The Eyrie in photographs

A selection of views of the old Bedford Town ground off Ford End Road (1908-82)

(For the story of the earliest years of the ground see The story of the Eyrie, 1908-39)

This intriguing drawing appeared in the Bedford Record on 1 May 1951. It shows the ground developments that were envisaged by the new limited company’s board for the following five years. The Ford End Road (or Raleigh or Nelson Street) end is to the left, the River End to the right and the two touchlines at the top (east) and bottom (west). Both ends were to have covered accommodation-at the Ford End Road end there was to be covered accommodation for 2,000 and open terracing for another 1,000, with new dressing rooms at the rear (the first part of this project to be built in the summer of 1952), while another 2,000 were to be under cover at the River End. The new “Grand Stand” (bottom of the plan) was to seat 1,000 with another 500 in the open on each side. On the eastern (top) side the existing Long Shelter was to be expanded from 2,500 to 3,000, and another 2,000 were reckoned capable of cramming themselves in “round the rails” at the corners (no “Health and Safety” problems then, of course) giving a total capacity of 12,000. In fact, the covered River End never happened, but the Ford End Road cover erected in 1954 went the whole width of the pitch, and the stand that eventually appeared in 1956 accommodated 3,500, giving an eventual capacity of 18,500, far beyond chairman W T Hobkirk’s 1951 imagination. Note the “cycle storage area” envisaged behind the River End (top right)-this, like the car park behind the stand, never materialized, and many people will recall how cyclists used to leave their machines down the back alleys of the terraced houses in Ford End Road-not always with their owners’ permission. The report said that the ground developments would be a step towards “the Eagles’ great ambition-Football League status”. …….

Reproduced by kind permission of Bedford Community Arts

This view shows defender Bernard Lawson (whose son David also played for the club in the 1970s) in training in about 1952, in front of the Ford End Road goal. Behind him can be seen the new players’ tunnel that was built in that year to link up with the new dressing room block, whose back wall can be seen behind the terracing. It was said that Ronnie Rooke, player manager at the time, was responsible for the design of the dressing rooms and modeled them on those at Highbury. In 1954, as shown by the next photograph, this terrace was extended backwards and roofed with a concrete cover, screening the dressing room block. Note the two eagles on either side of the tunnel, which became a well-known fixture, and also what looks like another eagle on the wall at the back. When this end was roofed over, a small wooden balcony, seating about six people, was built above the tunnel at the back. It may have been intended originally for reserves to sit in but it became a highly prized vantage point for small boys during matches. Is that Charlie Bicknell looking out over the gate on the right?

The Ford End Road (or Raleigh or Nelson Street!) end was covered in the 1954/5 season, and here Bedford take the field for the first home match of the season, against Hastings, led by captain Peter Fisher, through the gangway from the dressing rooms at the back, with the scaffolding which is to support the new cantilevered concrete cover clearly visible. Note the large plaster eagles on either side (which were rescued and now stand at the current club's ground-see below). The dressing rooms were incorporated into the back wall of the new structure, and eventually became a bar area when new players’ facilities were built under the main stand in 1966/7. Fisher had only just joined, from Wrexham, but was already in his mid-30s and was to stay only the one season.

This is one of the few press photographs I have been able to find from the years covered here which gives any kind of view of the original main stand, built in 1922 and replaced in 1956 by the “new” stand. (For another view, taken in the 1930s, see The story of the Eyrie, 1908-39). It seems strange that whereas after the new stand was built the photographers produced many action shots with it as a backdrop, there seem to be so few of the old one-perhaps it has something to do with light angles (the sun will have been in that direction in the afternoons) and relative roof heights. Anyway, this will have to suffice; the old stand seated only 400 so there probably isn’t a lot more of it out of shot, and it seems to have been flanked by quite long sections of banked up open terracing on either side. Until new dressing rooms were built behind the Ford End Road goal in the early 1950s, there were some primitive dressing rooms behind this stand which, according to recollections in The Eyrie Roar (1999), had a bath only big enough for two players at a time. Before these were added in 1931, even this luxury was missing and the players changed at the Horse and Groom in Ford End Road. This picture was taken at the 1955/6 pre-season trial and shows Peter Whiffin, an amateur centre forward who made a single first team appearance in the previous season, being tackled by Billy Cooke, with Bob Craig in attendance.

This view shows what the old stand looked like when it was opened –on 26 August 1922, before a pre-season friendly against Biggleswade. In 1928 a canopy was added which increased the capacity from 220 to about 400-the 1955 view above has an extra row of staunchions supporting this.

