Rovers on Tour (Volume 5)
Neil Dunham takes a look back at Watford Rovers’ home grounds
Whether by chance or design, ‘Rovers’ was the perfect moniker for the initial incarnation of Watford’s football club. In the first ten years of their existence they were based at no fewer than five grounds in and around the town. Only the first and last still exist as green spaces today, but the locations of all can still be identified.
When Watford Rovers was formed by Henry Grover and friends in 1881, permission was sought from the Earl of Essex to play in Cassiobury Park. This was granted on the proviso that no organised games would take place there – the riff-raff must be kept away from the harts and does residing there!
The park of the 1880s was not as we know it today: Cassiobury House was still occupied by the Earl and family, and in its high pomp. The house was located roughly where Garden Close is, on the present day Cassiobury Estate. The Park was extensive, bordered by Hempstead Road on one side and Rickmansworth Road on the other. It had previously encompassed Nascot Wood and all land to St. Albans Road, until a need for money coincided with the expansion of the town’s population and led to the first mass selling of ‘Essex’ land.
The specific location Rovers played at in the park is unknown, but it would be nice to think that it was fairly near the park gates, where Graham Taylor was to hold his first training session with Watford nearly a hundred years later.
With the ban on games in the park, the Rovers needed a new ground for the next stage of their development. The first recorded games, in early 1882, took place at the Vicarage Meadow. This was an area of grassland behind St. Mary’s Church (a), around the current location of St. Mary’s Road, extending as far as the corner of Vicarage Road and Merton Road.
A contemporary description of the location said it was ‘almost adjoining the Church and about 50 yards from the High Street’. At this time a football pitch consisted of four corner flags at self-determined distances apart, with no sidelines or markings. Goals consisted of upright posts with a tape across the top to signify the height, with the posts eight yards apart – still the standard size today.
Vicarage Meadow lasted for nearly 18 months before the Rovers were forced to move on by the expansion of the town. Plots of meadow and farmland were being auctioned off at an astonishing rate via Humbert & Sons, whose owner, Chas would later become a significant character in the formation and running of the West Herts Club & Ground and Watford FC a few short years later.
Rose & Crown Meadow
Rovers played their first match at the Rose & Crown Meadow in December 1883. This was land to the back of one of Watford’s premier hotels of the same name (not to be mistaken with the later Rose & Crown pub in Market Street). The Rose & Crown Hotel (b) was situated on the south corner of Market Street and High Street and was the location for many Rovers, West Herts and Watford FC committee meetings - indeed it was the location where Watford St. Mary’s FC was dissolved before its players and staff were absorbed into West Herts, and the club renamed Watford FC. Not much remains of that area of the town today, one small exception being a 16th Century window, preserved and set into the wall of the old Post Office (c).
The ‘pitch’ was located on the site of the yet-to-be-built Market Street, Exchange Road and Holyrood Church. Rovers remained here for a relatively settled six years, before they were again moved on, this time for the laying out of Market Street, Marlborough Road and Percy Road.
With options running out, the club moved further from the town centre, to Colney Butts. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Town Farm’, the butts originally stretched from Wiggenhall Road to Harwoods Road and beyond. The farmhouse (d) still exists today, as the two-storey section of Watford Printers, two doors down from the Vicarage Road Stadium.
By 1889 Colney Butts was much reduced owing to yet more house building, and consisted of fields between Wiggenhall Road to the east, Occupation Road to the west, Vicarage Road to the north and what is now Thomas Sawyer Way to the South. It’s quite a big area for a football pitch, but there are clues as to exactly where the pitch was located:
- The slope – described as ‘not as steep as Tommy Deacon’s Hill, but not as flat as a billiard table’
- The two ends were referred to as the ‘Town End’ and the beautifully-evocative ‘Sewer Farm End’.
- 3. Contemporary reports regularly mention the smell of the sewers (e) and being able to watch the trains pass by if the football wasn’t up-to-
- 4. Those attacking the Sewer Farm End would be facing into the sun at 3pm.
- 5. The ‘enclosure’ was described as ‘off Wiggenhall Road’.
- Close to the Cottage Hospital (f) and the cemetery (both on Vicarage Road).
- ‘Not-distant view’ of the town farm and the Union (g) (now Watford General Hospital).
The pitch was probably semi-permanent, as it was often referred to as the ‘enclosure’, coupled with the fact that both Rovers and Watford St. Mary’s charged for admission, suggesting that the area was fenced.
It was later mentioned in the brief history of the club within the Vicarage Road opening-day programme that Watford St. Mary’s played ‘…in the Wiggenhall Road, on the ground now occupied by the Herts Ice and Cold Storage Works’. This is the area now occupied by the Wiggenhall Industrial Estate, formerly Fishers Industrial Estate. This seems to fit the location suggested above, and with a little imagination would just about fit in a football pitch and spectators, so in all likelihood was also the Rovers old ground.
In any event, Rovers lasted just one season here, as for one final time the land was purchased from under their boots and building plans submitted to lay out yet more roads. Sport continued to be played at Colney Butts for upwards of a year, but it was too late for Rovers.
The Rovers finally found their home at Cassio Road, invited to play as the ‘football section’ of the newly-forming West Herts Club & Ground. The sports ground is still there today, having almost exactly the footprint of 1891 and a football pitch in the same spot as that used by the Rovers. Now formally named the ‘West Herts Sports Club’, the Cassio Road entrance is long closed, the ground now accessed from Park Avenue.
The Recreation Ground
One final twist of fate worthy of note: in 1889 the Rovers opened negotiations with the Watford Union regarding the purchase of what was, among other things, a playground for the boys of the Union school. Known then as the Gravel Pit and later, the Recreation Ground, the southern end was known as the Rookery. Negotiations progressed and plans were approved by the Council, only to cease when the Rovers agreed to play under the umbrella of the West Herts Club and Ground at Cassio Road. 32 years later, that same ground was purchased by the Benskin brothers and leased to Watford FC, to become the Vicarage Road Stadium.
This article is taken from Volume 5 of The Watford Treasury. To purchase please click on the link below