Chapter 2: The first wave of centres

2.1   Harlow – the starting line in the 1950s

It is not surprising that the planning for Harlow Sportcentre, the first UK indoor community sports centre, did not commence until the mid-1950s. After the War the focus was on redeveloping infrastructure and building houses, and establishing the embryonic NHS as part of reconstruction. The first new UK purpose-built recreation facility after the war was Hornchurch Swimming Pool, which opened in 1957. However, the politicians and planners of the post war New Towns as well as some enlightened voluntary and statutory bodies came to realise around this time that sport could provide a community focus, as part of reconstruction, and that the absence of indoor facilities in the UK’s less than reliable climate was inhibiting participation.

Some very early community sports centres were proposed in the 1950s, some as part of the development of new post-war towns. Social influences had started to come to bear on strategic thinking in town planning and specifically for sport and recreation, especially indoor facilities. Starting with Harlow, new and established towns looked towards developing sports centres as interest caught on. Harlow, the first of the new towns to embark on developing a sports centre, had opened its first facilities in 1959, and became the very first indoor community sports centre, with the completion of its sports hall in 1964. This set off a train of sports centre developments that have spanned six decades. Harlow Sportcentre had been established in the 1950s as a ‘trust’ – the Harlow and District Sports Trust – with the initial help of Harlow Development Corporation. It is not easy now to see how significant were both the new towns and the first sports centres. Lord Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country Planning, described the New Town plans as “a leap into the unknown”. So too was the development of sports centres!

2.2   The early centres

Harlow led the way, but with several other centres hard on its heels. Emerging town plans contributed strategically, as social and recreation provision gradually moved up the ladder of post-war community needs and demands. Trusts, new towns, rural district and parish councils and education authorities all played their part in the 1960’s. It was voluntary enthusiasm for sport, supported by local agencies, that often led to a purpose-built community sports centre in those early days. Towards the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, planning for more centres was underway, some coming to fruition quicker than others.

Some of the first centres followed the Harlow route, and were set up with the involvement and management of voluntary trusts or management boards, whilst other centres were provided and managed directly by local authorities. Other trust operations planned in the early days included Folkestone and Welwyn Garden City, established in the 1950s and 1960s respectively, but not adding a sports hall until the 1970s. Billingham Forum, pioneered by Billingham Urban District Council, was managed as an arms-length Board operation from 1967. Perhaps surprisingly at that time, in the context of today’s provision, where centres were provided as direct public services, it was often small rural, urban and borough district councils that were to the fore in delivery. As well as Billingham UDC’s Forum, Stockton Sports Centre (1966) was developed by Stockton Borough Council, Bracknell Sports Centre (1967) was developed by Easthampstead Rural District Council, and Castle Ward Rural District in Northumberland added a sports hall to outdoor facilities in Ponteland in 1967.  Others included Thornaby Pavilion (Thornaby-on-Tees BC) and Eston (Eston UDC), both in 1968. The centres in Poole (1969) and Basingstoke (1970) were helped in their development, and run by, trusts. A little later Deeside Leisure Centre (1971) was developed by Hawarden Rural District Council. Some of those first trusts live on in 2017. However, in almost cases, there has been public funding and/or support to the trusts.

Geographically the north-east of England local authorities largely led the way, with the Lightfoot , Stockton, Ponteland and Billingham Forum centres, followed by Thornaby and Eston. Each of these six new centres was different and distinct. Interestingly both Afan Lido and the Teesside centres were developed in thriving local industrial communities – the steel industry in Port Talbot and ICI on Teesside, where very large rates contributions to the local authorities at that time enabled the funding of sports centres. By the late 1960s public authorities were beginning to take a much greater interest in this new community phenomenon and concept of the public indoor sports centre. Indeed, hosting the visits of public authorities became almost a full-time job at Harlow.

2.3   The famous ‘first five’ centres

The five earliest defined indoor community sports centres in the UK (Harlow, Afan Lido, Lightfoot, Stockton, and Bracknell) became the focus of the first-ever survey of sports centre usage, initiated by the CCPR, undertaken by John Birch, then CCPR Research Officer, and published by the Department of the Environment as Sports Council Study No.1. [1971]. In his introduction, John stated: “The indoor sports centre is a newcomer in the hierarchy of sports provision in Great Britain. Whilst some large halls have in the past been used for sporting purposes, the community sports hall, purpose built and freely available for use by all sections of the general public, is basically a new concept and one which remains unfamiliar to the vast majority of our population”.

The ‘Planning for Sport Working Party’ was informed by the study and it had identified, John went on “an urgent need for carefully planned documentation and research on the use of existing sports halls and indoor sports centres, so that an appraisal can be made as soon as practicable of the pattern of use”.

 The five centres had met the criteria of having been open for 12 months prior to the commencement of fieldwork in November 1967 and

a) had facilities in addition to a sports hall and

b) were widely available to all sections of the general public.

This was to be the first of much research and analysis of centre provision and usage over the years, especially through initiatives led by the Sports Council and Regional Sports Councils.

2.3 .1  The story of Harlow

First and foremost

The first combined indoor & outdoor facility success story following the 2nd World War was the formation of the Harlow and District Sports Trust and the development of Harlow Sportcentre. Harlow led the way in the UK, with several other centres hard on its heels. The story of Harlow New Town had begun in 1947.  In that year the Labour Government issued the designation order for a completely new planned community housing some 60,000 people to the west of an existing Essex village called Harlow. The designation order eventually led to the opportunity to develop Harlow Sportcentre.

As early as 1952 the Master Plan for the town had identified an area of approximately 30 acres for sports facilities, but as the town grew there was no agency or authority immediately available to develop the site. The town however was growing fast and by 1958 the population was over 40,000, with an exceptionally high percentage of children. In 1958, a small group of enthusiasts from the Harlow Industrial Sports Association met with Harlow Development Corporation to explore the possibilities of developing the designated sports area. The Corporation, unable to take on full responsibility, outlined the idea of a non-profit-making company with charitable status and suggested a Sports Development Council to pave the way. The group left agreeing to establish a Council representing sports people and organisations, industry, the professions, the Corporation and local authorities.

Harlow & District Sports Trust

From this Development Council emerged the Harlow and District Sports Trust, formed as a non-profit making company, registered as a charity, and representing a unique essay in co-operation between local and regional statutory and voluntary organisations. The overwhelming problem, however, was finance.  Overall costs were estimated at over £200,000 and the work therefore had to be phased.  Secondly, the burden would have to be spread and every effort made to encourage contributions from central Government sources, Local Education Authority, Local Authority, Development Corporation, sports interests and the local community.

Finance and construction

The first grant was from the NPFA/Wolfson Trust and this “primed the pump” and set the whole machinery in operation.  A fundraising Supporters Club was formed. Encouraged by these efforts, the Trust proceeded with plans. Construction of the football and athletics arena and track got underway.  Then the Development Corporation offered to construct the cricket and hockey ground. Plans for the indoor sports hall were already under discussion, but shortage of capital prevented an immediate start. Amidst a welter of construction, the activity programme of the Centre began to emerge. The programme that summer included Inter-County Athletics matches, Essex County Schools Finals, Southern Counties Women’s A.A.A. Championships and many local school and youth events.

