When Chester were formed in 1885 they played their home matches in Hoole on the Faulkner Street ground that had been used by their predecessors Chester Rovers. As residential housing swallowed up the area the club were forced to relocate in 1898 to land that had been used for the Royal Agricultural Show.. This proved to be only a short term measure and with Hoole continuing to develop the club were forced to temporarily disband in 1899 after attempts to find a new ground were unsuccessful.
In 1901 the club relaunched in Whipcord Lane playing in the Combination League on land owned by the Earl of Crewe. Unfortunately the drawbacks of the ground quickly became apparent and the small size of the pitch proved problematical. Despite beating Birkenhead in the 1901/02 FA Cup Chester were disqualified from the competition because of the pitch dimensions and they didn’t re-enter until 1905 when they were given permission to host Northern Nomads. There were similar issues in the Welsh Cup and the club were forced to switch their 1902 3rd Round tie to Wrexham.
The ground also had the misfortune of being located next to Finchetts’s Gutter so suffered badly from flooding. Many match reports highlighted the dreadful state of the playing surface with games played ankle deep in mud on a pitch that resembled a quagmire for most of the season.
It was clear that the Whipcord Lane ground was unsuitable for a club looking to progress although some improvements were made in 1905 when a new covered stand was erected by the dressing rooms and the reserve side was also covered.
On the playing front the club were having some success, finishing runners-up in the Combination in 1904, 1905 and 1906 and crowds of 4,000 for local games against the likes of Whitchurch, Broughton and Wrexham were not uncommon. Nevertheless gate receipts fell slightly during the 1905/06 season although the club still made a profit of £61 0s 4d.
News that a new ground, a short distance away in Sealand Road, had been secured first emerged in May 1906 and a formal announcement took place at the AGM in July. Enormous credit for the move should go to the hard work of chairman Edward Hallmark, secretary William Fletcher and treasurer William Coventry, stalwarts of the club, who had all been involved in finding a new ground when Chester left Hoole. It was their foresight and wish to further improve the club’s fortunes that precipitated the move to Sealand Road and paved the way for the club’s success over the rest of the decade. This was achieved under difficult circumstances. Reports of the AGM suggest that there was a pessimism amongst supporters who felt that Chester should be winning every game and this is perhaps reflected in the fact that the only people present at the meeting were the three aforementioned committee members, two members of the press and two supporters.
The enclosure was secured thanks to the assistance of Alfred Mond, the newly elected Liberal MP for Chester. The future Lord Melchett, who had only been elected to parliament in January, would have been well aware of the drawbacks of the Whipcord Lane ground. He was a follower of the club and had recently attended the Chester Senior Cup Final between Saltney Carriage Works and Handbridge St Mary’s at the ground in March .
Mond’s election to parliament proved highly beneficial to the football club as previous discussions on improving and enlarging the Whipcord Lane ground had proved unsuccessful. However Mond had a considerable advantage in his negotiations as Robert Offley Ashburton Milnes, the Earl of Crewe, and owner of the Whipcord Lane field and proposed ground in Sealand Road, was a Liberal peer in the House of Lords. With the Liberal’s having secured the Chester seat for the first time since 1885 the timing was perfect for the club.
The lease on the new ground was secured by Mond for an initial period of 10 years and although the club were in a reasonably healthy position they required funds to finance the development so it was proposed that a limited company be formed with the aim of securing £1000 from shares priced at £1 each. A prospectus was issued at the start of September and when the share list closed at the end of the month 580 shares had been taken up. By the time of the next AGM, in July 1907, 945 had been allocated with Alfred Mond the majority shareholder having acquired 150.
The new Sealand Road field had previously been rented and farmed by Henry Dodd of Blacon House Farm who was reported to be very upset that Lord Crewe had agreed to give Chester use of the land at Sealand Road. While Dodd may have been aggrieved about losing the land he was listed as a director in the September prospectus.
At first the possibility of developing the ground as a fully equipped athletic stadium was mooted. Even as late as mid-November, with a proposed opening date before Christmas, chairman Hallmark attended the annual social event for Chester Cycling Club and stated that the new Sealand Road ground would also host a cycle track. Given that the original specification proposed a gap of four yards between the touchline and path this may have been the intention but by now the plans had been scaled back and this can only ever have been a future wish.
