Norwich City Football Club Ground, (1908-1935)
I have managed to uncover a variety of sources, some of which are primary, such as the photographs and eye witness accounts. I have used photographs of the ground and a brief, published, first-hand account of the Nest. I have plenty of statistics including results and attendances when Norwich played at The Nest from 1908 to 1935. I have studied local, modern maps and visited the streets around the area and taken information from locals. I have one or two newspaper reports too. Google Earth and Street View have been helpful. The Internet has been a mine of pockets of information on the subject. Each one, like Wikipadia, is a piece of the puzzle. I have managed to contact two senior fans. My own family have helped with their memories. I have been sent photographs of a model of The Nest made during the Norwich City centenary year (2002). Add a little local knowledge of my own, an Ordnance Survey map from 1928 and aerial photographs from 1934 and 1937 and searches of local collections e.g. the Norwich Records Office at the County Hall and I have managed to produce what must be a definitive account of Norwich City at the Nest.
Regarding some of the secondary sources, I have used them with caution. I know that some information on the Nest and the local area is quite inaccurate. A rumour is that The Nest had a bigger capacity and was far in excess of that of Carrow Road. Fans have posted questions on blogs and social media asking if it were true that 49,000 watched a game at the Nest. Before I began to read about the Nest I was sure it was a bigger ground than Carrow Road. I do not know why I had that thought. Perhaps these rumours and falsehoods perpetuate because it is more exciting than reality?
In January 1908, the Norwich City Football Club received a letter from the Education Committee, who had leased the Newmarket Road ground to the club for six years, outlining new terms in their lease. To the club, these were unacceptable demands and, to cut a long story, Norwich City had to find a new place to play and soon. The detail in choosing Rump/Rhymp’s Hole on Rosary Road is well documented and the speedy development of the old chalk pit was enough to allow Norwich City to play their first match there in September 1908. The last FA Cup match at Newmarket Road was a massive 2-0 win over The Wednesday club and the final game of all, a 3-3 draw with Chelsea, was on 30th April, 1908.
Enormous amounts of work went into making the Rump’s Hole site fit for football and the great Archibald Leech was consulted during the process. According to the local press, Leech said The Nest would be the second best ground in the Southern League and that it could grow to a ground with a capacity up to 30,000. When ready for its first match in 1908, the capacity was 12,000. The Spion Kop, the largest section of terrace, was not ready for use. The pitch was not good either. It is interesting to note the point made in a 1908 press report that it was important to ‘fly the flag of football in the city’.
Journeys to The Nest
There is evidence that throughout the period from the Great War to 1935 fans came to The Nest from many corners of the county and away fans from beyond. Many, of course, came from the local area and other areas within the city of Norwich. Arthur Coombe was from Great Yarmouth, Don Thrower from Drayton, Jack Spark from Horsford, Victor Wright and Margaret Gunn of Gorleston and Aubrey Aitkin from North Walsham and then, later, from Great Yarmouth. Many were more local and lived in Thorpe Hamlet like: Alma Powell, John King, Geoffrey Ransome, Brian Hickling, Alan Brown, K. Coley and Tony Ireland.
Mr Bob Edge lived in Fenn Crescent near the Mile Cross Road/Drayton Road junction close to the Manor House Pub. He would walk toward the City along Drayton Road and then follow Wensum Park round to Oak Street and then walk toward The Barracks and either take Kett’s Hill up to Quebec Road and turn right or walk along to Gas Hill and walk up there to the Malvern Road turnstile. It depended on who he was walking along with, meeting up with or which pub he was going into before the game.
In Ted Bell’s book On The Ball City (1972) Aubrey Aitkin wrote: “It was in this cramped containing bowl that I watched my first matches, taken into the Stand by my father after driving up from North Walsham, negotiating with some difficulty the trams and cattle in Magdalen Street. We had our traffic problems even in those days.” Despite moving further out to Yarmouth Aitkin continued to travel into Norwich: “After 1920 we came from Yarmouth arriving after a bumpy ride across what then seemed like an interminable ‘Acle Straight’. The road was so potholed that we frequently found it safer to take the old road through Filby and on the way home risked hitting the carts returning from Yarmouth Market, lightless in the dusk.”
Arthur Coombe from Great Yarmouth said: “When I was a school boy I used to play for the school in the morning and then rush off to get the train to Thorpe Station from Vauxhall Station and, more often than not, that train would get held up outside Thorpe Station and we’d always be late for the kick off. We used to rush to The Nest and remembrances of the train journey made it quite an occasion for me.” Some came by tram, walked, biked, or bused in. Hundreds came via Pulls’ Ferry across the Wensum. Some sneaked out of Thorpe Hamlet School for a midweek fixture. Alan Brown recalls: “I used to sneak out of school on Thursday afternoons when Norwich City played at home, and recall one of the Masters coming to look for us.”
Some young people viewed a match at The Nest with great anticipation as the games presented an opportunity to make some money. Mrs Alma Powell remembers: “I and my friends used to meet the football fans pushing their bikes up St Matthews Hill to go to the match at The Nest. We would take their bikes and store them safely in my aunt’s mother’s garden-dozens of them at two pence each. As a reward, we used to buy fish and chips for three old pence at Pye’s fish and chip shop, and buy sweets from Raven’s shop just up St Leonard’s Road.” John King kept cycles too: “Spectators would leave their bicycles under my watchful eye for the sum of tuppence. I then handed responsibility to my mother whilst I crawled under the turnstile to watch the match. Ten minutes before the end I would return to the bikes to collect my money!” A Thorpe Hamlet resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Mrs Muskett, who lived in a house just below the Rosary end goal level at the old Nest, used her back yard to store fans’ bikes-our reward (for helping was) tuppence each and a free view of the match from a bedroom window.” Mr C John Wood: “We visited The Nest on game days, and they would let us in free after half time. If we were lucky we would find a beer bottle or two, which we would get a penny for returning. My dad stored bikes which was our weekly income apart from what mum earned.” George Fox tells that, with typical Norwich humour that his father cared for bikes in his garden when there was a match on and he charged “a penny a wheel”.
