There can be few towns in the World which can match the iconic sports grounds of Sidmouth and their rich history. The Fort Field, the Blackmore Field and the Manstone Recreation Ground between them have been the scenes of sporting endeavour for a combined total of more than 450 years.
The area of green space from the olive tree at the north end of Coburg Field to the walls of the Belmont Hotel, flanked by the Blackmore Field and Blackmore Gardens, is acknowledged as uniquely special in town planning circles.
All this space is protected from the grasp of developers by charitable trusts and covenants to keep them providing recreation and pleasure in perpetuity.
If, of these jewels in Sidmouth’s crown, the Fort Field, with its seaside setting, thatched pavilion and near 200 year history, is the Cullinan diamond, the Blackmore Field is surely the Koh-i-Noor. Like the Fort Field, the Blackmore has been graced by a large number of international players and is unique in entertaining royalty.
THE HISTORY OF THE BLACKMORE FIELD
Until the middle of the 19th century the Blackmore Field, which included the land on which the hospital now stands, was agricultural land owned by the Lord of the Manor.
The first recorded use of the Blackmore Field for sport was a “Football match” reported in the Sidmouth Directory and Advertiser on 3rd April 1880: “ A very interesting game of football was played at the Blackmore Field on Easter Monday between fifteen non-abstainers and fifteen abstainers.” The result was recorded as a draw in favour of the non-abstainers.
At that time, the field’s main recreational use was by the Archery Club run by Miss Constance Radford. The southern end of the ground was fenced off and known as the Archery field.
When the rugby club, then known as Sidmouth Football Club, was founded in 1884, the games were played on Coburg Field. They moved to the Blackmore ground the following season and the first recorded match played there took place on 6th February 1886.
The original pitch was set out west to east parallel to All Saints Road and onto the land now occupied by the hospital.
At a meeting held in November 1888, it was noted that a significant number of ladies were attending matches and it was resolved to reserve an area for them with planks laid down to stand on.
In 1890, the Lord of the Manor Colonel Balfour gave land at the eastern end for the building of the new Cottage Hospital. The pitch would no longer fit into the available space. It was resolved to approach the Archery Club to get permission to use their field. As the president of the Archery Club, Mr JGG Radford, was also the president of the Football Club, an agreement was easily reached, the fence was removed, and the pitch was realigned into its present position.
In October 1892, it was decided to build a grandstand to hold 130 people. However, the Archery Club were concerned that positioning the stand in the centre of the pitch would encroach on their area of the field. Hence the position of the stand north of the halfway line. The work was carried out by RW & J Skinner at a cost of £48-8s and opened 26 days later, on 19th November.
Association football (soccer) was a late arrival in the town, as it was in the West Country as a whole and has arguably never reached the same prominence as the Rugby Club in its heyday. Soccer has been played on the Blackmore Field, the first recorded game took place on 25th October 1902, when a team of rugby players played against The King’s School. In addition, two exhibition matches against Exeter City are recorded. Soccer was played in the two years after the First world War by a team called Sidmouth Unionist on the rough surface, while rugby resumed on the superior surface of Coburg Field. A team called Sidmouth Thursday AFC also played on the eponymous day during the 1920s.
In 1921 the Sid Vale Cricket Club was formed to provide cricket for working men. It continued until the mid 1930s, when it amalgamated with the Sidmouth Club to form a second team. For at least part of its existence, the Blackmore Field was its ground.
With the pitch fully restored and the grandstand repaired, the Rugby Club moved back to the Blackmore Field for the 1921-22 season. At this time Colonel Balfour announced that the Blackmore field was for sale and the ground risked being taken over for building.
The Club held a meeting on 8th January to discuss the possibility of purchasing the ground. During the meeting, a message was received from the local MP Arthur Clive Morrison-Bell informing that he intended to buy the Blackmore Field and set up a trust to ensure it would remain a recreation ground with the Rugby Club having priority to lease it. The trust documents were handed over to the trustees in a ceremony on the Blackmore Field on Monday 23rd June 1924.
On Saturday 26th November 1932, the Blackmore Field was visited by HRH The Duke of Connaught, a son of Queen Victoria, to attend a match between Sidmouth and Devonport Services. This was the first match other than internationals to receive the patronage of a member of the Royal Family. He was presented to the teams in front of the grandstand and the National Anthem was played by the Town Band.
In September 1933 Henry Charles, on behalf of the Sidmouth Rugby Supporters Club, announced that dressing room accommodation had been completed on the Blackmore. With a folding partition wall and covered baths, it would double as a meeting room. On Saturday 14th March 1936, the building was formally handed over to the Club.
In the 1936, a Sidmouth Thursday Rugby Club was formed and played on the Blackmore Field. Its headquarters was the Commercial Hotel, now the Black Horse Inn. They were given free use of the changing rooms.
During the Second World war the ground was requisitioned by the Air Ministry. Matches continued to be played on the ground involving teams from the Armed Forces based in the area until 1944.
By the end of hostilities, the ground was in a sorry condition although the buildings had been kept in good repair. Work began to restore the playing surface. In July 1946, the Club chairman Fred Davey thanked the Morrison-Bell Trust and the Town Council for the work they had done saying the ground had never looked better.
On Whit Saturday 1948, an open air boxing tournament was held on the Blackmore field.
The first training lights were installed in 1957 and have since been upgraded with 12 metre stands. The first clubhouse with kitchen and bar was opened in November 1961 and extended in 1969 with a wooden building donated by the East Devon District Council on their move to Knowle. All the work involved in these two projects was carried voluntarily by club members.
In 1967 rumours were heard that a proposal had been made for turning the ground into a car park. Letters of concern were sent to the Council, the Ministry of Sport, the Devon RFU and the RFU. It turned out to be either just a rumour or the proposal was dropped.
In 1974, the interior of the changing rooms was refurbished with showers replacing the old sunken baths. And plans were drawn up to replace the grandstand which had been in place since 1892. The new stand was opened by the Devon RFU chairman Sid Waller on Tuesday 16th September before a match against Bridgwater & Albion, with Scottish international Alastair McHarg guesting for the Chiefs and scoring Sidmouth’s try in a 4-11 defeat.
In 1980 plans were made to replace the original changing room building with a modern two- story building with changing rooms on the ground floor and a bar upstairs. The new clubhouse was opened on 20th April 1983 just in time for the Centenary season. The ceremony was carried out by Devon RFU president Gerry Brown and was followed by a match against Exeter, who won 17-6.
The old building, which had served the Club well for 50 years, was donated to Sidbury Football Club. It stands behind the tennis courts at Sidford.
In 1990 the pitch was ploughed up and levelled to remove the undulations, which had developed over the years.
In 2000 the old wooden clubhouse was replaced with the current brick building. The opening ceremony was carried out by former England hooker Graham Dawe and was celebrated with a match against Plymouth Albion.
Sidmouth Rugby Club is fortunate to have a home ground with excellent facilities and a rich history rightfully placed in the centre of town.
1. A match on the Blackmore in the 1890s.
2. AC Morrison Bell kicking off a match in 1908
3.The old grandstand before demolition in 1975.
4.The Duke of Connaught being introduced to the Sidmouth team November 1932.
5.Sidmouth Thursday RFC team in 1930s