History

Buffalo Bill’s Field

The Memorial Ground was built for the Bristol Rugby Club in 1920/21, on Buffalo Bill’s Field, at the bottom of Wellington Hill, in Horfield, a north Bristol residential area. Buffalo Bill’s Field had been a public showground for flying loop-the-loop air displays, various sports, etc. The showground was named after Colonel William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, whose Wild West Show had captured the public’s imagination when it was performed there in 1891.

Frank Cowlin’s gift

At the beginning of the First World War, a large group of Bristol rugby players enlisted together and sadly many were to lose their lives on the battlefield. During the war, Buffalo Bill’s Field was taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture and used as allotments for useful food production. Meanwhile, moves were afoot to find a permanent home for Bristol rugby – led by Frank Cowlin, the great friend of rugby in Bristol. Francis (later Sir Francis) N. Cowlin was a builder and the Sheriff of Bristol. Buffalo Bill’s Field, which had been acquired by Frank Cowlin, was generously donated by him, and conveyed to trustees, for the use of the Bristol Rugby Club. The Memorial Ground was designed by local architect James Hart, who had been for many years a member of the club’s committee.

Communities of the bereaved

The Great War had been traumatic for the people of Britain, France and Germany. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Europeans considered how to remember the fallen – and how to ensure that there were no more such wars. In Britain, local “communities of the bereaved” (1) created war memorials as they saw fit, within the context of national guidelines. There was a wave of memorialisation. It was decided that the new rugby ground was to become a memorial to commemorate the fallen Bristol rugby players, “as no better way could be found of paying a lasting tribute to the players who played the game right to the end” (2).

Our debt to sport

In March 1920, a public appeal was launched in Bristol to raise money to build stands and dressing rooms and to equip the ground. The intent was for a permanent memorial in the form of a permanent sports ground, as a tribute to the city’s three hundred rugby players who had died in the war. It was feared that ‘our debt to sport’ might be forgotten: “it was the young men of the country who won the war, and it was the sporting instinct that enabled them to do it. … to endure untold suffering and misery. …Those glorious lads … had done their part nobly and it was to those who were able to live on, to see that their memory should never fade.” (3).

Funded by Bristolians

The people of Bristol readily donated enough money to pay for the construction works and for the equipping of The Memorial Ground. There was an early gift of a hundred guineas to the Memorial Fund by J.S. Fry & Sons, chocolate makers and a generous anonymous donor gave £1,500 (see list of first contributors in Western Daily Press, 1 May 1920, cutting in IMAGES).

Fund raising included the Rugby Rally Carnival on 9-16th July 1921 (see Western Daily Press cuttings in IMAGES). Several thousand pounds were raised by Bristolians – indicative of the wish of local people to honour the contribution of sportsmen to the war effort, to remember their spirit, loyalty and fair play.

Construction works

In September 1920, Buffalo Bill’s Field was at last released by the Ministry of Agriculture and the allotment holders given notice to leave. Messrs William Cowlin & Son started work straight away. The old showground was on a gentle slope. Several strata of limestone were found just beneath the surface. Thousands of tons had to be excavated and removed, before the playing pitch could be drained, levelled and turfed.

The entrance gate and gate piers were presented by a former Bristol Football Club player John S. Edbrooke, and the plaques were inscribed by A.G. Bird, another Bristol rugby player.

Start as you mean to go on

The Memorial Ground was formally opened on 24 September 1921 by Bristol’s Lord Mayor, G.B. Britton. The opening featured a thrilling game versus Cardiff. Equally matched for much of it, towards the end, the game took off with four tries and two conversions for the Bristol team, in quick succession, likened in The Western Mail to “an explosive bursting its shell” (4).

Perpetuity – the Covenant

It had taken considerable post-war effort to revive the game, as survivors of the Great War trickled back to the city. The founders and trustees of The Memorial Ground intended that it should remain a sports or recreational facility permanently, as evidenced by these restrictive covenant sections, quoted from the Land Registry (Title Number BL58342):

“(c) That the land hereby conveyed shall not be used for any purpose which shall or may be or become a nuisance or annoyance to the occupiers of houses erected at any time on land belonging to the said Testator Provided and it is hereby expressly agreed that nothing herein contained is intended to prevent the land hereby conveyed from being used for football or any other athletic sport or recreation.”

and

“…grant unto the said Francis Nicholas Cowlin his heirs and assigns full Licence and permission to erect and to maintain and continue upon the said land within the before mentioned distance of Twenty yards of the North Eastern boundary of the said land but not nearer than Fifteen yards of the said North East Boundary any erection or building of any height which the said Francis Nicholas Cowlin his heirs or assigns may deem necessary or desirable for or in connection with the use of the said lands as Football Athletic Sports or Recreation Ground…” (5).

Trustees

It is understood that Frank Cowlin conveyed the land to trustees and built in legal safeguards for the long term future of the Memorial Ground: if the Bristol Rugby Club were to become bankrupt, the Memorial Ground would be offered by the trustees to the Bristol Rugby Combination. If the Combination did not take up the offer, the Memorial Ground was to be conveyed to Bristol Corporation (i.e. to Bristol City Council) “for the benefit of the city as a public sports ground” (Western Daily Press, 15 August 1919 – see cutting in IMAGES).

