. Fortunately, the surveyor knew the culprit and he was to pay a visit to the parents. In June 1905 it was decided to re-glaze the shelters.

In March 1907 there was a disturbance owing to a penalty kick in a match between Aldrington Wednesday and Portslade Wednesday. Councillors were not amused at the incident and decreed that should such a disturbance occur again in the future, they would reconsider their permission for the clubs to hold their matches there.

In 1907 it was said tennis courts were to be provided in the south east corner but it is not clear whether or not this actually happened. Indeed in May 1930 it was agreed to lay out two grass tennis courts as a temporary measure.

In May 1908 Mr Miles, Headmaster of St Andrew’s School, Portslade, was informed the council would allow a portion of the ground to be used by his schoolchildren. Mr Miles lived at 70 St Leonard’s Road and was described as a short dapper man. Another master at the school, Mr Figgins, was a keen cricketer and took the boys to the Recreation Ground once a week for games – cricket in the summer and rugger in the winter. 
copyright © J.Middleton
One of the clubs that played matches at Victoria Recreation Ground was the St Nicolas Football Club and the players
were from the 1923-1924 season. On the back of the postcard there is written in pencil ‘some well known Portslade
 boys’ but unhappily there are no names. One man with a distinctive face can be recognised from other old photographs. He is Perce Cranham seated in the front row, first left. Perce Cranham was also a member of the St Nicolas Church Choir and he is seen here on a choir outing to Midhurst on 23 June 1925. Note how they are dressed in their best Sunday suits.

Additional Land

In September 1908 Portslade Council asked Mr J. Eardley Hall if they could lease, with a view to purchase, a portion of the disused brickfield adjoining the Recreation Ground on the east. By November of the same year the Council was preparing to purchase around five acres between Victoria Road and the Old Shoreham Road for £150 an acre. In February 1912 the land was purchased for £1,125. But strangely enough, it did not become part of the Recreation Ground straight away. Instead the Council used it to dump household waste. This situation continued until at least June 1931 when the Council was warned the area would be full in around two months’ time. 

A Celebration

copyright © J.Middleton
Victoria Recreation Ground was crowded with people celebrating the coronation on 22 June 1911.
On 22 June 1911 King George V and Queen Mary were crowned at Westminster Abbey. To celebrate the occasion in Portslade a grand procession formed up and made their way to the Recreation Ground. The procession was accompanied by the lively sounds of the town band as well as the combined fife and drum bands belonging to St Nicolas Band of Hope (a temperance movement) and the Baptist Sunday School. Local men belonging to various Portslade Friendly Societies were out in force, some of them donning colourful costumes; they represented the Abinger Lodge of Buffaloes, the Ancient Order of Foresters and the Sons of Temperance Benefit Society.

It goes without saying that the grounds were packed with local children and an astonishing 1,800 souvenir coronation mugs were handed out to them

The Early 1930s

In March 1930 it was reported that a council employee at the Recreation Ground had been off sick for over fourteen weeks, twelve of them on half-pay. He returned to work and was then off for a further month.  The councillors discussed the best course of action and agreed to continue with half-pay until a proper medical opinion was obtained. Subsequently, the employee had an operation and died in September 1930.

On 17 August 1930 the annual Hospital Sunday Service was held at the Recreation Ground. This was part of a fund-raising event because in the days before the National Health Service, there was always a need to raise money for local hospitals. Portslade firemen and their fire engine were also in attendance.
copyright © J.Middleton
In this photograph the Sports Pavilion looks relatively new. 
On 1 September 1931 Captain Bately officially opened the new Sports Pavilion on the west side. There was an Art Deco feel to the fa├žade and what was optimistically called the ‘sun porch’ proved a welcome refuge during the sudden downpour that greeted the opening ceremony. In later years the building and grounds were subject to vandalism and in an effort to curb this, it was proposed in 1969 to build two flats on top of the Sports Pavilion. Some people in Beaconsfield Road objected to the plan but it went ahead anyway and council gardeners occupied the premises. It would have been more useful if people had objected to the flat roof on top of the flats, which have caused problems with damp. Indeed the situation became so bad in one flat that it was reported in October 2013 it had remained unoccupied for eighteen months despite the critical shortage of housing.
copyright © J.Middleton
Today the Sports Pavillion looks totally different from the original building ( October 2013)
Captain Irvine Bately (1881-1962) was a remarkable man. He was a veteran of the Boer War, served in the First World War where he was wounded in France, and during the Second World joined Portslade Civil Defence and became Chief Warden. He moved to Portslade in 1921 for health reasons and lived at 12 Vale Road while his brother-in-law R. Thurston Hopkins, a famous Sussex author, lived at number six. Captain Bately, his wife Lillian and Thurston Hopkins founded the Society of Sussex Downsmen. Captain Bately was a skilled artist who delighted in painting anything to do with the Sussex Downs, shepherds, their equipment and their sheep.
copyright © J.Middleton
A colourful view of Beaconsfield Road where some residents objected to flats being built on top of the Sports Pavilion.
By profession Captain Bately was a chartered architect and was responsible for the design of many houses built in the area. He was also much involved in local politics and organisations and except for one small break, he served on Portslade Urban District Council from 1928 to 1956. He was involved in the local football, cricket and rifle clubs as well as Hove Deep Sea Anglers, Portslade Allotments Association and Portslade Social Club. He was a pioneer in Local History and produced a handwritten manuscript entitled simply Captain Bately’s Notes.

