By the time that St Albans City had defeated Luton Amateurs in a friendly at Clarence Park, on 5thSeptember 1914, the brutal and deadly slaughter that was World War I had already begun. The effect of the war was felt in St Albans as much as anywhere in the country.
In keeping with the rest of the clubs in the Spartan League, the football club shut down for the duration of the war. But City would have been unable to continue playing at Clarence Park even if they had wanted to, as it was quickly turned into an army camp. The Victorian park appeared unlikely to see any sporting action for some considerable time to come.
Above: R.A.M.C. (Royal Army Medical Corp) were camped at Clarence Park for training purposes. They are pictured in front of the cricket pavilion. The Park also housed an ambulance station during the war.
However, just six weeks after the start of the war, a company of troops stationed in St Albans formed their own football team and put out an appeal stating that they, ‘would be very much obliged if any gentleman could lend them a playing ground.’ Any such offers had to go through the Colour Sergeant at Spencer House, Spencer Street, St Albans. Whether the men had any success is not known, but sport, including football, certainly did continue at Clarence Park during the war.
Above: The 2/5th Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment were stationed at Clarence Park from July 1915 to April 1916, when they moved to Ireland to quell disturbances. They are pictured outside the refreshments chalet that was situated for more than 60 years on the boundary of the cricket pitch. At this time the chalet was run by (Thomas) Slater Caterers, who were based in High Street, St Albans.
St Albans City may not have been in a position to use their own pitch during the war, but the military are known to have played football somewhere within the park. Photographs of football teams from this time show the players posing outside the football ground, and on the cricket pitch. But it has not been possible to establish with total assurance that the military did play their games on the site of the cricket pitch rather than the football ground. The football club posed for its own team photographs by the cricket pavilion, rather than inside the football ground, right up until the mid-1930’s, yet, obviously, played its games inside the football stadium.
In April 1915 the Clarence Park Recreation Ground, Baths, and City Improvements Sub-Committee, reported that they had communicated with the Military Authorities regarding the practicability of letting the recreation ground for games. The response received from Lieutenant Colonel Dunlop was most favourable. He required a list of cricket fixtures for the summer, but added that the ground could be made available from 11a.m. each day, and that the tennis grounds would be free at all times. It was made clear, by Colonel Dunlop. that the military occupation of the Park should interfere with the public as little as possible.
On Whit Monday, 24thMay 1915, the military held their own sports afternoon. The staging of a sports day at Whitsun had become a regular event since the opening of the Park in July 1894.
Huge Crowds for Military Sports Day
Although the event was arranged at short notice, large crowds flocked to the Park. It is estimated that around seven thousand people attended the sports day and then the evening event. The latter consisted of music played by the 1/4thBattalion Northamptonshire Regiment and the Essex Bugle Band. The crowd was not only entertained by the musicians but also danced the night away.
Prior to marching their way into Clarence Park, the Bugle Band paraded through St Albans and were accompanied by a large number of local people by the time that they arrived at the Park.
All soldiers not participating in the sports were admitted free of charge. The general public, who took advantage of this being the only event taking place in the city over the holiday weekend, were charged 3d per head. The total takings amounted to a staggering £63.
The military held a second sports day at the Park on Whit Monday, 28thMay 1917. It was staged simultaneously with a sports day at the Grammar School ground at Belmont Hill. Both events proved popular with the local citizens with an estimated 2,000 people attending at each venue.
Pictured above is a tug-of-war contested by the military during the Sports Day held at Clarence Park in 1917.
Tracing the exact date that the military assumed control of the Park has not been possible, but an inspection of the St Albans companies did take place on Tuesday 6thJune 1915. Major W.Seaton, chief recruiting officer for this area of the county, inspected No.1 & 2 Companies of the 3rdBattalion of the Herts Volunteer Regiment.
The Military Overstay Their Welcome
When the war ended, in November 1918, getting back into Clarence Park was not quite as straightforward for the football club as could have been anticipated, due to the military continuing their occupation. It was a situation that the football club sought to bring to an end as quickly as possible.
The Club held its Annual General Meeting at the Abbey Institute on Monday 28thJuly and passed a resolution to be put before the next meeting of the council. Fortunately, the council were due to meet the following evening.
The resolution read; “That the members of the St Albans City Football Club hope that the St Albans City Corporation will do their utmost to again secure the use of the Clarence Park for the citizens at the earliest possible date.”
Alderman Slade put the resolution to the council, where it was discussed at some length. It was established that around 300 soldiers were based at the Park for the protection of (German) prisoners.
There were, in fact, just a handful of prisoners and these were detained at St Albans prison at the foot of Victoria Street (now called Victoria Square). The council questioned why there were any prisoners at all given that ‘we are not now at war with Germany.’
The council were in full support of the football club and carried unanimously a resolution stating, ‘that the Corporation protest against the continued occupation of Clarence Park by the military.’
The Mayor met with the General of the Army based at the Park but, despite being received sympathetically, the Corporation did not get its way and the army remained in situ for almost another year.
St Albans Cricket Club Exiled
In order for the football club to resume playing for the 1919-20 season arrangements were made for the City to play their home matches on the cricket ground, while the St Albans Cricket Club played all of its 1919 fixtures away from home. It is most likely that the football club used the same area of the cricket pitch to play their matches that the military had done earlier in the war.
By the summer of 1920 the situation was little better for the cricket club, as they still could not return to their ground. They had, however, been able to practice since mid January on a wicket close to where their pitch should have been.
This had been made possible by the marking of a fresh pitch for the football club that ran alongside the front of the cricket pavilion.
City’s first match on the new pitch ended with a 3-0 Spartan League win over Great Western Railway on 17thJanuary. The Club remained on this pitch for the rest of the 1919-20 season but, on 25thAugust 1920, the Hertfordshire News confirmed that St Albans City would be back inside the football ground for the 1920-21 season.
Above: The military in playful mood at Clarence Park, as they carry out a mock beheading.