One of the most distinctive features of the old Sealand Road ground was the impressive set of floodlight which bowed down over the Stadium. The lights were state of the art when they were constructed in 1960 and the fact that they were ever erected at all was almost entirely down to the efforts of the Chester FC Supporters Association.
Although there had been experiments with floodlights going back to the 19th century it wasn’t until the 1950s that they began to be widely installed at grounds. In the 1930s Arsenal had placed permanent lights at Highbury but the Football League only allowed there use in friendlies and unofficial games. It wasn’t until 1956, when Portsmouth hosted Newcastle United at Fratton Park, that the first Football League match was played under lights.
Chester’s first experience of floodlit football occurred when the youngsters played a Youth Cup 2nd Round tie at Preston North End in November 1954 with the Deepdale side winning 4-1. The following October the seniors played their first game under lights, winning a thrilling Lancashire Cup encounter at Accrington Stanley’s Peel Park ground by three goals to two.
The Chester board of directors, under chairman Sam Argyle, recognised that times were changing and at the AGM in August 1956 the subject of floodlights was raised. The club realised they would be invaluable for training and allow later kick off times for cup ties and attractive friendlies against foreign opposition. However, Argyle explained that a sub-committee established to look at the cost of floodlights felt that a sum of at least £9,000 was currently beyond the club’s financial capabilities.
Under the circumstances this announcement was hardly a surprise given recent financial tribulations. In March 1955 the board had called a crisis meeting at the Town Hall amidst a real fear that the club would be forced out of the Football League. The club was in the red to the tune of around £7,500, a situation not helped by falling attendances caused by a bottom place finish in the Third Division North in 1953/54, a position set to be repeated in 1954/55. An attempt to raise £3,000 through a share issue had received a very muted response as local businesses showed little enthusiasm. At the Town Hall meeting a call was made to urgently raise £5,000 through a 100,000 shillings fund. This received a positive initial response but by the end of the season only £1,750 had been reached.
Despite the doom and gloom there was one very positive consequence of the 1955 meeting and that was the formation of the Chester FC Supporters Association. The group was a merger of the Supporters Club and Supporters Committee and charged a 2s 6d subscription. By the end of the 1954/55 season membership had already reached 2,500 and the group would have a considerable impact over the subsequent years. When the dynamic Association celebrated their fourth anniversary in 1959 it was reported that they had raised a phenomenal £21,072 for the club which included the original shilling fund as well as money from a hugely successful weekly football pool.
The Supporters Association had a strong bond with the board of directors so although Sam Argyle had announced that floodlights were financially out of reach in August 1956 the board must have felt some cause for future optimism through the strength of this new group and their fund raising activities. In addition attendances had shown an improvement during the 1955/56 campaign and the club had made a small profit to reduce the overall overdraft to just under £5,000. The summer had also seen the appointment of ex Chelsea centre-half John Harris as player manager and the return of popular Welsh international winger Billy Foulkes so there were reasons for positivity on the field of play.
One idea being considered was to ask 60 supporters to contribute £150 each repayable over 5 years with 5% interest and although this failed to get off the ground the first steps towards illuminating the ground took place in October 1956.
With half the squad either amateur or part time the club were experiencing difficulty giving them the necessary ball practice so the club planned to install a modified form of floodlighting to aid those who could only train in the evening. The idea was to illuminate one end of the ground by putting lights on the grandstand and on the shelter on the popular side. If the light wasn’t sufficient there was an intention to increase the number. This was intended as the start of a scheme to illuminate the whole ground and the cost of “hundreds” was aided by a donation of £750 from the Supporters Association.
The official switch on took place in November with one of the directors stating that they were “almost good enough to play a match” but it was clear that more substantial floodlighting was needed if Chester wanted to keep up with the rest of the Football League.
A few weeks ago I published a post displaying pictures of the Sealand Road model created by Derek Astbury. Derek is the son of former player Tommy Astbury, who played 303 league games for the clubs in the 1940s and 1950s. He has now re-created a selection of pictures taken from his late father’s collection, the Chester City Images of Sport book and the Chester Football History Facebook page.
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.