Hockey was introduced to Sittingbourne in 1908 by Richard Stephens Jackson, an auctioneer and estate agent in the town. He was an amateur footballer of Corinthian standard, but maybe he felt that the brickies and papermakers of Sittingbourne AFC were not quite his scene. Whatever the reason, he moved to the rapidly growing sport of hockey, and was instrumental in calling a Public Meeting in the Town Hall which led to the formation of the Sittingbourne Hockey Club. Jackson was the Secretary of the Gore Court Cricket Club, and was able to persuade them to let the new hockey club use their ground at Bell Road during the winter – provided that they took responsibility for moving the sheep off the pitch and penning them during games!
The Club’s activities in 1908 were limited to games amongst themselves; very necessary, as few of the men who joined had played hockey before. However, on October 2, 1909, the men took the field for the first time and scored a convincing 3-1 win over Gillingham. The ladies were not quite so successful in their first venture a few weeks later, going down 2-3 to St. Stephens, Canterbury. In that first men’s side was Montgomery Dixon, a member of a Teynham farming family who, with their relatives the Woods, have been one of the mainstays of the Club. There are still Dixons playing in the men’s and ladies’ teams.
At the end of this first season, the Club had nearly fifty playing members, and developed steadily over the next few years. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 brought a halt. At the behest of the Hockey Association, all hockey stopped – many of the members must have gone into the Forces, anyway. Although the Club restarted in 1919, membership was small and mainly mixed matches were played, and in 1921, ‘only after some hesitation’ did they decide to carry on for another season.
This was rather ironic, for 1921/22 proved to be by far the best season so far – so much so that the Club took the step of joining the County Hockey association so that members could be considered for the County side. In 1923, RJ Hulburd played three times for Kent – the Club’s first County Cap. That season also saw the first appearance of one of the Club’s ‘greats’ – Walter Wood, a centre- forward whose goal-scoring exploits are unlikely to be bettered. He was joined the following year by his cousin, Stewart Dixon; both players soon made the County side and Stewart was Captain from 1929 – 1934. With their younger brothers, Doug Wood and Ronald Dixon, they formed the nucleus of a remarkable Sittingbourne side. In 1927/8, the team was unbeaten, with 23 wins in 26 games; of the 137 goals scored, Walter scored 66, but, in fact, every member of the side (including the goalkeeper!) scored at least one. When they were finally beaten, in January 1929, they could look back on a run of 43 games without defeat, including 24 consecutive victories.
The Ladies team had struggled in the post-war years, and, indeed, had folded up in 1924. They reformed in 1927, and by 1929, while not quite matching the exploits of the men, they were a well- established side. However, at this high point in its career, the Club abruptly found itself threatened with extinction due to the loss of the ground. Although the Cricket Club had been using the Bell Road ground for 30 years, they had never had more than an annual tenancy. The building of the Avenue of Remembrance in 1923 had taken a considerable slice from the north side of the ground, but, worse, it had opened up that side of the town to development, and eventually the owner of the ground had to tell the Clubs that he would have to terminate their tenancy, as he required the land for his own use. Fortunately, help with the twin problems of finding a ground and raising the funds to buy it was forthcoming from the Andrews family.
George Andrews was a well-known local businessman who had started life as a ‘bird boy’ and risen to be Managing Director of Smeed Dean, the local brickmakers, barge owners and shippers. He had been succeeded in this position by his son, Harold. Both were devoted to the town and to sport, and had been associated with Gore Court Cricket Club for many years. Harold was currently Chairman of both Cricket and Hockey Clubs, and he took charge of efforts to find a new home, eventually leading to the Grove at Key Street, at that time comfortably outside of the town. With help from the Andrews and the County Playing Fields Association, the Cricket Club bought the freehold of the central area, services were brought in and a pavilion constructed, so that both Clubs were able to move over in 1929 without a break. George Andrews had himself bought the adjacent land, with the intention of giving it to the Council to be used as a public open space. In the end, he and the Club agreed that, to protect the area from possible future development, the whole area should be transferred to Council ownership, with the Club having a 199-year lease on the central area. That is the situation that obtains today.