In the meantime, there were negotiations with the Harlow Town Football Club, the Harlow Men’s and Women’s Hockey Clubs and the newly formed Stort Cricket Club for licences for them to use the grounds. In October 1960, the new club room and changing block were opened by Sir Stanley Rous, President of FIFA. The development of the programme of use was new territory for the UK. By the time the Wolfenden Report was published in 1960, Harlow, the first UK community sports centre, had been planned and opened its first facilities. In April 1961, the cricket ground was opened with a match between teams captained by England cricketers Peter May and Douglas Insole, and the newly formed Stort Cricket Club made its headquarters at the Centre.  Despite limited facilities, the Junior Sports Club and the Youth Sports Association continued to grow and the total membership of the Centre had reached 700 by the end of that year.

Harlow - outdoor provision

Harlow – outdoor provision

To bridge that gap until the Sports Hall could be built and to relieve the pressure on the grass practice areas, the Trust took an urgent decision to develop the floodlit all-weather training area.  This “Redgra” area was opened in October 1961 by Sir Stanley Rous and soon proved its great versatility and usefulness. In its first few months it was used to capacity by schools, juniors, and adult clubs.  A dry ski-slope was also added. By this time 1,000 attendances at the Sportcentre were being recorded each week and an analysis showed that 70% of these were made by members under the age of twenty-one. Obtaining funding for a sports hall was a long, hard battle but grants and promises eventually started to come forward so the Trust decided to go ahead, even though it had a considerable sum to raise itself.  Construction began in April 1961 and the sports hall opened in 1964.  Historically this Sports Hall was the first in the UK to be completed for community use. The concept was therefore unique.

Leadership and Management

The Trust’s early good fortune had been to secure as its Chairman Colonel Arthur Noble, at that time Chairman of the Essex County Playing Fields Association, who guided and inspired this new venture from its inception.  Already it was clear that leadership was the key to development, and here the Trust secured the services of George Torkildsen, a young P.E. specialist from one of the Harlow schools.  George was appointed as the first UK sport centre manager, having taken up post on January 1st, 1961.  Working almost single-handed, apart initially for a small team of voluntary helpers, he began to develop the use of the Centre.

George Torkildsen (1934 – 2005)

George Torkildsen (1934 – 2005)

It was no easy task to integrate coaching and training into the programme of general use by members and clubs. This called for considerable skill and diplomacy on the part of the manager, youth leader and committees, and many valuable lessons were learnt. Harlow was a pioneering centre, not just for being first and managed by a trust, but for the pathfinder lead it gave in programming facilities and using the centre for sports coaching programmes. With George Torkildsen’s encouragement, outstanding coaches at the centre, Mitch Fenner (gymnastics) and Jack Kelly (trampolining), developed The Harlow Apex Club which produced national and international champions. The Centre was also a significant management training hotbed. In those early days, several young assistant managers, and recreation officers that the centre employed went on to become well-known managers at other centres across the UK.

UK impact

The success of this pioneer centre encouraged many local authorities and other groups and bodies throughout the country to embark on similar schemes.  Many came to study the lessons learned at Harlow. At one stage, there were visitors almost every day. The usual conclusion was that only local authorities could undertake schemes of such cost and complexity.  Harlow’s experience demonstrated, even at that time, that the Trust system has many advantages.  It combined stability within the flexibility needed if one is to experiment in new fields.  Here it represented a unique partnership between statutory and voluntary bodies, leading to real involvement by the local community in both management and fundraising.

Harlow Sports Centre c.1965

Harlow Sports Centre c.1965

The critics who believed the scheme would prove a disaster had been confounded.  The main problems arose from the intensity of use, day-long and year-round, and the cost of financing successive extensions in 1970 and 1975 to meet an ever-increasing demand.  The centre could not have survived without the generous support of the local authorities.  Harlow District Council subsequently replaced Harlow Development Corporation as the Trust’s principal benefactor, with Essex County Council paying for the use of its facilities by schools and other education groups.

The Sportcentre served Harlow and district for over 50 years until 2010, when it was replaced by the new Harlow Leisurezone on a nearby site, as part of the Government’s Harlow Gateway Scheme.

2.3.2 Afan Lido

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfan Lido was partly influenced by tourism considerations and built on the seafront at Aberavon Beach, Port Talbot, adjacent to a large post-war housing development. It was more than just the first purpose-built sports centre in Wales. Given its range of facilities and the almost singular focus on sport elsewhere in the 1960s, it was probably the first true UK ‘leisure’ centre, ahead of Billingham Forum. Afan Lido was opened by the Queen on June 25th 1965, on a day when it rained so hard it was impossible to go outside! The Lido was the first modern building of its type in Wales. It represented the beginning of a new age and was seen very much as a Welsh turning point. In those days Port Talbot was a prosperous town – the steelworkers were very highly paid and the Lido was a symbol of that new industrial prosperity, and of key importance to the local economy.

When first built, its facilities included a sports hall, 160’ x 120’ with permanent terraced seating for 800 and a rising stage for concerts, a 50m competition swimming pool, a spa and gym and outdoor pitches. In 1996 at a cost of £4M the pool was converted into a 25m leisure pool called the “Aquadome”, with water slides. A further £½M investment in the Lido was made in 2004. Compared to other centres it was an expensive building, costing £556,000 originally.

As well as providing sporting facilities, the Lido offered a wide range of events and entertainments. It hosted large-scale concerts, and the bands who played there crossed musical eras, including Motorhead, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Catatonia, UB40, Manic Street Preachers, The Jam, Super Furry Animals, and McFly. The reason that they had music concerts was because they had a big sports hall with additional moveable seats – so they could put the seats out and stage concerts with the bigger bands. At one time, it was one of the biggest venues in South Wales. People from Neath, Port Talbot, Bridgend and surrounding areas would all attend. During the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the Afan Lido was used for union rallies and, during the miners’ strike, Arthur Scargill, NUM President, addressed miners in the hall. Before their specialist training centre was built, the Welsh rugby team used the Lido for training.

Afan Lido 1965

Afan Lido 1965

Another unusual fact about the Lido is that its users started a new football team in 1967, which by 1992 attained League of Wales status and won a place in the UEFA Cup in 1995. Over a period of almost 40 years the Lido lay at the heart of community activity. The Centre was first managed by Graham Jenkins (1927-2015), youngest brother of the late, world famous actor, Richard Burton. Graham was also the first Honorary Treasurer of the Association of Recreation Managers, and Richard Burton funded the ARM Chairman’s chain of office and the first ARM member directory. It was even reputed that on occasion Graham stood in on stage as a double for his brother!

The Lido was damaged by, and recovered from, a fire in 1979. Extensive repairs were required. Sadly however, the Lido was later hit again by a major fire, which broke out in the Aquadome on 16 December 2009. Once the fire had broken through the centre’s roof, residents in surrounding streets were evacuated because of the fears from stored chemicals. The centre was closed and then eventually demolished a few years later. The demise of the Lido was certainly felt by the local community. It may seem strange that a ‘leisure centre’ could cause so much of a reaction amongst the people of the town, but it had been a big part of many people’s lives. This was a typical local comment in the wake of the fire – typical of the affection that long-standing centres can develop:

“Personally, I learned to swim there; I played football there – both outdoors and indoors – over the years; school sports activities revolved around it; I completed part of my GCSE PE studies course within the Lido; it was my local gym for a time. I think it’s the same for a lot of people.”