By 1932 there were three football pitches – a full-size pitch on the west side and the east side with a smaller pitch at the north. On these pitches the following clubs played their matches.

J. Eede Butt & Sons Athletic Club
Portslade Old Boys Football Club
Southdown Football Club
Southdown Motor Services Football Club
St Nicolas School Football Club

There were also stoolball pitches used in 1933 by the following:

Baptist Girls’ Gym Club
Flynn & Sons Stoolball Club
Portslade Excelsior Stoolball Club
St Andrews’ Social Club Stoolball Club

In October 1932 there was a discussion at a Portslade Council meeting about how to find work for unemployed men in winter. It was suggested that the extension to the recreation ground could be levelled and thirty men employed for an average period each; the pay was to be just over one shilling an hour. By October 1933 Portslade Council had spent £400 on the extension ‘which gave considerable relief to unemployment’.

In November 1932 it was decided the shelters should be reconstructed and new seats fitted for a cost of £85. But the cost of installing public conveniences would be much more expensive and came to £594-14-4d.

Around this time Mr R. McConnochie resigned his post as Superintendent of the Recreation Ground and Burial Ground. The surname was a familiar one at Portslade because Gabriel McConnochie had been Headmaster of St Nicolas School for forty years.

According to Bill Wareham, Victoria Recreation Ground was a smart place to be in the 1930s. In the north bank steps led down to the ground flanked on either side by an ornamental lamp and there were two drinking fountains. The water spurted out of a lion’s mouth and there was a separate tub for dogs. There was a chain-link fence surrounding the area and there was decorative ironwork adorning the shelters. 

A Difficult Time

One of the largest meetings ever held in Portslade took place on 8 July 1935 at Portslade Hall when the inhabitants protested about the action of Portslade Council in negotiating the disposal of Victoria Recreation Ground in exchange for new grounds, which were then part of the Windlesham House estate.

Mr M. Wakeford, 71-year-old ex-Council member, said the ground was opened to celebrate Edward VII’s coronation and he never expected the council would try to dispose of it in the very year that Edward VII’s son, George V, was celebrating his Silver Jubilee. The following resolution was passed. 

‘This meeting protests in the most emphatic manner against the action of the Council in proposing to dispose of the Recreation Ground … and urges upon the Council the desirability of at once discontinuing the negotiations … (it) is in direct opposition to the spirit and the letter of the original deeds of transfer; and that the closing of the present Recreation Ground would entail considerable hardship and inconvenience to a large proportion of those ratepayers who use the grounds in question, particularly those who live at the south end of Portslade.’

Mr Wakeford said he was on Portslade Council forty years ago when they began negotiations and when the land was finally purchased, the Council put a restrictive covenant on it meaning that the land should never be used for any other purpose. Mr A.J. Campbell, an East Sussex County Council member, said he now realised the land was the people’s heritage, paid for with the people’s money. But despite protests, negotiations continued.

On 30 July 1935 Portslade Council decided to offer Applesham Estates Ltd £23,000 for the Windlesham House school grounds, instead of the £25,000 plus solicitors’ costs the vendors wanted. It was perhaps unfortunate the proposal coincided with a resolution to install electric street lighting on some roads, which would mean a penny on the rates to pay for it. Therefore some Portslade councillors thought the Windlesham grounds were a luxury they could not afford.

