Ashbrooke Sports Club sits, unassumingly, in an upmarket residential suburb to the south of Sunderland city centre. Inside its large parameter fences, the six-acre site contains Sunderland’s oldest sporting structure, a Victorian club house which a number of local clubs are proud to call home. ‘There’s an atmosphere about the place,’ says club historian, Keith Gregson. ‘You walk in and it hits you. They recently put in a new entrance which has been a great advantage because it’s opened up the ground more. In the past the entrance was rather small and some people didn’t even know the place was here, but now you see people walk in and just go “wow”.’
The club house was built in 1899 and, while it has been subject to several additions and renovations since then, it still retains much of its original charm. Costing some £600 it was the creation of local architect James Henderson who had also laid out the original plans for the ground some 12 years previously and played in the first ever cricket match held at Ashbrooke. Significant upgrades to the club house include a clock that was added in 1913, while another club member, Stanley Milburn, enlisted the services of his architecture firm William and TR Milburn, to build two additional wings in 1930. More recently, the verandah has been glazed to provide a sheltered viewing lounge as Ashbrooke carefully performs the balancing act of maintaining originality and providing the amenities a modern sports club needs, something it has done admirably.
The venue itself is something of a modern day rarity: a Victorian members’ club that, to this day, continues to host multiple sports on a single site. The 19th century saw a move away from betting sports like horse racing and boxing in favour of sports such as rugby, cricket, tennis and hockey, all of which could be enjoyed at member’s clubs such as Ashbrooke. By the 20th century most of these clubs had either folded financially or been taken over by a single sport, but in the case of Ashbrooke, rugby, cricket, hockey, tennis, bowls, snooker and squash continue to be played here today. For two decades the Sunderland Strollers Running Club have also been based here, while one of the most popular sports in the North East, football, finally established itself at Ashbrooke after 123 years when in 2010 a floodlit astroturf facility was added to the venue on an area formally used for hockey.
Fleeting appearances of athletics, cycling, boxing and even baseball have been noted in the clubs extensive archives which Keith has taken over. ‘There’s always been somebody at Ashbrooke who’s put something in an envelope or box and put it into a cupboard for safekeeping, so it was all there, it just needed sorting. It is a most remarkable archive, going right back into the 19th century.’ Keith tells me of a colour programme he found from a baseball match that was organised around the time of George VI’s coronation. Someone had taken the care to wrap it in foil to help preserve it and it looks as if it was printed yesterday rather than 80 years ago.
Ashbrooke began life in 1887, for ‘the physical training and development of the human frame’ and ‘the promotion of healthful exercises’. It was also the new home of Sunderland Cricket and Football Club, though back then, football club referred to rugby rather than association football. The 125th anniversary is testament to the club’s standing in the community, but Keith admits Ashbrooke has, at times, ‘lurched along’ and been faced with its fair share of adversity. ‘Over the years there’s always been people who have stepped in and done something remarkable to ensure the club keeps going. Although the club started in 1887, by the middle of the 1890s it hardly had any money at all, despite all the really important people in Sunderland being members. What they did was organise a Grand Bazaar for a whole week in the town, literally taking the place over, and that made enough money to start playing off the debts.’
During the squash boom of the 1970s and 80s, membership levels topped 3,000, but today that figure is much lower. Ashbrooke’s reputation as an exclusive members-only venue almost saw the club close its doors completely in 2008 and to help make ends meet a number of commercial initiatives have been explored in recent times. A patch of land on the western edge of the venue was sold for flats, and a squash court was converted into a fitness suite to create another income stream. In the past, Ashbrooke has attracted tens of thousands of spectators for exhibition cricket matches between Durham County and various high profile touring sides, but today the big crowds flock for the annual fireworks display and music festival, Spilt, organised by a committee that includes local band The Futureheads.
Cricket has a long and proud history of being played here and some of Ashrooke’s most memorable moments are associated with the gentleman’s game. Keith tells me that Ashbrooke has played host to some of the greatest cricketers to have ever picked up a bat and ball. Up until the 70s it was the venue of choice for matches involving Durham and visiting Australian XI’s including Keith Miller’s 1948 side. Other notable players who have strode out to the middle at Ashbrooke include the West Indies’ Learie Constantine, India’s Sachin Tendulkar and England’s Geoffrey Boycott. ‘Boycott, played here for Yorkshire seconds as a kid, and Tendulkar played here when he was a 17 year old.’ Says Keith who also tells me of a moving story involving Learie Constantine’s visit to the Ashbrooke. ‘He’d never seen a picture of his dad playing cricket before, and there was a photograph up in the club house that showed him playing at Ashbrooke for the West Indies. He was very, very moved to see this picture of his father playing at the same place.’ In 1926 Australia came to play Durham at Ashbrooke in a match that attracted a record crowd, despite the fact there was a general strike on at the time. ‘There were all sorts of considerations like cheaper tickets and free transport that day and a crowd of 20,678 came in the end.’ Says Keith; ‘There’s a photograph of it and you can hardly see the wicket in the middle for people! Crowds of between 7,000 and 15,000, for cricket matches against Australia, West Indies, South Africa were not uncommon.’
As well as cricket, rugby has a long tradition at Ashbrooke. Sunderland RFU is the second oldest section at the club and has been going for nearly 140 years. Like the cricket club, Sunderland RFU have been based at Ashbooke since the beginning, playing in their traditional red, gold and black hooped shirts. The venue has played host to many England international rugby trials over the years and the club has produced lots of talented players including James Lofthouse, a fly half who captained England under 19s in the 90s, keeping a certain Jonny Wilkinson out of the side until injury unfortunately curtailed a promising career. Another notable player who played his rugby at Ashbrooke in the 1920s, was Hartley Elliott, a man who later went on to become an international rugby referee and stamped his mark on Sunderland RFU by designing the club crest in 1953 which is still worn with pride by players today.
Tennis also spawned successful players, namely Helen Aitchison, an Ashbrooke regular who collected a silver medal in the mixed doubles at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. ‘There was a big tennis tournament held annually at Ashbrooke between the 1920s until the 1970s, so a lot of the big tennis players from the era played here, which is remarkable.’
The importance of Ashbrooke’s bowling club should also be noted as it continues to provide a link to the club for members whose rugby, cricket and tennis days are behind them. The Green at Ashbrooke was established two years after the club opened to the public and by 1905 money was raised to erect a pavilion. Costing a third of the price to build the main club house, the bowling pavilion has barely altered, save for repairs to minor damage sustained during an air raid in 1943. Beautifully atmospheric, it remains the second oldest surviving bowls clubhouse in Tyne and Wear.
Benefiting from a rich and colourful past, it seems the future looks equally as bright at Ashbrooke. ‘It’s very healthy at the moment.’ Admits Keith. A book published by English Heritage in 2010; Played in Tyne and Wear, looked at the sporting heritage of the region. An indication of Ashbrooke’s reputation is the fact author Lynn Pearson dedicated an entire chapter to the club, saying ‘here then is a special corner of Tyne and Wear, no longer the ‘Lord’s of the North’ but a ground in a class of its own’. Here’s hoping Ashbrooke can stay in bat for at least another 125 years.