The entry for the St Mary’s Young Men’s Association FC in the first Hampshire Football Association Handbook (1887-1888) notes that their home ground is “Southampton Common” and that the nearest stations were Southampton West (a little nearer the tunnel than the present Southampton Central) and St Denys. Which begs the question, given that there is 327 acres of it, where on the Common, when they called it home, did St Mary’s play?
Interviewed by the Echo in November 1935, as the Saints celebrated their Golden Jubilee, their first captain A.A. Fry recalled that the nascent Saints played by “the Cowherds pond”, which appears unlikely given there doesn’t seem to be an extant map with a “Cowherds Pond” marked on it. However, it has emerged that in days of yor, well before I began roaming the Common as a nipper, the open reservoirs dotted about it, which had long been obsolete, were referred to as “ponds” and the Cowherds Pond has now been the “paddling pool” for aeons.
A study of 19th century maps reveals that part of the Flats (where the Easter fairs are held) had been cleared to accommodate a cricket ground (circled) by 1850 and that, being the only open space not covered with thicket, hummock and furze, would appear the most likely football venue, one shared with a number of football clubs, including Southampton Harriers, their first cup final opponents in 1888.
That final was for the Hants FA Junior Cup of 1887-88. Even for a competition that humble it was a requirement that ties be played on enclosed pitches and gate money extracted from spectators – even county football associations need income. So it was that the Young Men were obliged to hire other grounds; the Antelope Cricket Ground and the County Cricket Ground being the only practical sites. A third round Junior Cup tie (a 4-0 defeat of Lymington) was played in a field behind the Anchor in Redbridge in January 1888, but a falling out with the owner put paid to any further matches being played there. Some years later it was disclosed that the antics of some of the spectators were the cause of the upset but, other than being described as “hilarious”, details have yet to emerge.
Match reports of YMA games played on the Common are brief and references to spectators rare. An account published in the Southampton Times & Hampshire Express of January 27 1887 commences: “St. Mary’s Y.M.A. v. Freemantle— This match was played on the Common on Saturday in the presence of a good number of spectators.” Which is not very useful, given similar stabs at enumerations are given for games after Saints had taken up residence at the Antelope ground when its capacity was stretched.
Saints, as they became known in 1888, were fortunate to acquire the use of the Antelope. Quite how they would have risen to the prominence they did without it is hard to imagine.
Above: section of a map from Philip Brannon’s The Picture of Southampton: or a Strangers Handbook (1850), showing most of the Common. The Cricket Ground can be seen towards the southern end of the “Race Track” – Yes! There was horse racing in Southampton back then.
Below: A recent picture of the Flats taken from near the model boating lake (formerly Reservoir No. 3), the Cricket Ground was towards the right.
Below right: The Flats, looking over the former site of the cricket pitch, which operated along with a fair number of soccer pitches, well into the 1960s, if not the ‘70s. Sometime after Saints’ residency a pavilion was erected approximately centre right of this scene.
The Common 1958. Joe Paglia (left arm extended), leading the Springhill School attack, rockets the ball at goal. The opponents and score are lost in the mists of Joe’s memories.
The Cemetery Lake can been discerned in the distance.