A Hole in the Ground where a Hole Don't Belong!

By Patrick Talbot

You haven't been able to watch town football or cricket at the foot of Dudley's Castle Hill for twenty years now. It was on Saturday, 25th May, 1985, that Dudley Cricket Club were about to play Aston Unity in a Birmingham League fixture. Morale was high at The County Ground for Dudley was top of the league. As usual the groundstaff arrived early to remove the covers and prepare the wicket. As was not usual, however, the cricket club manager, Jack Sedgley, found a large depression sunk into the outfield! The fixture was quickly switched but later in the day the depression collapsed into a hole 40 feet across: a groundsman's ultimate nightmare!

Dudley Town Football Club, who played next door at The Sports Centre, was also on the crest of a wave. They had just won the Southern League Midland Division, gaining promotion into the Premier League above. Earlier in May, in the last game that I was to see on what was reputed to be the largest ground outside the Football League, Dudley Town had beaten local rivals Stourbridge 2-0 to win the league. After the collapse, Dudley Council immediately closed both The Sports Centre and The County Ground.

The 1956 Dudley Cricket Club 1st team posed for this picture at the old County Ground.
Back row: Ron Headley, G.Gladwell, Alan Round, Bill Goodreds, Frank Golding, Ken Burns
Front Row: Harry Thomas, Bill Hicklin, Alf or Arthur Sherwood, Reg Perks, Eddie (Ted) Breakwell
Thanks to Mike Turner for providing many of the names and Len Bowater for identifying Ron and Harry.

Holes suddenly appearing in Dudley are not uncommon! On The Sports Centre alone, there had been twelve collapses since the 1930s. As a spectator, you entered the grounds at your own risk - the large notices posted outside told you so. The root of these problems lay below the surface, in the legacy of earlier limestone mining. Although the mining has long since ended, water still seeps into the abandoned workings underground and wears away the remaining columns of limestone. These columns support the roof of a mine and as they weaken and give way, the roof collapses and the ground above caves in. Dudley's cricket and football grounds were right on top of one such mine, where only one-tenth of the limestone remained to support much of the surface above. Despite the threat of collapse, the clubs continued to play on the site up to May 1985.

I watched a lot of sport at the two grounds in my formative years. Descending Castle Hill past the zoo, two cinemas and a bingo hall; beyond the railway station you either went straight on along the Birmingham Road to see football, or turned left down the Tipton Road to see cricket. Either way, the turnstile warned you of the dangers of entering! For the football ground, you walked along a tarmac drive before the turnstile. For cricket, another tarmac drive hedged on one side occurred after the turnstile. What I could never believe was that Wally Hammond is supposed to have hit a six the distance of the path to the railway line whilst scoring a double century for Gloucestershire in 1934. Well, that's what my Uncle Jack told me.

Indeed, all the folklore that surrounded cricket at Dudley I got from Uncle Jack. He had seen the town side win the Birmingham League after the War, helped particularly by runs scored by the West Indian Test player George Headley and wickets taken by the New Zealand leg spinner Bill Merritt. Before foreign-born players were allowed to play in the County Championship, they often turned out for club teams as paid professionals, Merritt was Uncle Jack's hero and he deemed him unplayable on a drying wicket. He invariably trotted out the phrase "It'll just suit Merritt", which took on the meteorological meaning of a period of sunshine after the rain. I do remember the man in the sixties serving me in his sports shop in the town.

My own cricket memories of The County Ground focused more on Worcestershire. Historically, Dudley was an island of Worcestershire within Staffordshire. Consequently, the County played one championship game a year on The County Ground. With its view of the Cathedral as a backdrop, Worcester must be one of the world's most beautiful cricket grounds. Playing at Dudley, therefore, must have proved an annual culture shock for the team. Lulled into a false sense of security by being overlooked by the medieval bastion of Dudley Castle to the west, the panorama to the east was a devastating shock of the utmost industrial kind. It was draughty to boot. At 700 feet above sea level and reputedly the highest county ground in the country, it was at least a sleeveless sweater cooler than the county headquarters in that charming vale of Severn. Dudley's cricket outfield always seemed littered with dumpy figures in at least two layers of sweaters. Other than an imposing black-and-white pavilion behind the wicket and a rickety stand at right-angles to the square, the ground was very flat and open. Indeed, there is a 1930's painting by Dudley-born Percy Shakespeare called 'Tea Interval' that bears an uncanny resemblance to the venue as I remember it in the 1960s and 70s. A terrace of lined benches sprawls away from the pavilion along a bank, while a line of trees fringes the far side of the ground accentuating a rather lonely-looking white scoreboard.

In my memory, Worcestershire rarely won at Dudley. Invariably, rain from the west prevented a definite result. Fast bowlers Flavell and Coldwell, and spinners Gifford and Slade took wickets but Basil D'Oliveira was the only batsman I ever saw score a century at Dudley. One particularly unfortunate memory was breaking off from playing cricket behind the boundary rope to see local hero and Captain Don Kenyon out second ball for the second time in a match against Essex. He therefore bagged a "Queen Pair". Nevertheless, Worcester nearly won in the inevitable rain. The County always bought their own entertainment with them in "Curly" the scorecard seller. He circulated the pitch, joking with the crowd in a broad rustic voice. The back of his battered trilby could not hide wayward strands of curly grey hair and he had the ability to keep a thin self-rolled cigarette in the corner of his mouth through all his conversation. Meanwhile, the local newspaper vendor announced his presence with the poetic "Here we are, here we are, the man with the Express & Star...Paper!"