At the time of the fire, Graham Jenkins, then aged 81, was interviewed by the local newspaper. “This fire, he said, “is a terrible blow for the people of the town. I really feel for the people of Port Talbot and hope that like the phoenix it will rise again from the ashes.” Graham also spoke of the centre in the past: “Apart from sport, we had all the big names there – Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Vera Lynn.” Among those names was of course Richard Burton himself, though his visits were on a more unofficial basis.

However, the phoenix did rise from the ashes, because in 2014 Neath Port Talbot Council planned a replacement, yet again as a focus for regeneration, and by 2016 the £13.5M new beachfront Afan Lido complex had opened.

2.3.3 Lightfoot Sports Centre

Lightfoot Centre 1971

Lightfoot Centre 1971

The Lightfoot Centre was built on the Walker Estate, a pre-war housing development on Tyneside, and opened in November 1965. The centre was a product of the 1960 Albemarle Report, which was commissioned by the Government in the post-war era to examine services for youth. It outlined the need for local government agencies to take on responsibility for providing extra-curricular activities for young people. The Report provided youth work in England and Wales with a very influential rationale and framework – and was a key element in substantially increasing funding for youth work. The Albemarle Report is commonly viewed as a watershed in the history of youth work – and is associated with the expansion and professionalization of youth work in the 1960s and 1970s. It recommended new approaches to bolster the health and fitness of the youth of the day. Much later in the century this national philosophy and principles of youth service provision suffered in those spheres managed by local authorities, as budgets were reduced.

As a result of Albemarle, a Government Fund was provided for new facilities for social, educational, sports and leisure and, between 1960 and 1968, £28 million was spent on 3,000 projects. This included £55,000 for a ‘gymnasium’ next to a secondary school in Walker-on-Tyne, three miles to the east of the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne.  The Newcastle Education & Youth Service initiated and led this project to develop the Lightfoot Centre, which was named after the City’s Director of Education, who retired in 1965 after 20 years in the post. A major plus point was that the site, although adjacent to a school, was completely independent of the school, thus avoiding the problems experienced elsewhere with the employment contracts of school caretakers, which bedevilled many school-site sports halls at that time.

The Lightfoot facilities consisted of red-gra floodlit pitches, a basic running track and the indoor sports dome. The ambition expressed by Lord Albemarle was matched by the architect, Harry Faulkner Brown, in his determination to produce a full-size (120ft x 120ft) indoor hall – one of the first four of this scale in the UK – which would have the flexibility to accommodate all indoor sports. Inspired by the form of Pier Luigi Nervi’s 1957 Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome, he produced a 200ft (60m2) clear span dome, then the largest dome of its construction in Europe. The dome shape was the result of the brief to FaulknerBrowns, local architects, to provide the largest possible indoor space for the money available. Finishes throughout the centre were basic including a cork floor. There was no special provision for social activities or disabled facilities. This was FaulknerBrowns first-ever sports hall and the first dome shaped sports centre in the UK and one of a very limited number overall. Other dome examples such as the Bells Centre at Perth, with its whisky distillery connections, came later, as did the Oasis Centre in Swindon.

Apart from the fact that the school had priority status in the booking of facilities for their physical education programme, it was not involved in the governance of the centre. The centre’s management team of three were physical educationalists and reported to the PE Adviser, who in turn reported to the City’s Education Committee. This relatively short chain of command provided for an effective decision making process. The Centre was to supplement rather than supplant existing services, providing opportunities where none existed. There was no business plan, marketing plan or health and safety policy in those days. Demand for the use of the facilities was enormous and rationing of use was a major task for managers. It catered for a full range of users from beginners to athlete Maurice Benn, a GB 1500 metre competitor in the Mexico Olympics, who came from Wallsend, 2 miles away. A peak week in February 1968 saw 2,159 users of the complex. Tyneside had never had such a large capacity indoor space at its disposal and the opportunity was seized to use it for occasional large spectator events, public rallies, and even religious ceremonies. Dick Farrelly was the first manager, with a brief to guide the local youth – and then people of all ages and abilities – to achieve new levels of enjoyment and achievement. Farrelly, with his experience of the Lightfoot structure, soon became the first manager of the Bells Sports Centre, a similar dome building.

The Centre was subsequently managed by Len Thomasson, a founding member of the Association of Recreation Managers (ARM). Len later managed Barnstaple Leisure Centre and produced, with the support of the Sports Council, the first compendium and review of sports centre charges. At that time, programming of sports halls was a new art for managers, but the challenge was even greater, with a circular sports hall. Len Thomasson created a ‘segmental’ approach to allocating space for activities. Mike Fulford joined the Centre in 1971 as a Recreation Officer and has summarised his reflections on programming the centre. The centre remains operational today after several upgrades, including a major project in 2012 costing £2.5M. The Centre was renamed in a competition of pupils at the adjoining Central Walker School and was reopened by Nick Brown MP, as the ‘Walker Activity Dome’.

2.3.4 Stockton (North End) Sports Centre

Stockton Sports Centre c1972 Courtesy of Stockton Archives - Libraries & Heritage

Stockton Sports Centre c1972 Courtesy of Stockton Archives – Libraries & Heritage

Stockton Sports Centre opened in September 1966 and was provided by Stockton Borough Council. Built just north of the town centre, it was the first sports centre on Teesside. It was Denis Molyneux who persuaded the Council to build an indoor sports hall rather than a swimming pool. The centre had a sports hall (120’ x 75’), two small halls, 3 squash courts, an athletics track, a floodlit hard porous pitch, a floodlit roller skating rink and a turf pitch. The capital cost at the time was £195,000. The early centres provided new venue opportunities for international sports events. Stockton hosted a number, including a Czechoslovakia v England table tennis match at the beginning of its life in October 1966.

The centre was built to provide for the residents of the town (popn. 83,260). It was a ‘political’ decision fuelled by the rationale that modern facilities were needed for a progressive authority on Teesside. However, the CCPR survey in 1967 identified that, given it was the first in the region, its central Teesside location meant as many users came from 4-6 miles away as those within a 2-mile catchment of the centre. However other Teesside centres soon came along and changed the bias of the catchment. Indeed, this progressive approach to leisure facilities was seen at the time across Teesside as important, so much so that the very forward-thinking Director of the YMCA in Stockton was also convinced that the new YMCA hostel being planned should be built with “”an indoor sports hall, world championship squash courts and a state of the art climbing wall attached to it in Stockton Town Centre”!

Stockton Sports Centre became part of the Department of Arts and Recreation of Teesside County Borough Council in 1968, but from 1974 sport and recreation has rested with Stockton Council, a unitary authority since 1996. Over the years, sports centre provision in this area, which is centred around the Tees river, has been set against a backcloth of local government re-organisations – probably more so than any other part of the country. The government created the County Borough of Teesside in 1968.  In 1974, the County Borough of Teesside was absorbed into the larger non-metropolitan county of Cleveland along with the towns of Hartlepool and Guisborough. The Teesside area was partitioned, with some variations, between the boroughs of Stockton-on-Tees, Middlesbrough and Langbaurgh. Further reorganisation in 1996 saw the county of Cleveland broken up into the four independent unitary authority boroughs of Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland (a renamed Langbaurgh).

