FEATURE: from horse racing to football and rugby... the colourful sporting history of Herringthorpe Playing Fields

FEATURE: from horse racing to football and rugby... the colourful sporting history of Herringthorpe Playing Fields

By David Beddows | 25/01/2021

FEATURE: from horse racing to football and rugby... the colourful sporting history of Herringthorpe Playing Fields

 

A GREEN oasis in a sea of suburbia, Herringthorpe Playing Fields holds so much history in its flat acres.


Back in the days before it became Rotherham's thriving hub for football and cricket, it was the venue for the town's racecourse, hosting crowds of thousands.


As the 20th century unfolded, the Fields entered its golden era as the horses galloped away and the space became a thriving leisure and recreation area mapped out with a dozen football pitches in winter and cricket pitches in summer.


Overlooking it all was the Boswell Street pavilion, the place where thousands of sportsmen and women braved its sparse changing facilities before striding out onto the fields to play.


The pavilion has gone, torched by vandals, and with it many of its sports teams, but the imprint left by Herringthorpe Playing Fields on local sport across the decades remains.


Local football historian and former football referee Chris Eyre has been doing some digging into its history, touching on the halcyon days through to now.


“I recently drove past the Herringthorpe playing fields one Sunday morning and I was surprised to note only two dog walkers there,” says Chris.


“Not a single game of football was being played, even though I drove past other grounds in Rotherham where there was plenty of action.


“My mind went back 40 years to when I was a regular football referee operating on Herringthorpe on both Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. In those days all 12 football pitches were in full operation as well as the two rugby pitches.


“With so many games, you had to be there early to get a peg to hang your clothes on in the referees' changing room — more so on a Saturday afternoon when three or four games had linesmen as well.”


As a Sunday footballer back in the day, I can remember getting changed in the draughty pavilion. The winter months were the worst. The change from clothes to kit would ideally be done in double quick time to avoid an attack of the shivers.


The referees shared the same facilities.

Archive shot ... entrance to the old Boswell Street pavilion that used to overlook the playing fields.

“I remember the good times spent in the changing rooms with fellow colleagues talking about our matches,” added Chris. “Mind you, we often joked about the dripping tap on one of the seven sinks. 


“According to older colleagues, it appears that the same tap had dripped since the changing rooms were erected in the early 1930s!”


As mentioned, the playing fields were originally the site of the Rotherham horse racingcourse.


It operated from 1889 to 1902 and was a big attraction.


“It had three wooden stands and often attracted crowds of more than 20,000,” remembers Chris. “Many people came by train from outlying towns and cities. On race days many of the Rotherham shops closed so staff could attend the race meeting.


“Press reports at the time on football games being played at the Clifton Lane football ground by Rotherham Town talked of teams playing towards the racecourse. It appears that the winning post could be seen from the stand in the football ground.”


In 1930 came a big change.


Work started on the building of the Herringthorpe housing estate. Middle Lane was extended from its junction with Badsley Moor Lane to Wickersley Road. This left the playing field surrounded by roads but also brought many more people — and potential users — much closer.


Quickly, sports pitches were set up and a large two-storey building was built as changing rooms. The upstairs was used to sell refreshments and a space for the St John Ambulance staff to operate out of.


The playing fields had a small children's play area with swings, slides and roundabouts. As well as the football and rugby pitches, four cricket squares were also installed.


“All the playing surfaces were kept in good condition and were fully used for many years by the local sportsmen of Rotherham,” says Chris.


“I remember regularly turning up on a Sunday morning to find that the council workers who worked from the council nurseries on the complex, were rolling and remarking the football pitches after the damage done on a Saturday afternoon, ready for the morning fixtures.”


Sadly, by the 1990s this had all stopped and the pitches had become neglected. Pitches 6, 7 and 8, near the old toilets on Middle Lane were often unfit for play from January onwards because of surface water and mud. 


Teams started moving away from Herringthorpe to other grounds in frustration at turning up for games that they knew would not be played because of the state of the pitches. 


Then the three best ones — No1, 2 and 3 — were handed over for rugby use.


“By then, the cricket teams had moved away as their pitches had become so dangerous to use with anybody but a slow bowler,” said Chris. “This was a shame, because some top class teams had played there for years.”


The pavilion was also showing increasing signs of wear and tear.


Holes had started appearing in its changing rooms’ wooden floors due to years of wear from metal studs. The showers had become slow and cold at times, if they worked at all.


The council groundsmen did their best trying to do running repairs. However, the pavilion kept getting vandalised and with windows broken, holes started to appear in the walls and there was dripping water in places. 


It was no surprise that one day the local vandals, after several attempts, managed to burn it down.


The pavilion had to be demolished and never replaced, leaving the teams that still use the Playing Fields now having to get changed at home or in the open.


“Today, if you drive past Herringthorpe in the summer months you will spot teams doing their pre-season training on the grass near Middle Lane, having changed in their cars or at the side of the playing area,” added Chris.


Anyone casting their eyes across Herringthorpe Playing Fields today will see it dotted with a couple of rugby and football pitches.


Although it remains an important green space and a haven for joggers, dog walkers and other leisurely pursuits, the Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings when it buzzed to the sound of organised sports matches are sadly gone.

 

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TEAMS turning up late on a busy Sunday morning at Herringthorpe often ended up being allotted the dreaded Pitch 12.


Known as the “mountain goat pitch”, it clung to a slope right at the top of the Playing Fields, next to Rotherham Hospice.


“Unfortunately the pitch slopped in every direction you could imagine,” remembers former local football referee Chris Eyre. “Half the game was spent fetching the ball back from down the hill.”


Pitch 12 did have one advantage though.


It's slope meant that the rain drained away and it was fit for play when other pitches weren't

 

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Herringthorpe Stadium ... now 60 years old.

 

HERRINGTHORPE Stadium turned 60 years old last year and has packed a lot into its six decades.


Although Herringthorpe Playing Fields' neighbour was opened as a top athletes arena for Rotherham Harriers, who remain its main users to this day, it has hosted many sports.


Local football historian Chris Eyre, who has researched the history of the adjacent Playing Fields, notes that the grassed area in the middle of the track has been used for hockey and in later years Rugby League, Rugby Union and even American Football. 


Herringthorpe also had a wider pull.


“In years gone by there were several enclosed training areas on the hill above and these tended to be booked by out-of-town football teams to do their training on,” he notes.


“Boston United, Spalding and Matlock Town were regular users. However, these became neglected and were shut some years ago.”


Many local football cup finals have taken place at Herringthorpe Stadium and for many years it was the home venue for the Rotherham Boys football team.


However, like the running track, the playing surface deteriorated as teams were allowed to train on it rather than just play games.
The groundsmen did their best with repairs but the money needed to do a proper job was never forthcoming.


 The Rotherham Charity Cup football competition has used the ground for many seasons for its quarter-finals but over the last three years its organisers have been concerned about the state of the floodlights. 


“Often, a third of the bulbs were out,” said Chris. “One set of lights they christened 'substitute' because they used to come on only for the last ten minutes of the game.”


Rotherham Borough Council did replace most of the bulbs in 2018 and has indicated that there may be money available to repair the wiring of the lights which now appears to be the main problem.


It is understood that the wiring has been there since the lights were first installed, and has passed its “use by” date.

 

However, Herringthorpe could get a sporting shot in the arm in the not too distant future.

As recently as December 2018 the Football Foundation was working on a blueprint to try and improve football facilities in Rotherham.

Chris Eyre confirmed: “Part of its ideas is for a new pavilion at Herringthorpe with four good grass pitches, or possibly all-weather ones, together with new floodlights for them, so watch this space.”