[Many thanks to Barry Stephenson of Bedfordshire Libraries for his help in reproducing this photograph]

This picture of the new stand appeared in the papers on the eve of its official opening before the game against Gravesend on 1 December 1956, although it was probably taken a few weeks earlier. The windscreens at the ends still have to be added and the blue and white fascia boards look as though they are in the process of installation. For the first part of the 1956/7 season (thanks to Mike Crisp for the recollection),following the demolition of the old stand, some temporary seating was rigged up on the side of the Ford End Road terracing nearest the eastern corner, where directors and VIPs could sit under cover until the stand was completed, and anyone who stood in front of these seats was speedily moved on. The Press Box was also relocated there, causing reporters problems when viewing incidents at the far away River End-at one reserve match in this period the reporter had to admit that he couldn't see who had scored in a goalmouth melee.

The season ticket holders’ area is demarcated in the centre of the new stand and within it, the even more exclusive directors’ box. Part of the roof was always much newer-looking, and may have been inserted to patch up some damage done when it was dismantled at its original home at Mitcham Greyhound Stadium in South London. Trevor Lloyd, an official of the Supporters Club who was involved in the acquisition, told the compilers of The Eyrie Roar in 1999 that when at Mitcham the stand originally had an additional section that the club was obliged to buy but was never re-erected, parts of it instead being used to make good damage in transit. Even then it was far bigger than the board had originally envisaged (see the 1951 plans above). Opposite this stand at Mitcham was a similar stand which was bought by Leyton Orient and stood at Brisbane Road, where it was known as the East Stand, for many years. When it caught fire on its first day of use there-fortunately the blaze was put out without serious damage-Orient's chairman is said to have remarked that the club would have been delighted if the old stand had burned down so that they could have paid for the new one out of the insurance money.

The view below shows the Mitcham Stadium in the 1930s-it's the lower of the two stadiums, the one at the top being the home of Tooting and Mitcham FC-and the right hand stand appears to be the one that Bedford later acquired. It does look somewhat longer than it was in its second "life" at The Eyrie, and at the end furthest from the camera the structure seems to be slightly narrower, as if added later than the main building.

This aerial view of the ground (above), looking west, appeared on programme covers in 1965/6, like this one for the Hereford FA Cup tie, and was probably taken in the summer of 1965. The Ouse can be seen to the top left, curving away through Honey Hills. The entrance turnstiles on the left gave access from the footpath known as the Slipe, which ran from Whitbread Avenue, off Kempston Road, across the river, behind the main stand and out into Ford End Road. The club’s original (1908) pitch in Queen's Park, abandoned because it frequently flooded, was at right angles to the later pitch and was probably closer to the river and further east (see The story of the Eyrie, 1908-39). In the lower part of the picture is a back view of the “Long Shelter” on the opposite touchline to the main stand, which features as the backdrop to the majority of action photographs in this collection. It was sometimes called the “Gasworks side” because the local gasworks was just behind the allotments which were immediately behind the shelter, and sometimes spread a pall of smog across the field.

The Main Stand, as seen in 1963 (this view appeared on some programme covers from 1963 to 1966). It is substantially as re-erected in 1956, when it was brought from Mitcham Greyhound Stadium, at a cost of £16,000, but the six entrance tunnels from the back, the white fascia boarding at the bottom, the blue and white fascia boarding at the top, the glass windshields at either end and the press box in the centre were added in 1958. The stand could seat 3,500, whereas its predecessor only held 400, but except in the early years it was often at least half empty and its echoing vaults deprived the ground of some atmosphere. In retrospect it may have been unwise to go for such a large stand-far bigger than W T Hobkirk had planned in 1951- at a time of falling gates. Except for the central section, reserved for season ticket holders, the “seats” consisted of bare wooden steps which could be extremely uncomfortable, although they sounded impressive when everyone stamped their feet together at exciting moments. The River End open terracing is in the foreground and the covered Ford End Road or Nelson Street end to the right.

The Ford End Road or Nelson Street end covered terrace, with the cantilever roof (quite advanced for the time) built in 1954/5. The tunnel in the centre, flanked by two eagles, led to the dressing rooms and offices at the back until they were relocated under the main stand in November 1966. The view shown here was used on some programme covers from 1963 to 1965.