Stockton Sports Centre (known colloquially as The Tilery) closed to the public at 5.00pm on the 19th of December 2008 and enhanced facilities were provided elsewhere. The management operators, the Tees Active Trust, stripped out all the equipment and the building was demolished and the site now houses the North Shore Academy.

2.3.5     Bracknell Sports Centre

Bracknell Sports Centre

Bracknell Sports Centre

Easthampstead Rural District Council in Berkshire, lying on the edge of the Thames Valley, initiated the Bracknell Sports Centre. The Council, later to become Bracknell Forest District Council, was the first district council in the south to provide a community indoor sports centre. Bracknell was designated a new town in 1949. The new town (pop. 26,039) lay at the centre of the district and the Bracknell Development Corporation offered the 18-acre site to the Council and agreed to lay out 10 acres for outdoor sport, including preparatory work for an athletic arena. These outdoor facilities were officially opened in September 1963 by TV commentator Peter Dimmock OBE. During the period of construction of the sports hall, and particularly the following year, a financial squeeze meant that all local authority schemes had to be government-approved through a loan sanction procedure. The indoor sports building was completed in December 1966 and, standing alongside the athletics track, it came into use in January 1967.

The design of the centre was basic and very practical and greatly influenced by Harlow, though the architect’s brief was to create a truly multi-purpose hall to cater for sport and a range of non-sporting events. This proved a precedent for many future centre multi-purpose halls. The sports hall was a 2-court hall (2 basketball court size) and the walls were wood panelled, which proved to be very durable and required very little maintenance. There were also 4 squash courts, a small hall, missile gallery, committee rooms, a bar and changing rooms. The centre had a clearly stated policy of operating as a family recreation centre, and operated a non-exclusive membership scheme, which became, and still is, common in many centres. It opened from 9am until 11.30pm every day. Then, the club or group charge to hire half the hall for an hour was 15 shillings (75p in decimal currency!).

Bernard Warden, one of the earliest founder members of the Association of Recreation Managers and a doyen of recreation management from the early days, was appointed to be Recreational Facilities Manager in 1966 – the first manager of Bracknell Sports Centre – and remained until 1974. Later he became Director of Leisure at Dacorum District Council.

Bracknell, like the other early centres, provided fresh sporting opportunities, and the interests of early managers were also influential in determining the programming priorities. As well as a community recreation programme, Bracknell hosted many international basketball matches and televised table tennis tournaments. The LTA also presented a Kings Cup tennis fixture between England and Switzerland at the centre.

The community and customers influenced the sports hall programme and that meant that besides badminton, five-a-side football, basketball, roller skating and indoor athletics, a wide range of non-sporting events were hosted including conferences, dinners, dog shows and election counts. Consequently, the range of uses influenced the equipment resources. So, foldaway stage units, wheel-away table tennis tables and portable landing areas were important, as was ‘mood’ lighting for social events. Whilst run-of-the-mill today, these were all ground-breaking steps in their day.

Like Harlow, Bracknell received a lot of interest from other local authorities. Together with Harlow and Stockton, Bracknell influenced the plans for the surge of centres that came in the 1970s. With a continuum of improvements and additions over the years, ranging from a swimming pool in 1973, a major refurbishment in 1990, new fitness studio in 1995 and new café/bar in 2003, plus regular maintenance, the Bracknell centre is still going strong. It is the longest-lived centre building in the country, since Harlow Sportcentre was replaced by Harlow Leisurezone in 2010.

2.4 Ponteland Sports Centre

Ponteland Sports Hall - still in use 2017

Ponteland Sports Hall – still in use 2017

In 1967 Castle Ward Rural District Council (popn. 32,000) was very forward thinking when it decided to add a sports hall to the various existing outside pitches for football, rugby, cricket, and archery in Ponteland. This served the people living in the parish and the surrounding area. Ponteland is located 38 miles south east of the nearest Scottish border and 9 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne. The sports hall (120’ x 60’) opened in April 1967. Two houses were also built on site, one for the groundsman and one for the steward who ran the bar and provided snacks, lunches etc., making it easy to arrange special events. It was therefore one of the UK’s earliest, fully accessible, community sports halls. The project was led by Castle Ward RDC, but the Ponteland Parish Council also had representatives on the management committee and contributed £450 per annum to running costs at that time. Then, £58,246 was the total development cost for the sports hall and ancillary works.

Over a 25-year period the centre was extended to include additional features. Alterations were made in 1972. Later a part governmental/part local community investment developed swimming facilities, which opened in the early 1990’s. The original sports hall, albeit refurbished, with the pool and other facilities added, forms part of the current Ponteland Leisure Centre. Just behind Bracknell, it is the second longest surviving public community sports hall in the country. There are now plans by Northumberland County Council to replace it with a new centre elsewhere. In 2016, the County Council submitted an outline planning application, with all matters reserved, for the demolition of the existing leisure centre and replacement with a new leisure centre, library, primary school and secondary school, on an adjacent site.

2.5 Billingham Forum – the first in Europe

1966 Billingham Forum construction

1966 Billingham Forum construction

Billingham, like Harlow, is one of the most important ‘landmark’ centres in the history of community sports and leisure centres. The Forum was first conceived in 1960 and opened in July 1967, providing a very wide range of recreation and arts facilities, the first of its kind in Europe. In many respects, it set a new pattern of broader leisure facility provision, which was to be followed in the next two decades by leading architects and local authorities. Queen Elizabeth II opened Billingham Forum on October 19th 1967.

The mantra for the developing town and the centre was ‘Billingham – planned for the people: the Forum designed for a new generation’. Billingham Forum was part of the visionary town centre scheme, which was projected to thrive on a theme of ‘first, foremost and futuristic’. The Forum was rooted in both Billingham’s past and future. Billingham’s expansion originally began in the 1920s with an expanding shipyard and the arrival of the chemical industries. In the late 1960s its population was around 36,000. After the war the ICI complex grew to be the biggest in Europe and Billingham’s population grew exponentially. Billingham Urban District Council realised that its people were experiencing new working conditions in the fast-expanding industries, and expectations would be for a better lifestyle. Thus, it created the ‘Plan for People’ and in 1962 plans for the town centre included a ’sports forum’. In the evolution of planning and design a theatre was added and the Forum planning was complete – a meeting place for the whole community. Architects were Elder, Lester & Partners of Middlesbrough.

Billingham Forum was dubbed “the grandfather of leisure centres” by the art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, and “without question, the father of the British leisure centre”. Writing in the Architectural Review in 1974, Lance Wright, Editor, said “Billingham Forum anticipated the shift that occurred in the 1970s from purely sporting to a combination of sporting and leisure facilities under one roof”. He observed how it “sets the pattern of the modern sports/leisure centre as a self-contained, introspective building … a handsome, if overpowering piece of ‘sixties’ design”. “Circulation”, he said, “was, overall, rather better than that of some of those that opened soon after”.

Wright said, “The inclusion of the theatre alongside the sports facilities broke new ground in recreational planning and in the shift from sport to the broader notion of leisure”. The Forum predated architectural thinking of the time by nearly a decade. However, the incorporation of arts facilities in centres was rarely adopted subsequently.

