The Memorial Ground is by far the largest – and arguably the most effective - war memorial in Bristol. The sports ground was built for the Bristol Rugby Club in 1920-21, on ‘Buffalo Bill’s Field’, in Horfield, a north Bristol residential area. Buffalo Bill’s Field had been a public showground for flying loop-the-loop air displays, and for various sports. The site was used as allotments for food production during the First World War.
Meanwhile, moves were afoot to find a suitable home for Bristol rugby – led by Francis Cowlin, the great friend of rugby in Bristol. Buffalo Bill’s Field, which had been acquired by Frank Cowlin, was generously donated by him, and conveyed to trustees, for the use of the Bristol Rugby Club. The Memorial Ground was designed by local architect James Hart, who had been for many years a member of the club’s committee. The entrance gates were presented by a former Bristol Football Club player John S. Edbrooke, and the plaques were inscribed by A.G. Bird, another Bristol rugby player.
At the beginning of the war, a large group of Bristol rugby players had enlisted together and many were to lose their lives on the battlefield. The Great War was traumatic for the people of Britain. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Europeans considered how to remember the fallen – and how to ensure that there were no more such wars. In Britain, local “communities of the bereaved” (1) created war memorials as they saw fit, within the context of national guidelines. There was a wave of memorialisation.
It was determined that the new rugby ground would be a permanent memorial to “perpetuate the memory of 300 local rugby footballers who made the great sacrifice” (2), “as no better way could be found of paying a lasting tribute to the players who played the game right to the end” (3). The whole Memorial Ground is their war memorial (Imperial War Museum war memorial ref 7323), not just the grade II listed entrance gates.
The notion of ‘our debt to sport’ was keenly felt: “it was the young men of the country who won the war, and it was the sporting instinct that enabled them to do it. … to endure untold suffering and misery. …Those glorious lads … had done their part nobly and it was to those who were able to live on, to see that their memory should never fade.” (4). In March 1920, a public appeal was launched to raise money to construct and equip the sports ground.
The people of Bristol donated several thousand pounds to pay for the construction works (undertaken by Messrs William Cowlin & Son) and to equip the Memorial Ground. This is indicative of the wish of local people to honour the contribution of sportsmen to the war effort, to remember their spirit, loyalty and fair play. It was well understood that the sportsmen had been an inspiration. At a time when the horrors of the war were still fresh in people’s minds, the generosity, energy, grief, love, and pride of Bristolians led to a fitting memorial to honour these role models. The genius of the Memorial Ground was that the sportsmen soldiers would be memorialised by sport, at, and by, the sports ground. Bristolians responded positively to this concept.
The Memorial Ground was formally opened on 24 September 1921 by Bristol’s Lord Mayor, G.B. Britton. The opening featured a thrilling game versus Cardiff. Equally matched for much of it, towards the end, the game took off with four tries and two conversions for the Bristol team, in quick succession, likened in The Western Mail to “an explosive bursting its shell” (5).
Small acts of remembrance occur every time the Memorial Stadium is mentioned by name, in the media, or in conversation. Nearly every day is a day of remembrance, not just once a year, on Remembrance Sunday. At every match, supporters pass the entrance gates and see the inscriptions. This is a dynamic, living and inspiring war memorial, a place of vigorous sport and the roar of spectator passion. It is not an ordinary static, formal and sombre memorial, a plain record of names in stone or bronze, with religious symbols. The Memorial Ground is a special type of practical and secular war memorial. The hopes, strategies and vicissitudes of sport reflect those of life and remind us of the randomness of untimely death. The fallen sportsmen live on in this place. Because this war memorial is a sports ground – a place of heightened passions and expressed emotions – the poignancy of the memorialisation is intensified. Few war memorials have this effective, frequent, ever renewing, and profound impact on the imagination, generation after generation.
Perpetuity means for ever. Frank Cowlin conveyed the land to trustees and built in legal covenants to safeguard the long term future of the sports ground: if the Bristol Rugby Club were to become bankrupt, the Memorial Ground would be offered by the trustees to the Bristol Rugby Combination. If the Combination did not take up the offer, the Memorial Ground was to be conveyed to Bristol Corporation (i.e. Bristol City Council) “for the benefit of the city as a public sports ground” (6). This safeguarding failed in 1998, when the Directors of Bristol Rovers Football Club came to possess the land.
Since 1921, annual Remembrance Day services have been held at the Ground, and two minutes’ silence is observed before the game nearest to Armistice Day. The ground is the ‘soul’ and home of Bristol rugby. It is one of the city’s most effective, most compelling and most poignant war memorials, created in a moment of genius. The memorial sports ground was intended to be “a source of inspiration to generations of young Bristolians,” (7) lest we forget. Our famous sporting, heritage and community asset is now run down and threatened by inappropriate redevelopment. So, do we destroy it – or renovate it and pass it on?
You can find more details about the history of the Memorial Ground, and the threats to it, at: http://memorialgroundbristol.wordpress.com/history/, a blog site which also features images and source material.
Jamie Carstairs is a photographer, with an interest in history, place and community. He has lived near Gloucester Road, Bristol’s celebrated high street of independent shops, since 2004.
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