Sporting Memories of Mitcham in the late 1940s and 1950s

Local History Notes 27: by David Corns

The author’s recollections of a sporting boyhood will strike a chord with many readers, though few will probably have managed to participate in and/or watch as much sport as Mr Corns. As a cub and then a scout, at primary and then grammar school, in informal ‘gangs’ and then in clubs, he played football, cricket, rounders and Korfball, as well as swimming, running and long-jumping. He watched fine cricketers on the Green and world-class athletes at the News of the World ground, and he writes about it all with enthusiasm and total recall.

Review in MHS Bulletin 154 (Jun 2005)

Map of Mitcham showing numbered
locations mentioned in the text
Reproduced by permission of Merton Design Unit,
London Borough of Merton
Map of Mitcham showing numbered
locations mentioned in the text
Reproduced by permission of Merton Design Unit,
London Borough of Merton
Sporting Memories of Mitcham
in the late 1940s and 1950s
David Corns
ISBN 1 903899 49 4
Published by Merton Historical Society – February 2005
Further information on Merton Historical Society can be obtained from
Merton Library & Heritage Service, Merton Civic Centre, London Road, Morden, Surrey. SM4 5DX

My family home was in Heaton Road, North Mitcham, which was badly damaged during the war.
We were lucky as several houses immediately to the back of us in Bruce Road were destroyed and
two houses some 40 yards from us in Heaton Road took direct hits. My father was a soldier and
was away for the duration of the war. My mother and I were evacuated to Aldershot to be near
my grandfather, returning to our home in early 1946.

My earliest sporting memories were playing football, cricket and rounders in Heaton Road. Such
was the competitiveness of our games that we organised challenge matches with teams from the
adjoining roads of Tynemouth, Bruce and Inglemere, both home and away. There were no cars in
the roads and we played with great gusto and without restrictions. Our neighbours did not share
our enthusiasm as they peered behind their lace curtains and worried about their windows, gardens
and property. As a proud house owner now, I realise what a thorough nuisance we were, causing
a great deal of damage to hedges and gardens. (Sorry – a little belated, I know.) Common sense
prevailed and we found a new venue, Figges Marsh, a marvellous open grassed expanse with all
manner of trees on its borders including a line of majestic elms. This was our sporting arena for many

Numbers in the margins refer to locations shown on the map on the back cover.

evenings in the spring and summer. Am I looking through rose tinted glasses or do I have a selective
memory in my belief that the weather was so much better then with little to no rain and warm, balmy
evenings? With coats for goal posts and tree trunks for wickets, we played all evening until dusk,
often with as many as 20 a side in frantic football games. Now we were at Figges Marsh, we could
use a real cricket ball and practise our fast bowling and hit the ball as hard as we liked. London Road
runs along one boundary and the cricket and footballs invariably went into the main road. Thankfully
in those days the passing traffic was a great deal less than now but still these were dangerous times
for the fielders and the drivers.

My first introduction to organised sports was through my school which was Gorringe Park in Sandy
Lane where I attended the juniors and two terms in the senior school. At the age of 8, I remember
being picked for my school in the district sports held on the ‘Wangas’ sports ground in Benedict
Road off Church Road. With great pride I pinned my competitor’s number, G3, on my running vest.
I was so proud to be in the team and to be racing against the best from other schools. The rest is
a blur – did I win? Gorringe Park always had reasonably strong football, athletic and cricket teams
but the best sporting schools tended to be Western Road, Bond Road, Singlegate and Fortescue
Road. Indeed, one of my closest friends who was a fine schoolboy footballer moved from Gorringe
Park when he was eleven to go to Western Road school. His parents reasoned that he had more
chance of being spotted by talent scouts playing in the best school’s side. They were proved right
with scouts from all the major teams queuing at his door for his signature. He joined Arsenal and
played many times for their first team. Pollards Hill, Sherwood Park and Links Road schools usually
had weaker teams.

