The fading light of Corinth: The demise of the corporate sports ground

HSBC's home ground...
HSBC’s home ground…

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!
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21 thoughts on “The fading light of Corinth: The demise of the corporate sports ground

  1. My grandfather (Bowman), father (Ronald Bartlett), mother, aunts and uncles all played hockey, cricket and rugby for NWB at Norbury. My mother (aged 90) has many team photos and wondered if there was anywhere that would be interested in these old photos?

  2. What a fantastic write up. I played football for NWB mainly for the 5ths , (although I did have a couple of games in the 2nds and 1 in the 1sts. Played against some teams with wonderful names Crouch End Vampires, EBOGS (East Barnet Old Gramariens)

  3. Brilliant. You have summed up more than a memory, you’ve captured the feeling we all felt every Saturday afternoon.
    And those jugs of beer, never an empty glass.
    I first played there in 1979 and was agrieved I couldn’t quite get 4 pints of beer for my pound at 26p a pint!!

  4. Cut off too soon. Old Westminster Citizens, Old stationers Old Parms, Just to name a few. They were great days never to be seen again. Just glad that I was there to witness it all.

  5. I played Cricket for NatWest from 1981 until 2013. Both Norbury and Lower Sydenham were among the best grounds that I played at. Midland Bank , Lloyds Bank and Cuaco (Commerical Union) which were also all in Lower Sydenham were also a very good standard. When we played smaller clubs in non league games, a lot of then would see games at our grounds as their “Cup final” as the grounds, wickets, bar and other Facilities would be head and shoulders above other venues that they played at. It would not be uncommon for teams to turn up in a coach with all of their families. It was a tragedy when the bank decided to pull the funds from the sports grounds and things went downhill soon after,

  6. Not forgetting Old Parkonians (Old Parks) where the after match meal for away sides was a bowl of soup and a hard boiled egg, but it was a tradition.

  7. Joined one of Nat West’s City branches (1 Princes Street) in 1974. They weren’t great payers but otherwise certainly knew how to look after their staff. Nat West bars, Nat West restaurants, yes – the sports grounds, and that very fine college down in Oxfordshire where I spent 4 days on an induction course (originally a stately home, now a very upmarket hotel and conference centre). As I understand things, it’s all gone now, and for many years. Alcohol-free lunches, luncheon vouchers, and burgeoning waistlines.
    Wiped out the entire middle-management in the eighties.
    I think my few years there was the very best for Nat West in terms of employee relations, and also ‘twilights last gleaming’ for the integrity of banking in general.

  8. My Gran worked at the cricket grounds in the 40’s and 50’s she made cakes and sandwiches and served at the teas at tje matches
    The managers were Mr and Mrs. Edge I think there was a big wake in cupboard in the kitchen and Mrs. Edge Rose I think used to measure me every time I went there and put a little Mark on the wall.shame it’s all gone happy days

  9. My Dad, Alan Moody, was the Lloyds Bank 1st XI goalkeeper in the 1950s/60s. I have fond memories of going to the ground in Copers Cope Road, Beckenham to watch them play (often standing on duckboards on the touch line during the winter months). They won the AFA Senior Cup in 1961 beating Old Monovians 5-4 at Motspur Park. Dad was still playing tennis until a year ago with a dwindling bunch of diehards at the HSBC ground when he decided it might be prudent to call it a day at the age of 88!

  10. I played my first hockey match for a combined NP and Westminster XI in the autumn of 1949 against Barclays Bank at Hanger Lane – little did we know then that one day the two banks would merge!. Most matches were south of the Thames and it was one hell of a rush to get to some of them from Wood Green. The best grounds were Bank of England and Shell one or two were la bit rough – the pitch at one was like a meadow and we only discovered after the game and it was getting dark that there was no running water or electricity in the changing rooms (basically a large shed). I recall the Thursday telephone calls giving brief directions that on occasion went terribly wrong – leave the station and turn right, at t-junction turn right – the ground is a few hundred yards on your left. After walking for ages without finding a t-junction we found someone to ask – the charming gentleman laughed and said you’re not the first to do this – you obviously weren’t told it was a loop line – the trains run in alternate direction – you came out of the station on the wrong side! Someone mentioned Millwall – we played one game in that vicinity against Hayes Wharf – a team of big burly men – the only time I have been threatened with physical violence on a hockey pitch.

  11. I just stumbled across this and boy it brings back some memories. I played cricket for NatWest for several seasons from 1980 onwards. I was 1st X1 captain for a couple of years in the mid 80’s. Nice to see a couple of familar old names on previous posts. Whatever the sport we really did have the best of it and I doubt anyone who works for them now would believe what facilities we enjoyed. As a struggling grade 3 clerk, ham egg and chips for 15p 3 times a week was a lifeline!! Happy days.

