Eastville Stadium: Flowers, Fire & Gas
It was a stadium known for lovingly tended flowerbeds behind each goal but also a terrible fire. And perhaps most notably, it was known for its stench.
Bristol Rovers fans are still known as “gasheads” because of the proximity of their former home ground, Eastville Stadium, to the Stapleton Gasworks and the stench that wafted from it over the Tote End.
Eastville Stadium was home to Bristol Rovers from 1897 until 1986, purchased from Sir Henry Greville Smyth of Ashton Court, an extensive landowner in late Victorian Bristol, for £150.
Famous sportsman C.B. Fry described Eastville as “a ground surrounded with a gasworks, a railway viaduct and a river that always threatened to swamp the ground”. Indeed, local flooding continutally plagued the ground, with the pitch ending up under seven feet of water in November 1950.
Originally called Eastville Rovers, the club quickly thrived and established themselves as a professional team in the Southern League, attracting good crowds as east Bristol built up.
But World War II stopped play, and the club’s loss of revenue forced them to sell Eastville to the Bristol Greyhound Racing Association in March 1940 for £12,000. Rovers made an agreement with the Association to pay them £400 per year to continue playing on the ground. The Association’s support was crucial to the survival of the club, as the club’s official history describes:
As the matchless 1944-45 season progressed, Rovers’ debts mounted. £600 was still owed to the bank, £700 to creditors and £4,700 on outstanding loans and the season’s inaction had cost a further £1,000. On 15th June 1945, therefore, Stevens and Hare became chairman and vice-chairman respectively and Charles Ferrari was appointed secretary on 20th August 1945. Effectively, from 29th November 1944, for four years, Rovers became an undisclosed subsidiary of the greyhound company.
On 21st September 1945 Lew Champeny, an employee of the greyhound company and a key figure in the events of 1950, was elected to the Rovers board. Various well-wishers waived more than £2,000 of the unpaid loans and it was with a greater sense of optimism and purpose that Rovers pieced together a side ready for the resumption of League football.
The stadium underwent vast changes over the decades, with the south stand added in 1924, and floodlights installed in 1959. Capacity was as high as 38,000 in the 1950s and 1960s, with a record crowd of 38,472 for the visit of Preston North End in a January 1960 FA Cup tie.
Despite Bristol Rovers never reaching the top flight, the stadium played host to many memorable cup ties, such as the 1972 Watney Cup Final, settled on penalties (the Watney Cup was a bizarre, short-lived tournament contested by the teams that had scored the most goals in each of the four divisions of the Football League the previous season, excluding those who had been promoted or won entry to one of the European competitions).
But new government regulations meant the capacity was vastly reduced to 12,500 in the 1970s, and the stadium was far from soccer specific: as well as greyhound racing, the stadium hosted athletics, cricket, concerts, American football, circuses, and even the Harlem Globetrotters (by wilson santiago). Speedway was introduced in 1977, leading to a reduction of the pitch to just 110×70 yards, the smallest in the Football League.
The construction of the M32 motorway in the late 1960s destroyed the surrounding ambience (such as it was), the ground becoming the closest in the country to a motorway, with the noise level highly intrusive.
But the biggest blow to the ground came in 1980, when a “mysterious” fire broke out in the south stand, with disastrous consequences, as the club’s history describes:
Rovers’ future at Eastville was cast into great doubt following the events of the night of 16-17 August 1980, when a mystery fire badly damaged the South Stand at Eastville. The club’s administrative offices and changing rooms were destroyed. Eastville was left as a shell, with seating only in the North Stand and the traffic noise from the M32 motorway now increasingly evident.
It was a depressing situation. Terry Cooper’s young, inexperienced side was forced to play three league games and two League Cup-ties at Ashton Gate and, when they returned to their damaged home in October, were so deeply into their club record run of twenty league games without a win that relegation appeared the only possible outcome.
On top of this, the club continued to pay the price for not owning their own ground. The actual owners of the stadium, Bristol Stadium Company, came up with perhaps one of the most ambitious ideas in the history of lower league clubs: in 1983, they announced their intention to transform the ground into an all-seater venue with a sliding roof.
Neither this plan nor Rovers own attempts to build a new stadium panned out, and when the stadium’s owners decided to raise the rent on Rovers in 1986, the decision was made to leave their historic home and groundshare with Bath City instead. Like much of English football at the time, gates were falling and costs spiralling, and Bristol Rovers played their last match at Eastville Stadium, a reserve team fixture, on May 3rd 1986.
Floyd Nello, who took the photo above, recalls the final moments on his Flickr page:
After the match, I can remember trooping out of the ground whilst Bath’s very own ‘Tears for Fears’ song ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ was being played on the Stadium tannoy, through the car park towards New Stadium Road, and walking under a Double Diamond sponsored sign which ironically declared “Bristol Stadium – Come Back Soon”. This sign, erected in the late 1970’s, remained intact until the ground was demolished in 1997.
Rovers entered into a groundsharing agreement with Bath City, while their former home fell prey to developers, like many English grounds in prime urban real estate.
In 1997 Eastville Stadium was demolished, a single floodlight surviving until 2003, now removed and a large Ikea dominating the site.
Photos: Floyd Nello on Flickr