Geoff Bott was appointed as the first Director of the Forum, moving with his deputy, John Williams, from Leeds Athletic institute. The Forum’s facilities included an international skating rink, with an ice area of 180’ x 80’ and seating for 1,000 spectators; a swimming pool 110’ x 42’ with 450 spectator seats and a learner pool; a 120’ x 60’ sports hall; a four-rink bowls hall; a gallery for archery, cricket etc.; 3 squash courts; the 650-seat theatre fully equipped for cinema; a restaurant overlooking the ice rink; a snack bar for light refreshments and a bar. At the beginning, Scottish & Newcastle Breweries Ltd ran the catering and licensed operation. Costing £1m at the time, it was designed and financed by the local authority, which became part of Teesside County Borough in 1968. The Forum was owned by the Council and leased out for a peppercorn rent. It had a Board of Management and was a registered charity from December 1969, but was removed from the register on 22 June 1992. It is now managed by the Tees Active Trust on behalf of Stockton Council.

From the opening, until February 1969, the Forum received over 2 million visitors, just over 4 million by March 1971, and it reached 10 million in the first 6½ years. As an example, in the year to March 31st, 1971, total Forum and theatre income (including £99,500 of grants from Teesside County Borough and arts grants of £17,208) was £273,730 with income totalling £273,676.

In 2004, the theatre gained Grade II listed status, although the complex overall did not. The building served well until a decision in 2009 to close the Forum and completely gut and refurbish the whole building at a cost. The Forum reopened in 2011  (Roy Maplebeck reflects on working at the Forum for 40 years!).

2.6   Thornaby Pavilion

Thornaby Pavilion, was developed and financed by the former Thornaby-on-Tees Municipal Borough Council, which, as with Billingham and Eston Councils, was abolished with the creation of Teesside on 1st April 1968. The Pavilion was opened on 26th March 1968, just 5 days before the abolition of Thornaby-on-Tees Council! It is, to this day, a multi-purpose leisure complex for all the family.

Thornaby can boast of having one of the countries very first indoor bowls rinks and was the venue of many national and International matches. Thornaby Pavilion leisure centre is located on the top floor of Wrightson House, above the central library, within the heart of Thornaby town centre. The original concept was that by providing an indoor facility in that location it would add value to the development of a new shopping centre and hotel below. It was originally conceived as a cultural/arts and exhibition centre. However, in the context of the early sports centre scene, by the time it opened the main hall had been designed as a 2-court hall (8 badminton-courts) There were two squash courts, the Watson Hall with a stage for performance, and additional facilities of crèche, café, and dark room plus rooms for hire.  At the other end of the centre, is the large international standard, indoor bowls green with its own social facilities, both originally run independently by a club.

The early programme had a strong focus on arts with photography, drama groups, theatre group, chess, and art, all of which received free access to the facility. It still today has the sports hall, café, and squash courts. The library is on the ground floor but the leisure offer has always been at first floor level. It is also interesting to note that the service lift to the main hall was designed to accommodate a small elephant in the event of the centre hosting a big event, like an indoor circus!

Today, Thornaby Pavilion is accessed via a glass lift, stairs, or ramp. The centre has been serving the local community for over 40 years and has been redeveloped into a 21st century leisure facility offering a wide selection of facilities and services. It is not now an arts facility as such, still has the sports hall and has a nursery, a modern fitness gym, and the bowls hall is now an integrated part of the centre operation. It is operated by Tees Active which also operates, Billingham Forum, Stockton Splash, and Thornaby Pool amongst other leisure facilities.

2.7   Eston Sports Centre completed the initial Teesside hot-bed

The opening of Eston Sports Centre in 1968 meant that Teesside was by far the best provided sub-region in the country. Teesside County Borough from 1968 had a population approaching 400,000. In 1970 no other conurbation with less than ½ million population had so many sports centres, and more were in the pipeline at the time. A north-east forum for sport, which preceded the advent of Regional Councils for Sport and Recreation (RCS&R), and had been prompted by CCPR’s Regional Officer, A. L. Colbeck, was influential in the development of north-east centres. Teesside’s recreational system was studied by Cosgrove and Jackson in ‘The Geography of Recreation and Leisure’ [1972]. In the ‘last stage’ that it described from 1963, it stated that 30,000 people pass through the doors of the Teesside centres each week. Indeed, they noted that “the sports centre was beginning to compete with the church, the pub and the working men’s club as a focus for community activity”. At that time the research suggested that usage placed Stockton as a city-region facility and Thornaby and Billingham Forum (theatre apart) as providing a more local recreation service. When other developments followed, this pattern changed.

With the strengths of facilities around Teesside in the late 1960s, it was no surprise that, with table tennis being a strong sport in the area, major table tennis tournaments were hosted, including internationals. The 11th English Closed Championships were held at Eston Sports Centre In 1970. One of the most important factors for tournaments is good lighting and the new Teesside centres well fitted this requirement. Table Tennis viewed the facilities as the finest in the world at that time. In 1970 it was announced that a European League match would take place on Teesside. Local associations had taken very seriously the business of securing Teesside as a world centre for table tennis. It was a story of combined thought and effort on the part of table tennis officials and local authority representatives.

2.8   Bellahouston – a Scottish prototype

Bellahouston SC Glasgow

Bellahouston SC Glasgow

Bellahouston Sports Centre was the first and ground-breaking indoor community sports centre in Scotland. Akin to developments elsewhere in England and Wales, the provision of the first centres in Scotland was rooted in post-war regeneration, major re-housing schemes and other social and infrastructure developments. By the late 1950s Scottish sports organisations were planning for multi-purpose sports halls. However, of course, funding was a problem at that time. ‘The Future of Sport’ conferences between 1959 and 1964, led to the Scottish Office proposing a pilot project for the design and management of a centre. The centre, in Bellahouston Park, in the south west of Glasgow, was chosen from ten bids. This location had considerable advantages for transport access from an extensive housing catchment. Bellahouston Sports Centre was leased on a nominal rent by Glasgow Corporation to, and was administered by, the Glasgow Sports Association. The Association consisted of 12 members, six appointed by Glasgow Corporation and six by the Scottish Council of Physical Recreation (SCPR). The centre opened in January 1968.

The facilities encompassed a large sports hall (120’ x 120’ x 25’), two gymnasia, two squash courts, a café/lounge, and a lecture room. As with nearly all centres in the 1960s and 1970s, a well-balanced programme of individual and club use together with coaching sessions and groups, displays and exhibitions was promoted. The centre had been designed by the Corporation of Glasgow’s Department of Architecture and Civic Design. The cost at that time was £250,000, funded by a Government grant of £100,000 through the SCPR, and the balance paid by Glasgow Corporation. Bellahouston was one of the first centres to carefully consider disabled access with a lift and car park positioning.

Demand for the facilities was high, and excessive at popular times. 23 different sports were accommodated within the centre with squash and badminton accounting for 550 users per week. Without spectator facilities, the focus was totally on participation. Needless to say, the arrival of the centre caused great interest and many visits from other Scottish local authorities and sports organisations. As with the development of Harlow Sports Centre and Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, Bellahouston’s development overlapped with the progress on Meadowbank Sports Centre in Edinburgh, which was being planned for hosting the 1970 British Commonwealth Games.

