The Antelope Cricket Ground was developed by Daniel Day, a professional cricketer who, in 1842, was lured to Southampton from London by local gentlemen to be the professional for the South Hants Cricket Club. It took its name from the inn across the road, of which Day, as part of the deal, became the tenant. The gentlemen in question were enthusiasts, with a predilection for heavy wagers and side bets that would have today’s illegal betting syndicates entertaining second thoughts about the financial viability of match fixing.
The cricket ground faced the Antelope Hotel across Love Lane, in a near rural setting. However, with the continuing expansion of Southampton Docks and the local population, the area around the ground and the pub was rapidly urbanised and, somewhat prosaically, Love Lane became St Marys Road. In 1863 another group of gentlemen assembled at the Antelope and formed Hampshire County Cricket Club, with the intent of making it a First Class County club. Trojans FC were formed on the same premises in September 1874.
The ground could not prosper as a business by hosting Hampshire CCC alone, it was a popular venue for multitudes of events, not just club cricket but football, athletics, including school sports-days, and anything else that attracted a paying crowd. The County Club moved to a new ground in Banister Park in 1885, taking winter tenants Trojans with them. Trojans were replaced by another rugby club, Pirates, who, by 1887, were sharing the ground with Woolston Works FC.
Dominated by former Glasgow shipyard workers employed by Oswald, Mordaunt & Co, the Works were something of a sensation around the Solent. They won the Hants & Dorset FA Senior Cup in 1887 and, after the two county FAs split, amicably, in 1887, the Hants FA Senior Cup in 1888. They attracted big crowds to the Antelope to see top sides from in and around Hampshire slaughtered, but they went into a steep decline during the 1888-89 season as the shipyard slithered into bankruptcy and their leading players dispersed to other ports. St Mary’s, despite remaining a Junior club, were already rivaling the Works’ for support – the Antelope became available at a particularly convenient time.
It was at the Antelope St Mary’s firmly established themselves as Hampshire’s pre-eminent football club. Not just in terms of trophies – they won the Junior Cup outright after three consecutive wins, and lifted the Senior Cup in 1891 and ’92 – but by far the best supported. It was at the Antelope they first entered the FA Cup; adopted open professionalism; changed their name to Southampton St Mary’s and became one of the nine original Southern League clubs.
Ironically, it was the commissioners of St Mary’s Church who ended the Saints’ residency. In need of funds they decided to sell it as one of the few remaining areas of undeveloped glebe land. The Corporation were given first refusal and turned it down as too expensive, a suggestion Saints should buy it was not given serious consideration and, in the 18 January 1896 edition of the Southampton Times, sports commentator Ariel lamented: “The lawyers are now busy upon the necessary parchments, and before many months are over ‘eligible villa residences’ will be rising their heads over the ground where so many ‘historic battles’ were fought and won and lost.”
On the evening 29 April 1896 Saints played their farewell match at the Antelope. An estimated 3,000 spectators turned up to watch them defeat Freemantle 1-0.
An 1883 Plan of Southampton, demonstrating why the Antelope Ground was such a desirable site for property development.
Shops replaced the St Mary’s Road side of the Antelope Ground, seen here in 2011.
The former Antelope House carries a plaque marking its connection with Hampshire cricket – the Saints’ connection ignored or forgotten.
RIGHT: This impossing edifice is a proposed, 100 foot long grandstand intended for the Antelope, designed by local builder Mr Bundy. I have yet to come across any evidence that it was built.