Monday 20 December 2010

Freeman's Ground

In December 1891 Thomas Freeman, a local builder, plumber and decorator of 127 Grove Lane, began work on a piece of land at the rear of Champion Hill House and Oakfield House. This area today takes in the Sainsburys Superstore and Dulwich Hamlet FC's present stadium. Access to the land was gained via an entrance in the south part of the road Champion Hill. *

Freeman's intention was to construct a new cricket ground and tennis courts in the area. However, the site eventually became more celebrated for football than the summer pastimes. In fact, the first recorded game to be contested took place during Christmas week, with the ground still in process of formation - a match between St Saviour's FC and Lorn FC. A certain H. Freeman, possibly Thomas Freeman's own son Harry, scored the first goal.

The following year, having obtained a twenty year counterpart lease, Freeman received planning permission to build three wood and iron cricket pavilions. The Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club were the main tenants throughout and beyond the period of the leasehold, with various other clubs using the ground for association football during the winter period. Of these, Dulwich Hamlet, who occupied the ground from 1902, were the most forward thinking.

Although excellently situated only five minutes’ walk from Denmark Hill railway station, access to the ground was much more difficult for the club's East Dulwich supporters. Their lot was to ascend Dog Kennel Hill or Green Lane to Champion Hill, and then come all the way back down a steep incline to the enclosure. An entrance was therefore obtained at the end of the row of houses in Constance Road, just before the Infirmary.

Many other ground improvements were made over the years, and in 1906 a new stand was built to hold 250 people. "It should attract the wives and lady loves in greater numbers than ever." said the local reporter. By then Mr Freeman's Ground, had lost its original appellation and was simply known as Champion Hill. Dulwich Hamlet had also become a very successful club and were attracting crowds of several thousands.

At the start of the 1911-12 season the Hamlet were informed they would not be able to use their playing field for the whole season, but would have to repaint the pitch further down the field [the current Dulwich Hamlet site]. With the lease coming to its end in 1912, and with an uncertain future looming, Dulwich Hamlet set their sights on an adjacent plot of unused meadowland that had become available at the rear of the gardens of Cleve Hall. [The Astroturf pitch in the image below] Here, they created a new smaller enclosure that was to be their home for the next twenty years.

From as early as 1923 plans were drawn up for the original Freeman's site to be turned into a splendid football ground that could hold more than 20,000 people. In 1931 the dream was fully realised, and the Hamlet opened the famous old Champion Hill Ground, as well as another pitch known as the ‘top pitch' for the reserves. Now, almost eighty years later the Hamlet are still there - albeit, with a more compact stadium built in 1992 - but still operating from the place once known as Freeman's Ground
Aerial shot of the Champion Hill ground. The first overlay shows the 1931-91 ground, and the second overlay shows where the pitch was compared to today, just a few yards away. 

* Downhill from the stone sign that reads "Dulwich Manor extends from this stone eastward 27 feet, 1805."

Original article written for a book on East Dulwich published in 1998.
Copyright: Jack McInroy ©