There were other opportunities for some. Geoffrey Ransome, a local lad, was a collector: “At the top of Lollards Road was a high iron stairway to Rosary Road up which we went to school and on Saturdays wriggle through the fence into The Nest! Not so much to see the game, but to collect the ‘fag cards’ from the discarded packets on the floor of the stand.”
At the Manor House Pub on Drayton Road in Norwich, children would gather round visiting supporters, asking them for their spare coppers so they could get some sweets, Joan Edge remembers. Once the game was near its end, George Fox, a pupil at Thorpe Hamlet School on St Leonards Road remembered: “I used to get into the ground before the end of the match when they let people out and this was how I used to get in. I didn’t see a whole game.”
Pre match routines
Without floodlights the kick-off times varied according to when it would get dark. Unlike today too, there wasn’t always a fixed day for mid-week games. With the programmes being sold, the fans arriving and the players putting their kit on, the fans already inside the ground would be settling and taking in the atmosphere, smoking a cigarette or just chatting to their fellows who they may not have seen since the last match or the previous season.
Whilst waiting for kick-off they may have been entertained by a marching band or even a motorcycle football match or even a display of daring motor cycle trickery on the pitch itself. Some fans may still be queueing for chips at Pye’s fish and chip shop or getting sweets from next door on Quebec Road. Some may have been picking up some fruit from Turner’s grocery store nearby.
Some supporters’ pre match plans could be ruined. On the day of the King’s Silver Jubilee in May 1935, Norwich City had a Hospital Cup charity game against The Arsenal who, in the previous 5 seasons had been Champions of Division 1 four times and FA Cup winners too. Additionally, Alf Kirchen was playing for Arsenal and he had been a Norwich City player just a few weeks before. It was a beautiful day. Mr Bob Edge’s very young daughter, Peggy, wore her best white dress for Dowson School and was doing a maypole dance as part of the school celebration. After school she went out to play in Fenn Crescent. She got knocked down by a passing cycle. She was bleeding and her lovely dress was ruined and Mr Edge had to miss the game as a result. The photograph (above) shows a pre match line up of both Norwich and Arsenal teams.
The community feel
There was anticipation before the game, and not just among the entrepreneurs and collectors. Many talk of the feeling of togetherness: “We used to look forward to it every Saturday afternoon, yea, and for three or four of us the usual procedure was a bar of Calley’s Marching chocolate on the way and there we used to stand at the rail and nibble it and watch the match and criticise the players like hell of course. Those were good days.” While some remembered the chocolate others liked the social side. Margaret Gunn said: “All nice and camaraderie it was. ‘Cause they were different type of men. Half of ‘em had been in the First World War and the young were coming up to go to the Second World War.” Don Thrower said of the games: “At times it was really electric. The Norfolk dumplings or suedes the team used to call us it was an atmosphere never to be forgotten. It was totally different to what it is today”.
Jack Spark said it was: “Very friendly. Carrow Road never got the same atmosphere with me at any rate. Very friendly people stood round you and knew you. You all heard the referee, the visiting players and mistakes and that was really great.”
Arthur Coombes remembered: “At half time there used to be a chap come along with a tray of chocolate biscuits and chocolates and one thing and another, nougat, and if you were near the front you’d be able to get a bar of chocolate and if not you’d give someone at the back someone would yell out, you’d throw the chocolate back and they’d pass you the money down.”
Don Thrower added: “When they brought the rolos round at thruppence they would throw it up to you.”
In the introduction to On The Ball City, Aubrey Aitkin writes: “Yet the togetherness at Carrow Road is as nothing to the intimacy and compactness which we knew up to 1935 at The Nest.” In 1972 Aitkin reflected on attendance at The Nest with his twin brother: “My twin brother and I established a regular watching place on top of what we called Spion Kop (above). Here we were at the top of a sheer concrete wall 30 feet high. It bounded the playing area within a yard of the touchline at the Thorpe End of the ground. The wall was a terrifying object to any visiting Outside Left and we had a splendid view from the top. It was here that Jimmy Stoakes, as fast and as brave an Outside Left who ever played for City, broke his leg as he crashed into the concrete. The crack resounded all over the ground. We were certainly never allowed to go in the Chicken Run, a well sighted area opposite the Stand for here the most vociferous and vocal supporters gathered. They were within spitting distance of the players and the referee and they gave their uncensored and unrestricted opinions to both at the closest possible range. It took a brave referee to give an unpopular decision within a few yards of the Chicken Run.”
Before the match some would have a read. The match day programme for the Arsenal game in 1935 had a special Jubilee and Hospital Cup cover but with the regular programme cover and content within. Inside, it contained a short history of the opponents and player details. There was a team sheet stapled in the centre detailing the likely teams and how they would line up. There are some interesting facts including a detail of when, years before, Royal Arsenal played an FA Cup tie at Thorpe and drew 2-2.
There is some detail on the home team for the away fans to read and there is a history of results from the Hospital Cup. There was no fixture list nor half time lists in this edition, it being an end of season friendly, but it was usual for this information to be included for supporters. The programme contained several adverts for local stores and businesses. It was a very similar format to those of previous seasons.