Dudley Cricket Ground, taken from the keep at Dudley Castle late 1980s.

In later years, Dudley lost the three-day Championship match in favour of a one-day game in the John Player League. Maybe it was the cold but I suspect it was the rather basic facilities available compared with the more genteel Worcester. Uncle Jack always used to complain "you can't get a decent cup of tea outside the pavilion at Dudley". As it happened, Worcester actually won the Sunday League in 1971 in their one game of the season at Dudley. John Arlott and the television cameras came along to see hard- hitting Ron Headley - son of George and (most appropriately) raised in the town - win the game with a tremendous innings.

Memories of the football ground were equally vivid. The majority of spectators gathered in a decent grandstand that ran a good way along one side of the pitch and contained the directors' box and dressing rooms below. In latter years, an impressive Duncan Edwards Sports Club was built between the turnstiles and this main stand. Except for a small stand opposite, most of the rest of the ground was steep grassed banks and you could play archaeologist with your heel at half-time and expose a glorious past of terracing running around three sides of the pitch. For the football ground was built in the 1930s in what amounted to a job creation scheme for local unemployed. Most of the time, attendance was thin enough to hear every personal encouragement or criticism. I always found it ironic that one of my friends was not allowed to go to the Albion by his vicar father because of the bad language, and yet he let him go to Dudley where it was just as bad and far less muffled by the crowd. Indeed, comments would rattle around the empty ground, a venue that had held 16,500 at the official opening representative match in 1936. This represented a frightening aggregate weight on the weak limestone below.

Dudley Town Football Club taken in September 1953.
Back Row: Harry Madelin (Trainer) Eddie Morgan, Unidentified, Bill Harris, Fred Tillison, Ron James, Unidentified.
Front Row: Sid Cookson, Bill Hicklin, Len Anslow*, Unidentified, Arthur Elwell.
(If anyone can name the unknown players please email me.)
Many thanks to Mike Turner for the names he has provided. Also, thanks to Jane Anslow, Len's grand daughter for identifying Len

I was fortunate enough to have seen some games of Dudley Town's two great post-war FA Cup runs. Over 8,000 saw Worcester City come to The Sports Centre in 1964 with a team full of ex-league players. Internationals Peter McParland and Norman Deeley had scored FA Cup final winning goals for Villa and Wolves, and Reg Cutler had famously collided with a goal post in a FA Cup-tie at Wolves and bought down the whole goal. Yet it was Dudley who brought down Worcester, who had two players sent off that day. The cup run finally came to an end at Kidderminster, who went on to play Hull City in the first round proper. Dudley Town did get that far in 1976, entertaining league opposition in York City. The game produced a thrilling 1-1 draw in front of 5,000 people, another sizeable attendance.

Dudley Town Football Ground taken from the keep at Dudley Castle late 1980s

One night in April 1967 I saw leggy Bobby Watson score all six goals in the defeat of Tamworth, and what about Dudley Town 3 Manchester United 1?! To mark the opening of the Duncan Edwards Social Club, Matt Busby brought along a United XI minus the first team squad who were away in Sweden, although there were lesser mortals like Fitzpatrick, Rimmer and Aston playing. Being such a large ground, The Sports Centre also staged a host of local finals. Looking through my collection of programmes, I must have been present at one such occasion: Ublique United v Aldridge Fabrications in the FA Sunday Cup Final 1966. I can think of no reason for being there except that Easters were slow in Dudley in the mid-60s! Fortunately I do remember that my friend Reg's brother Alf played for Wrens Nest United against Netherton St. Andrews in the Dudley St John's Ambulance Brigade Cup Final 1967, explaining why I went to that one.

In late August 1957 a hole appeared in the ground at the Sports Centre in Birmingham Road. The subsidence
was because of underground limestone workings, mainly from the 19th century, which created huge caverns.
The experts decided to try blasting and the picture shows the charges being prepared.
(Shown kneeling is Laurence Hollis, past President of the Black Country Society, then a mining surveyor
working for Johnson, Poole and Bloomer.)

The limestone collapse in 1985 effectively ended cricket at The County Ground and football at The Sports Centre for the sites never reopened as live sports venues. The cricket club could not find a suitable alternative venue and disbanded at the end of the 1985 season. The football club has spent most of the intervening years as nomadic ground-sharers, most recently with Tividale. They now play in the West Midland Premier League. A lot of money from Europe was put into infilling the site, which was then redeveloped by the council as Castlegate. A cinema and various food and drink establishments stand on the site now. On a personal level, it is as if part of my sporting heritage collapsed and crumbled away with the limestone!

Sitting in the main stand at the Sports Centre gave a grandstand view of the blast.
(It was a long wait for the photographer, and there was no chance of a second shot.)