The first season at the Grove continued the successes of the previous ones, and, despite Walter Wood’s absence for almost half the season through injury, the 100 goal mark was passed for the third successive season. This led the club to offer the ground to the KCHA for County matches, and on 31 December 1931, Kent (with four Sittingbourne players in the side) met Essex at the Grove in one of the first County matches played outside the London area. Another game was hosted the following season, but then, despite invitations, no more men’s games were played at the Grove until after the war, although it was used for a number of ladies’ matches. The games had not attracted very many spectators, and from the point of view of many of the visiting Counties, Sittingbourne was not an easy place to get to, requiring a journey into London and then out again. Travel was indeed something of a problem for a rather scattered sport such as hockey. While a number of members had cars, overall, until well on into the 1930’s, the teams had to rely on public transport, usually rail, to get to their away games. The ladies seem to have had something of an advantage in this. In 1930 the East Kent Gazette reported that ‘they (the ladies team) would not have reached Ramsgate in time for the bully-off at 2.30 except for the kindness of the Stationmaster, who stopped the London-Thanet express at Sittingbourne for them’. Those ladies must really have had something..!!
Despite these travelling problems, the fixture list was beginning to have something of a modern look. Canterbury and Maidstone had been on it for many years, and in the early 1930’s it was stretching to Cliftonville, Gravesend, Tunbridge Wells and even to South Saxons at Hastings. The club was of sufficient standing to play the major London clubs, although only their 2nd XI’s. While they had a number of players of county calibre, they could not match the strength in depth of the Londoners, the whole of whose 1st XI’s would be of County, Divisional or International standard. Stewart Dixon regarded his appearance in a South trial as the red-letter day in his whole hockey career. By 1936 the club’s membership had grown to the point where a regular men’s 2nd XI could be fielded; this was an immediate success, only one game being lost in the first season, and a similar standard was maintained until the war.
In contrast to 1914, both the cricket and the men’s hockey clubs made determined efforts to carry on when war broke out in 1939. There were vast problems, of course. One of the most bizarre was a request from the Authorities for ‘Obstructions’ to be placed on the ground. In the early years of the war, there was great concern over the possibility of airborne invasion, and obstacles – usually derelict vehicles – were placed on all stretches of open ground, such as golf courses, to prevent the landing of gliders and troop-carrying aircraft. A very sensible precaution, but it does take a stretch of the imagination to envisage a glider, let alone an aircraft, landing on the Grove! There were more mundane, but more troublesome, problems – maintaining the pitch, obtaining balls and other gear, providing some sort of hospitality – and the few officers remaining had a tough time. On the positive side, the club was one of the few to keep going through the war, and players would travel from as far as Ramsgate to play for them, so that a strong side could be fielded.
The move to the Grove in 1930 had effectively made the Cricket and Hockey clubs joint owners of the ground, but unfortunately little thought seems to have been given to the practical workings of this, and in the later 1930’s and the early years of the war petty niggles between the two clubs became increasingly numerous. To a considerable extent this arose from the fact that there was very little common membership between them, but fortunately there was one major link, Harold Andrews, and it is not the least of his services to the clubs that he acted to settle the problem. He called a meeting ‘to resolve once and for all the differences that had arisen between the clubs’ and a formal scheme of collaboration was worked out. This survived the stresses and strains of the war and immediate post- war years until in 1947 the obvious step was taken of amalgamating the two clubs. The Hockey Club adopted the more distinctive name of the older Cricket Club and their colours of dark blue and gold in place of the previous blue and white. This progressed steadily, and it was a source of great pride to hockey players when a member of the original hockey club, Dr. R.G. Birch was elected to the Presidency of Gore Court in 1971.
From 1930 onwards the clubs had employed a full-time groundsman, but this was not possible during the war, and the members themselves had to carry out such work as could be done. At the end of the war, the steward, Jack Eaton, took over the ground work. In the early 1950’s he was joined by a young assistant, Peter Reynolds, who took over the full-time job when Jack left in 1958 and remained with the club until his retirement in 2001. Peter was an excellent groundsman with a remarkable sense of service to the club, and at its peak the main hockey pitch was one of the finest in the south of England. In addition, he was a competent hockey player who played regularly for the lower elevens for a number of seasons. Among other things, this gave him an insight into the conditions under which less fortunate clubs had to play!