Supporters could buy a handbook back then too. Like the programme for each match the cost was 3d in the mid 30’s. The 1933/34 edition of the handbook was 72 pages and was a pocket-sized. It included some of the regular information from the match day programme but had photographs of all the players in the first team squad. It included the complete results from the previous season and hopes for the club in 1933/34. It included a club history detailing members of the board since 1905 and a thorough list of all players who had played even just one game, season by season. The stats section even included the final positions of the Norwich City reserves and the league they were in. There are more stats including a list of FA Cup results, season by season, and a full record of league results against each team. The top half dozen leading Norwich scorers are listed for each season from 1905 too. The fixtures for 1933/34 were listed for the first team and reserves. Also available for the serious supporter/collector were cigarette cards. Postcards of the team were very popular too. There are many examples still in existence. On a Saturday evening there was the local football paper, The Pink ‘Un. This was a broadsheet newspaper containing a great deal of very up-to-date news of the day’s football. It was available by about 6pm on Saturday evenings.
One respondent during the BBC interviews said: “I don’t think they had proper loud speaker and they’d come over with a big hailer. Because, you see technology hadn’t got that far so it was mainly shouting over this hailer.”
Behind the scenes
Bernard Robinson gives us a unique view of The Nest from behind the scenes. His view of the managers of the club at The Nest: “Jimmy Kerr was a very silent man and we saw very little of him indeed. He wasn’t anything near the modern day manager who gives the players instructions and tells them what he wants. He was just there as a manager and managed the club. Tom Parker was a different man altogether. Compared to Kerr he was of a younger generation and he was a fair manager and he used to give us instructions as to what he wanted and didn’t want and I always found him very good.”
Paddy Hawes was interviewed in the 1990’s by the BBC and had a ‘back room’ view: “The first memory is when I used to go up there with my father really he used to take me up there especially in the summer time when he worked on the ground in the summer. Tom Wilston was the groundsman up there. Rather than you run round you go and look for the daisy plants. I’d look around and he’d give me a little thing to dig ‘em up with. That was my first remembrance I think. They asked me to be the mascot. One of my sisters, she’s still alive by the way, 92 years old, she knitted me a yellow/green jersey. That’s all I wore, a yellow/green jersey. Boots and all the gear you couldn’t afford them then. My mother did a lot of work for Norwich City Football Club. I always think my mother and father worked harder for Norwich City than anyone between the wars. My mother did all the washing: 22 shirts, pairs of shorts and socks and towels. Every week during the football season and the whole family was involved. My brother and I used to collect wood for the fire in the mornings up Moushold. My sisters used to help out with the ironing. Later on, I used to go up The Nest on Sunday mornings and he’d collect all the shirts in a big apron and I’d put ‘em on my head and walk home to Gypsy Road with ‘em on top of my head. My mum would soak some away and on Monday start washing. My sisters would help with the ironing and there was a time when city played in white shirts with canary badges and my mother used to wash them shirts and she had to boil them every now and then to get them nice and white and they had to take the badges off and tack ‘em on afterwards. They had to dry all these shirts so you can imagine the work.”
The players had a separate pre-match routine of course. Bernard Robinson played hundreds of games for Norwich from 1932 to 1949. He had a testimonial in 1949. He would, perhaps, have played more than Kevin Keelan (660 matches from 1963 to 1980) had it not been for the 6 missing years during the Second World War. Robinson played at The Nest and Carrow Road and many of the biggest grounds while Norwich were in division 2. His view is one of the playing staff. Regarding training, preparation and facilities at the old ground he said: “They were quite good. Mind you I can’t compare them with the dressing rooms today because I haven’t seen them but they were quite good. We had a bath in one corner of the big room which was about 8’ square I suppose and a wall round it about three feet tall and we all crammed into this bath and we had 3 slipper baths at the side of it which were filled with cold water and when we got out of the hot water we got into the cold so we wouldn’t catch cold I suppose.”
He said of joining the club: “When I first signed on I was on £4 per week and a £1 bonus for a win and 10s for a draw. When I finished in ‘49 even the First Division clubs weren’t allowed to pay more than 20. We were well paid, there’s no getting away from it because money was so much different in those days.”
Speaking of the successful Norwich City side of 1934 (winners of Division 3 South) Bernard Robinson talks of his fellow players who took to the pitch with him. He said: “I suppose we must have had a fairly good side because as I say we won the league and it was more or less an honour to do so and of course it pleased us very much. The first goalkeeper I remember was Norman Wharton and Joe Hannah and Ginger Smith were full backs, Joe Joblin, Tim Williamson and Dougie Lochead, half backs. Billy Warnes, Ken Burdett, Jack Vynall (above left), Happy Houghton and Spud Murphy.”
Many of those interviewed by the BBC in the latter 1990’s could still remember their favourite City players at The Nest. Herbert Coe remembered players from the 1920’s: “The favourite player I had was Sammy Austin. I bet they all say that probably because he scored a lot of goals and he was a wing player and eventually got transferred to Man City and I don’t think I’ll ever forgive the club for getting rid of him. George Mark the old centre half and captain. He’d be in the old Garnet Wolsey half an hour before the match and he had to rush down to get there to play. That wouldn’t be allowed today would it? That player who had a very fine voice was Jimmy Stokes. Did you remember him? He used to sing solo at the Scott Memorial church yard on Thorpe Road. He was a left winger we had. I can remember Laxton and one or two others. Benny Smith he got disbanded from football. You never heard the full facts of this but there was the question of him taking bets on the match or doing the football coupons something like that but we never knew the true facts, he went to school with me, and he never played football anymore.”
Arthur Combes used to like Bernard Robinson: “He was a terrific player in my opinion and he always seemed to be in the game. Here there and everywhere and one of the most forceful players in the side. That Berdett, he was a clever player, an inside left. Very good he was. Kirchen on the right wing there. He used to dash up the wing. The very first memory I have is of 7 years old in 1928 and I always remember them saying ‘give it to Varco’.” George Fox remembered: “He had a long throw; One of the longest in British football.”