This arrangement seems to have failed in 1998 – the Bristol Rugby Club got into financial difficulties, but the Memorial Ground somehow came to be owned by the board of directors of Bristol Rovers Football Club. The ground was not offered to the Bristol and District Rugby Football Combination, nor to Bristol City Council. It is alleged that the documents detailing the legal arrangements set up by Cowlin had gone ‘missing’.

The essence and effectiveness of this war memorial

Small acts of remembrance occur every time the Memorial Stadium is mentioned by name, in the media (e.g. local or national sport news), or in conversation. Nearly every day is a day of remembrance, not just once a year, on Remembrance Sunday. At every match, supporters pass the entrance gates and see the inscriptions. This is a dynamic, living and inspiring war memorial, a place of vigorous sport and the roar of spectator passion. It is not an ordinary static, formal and sombre memorial, a plain record of names in stone or bronze, with religious symbols. The Memorial Ground is a special type of practical and secular war memorial.

The hopes, strategies and vicissitudes of sport reflect those of life and remind us of the randomness of untimely death. The fallen sportsmen live on in this place. Because this war memorial is a sports ground – a place of heightened passions and expressed emotions – the poignancy of the memorialisation is intensified. Few war memorials have this frequent, ever renewing, and profound impact on the imagination, generation after generation.

Memorial sports fields around the country

There are hardly any war memorial sports grounds in southern England of the size and significance of the Memorial Ground. There are similar sports ground war memorials in the Midlands, London and the north of England (e.g. Manchester). A notable example is Ingleborough Road Memorial Field (Birkenhead), associated with the war poet Wilfred Owen (6). Glossop North End Football Club (Derbyshire) has a covered area known as ‘The Trenches’. Victory Park, Brislington is a good example in Bristol of a war memorial which includes playing fields.

Soldiering and sport

The interplay of sporting values and the good spirits of soldiers in the First World War is well documented (see in particular: Tony Mason and Eliza Riedi Sport and the Military –The British Armed Forces 1880-1960; Malcolm Brown, The Imperial War Museum Book of 1914 The Men Who Went to War and Paul Fussell The Great War and Modern Memory). Sport boosted the morale of the combatants. Football was often played by servicemen and was a welcome distraction from the tedium and horrors of war. The football players’ skills and tactics, such as dribbling the ball and rushing the opponent, were readily transferable to the battlefield (7). Scoring equated with marksmanship; battalion/regimental pride with team spirit – the language/ethos of sport and the military is mirrored.

Playing the game to the end

Importantly, it was the will to ‘play the game’ to the end that helped to win the war (Stefan Goebel The Great War and Medieval Memory). “The terrible battles of this war were won on the playing fields and in the classrooms of the Council Schools, as well as in the Colleges and in the homes of the whole nation.” (8).  “Football served as an effective recruiting sergeant. Rousing speeches were made at matches, and both players and supporters enlisted in droves long before conscription was introduced” (9). A.G. Powell “well remembers the Bristol Rugger men coming in a body to the recruiting Office to offer their services for King and Country” (10) – what became known as “The Greater Game” (11).

The Greater Game

The literary origin of ‘The Greater Game’ has a Bristol connection. Henry Newbolt’s best known poem ‘Vitai Lampada’, with its refrain ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’ is set in the Close at Clifton College, Bristol (12). The 1892 poem refers to public school notions of fair play, determination, stoicism, teamwork, bravery, loyalty and selfless commitment to duty – inculcated attitudes that served one well through life, especially during trying times, such as trench warfare.

The theme is echoed in other war memorials in addition to the Memorial Ground, for example the war memorial at south Bristol’s Knowle School (Maxse Road, BS4), is inscribed: THEY PLAYED ‘THE GAME’.  As a grim war of attrition ensued, Newbolt’s poem was mocked and satirised, though by war’s end it still had potency.

Foresight of the founders and funders of the Memorial Ground

It was recognised that physical sports made men healthy and strong. Team sports also instilled a respect for the opponent and his team – which made them more effective and humane servicemen in time of war. In the aftermath of the war, great foresight was shown by creating sports grounds to replicate those winning characteristics in future generations. This was akin to the planting of groves of oak trees in England in the seventeenth century – for potential use a hundred years later to make battleships, when and if required.  Physical sport is of course beneficial during peacetime too.

“THIS GROUND IS A MEMORIAL”

The inscription on the entrance gates to The Memorial Ground reads as follows:

“1914-1918 In proud and grateful memory of the services rendered to their country in the Great War, by rugby football players of Bristol. This ground was established 1921”.

Another inscription was added after the Second World War:

“1939-1945 And in the World War of 1939-45, the rugby football players of this city gave their services and their lives. To them also this ground is a memorial”.

The whole Memorial Ground site is their war memorial, not just the entrance gates. The actuality of the ground is important – this is the ground that is the war memorial. The comparatively high casualty rate of local rugby players, and indeed of sportsmen generally, was keenly felt. Their sacrifice was what the people of Bristol chose to remember and to memorialise.