Bellahouston, in a way, also contributed to the development of UK recreation management. The first Manager of Bellahouston was Ian Douglas who went on to be Manager of Bishopbriggs Sports Centre, Director of Recreation Services for Inverclyde DC, and Chairman of the Association of Recreation Managers.

2.9   Basingstoke Sports Centre

The origins of the centre can be traced back to the days when it was first accepted that Basingstoke should be developed to receive some of the overspill from London’s population. In consultation with London County Council, it was agreed that there should be a sport and recreation centre provided to meet the leisure needs of the expanded town. A working Party was set up, chaired by Lord Porchester, which visited Harlow and Crystal Palace. Their report in 1964 recommended a new building for indoor recreation as part of the new town centre, which was scheduled from 1966 onwards. Taking the lead from Harlow, it also recommended that a trust be set up to be responsible for planning, building and operating the centre.

The town centre architects were invited to draw up initial plans and Lord Porchester was entrusted with raising at least £120,000 and negotiating a grant from government. The government had indicated that a grant would be forthcoming if 25% of the cost could be raised from voluntary contributions. In January 1965, the trust was established and brief for the centre drawn up. In May, it was announced that the Borough Council would provide £150,000 towards the estimated cost of £350,000 and Denis Howell said the government would make, at that time, an unprecedented grant of £75,000. As Howell indicated, the government could not grant aid local authority projects, so the pooling of support in the trust allowed it to do so.  a national fundraising campaign was launched in 1965 and the Director of the Centre, Bill Leadbetter, took up post in January 1966. The centre plans were used to invite comments from sports bodies and the public. Considerable time and thought went into the planning of the centre. For example, the requirements for different levels of sport were addressed, including spectator events, and the consequent sports hall dimensions, finishes and equipment.

In 1966, much of this planning was courageous and far-sighted, involving on the one hand pioneering design and on the other the financial task of funding the centre. By 1967 the cost had risen to £557,000 and the Borough Council raised its grant to £272,500, and the government its grant to £140,000, leaving £144,500 to be raised. The fundraising included sponsored walks, including one by the town’s former Director of Development, Robert Steel, who raised £20,000 walking from Scotland to Basingstoke.

There were some interesting strings attached to the government grant, which was for the centre to be run by users with at least 50% of the managing body being representatives of voluntary interests, rather than by a majority of local authority interests. This was one of the reasons why the Council pegged its contribution to less than 50%. The Council did have first option on the building if the trust could not fulfil its obligations. The final cost was £674,519 funded as follows:

Donations £220,548 33%
Government £166,471 25%
Local authorities* £287,500 42%
TOTAL FINAL COST £674,519
*Basingstoke DC £272,500
*Basingstoke RDC £10,000
*Hartley Wintney RDC £5,000

In 1969, with funding in place, the trustees were able to incorporate the trust as Basingstoke and District Sports Trust Limited. The building was completed and opened its doors on June 22nd 1970, alongside the town centre shopping mall. On December 4th that year, the Duke of Edinburgh, accompanied by Prince Charles, performed the official opening ceremony, commending those whose efforts had made it possible.

A broad programme was promoted, just like Bellahouston, and the opportunity for spectator events was taken, as planned. Amongst the spectator events hosted was a Kings Cup International tennis match, as well as basketball tournaments. As with other early centres, the management team of the centre comprised officers who went on to make their mark in recreation management. Bill Leadbeater appointed Bill Breeze as his Deputy Manager, Bill Crossley as Pools Manager and David Fisher and Martin Rees as Sports Officers. All went on to achieve extensive careers in recreation management.

2.10 Poole Sports Centre

Poole SC - above the bus station Courtesy The Local Data Company

Poole SC – above the bus station Courtesy The Local Data Company

Phase One of the Arndale Shopping Centre (now Dolphin Centre) in Poole was opened on July 1, 1969 by the Mayor of Poole, Alderman Lloyd-Allen. Poole was one of 23 Arndale Centres, the first American-style malls in the UK. Poole’s mall included 93 retail units, offices, and Poole Sports Centre, which overlooked a bus terminus, and a library. The Centre’s first manager was David Reed, an early member of ARM. The Dolphin Swimming Pool and Arts Centre (now the Lighthouse) were adjacent and completed the civic developments at that time.

Poole Sports Centre was originally operated by a trust, but this changed over the years. Poole Sports Centre closed just before Christmas 2007 when the then operator, UK Sports Centres Ltd., went into liquidation and the space was originally marketed for disposal. The Poole Centre has reverted to the Council, which has let a management contract for its centres to Everyone Active. The Poole Centre is now known as the Dolphin Sports Centre sports hall (capacity 10 badminton courts). It is not currently fully open. Part of the facility has been reopened using part of the space as a climbing centre. The company, which has re-opened part of the facility, plans to open the squash courts and dojo and are open to considering the re-opening of some badminton courts.

2.11 Deeside Leisure Centre

Deeside Leisure Centre Queensferry 1971

Deeside Leisure Centre Queensferry 1971

Deeside was perhaps the first centre to carry the ‘leisure centre’ title, as in the 1960s and early 70s they were usually called sports or recreation centres. Deeside was the next major centre to be developed in Wales after Afan Lido. Hawarden Council, led by Councillor Arthur Ketland, was considering the replacement of a local recreation playground with a Sports Centre on what proved to be a perfect 17-acre site at Queensferry, North Wales. The site was duly purchased for approximately £23,000.  Deeside was another industrial hub with its steel and aircraft industries. A sub-committee of Hawarden Council members and three chief officers visited existing UK sports centres and early dual-use projects across the country, including Harlow.

Early in 1964 the District received an invitation from the Welsh Office to discuss the proposals for a sports centre. In September 1964 the Welsh Office approved a two -phased scheme in principle and the Council instructed Williamson Partnership, Consultant Architects and Engineers of Porthcawl, to proceed. Work started on site in 1969 and Geoff Gearing arrived as Manager in May 1970 to see the steel cladding walls of the Sports Hall, forged at the local steel works, put in place. Phase 1 of Deeside Leisure Centre cost £415,467 and opened its doors for business on March 12th 1971. The formal opening by HRH Duke of Edinburgh KG took place four months later. The indoor centre was more extensive than most previous centres and its ice rink emulated Billingham Forum.

As with Bracknell, Deeside was an attractive venue for major events, not least Basketball, hosting the Bruno Roughcutters National League team.

2.12   Bicester & Ploughley

Bicester & Ploughley Sports Centre was a joint provision scheme that opened in March 1970 on the Bicester School campus. It was built following the various reports and government circulars extolling the virtues of such provision. It opened with a sports hall, swimming pool and social area. 4 squash courts were added in 1971/2. The original scheme was funded by Oxfordshire CC 50%; Bicester UDC 25% and Ploughley RDC 25%. The formal agreement for use also split the running costs 50/50 between the County and the Districts. A manager was appointed, Bob Tedder, who later became Manager of Alton Sports Centre.