This structure is also the only part of the ground, apart from parts of the outer boundary walls, that still (2010) survives. It has been incorporated into the Wells brewery that now occupies the entire site, although it’s virtually invisible from the outside (see the penultimate photograph in this series).

Reproduced by kind permission of Bedford Community Arts

The Ford End Road or Nelson Street terrace in its final phase, from late 1966, with the players’ tunnel removed now that the dressing rooms had been moved to beneath the main stand. The building at the rear which had been erected in 1952 to house the dressing rooms and offices then became the Social Club. This view also shows two of the floodlighting towers, 100 feet high and of triangular section-some of the first of their type-erected in 1961 after the Supporters Club had raised £12,000. A generator house was built at the same time and can just be seen to the extreme left of the terracing. In the right hand corner to the right of the lighting tower was the Supporters Club office. Here, the attendance figures were displayed using tin numbers, like a cricket scoreboard, and anxious supporters would wait after reserve matches for the news of the first team’s away fixture.

There wasn't lot to see at the River End, just concrete terracing part of the way up the bank, topped by these few scrubby trees and a forlorn loudspeaker, although the year after this shot was taken, round about Christmas 1964, a large clock was erected at the top of the bank. This shot appeared with the caption “Where have all the fans gone?”, but poor though some of the football on offer was that season, it was probably not quite bad enough to make spectators turn their backs as those nearest the camera are doing here; so this view was probably taken at half-time while people were getting cups of tea (a refreshment shack stood just to the right out of shot). A lot of the material for the banking was dumped here just before the Arsenal replay in January 1956 to increase the capacity to 15,000-before that the "end" seems to have been smaller. It was normal for Eagles supporters to stand behind the goal the team were attacking and then change ends for the second half, so may be most of them have decamped to the Ford End Road end. Down behind the banking was a piece of waste ground sometimes used for training to save wear and tear on the playing surface. Unable to fight my way through the 18,000 crowd at the Everton match in 1966 to the more conventional facilities, I popped down there before kick-off to spend a penny, only to be threatened with dire consequences by a policeman as I scrambled back up…….

The “Long Shelter” on the eastern side of the ground was a very basic structure, built by volunteer supporters in the summer of 1946 to replace an even more basic and smaller covered terrace whose roof had blown off in a gale the previous February (this earlier structure can be glimpsed in the background of the 1939/40 match photo in The story of the Eyrie, 1908-39). The back wall was made from breeze blocks which were made on a press supplied by the neighbouring Gas Company. The roof was supported by numerous concrete columns, which weren’t great for visibility at the back. Here we can see a good view of it when it was extremely uncomfortable, packed out for the Carlisle cup tie in January 1964, with Bobby Anderson (on ground) apparently having brought down Carlisle’s Kirkup with David Lovell racing back to cover. The Supporters’ Club proclaimed its existence from the modest central gable, reminding everyone where the money and labour had come from. Some over-excited Carlisle supporters got on to the roof during this match and promptly crashed through its flimsy fabric on to the other spectators beneath, one of whom was my uncle!

The end is nigh? In this view from Bedford's 1-3 home defeat by Walthamstow Avenue in the FA Trophy in January 1977 (which shows Gary Burdett scoring the Eagles' only goal), the building that can be seen looming over the Long Shelter is the first element of Charles Wells' expansion of their brewery on the old gasworks site. By 1981/2 they had informed the club that they would be taking over the rest of their land holdings, including The Eyrie, when the club's lease expired at the end of the season.

Reproduced by kind permission of Bedford Community Arts

The sad sight of the Long Shelter just before demolition in 1982. The roof had collapsed some time before the club went the same way. The greyhound track which was a feature of the ground’s last years can be seen in front, with the pitch moved inwards.

Photograph copyright David Williams 2010

All that’s left of the original Eyrie in situ, apart from the boundary wall along The Slipe, is the basic structure of the Ford End Road end covered terrace, which can-just about- be seen in this photograph taken from the southern end of Raleigh Street in February 2010. It was incorporated into Charles Wells’ expanded brewery when the company retook possession of the site after 1982. The brick wall in the foreground stands where one of the two main spectator entrances used to be, and the curved grey roof of the old terrace, built in 1954, can be seen through the security wire on top of the wall, below the eight tower-like brewery structures at the top of the photograph.

Photograph copyright David Williams 2012

But two other small parts of the old ground were rescued-the two blue and white eagles that flanked the players' tunnel still look out today at the New Eyrie at Meadow Lane, Cardington, and keep an eye on the fortunes of the present Bedford Town.