St Helen's Swansea

A brief history of St Helen's

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A brief history compiled by Dr. Andrew Hignell (Hon. Statistician and Historian to Glamorgan CCC)

The St.Helen's ground at Swansea has several unique features, starting with the fact that it is laid out on a reclaimed sand bank and in places the soil is barely eighteen inches thick. The second feature has been that cricket and rugby have happily co-existed at Swansea for almost 125 years, with the ground staging International cricket, rugby union and rugby league. The western half of the cricket square doubles up as the in-goal of the rugby pitch during the winter, adding to the charm of the ground, but many would say that the finest feature of the ground is its maritime position. From the seats in the members enclosure, there are splendid views across Swansea Bay and the Severn Estuary to the Somerset and Devon coast, as well as the picturesque Mumbles Head. Indeed, this coastal location has made the Swansea ground a popular venue with visiting supporters, as well as touring teams. However, the days of cricket at St.Helen's appear to be numbered. This has nothing to do with Glamorgan's recent decision to develop a headquarters at Cardiff, but instead a decision by the Swansea rugby club to develop the ground as a rugby stadium. If their plans go ahead, it seems that the games which Glamorgan have allocated to Swansea for 1997 could be the final county fixtures at the historic and picturesque St.Helen's ground.

The ground takes its name from a convent dedicated to Saint Helen that was built by an order of Augustinian Nuns on the foreshore of Swansea Bay during the Medieval Period. During the 16th century, the land and the convent passed to the Herbert family, who in turn sold it to Colonel Llewellyn Morgan. By the 18th century, Swansea was a thriving port and the area along the shore of Swansea Bay, developed into a popular and desireable residential area. The gentlemen used the foreshore for their healthy recreation and there are records from the 1780's of ball games being staged on Crumlin Burrows to the east of the Tawe as well as to the west on the sands near the convent. A notice in the "Hereford Journal" for May 1785 suggests that a formal club had been formed, with a request for "gentlemen subscribers are desired to meet at the bathing house early to appoint a steward for the day and a treasurer for the season."

It seems likely that the members of this early club just practicised amongst themselves, similar to the modern-day membership of a golf club. By the early 19th century, fixtures were secured with teams from Neath, Llanelly and Merthyr, and the club secured the use of part of a field near the former convent. Even so, the departure of leading players, and an outbreak of cholera in the 1840's presented a few temporary barriers to the growth of cricket in Swansea. The expansion of the transport network in South Wales, and a further increase in trade at the port of Swansea both acted as catalysts for Swansea C.C. from the 1850's onwards and by 1852 there were enough good players for them to field two teams

The club's finances steadily became healthier, allowing them to hire decent professionals, such as Henry Grace and Alfred Pocock, and by the 1860's Swansea C.C. had became one of the top sides in South Wales. Amongst its leading members was J.T.D.Llewelyn, the influential squire of Penllegaer. The Old Etonian and Oxford-educated industrialist had a wide range of sporting contacts in South Wales and London, and as a result Swansea C.C. secured fixtures against the M.C.C. With quite an extensive and impressive fixture list, the only worry for the club was the often poor nature of the wicket. The rough state of the wicket led to the dropping of the M.C.C. game, but even so, Llewelyn was able to arrange other exhibition games. In 1866 a XXII of Swansea challenged the United All England Eleven, and in July 1868 a game was staged against an Aboriginal Eleven from Australia. The success of these special fixtures led to plans being set in motion for the club to acquire a larger recreation ground which act as a decent and proper home for the various sporting teams representing Swansea.

In 1872 an approach was made to Colonel Morgan regarding the sandbanks lining the foreshore, and by the end of the year, an agreement was reached for the creation of a new sports field. The sandbanks were levelled, turfed and rolled, and during the summer of 1873 Swansea C.C. played their first games at their new and permanent home. During the winter months rugby football was also staged at St.Helen's, and Col. Morgan's land quickly became established as the town's sporting centre. Llewelyn continued to give his support to the club, and helped to finance the building of a pavilion and dressing room to serve both the summer and winter games. Through his efforts, St.Helen's became one of the best equipped grounds in South Wales, and an indication of this was the staging of a three day game between a XXII of Swansea and District against a United South of England XI in May 1876, followed in 1878 by a two day game between the South Wales C.C. and the Australian tourists.

However, the western expansion of the industrial town, and the popularity of the seafront with residents and visitors alike, meant that the Colonel's land was viewed as prime land for building. With the area near the docks and town centre becoming increasingly congested, Swansea Town Council passed a resolution in 1879 to acquire the sports field for building purposes. The leading members of the Cricket and Football voiced their vehoment opposition, whilst Llewelyn offered to donate 500 pounds to preserve the field for recreational pursuits. The strong pressure and Llewelyn's gentle persuasion forced the Council to agree that St.Helen's should remain as a sports ground.

J.T.D.Llewelyn was also the catalyst behind the formation of Glamorgan C.C.C. in 1888, and through his influence the St.Helen's ground staged some of the county's home games. Glamorgan paid their first visit to Swansea in June 1890 for a match with the M.C.C., and the ground's first inter-county fixture took place in August 1891 against Devon, although the weather badly interfered with the contest. Since the early 1880's there had been a small groundsman's cottage in the south-west corner of the ground, and by the turn of the century it was the home of Billy Bancroft, the Swansea and Glamorgan cricket professional and international rugby player who acted at St.Helen's first caretaker-cum-groundsman.

