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Mark Hoskins

Mark Hoskins writes

Posted Wednesday, April 22nd 2020

Past Encounters: Fenner stars at Buffalo Bill’s Field

Club Historian, Mark Hoskins takes a look back at a famous Bristol victory in our latest Past Encounters feature.

Bristol 21-0 Saracens | Saturday, April 13th, 1895 | Buffalo Bill’s Field

Bristol’s first ever fixture with Saracens is of interest in that it was not played at the County Ground, Bristol’s regular home from the club’s foundation right up to the outbreak of the First World War. The reason for this was that the game was one of four fixtures arranged for what was, in sporting terms, a late Easter. Cricket had already started on the County Ground, and the formidable presence of W G Grace ensured that Bristol would have to look elsewhere to play their Easter games. The great cricketer was about to embark on a remarkable season in which would score 1,000 runs in May and, at the age of 47, record his 100th first class century. He was already in action during Easter weekend, opening the Gloucestershire innings with his son in a practice match against 22 County Colts.

Bristol had arranged matches with Kent Wanderers, Saracens, Newton Abbot and Swinton, with the action starting on Good Friday and ending on Easter Tuesday. Several temporary home venues were considered for the games, but eventually the club’s committee settled on Buffalo Bill’s Field, which was then being used by Clifton. The land in question got its name from the great American hero Buffalo Bill Cody, who had staged his Wild West Show there in 1891, complete with Indian chiefs, fat women, skeleton freaks and the original Deadwood Stagecoach. 

Many supporters will know that Buffalo Bill’s Field was later transformed into the Memorial Ground, but at that time it was little more than an open field off the main Gloucester Road. A programme article from 1925 tells us more: “To reach it one had to pass from the main road, which was then a country road with few houses to be seen, down a short lane which at times became very muddy, and through an ordinary five-barred gate, which was opened just sufficiently to allow the entry of one person at a time. An elderly gentleman collected the ‘tanners’ and one can imagine the irritation of those eager to gain admission, who were held up whilst change was being given by the old gent in question. When one entered the field one had an uninterrupted view down the gently sloping field, right away to the South Wales railway line in the distance. The playing area was enclosed with ropes held in position by wooden stakes driven into the ground.”

Bristol, captained by prolific try-scoring winger Edwin Fenner, had a good season in 1894-95. There were 20 victories and six draws, and only half a dozen matches ended in defeat. From December 1st to the end of the season only one match was lost out of 22. At this time no Bristol player had yet appeared in international rugby, but the pack selected to face Saracens included Wallace Jarman, who was destined to become the club’s first England player. Two of the side, centre Edwin Marriott and winger Tom Watkins Baker, were playing as guests from Clifton. Another guest, J Creed of Bristol Harlequins, partnered club regular Walter Pearce at half back. Pearce is now chiefly remembered as a prominent rugby administrator, both at club and national level. Amongst the pack were Walter Hale, who had played cricket for both Gloucestershire and Somerset, and John Hunt, an all-round athlete who had played cricket with W G Grace. Another of the Bristol forwards was John Bowley, who had joined from Newport. He had twice got into trouble with the law during his time in Wales. He was fined for being drunk and disorderly in September 1893, and two months later he was fined again for fighting with an Irish Sea captain, whom he pushed through a pub window!

Saracens themselves had a decent playing record for the season, winning 11 matches out of 22 with five drawn and six lost. Their fixture with Bristol, the last of their season, seems to have been an added extra, as their previous game was on March 30th. There were no capped players in their side, and their fixture list at the time was nothing like as challenging as Bristol’s. Amongst their other opponents in 1894-95 were Mortlake, Highgate, Hammersmith, Park House and Wormholt.

The Western Daily Press tells us that fewer spectators attended this match compared with the previous day’s crowd, despite the “beautifully fine” weather. However, the Bristol Mercury, while agreeing that the attendance did not match that of Good Friday, says that “the enclosure was well filled and the ropes were thickly lined.” Saracens started strongly, but a run from Jarman soon had them in trouble. Fenner might have broken through had he taken a pass from a scrum by Pearce, but Bristol scored their first try soon afterwards. Centre ‘Pecker’ Dening gained a lot of ground through a kick and chase, and Pearce sent out a long speculative pass. S Slater, the Saracens winger, almost intercepted the pass, but Watkins Baker picked up the loose ball and ran clear to the line, touching down under the posts. Goalkicking in 1895, even from such close range, was by no means the exact science it later became, but Fenner managed to add the conversion.

Good forward play, especially by Hale and Tom Duffett, keep the pressure on Saracens, and Fenner nearly got to the line, but Saracens counterattacked well. They almost scored themselves but Bristol were rescued by full back Henry Wills, who kicked the ball “under the ropes.” Not long afterwards, Slater called a mark and Burns attempted a kick at goal (a legitimate method of scoring at this time) but his effort was wide of the mark. The home side then lost Watkins Baker with a knee injury, leaving them a man short for the rest of the game, and Frank Dewar came out of the pack to play in the threequarter line. A good dribble by Creed snuffed out the next Saracens attack, and the half ended with Bristol still 5-0 up.

Dewar soon made a favourable impression as an emergency back, and he began the second half with a strong run. At this stage of the match, the press tells us that “the game was not so open as might be desired, and the passing of both teams was below par.” However, Fenner was playing “a capital game,” and after both he and Creed had nearly broken through, forward Edward Shellard scrambled over for a try which Fenner converted. The Western Daily Press reporter covering the game was clearly not fully conversant with the laws of rugby, and he confusingly tells us that shortly after the Shellard try, Dening was penalised for “handball!”

Whatever Dening had done wrong (possibly a knock-on), he redeemed himself moments later when he set up Bristol’s third try. Fenner was the scorer, but although he crossed under the posts he failed to convert. Heavyweight forward Tom Davies sent an attempted goal from a mark wide, but a break from a lineout by Jarman, followed by some neat interpassing from the pack, led to a try for Bowley. Fenner again missed the conversion, but the result was now more than secure. Bristol enjoyed themselves in the final minutes – we are told that “their combination towards the finish was very fine.” Just before the end, Pearce scored Bristol’s fifth try, and Fenner’s successful conversion sealed a very comfortable victory.

Bristol certainly succeeded during their brief tenure of Buffalo Bill’s Field. All four Easter games were won, the latter a thrilling 4-3 win against a strong Swinton side. Bristol returned to the venue at the start of the 1900-01 season, when once again cricket had precedence at the County Ground. Bristol played and won their opening matches three of the season there, as well as staging their pre-season trial at the venue. The pitch which they used in those far off times is no longer visible and the Memorial Stadium clubhouse now stands on the site. As for fixtures with Saracens, there were no further meetings between the clubs until 1953.    

Bristol: Tries: Fenner, Baker, Pearce, Bowley, Shellard. Con: Fenner (3)

Bristol: H W S Wills, E Fenner (captain), H F Dening, E L Marriott, T W Baker, W T Pearce, J Creed, J Bowley, T O Davies, P F Dewar, T S Duffett, W H Hale, J S Hunt, J W Jarman, E Shellard

Saracens: Flower, S Slater, G A G Ackerman, Ames, Heath, Fowler, Fowler, Kislingbury, Shuter, Rossiter, Burns, Whitwell, Musbann, H Hill, W T A Beare (captain)

Referee: Mr A J Davies 


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