  12. Hi Paul lovely to see your name here,as you say ham egg and chips for 15p those were the days and of course the Cosser cup. Great times hope you are keeping well.

  13. Happy days. I played for Old Stationers and Barclays first teams in the 70s. The standard was outstanding and the facilities at some grounds put professional clubs to shame. Both clubs put out up to 15 teams if you included various veteran sides. A different era in both sporting and work terms. I’m glad I got to experience them…oh and it was always a pleasure to turn over Midland Bank who were the dominant team at the time. I recall unexpectedly beating them with Barclays and their post match sulking was international class!

  14. I used both Norbury and Lower Sydenham from mid 60s to the 90s playing soccer squash tennis badminton snooker and darts whilst working in the Ealing branches and later in Bromley area Office and branches. sport was encouraged by ‘the bank’ in those days but both venues closed due to costs. Happy days. Bob Page.

  15. A lot of huge memories. Played Football for Midland Bank (in the C team!) at one of their (in those days) 2 grounds – New Beckenham and Ravensbourne – before starting Hockey at the ripe old age of 35. But Cricket was my “main” sport – 25 years or so from 1973 rising from the 6th XI through the teams to the 2nd XI with occasional ventures into the 1st XI. Played at both Nat West grounds, CUACO, Bank of England and Lloyds but only football against Barclays at the now derelict Ealing ground.

    I guess I was lucky in joining the Bank about 2 weeks after Saturday working was abolished !

    Being taken over by HSBC was good for us – their sports ground was right next door to us at New Beckenham so the hedge was trimmed, and the grounds were merged. The Bank were then able to sell the Ravensbourne ground to Millwall FC for their training ground.

    Sad to see that virtually all the finance institution sports grounds are now gone except HSBC – the New Beckenham ground is still well used (although with nowhere near the same number of teams – no netball, hockey or rugby now) and the Sheffield ground at Dore is still going.

    I can only hope that employees still continue to use the grounds or surely one day the Bank will close them ……..

  16. I moved from Manchester to London in 1969 and worked in the FX dealing room before going to New York in 1975. We had many evenings after work playing cricket at Lower Sydenham and I even played tennis at Norbury. Great facilities as I had been used to playing at different sports grounds when representing District Bank in Manchester.

  17. Second post/Postscript. Sadly, it looks like I spoke too soon and HSBC Sports Association is now in decline. The Cricket Club is now renamed New Beckenham CC as the Bank have discovered that most of the players don’t work for HSBC ! They can still use the wonderfull New Beckenham sports gound, but for how much longer….

    In 2021 uniquely I attended the 150th Anniversary Dinner of HSBC CC, and also the 100th Anniversary Dinner of HSBC Golf Society (fortunately still thriving). Great to catch up with old friends and will never be repeated. I’m just glad I got in all those 30 odd years playing sports at all the wonderfull financial institution grounds …… and other great places like the Civil Service ground in Chiswick, the Met Police ground at Imber Court and the rest.

    Cheers to us old lags !

  18. Just found this(great title) while trying to confirm my suspicion that Crystal Palace’s impressive new training facility at Copers Cope Rd is a “re-purposing” of an old bank sports ground.
    My charge sheet: About 8 years at Old Tiffinians, initially as a callow and wide-eyed sixth former, then many, many more at Kew Association.
    When 2 or more bi-weekly trudgers along the North/South Circular Road round London gather together, the reminiscences tend to become unstoppable. At the risk of solipsism (and that’s the first time I’ve written that word!) I am regularly reminded by an old friend of one Saturday afternoon (sometime in the eighties I think) at South Bank Poly. Both Kew Firsts and Thirds were there and it was fast approaching 3pm. Suddenly the First’s skipper (the friend in question) came up to me, as his Third team counterpart, and said “Ray’s come off his motor-bike and isn’t going to make it (to the venue!) so we need to take one of your play….” Before he had finished his sentence I was in the first team dressing room grabbing the number 9 shirt. God knows how the Thirds got on but “we” won 1-0. Didn’t actually score the goal but I’m sure I could have laid claim to an “assist” if the concept had then been invented. My one and only first team appearance at Kew.
    Good to see that Max Rushden of The Guardian, and other media outlets, occasionally references his time in AFA football at Polytechnic (still playing I hope).
    Finally, just to recount that, for many years, the lady slinging out the pie and beans at Old Tiffs was a curmudgeonly old soul rejoicing in the name of “Olive Germy”. Enough said.

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