Fans were able to get close to the players in other ways too. Don Thrower remembered: “We queued up early in the morning and who should come past but Kenny Burdette with Tom Price with his bowler hat on and he said ‘Gosh, my word you boys are early’.” He continued: “There was also another match winner by the name of Warnes (above). Another good goal scorer with 24 goals and those two made 48. Then we came to another, Kenny Berdette. Mr Norwich City himself…being that I had a relation living near where they lodged in Thorpe ‘hello he used to say, nice day yes righto Kenny. Are you playing tomorrow? Yep. Where we going? Well win tomorrow. You also had another friend Tom Pipe was walking down the ground and always had a bowler hat on.”
Don Thrower also said: “I started to collect the autographs. I had some very famous, well they were our boyhood heroes, Norman Wharton, big goalkeeper and strong as an ox. Always went and had a drink before the game. There was Thomas Halliday in his yellow sweater, driving round in a Bentley because I was working in Queens Road and he was lodging in Ashby Street. We also signed to my mind one of the best centre forwards with consistency in scoring by the name of Jack Vynall from Sunderland.”
He remembered that away teams used to walk from Thorpe station carrying a little bag with the kit in.
Jack Spark remembers remembering the players: “We knew the team by heart. I think and it was Sturgess, and Martin, Field, Denim, Jackson and Stokes, he was the leading one. I remember Varco, he was really great and very erratic with his shooting, he might hit the corner flag and if it went in the goal it went in in a flash. He was a very great favourite. And the cry used to be in Norwich in those days was ‘Give it to Varco’”.
Without good wages that might have helped buy a car or a home, many of the staff and players at The Nest probably found it economical to live locally. Brian Hickling knew that some of the players were locals. The Clyffe, a very large property in Thorpe Hamlet, was “acquired by Norwich City Football Club and converted into flats to house the players and staff. Some of the players to live there Maurice Tobin, Noel Kinsey, Ephgrave and Dolding.” K Coley said some players played bowls at The Jubilee PH on St Leonard’s Road: “As a lad I would wipe the woods of the players, who at that time included City FC players Tobin, Gavin and Kinsey.” Tony Ireland lived at 65 Harvey Lane and at 69, a Norwich City player lived: “Fred Brown, who at one time played as an amateur for Norwich City” Robert Thornton Young (aka Bob) became Norwich City manager in 1937 and had been a trainer before that and had played for Sunderland. He lived at 55 St Leonard’s Road and, later, he lived at 20 Vincent Road. Godfrey Greener, a local lad, remembers delivering the Pink ‘Un to Kinsey at the Clyffe.
Although a regular player at The Nest, Bernard Robinson remained modest: “I don’t consider myself a great footballer. I was one of the team as far as I was concerned. There were several clubs that watched me you know and turned me down. Arsenal arranged a friendly match with Norwich at the Nest with the purpose of watching me and they left the ground having signed Alf Kirchen.”
One or two of the players moved on to greater things: (Samual William) Austin (cigarette card above) played for England v Northern Ireland in October 1925 after he had left Norwich. That game ended 0-0. Alf Kirchen played three games for England and scored a single goal in two of the games. All three games were in May 1937 and all were big wins against Scandinavian teams: Norway (6-0), Sweden (4-0) and Finland (8-0). Kirchen failed to score in the narrowest of the three wins.
On August 27th, 1921 the Norwich City players prepared for their first game of the new season in Division Three (south) in their yellow and green striped shirts. It was a beautiful late summer day and the sun was bright. Luton Town were the visitors and a very good crowd gathered for the game. The prospects for the season were not good though. Norwich’s previous season, their first in the third tier, was a very average one. Norwich only won 10 games (only 1 away win at Reading) and found it hard to score goals. George Travers, who had played for Barnsley in the 1912 Cup Final, had been leading scorer with 14 but had been sold to Gillingham who finished bottom of the third tier in 1920/21. The Norwich defence was better and had conceded the fewest goals among all those in the bottom half of the league bar just two and had a better recent record at the back than Luton.
Into this, the players walked up the steps and onto the pitch. To their right the sun shone down on them and if they had shielded their eyes they would have seen the side of the house on Rosary Road, the netting separating the pitch from housing and a wood yard behind which would have given some shade. Behind them the club officials would have clapped and cheered but the louder sound would have come from the far side toward which they were walking.
This part of the ground would have been an impressive sight on this day, it looking like a stadium bowl. Around the curve to the Chicken Run, there came the loudest noise and boos and jeering for the opposition who played in their white shirts and black shorts.
As the players looked around before the game and warmed up, they could have seen much smaller sections of the crowd at the Rosary Road end and in the stand next to the Spion Kop. They would have seen some advertising around the ground: There were small adverts around the retaining wall reminding us about Bovril and Caley’s Chocolate. For the smoker, swan vestas were supposed to be the best to light their tobacco. For the groggy, Wincarnis advertised a ‘pick me up’ which was a popular non-prescription solution for fatique.
The match itself was still 0-0 at half time, not a surprise considering the Norwich defence and attack from the season before. From the corners on the Chicken Run side the goalkeepers would have to struggle to catch the ball easily due to the sun’s brightness. The corner kicks from the Spion Kop corner would have been difficult to take as there was so little space for a run up. The ref’s problem in that corner was to know whether or not the ball had gone out of play for a corner or goal kick as it could hit the retaining wall and bounce back so quickly. The fans in the Spion Kop would need to hold tight-later in the season part of this terrace was to break and cause injury.
While Norwich had sold their leading goalscorer from 1920/21, Luton had an international striker, Allan Mattison, in their front line. He made the difference and scored the only goal of the game. Norwich had lost their home record in their first match. Fans may have feared a repeat of their previous season when it took until November 6th to win a game (as it turned out they didn’t have to wait so long this year-their first win was a week earlier than the year before but was the only win before a second success on Christmas Eve).
