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Bristol Rovers were formed following a meeting at the Eastville Restaurant in Bristol in 1883, writes Malcolm Johnson.
They were initially called Black Arabs FC, after the Arabs rugby team and the mostly black kits in which they played. For the first season games were played at Purdown, Stapleton, then they moved to a ground known as Three Acres, believed to have been in the Ashley Down area. In a bid to draw more fans from the local area the club was renamed Eastville Rovers in 1884. The club played on this ground for seven years despite it being an open field with no changing facilities.
1891 saw another new home after the club agreed a fee of £8 per year to play their matches at the Schoolmasters Cricket Ground in Horfield. After a season there a further move came to a ground at Durdham Down in 1892, and after previously playing only friendly and cup games, the club became a founder member of the Bristol and District League which three years later was renamed the Western League.
In 1894 the club moved again, this time to Ridgeway in the Fishponds area of Bristol.
It was during the 1896/97 season that the club became a limited company and leased Stapleton Hill, the former home since the early 1890s of the Bristol Harlequins rugby club, which was to become the Eastville Football & Athletic Ground. Their new home had a wooden stand with 500 seats and was laid out with terracing on the other three sides, with a cover on the north side, for a capacity of 20,000. The following year the ground was bought for just £150.
Built near to the Stapleton gas works, the constant smell of town gas in the air would eventually give rise to the name used for Bristol Rovers fans of ‘The Gas’ or ‘Gasheads’.
The first game at Eastville was a friendly against that season’s FA Cup and Football League double winners Aston Villa in April 1897 which was lost 5-0. The name of the club was then changed to Bristol Eastville Rovers and they joined the Birmingham and District League in 1897, spending two seasons playing in both that and the Western League.
In February 1899 the name was officially changed to Bristol Rovers and later that year the club joined the Southern League, winning the championship in 1905 when the north side terrace cover was extended.
Bristol Rovers became a Football League club in 1920 when the whole of the Southern League First Division became the new Football League Division Three. The first league match on the ground saw a 3-2 win over Newport County on 1st September 1920. Ground improvements took place in 1924 when the new South Stand was built, and by now the ground capacity had been increased to 30,000.
Changes to the ground had to be made when greyhound racing began to be staged there in 1928. This required the end terraces to be moved back from the pitch and curved in order to accommodate the oval track.
Greyhound racing grew in popularity, especially when the totalisator system of displaying betting odds was introduced in 1932 and attendances regularly outnumbered those for Division Three football.
In 1935 part of the terracing at the west end of the ground received a cover, and with the Totaliser betting display mounted at the back of the terrace it became known as the Tote End
Although the greyhound racing made the future of the stadium secure the football club were in financial difficulties, not helped by a series of finishes in the lower half of the league table. In 1939, after the Rovers had finished bottom of the league the club’s chairman, without the knowledge of his fellow directors, negotiated the sale of the stadium to the Bristol Greyhound Company for £12,000 with the football club remaining as tenants on a 21-year lease.
After the first two seasons following the Second World War things began to look up for Rovers with four years of a top nine finish leading to their winning the Division Three (South) championship in 1953 with promotion to the Second Division. As Lincoln City had won the Northern equivalent the year before the two clubs now played each other for the first time.
The Imps’ first-ever visit to Eastville came in September 1953 with both clubs in mid-table in Division Two and City got off to a good start at the venue with a 1-0 win, the goal coming from inside right Daniel McDowall. The attendance of 24,658 was to be the highest ever for a match between the two clubs. Just over a year later City were back fresh from a draw with Liverpool in front of a sub-14,000 crowd at Anfield. In contrast, for the second season in a row there were well over 20,000 at Eastville to see the Imps hold the Pirates to a 2-2 draw, with goals from left winger Roy Finch and Johnny Garvie, adding to his brace the previous Saturday against Liverpool.
Having won then drawn on their first two visits to Eastville the sequence unfortunately continued with a defeat in February 1956, with a 3-0 score-line which was to be the equal-heaviest suffered by the Imps on the ground. Sixth in the table at the time, Bristol Rovers were to end the season in the same place for their highest ever finish in the Football League. The following November, the third 20,000-plus crowd in City’s four visits so far saw the Imps register their second win at the ground, the only goal coming from centre forward Tommy Northcott. The following season, however, saw another 3-0 defeat for the Imps, taking place in February 1958 two games into a run of nine successive defeats which was then followed by the ‘great escape’ as the last six games of the season were won to avoid relegation by a single point. Just under a year later, City were back for a third 3-0 defeat in four visits in another season of struggle which had seen them spend most of it in the bottom two places. However, they were to do just enough to again finish a point clear of the relegation places. Bristol Rovers, meanwhile, were on their way to equalling their best-ever sixth place in the division.
In 1959 floodlights were installed, and the covered terracing along one side of the ground was replaced by a new North Stand which incorporated a glass-fronted restaurant at one end. The stand did not, however, run the whole length of the pitch as originally planned. It was largely paid for by the supporters, and it’s worth noting that any such improvements made by the club (or its supporters) to the ground’s infrastructure automatically became the property of the stadium’s owners rather than the football club who were only leasing it.
City had a better time of things in the 1959/60 season, eventually finishing in mid-table, and although their visit at the beginning of January 1960 saw three goals conceded yet again, they also scored three themselves for what proved to be the only time at the ground. These came from midfielder Bert Linnecor, right-winger John McClelland and legendary centre forward Andy Graver.
There were just over 14,000 present to see City’s draw, but four weeks later Eastville’s record attendance of 38,472 was set when Preston North End, fifth in Division One (now the Premier League) were the visitors in an FA Cup Fourth Round tie which was drawn 3-3.