As after the 1914-18 war, the post-war years were difficult. As other clubs restarted, the club lost the services of the guest players who had helped them through the war years, and advancing years and the demands of the farming business led to loss of the most of the Dixon/Wood nucleus. Numbers dropped off and inevitably playing standards fell as well; it was no longer possible to field a regular 2nd XI and in 1948/9 the 1st XI Goals Against tally crept above 100 for the only recorded time. However, the tide gradually turned. The main schools in Sittingbourne were now playing hockey, and although Borden G.S. formed their own Old Boys club, there was a slow influx of younger players, and the amalgamation of the cricket and hockey clubs had encouraged members to cross over from one to the other. In 1950 a regular 2nd XI was restarted, followed three years later by a 3rd XI. Playing standards still fell short of the pre-war years, and the club depended rather heavily on a few outstanding players – Phil Butler, the Irish sprinter Joe Downes, and Brian French, who became captain in 1953; he was also captain of the cricket 1st XI – the only player to hold both positions, and, for good measure, at the same time.
A further advance was the establishment of a Mid-week XI in the same year as the Saturday 3rd XI, followed, in 1961, by a Sunday XI. The latter owed much to Phil and Jean Butler, who provided hospitality in their own home to both home and visiting sides until various problems relating to the use of the bar on Sundays had been resolved. These two sides performed a valuable service in maintaining a link with those players who wanted to advance their hockey careers by playing for the major London clubs on Saturdays, and also allowed the club to arrange matches with those London clubs when Saturday fixtures with them were almost impossible to obtain.
In 1958/9 the Club celebrated its Golden Jubilee with a dinner at the Coniston Hotel. Joe Downes threw all his abounding energy into contacting past members and ensured a wonderful turn-out, his great triumph being to secure the attendance of all past captains, back to Dick Jackson.
It would be pleasant to record that the Golden Jubilee year was outstandingly successful, but, by and large, the Club’s performance on the field around this time was relatively modest. In fact, it was rumoured that the 3rd XI reached a point where a defeat by less than 5-0 warranted a celebratory jug of beer after the game! However, by the early 1960’s, the steady influx of young players was having an effect. The next generation of Dixons was already working its way through the lower XI’s, and in 1963 the older brother, Richard, took over as 1st XI Captain from Phil Butler. An inspiring captain, an outstanding full back and a powerful striker of short corners, he could well have reached higher levels had not his interests remained firmly centred on Gore Court. His younger brothers Paul and Robert (a Kent 2nd XI cricketer) did make a number of appearances for the Kent side, although at the time this was heavily orientated towards the London clubs. The Club’s excellent pitches and facilities also attracted a considerable number of players from elsewhere, and overall the club’s performance made a dramatic upturn. The 1st XI was unbeaten through the 1965/66 season, winning 22 games out of 23, 94 goals against 17. Success continued into the latter part of the next season, and when the side finally went down 1-0 to Ashford, they could look back on a run of 40 undefeated games and 36 consecutive victories. Over the four seasons 1964-1969, the combined record was P 83, W 74, D 5, L 4, GF 332, GA 54. The 2nd and 3rd XI’s, while not hitting these heights, also had good records.
Success brought problems as the Club expanded and the two pitches at the Grove were no longer adequate. The Cricket section had similar problems, and a solution as found in the hire of the Sittingbourne Cooperative Society ground at Cryalls Lane, where hard work by Peter Reynolds produced fine hockey and cricket pitches. Unfortunately, after a few years the ground was sold for housing, and the Club had to raise the funds to purchase land at the top of the hill behind the Grove, where two hockey pitches and a cricket square were laid down.
With the improvements in clubhouse facilities, the ground again came into demand for representative games. From 1967 until hockey moved onto artificial turf in the early 1980’s, Gore Court staged at least one County Championship match a year and twice had the privilege of hosting the Yorkshire weekend. The first of these was notable in that, because of the late withdrawal of Hampshire, the Gore Court 1st XI turned out as the Kent President’s XI and held the full Yorkshire side to 2-3.
Relatively few Gore Court players as such played for the County in the immediate post-war years. The main reason for this was the tendency of talented and ambitious players to move to one of the London Clubs – in the case of Gore Court, Bromley were the main beneficiaries. The most noted of these was Ivan Clark, whose 125 caps, 37 as Captain, is a County record. Ivan did return to Gore Court for one season and gained the third of his England caps then – the only player to gain International honours under the club’s name. Subsequently, Michael Bishop gained 20 Welsh caps, nominally as a Bromley player. He later returned to Gore Court, captaining the 1st XI, and he still holds a place in the 2nd and Veteran’s sides.
