Varsity Match - Past Venues
To those who are used to the regularity of events on the Tideway (since 1845), at Twickenham (since 1921), rackets at Queen’s Club (from 1888), or cricket at Lord’s each year since 1851, will be unprepared for the University Hockey Match to be making eleven moves since 1890. But the peripatetic nature of the event has meant that some of the legendary sports grounds in Southern England have hosted the match. Between the two great celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Golden (1887) and Diamond (1897) Jubilees, the first University Hockey Match took place in Oxford in 1890.
The organisers of the ﬁrst match in 1890 - really a group of friends from Marlborough - had great difﬁculty in selecting or ﬁnding a ground that was acceptable to both sides. Eventually, they were allowed the use of the outﬁeld of the University Cricket Ground in the Parks at Oxford. The ground had only been levelled in 1879 after a protracted filibuster by Rev C Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), a mathematics don at Christ Church. He was given to writing pamphlets on various subjects and the idea of a cricket ground had raised his ire. In May 1867 he circulated around College common Rooms such a pamphlet in the form of a poem called “The Deserted Parks” which in no small measure helped to stop the cricket ground being created out of the Parks area in that year. But he was not successful when the project was raised again, the ground was laid in 1879 and some ten acres began to be used for cricket in May 1881. The early days of organised hockey had usually been played on cricket outﬁelds during the winter months and hockey and cricket clubs remained very close, often duplicating members.
For the second match in 1891, Cambridge approached Oxford with a view to playing that year in London in order to avoid another long and tedious journey to Oxford”. Eventually, the idea of a neutral venue was accepted and has been the preference ever since. The choice fell for the second match on Queen’s Club, West Kensington. Queen’s Club had rapidly become a successful, sophisticated sporting club in central London and within a few years of its foundation, on 19th August 1886, had collected a list of Vice Presidents that included one Marquis, fourteen Earls, eleven Lords together with some of the prominent men in the world of sport, business and public life. It also had as one of its main aims the provision of a neutral London home for Oxford and Cambridge contests on its 9 acres of land. By 1891, rugby association football, athletic sports, lawn tennis and rackets had already made it their home. It was the obvious place for the two captains to go and the matches of 1891 and 1892 were played there. But hockey required, where it could get it, a true, ﬁrm level grass surface for those who were developing the game's tactics and were really thinking about how the game should progress.
The Queen‘s Club pitch in 1892 cut up badly and the match, it is reported, developed into a rather scrappy game with hit and run rushes by the forwards. The captains looked around for another venue in south London where clubs like Blackheath, Teddington, Surbiton, Wimbledon were leading the way in the new thinking and for the ten years, 1893 to 1902, Richmond’s ground in the Old Deer Park was chosen. Alter short stays at Surbiton, 1903 to 1907 and Bromley 1908, the next 38 matches settled down at Foxgrove Road, Beckenham. The Beckenham Club offered ﬁne facilities and an enthusiastic body of members who shouldered the responsibility for staging the match. They put up stands, arranged the tickets and stewards and provided tea. No wonder that the universities, cosseted by such a cordial club, saw no reason to change while two world wards and fifty years passed. But things change eventually and Beckenham went through a bad patch when their grounds man died. To seek what they hoped would be the ideal playing surface, the two captains for the 1958 match, M A Eagar (Rugby & Worcester) and S C MacDonald (Culford & Selwyn) at short notice, which did not please many stalwarts, moved the match to the County Cricket Ground, Edgbaston, Birmingham where it stayed for three years until informed opinion had it moved back to the London area, Hurlingham Park, and the adjacent Hurlingham Club, being selected for the years 1961 to 1968.
In 1969 an unexpected and generous suggestion came from Billy Griffith (Dulwich & Pembroke), the secretary of the MCC who wanted some events so that he could test out new staff at Lord's prior to the start of the new cricket season with its important list of ﬁxtures. The fact that his son Mike (Marlborough & Magdalene) won hockey blues in 1963 and 1964 may have had something to do with it but for the next 21 years the match enjoyed the old, easy, courteous aura that was traditional to this centre of world cricket and helped to bring even closer together the cricketers ad the hockey players.
By the end of the 1980s. epoch making change was coming over the game. I can think of no other sport that has taken such a radical step as to change its playing surface. It had started to come about in 1976. The Olympic Games of that year were to be played in Montreal and the host suggested that the hockey tournament should be played on synthetic turf because of the exceptionally severe winter conditions in Canada and the consequent poverty of the grass quality. After this successful event Russia decided to follow suit for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The heat of opposition after 100 years of grass was dying down. Clubs were pleased not to be held hostage to the weather especially in January and February and inspite of the heavy cost of the specially laid pitch at around £250,000, the synthetic pitch took hold and the game has not looked back.
Oxford opened their lfﬂey Road sports complex on 6 March 1999, amid much university cerernony, incorporating a water base pitch using state of the art astroturf technology and named the Fletcher Field. This is in honour of Dr Robin Fletcher (Marlborough & Trinity, Oxford) a former resident of the Hockey Association and an Olympic and England international. Dr Fletcher was a fellow of Trinity, Oxford, for many years before being appointed Warden of Rhodes House which partly fiananced the project. Robin Fletcher played in the Varsity Hockey Match in 1947, 1948 and 1949 (Captain). Cambridge opened the Wilberforce road ground in 1994, adjoining the modern pavilion complex and the new athletics track. From an early stage, these developments were watched by the University Captains each year. One of them, Richard Dodds, Captain I981 (Kingston Grammar School & St Catharine's) won Bronze Medal in the Los Angeles Olympic Games and went on to captain the gold medal side in Seoul in 1988. The University Captains were not short of advice and with Lord’s in no mood to lay a synthetic pitch on the nursery Ground, the move to the excellent water based ground laid at the Reading Hockey Club took place in 1991. This was an excellent choice and returned to the match some of the intimate atmosphere that was generated during the years at Beckenham and which sometimes was lost in the 40,000 seats at Lord’s.
By 1997, the National Hockey Stadium at Milton Keynes had opened its doors and it was a natural step that this fixture, probably the oldest continuous hockey match in Great Britain, possibly the world, should be invited to play the match there. When the National Hockey Stadium got into difficulties (it is now a football ground) a move was made into the welcoming arms of the Southgate Hockey Club in North London where the first match at this venue was held on 3rd March 2003.