125th ANNIVERSARY OF THE GNOLL RUGBY GROUND
A view of the rugby ground from Gnoll Bank c.1930s
If rugby grounds had birthday parties then there would be a special celebration in Neath at The Gnoll rugby ground on Easter Saturday this year with a pretty big cake needed for all the candles! For the small matter of 125 years ago on the 9th April 1898, Neath RFC returned to their Gnoll home after an absence of nearly ten years.
Although there is firm evidence that rugby football was first played in Neath in 1864, Neath RFC's first recorded game (indeed, the first recorded club game in Wales) was actually played at The Gnoll against Swansea in 1872.
Establishing the game even in a rugby mad town like Neath was far from straightforward and at the start of the 1888/89 season there was 'a dispute with the Cadoxton Cricket Club commensurate with the rental of £15 for use of The Gnoll Ground.'
Neath Rugby Football Team at the Bird In Hand - 1892/93 season - Captain - GD Trick
The rugby men’s attitude hardened and on 7th August it was reluctantly decided to leave The Gnoll and move more or less across the road, it being resolved that 'Mr Jones’ offer of the Bird-in-Hand Field from September to April for £5 be accepted.' The Mr Jones referred to was Thomas Jones the licensee of the Bird-in-Hand public house who was well placed to offer his field as he was treasurer of Neath RFC.
So it was that the Bird-in-Hand became the headquarters of the Welsh All Blacks who stayed awhile and enjoyed many fierce games until in 1897 there was a rapprochement with the Gnoll Estate who (hence the name) owned The Gnoll ground.
After a series of meetings between the Club's representatives and Mr Charles Evan Thomas of Gnoll House, terms were eventually settled for Neath RFC to return on a 21 year-lease at an annual rental of £73.1s.0d. (£12,150 today). Well-to-do supporters were keen to back the Club and 'with the help of 25 guarantors' who pledged £5 each per year (equivalent to £830 today) for each of seven years, the new lease was sealed.
Who were the bold 25 men to whom Neath RFC (and the town) owes so much? Unfortunately, their names were not recorded for posterity but what is known is that the guarantors met ahead of a special members' meeting held on Friday, 18th March to ratify the deal.
The meeting was widely reported : Mr JE Moore (of Dyffryn House) presided and he was supported by eighteen gentlemen, many of them 'founding fathers' of the Club who may very well have acted as guarantors :-
The Mayor (Councillor Abraham George), Alderman Henry Pendrill Charles, Messrs. WH David, DM Davies (chairman), Tom Williams, Dr TP Whittington, Stanley Elt, Frank Dickens, Fred Williams, W Richards, Tom Howells, James Gandy, Tom Jones (treasurer), PW Phillips, Alf Tench, DJ Price (secretary), WB Morgan and LJ Kempthorne. The lessees were recorded as Messrs. JE Moore, WHP Jenkins and Evan Evans-Bevan.
Neath's first game back home at The Gnoll in 1898 saw them celebrate with a 16 to 3 win over Morriston who were a first-class team in those days and enjoyed regular fixtures with Aberavon, Bridgend, Llanelli and Swansea – as well as Neath.
The Neath team on that historic day was:-
Joe Davies, Will Jones (captain), Owen Harris, Charlie Morris, Jack Phillips, Harry Hanford, Charlie Powell, Mog Reynolds, Sam Davies, Dai Evans, Jack Linnard, Jim Thomas, Tom Hughes, Evan Arnold and Griff Lewis.
Joe Davies dropped a goal and there were tries by Will Jones (2), Morgan Reynolds and Charlie Powell whose try was the first for Neath back at The Gnoll ground.
It is interesting to note that of the Neath team that day, Will Jones captained Neath for nine seasons, Joe Davies and Charlie Powell were multi-Wales reserves (but never capped) while Sam Davies was another reserve for Wales v Scotland in 1899 but, when DJ Daniel (Llanelli) withdrew, the selectors promoted Dick Hellings (Llwynypia) instead. Sadly, on 28th December 1914, Charlie Morris (sometimes known as 'Tom') was the first Neath player killed in the First World War, while Morriston's wing scorer, the schoolmaster Dai Davies, who later joined Neath, was also killed in the action.
