A brief history of Sophia GardensDr.Andrew Hignell Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
It has been the long held dream of a succession of Glamorgan captains from Maurice Turnbull and J.C.Clay to Wilf Wooller and Tony Lewis that the Welsh county should have a ground of their own. Since their entry into first-class cricket in 1921, Glamorgan have led a gypsy-like existence, owning just a small office complex, and playing their games at a variety of club grounds. This nomadic way of life has helped to fly the flag, especially for Glamorgan who as Wales` only first-class side, represent more than just a county borough. However, the lack of a home ground and headquarters also has its disadvantages - the costs of playing at and equipping up to 8 grounds a year, the cost of renting equipment and seating, and the lack of any winter income from bars, restaurants or conference facilities.
Many attempts have been made in the past for Glamorgan to have their own ground, but until recently, there have all proved abortive. Things have changed in the last few years and the dreams of Turnbull and Wooller have turned into reality as on 24th November 1995 the club formally acquired a new 125 year lease of the Sophia Gardens complex, where they have been playing since 1967. The previous leaseholders had been Cardiff Athletic Club, but they are moving elsewhere as Glamorgan develop their own headquarters and, with plans for an Indoor School, nursury and practice facilities, turn the Sophia Gardens ground into a Centre of Excellence for cricket in Wales.
The history of the pleasant, tree-lined ground on the west bank of the River Taff, and its name, like many other features of the thriving Welsh capital, have a close link with the Marquess of Bute, the major landowner in Cardiff and the man who in 1839 decided to develop the port facilities at the mouth of the Taff. Sophia, was the wife of the Marquess, and as the town of Cardiff grew in the middle of the nineteenth century, she became concerned about the limited amount of open space in the bustling industrial centre. The only other green area where the townspeople could roam were the Castle Grounds, but they were becoming overcrowded and damaged. After seeing many other gardens in the U.K. and on the Continent, Sophia oversaw the development of the area in between the west bank of the river and the impressive villas lining Cathedral Road during the mid 1850`s, creating an attractive and pretty area for walking and the general recreation.
Over 1,500 pounds was spent on levelling the ground, planting trees and shrubs, and making broad walways. In 1858 the Gardens were formally opened, but Sophia sadly passed away the next year. By this time, the Gardens had become a huge success, so the Bute family decided to extend the Gardens, and take further pressure of the Castle Grounds by creating a bowling green, a bandstand and a large field for recreation in the northern part of the area, where the current ground exists. It was here at what became known as The Sophia Gardens Field, or Gala Field, that by the turn of the century, cricket, football, athletics and cycling was staged, as well as fetes, civic galas, horse shows and events, such as Colonel Bill Cody`s ("Buffalo Bill") Wild West Show in September 1891, and in June 1899 Barnam and Bailey`s travelling circus and menagerie.
By the inter-war period, the number of events at Sophia Gardens started to fall, and the whole area became frequented by fewer people. The reason was the geographical growth of the `coal metropolis`. No longer was it a compact town, lying literally in the shadow of the castle. Modern Cardiff now had sprawling suburbs, and the villas in Cathedral Road which had been the homes of the well-to-do were now being converted into offices and small hotels, as the affluent residents moved to a new and spacious home in the sprawling suburbs to the north, west or east. In these suburbs were new areas of parkland and open space, well away from the commercial and industrial centre, where the citizens of Cardiff could relax and take part in healthy recreation.
In September 1947 the Fifth Marquis of Bute handed over the whole of the family`s estate including Sophia Gardens to the City Corporation. Under the terms of the acquisition, they could not build any houses or factories on the Gardens, so they decided to develop the area as a centre for entertainment and recreation, and turned the Castle Grounds into a city centre park. In April 1951 they opened the Sophia Gardens Pavilion in the southern part of the Gardens - the new building staged concerts by Cliff Richard and Danny Kaye, as well as boxing and wrestling events during the 1958 Commonwealth Games. Indeed, soon after the Games took place, the city planners thought about developing the Gala Field and the adjoining Pontcanna Fields to the north. Various plans were submitted for a racecourse, and for a multi-purpose recreation complex, including a skating rink, bowling alley and a ballroom. Glamorgan C.C.C. also put in a bid to acquire the Gala Field in order to create a new cricket ground, and solve the problems caused by the lack of space at Cardiff Arms Park, a mile away to the south.
All of these ideas were initially thrown out, with a faction on the City Council wanting to keep the Arms Park as the central focus of the city`s sporting infrastructure. But the Arms Park was a crowded base for the various sections of Cardiff Athletic Club, who saw the Sophia Gardens scheme as a means of moving forward, providing room for expansion, and creating a National Rugby Stadium in the heart of the Welsh capital. In 1963 a plan was devised for the redevelopment of the Arms Park and the acquisition of Gala Field so that the various sections of Cardiff Athletic Club, including cricket and tennis, which were losing land at the Arms Park could find a new home.
