Derek Astbury, the son of former Chester player Tommy Astbury, has used lockdown to construct a superb model of the old Sealand Road stadium based on how the ground looked when his father was playing for the club in the 1940s and 1950s. Measuring 6ft by 4ft it took six months to build and it is hoped that it can be shown at the Deva Stadium some time in the future. I would urge anyone to go and see it if the opportunity arises.
Derek explains how he tackled the project:
“I retired just before the first lockdown and during the early months did what most people were doing i.e sort out family photos/ tidy the attic etc. While doing this I came across some old subbuteo equipment and after watching a YouTube programme I discovered there was an internet community of 50-60 year olds revisiting the game.
I decided to buy some players online to paint myself and found that there were some in vintage style kits and the idea was born. I would paint Chester FC from the time that my dad played together with other teams he played against. I thought I could then display them with a programme of the match for example Bolton Wanderers for his testimonial, Hull City (Raich Carter) and Stoke City (Stanley Matthews).
Then I moved on to the Stadium itself which I started to construct on January 21st using 3mm plastic sheet that was destined for the skips where I used to work. I have been building on and off since then on the occasions it has been warm enough in my garage to let my fingers work.
I have had the Images of Sport Book for many years and most of my reference has come from that as well as the Chester Football History Facebook page and my dad’s scrapbooks and photos. I did start to look at photos differently ie not at the subject but at the background details to see what the stands looked like and what adverts were on display. Most of the photographs are taken inside the ground so getting the outside details was quite a struggle. Even people who had been to the ground many times didn’t know what the other side of the Kop looked like.
Some things came as a surprise to me during the build research. One was the office building between the Main Stand and the Barn at the Sealand Road End. Another was the fact that the Popular Side was wider at the Kop end. I only realised this when I saw an aerial shot and had to start again on this stand. I also decided that I had to include the lamppost in front of the plaque on the front wall. Other problems for me were that the photos of the era were in black and white so I had to do some further research on colours (or guess!). The VP Wine advert on the Popular side just looks maroon to me.
It was also important to me that the game of subbuteo still remained playable and the stands were not too big to reach over. This means there are not the correct amount of seats in the stands or steps on the terraces so I couldn’t fill them with the 20,000 spectators that saw the Chelsea FA Cup game. From the positive comments I have received so far I think I have managed to capture the essence of the Sealand Road Stadium.
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
This photo was taken in August 1949 and features Ted Elliott in pre-season training. The Carlisle born goalkeeper joined Chester from Wolves in October 1948 and played 59 league games for the club before moving to Halifax Town in November 1950 after losing his place to Harry Threadgold.
It is the background of this photograph which is probably of more interest as it features a great view of the Kop which is not normally seen from this angle. The most obvious feature is the half-time scoreboard at the back of the terrace. I believe the scoreboard was first erected around 1933 as the key to the games featured in programmes for the 1933/34 season. It is visible in one of the photos from the late 1930s that features in my Images of Sport book.
Interestingly the scoreboard seems to have disappeared by the time of the 1952 FA Cup tie against Chelsea and photos from the mid-1950s confirm that it had been removed. However it looks like it was replaced at a later date further to the right of the goal with a different framework. It is still visible in photos as late as the 1971/72 season but I personally don’t remember it being there for the 1974/75 promotion season. In later years I remember there being a half-time scoreboard along the wall of the Popular Side by the Kop and there was also one at the corner of old wooden main stand by the Sealand Road End which is visible in photos from the late 1950s and 1960s.
In addition to the scoreboard the white circle in the centre of the goal was put there for shooting practice while it is surprising to see how overgrown the Kop was at this time. It is reminiscent of how the terrace looked in the late 1980s.
If anyone else has any more background information concerning the half-time scoreboard and other aspects of the Kop I would be interested to hear from them as I would like to expand on this article with a few more pictures if possible.
A look through the minutes of the meetings in the 1930s ledger turned up some interesting information about the club. From my point of view the most fascinating revelation was Charlie Hewitt’s position at the club.
Hewitt’s job title at Chester was secretary-manager but I never appreciated how this role worked. Certainly I envisaged him as primarily a football man who handled some of the administration. However, the meeting minutes shed a different light on affairs and it seems that the balance was tilted more towards the running of the club than I imagined.
Hewitt was born in the north-east in 1884 and had an unremarkable football career spending short periods with Middlesbrough, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and Hartlepools United. He took his first managerial role at Mold before spells in charge at Wrexham, Flint and Connah’s Quay. He became Chester’s first manager in 1930 and lead them into the Football League in 1931 after an incredible season in which they scored 170 goals in the Cheshire County League and finished runners-up to Port Vale Reserves. The season was notable for the quality of players attracted to the club with Chester taking advantage of the loan system and bringing in experienced Football League players like Arthur Gale, Frank Creswell and Dave Morris.
The minutes show that Hewitt spent a lot of time scouting for players and he would make transfer recommendations to the board but when it came to selecting or organising the team his input was more limited. I had read in the past that his philosophy was to find the right man for the right position and that seems to be the key to his success at Chester. He didn’t believe in using confusing tactics or giving a player a role for which he had no experience and as far as he was concerned it was a matter of getting the team forward to score goals in as straightforward a fashion as possible. Hewitt employed a number of trainers, like Jock Simpson and Hughie Ross, whose main job was to get the players fit, but on reflection I wonder how significant it is that in the majority of team groups in On The Borderline it is the trainer rather than Hewitt who appears in the team photograph.