2.13   Antrim Forum

Antrim Forum was built between 1970 and 1972, and was opened by Lord Gray. It lay in County Antrim, one of Northern Ireland’s original six counties, and was the first and largest multi-use activity centre in Northern Ireland and remains so to this day. The Forum offers an extensive range of facilities and activities on a 15-acre site overlooking Antrim Castle Gardens. Facilities include a 100’ square sports hall, a swimming pool and a dance studio. An international track and field stadium was added in 1981 and a major re-furbishment took place in 2006. Its first manager was Alan Moneypenny, who went on to be active in the Northern Ireland community and became Vice-Chairman of Northern Ireland Sport. Since 2013 local government re-organisation it has been part of Antrim Borough Council, one of the new 11 districts.

2.14   Old for new: ‘Converted’ centres – an early solution

The conversion of existing buildings provided early, quick, and economic solutions to the provision of facilities for sport. Drill halls, a railway station, an aircraft hangar, other redundant military buildings, and churches were amongst the buildings altered for sport, not to mention a cinema, garage, warehouse, market and town halls and Victorian schools. Later, a Sports Council publication, Converted Buildings for Sport Volume 1 (and later Volume 2 1978), highlighted what had been achieved.

2.14.1 Leeds Athletic Institute 1963

Amongst the first ‘conversions’, though not strictly a ‘community indoor sports centre’ as understood, but significant in the development of recreation management, was Leeds Athletic Institute. The Institute, set up in the early 1960s by Leeds City Council Education Committee, provided unique and very early sports facilities. The Council had responded to the various national reports highlighting the need for facilities to accommodate the burgeoning demand for indoor sports. LAI was based centrally at the old Jack Lane School, which dated from 1874. The Institute had originally been agreed in principle in 1959 as part of a comprehensive development of further education. The council embarked on the innovative scheme and set up the old Victorian “E-shaped” school as a sports activity centre. Fortunately, the school had three spacious halls with ample headroom. It was a compromise at a time when a new building was not considered feasible.

The Institute started in September 1963 and was officially opened on November 28th by Christopher Chataway MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education. As well as the three large halls, the design provided twelve other rooms, all of which became operational seven days a week from 7 a.m. till 10 pm and saw a range of activities including badminton, gymnastics, fencing, judo, volleyball, trampolining and various fitness classes. This proved so successful that a massive expansion occurred when the institute took over 33 schools, out of school hours, across the whole of Leeds and organised and ran what we know as further education evening classes.  It covered an extra 20 sports, not least of which was water-skiing on a Sunday morning in Roundhay Park!

The significance of LAI also lay in its fostering of recreation management through its staff appointments. Its first professional leaders were amongst the early leading lights in UK recreation management. Principal, Geoff Bott, was appointed on August 1st, 1963 and later became the first Director of Billingham Forum and then Chief Leisure and Recreation Officer for Northampton (his LAI successor was Laurie Newby); John Williams, of LAI, later became Deputy Director of the Forum and then Manager of Bletchley Leisure Centre; and Geoff Gearing, a subsequent Vice Principal of LAI, was later Manager of Deeside Leisure Centre and Director of Leisure Services for Hertsmere DC.

LAI, made a huge contribution to sports development in the area. For example, the highly successful Leeds Gymnastics Club’s history stretches back to the early 1970s when the club was the LAI Club based at Jack Lane School. LAI also fostered splendid, enthusiastic coaches who served the City for many years. Richard Gradley, was a British gymnastic champion and took part in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. After leaving the Army in 1965, he joined the Leeds Athletics Institute, taking responsibility for promoting gymnastics among school children. The late Michael Talbot also deserves recognition. Leeds City Council appointed him development officer for gymnastics, the first in the country. Once LAI closed, he set up the Centre of Excellence at Carnegie College, Headingley.

2.14.2   Notable pathfinder conversions

Carlisle Sports Centre 1969

Carlisle Sports Centre 1969


Silverwell Street Sports Centre Courtesy of Bolton News

Silverwell Street Sports Centre Courtesy of Bolton News

The conversion of army drill halls was the most common conversion for sport. Indeed, as early as 1968 the House of Commons Hansard reported a question to the Secretary of State for Education and Science as to which former Territorial Army drill halls had been converted for sport. Denis Howell’s response indicated that, at that time, local authorities had permission to acquire 20 drills in England and Wales and 2 in Scotland. Well-known examples of drill halls converted to sports centres include Greenock (opened 1966), Silverwell Centre, Bolton, and Carlisle Sports Centre (both opened in 1969, but long since closed) and Cockermouth (1979 and still operating as part of an extended centre). Other drill halls converted for sports use included St. Mary’s, Southampton in 1974 (owned by Southampton City Council and still used by Solent University and the public) and the Harry Mitchell Centre, Smethwick, which is still operational. Other drill halls converted for sport included Great Yarmouth, and an increased number in Scotland – Dumbarton and Arbroath (also 1969), Lochgelly, Peebles and Stirling. Most of these converted sports centres have since been demolished or converted into other accommodation, although a small number remain in use for social, community and youth activities.

Other notable examples of conversions were: –

  • Pocklington Railway Station (now used by Pocklington School).
  • An old gaol, converted in Abingdon, where the old stone building beside the Thames dating back to 1812 was converted into a community recreation and arts centre. The facility is no longer in use for sport.
  • St Helier in Jersey, Fort Regent [1968/69] – where the old Fort Regent military fort and barracks were converted into a leisure centre which includes exhibition halls, sports, arts, entertainment, shops, walkways, and tourist attractions. Others with military connections included: –
  • The (HMS) King Alfred Centre in Hove, which had an interesting and unusual development history.
  • and an old military riding school, converted in Canterbury in 1974
  • Jubilee Hall, trust-run and developed from the old Flower Market in London
  • Plumstead Sports Centre (1974) – developed from a disused transport depot, next door to swimming baths.
  • Christie Miller Sports Centre, converted from an aircraft hangar.
  • The original Arcadia Sports Centre, Manchester (previously a cinema, though originally built as a roller rink)
  • The original Ardwick Sports Centre, Manchester, a converted industrial building.
  • And Stalybridge, where, in 1970/71, a privately owned and run indoor sports centre was developed in a 1960s warehouse.

These were early conversions to sports centres, but even with the later burgeoning development of purpose-built centres, the best use of old buildings for sport remained a key plank of Sports Council policy. In the north-west it was also one of the 10 key principles of the 1980 North West Regional Strategy. This did raise community feedback in some inner cities, with the sentiment of “we want a new centre like everyone else”.

2.15   Other key centre developments: 1968-1973

Harlow Afan Lido and Bracknell had blazed an early trail in the south of the UK and the north-east had become a hotbed of centre development by 1968 with the Lightfoot, Stockton, Billingham Forum, Ponteland, Thornaby Pavilion and Eston. These centres were the start of the flood of indoor centres across the country through the decade that followed the publication of ‘Planning for Sport’ in 1968. Other noteworthy centres that opened between 1968 and 1973 included: –

  • Northfleet 1968
  • Knottingley 1969
  • Sobell Centre, Aberdare 1970
  • Bishopbriggs 1971
  • Skelmersdale
  • Guildford
  • Croft Centre Swindon
  • Bells, Perth 1972
  • Redbridge
  • Worthing
  • Hyndburn
  • John Wright 1972
  • Alton
  • Huddersfield 1973
  • Sobell, Islington
  • Newbiggin
  • Oval, Cheshire
  • Allander
  • Picketts Lock
  • Sale
  • Banstead
  • Haltemprice
  • Warminster

The planning of some of these centres had started in the late 1960s and some owed their arrival to the pending re-organisation of local government in the early 1970s. In these pioneering days of centres, gaining and exchanging information about the provision and management of this new ‘concept’ was vital for existing operations and future provision. As centre provision progressed, architects, trusts and local authorities and their managers learned from the early experiences. Seminars and meetings were in demand. The Sports Council Southern Region, for example, organised one at Bracknell in June 1972, ‘The Management of Sports Centres’, where the managers of Basingstoke, Bracknell and Bicester & Ploughley (Bill Leadbeater, Bernard Warden and Bob Tedder respectively), under the chairmanship of George Torkildsen, presented their centre operations to 70 delegates.