The ladies’ team was not able to continue through the war years, and it was not until 1948 that they started again under the captaincy of Vera Lingley. They made an excellent start and for several years their record was considerably better than that of the men, and over the years they have shown a great deal more consistency than the latter. The only player to gain full County honours was Val Lee, the dynamic captain from 1972-80, who also played for East of England. Her husband, Tom, captained the Men’s 3rd and 4th XI’s, and their son, Jason, is, after two Olympic appearances, the current England men’s coach. The Ladies celebrated their Golden Jubilee in 1977 (working from the re-establishment of the team in 1927) and hosted the East of England v USA match at the Grove.
The late 1970’s saw a number of overseas trips arranged by the Mid-week XI, the first and most notable of which was to Malta in 1975. They received a great welcome, and appeared on Maltese television when they arrived. Fortunately they were able to live up to the advance publicity, winning four games out of six, and then winning the island’s six-a-side tournament – the first overseas side to do so.
1970 saw the advent of ‘competition’ hockey with the inauguration of the Kent Cup. Inevitably this was dominated initially by the ‘London Circle’ clubs, and latterly by NHL clubs, but Gore Court quickly established themselves as good cup fighters, reaching the semi-final in the first year and the final four years later. Their overall record of eight finals, including two Cup wins, 1987 and 1991, is better than that of any club outside of those elite groups. The Cup was rapidly followed by league hockey and the establishment of the structure that eventually led to the present South Hockey League. The Club quickly moved into the top Division, but could not achieve the consistence of performance needed to take first place among so many strong and evenly matched clubs. In the later 1970’s, anno domini began to catch up with some of the leading players and the playing standards of the 1st XI began to fall away, to the point where they were relegated to the Kent League. However, with the approach of the 75th Anniversary in 1983, a determined effort was made to improve. Much of the credit for this was due to Martin Lukehurst, who, having played for Bromley for a few years and gained 12 County caps, brought the experience gained back to his original club. After near misses in the two previous seasons, the 1st XI gained promotion to the Regional League in 1982/3, and in the same season the 2nd XI won their League, the 3rd XI were unbeaten through the season, and the Ladies 1st XI reached the playoff in the Kent League, losing to Orpington, generally acknowledged as the strongest ladies side in the County.
The main event of the 75th Anniversary was a two-day tournament whose participants, Neston, Stourport, Sheffield, Stone, HAC (The Hague), Cardiff, Dulwich, plus a number of clubs from within Kent, reflected the Club’s wide range of contacts. The 1st XI just failed to win promotion for the second year in succession, but had a remarkable game against Hampstead in the HA Cup which went into the Guinness Book of Records. At the end of extra time, the score was 0-0, and the game went to penalty strokes. No less than 40 strokes a side were required before Colin May made a series of brilliant saves in the gathering gloom to give Gore Court victory by 32-29.
The 1st XI maintained a sufficiently high standard to qualify for the 2nd Division of the National League when this was formed in 1988. The first season was undistinguished, but the following year, with Ivan Clark as Manager, they failed by only two points to gain promotion to the First Division. However, the loss of players in subsequent seasons showed that the Club had not the strength in depth to maintain National status, and they were relegated in 1992. This venture into National hockey had shown the need for an artificial turf pitch; after the first season, ‘home’ games were played at Sevenoaks for a couple of seasons and then at Gillingham, and it was obvious that the Club needed its own artificial turf. A tentative suggestion to lay down a pitch at the Grove produced tremendous local opposition; in fact, it would not have been a practical proposition, nor would the top ground and a stretch of the neighbouring woodland.
Finally, with help from Swale B.C., a piece of land was leased from Westlands School, and, after a vigorous fund-raising exercise, a high-class artificial turf pitch was laid down there – ironically just as the 1st XI was relegated from the National League. While it is not ideal to have a pitch away from the clubhouse, this has met the club’s immediate needs, and no hockey is now played at the Grove. One benefit of this is that it has been possible to make over the top ground to the Sittingbourne R.F.C., who have become associated with the Gore Court club.