The first try on the 'new' Gnoll ground had actually been registered the previous Thursday in a charity game when the former Wales full back veteran Sam S Clarke played and Will Jones scored for the Neath Clerks against the Neath Barbarians.
However, the new ground was incomplete, 'The turf was very uneven in parts' wrote 'Hotspur' of the South Wales Daily Post who berated the 'execrable conditions' available to the Press.
However, Neath were back home and, since then, the 'classic slopes of The Gnoll' have borne witness to many a grand game. In 1908 the Australian tourists visited to play a combined Neath & Aberavon XV and then in 1912 Neath went it alone against South Africa and several contemporary reports reveal that Neath should have won. The New Zealand Army XV arrived in 1919 and the southern hemisphere's 'Big Three' repeated those visits throughout the last century.
Neath RFC has also hosted (and in most cases beaten) the national sides of Canada, Fiji, Japan, Spain, Uruguay, USA and West Germany while club sides from Argentina, Holland, Italy, France and Romania, as well as the 'home' nations, have also visited.
It can safely be ventured, therefore, that memories of The Gnoll and of Neath have been carried to all corners of the rugby globe.
Careful nurturing of the playing surface over many years means that it remains one of the best grass pitches in Wales, but the grandstands (added in the 1930's and 1960's) are beginning to show their age.
Opening the new grandstand at the Neath Rugby Club by Sir D M Evans- Bevan in September 1972. Also in the photograph are R Griffiths (sec.), Glyn Stephens and Ernie Molland
That is a problem not confined to Neath because there has been precious little investment in most of the great club grounds since the Welsh Game went regional.
Neath's 'temporary home' at the Bird-in-Hand Field disappeared a long time ago. It became the site of Neath's first Civic Centre in the 1960s and Prince of Wales Drive. Today it is the location of the new Civic Centre, a multi storey car park, a Wilko store, the new Neath Public Library (with shop units below) and leisure centre.
Nevertheless, rugby football lives on in Neath RFC and on Easter Saturday Tata Steel provided the 'birthday' opposition. As many of the Town's buildings and institutions disappear, 'The Gnoll' rugby football ground remains.
Civic reception at the Mayor's Parlour on 11th May 1972 to mark the centenary of Neath Rugby Club and for winning the WRU Cup
NEATH'S RETURN TO THE GNOLL - A SIGNIFICANT ANNIVERSARY
The second Saturday in April is always special for Neath RFC for it marks the return of the Welsh All Blacks to The Gnoll after nearly 10 years at the Bird-in-Hand Field.
And this year is particularly significant as it happened exactly 125 years ago. 1898 was the year in which Neath returned and 9th April the day - here is how the Evening Express reported the match (mis-spellings and names have been corrected):-
NEATH v. MORRISTON.
This match was played at Neath, on the Gnoll Ground. The weather was dull and a very strong wind blew down the field and militated against a good game. Both teams were fairly well represented. Mr Betts, of Newport, acted as referee.
Mog Reynolds started for Neath and for the first few minutes Neath attacked hotly. Close to the line scrums were formed and once or twice the All Blacks all but got over.
One of the Morriston halves got away and relieved to the centre where the visitors were penalised. Joe Davies relieved well into Morriston ground, where play of an even nature followed. Round after round of passing ensued and Neath got quite close to the line again. Here a scrum was formed and Charlie Powell, getting around nicely, scored a try which Joe Davies failed to convert.
After the resumption Neath pressed, and Morriston were penalised for the off-side play of the halves. Joe Davies tried a shot for goal but one of the visiting backs received and returned into the field of play. Dai Evans failed to get under or a mark in a favourable position would have resulted.