On 3 September 1935 it was revealed that Applesham Estates had offered the Council some of the interior land for £17,000 but Andrew Melville said if the frontages of Old Shoreham Road and Mile Oak Road were built upon, it would spoil the whole idea of the park. Instead, the Council offered £18,000 for the grounds south of Mile Oak Road.

Andrew Melville (1884-1938) was a colourful character from a theatrical family whose connections with the stage went back to 1760. Melville lived at Whychcote with his second wife, Dorothy, the nurse of his sick first wife who had died. Dorothy was aged 29 and Melville was 44. Melville put on popular and gory melodramas such as Jack the Ripper at the Grand Theatre in North Road, Brighton. Melville also had a tilt at politics but he failed to be elected a councillor at Brighton; he was more successful at Portslade and in 1935 was Vice-chairman of Portslade Council. That same year he was also busy organising pageants in various parts of Sussex to celebrate the Silver Jubilee.  

On 7 September 1935 it was announced that negotiations were at an end and the Windlesham estate would be covered with housing. It was all a great shame because the Windlesham grounds were beautiful with many fine, mature trees and quantities of golden cowslips in the grass. Such a park would have been a great asset to the town – this was of course before the creation of Easthill Park. On the other hand, Victoria Recreation Ground would never have been suitable for housing needs because of its history as a brickfield and rubbish dump; such use causes the land to be unstable. It is also ironic that in October 1935 Windlesham House estate offered the council a quantity of top-soil from its building operations to put on the Recreation Ground’s extension for a cost of 3/- per cubic yard.

From the 1930s to the 1940s

In December 1935 it was revealed that a scheme for widening the Old Shoreham Road from Southdown Avenue to Beaconsfield Road would result in Victoria Recreation Ground losing a strip of land approximately ten feet wide. But the plan was shelved for financial reasons and not revived until January 1939. Portslade Council wanted East Sussex County Council to build a dwarf concrete wall and terrace on the north bank in three tiers, the middle one to be paved with slabs. But nothing came of this either. However, the road widening did take place and because of it, the railings on the north side were removed in 1940. It was stated that it might be possible to re-use them at the east and south entrances to the Camp Site allotments.

In December 1935 it was suggested the most suitable trees for the east side would be Lombardy poplars planted alternatively with Douglas firs and the estimate was as follows:

53 Lombardy poplars     £3-19-6d
52 Douglas firs               £7-16-0d

Portslade councillors did not object to the choice of trees but wanted two silver birches to be included. Nothing was planted then as it was thought it would be better to allow the earth to settle and just sow grass seed. But there was a change of mind in January 1936 when it was decided to plant trees along the east boundary of the extension after all at a cost of £28-11-9d. Meanwhile the Mears Brothers were given the task of levelling the site and sowing the grass seed at an estimated cost of £28-11-9d.

In April 1938 it was stated new gates for the entrance at the south east would cost £35. It was also recommended the fence between the Recreation Ground and the extension should be removed. In fact the extension was opened to the public in the spring of 1938 but game-playing was limited to children only.

During the Second World War a emergency water tank was dug in Victoria Recreation Ground.

On 13 October 1945 more than 3,000 people assembled in the Recreation Ground for the opening ceremony of Portslade’s Thanksgiving Week. It was a light-hearted event and there were more than eighty entries for the fancy dress competition. There was special consideration for the 1,300 local children who in the morning attended film shows at the Rothbury or Pavilion cinemas and in the afternoon took part in games organised at the Recreation Ground.
copyright © J.Middleton

New Administration

In the 1990s there were three football pitches and two cricket tables at the Recreation Ground. There also used to be a recycling centre situated there but there were so many complaints about noise that it was moved to a site outside Portslade Town Hall.

During the winter of 1991/1992 some 550 trees were planted in Victoria Recreation Ground. It is pleasant to record the planting on the north bank has at last been a success. The north bank is a very exposed place and previous planting of trees met with failure, probably because specimens were planted too far apart. In the new plan, trees were more densely planted and seemed to cope better with the occasional gales. Over twenty years later, it is difficult to remember how bleak it used to be with just grass and no trees. Not everyone would agree because to children it was a great place to go with their sledges or trays whenever there was a snowfall.
copyright © J.Middleton
Trees flourish on the north bank in this view taken on 16 June 2009. 
On 1 April 1997 Victoria Recreation Ground became the responsibility of Brighton & Hove City Council. Portslade residents felt it was bad enough when Hove and Portslade amalgamated but now they felt right on the outskirts of a new city whose resources were concentrated mainly on Brighton. 

