Griffin Sports Ground, Dulwich Village

By Sharon O’Connor

Sports grounds funded or subsidised by an employer have a history stretching back to the nineteenth century and Dulwich is particularly rich in the number of sports clubs it hosts. Following the Industrial Revolution, increased income and leisure time helped create opportunities for workers to become involved in new activities. At the same time some companies tried to mitigate the more impersonal labour relations which resulted from fast-growing organisations by offering benefits such as sport and social clubs. Philanthropic employers like Cadbury, Rowntree and Boots first began to provide sports facilities for their staff in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and this had spread to banks, insurance companies and government institutions by the beginning of the twentieth. While there were undoubtedly altruistic motives, the organisations themselves also benefitted: exercise kept workers fit and team games like football and cricket engendered loyalty, thus lowering staff turnover. Interestingly many firms offered sport to both male and female staff right from the beginning. Changes in employment practice like the granting of a half-day holiday on Saturday afternoons provided the opportunity for workers to either play sport themselves or go to watch others.

In the early 1920s Sainsbury’s staff gathered to play football or cricket on their half day off, and this camaraderie led to the creation of their sports club in Dulwich in 1922. The club was named after the griffin which stands atop the Temple Bar memorial, near the Royal Courts of Justice. That it is, in fact, a dragon on top of the monument, and that there is little to connect Sainsbury’s to the Temple Bar (apart from being a London firm) does not seem to have bothered the man who proposed the emblem and was instrumental in getting the club started and funded by Sainsbury’s themselves, Mr W. H. Goldup.

An energetic character, Goldup also suggested the club’s colours of blue and gold and then, armed with permission and a budget from Mr John (members of the Sainsbury family were referred to in this way for many years), Goldup and Mr Alfred, a younger Sainsbury brother, proceeded to scour London for a site. Eventually an estate agent in Rushey Green suggested two fields in Dulwich with the possibility of an adjacent tennis club ‘that was in rather low water’. This was the Camber Tennis Club which had opened in 1913 and later had various Dulwich locations including its current home on Dulwich Common. Goldup recorded that the fields themselves had been allotments and were separated by thorn hedges and ditches.

The Griffin Club officially opened on Whit Monday, 5 June 1922. Cricket, dancing and an alfresco concert were available and music was provided by a Royal Artillery band. Employees paid a membership fee to use the grounds but the firm was very supportive and provided funds to clear and improve the site including a single-storey brick clubhouse built in 1922 in the ‘colonial pavilion’ style. The range of sports quickly expanded from the original football and cricket to include tennis, bowls, hockey, netball, cycling, darts and even a Griffin Rifle Club. The Griffin Opera and Dramatic Society (later renamed the Stamford Players) was founded there.

The club proved extremely popular with Sainsbury's staff in London and the ground was very well-used with, for example, cricket played on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The club hosted an annual sports day at which members could show off their skills to family and friends. The nearby Velodrome was also pressed into use when large attendances were expected. One worker who had joined Sainsbury's aged 14 had very fond memories of the Griffin, which he described as having ‘one of the finest cricket pitches in the south of England’. He recalled walking from Blackfriars to Dulwich to play there as he couldn't afford the bus fare.

During the Second World War the ground was covered by a barrage balloon unit and grazed by a flock of sheep. The long grass was sometimes cut by a cow-keeper from Peckham who had hungry cows and access to a reaping machine. In 1953 celebrations for the Queen’s coronation were a huge affair. Held over two days, the Sainsbury’s Dulwich Coronation Fete welcomed 2,500 employees and family members over the last weekend of August 1953. The weather on the Saturday was ‘the English summer at its worst’ and forced most visitors into the marquees to enjoy the horticultural shows and handicrafts displays. 2 Dulwich Village (now James Allen’s Pre-Preparatory School) which was also being leased by Sainsbury’s, was opened for chess demonstrations and matches. The two-shilling lunch seems good value: cold meats, green salad, potato salad and dessert (‘children half-price’). As night fell, a floodlit display of archery, dog shows, dancing and the pipes and drums of the London Scottish Regiment kept everyone entertained. Families were an important part of the club from early on and family fun days were held every year until 1988, with fun fairs, marquees, displays, bands and of course matches aplenty.

By the 1980s the club was becoming less and less popular. Sainsbury’s believed that changing social conditions such as the increasing importance of the nuclear family, the rise in both parents working and subsequent pressure on precious leisure time was making it difficult for the sports club to recruit new members and attract people to group activities such as the Family Fun Day. More widely, in society at large, corporate sponsorship of staff clubs came to be seen as paternalistic, and company mergers in the financial sector saw corporates divesting themselves of surplus sports grounds. Rocketing land prices in the London suburbs meant that many sports grounds were also sold for housing development, though in Dulwich grounds remained as playing fields. Lloyd's Register ground in Gallery Road is now used by Dulwich Prep London; Johnson Matthey's ground in Grange Lane/College Road is now used by Dulwich College and its Kindergarten; and the Camberwell-based paper manufacturer, Samuel Jones & Co, had a ground on Dulwich Common that is now Peckham Town FC. All these playing fields add considerably to the amenity of the Dulwich area.

In 1990 Sainsbury’s announced the closure of the Griffin. They said that the growth of the firm outside London meant that a diminishing proportion of its staff were able to take advantage of the Dulwich facilities. The subsidy received by the Griffin was reallocated to individual branches. After its closure Sainsbury’s ‘swapped’ the Griffin with King’s College, London. King’s acquired the Griffin lease while Sainsbury’s took the lease that King’s had given Dulwich Hamlet FC on Dog Kennel Hill, building a supermarket and a new ground for the football club. Old habits die hard however, and a group of Sainsbury’s veterans still met at the Griffin for many years after. Calling themselves the Tuesday Club they met weekly and for Christmas get-togethers, paying a small annual subscription to King’s for the use of the pavilion. Today, the ground offers three grass pitches, two for football and one for football or rugby, two mini-football pitches and two netball courts which can also be used for tennis. In the summer two cricket pitches are available.

With thanks to the Sainsbury Archive, Museum of London, for permission to use the images.

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The Dulwich Society - Registered under the Charities Act 1960, Number 234192

The Society’s aims and objectives are to foster and safeguard the amenities of Dulwich, both in the interests of its residents and the wider local community of which it is a part, and to increase awareness of the varied character that makes the area so special.

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