Llewelyn also oversaw a number of other improvements to the St.Helen's complex in the early 20th century, including a 1,200 pounds donation towards the laying of grass banking around the ground, the construction of decent seating and a perimeter wall. After the Great War, a new cricket pavilion was built on Bryn Road, whilst a rugby grandstand was erected along the Mumbles Road in the 1920's. By this time Glamorgan had become a first-class side, and on May 28th 1921, St.Helen's staged its first County Championship match as Glamorgan played Leicestershire. The visitors won by 20 runs, and it wasn't until the end of July that Glamorgan were able to celebrate their first victory at Swansea, defeating Worcestershire by an innings and 53 runs.

But victories were few and far between at Swansea in these early years, as visting players often cruelly exposed the fraility of Glamorgan's batting and bowling attack. By the late 1920's the county secured the services of several professional bowlers who could utilise the slow, sandy wicket, and in 1927 Jack Mercer and Frank Ryan bowled Nottinghamshire out for 61 to stop the visitors from winning the Championship. Indeed, there are stories of the visting players sitting in front of the dressing rooms and on the top of the 67 steps leading up the grass bank from the pitch, with tears streaming down their cheeks as they saw the title slip from their grasp.

The two-storey pavilion had been extended during the previous winter. On the lower floors were the changing rooms, umpires room and groundsman store, whilst on the upper floor was a bar, colonade and veranda. In 1939 this impressive building became the property of the Swansea Town Corporation as the Cricket and Football Club sold the ground to the town authorities, who have been the owners ever since. The ground had been staging Welsh rugby Internationals since December 1882, but by the end of the Second World War, there were doubts over the future of Welsh games at St.Helen's. In a bid to keep the Internationals, the Corporation made further ground improvements with the grass banking being replaced by tiered concrete terraces. Further extensions were made to the pavilion, and in 1964 four 140 foot floodlight pylons were erected so that evening rugby matches could be staged.

These improvements further increased the capacity of St.Helen's, and in 1948 50,000 people teemed into the Swansea ground for the one and a half days play with the Australians. Indeed, these tourist games, often staged over the Bank Holiday periods, have often seen the ground packed to the rafters, and for the visiting cricketers, the games with Glamorgan have felt like unofficial Test matches against Wales, and in front of what seemed like half of the Welsh population.

Three notable victories have been recorded at St.Helen's. In August 1951 the South Africans were beaten by 64 runs, with Jim McConnon taking 6-27as the Springboks collapsed from 54-0 to 83 all out. In August 1964, the Australians were defeated by 36 runs, with Jim Pressdee and Don Shepherd fully utilising a slow, turning wicket and thwarting the tourists attempts to score 268 on the final day. Four years later 'Shep' was at the helm as the Australians were beaten again, this time by 79 runs as the Welsh spinners helped Glamorgan become the first county side to defeat Australia on consecutive tours.

Swansea also entered the record books in 1968 as Garry Sobers became the first batsman in world cricket to hit six sixes in an over. His record breaking feats came as Nottinghamshire were moving towards a declaration, and Malcolm Nash, Glamorgan's left arm seamer was experimenting with left arm spin. Sobers' feats were captured by the T.V. cameras of B.B.C. Wales, but they were not present 9 years later when Frank Hayes of Lancashire almost repeated the feat, hitting Nash, who was bowling in his normal style for 34 in an over. Many other batsmen have taken advantage of the quite short straight boundaries. In 1976 Clive Lloyd hit an unbeaten 201 in just two hours for the West Indies, whilst in 1985 Glamorgan's Matthew Maynard hit a century on his first-class debut, reaching his hundred with three successive straight sixes off Yorkshire's Phil Carrick.

The popularity of Glamorgan's tourists games at St.Helen's have led to its staging two one-day Internationals. In 1973 England beat New Zealand by 7 wickets in a Prudential Trophy game, with John Snow taking 4-32 and Dennis Amiss making 100. In 1983 the high-scoring World Cup fixture between Pakistan and Sri Lanka was held at Swansea. Pakistan won by 50 after rattling up 338-5 with Mohsin Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad all scoring half centuries. During the 1980's Glamorgan have also staged several floodlit games against a Rest of the World XI, and there have been calls for day-night internationals to be held at the ground.

The last Welsh rugby union International was staged at St.Helen's in 1954, but it is still the home of a top-class side, as Swansea R.F.C.have become established as one of the top sides in Welsh club rugby. During the last 15 years, they have developed the facilities for playing and hosting club rugby, with considerable extensions being made to the pavilion, with sponsors boxes and a large V.I.P. lounge being added. New seating areas have been added, whilst the steep concrete terraces together with the scoreboard on the eastern side of the ground were demolished during the winter of 1995/96, and there is talk of further change and realignments to the rugby pitch.

But the one thing that all of these recent and lavish developments in the brave new world of commercialism cannot change is St.Helen's maritime location and thin sandy soil. The ground may look very different to the days when Billy Bancroft, Harry Creber, Tom Gange and George Clements lovingly looked after the square. But old adage that wickets fall as the tide comes in still rings true, and it is not just the Glamorgan captains of the past such as Wilf Wooller or Maurice Turnbull who consult the tide tables in Swansea Bay before going out to toss!

For further information about the history of this, and other grounds used by Glamorgan, you may be interested in purchasing "The Cricket Grounds of Glamorgan", written by Andrew Hignell and published in 1985 by the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians. For further details, please consult the A.C.S. homepage on CricInfo, send e-mail to acs@cricinfo.cricket.org or write to Peter Wynne-Thomas at 3, Radcliffe Road, Nottingham.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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