As the players walked off the field at the end of that first match, no doubt the players would have shaken hands and perhaps made reference to the next Saturday when the reverse fixture would occur in Luton. In the first few years of Division Three, teams played the same team twice in the week, one home and one away. However, between these two Luton games Norwich had a bag to pack-they were to travel to play in Plymouth on Bank Holiday Monday before that return against Luton.
The Canaries beat Coventry 10-2 at The Nest on 15th March 1930. Tommy Hunt of Norwich scored five goals that day. The headline in the Pink ‘Un that Saturday night was: “Revenge is sweet and City take it with a vengeance-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10! And Coventry make it a dozen.”
Perhaps the biggest league game in Norwich’s history occurred a few years later, again against Coventry City, on April 21st, 1934. Both teams went into this game with a chance of getting the championship and the one promotion place to the second division. With two games to go after this game, a Norwich win would see them promoted. Given that the Newport County game earlier in the month attracted a crowd of more than 22,000, it must have been disappointing that only 16,787 turned out for this game.
Norwich ended up a healthy 7 points ahead of Coventry in second place after the final matches of the season on May 5th. Norwich City were promoted at a home game for the only time in their history.
Until the promotion (and the near promotion the previous year) Norwich City Football Club trundled along, without being close to promotion but almost always safe from relegation. The average crowd didn’t really change from its regular 8000 per game despite improvements to facilities and an increase in capacity. The crowd seemed to support the team through these lean times and turned up to see The Canaries play, pure and simple. Inconsistency from match to match contrasted with consistent mid table mediocrity. Until 1930 only Tottenham Hotspur, of all the teams south of Birmingham, had won a major trophy of any description. No team south of Birmingham had won the league. The chances of Norwich City hosting a match against a major team, then, were remote given that the league they were in only involved teams south of Birmingham. The chance of hosting a game which would attract a large attendance was remote as a consequence. It is worth noting that the average crowds of the biggest teams at the time were nowhere near those of today. In 1909/10 Blackburn finished 3rd in division 1 but had an average crowd of just 13,000 and the league champions in 1912/13 (Sunderland) had an average of just 17,000 so Norwich’s average is relatively good.
The chances of getting a ‘plumb’ home draw in the FA Cup were lessened by the fact that, as a third tier team, Norwich entered the competition at an earlier stage and risked being ‘out’ before the big boys were ‘in’.
The crowd at The Nest only exceeded 20,000 on five occasions: Newport County (22,363), Bolton Wanderers (21,371) and Crystal Palace attracted 20,481 (when promotion to division 2 was likely), Sheffield Wednesday when Norwich really did draw a big side in the FA Cup and for the match against The Corinthians in 1929. Corinthians was a team held in high regard; a team made up of players who represented ‘all that was good in the game’ but players who played for the love of the game and with the highest standards of fair play at the front of their minds. They remained an amateur side. In the photograph, the teams line up before the game on January 12th, 1929.
Of all the FA Cup winners just 4 visited the Nest for an FA Cup game: Sunderland in 1910 (11,000 spectators), Tottenham (9,758) and Bradford City (8,043) in 1915 and Barnsley in 1922 (12,008). Norwich City played Bolton at The Nest before the northerners went on to win the first FA Cup Final at Wembley in 1923 (this match was ‘comparatively easy’ for Bolton according to notes in the 1923 FA Cup Final programme). Aside from Sunderland, no division 1 champion ever played at The Nest. Despite this lack of visiting big clubs, it shows the tremendous loyalty and support the people of Norfolk gave to Norwich City Football Club through these lean years. It is clear from the evidence that it was the thought of a game on Saturday that excited the public of Norwich and the opportunity it represented to meet their fellows and have a day out and to see their favourite players. Crowds were bigger during holiday periods.
The Newport County game was played on Easter Monday and thereby attracted a greater crowd than for the crucial championship decider against Coventry just a few days later. With so little cover from the elements at The Nest it is understandable that the weather conditions could have affected the crowd size at any time of the season and against any opponent.
There were several friendly matches arranged against teams Norwich City might not otherwise meet, the club being in another region of the third division or a division or two higher. In 1910, Newcastle United played at the Nest and 13,473 were in attendance. In 1920 Tottenham played in The Hospital Cup and 12,000 watched. Liverpool attracted 10,000 in 1931. Arsenal played Norwich at the Nest on the day of the King’s Silver Jubilee and, despite the distractions of the other festivities around the city, 16,000 came along to see the very recent four times league champions and FA Cup winners and Alf Kirchen, the ex-Norwich favourite.
Division 2 football meant established and successful northern teams like Manchester United, Blackpool, Newcastle, Sheffield United, Burnley, Notts Co and Nottingham Forest, Bury and Barnsley were coming to The Nest for fully competitive league games for the very first time.
The biggest game at The Nest, though, was against Sheffield Wednesday in in the 5th round of the FA Cup in February 1935. Bernard Robinson had a player’s view of that game when he spoke to the BBC: “I’ll never forget that. Sheffield Wednesday, of course, was a First Division side and, I don’t know about the other players, but I was absolutely in awe of them. After all I was supposed to mark an English international which I’d never done before it my life. Starling was his name and what a gentleman. I think we missed two goals from about 6 yards in the first half and in the second half Sheffield Wednesday broke away and the ball was centred very badly, all along the floor and Little, a left half who was running in, didn’t even know where the ball was, it hit his knee and went into the net. I congratulated Starling, we shook hands and I wished him all the best of luck. He said if we were lucky enough to win today we are lucky enough to win the cup and they did.”
Of the scenes in the ground that day Robinson said: “Why the stand didn’t give way from the roof I don’t know. There was as many on the roof as were in the ground I think. I can’t imagine where they were all packed in.”
