An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Oldham Athletic on 9 March 2019.
If you’ve been supporting the U’s for fewer than sixty-six years – that’s most of you, then – you might think that our club’s quest for a new ground is a recent thing.
Younger supporters will be aware of our landlord’s attempts within the last few years to develop a sporting village featuring a state-of-the-art stadium at Trumpington.
That grand scheme fell by the wayside, as have attempts over the last twenty years to get developments going at Milton, up towards Quy on the Newmarket Road, on various sites in the city and in the Ian Darler’s back garden. I made that last one up.
There have also been numerous ill-fated plans for the redevelopment and/or expansion of the Abbey. Most of them got no further than the drawing board before being pooh-poohed by the city council’s planners, but we did get as far as the erection of the South Stand before the rest of that scheme, which would have involved the redevelopment of the front of the ground, was shelved.
That’s all recent history, and the saga isn’t finished yet. We’re waiting to hear whether the Abbey will be redeveloped some day or whether we’ll eventually be playing in a New Abbey somewhere else.
But United had occupied the present site for only twenty years when there was an outbreak of itchy feet among the club’s directors.
The first game on our present territory was played in 1932. Before that United played on the Midsummer and Stourbridge Commons, on Parker’s Piece and at the fabulously named Celery Trenches, very close to the present site of the Abbey.
But delve into the minutes of 1952 board meetings and you’ll find references to the mooted new ground directors wanted to build on the opposite side of Newmarket Road, just the other side of Barnwell Bridge.
If their work had borne fruit, the U’s would have come full circle with a return to the place that saw the first Abbey United games in 1912 – Stourbridge Common.
At the site directors had in mind, however, ‘there would of course be no restriction as to development upon this ground for this type of sport, nor would there be any restrictions as to crowd capacity within limits.’
Board members busied themselves behind the scenes by lobbying the planners, but to no avail: the city council objected to the proposed development. It had, it said, acquired the land in question for use as a refuse tipping area and in the longer term it wanted it to be zoned for storing civil defence materials – Cold War tensions and fears of nuclear war were high at the time – or for use as a lorry park.
The chief constable weighed into the debate, saying that, even if United reached the Third Division and attracted crowds of 15,000, dispersing them from the current ground wouldn’t pose much of a problem. And that was that.
But we can still have some fun in trying to identify the land that United wanted to occupy.
Much of it is today occupied by the industrial estate, just the other side of the bridge, where some supporters park on a match day. Before that, and before the council used it as a tip, it played an important role in the history of Cambridge’s brickmaking industry.
For the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and the first thirty of the twentieth, Newmarket Road was the focal point of an industry that made use of the thick seam of ‘blue’ gault clay that lay beneath Barnwell. The bricks it produced are preserved in the distinctive pale cream of the Cambridge area’s houses and public buildings.
When, in 1977, Hilda Swann set about jotting down her memories of the brickyards whose factories, chimneys and huge clay pits once dotted the area, she recalled four operations.
To the left of the road if you were heading into the city, opposite Stanley Road, was the business of Watts & Co, which was also a timber merchant. Further along was the Cambridge Brick Company’s yard.
The Cambridge (Stourbridge) Brick Company was approached from Cheddars Lane, the other side of Newmarket Road, while near Barnwell Bridge stood Swann’s Brickyard, part of a larger family business founded by Hilda’s ancestors Henry John and Alfred Swann, and trading under the name of H&A Swann Brothers. The Swanns’ land is the area we’re interested in.
It extended to Garlic Row, and until Stourbridge Fair, once Europe’s largest annual marketplace, finally faded into history in the early 1930s, the fence along this edge had to be set back to make room for the business of selling and merrymaking. The other boundaries were formed by the Common, the railway and Newmarket Road.
Ever wondered how Swanns Road got its name? Now you know.
I’m happy to give a plug to 100 Years of Coconuts’ second home and the priceless source of a wealth of local history: the Cambridgeshire Collection. It’s where the photograph of HC Swann and his employees at the brickyard, taken in about 1910, comes from and also where you can find Hilda Swann’s beautifully handwritten memories.
It’s also where those United board meeting minutes can be found, among an invaluable stash of documents and other artefacts donated to the Collection by one of those directors who were in 1952 dreaming of relocation: local signwriting legend Cyril Swainland.
The map reproduced above comes from a time when ‘Marshalls Ltd’ still offered cars for hire and driving tuition by ‘qualified RAC instructors’, and when our neighbours across the river were still known as Cambridge Town.
We played many times at Cambridge City’s lovely old Milton Road home, in its two incarnations. Other away venues included the Railway Social Club Ground (location described as ‘at the back of the cattle market’), Pye’s wonderful sports ground in Chesterton, Jesus Green, Lammas Land, Porson Road (probably the Perse preparatory school's sports field) and college grounds including Fitzwilliam House, King’s & Selwyn, Queen’s, Christ’s, Pembroke, Sidney Sussex, St Catherine’s and Clare.