Like a magnet for me, I was drawn to the Cricket Green to watch the first class cricket on Saturday
afternoons. Mitcham Cricket Club had two very strong teams who played local rivals like
Beddington, Wallington and Hackbridge. Surrey seconds often played there and there was the
occasional testimonial game. The ground was majestic surrounded by wonderful old buildings and

Cricket on the Green in 1946, reproduced courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service

was in the Fleet Air Arm. He was a centre forward and a prolific goal scorer and there were rumours
that the club was trying to buy him out of the services so that he could play more regularly. Many
of the young players who graduated from Elderwood Boys went on to play for Tooting and
Mitcham. I went off to university and played for two senior amateur sides in London, playing
occasionally at Sandy Lane for the opposition, much to the annoyance of my uncle and friends. At
least two of the old boys went on to make their marks in professional football. Alex Stepney went
to Chelsea and eventually Manchester United, gaining one cap for England. Dario Gradi was
another, who is currently manager of Crewe Alexandra and is one of the longest serving managers
in professional football.

The New Stand at Tooting & Mitcham FC ground, Sandy Lane
Mitcham News & Mercury 21.8.1959, reproduced courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service

Memories can be very blurred, especially when you cast back to events over 50 years ago.
However, I have very hazy recollections of a stadium in Sandy Lane. Rugby was played there for
a while and even county hurling matches. Also, I have a very hazy recollection of a Nigerian football
team playing, possibly at Sandy Lane, in bare feet, yes, without football boots. Or were they just
fanciful stories?

Mitcham in the late 40s and 50s was so full of sporting activities but also it was so handily placed
to enjoy sport outside its boundaries. It was a short distance to White City to enjoy international
athletics: a short journey to the Oval; professional football clubs were on our doorstep; tennis at
Wimbledon; racing at Epsom; ice hockey and roller skating at Streatham; speedway at Wimbledon
and open air baths at Purley Way and Tooting Bec.

Please accept my apologies for not mentioning in my memories sports such as rugby, golf, tennis,
pigeon racing and bowls. Very simply, I ran out of time in my youth.

Mitcham offered the facilities and created the environment for me in the late 40s and 50s to be
introduced to sport which has given me so much enjoyment.

The game was very popular in South London with over 20 clubs, some with two or more teams.
There were teams from Morden, Croydon, Clapham and Streatham. There was even a team in
Derby and one called Esperanto, as adopting a common language was a popular theme then.
Wednesday was practice night at Pollards Hill School followed by a shandy in the local public
house. As I said, great fun, skilful and fast, and it was an excellent opportunity, in your teens, to
meet fit and athletic girls.

If it was strange to see a Dutch game on the common, it was possibly a little less unusual to see
Americans playing baseball around the early 50s. Obviously there were many Americans in the
greater London area after the war and there was a thriving baseball league. I watched many games,
which reminded me of rounders. However, the pitchers threw the ball at frightening speeds and the
big hitters often cleared the surrounding trees. Our job was to find the balls and return them as
quickly as possible. Rumour has it that one mighty hit propelled the ball into one of the paddleboats
on the Seven Islands Pond, which must have been quite a surprise for the occupants. Many local
men managed to get into the teams, including the elder brother of a friend. We watched him play
and after the game waited for him whilst he talked to his team mates. Imagine our surprise when
we heard him speaking with an American accent and they called him ‘Chuck’. We knew him as Billy
and we wondered what accent he would be using when he went to work at the Pascalls sweet
factory on the Monday!!