The All Blacks continued to attack, and a grand goal was kicked by Joe Davies from a mark. After the re-start Charlie Powell got away cleverly in midfield and passed to Phillips who gave rather a hard pass to Morris, which the latter failed to take.
A moment later a long kick compelled Morriston to concede a minor. When the game was resumed Neath again took up the attack and, the Morriston halves being again penalised, Joe Davies essayed another shot at goal.
The Morriston centre made a mark but his kick was a failure and Jim Thomas got away nicely and passed to Bill Jones who kicked and put his men on side, a lucky flying kick by Tom White averted a certain score, and a moment later a run by Dai Davies changed the venue to the centre where for a time the game was strongly contested.
A fine round of passing between the home backs in which Owen Harris was conspicuous, enabled the All Blacks to once more put on the pressure but then a change came. Tom Roberts started a nice dribble, which was supplemented by some good passing between the visiting backs.
This resulted in Dai Davies scoring a neat try which was not, however, converted. The game had not long been resumed when the home forwards got right up to the line. One of them knocked on at a critical moment and nothing tangible resulted.
After another minor had been registered against the visitors Jack Linnard came away cleanly from half-way, and when near the line he passed to Morris, who nearly got over. The efforts of the home team were at last rewarded, and after a nice round of passing Bill Jones got over. The kick at goal just failed.
Half-time score: — G. T. M. - Neath 1* 2 4 Morriston 0 1 0 *Dropped goal.
In the second half Morriston had the advantage of the wind which was a very important factor. Morriston waged a good fight and as a result of a fine forward dribble the oval was taken right up to the Neath line.
Jack Linnard secured and passed to Owen Harris who cleared his line and got back to the 25 flag before his progress was arrested. Good play by the home backs changed the visitors quarters where a good chance of scoring was spoiled by the referee's whistle.
There a nice bit of play by Charlie Powell, Charlie Morris, and Bill Jones followed and the last named was held up close to the line. A penalty kick brought the visitors relief, and enabled them to get back to the centre.
One of the Morriston halves penalised his side but no ground was gained by the kick. Play continued in midfield for a time and honours were fairly even. Then the visitors pressed but it was not for long for combined play saw Neath get back once again into Morriston ground.
The visiting forwards, who were glaringly off-side, rushed into Neath ground but Owen Harris, with the run of the afternoon, changed the venue to the centre. A moment later Owen Harris receiving a pass clean beat five men and would have easily scored had not the touch-line judge been a bit too careful on his own side.
A moment later Charlie Powell got away splendidly from half-way and just failed to score. The All Blacks attacked hotly and a fine forward rush ended in Mog Reynolds adding an unconverted try. The game had just been resumed when Charlie Powell again experienced hard lines, but Neath were not long to be denied for after a grand round of passing Bill Jones scored an unconverted try. Time was called with the score reading:
Final Score G. T. M. - Neath 1* 4 5 - Morriston 0 1 0 *Dropped goal.
The teams were not recorded by the Evening Express but recourse to the South Wales Daily Post reveals that Neath, replacing JDD Davis at the last minute with Charlie Morris, fielded :-
Joe Davies; Bill Jones (captain), Owen Harris, Harry Hanford, Charlie Morris; Jack Phillips, Charlie Powell; Mog Reynolds, Sam Davies, Jack Linnard, David Evans, Jim Thomas, Tom Hughes, Evan Arnold, Griff Lewis
- The score was 16-3 which equates to 23-5 today.
- Bill Jones (2 tries) captained Neath for 9 seasons.
- Joe Davies and Charlie Powell were many times Wales reserves but never capped.
- Sam Davies was reserve for Wales v Scotland in 1899 but, when DJ Daniel (Llanelli) withdrew, the selectors promoted Dick Hellings (Llwynypia) instead.
- Charlie Morris was the first Neath player killed in WWI on 28th December 1914.
- Morriston scorer wing Dai Davies later joined Neath and was also killed in WW1