Kingsholm by Geoffrey Willans

In Memoriam

KINGSHOLM  by Geoffrey Willans

[This is an article by Geoffrey Willans born 1911 died 1958. He was a journalist and author of the Nigel Molesworth books much loved by schoolboys of my generation. I cannot date the article but enjoyed reading it and thought it worth sharing on this excellent site.    Sean Vivian]

I passed the Kingsholm ground the other day and, glancing in through the open gates, I saw that the grass was long and the Dean’s Walk mound overgrown.  Sheep grazed there, browsing on the grass where a thousand pairs of famous football feet have moved so swiftly.  The stands had a shabby look.

So this was Kingsholm now!  There may be some to whom the name means nothing, but they can hardly be followers of Rugby football.  Every Rugger enthusiast knows the name of the Gloucester Rugby Football Club, for it is one of the most famous grounds in the country and haunted by many ghosts.

It is difficult to live in the West of England and not to be a lover of Rugby, for in better days every man there seemed to live for the Saturday match.  When Gloucester were playing at home, what a flurry there was in the city!  Trains and buses poured in their record crowds of supporters and all morning there was a sense of excitement.  At lunch-time there was only one topic in the pubs, and, as the hour approached, everyone pressed into Worcester Street.

How full the air was of tobacco!  How these workmen with the scarves around their necks hurried!  How the turnstiles clicked! With what sick anxiety did I myself, a small boy, hear the sound of the silver band within and murmur of the crowd!  How urgent were those questions, “Would we get a seat?”, “Would we be able to see?”

It is inevitable, I suppose that the teams and players of one’s boyhood must seem superior to those in the days of riper judgement.  Honesty compels me to admit that the Gloucester teams of the middle Thirties were more attractive than those of a decade before.  But where were the characters?  Who could forget “Father” Dix spitting on his hands before putting the ball into the scrum?  Or Tom Voyce descending on some presumptuous fly-half? Sid Smart at the back of the line-out and Millington’s unassuming efficiency?  No one, sir, who ever saw them!  For these men were of the giants; there were the heroes of one’s youth and indestructible.  They were carved from solid oak.

I was nine and my brother eleven when we were first taken to Kingsholm, and our enthusiasm was so great that it was not long before we attained the dignity of a book of vary-coloured season tickets. On the face of it there was little appearance of entering a new world, for Kingsholm will never have the beauty of a Twickenham.  Its atmosphere derives more from the nearby pickle factory than the cathedral.  In those days there was only a single stand and there was little to be said for the ground on the score of facial beauty.

But, by heavens, there was tradition!  Only the connoisseur could really know Kingsholm.  The man who knew how to respect the opinion of the Dean’s Walk end, who knew exactly which march the Wagon Works Band would play, who knew to the second the moment the pavilion door would open and the visiting team run down the steps onto the field.

This was the man who got the full savour of the change from polite demonstration to full-throated affection as the Gloucester team followed.  “Good old Glorster!” went up the cry.  “Come on the Cherry-whites!”  What a heart-warming cry it was!  Perhaps it was the reason why Gloucester are so formidable when they play at home.

I was fortunate in my early apprenticeship , for I not only saw Gloucester, but those famous Gloucestershire teams of 1920 onwards which won the County Championship with such ease.  I can still recall the power of the forwards (six of them Gloucester men) and the precision of the three-quarters when Leicestershire were beaten in one final by 31 points to 4.  The Gloucestershire team line was Spoors, Stanley Cook, L.J. Corbett and Feltham, and they gave the best exhibition of three-quarter play I have ever seen.  (Corbett had the most tremendous “dummy”, which was enough to delight any schoolboy’s heart.)

It was around this time, too, that I was lucky enough to see one of the most famous of all matches at Kingsholm, when Gloucester beat a hitherto undefeated Newport fifteen by 12 points to 9. For days before it was obvious that it was to be an occasion.  The posters were yellow (I think), making the proclamation: “Newport (The Invincibles) versus Gloucester”. Never was simplicity more effective.  The anticipation it conjured was every bit as attractive as that of Carpentier fighting Dempsey for the heavyweight championship. And what an occasion it turned out to be! Kingsholm, which was always a liberal ground, packed in eleven thousand people.  There was a tense, rather alien emotion abroad in the crowd that day. The Newport team contained nine Internationals, Gloucester had Internationals, too – Holford, Sid Smart, and Tom Voyce – but it seemed impossible that they could win against  such opposition.

How very much like “Invincibles” did Newport look as they ran on the field in their yellow and black jerseys, and what a roaring there was when it seemed at length that “Glorster” would win!  A goal, a dropped goal and a try to three tries.  How little does that express the struggle!  Once Gloucester took the lead, how high was hope and how fraught with  danger every minute that the game continued!

It is a pleasant thought, too, that the “issue was clinched” (as the local football paper doubtless said) by one Robbins, a rather average player, dropping a brilliant goal, and later being carried off the field by the delighted crowd.  It is by such gifts that the fates reward those of us who will never be Internationals.

My mother always came on these early football expeditions, and brought with her a peculiarly feminine outlook on the game.  She was incapable of being angry with the referee for penalising Gloucester, or robbing them of a try for a mere knock-on.  She brought a personal view to the proceedings. Of one famous International her view was that he was a “beastly rough man”.  A certain small centre, known to the crowd as “Yocky”, also could do no right in her eyes.  She declared that “Yocky” dithered, and time has now convinced me that she was right.  I sometimes suspected her of the heresy of not wanting Gloucester to win.

But I have endless memories of Kingsholm.  There were those dreary days when Gloucester were stale and being beaten, when the evening mist fell before the end of the game and matches flared in the opposite stand; or the days when straw had been raked off just before the match and the players breath steamed in the frosty air.  But, best of all, I recall the pleasant lull towards the end of the game when, with Gloucester comfortably winning, the sun lit up the Cathedral across St Catherine’s meadow; ahead there was the prospect of crumpets and butter, a roaring fire to warm numbed feet and soon the boys would be shouting “Extra! Football Extra!” in the streets and you could read what “W.B.” had said about it all.

Good days indeed, and ones which will inevitably return.  Football will never die in the West Country.  Kingsholm may be a little shabby now and the older players past their prime, but new ones will come along to make heroes for other small boys.  If Gloucester did not play in peacetime at Kingsholm they would be evil times, indeed.  But there is no fear that the stands will not be packed again.

As someone once said: “I like these matches.  When Gloucester scores a try, it does my heart good that so many people are so happy!”

Comments about this page

  • I guess from reading the article it must have been written during the second world war. I’ve not looked elsewhere, but did rugby basically stop at the ground towards the end of the war? That could explain the overgrown tump and sheep grazing. Anyway, great article, and I love the contrast of his mum’s opinion and the carrying off of the less well known player after he won the game against Newport.

    By Dave Middleditch (15/05/2012)

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