From Gorringe Park School, I went to grammar school in Wimbledon and was fortunate to be
chosen for the Surrey schoolboys football team (I could never understand how SW19 came under
Surrey). At this time I was invited to join Elderwood Boys football club which was the junior side
and feeder to the great Tooting and Mitcham FC. Elderwood Boys always had good sides, drawing
players from all parts of South West London and Surrey. Invariably we won a medal of some sort
each season, whether it be in the league or one of the Surrey or London cup competitions. We
played on some of the best grounds around and occasionally at Sandy Lane if the game warranted
it. Players were informed that they were playing by postcard on the Wednesday before the Saturday
game, detailing where and when to meet. How we trusted the post in those days, which was so
reliable. Telephones were rare and e-mails, mobile phones and text messages were not even a
figment of somebody’s imagination. Invariably, we travelled by coach to away games and, being
the only player still at school, I often did my homework on the coach, much to the hilarity of the
others who were builders, apprentices and office workers. Shirts, shorts and socks were supplied
and, most importantly, washed and ironed for the next game. We were allowed to train at Sandy
Lane with the first team and the reserves, usually on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Training was
great fun, although an acquired taste on wet, miserable and foggy nights in November and freezing
nights in February. Looking back, training seemed to be all about physical fitness and little emphasis
on the skills of passing, dribbling and heading. We used to run around and around the pitch and up
and down the wooden steps in the stands for ages, finishing with a friendly game. The good news
was that at the end of the session you were given a steaming mug of tea and a hot meat and potato
pie. Hot water baths were available but as I only lived the other side of Figges Marsh, I used to
trudge home no doubt very smelly and muddy. Frankly, I didn’t fancy sharing a mucky bath with
20 or so others.

During this period Tooting and Mitcham were in the Athenian league and later the Isthmian league.
They were one of the top sides in amateur football, often getting to the latter stages of the FA
amateur cup, regularly playing far-off teams like Bishop Auckland, Consett and Crook Town. They
played Nottingham Forest in the FA cup (1959, I think), drawing at home and losing in the return
game. They were not disgraced and the whole town was uplifted by the magnificent performance.
One of my favourite players was Paddy Hasty, although we didn’t see him much at training as he

tall mature trees which gave welcome shade for the spectators, and I guess the lucky boundary
fielders. The pavilion was on the other side of the road and it was a strange sight to see the batsmen
negotiate the traffic when they went in to bat or to trudge back after their innings. I was a great
collector of autographs and I used to collect them as the players returned to the pavilion, batsmen
and fielders. Usually, the autographs were written on the score card which you could buy at the
game. However, for a period (I hope it wasn’t long) I decided to have the players write their
autographs on my baseball bat which I used to bring on the bus from home. They were surprised
but quite happy to oblige, no doubt taking pity on the poor little confused boy. Can you imagine
what they said when they got back to the dressing room. You won’t believe what’s just happened
to me… To this day I wonder why I didn’t collect the signatures in an autograph album like others.
I enjoyed the cricket as the fortunes ebbed and flowed from one side to the other. There were many
hits to the boundaries for four and the occasional six into the big trees or into the surrounding roads.
I remember an official would come round with a collection box into which spectators gave
generously. When I was thirsty, I would pop into Leo’s ice cream and coffee shop where I usually
bought a delicious creamy ice-lolly. At about 6pm with the game still in full swing, I would catch
the bus home to Figges Marsh.

Mitcham had a thriving scout and cub movement in the 50s and, personally, I am indebted to the
marvellous experience and training I received which formed a basis for life. My troop (cubs and
scouts), was 3rd Mitcham with its headquarters in Woodland Way. I remember the scouts’ hut being
built by parents and scouters around 1950. Skipper Hedge, who lived opposite the HQ in
Woodland Way, was the scout leader and Miss Dennis, who lived in Pitcairn Road, was the leader
of the cubs. Both were inspirational people who gave their time freely to this splendid organisation.
Scouting instilled in us self-reliance, discipline and the need for personal fitness. Competition was
encouraged and, accordingly, we had district boxing tournaments, swimming galas and athletics,
besides the district and county camping competitions.