For those of us who can recall games before all-ticket and all-seater football, getting into a big match at Carrow Road and the packed terrace inside, it is easy to imagine the possible events surrounding the game against Sheffield Wednesday at The Nest. The long queues to get in, the spectators trying to avoid queuing by running round to an alternative entrance, finding that the queue would be just as long. The smoker in the packed terrace who can hardly get his hands in his pockets let alone get a cigarette out and get it lit. The pressure of the crowd causing some to be lifted off their feet and moved several yards from where they’d started. Some children would have been moved to the front and some spectators may have had a restricted view. Taller spectators were lucky but some would have been on tip toes to see for most of the game, some would have jumped up when they felt a shot was coming. Some fans may have had to plump for a place in the ground that was quite alien to them, having failed to get their regular spot near their mates. Perhaps those who were regulars in the Spion Kop got a view of it for the first time in full. Maybe: “That day I realised just how unusual the Spion Kop was at The Nest. From Sexton’s Piece, a lower position in relation to it, I could see just how high the sheer side was. I reckon 40/50 feet high. The highest point was directly above the corner flag. A large wall existed to quite a height which sloped down only slowly and stretched to the edge of the penalty area on the far side, where it was about 20/30 feet high. Another lower wall then tapered off toward the Stand and met ground level around about the half way line. In front of some sections was a shelf of terrace which fans accessed from the terrace behind the goal to my right that day. I had never known about this from my regular place atop The Mound. From the tallest section of the wall the main section of terrace went back to a line of trees which I guess would be toward the top of Gas Hill. Fencing separated the sections of terrace on The Kop and some terrace stretched behind the Stand along the touchline.”
Some fans couldn’t get in so acted en masse to do so. Arthur Coombe: “The gates were shut and so we couldn’t get in but we all rushed round to another entrance and the gates were shut there but I rather think it was an exit rather than an entrance. Anyway, the gates got pushed in and we all rushed in but the attendance pushed us out again and I went to the houses by the side of the ground and up in the hill was some trees which I climbed up and I could just see one goal and there was all the excitement of the goal mouth and the penalty area, I could see all that and suddenly a chap appeared from the left with the ball and bang, in the net and Norwich were out of the cup. That was the only goal scored” (Arthur Coombe). Jack Spark said: “That was a great game, Norwich were all over them that day. The Wednesday goalkeeper he played a marvellous game. I think they had a dozen, probably more, hard shots on goal and he saved the lot”. Paddy Hawes: ”Russell was on our wing weren’t he, what I remember, chap named Russell. I thought he was gonna win the match for us but he didn’t.”
A newspaper report said of the game: “Early play was very fast and the City were having the full share of the exchanges. Kirchen, Russell and Berditt figured and in several moments that threatened danger and a shot from Russell hit the side netting. Berditt came into prominence with a clever dribble which he ended with a pass out to Kirchen. When the winger centred, Sharpe cleared but clever passing between Kirchen, Naughton, and Russell almost gained the first score for the city but custodian Brown (above) in the Sheffield goal made a fine save from a furious shot from Russell”.
“Most of us had made up our mind that nothing really important would happen and there would be a replay when Palethorpe, the Wednesday centre forward, provided his one worthwhile contribution. He strayed far to the right and received from Hooper and lobbed the ball over the city players in front of goal and Rimmer (above) cut in to supply the final touch a few feet from the post.”
Up and down the nation on May 6th 1935, and even across the British Empire, the day was of historical significance. For Norwich City Football Club and the Edge family of Fenn Crescent in Norwich (and Peggy Edge in particular) this was a day to remember for more personal reasons. This Monday turned out to be the perfect sunny spring day for King George V and Queen Mary’s Silver Jubilee celebration. In the early evening the King would make his special address to the nation on the wireless (radio). Across the land, and beyond, there were events to mark the occasion. At the Nest, buntings were hung to commemorate the day and preparations were in hand for the visit of The Arsenal for the Hospital Cup Match which was to kick off at 5.30. Arsenal had just completed a hat-trick of Division 1 titles and, to add a bit of cream, Alf Kirchen was to play for Arsenal against his old club, Norwich.
Following the game, in which Alf Kirchen scored the only goal, the King’s message was relayed to fans who had stayed behind to listen. Then The Hospital Cup was presented to Arsenal. Some fans may have looked at the Main Stand for the last time, aware of the plans to demolish it and build a new stand there.
Within the year there were many more changes than could have been expected. For the Edge family there was a new addition on June 16th: a boy who was to become a Norwich City fan and regular attendee at home games. In the city, there was to be the end of the tram system. Pull’s Ferry ceased its service and Norwich City moved to Carrow Road: On the 15th May, so soon after the Arsenal game, Norwich City Football Club received a letter regarding safety at The Nest. It was clear that those at the Arsenal game had attended the last match at The Nest and would not have an opportunity to see the ground for a first team game again. Nationally, there was to be a change of King; George V died and was succeeded by Edward VIII.
On The Road
Only half of Norwich City’s games would have been played at The Nest of course. There were away matches to attend and it is clear that many did travel to see The Canaries and, before that, The Citizens when Norwich City were based at the Newmarket Road ground. It is said that 1,000 fans travelled to see Norwich City play at Lowestoft in the earliest years of Norwich City Football Club. According to the Norwich City handbook of 1933/34, 3,000 fans travelled to Filbert Street to see Norwich play in the FA Cup against Leicester City before The Great War. They only saw half an hour’s football before a snowstorm brought the game to a premature end. Many fans would have travelled by public transport (train) but some, like Mr Edge, went by a charabanc and had a very uncomfortable journey. Some football fans like Mr Edge attended non-Norwich matches, attending the 1923 FA Cup Final at Wembley and the finals in 1926 and 1927. For those who did not attend away games, there were newspaper articles giving some detail. Any road journey would have been very long. According to the AA guide in the mid 1930’s the recommended route from Norwich into London was not via the east side but was toward the north and then south to Hampstead, arriving at Marble Arch which was fine for playing Queens Park Rangers… When playing QPR they played at the now demolished White City whose capacity was 80,000.