In January 1999 there were grumbles about the shocking state of football pitches. Apparently, football posts were permanent fixtures instead of being removed when not required, as was the former practice. Also, in times past, football was halted when the ground became too waterlogged. This was no longer the case and the ground in front of the goals was a mud bath.

By April 1999 a large new notice board with the new logo and ‘Victoria Recreation Ground’ was in place on top of the north bank facing the Old Shoreham Road.
copyright © J.Middleton
The Fun Fair visits Victoria Recreation Ground every year in the summer. This view was taken on 24 May 2010.

Children’s Playground

Some play equipment was provided for children at the Recreation Ground. In June 1932 there were reports that ‘the chute’ had caused some injuries. This necessitated a report that was produced the following month. It stated the chute’s safety could be improved by extending the existing hand-rails at a cost of £6-10s and increasing the depth of the wooden side guards at a cost of £6. Despite the modest cost of the improvements, the council decided to take no further action. In the same year a father threatened to demand the cost of doctor’s fees after his daughter fell over a pothole and broke her arm. The council disclaimed any responsibility.

In March 1991 Francois Dupre, Mayor of Hove, officially opened the new playground at Victoria Recreation Ground. It was stated Hove Council had spent some £60,000 on improving children’s playgrounds there and at Easthill Park.

In August 2002 there was consternation when without warning workmen suddenly removed every piece of equipment from the playground area. The council said they were obliged to take immediate action because the equipment was unsafe, and there was no money to provide new pieces. Instead, there were rumours that all the council proposed to do was level the ground and create a basketball court.

But there was an immediate outcry with letters of protest and petitions; local councillors were equally put out because they had not been informed about what was happening. Some 1,300 people signed the petition started by independent Labour Councillor Steve Collier and Labour Councillor Sue John also presented a petition.

Within a few weeks, the situation completely changed. Suddenly, officials had managed to ‘identify’ funds to pay for new equipment. Labour Councillor Les Hamilton stated in October 2002 that six new items of equipment would be installed at a cost of £28,000; these were cradle swings, junior swings, two rocking animals, a see-saw and a small climbing frame complete with slide. The new playground opened on 13 January 2003.
 copyright © D.Sharp
The "new" playground
But it has not been all plain sailing since then. In a way Victoria Recreation Ground suffers since Easthill Park is not far away, and because Easthill is a Green Flag park, scarce resources tend to be concentrated there. The authorities attach a great deal of importance to keeping the Green Flag flying because it signifies excellence.

At Victoria Recreation Ground, by contrast, public toilets have been closed. It is a retrograde step because the ground is extensively used for sporting purposes as well as catering for young children.

Butterfly Bank

  copyright © D.Sharp
Butterfly Bank looking east and west 3 June 2015
It is pleasant to be able to report on a positive venture in Victoria Recreation Ground. This is the installation in 2015 of a chalk bank at the base of the grass bank on the north side. The chalk is meant to represent the undulations of the South Downs and the purpose is to recreate the wild flowers that once studded the turf of the Downs. Indeed, it was the rich turf and variety of wild flowers that gave Southdown mutton its wonderful flavour in times past. But the intention here is not for the benefit of sheep but for the encouragement of butterflies whose numbers are reported to have plummeted by 40 percent in recent years.

The plants in the chalk bank are not commercial products but were grown at Stanmer Park after the seeds had been carefully collected from local grasslands flourishing on chalk soil. There are around 20 different species and some have lovely old-fashioned names such as bird’s-foot trefoil, kidney vetch, ox-eye daisy and harebell.

Poppies make their appearance too. It is because of the wet August and sunny September that poppies have made a late, second flowering in October and the perfume from all the flowers is still strong.

There are now around fifteen such chalk banks in Brighton & Hove City Parks and the undertaking is part of the Brighton and Lewes Downs Biosphere Scheme.
  copyright © D.Sharp
Butterfly Bank looking south 3 June 2015
  copyright © D.Sharp
Butterfly Bank 30 May 2016

Sources
Argus
Encyclopaedia of Hove & Portslade

Copyright © J.Middleton 2015
page layout by D.Sharp