District Commissioner for Scouts, Wilfred Hedge, JP, presents
the Winning Team Trophy to David Corns – Summer 1955

The boxing tournaments were held at Mitcham County School for Boys. Sad to say it wasn’t really
my sport, entering more out of loyalty to the troop rather than my own well-being. The swimming
gala was held at Mitcham swimming baths and, again, I tended to make up the numbers as we had
some very strong swimmers and divers in our scouts. I believe Mitcham Swimming Club had its
home there and had a strong reputation amongst local swimming clubs. The baths was also the
venue for boxing matches, dances and concerts, obviously after the baths had been covered!! My
favourite sport organised by the scouts was the athletics meeting arranged amongst the various
troops in the district and was held at the News of the World sports ground off Commonside West,
opposite the Three Kings pond. This sports ground was compact and beautifully set amongst
mature trees. I was a good sprinter and long jumper, and a useful person in the relays. 3rd Mitcham
always had a strong athletics team and did very well in the competitions. It was a lovely experience
to compete in the races and see your friends do well in their events giving that warm feeling of team

I think I remember correctly that the News of the World was the home of Mitcham Athletics Club
who had a national reputation with many international stars. Continuing with my hazy memories, I
recall the News of the World cricket team played on this ground and a professional football team
used the facilities for training – I may be wrong. During this period Mitcham had its sporting heroes.
One was Dorothy Odam of high jumping fame and much later we had Jim Peters who was a
marathon runner with an opticians at the Fair Green. London to Brighton road races were major
attractions, both runners and walkers, and Figges Marsh was a wonderful vantage point to see the
athletes in their club colours on their way to Brighton. It all happened in Mitcham!

Miss Dorothy Odam, of Mitcham
Athletic Club, winning the high
jump with 5 ft 3 in at the Women’s
AAA championships at the White
City on 2 July 1938.

Reproduced courtesy of Merton
Library & Heritage Service

Mitcham Common was a beautiful place in the late 40s and 50s. A vast open expanse of countryside
on our doorstep where young boys could explore and play safely, enjoying the wonders of nature
at the same time. The common was normally quiet and peaceful but this was invariably shattered
on a Sunday morning when hundreds of footballers with their supporters descended on the
common. The footballers came in all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of fitness There were

undoubtedly many players and teams who could play at a high standard but many were playing for
sheer enjoyment and a little exercise. There must have been over 30 pitches spread over the
common with some as much as half a mile from the changing rooms. The home team usually knew
where their pitch was but many a visiting team got hopelessly lost. The changing rooms were just
off Windmill Road and consisted of a large reception hall with individual dressing rooms there off.
Before the game the noise was horrendous with shouting, laughter and banter, trying to motivate
each other before nerves and anxiety took hold. As they walked through the main hall to their
games, you could hear the clattering of a thousand studs on the concrete floor. Some two hours later
after the game it was a different picture with a mass of sweaty, tired and aching bodies trooping to
their dressing rooms. Some were elated and chattered animatedly, whilst others were despondent
and very quiet. By 1.30pm the common had returned to its peaceful self. However, the changing
rooms were left as if a bomb had hit them. The concrete floor in the main hall was invariable covered
in mud where hundreds of boots and thousands of studs had made their mark. You can imagine the
state of the dressing rooms after the players had finished. Council staff performed miracles to get
them ready for the next onslaught.

Sunday morning football on the Common, near One Island Pond,
reproduced courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service

At about this time, I was introduced to the game of Korfball which, put simply, is a mixture between
basketball and netball. Apparently, it was the Dutch national game and being 14 years old I had
no reason to doubt this. It may seem strange that Korfball, a Dutch game, should be played in
Mitcham. At the time Mitcham twinned with the town of Hengelo in Holland, who introduced the
game with matches played between the two towns. The team comprised 12 players but here is the
difference from almost every other team game, it was six males and six females. You can see the
attractions. Besides being a fast and skilful game, you could meet athletic and fit young girls. Our
home pitch was on Mitcham Common for many years. The pitch was laid out with long tapes into
3 zones, an attacking area, a middle and a defending area. To score a goal one threw the ball into
a basket at the top of a large pole (like basketball and netball). Men marked men and females
marked the females. You moved from one zone, eg defence to the middle zone and then to attack,
every two goals.