United have performed on the sacred turf of Fenner’s cricket ground and, equally surprisingly, have turned out twice at the University’s rugby union headquarters in Grange Road.
The first occasion they ventured on to oval-ball territory was in December 1942, when the wartime Abbey United stuffed a local civil service team 10-2.
The next came on 20 March 1954, when the U’s took on their supposedly bigger and better rivals from over the Cam in a Cambs Invitation Cup semi-final.
The new-look cup was supposed to have featured eight clubs that season but holders Wisbech decided they had better things to do. That left United, City, Camden, Ely, Histon, March and Pegasus – a club composed of Cambridge and Oxford students – to fight it out.
Centre forward Albert George – father of former Abbey beat bobby Trevor – notched a hat-trick as the U’s thrashed March 6-1 in the first round and set up the Grange Road showdown.
United were expected to beat the City gents, who had finished a disappointing seventh in the Athenian League, and goals from inside left Jack Thomas duly made it 2-0 in front of an all-ticket crowd of 5,000.
The final, against Histon at Milton Road, started badly and quickly got worse.
Player-manager Bill Whittaker had to have painkilling injections before and during the match (partly excusing a late penalty miss, perhaps) and Thomas, victim of a leg muscle strain early on, hobbled through the game as a passenger. It finished goalless.
Chaos then ensued: no one had a clue what was supposed to happen next. Should extra time be played or not? Eventually, Cambs FA secretary Bill Ling stepped forward to decree that the match should continue.
A crowd of 5,645 watched, grumbling, as U’s and Stutes slugged it out. At the end of 120 strength- and patience-sapping minutes, it was still 0-0 as far as anyone could make out – night had descended by that stage.
The season was at an end and there was nothing else for it: a replay would have to be staged the following season.
United finished the job nearly six months later with a 3-1 win at Milton Road, Thomas (two) and Peter Dobson doing the goalscoring honours.
This article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the match against Mansfield Town on Saturday, 21 January 2017.
The Coconuts chaps were talking the other day. They do a lot of that, and there’s usually tea and chocolate digestives involved; even doughnuts sometimes. This time, for a change, they were yakking about something important: Andrew Bennett’s brilliant book about the early history of our club, Newmarket Road Roughs.
It’s been selling really well, and if you haven’t got your copy yet, get along to the CFU caravan or online store before they’re all gone – just £14.99 to you.
Andrew spent thousands of hours researching at the Cambridgeshire Collection, but he was far from the first U’s fan to make use of that excellent resource. Long before 100 Years of Coconuts was a twinkle in Dave Matthew-Jones’s eye, the history of Cambridge United was being studied by Paul Daw, and the result was his trio of books: United in Endeavour (covering the period 1912 to 1988), On the Up (1988 to 1991) and First Team Match Statistics (1913 to 1991).
While his time at Newmarket Road wasn’t as chock-full of achievement, it wasn’t without its challenges. He was unlucky enough to join the U’s during the mid-1980s, when the tenures of John Ryan and Ken Shellito were threatening to undo all the good work of the previous 70 years.
right winger with the ability to excite any crowd, he was also the first apprentice professional in English non-League football.
Cambridge-born, he was just 15 when he made his first-team debut for the U’s in a Mithras Cup tie at Dagenham in December 1964. (Yes, the Mithras Cup was a thing; St Albans City won it that season.) At the following year’s Football League AGM, United proposed that non-League clubs should be allowed to take on one apprentice for every five full-time pros on their books. Not wishing to be labelled stick-in-the-muds – perish the thought – the League passed the motion and young Felton duly became non-League’s first apprentice.
He made his Southern League debut in November 1965 and was carving out a highly promising career when Northampton Town came calling. Graham signed for the Cobblers in 1966 and went on to make more than 250 League appearances for them, having played for England Youth with such luminaries as Trevor Brooking, Brian Kidd and Joe Royle along the way.
What has all this to do with Cambridge United v Manchester United? I told you the link was tenuous: on 7 February 1970, it was Northampton who took on the Red Devils in the FA Cup, and that tie has gone down in history. In the Cobblers’ side that day was the same Graham Felton who had blazed the apprenticeship trail at the Abbey Stadium. He recalled later: ‘I lined up opposite my hero, George Best. I looked around and saw Bobby Charlton, Pat Crerand and Alex Stepney. I was in awe of the whole situation.’
Like his teammates, Graham must have been sick of the sight of Manchester United, and Best in particular, by the time the ref blew the final whistle. The Reds made light of the County Ground’s acres of mud to wind up 8-2 winners, with the great Irishman notching a club record-equalling six goals.
Graham went on to play for Barnsley and Kettering Town before retiring to take up painting and decorating. He still lives in Northampton and it is 100 Years of Coconuts’ aim to visit him one day and record his memories of Cambridge United.
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I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of the U's, and I'll be blogging whenever I've got news for you, as long as I don't miss my tea.