Initially the plan involved laying out a greyhound track, plus two rugby pitches, tennis courts, and a new cricket pitch, which in the winter could be used for hockey. However, the greyhound track was dropped from the final draft and in 1964 the City Corporation gave their approval, and Cardiff Athletic Club secured a 99 year lease on the Sophia Gardens area. During 1965 work began at the former Gala Field laying out the new wicket, whilst work also commenced at the Arms Park for the creation of the National Stadium. In August 1966 Cardiff C.C. staged their first ever game on the Sophia Gardens wicket, and on the 13th, 15th and 16th of the month Glamorgan staged their final county match at the Arms Park, against Somerset. Building work also began to the south of the new cricket ground creating a large indoor sports centre - now known as the Welsh Institute of Sport.
On 24th, 25th and 26th May 1967, Glamorgan played their inaugural match at the new Sophia Gardens ground, against the touring Indians. Rain interfered with play, and for much of the game, the players had to sit in the new dressing rooms and pavilion, built at a cost of 25,000 pounds. The paying spectators were not so fortunate, as the work, being financed by the Welsh Rugby Union, on the transfer of seating from the Arms Park cricket ground had not been completed. However, a scoreboard, costing 3,500 pounds had been erected, and by mid season the rest of the facilities were successfully installed.
Even so, a few teething problems persisted into the early 1970`s with visiting batsmen claiming that there was a ridge running across the wicket. In the first Championship game in June 1967 there were complaints about the irregular bounce, and when the Glamorgan batsmen also protested, the groundstaff discovered that the cause was a drainage channel, running under the middle of the wicket, rather than down the side, as planned. After several visits from the M.C.C. Inspector of Pitches, and remedial work by Albert Francis, the Groundsman, the quality of the square improved, but even so, the whole square was relaid during the late 1970`s, and eventually these problems were eradicated.
Despite only a relatively short history of county cricket, Sophia Gardens has staged a number of notable games. On 5th September 1969, Glamorgan, watched by a crowd estimated at 16,000, defeated Worcestershire by 147 runs to win the County Championship, whilst in the Championship match in May 1990, Jimmy Cook hit 313* for Somerset to record the highest ever individual score against Glamorgan. In recent years, several Glamorgan batsmen have revelled on the good batting wicket, most notably in July 1993 when Viv Richards and Adrian Dale shared an unbeaten partnership of 425 for the fourth wicket in the match with Middlesex.
In May 1971 tragedy nearly struck during the match with Warwickshire, as Roger Davis, the Glamorgan all-rounder, was hit directly on the temple by a legside stroke from Neal Abberley whilst fielding at short leg to the bowling of left arm seamer Malcolm Nash. These were the days before helmets, and after being struck, Davis collapsed, stopped breathing and went into convulsions. Fortunately, there was a doctor sitting in the Members Enclosure at the River End of the ground, and he ran onto the pitch to give Davis the kiss of life. The unfortunate player was taken by ambulance to the Cardiff Infirmary, where thankfully he made a full recovery, but for a few agonising minutes it looked as if Sophia Gardens would enter the history books for all the wrong reasons.
Several famous one-day games have also been staged at the Cardiff ground, including the Sunday League match in September 1976 when Somerset arrived, needing to win to secure their first ever title. A crowd of around 11,000 watched an evenly fought contest which culminated in a nail biting finish as Graham Burgess was run out off the final ball to leave Glamorgan the victors by one run. On 6th July 1987 the Welsh county celebrated their Centenary Year by staging a match with Gloucestershire for the Severn Trophy in the presence of H.R.H. Prince Charles and Princess Diana, whilst the ground has also been the venue of Glamorgan`s recent Quarter and Semi-finals contests in the one day competitions, including in 1995 the Nat West games with Middlesex and Warwickshire, both watched by crowds of around 10,000.
Wilf Wooller once described Sophia Gardens as having "a quite delightful rural setting, spacious and well-treed, but somehow it has never reproduced the cosy atmosphere of Cardiff Arms Park, with more than a century of traditional sporting activity." The Club`s venerable President may have a slightly different view as the ground undergoes a transformation over the next decade. The ambitious plans include a new Pavilion, Media Centre, covered seating for spectators and sponsors boxes, bars, restaurants, improved car parking and traffic flow into and out of the ground. As the 1996 season begins, some of the work has started, and in the not too distant future, a top class venue, worthy of a capital city, will be created.
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 [email protected] or write to Peter Wynne-Thomas at 3, Radcliffe Road, Nottingham.© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.