In those early Football League days Chester employed a selection committee and this seems to have caused some conflict between Hewitt and the board of directors. An example of this can be seen in October 1933 when the committee met to select the team against Stockport. The minutes report that Hewitt recommended Gerry Kelly play in place of Sammy Armes who had picked up an injury but the selection committee was divided on who to select and in the end it was resolved to refer the position of outside right to the full board of directors which must have been extremely frustrating for Hewitt.
In the end Kelly played and scored with Chester drawing 1-1 but this coincided with a run that saw the club win only two of the first 12 games of the season. In a meeting at the end of October one of the directors expressed his view that the club would only start to win matches when the board accepted the selection recommendations of Hewitt. The secretary-manager certainly made his opinions known when he told the board where he thought the problems rested saying that Kelly would not make a centre-forward due to his not liking the position. He also suggested other changes in the starting line-up stating, amongst other things, that he was dissatisfied with the play and captaincy of Harry Skitt and accusing Frank Cresswell of malingering.
The situation appears to have been partially resolved the following week when the board agreed to cease with a selection committee and act on the recommendations of the secretary-manager. Although this seemed to place more power in the hands of Hewitt it still left the final decision with the board as can be seen when the decision to select Skitt against Darlington a few weeks later was passed by a vote of six to three.
In fact it could be argued that the board were often in a better position to judge current form than Hewitt who often appeared to be on scouting missions. In his time at Millwall (where he became manager in 1936) it was noted that he was rarely seen on match days which seemed to continue the trend he began at Sealand Road. Interestingly, when he took up the managerial position at Millwall, he insisted on having full control of affairs which is something he did not get at Chester.
A perfect example of Hewitt’s approach to match days can be seen in September 1933. While the first eleven were chalking up an impressive 3-0 win at Wrexham the secretary-manager was with the reserves at Stockport. In fact, even in games when Hewitt was present, he did not maintain control of the team and one of the resolutions in the minutes states:
“..during progress of any game, home or away, Directors present in charge or Sec-Manager be and is hereby empowered to make such positional changes as thought necessary.”
Clearly Hewitt was heavily involved in transfer activity but he also appeared to run all the day to day operations at the club. He was a trained accountant, in charge of all the financial books, as well as handling matters like ticket and travel arrangements, insurance and advertising. In June 1933, the board registered appreciation for Hewitt on his book-keeping and accountancy skills.
In these days of performance related payments it is notable that, at one board meeting, Hewitt requested that he be paid commission on the advertising in the ground as well as a percentage of any transfer fee received. This request seems to have been initially ignored but when it was brought up again at the end of the year the board agreed to his request for a percentage of the advertising revenue but, at least initially, turned down the transfer fee proposal much to Hewitt’s dissatisfaction.
When the secretary-manager moved to Millwall in 1936 he was replaced as manager by Alex Raisbeck with clerk Billy Peters took over the role of secretary.
Hewitt himself had a big impact when he first moved down to London taking Millwall to the semi-final of the FA Cup followed by the Division Three South title the following season. However, his time at the Den ended in disgrace when he was suspended for six months for making illegal payments to players before being sacked soon afterwards in 1940. After serving with the Royal Navy during the war he returned to football as Leyton Orient manager in 1946 but resigned less than a year later after a disagreement about signing players. Although he was reinstated at Orient he, perhaps surprisingly, returned to Millwall in August 1948 after two undistinguished seasons at Brisbane Road.
He was less successful in his second spell at Millwall and his autocratic style did not go down well as the team struggled. An abrasive character he was sacked in Janaury 1956 and it was reported that the players were so relieved by his departure that most of them went out for a celebratory drink together.
In the 1960s Hewitt made an unsuccessful attempt to join the board of directors at Chester and died shortly afterwards, in Darlington, in December 1966.
Charlie Hewitt’s time at Sealand Road proved to be one of the club’s most successful periods but his role incorporated activities not normally associated with today’s football manager. His talent seems to have revolved around wheeling and dealing in the transfer market rather than team selection and tactics. This approach would explain why very few local players made a breakthrough into the first team in his time in charge. Conversely his influence off the field appears to have been much greater than expected at a time that Chester were making the transition from the Cheshire County League to the Football League.
One of the most interesting items of club memorabilia I have ever seen was recently loaned to Chester FC chairman Tony Durkin.
A 336 page hardback ledger, spanning the period from November 1932 to February 1937, was in the possession of a relative of former clerk and secretary Billy Peters. It makes fascinating reading as it covers board meetings with subjects ranging from club finances and team selection down to travel arrangements and the provision of fire extinguishers.
After my recent articles on Sealand Road there was one item that took my eye. In January 1934 item 2945 referred to the naming of the ground:
Naming of the Ground
“Sec-manager recommended the ground be given a name such as “The Stadium”, Sealand Road, Chester. Resolved on the suggestion of Mr C.J.F. Owen that the Chairman and Sec. Manager use the words The Stadium on posters and letterheads when the public would would follow the lead and accept the title.”
I never appreciated that the ground had formally been entitled “The Stadium” in this way. I had presumed that the name had been adopted by default after its construction in 1906. Given the circumstances I am surprised that such a bland, unimaginative name was endorsed. The naming may have been prompted by the imminent arrival of the Greyhound Stadium, which was built next door the following year, but I would have thought that this would have prompted a more creative title.
Ground name 1932
Ground Name 1935
Although The Stadium may have been the official name I think it is fair to say that it never fully caught on. I always though of it as Sealand Road and this was always how the ground was known in footballing circles.