When the chairman had presented plans for the ground in July, drawn up by Messrs Douglass and Minshull, the objective was to provide accommodation for 5,000 at a cost of between £500 and £700. These plans allowed for a 2,500 stand on the 4d side, a reserved stand in the middle for 500 with an entrance fee of 1s and two other stands on either end each holding 1,000. Under the covered stand it was proposed to have dressing rooms, shower baths for the players and two offices for the committee.
The ground was initially reported to be 120 yards long and 70 yards wide but whether this was the planned dimension of the playing surface or the ground itself is open to interpretation. The pitch in Chester’s Football League days measured 114 yards by 74 yards which would better explain why the Whipcord Lane pitch was deemed too short and it may be that the original dimensions were altered. Sealand Road was reported to be 20 yards longer and 17 yards wider than Whipcord Lane which would have put the old playing surface comfortably below the Football Association’s minimum length requirement of 100 yards.
In the event the true cost of building the new ground soon became apparent and by September the elaborate plans had been modified and it was announced that the new stands would be of much more modest proportions with stand accommodation for 1000 although the ground was still expected to hold around 5000. In October the construction was put out to tender with three responses and the directors elected to go with the lowest option of £725 from William Vernon and Sons. Construction finally started in November and the 4-0 victory over Birkenhead on the 10th was judged to be the last at Whipcord Lane.
By the end of November workmen were hard at work on the new enclosure which was still expected to be completed in time for the Christmas games. The Liverpool Echo reported that many interested visitors had been down to Sealand Road to check on progress and they were pleased that the new hoardings had stood up to the severe gales that had recently swept the area. Meanwhile rumours that Liverpool or Aston Villa would perform the opening ceremony were deemed inaccurate.
The ground was formally opened with little fuss on December 15th 1906 when Chester hosted Bangor in a Combination fixture. Mr C J Hughes, secretary of the County Association unlocked the gates in front of a number of the club’s supporters although the ground was unfinished and it appears as though only a partially completed main stand was in place. Despite this the ground was described as one of the best in the county and worthy of any organisation.
The Bangor game itself proved to be a very one-sided affair but played in a very friendly spirit. Chester won comfortably 4-0 and the honour of scoring the first goal went to debutant outside left Jenkins, a recent signing from Northern Nomads, who netted with a long range shot. Further goals were added by Williams, Walker and Wallace Jones. It was reported that the players calculations seemed to be upset by the dimensions of the new pitch which resulted in many mistakes occurring.
After the game a dinner was held at the Williamson’s Dining Rooms in Brook Street attended by around 50 people including the players from both Chester and Bangor. One person who could not attend was Alfred Mond, who had fallen ill, but the work done by the chairman Edward Hallmark was recognised in the after-dinner speeches.
The speeches also referenced the prices for the new reserved stand. The initial plan had been to charge a 1/- and although this was later reduced to 9d it was still deemed to be too much. As a result the secretary William Fletcher announced that the prices would be reduced to a much more reasonable 6d while he also reiterated the intention to erect a stand on the 4d side.
On Christmas Day Chester played their 2nd game at Sealand Road where the move was fully vindicated when 5000 spectators were present to watch the team thrash Druids 7-0. Unfortunately the other Christmas fixture, against Tranmere Rovers where another large crowd was expected, had to be postponed because of heavy snow. Nevertheless the new enclosure proved to be a fortress and it wasn’t until the following October that Chester suffered their first league defeat at the ground.
The team photograph below was taken before kick-off at the first game. There seems to be some netting visible so I’m guessing that it was taken in front of the goal, probably the Sealand Road End, but I don’t know what the building would be in the background.
Back Standing: B Eardley (trainer), Mr C J Hughes, Mr J O Jepson, J Russell, Mr B E Johnson, W Keeley, Mr J Dodd, J Jones, Mr E Case, Mr W Fletcher (secretary)
Middle seated: Mr E T Hallmark, R Jones, F Grainger, W Galley, Mr O Reeves
Front: H Williams, A Lees, W Walker, W Jones, Jenkins