Victoria Park

Southport Olympic moved to a new ground in Victoria Park in 1906. The ground, although closer to Southport Town Centre than its previous Scarisbrick New Road had been, was actually located over the border in Birkdale, then a separate town which governed its own local affairs and held the proud status of an Urban District Council until 1912 when it was incorporated into the County Borough of Southport.

As such Victoria Park originally comprised two adjoining and separately administered parks. After protracted and fraught negotiations between the Birkdale Local Board and The Southport and Cheshire Lines Extension Railway Company, a second line linking Southport and Liverpool following the opening
of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway 30 years earlier, an 1882 agreement to layout a recreation ground was fulfilled when Birkdale’s park was opened to the public in 1890. It adjoined Southport Recreation Ground, a much smaller park across the administrative boundary which had been quickly laid out with ornamental gardens, a lake, bowling greens, and pitches for other games and opened three years earlier as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations. However, Birkdale sealed the boundary with a hedge, shrubs and railings to prevent direct access between the two.

Birkdale Recreation Ground as it was first known was belatedly christened Victoria Park in 1898, but for many years the only recreation available was to walk on the asphalt paths and as such it was little used. But it was a large and profitable hayfield for the Council yielding two crops a year and although some development of the park was carried out it was not actively encouraged by the powerful ratepayers of the posh Birkdale Park residential area fearing hordes of trippers like the Marine Park in Southport.

Eventually some pitches were created when the Council realised the park could become an income-generating asset and the south end became principally a playing field for girls from Birkdale Park’s many private schools with the emphasis on tennis, hockey and croquet. Although a limited number of rugby, football and cricket pitches were laid out at the north (Southport) end over two-thirds of the park was still devoted to growing hay in 1906 when Southport Olympic Rugby Club completely reformed at Victoria Park amalgamating with the incumbent Birkdale Rugby Club which had come to prominence in 1882-83.

No pavilion or building is shown on the 1893 OS map (above), and players would walk to the Victoria Baths on the Promenade to wash after the match. It may be no coincidence that the move coincided with the new rugby club president elected in 1906, Sir George Pilkington, being resident close by at his large home, later a hotel, called Belle Vue on Lord Street West.

Victoria Park 1906/09 Ordnance Survey Map

The Southport Olympic First XV team photo 1908-9 may have been taken in Victoria Park, but despite the hedge in the background there is no clue as to where it was taken. Ex Southport player Harry Foster in his book New Birkdale: The Growth of a Lancashire Seaside Suburb 1850-1912 notes that by 1912 Victoria Park had 25 tenants: the rugby club, one football club (ironically Hesketh Park FC!), six hockey teams
(mainly schools), two cricket clubs (West End and St Paul’s), twelve tennis clubs (including the Park Club), two bowling clubs, and the croquet club.
The south east boundary of the park is bounded by Rotten Row. Francis A Bailey’s A History of Southport states:

After the amalgamation of Birkdale and Southport in 1912, the Victoria Park and Birkdale Park, which had been separated by a large hedge and shrubbery, were thrown into one, and Rotten Row, previously “ a very indifferent thoroughfare,” was remodelled, the magnificent half-mile herbaceous border being created, and vistas opened into the park.

The building in the background of First XV team photographs taken in 1920-21,1921-22, 1922-23, 1925-26, and 1926-27 appears to the café fronting Rotten Row (see above). These are now on display in the clubhouse. This building is not marked on the 1906/ 09 OS map, so will have built in the intervening period possibly as part of the remodelling works to Rotten Row. Although this building enabled players to have changing facilities closer to the pitch rather than having to traipse all the way to the Victoria Baths according to 1929-31 Captain J Pilling in an article in the 1972 Centenary brochure only the home side changed here, the visitors continuing to use the baths presumably because the café did not have any washing or bathing facilities.

In terms of where the actual pitch was the 1924/25 team photograph (also in the clubhouse) shows houses in the background which could those fronting Rotten Row whist in his article J Pilling notes that:
All first and second team games used to be played on the rented Victoria Park pitch near the Rotten Row café which still stands today. The Southport side changed and left their clothes in the café, the visitors at Victoria baths. Playing surface of the pitch was good, but it was inclined to flood. It also seemed a little narrow. No other football was played on the Park, so there was usually quite a fair crowd of spectators. There was no enclosure at that time, but a collection was made.
This suggests that the pitch may have been on a part of the Park which was subsequently fenced off as public grass tennis courts, then used by Birkdale Lawn Tennis Club from 1970 until 1989, and is now used by the croquet club in addition to its main lawn to other side of the tree-lined pathway. According
to the Southport & Birkdale Sports Club web site: The tennis courts on Victoria Park were low lying near the sea. As the courts were grass and with the low lying position, the water table caused a lot of problems with flooding in wet weather. The tennis season was particularly short here due to the grass and the flooding. Thus, poor ground conditions may have been one of the reasons behind the rugby club deciding to move grounds for the third time. Things began to be put in place at a general meeting in September 1924 where the club committee decided to transfer £88 from the investment account to ‘The New Ground Fund’. 1924 also saw Southport Corporation hold the first-ever Southport Flower Show at Victoria Park so it may be that the club thought that the ground was destined to be designated
for other purposes in and started planning for the future accordingly.

Victoria Park was, and still is a public park, although it is now leased to the Southport Flower Show Company, a registered charity. Whilst still parkland there is no clue to rugby having been played here but the building used for changing on Rotten Row remains, and for many years was occupied as a Chinese restaurant. The tennis courts to the rear are still there too as is the adjoining land used by the croquet club which may have been the site of the pitch as surmised above.

Source: Southport Rugby Football Club, Grounds Through The Ages, Graham Ellis