Note Wellesley Recreation Ground boasts what is commonly regarded as the oldest surviving grandstand in English football, if not the world. It was granted Grade 2 Listed status in May 2002. It is probably the one ground where supporters are more than happy to put up with the inconvenience of a running track around the pitch!
The stand, a drawing of which is appropriately the logo for ‘Groundtastic’ magazine and which draws enthusiasts like moths to a flame, is actually older than the club itself, formed five years later in 1897. Much of the following text is adapted from an extensive history of the ground written by David Tubby that can be found on the club’s official website ...
The ground itself was opened on 6 August 1888 by the Mayor, when an estimated crowd of 3,000 each paid a shilling to watch races on the circular cinder bicycle track that had been laid several months earlier. Three cricket pitches and a tennis court were subsequently added.
In his "History of the Wellesley Recreation Ground" author David Tubby states that it is probable that the first football match to be played at the ground occurred on Friday 11 April 1890 when a Yarmouth representative side met the County Captain's Team during their annual tour. Although there was already seating at the ground, by now it was being recognised that there was a need for a grandstand on the east side from which to view the sports, and in September 1891 the Recreation Committee of the council recommended the erection of a grandstand, dressing room and refreshment pavilion at an estimated cost of £1,000. The stand was duly opened on Whit Monday, 11 June 1892 when a combined Athletic and Cycle sports meeting was held, attended by a crowd of some 4,200.
When Great Yarmouth Town FC came into being in 1897 the club spent its early seasons on the Beaconsfield Recreation Ground, before finally being granted permission to use the Wellesley for the 1901/02 season. The club was granted use of the ground every Saturday and allowed to charge gate money on condition that 10% was paid to the council. In these early days, the clubs use of the ground was frequently curtailed in the first week of April to allow sufficient time to prepare cricket pitches.
Although there were a number of additions to the ground in the form of new gates, turnstiles railings … and urinals, there were no major additions until 1931 when the west side concrete standing and shelter was completed and has remained virtually unchanged since. Although the stand rightly gets all the attention, the west side is certainly not without merit.
Repairs to the gable ends of the grandstand were carried out in 1951 and two years later the stand was re-roofed in corrugated asbestos sheeting.
Baseball was played at the ground by American servicemen during WW2 and the ground also staged archery, flower shows and horse-jumping. However, the biggest crowd ever seen at the Wellesley was that at the FA Cup 1st Round match between Great Yarmouth and Crystal Palace on 21 November 1953 when 8,944 watched the Bloaters win 1-0; additional terracing was provided by an arrangement of fish boxes behind the south goal.
Disaster struck on Sunday 16 September 1967 when a fire broke out in the grandstand, gutting the treatment room and adjoining dressing rooms. Part of the stand remained useable for spectators though the teams had to change in the North Drive Bowls Pavilion for several weeks until repairs had been carried out.
In 1979 the club received permission to erect a Clubhouse at the north east corner of the Wellesley; the building, which had an entrance onto Sandown Road and was granted a licence to sell alcohol, was constructed entirely by club members. An initial request for floodlighting in September 1981 was turned down but after further consideration and the offer of grant aid to the sum of £10,000 from the Sports Council the town council finally agreed and the lights came on for the first time on 7 October 1983 when the Bloaters played an Ipswich Town side.
Another interesting if not architecturally significant feature of the ground is the presence of four small brick dugouts in front of the stand. After the club was refused permission to extend the existing structures or replace them to meet revised ground grading criteria it was forced to build two more, and as a consequence there are now two ‘home’ and two ‘away’ dugouts. DB