Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Until it was pebble-dashed over a few years ago, the faded half-time scoreboard painted on the side of a house at Grays Athletic’s Recreation Ground was something of a curio for a couple of reasons.  In the days before transistor radios and SMS text alerts, half-time scoreboards were common at Football League venues, but it was unusual to find one at an amateur ground.  More unusual still was that the scoreboard bore the name of Grays Thurrock FC, and not Grays Athletic as one would expect.   Who were these impostors and what were they doing at Grays Athletic’s long established ground? 
Amateur football was very much the order of the day in Essex in the 1920s.  Professional footballers living and working in the county had to find non-league clubs outside Essex, a situation a group of transport and dock workers based in the Grays and Tilbury area decided to do something about.   After a series of meetings a new professional club, Grays Transport & District FC, was formed on February 25th 1924, the committee being made up of men residing in Grays, Tilbury, Gravesend and the surrounding locality.  After being turned down by the Southern League, the new club, now going under the name of Grays Thurrock United, opted to the join the Kent League for the 1924/25 season, a more convenient arrangement than it sounds, as the Tilbury to Gravesend ferry was only a short trip away.  It was assumed that Grays Thurrock would move in with Grays Athletic at the Recreation Ground, but the trustees of the ground surprisingly resisted their overtures, and so preparations were made to upgrade The Lawn in Little Thurrock, a playing field that had been playing host to junior football since the late 19th century.
Located off Dock Road, close to the Bull Inn, The Lawn was just over half a mile from the Recreation Ground and, fearful that their new rivals would steal a march on them, Grays Athletic resigned from the London League and joined Grays Thurrock in the Kent League, which comprised both professional and amateur clubs.   Despite a lack of spectator facilities, an encouraging crowd of 3,000 made their way to The Lawn on September 4th 1924 to see Grays Thurrock take on Sheppey United in their first match in the Kent League. A couple of old army huts were converted into changing rooms and club offices and, as the months went by, the ground was gradually improved, with a post and rail replacing the original rope around the pitch, and a wooden grandstand coming into use in early 1925.  The first local derby between the two Grays clubs took place in December 1924, an eagerly awaited event which saw an attendance of 4,000–5,000, with some spectators using the skeleton of the not yet completed stand as a vantage point.
Grays Thurrock made another attempt to join the Southern League (Eastern Section) in 1925, and this time they were successful.  After just one season at The Lawn, Grays Thurrock signed a deal with the trustees of the Recreation Ground and became joint tenants at Bridge Road with Grays Athletic.   As part of the groundsharing deal, the grandstand at The Lawn was transported to the Recreation Ground, but only after long discussions took place with Grays Athletic about where to site to it, and how the revenue from the stand would be divided up.  The Recreation Ground in those days was a sprawling arena which also included an athletics track and a cricket ground.   There was talk of sawing the grandstand in half, but eventually space was found for it on the side opposite the main stand.  It wasn’t possible to position the grandstand on the half-way line because of the athletics track, so it was placed off-centre on the outfield of the cricket ground, a decision which forced Grays Cricket Club to leave the Recreation Ground, never to return.
Despite the strength of the opposition, Grays Thurrock more than held their own during their inaugural Southern League campaign in 1925/26 and in the summer of 1926 they left their mark at the Recreation Ground when a half-time scoreboard bearing the club’s name, and featuring two adverts in the club’s red colours, was painted on the gable end of a house facing on to the Bradbourne Road end of the ground.   The enormous costs of financing a professional team, particularly in a period of economic depression took its toll, and in an effort to stem their losses, Grays Thurrock said goodbye to the Recreation Ground in 1929 and moved back to The Lawn, taking their much travelled grandstand with them. The Lawn was to witness only one season of Southern League football however, for after finishing bottom two years running, Grays Thurrock left the Southern League at the end of the 1929-30 season, taking the place of their reserves in the Kent League. 
With Grays Athletic trying to exploit the boom in greyhound racing by building a track on part of the Recreation Ground in 1930, Grays Thurrock decided to install one of their own at The Lawn the same year, though it was hardly what one would call White City.  A fence was laid over the edges of the football pitch, and rudimentary lighting was installed around the ring.  Just how chaotic the arrangements were was emphasised by the fact that an early season match in 1931 saw the kick-off delayed while staff rushed to remove the fencing from the playing area.
It was no great surprise when Grays Thurrock United’s financial problems saw them fold at the end of the 1931-32 season.   Brief though their existence was, for a short time at least, they brought top flight non-league football to Grays, something the riverside town would not experience for another 75 years.   By 1934, The Lawn had disappeared beneath a new housing estate, though a link with the past was maintained when the builders decided to call the road Lawns Crescent. 
The Lawn being demolished in 1934.
The half-time scoreboard at the Bradbourne Road end of The Rec.  Pic Gavin Ellis.
Grays Thurrock v Grays Athletic in a Kent League fixture at The Lawn in December 1924.  The attendance was between four to five thousand.

The Lawn in 1931, showing a greyhound meeting. 
Team line-up from the first season in 1924/25, showing the Army huts that served as dressing rooms at The Lawn.

Grays Thurrock v Grays Athletic at The Rec in 1926

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