The regional Third Division (South) didn’t help Norwich City at all. The club and its supporters had to travel to Wales to play Swansea Town, Newport County, Merthyr and Aberdare. Plymouth, Exeter and Torquay were even further. Other journeys involved matches at Bournemouth, Bristol and Gillingham. It was difficult for the opposition too though-going to Norwich must have been a real away game.
Over the period from 1908 to 1935, Norwich played a number of games against teams who are not familiar to us today. Aside from the small teams drawn in the earliest stages of the FA Cup, Norwich played Millwall Athletic (now Millwall), Leicester Fosse (Leicester City) and Leyton (now Leyton Orient after having been Clapton Orient and just Orient). New Brompton were not based in Earl’s Court but changed their name to Gillingham. In Wales City played Swansea Town (Swansea City) and Aberdere Athletic who dropped out of the league, and then merged with Aberaman. The club dropped the Aberdere in the name and Aberaman exist today. Merthyr Town have no connection with current Welsh club with a similar name-they were replaced by Thames who are defuncked too.
When Norwich City played Crystal Palace before The Great War, the game took place at what is now the Herne Hill Velodrome (above) which is the sole surviving venue from the 1948 London Olympics. Norwich City played some away games at The Nest. In 1910/11 The Canaries played The Robins, the nickname for a now defunct team known as Croydon Common. They only had two seasons alongside Norwich City and, having a bird nickname, their ground was known as The Nest too. The ground is now built upon and is located by Selhurst Rail Station near Selhurst Park. After The Great War Norwich played more than one away game at The Nest: Crystal Palace had moved out of The Velodrome and into Croydon Common’s old ground (see painting below).
Other grounds that Norwich City played on would have been interesting too. Thames FC, whom Norwich City played for just two seasons in the early 1930’s, played at The West Ham Stadium (no connection with the club of that name) whose capacity was 120,000. For Norwich City’s visits, the gates were 1,000 and 3,000 approximately. Norwich failed to win either game. In the FA Cup Norwich had games at Anfield, Villa Park, Stamford Bridge, Ewood Park, White Hart Lane, Elland Road and Highbury. Norwich City played at Plough Lane against the then, non-league Wimbledon. There were more local away games against smaller clubs like Clapton in East London, Southend United and Metrogas who played on the Old Kent Road at the time of that game in 1921. One of the more memorable games would have been the one at Anfield in 1908/09 In Ted Bell’s book he quotes a contemporary report which says: “The home team were occupying a high place in Division One, whilst the Canaries were in the lower half of the Southern League; but on the three occasions when Norwich got within striking distance of the home goal they scored, whereas Liverpool could only find the net on two occasions despite having the bulk of the play. The antics of the Norwich players after each goal were amusing, but were as naught compared to the scenes when the final whistle blew. The goalkeeper first turned a complete somersault, and then proceeded to embrace his two full backs. In this position they left the arena, with the goalkeeper practically in mid-air and the trinity locked together like three happy schoolboys. I never witnessed such a display of sheer delight and enthusiasm, due no doubt to the fact that it was one of the greatest bombshells which had ever exploded in the world of football results up to that time.”
Some of the teams they played at The Nest were very small including Oxford City, Ilford, Chatham, Poole, Bath City and Folkstone Town, along with Walthamstow Grange and Ilford who no longer exist.
Other Nest Attractions
The Nest wasn’t only used by the Norwich City first team.
“They ran a boxing tournament, I don’t know if they ran 2 but I know of one and they gave me the job of walking round the ring putting the number of the rounds on the board. Teddy Baldock the Bantum weight champion he came down there and I forget who he fought. I think that was someone named Docherty but I’m not quite sure of that. Jack Forster was there and he fought a man named Harry Lemon. I remember going round the ring one day with the boards and I got round to Jack Forster’s corner and he’d just been rinsing his mouth out with water and I got the lot all over me as he spat it all out. That suited the crowd and they really thought that was funny.” (Paddy Hawes).
There was a game at The Nest in the mid 1920’s that collected together many fewer fans than those on a Saturday afternoon as it was between the Norwich Schoolboys Team and The Grammar School Under 14’s. Aubrey Aitkin, in his introduction to Ted Bell’s 1972 book On The Ball City describes his experience of playing football at the Nest. He writes: “Once, and only once, I actually played at The Nest. The under 14 XI from the Grammar School had had a particularly successful season, and we were honoured to have a match against the Norwich Schoolboys team of that year. We played at The Nest and it has left me with a shattering sense of personal inadequacy, for we were hopelessly defeated 6-1 and I was keeping goal.” There is some irony here.
When Mr Aitkin described his first match as a supporter at The Nest in Bell’s book he says: “It was on 29th November 1919 that I saw my first football match, at the age of 8. It was a Southern League match and Norwich City defeated Gillingham 5-0. My only memory of that game is the tall Gillingham goalkeeper, who wore a long white cricket sweater, turning unhappily to pick the ball out of the net five times. My young heart bled for him.”
Geoffrey Ransome watched school football at The Nest in the 1930’s: “We watched the schools’ football final at The Nest from a vantage point just across the road from our school. Thorpe Hamlet was playing Angel Road, and we scored first, but then it became boring (no goals) so we lads started chanting: Come on you Angels, or we’ll have another one in! But the game ended 1-0 and WE WON THE CUP!”
There are snippets of information regarding some strange goings on over the years. On Monday March 24th 1913, before it was usual, an aeroplane was flown over The Nest twice during the 2-2 draw with Northampton. Later, during the 2-0 home win v Northampton on April 17th 1922, part of the Spion Kop fencing broke and 50 or 60 people fell to the pitchside. There were no serious injuries.
