IF YOU FLEW across South London, Kent and Surrey in the mid-1970s, you would have looked down on acres of sports grounds comprising rugby, football and hockey pitches. Many of these grounds, with their excellent facilities and perpetual odour of horse liniment, were owned by banks, insurance companies and old boy networks.
National Westminster Bank had two fine sports grounds, at Norbury and Lower Syndenham. All the major banks had their own similar temples devoted to fresh air and exercise – Midland had one almost opposite NWB (no NatWest in those days) in Lower Sydenham, and the Bank of England’s ground at Roehampton was legendary among such venues. It was not quite the paternal hand of Cadbury’s or Port Sunlight, but NatWest and other banks made an effort to encourage the right type of bank employees.
What splendid places they were. Very heavy on rugby, admittedly, but NatWest also had a battalion of footballers turning out on a Saturday afternoon – the blues, playing in a white shirt with dark and light blue stripes across the midriff.
The teams would play in those laudable amateur leagues that mostly comprised clubs from the southern home counties or London. You would get a call from the Sports Department’s team selection office on a Thursday, asking you to turn up at a location in Mottingham, Catford, Beckenham, or indeed, Norbury or Lower Sydenham and report to the team captain.
For me, it was my first sortie “south of the river”. Names I had never heard of – Chislehurst, Sittingbourne, Bat & Ball, East Dulwich, Selhurst and Petts Wood. Often, I would bump into unruly packs of Millwall, Crystal Palace and Charlton Athletic fans, but you could also identify a sportsman bound for one of the bank sports grounds.
Given these teams – ranging from the first XI that would often include decent non-league players to the rag-bag 15th XI – often comprised different players every week, there was no continuity in most of the line-ups. The first team played in the Southern Amateur League, which was a high standard in those days. Essentially, though, the game was played for the sake of it, handshakes and back-slaps all round.
I remember scoring my first goal for the 10th XI in the shadow of the Crystal Palace TV aerial, and also receiving a black eye after heading a last minute goal against a team of London lawyers at Lower Sydenham. I was 17 at the time, lacking in physique and often muscled out of the action by gnarled old FX traders who seemed to have forgotten they were not playing rugby.
After the game, the teams would retire to the local pub or, if the fixture was at a NatWest ground, head for the pavilion where all the teams from various sports would congregate. The refectory would be full of players eating their post-match meal of sausage and mash or pie and beans, and large plastic jugs of ale would flow all evening. Bonhomie filled the air, but you rarely saw a woman, unless, of course, they were serving your meal. There was, at more than one sports ground, a “men only” bar!
If only we knew it, but these were halcyon days for the corporate sportsman. The pitches and dressing rooms were outstanding and the code of conduct drawn from another age. The air of the Corinthian – with a hint of public school ambience – prevailed, and you were expected to behave in the bar and “act like gentlemen”.
NatWest sold off some, or maybe all, of its sports grounds as the bank lost its cachet and purpose. And with that, some of the heart and soul of the organisation was transferred to the balance sheet!