Early sports and history of Heigham Playing Field
Early in 1909, the area which was to become Heigham Park was open countryside with cornfields and pastureland stretching all the way to Earlham Hall.
To the north was the Church of England Young Men’s Society (CEYMS) sports field and to the east, the houses had only been built as far as Recreation Road and Glebe Road and The Avenues had not yet been built.
Encouraged by the Open Spaces Society and the headmasters from Avenue Road and Crooks Place (now Bignold) Schools, funds of £100 were raised at a parents’ meeting, and an area of land was bought and handed over to the Lord Mayor of Norwich to become Heigham Playing Field.
Heigham Playing Field c.1914 and CEYMS Recreation ground to the north.
A crowd gathered at the opening ceremony in November 1909 and The Lord Mayor of Norwich kicked off a football match between the two schools for the boys, and the Sheriff of Norwich threw the first ball in a basketball/netball game for the girls.
The newly invented game of basketball was introduced to England in 1895 and was played outside, often with a wastepaper basket and a broomstick for a goal. Changes were made to make it ‘more suitable’ for women and girls and in the new rules bouncing the ball was not allowed and neither was contact between players. The baskets were replaced by hoops and nets and netball was born with a new set of rules in 1901.
Children had been playing football as an extracurricular activity in schools since the early 1900s but often space was limited, especially in Victorian city schools. For the next twelve years, Heigham Playing Field continued to serve the needs of the schools while more housing and schools were built both around the field and further west. In time The Avenues was built, and the playing field was separated from the CEYMS sports field.
Girls also played football in the early 1920s but by the end of the decade girls participation declined as they were actively encouraged to participate in what were seen as more ‘feminine’ sports.
New sporting facilities come into play
At the end of the First World War, the forward-thinking Norwich Corporation was looking at how to provide parks for a growing population in an expanding city. The new Parks and Gardens department under Superintendent of Parks, Captain Arnold Sandys-Winsch, who was appointed in 1919, were drawing up plans to create new parks and the Heigham Playing Field was included as part of that vision.
In 1924, when the newly laid out Heigham Park opened, it was the first of the historically significant Sandys-Winsch designed parks and therefore considered to be the first ‘modern’ park in the city with others such as Eaton, Waterloo and Wensum following in later years.
Provision for ball games now extended to adults as well as children and despite being only six acres, Heigham Park’s clever layout also contained ten grass tennis courts and two bowling greens, as well as a space for casual games while still retaining an intimate feel. The link between public health and recreation was an important influence in the 1920s and 30s. Other ball games such as football, cricket and hockey were located in the larger, more spacious neighbour Eaton Park.
Although the park was opened in 1924 the original bowls club was already in existence and their list of presidents goes back to 1922.
As well as sports facilities, Heigham Park contains other typical Sandys-Winsch elements such as the circular flower beds, herbaceous borders, and the mock stone pergola, which are typical features of his style.
Heigham Park pergola walk c.1931 (credit George Plunkett)
Heigham Park c.1931 looking towards the tennis courts (credit George Plunkett)
The popularity of lawn tennis boomed throughout the country in the years between the World Wars and expanded rapidly into new communities of players in public parks and workplaces.
Heigham Park opened at the height of the popularity of the sport. The cost of playing could be very cheap and affordable which resulted in crowded courts. However, the expansion stalled in the 1930s because of the economic crisis and costs began to rise. When the grass courts closed in 2017, they were the last remaining in the city’s parks.
Incentivisation poster 1928 (Mary Evans studio)
The tennis courts were later enhanced by the installation of the ornamental sunflower gates formed from railings removed from the large cast iron pagoda in Chapelfield Gardens. The original sunflower gates were removed from the tennis courts following damage but reinstalled at the entrance to the park in 2012 after restoration.
In 2021, the council began the work to install three new modern, all-weather, hard surfaced and floodlit courts, for greater accessibility and to provide affordable all-year-round sports provision; these are due to complete in 2022.
Pagoda in Chapelfield Gardens with sunflower railings 1895
The original sunflower gates after installation at Heigham Park tennis courts 1932 (credit George Plunkett)
As well as sports facilities, Heigham Park contains other typical Sandys-Winsch elements such as the circular flower beds, herbaceous borders and the mock stone pergola, which are typical features of his style.
The character layout and structure of Heigham park has changed very little since it was originally laid out. The significance of Heigham and other Sandys-Winsch parks was recognised by English Heritage in 1993 when they were placed on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.
Other Sandys-Winsch parks in Norwich
- Heigham Park Grade II
- Wensum Park Grade II
- Eaton Park Grade II*
- Waterloo Park Grade II*
The thatched tennis pavilion was also part of the Sandys-Winsch original design and was refurbished in the 1990s using Heritage Lottery funding. A fire in 2019 destroyed most of the structure but it is due to be rebuilt in 2022.
Pavilion with thatched roof 1990s
A foot (ball) note
A significant event in the history of city sport began here before the park or the playing field even existed. From 1888 until after the Second World War, the area to the north of the open ground which would eventually become Heigham Park and now the site of the Recreation Road School, was home to CEYMS football club.
The site was known as ‘The Rec’ and the team were very successful for a while, but in 1902 both the captain and the vice-captain left to form a new club known as Norwich City.