From the first days in 1908 there were problems at Norwich City’s home ground. In their first season The Canaries could not play home games in the FA Cup and had to play home games on neutral ground following Reading’s complaint that the pitch was not big enough for football. The pitch was made bigger. Arthur Coombes remembered: “I remember that wall at the nest you know, and of course you were very close to the wall when you got to the corner flag and if you wanted to take an in swinger I remember they used to push themselves off the wall to get the left foot to take the ball into the centre.” Later, Bernard Robinson played for Norwich, George Fox remembers the difficulty Robinson had in taking his long throws from The Spion Kop corner. In 1918, after four years of war, Norwich City Football had faced a dire struggle to survive. In a local report it was said one of the most regrettable aspects of war on the Norwich community was the loss of professional football. Interestingly, the report admits that The Nest “is by no means an ideal arena but no better ground within easy reach is available, and there is little doubt that It will continue to be home of the club.” This is hardly a seal of approval after just 10 years at the ground. It continues: “various alterations and improvements are necessary, and it is hoped that ways and means will be found for carrying these into effect.”
Some secondary sources have suggested that it was felt as early as March 1926 that Norwich City should move on and leave the Nest. According to Ted Bell, there was a proposal that that year that a new ground should be built at Highland Road near Christchurch Road in Norwich. Bell said that the ground would hold 27,000. However, improvements were made on a continued basis at The Nest, some were small and others larger and one would add 3,000 to the capacity when Sexton’s wood yard was bought and replaced with a new terrace in 1932. As late on as March 1935, Norwich City were looking at plans and estimates to rebuild the Main Stand. No adequate scheme to improve The Nest was realistic however. The club surveyed plots at St James’ Hollow and Barrack Street. Boundary Park was the favourite site at the time. The Canaries’ hand was forced when it received a letter from the FA stating that they, the FA, were not satisfied that Norwich City could host games with large crowds. Norwich City moved to Carrow Road. The last match at The Nest was on May 6th and by August 31st Norwich City had a new stadium and broke their attendance record with 29,779 watching a 4-3 win over West Ham.
Margaret Gunn had a more measured view of The Nest: “I always used to think it was a heavy ground. The ground used to be rather muddy I had always thought. Compared with today it was like being out on the wilds. On the other side of the pitch I don’t think there was any grandstand at all.”
It seems Bernard Robinson was not a great fan of The Nest as a venue either but it gave the home side some advantage he said: “The wall I suppose was about 5 feet from the touchline and our wingers knew more about this wall than the opposing team and they used to fight shy of it. If the ball was going out of play for a goal kick they were very loath to stop it or run after it.” Bernard recalls one injury: “In trying to stop…the ground was a bit sticky and he skidded and as luck would have it he didn’t injure himself when he hit the wall. It wasn’t a very pleasant ground to play on at all.”
Margaret Gunn had a point. Despite having a number of very good quality and exciting players, many left The Nest to ‘bigger’ and brighter things. Of the team that played non-league Metrogas in the FA Cup in 1921, Hope went on to play for Blackburn and Austin & Dennison played for Manchester City. Bertram went to Newcastle. Austin later played in the 1928 FA Cup Final and for England. In 1935 Alf Kirchen was snapped up by Arsenal, having played just a few games for Norwich.
Despite the crowds being friendly and the well documented excitement regarding the Sheffield Wednesday match in 1935, The Nest experience must have been rather repetitive during the first 20 seasons or so. Each season City were in mid table or lower (in 1931 City had to apply to be re-elected into league football). The statistics suggest that the ground was usually half empty.
One memory from the BBC interviews: “The main thing to get there was to go up on the tram to Rosary Corner and walk along you see and that was a very poor entrance, rough and crummy like. People would just serge in.”
But Winnie Zapel said: “The main entrance was on Rosary Road and there was a posh front up and the grandstand was on the left hand side.”
So some were nostalgic about The Nest; others were realistic or negative. In an Eastern Evening News editorial on August 31st 1935, it was said of The Nest: “the supporters of Norwich City find themselves for the first time on the spacious terraces of the imposing new ground at Carrow Road instead of being herded and jostled in the ‘chicken run’ at The Nest, where they had often to rely on the keen observation of their more fortunately placed neighbours for information as to what was happening”. Perhaps The Daily Mail had a point with their cartoon (above):
Victor Wright does seem to be right when he said: “I’ve never seen a ground more aptly named than that, the Nest. It seemed to have bits sticking out all twiggy parts and the little tiny stands tucked up”. Another fan said: “Most…were just glad to have an afternoon out” .It really was a bit of a mess but for thousands it was their football home.
There are so many people and agencies that have helped with this. I start with BBC Norfolk who repeated a radio programme in August 2015, allowing me to hear lengthy first-hand accounts of Norwich City supporters at The Nest. The programme was originally broadcast in the late 1990’s I believe. Thanks to Groundtastic magazine who gave me permission to use some excellent photographs from their collection. Norwich public libraries and The Strangers Hall museum too.
The latter very kindly took their model of The Nest out of storage to take photographs for me while the museum was being renovated. Thank you to Mr George Fox who undertook a telephone interview with me and who gave me a copy of Memories of Thorpe Hamlet which included many first hand memories of life in the area on matchday. A local resident allowed me into his house at Malvern Road to let me see the site of The Nest from above. There are many others, including google maps, who have helped with this puzzle. Thanks to Norwich City Football Club for putting an ad in the programme for me, calling for potential interviewees.
Finally,thanks to my own grandfather (1899-1983) for kicking off my interest. He told me a good deal about The Nest but I failed to listen well and never wrote anything nor recorded him telling me. It has been my regret at this that spurred me on to write about Norwich City’s The Nest ground.
The site of the old ground is now a small housing estate.
Above, the writer is playing football at The Nest and on the very ground itself…
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