The entrance gates are Grade II listed.  The reasons given for the designation were as follows:  “Historical – as a poignant reminder of the tragic impact of world affairs upon this small community.  Context – the gate piers are intact and retain their context as the entranceway to the Memorial Stadium” (13).

A short row of mature pine trees stand beside the gates. The trees were probably planted around 1921.

Armistice Day – respectfulness and community use

Since 1920, annual Remembrance Day services have been held at the Ground (14), and a two minutes’ silence is observed before the game nearest to Armistice Day. For the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary, in 1935, children enjoyed sports and games at “The Mem”. After the Second World War, a further dedication was inscribed on the entrance gate pier and a re-dedication service was held on the playing pitch in September 1945.

Other community uses, included annual Bristol Constabulary inspections on the playing pitch. Carnivals were held here in the inter-war period.  Charities still use the space for sponsored physical activity – for example, the St Peter’s Hospice annual ‘Stadium Dash’.

Caskets of ashes at the Memorial Ground

We have been reliably informed that people have scattered ashes of the deceased, and buried caskets of ashes, on or beside, the playing pitch. These people understood that perpetuity means forever – they would not have expected the hallowed sports ground to be sold off for redevelopment. It is presumed that the wishes of the deceased were to “be” at every future match. This touching remembrance activity is believed to have taken place when the Memorial Ground was more open to the local community, before the gates were kept generally locked by the current owners.

Sport for ever

During its 93-year history, the sports ground has been used by school teams, and for local, national and international football and rugby games, as well as for running and athletics. Before the 1930s, rugby was a very popular spectator sport – the football of its day. Noted Bristol rugby players include Reg Quick, “a prolific try scorer” (15), Reg Pickles, Sam Tucker, Len Corbett, Jimmy Barrington, Gordon Cripps and John Blake. Players like these were celebrities in their day.

The Memorial Ground (now also known as The Memorial Stadium) is still in use as an arena for skill and sportsmanship, as intended by the founders and trustees. It is the ‘soul’ and home of Bristol rugby – although the Bristol Rugby Club now play at Ashton Gate. The rugby fans’ affection for the Memorial Ground – and their rueful memories can be read at: http://www.rugbynetwork.net/boards/read/s100.htm?102,9156318

The Memorial Ground is currently owned by Bristol Rovers (1883) Limited and is used by the Bristol Rovers Football Club.

As a response to the wastes and futility of war, the Memorial Ground is inspirational, forward thinking and nourishing.

Bristol’s largest war memorial

The Memorial Ground is by far the largest and most impressive war memorial in Bristol. It is probably the city’s most effective and most poignant memorial to the fallen of both world wars and of more recent conflicts. When it was built, it was intended to be “a source of inspiration to generations of young Bristolians.” (16)

It has been, and still is, an inspirational and compelling war memorial. It should be a jewel in the city’s crown – and part of the city’s commemorations of the centenary of the Great War. The Memorial Ground is a heritage and sporting asset for Bristol, as well as being a remarkable war memorial.


Notes

  1. Jay Winter Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, page 6.
  2. The Western Daily Press, 11 March 1920 (see cutting in IMAGES).
  3. The Western Daily Press, 11 March 1920 (see cutting in IMAGES).
  4. Quoted in Mark Hoskins Classic Matches – Bristol Football Club (RFU) (Stadia, 2008), page 17.
  5. See Land Registry document held at Gloucester Office (Title Number BL58342).
  6. The Wilfred Owen Story: http://www.wilfredowenstory.com/ingleboroughroad.html
  7. For example, see in Nick Thornicroft Gloucestershire and North Bristol Soldiers on the Somme (Tempus, 2007), pages 47-49, the account of Captain Neville, who provide his men with four footballs, which were kicked into ‘No Man’s Land’ at the start of the attack, Battle of the Somme.
  8. St John Adcock (For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War, Hodder and Stoughton, 1918, pages 170-171), quoted in Stefan Goebel The Great War and Medieval Memory – War, Remembrance and Medivalism in Britain and Germany, 1914-1940, page 223.
  9. Tim Hill A Photographic History of British Football (Parragon, 2011), page 32.
  10. Walter T. Pearce et al Bristol Football Club Jubilee Book 1888-1938 (Committee of the Bristol Football Club, 1938), page 20.
  11. Walter T. Pearce et al Bristol Football Club Jubilee Book 1888-1938 (Committee of the Bristol Football Club, 1938), page 20.
  12. Henry Newbolt The Island Race (Elkin Mathews, 1907), pages 86-87.
  13. English Heritage (Listing) 17 December 2010 (LBS UID: 510375. Case UID: 171710).
  14. See, for example, Bristol 1911-1939 (a set on flickr) – The captain of a visiting rugby team hanging a wreath on the gates of the Memorial Ground: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/2054041261/in/set-72157603262491058
  15. Bristol Rugby Club – History 1911-1920: http://www.bristolrugby.co.uk/fans/history/1911-1920/
  16. Western Daily Press, 11 March 1920 (See cutting in IMAGES).

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