Plaque in the clubhouse celebrating the purchase of the grounds

John Pool

Chris Smith

Disaster averted

In 1968, after 90 years of paying a small rent to British Rail, the calm existence of Clifton Lawn Tennis Club was very nearly destroyed. The near catastrophe of the sale of its grounds by British Rail to a developer was narrowly avoided by the supreme efforts of a dynamic secretary, a resolute Chairman and committee and many generous members. Other clubs – and there were many – did not survive similar misfortune. A full and gripping account is given in Anthony Richards’ History of Clifton Lawn Tennis Club. Fund raising at the time was so successful that enough was left over to replace the dilapidated Victorian clubhouse. 

On entering the clubhouse we all pass this metal plaque commemorating the most important moment in the club’s long history, apart from its founding. For those that remember 1971, and for the many that don’t, perhaps we should all reflect on this moment. 

Founding of the club

In order to understand it, we need to travel back nearly another 100 years to the early years of lawn tennis when many clubs across the country were founded on grounds beside railway lines. At Clifton, the railway line to Avonmouth ran under the land where our club now stands and it still does. The railway surveyors were concerned about possible future claims should subsidence occur and insisted that nothing be built over it; even two existing houses, standing where courts are now, were demolished. Rendered useless for building, it was simply left as a vacant site. In 1881, three enthusiastic, intrepid and prominent residents had ideas of opening a tennis club and soon gathered about them more influential converts so that by 2nd November 1881, the Clifton Chronicle was able to announce, ‘The Clifton Lawn Tennis Club have, we understand, taken on a lease a piece of enclosed ground in Beaufort Road, belonging to the Midland Railway Co, which will afford room for seven courts, two of which, asphalted for winter play, are in the course of construction, and will be finished very shortly.’ The club, very influential in the early days, as can be noted from the framed photos on the clubhouse wall, ticked along comfortably, paying a small rent, for the next 90 years but by 1968 railway companies all over the country were anxious to convert this obvious asset to cash and there were many developers willing to help them. 

British Rail calls time

Clifton Lawn Tennis Club found itself in the almost hopeless position of having no funds to compete. Indeed on investigation they found they had no rights to the land and their lease had run out. British Rail had already decided to obtain planning consent for the erection of 28 flats and to put the ground on the open market for sale.

However they had reckoned without at least two extraordinary members on their committee. The Hon. Sec. was John Pool, a land and commercial property consultant, and partner and deputy chairman of Chesterton International; he was uniquely placed in the world of property and development in Bristol and moreover knew everyone else in the field. He called a Special General Meeting to be held at the Royal Artillery Ground on 19th December 1968. and issued a stark warning, ‘to all members and friends of the Clifton Lawn Tennis Club, it is absolutely vital you attend, and support the committee, for if we are unsuccessful in the appeal we are about to launch, there is no doubt that the club will not exist after the end of 1969. Your committee have accordingly decided to go all out to raise the necessary funds to preserve the club and purchase the freehold’

Also important was Clive Smith, the Honorary Treasurer and gifted accountant, who had to devise ways of raising the sums required. He has told me there was never enough in club funds to pay anything more than the next bill, and that only just. Club subscriptions for 1968 totalled £1,900; the sum required was £27,500, with a further £10,000 needed for a new clubhouse. 

Raising the funds – an impossible task?

Clive’s scheme involved the issue of debentures to friends and members of the club, repayable over 20 years, which raised £20,000 and applications for grants from the Sports Council and the LTA. Fundraising was difficult and to start with they would exaggerate the sums achieved; as things progressed, they would undervalue them to encourage generosity. Miraculously it all worked and in the fullness of time every loan was repaid.

Clive has said since that John was the most impressive negotiator he had ever worked with. Together they held meetings with British Rail’s chief surveyor and John began by reminding British Rail of the bad publicity attracted by another tennis club losing their land in similar circumstances.  Local opposition was vociferous and there were even apparently ‘worthy efforts’ on their behalf in the House of Commons, led by the father of a club member who just happened to be an M.P.

The minutes for a meeting held on 23rd Jan 1969 simply record that ‘The Hon. Sec. mentioned it was his intention to have a word with the developer concerned since he knew him’ but we can be sure that this went much further than a quiet word and that various tactics were used to dissuade other interested parties. In the next committee meeting the Hon. Sec. was able to report that the developer had now withdrawn his superior offer.

Nearly there…

When the sums were nearly raised, but still £3,000 short, John and Clive decided to visit Mickey McWatters, then a well known figure in Bristol. Although he did not have the reputation of being generous, his wife persuaded him to part with the money, saying, ‘You can afford it’. They left with a cheque.

In the last committee meeting of 1971, after a two year battle, when the Hon. Sec. reported he had received the provisional offer of £10,000 from the Sports Council, the minutes record the news was ‘received by the committee with acclamation’. The Hon. Sec. concluded ‘After some emotion and further discussion and with thanks to all concerned, the meeting ended at 7.20’. The future of the club had been assured.