These centres had been financed either by local authorities, or by trusts with some publicly funded support. One exception at that time appears to have been the private Stalybridge centre.

2.16 The university and school sports hall scene

Whilst not specifically community indoor sports & leisure centres, the development of sports halls on university campuses between 1960 and 1973 was significant in terms of overall early sports hall provision and design experience. In fact, the Goodwin Sports Hall at Sheffield University was from all accounts the country’s earliest purpose-built sports hall in 1960, provided by a local businessman. There were varying levels of ‘public use’ of the university halls beyond the student population, mainly through staff and club use. However, design lessons from these early university halls were considerable and later reflected by architect Gerald Perrin in his ‘Design for Sport’ handbook (1981).

An exception in terms of wide community use was Lancaster University (1967). Under Joe Medhurst, Director of PE, the University pioneered significant public use of the wet and dry facilities. It later used loan finance to build an ozone-treated pool in 1981 and had 136,000 pool users in the first year. At a time when squash was booming and court supply could not meet demand at peak times, the University also used loan finance in 1977 to raise the number of squash courts from 4 to 9, later adding a further 3 courts by 1982. Other university sports halls developed in this period included:

Goodwin Sports Hall, Sheffield University 1960

Goodwin Sports Hall, Sheffield University 1960

  • Sheffield 1960
  • Birmingham (Munrow Centre) 1961; 1974
  • Southampton
  • Oxford
  • Hull 1965
  • Keele (North Staffs) 1966
  • Exeter 1967
  • Liverpool 1967
  • Kent 1968
  • St Andrews 1968
  • Sussex 1969
  • Nottingham 1970
  • Queens Belfast 1971

Some free-standing sports halls also started to emerge at schools in the 1960s, with no or limited levels of public use. Most of these school sports halls arose from the larger secondary schools bring developed, which, under regulations, enabled a larger space allocation than the traditional school gymnasium, based on per capita calculations.

2.17 Community joint provision and dual use

The importance of the joint provision of sports facilities for schools and the community, and the dual-use of school sports facilities, were given impetus from 1964 by various official reports. The period from the 1964 to 1973 was to prove initially important for their progress.

Village colleges had been the first examples of ‘joint community provision’ in the UK. They were the brainchild of Henry Morris, the then Chief Education Officer for Cambridgeshire in the early 1930s, who had a vision of a school that would serve the whole community, stem migration from the countryside to the towns, and provide a decent education to pupils who had previously only been served by the upper years of Elementary schools. His original plan was that the site of the college would also be home to the village’s other public services. The first, Sawston Village College, opened in 1930. The concept was for combined school, adult education, and social facilities, and were built with the positive aim of integrating school and local community. Interestingly the village concept can still be found fully working in Cambridgeshire today, witness Swavesey (with a new hall doubling sports hall provision in 2015), Impington and Camborne Colleges, amongst others.

These early schemes were forerunners for some ‘pathfinder’ joint schemes involving school sites, which were developed in the 1960s and early 1970s. They seemed novel at the time, but would be viewed as commonplace today.  During 1965 at Egremont in Cumberland the new comprehensive school included finance from the local district council for a new sports centre. However, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the school and community leisure centre movement began in earnest across the country with four pioneer centres in Nottinghamshire at Bingham, Carlton, Worksop, and Sutton in Ashfield.  The Physical Education Departments of four secondary schools were modified in partnership with district councils to create community leisure centres. There were other such examples in Cheshire and Leicestershire. One other early example in 1966 of community use on a school site was at Breeze Hill School, Oldham, where Griff Jones was Manager (later Director of the Grove Sports Centre and Manager of the first Bletchley Leisure Centre). Bicester & Ploughley, as outlined, was also an early joint provision centre. Later, joint provision and dual use centres were to take on an even more significant role (see Chapter 5).

2.18 1973/4 – a benchmark in centre provision

Most of the first centres up to 1972 reflected the post war town planning and social developments. Others towns started to follow the lead of the early centres. In November 1974 Tony Veal published a paper for the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies on ‘Multi-Purpose Recreation Centres in Britain’ (CURS Working Paper 30). This provided a very useful perspective on the sports centre scene up until 1973, just as the next impetus, local government re-organisation, was arriving. Veal aptly summarised the situation when he identified a number of prevailing, influential factors. The most important, Veal stated, was the move towards dual-use and joint provision of school facilities and its economic sense. Others, he said, included: New Towns development corporations funding to assist amenity provision; a potential trend to mix sports and arts provision; the case for indoor sports provision generating participation; the start of integrated local authority recreation departments and the work of the Sports Council and Regional Sports Councils.

He highlighted that only 50 indoor sports centres existed at that time and the Sports Council had identified a need for 800 by 1981. The paper reflected on the need for economy and the rise of joint provision and dual use. Whilst there were 800 swimming pools in the country, only 200 had been built since 1960, and just 2 from 1945-1960, one of which was Hornchurch. Significantly Veal said, sports centres are on the one hand following a trend in society and meeting a need for more indoor sport, and on the other hand playing a large part in leading and moulding that trend.

Veal mentions the possible broadening concept of the arts, for example the provision of theatres at Billingham Forum and Wythenshawe. Whilst such broadening of interests was encouraged, by for example, the House of Lords Select Committee on Sport in 1973, they remained the exception. The Stevenage Centre (1976) with its Craig Theatre and, much later, the Sands Centre in Carlisle, which was carefully designed to cater for entertainment and sport, are obvious but rare examples.

There were, the Veal paper said, good examples of the growth of sports activity resulting from the arrival of sports centres. Karate, judo, yoga, and indoor bowls had all grown, as had sports hall-based activities such as five-a-side football and badminton. The first research by Birch had identified that at least one third of users in the research had first taken up their activity at the centre surveyed. Veal concluded that centre development was still at a very early stage, stating that “development, research, and experiment is progressing at an accelerating pace leading hopefully to improved policy formulation, planning and provision.” Indeed, the next 20 years saw an immense amount of research, analysis and assessment, and general reflection on all aspects of sport and recreation, provision and participation. A vast amount of it centred around sports centres, as we have discovered and reflected in this Project.

2.19   A new influence on the horizon

A range of protagonists and pioneers had steered the early development of sports centres. Solid foundations had therefore been laid by 1973 for the future widespread development of sports centres. Then a new initiative became an enormous influence on the growth of sports centres – Local Government Re-organisation. This proved to be the next big turning point for sports centres and recreation management more broadly.