Sport has played, and still plays, a huge part in the social life of Ilfracombe; friendships forged, work contacts widened and a most important ‘feel good factor’. While the town’s rugby club was formed way back in 1877, football was also played un early Victorian time by teams of friends and neighbours such as Chambercombe United, Church Lads, and Park Rangers who played not only at Killacleave but also on various scraps of land including Brimlands (not levelled until the 1930s), Bicclescombe, Winsham Field and Shaftesbury Field at the top of Shaftesbury Road. This land was hardly level so the matches must have been interesting!
Because many of the players worked in Saturdays, the Thursday League was popular until well into the 1930s with sides such as YMCA, West End and Combe Rangers playing and acting as feeder teams to the main town side, just as the secondary school did for many decades. The Grammar School offered the same benefit to the Rugby Club.
Consolidation happened in November 1902 when Ilfracombe Football Club was firstly founded as Ilfracombe Devonia, then Ilfracombe United, before finally settling on Ilfracombe Town. In 1904, Ilfracombe and Pilton Vale played the first ever league fixture in the newly formed North Devon League, travelling by train.
Home matches were initially at Killacleave but, by 1924, the Club had achieved the mammoth task of raising funds (through debentures and shares) for a permanent home. Buying and laying out Marlborough Park cost £1574 15s 4d, the equivalent of about £75,000 in today’s terms. Raising such a huge amount of money in the difficult inter-war period demonstrates quite how much the club was valued and Marlborough Park is still the club’s home today, albeit with a more modern stand in place.
The 1924 opening of Marlborough Park was a suitably grand affair, league side Bristol City were the guests, eventually winning 3-1. The Prince of Wales had been invited to perform the opening ceremony but replied that he would be unable to attend as he was overseas at the time. Mr RM Rowe, a pillar of the local community and head of a local solicitor’s practice was the replacement. An incredible 3,000 people turned up in the day to watch the opening match. They were also entertained by the Rechabite band and a display of athletics races.
One of the competitors in the athletics was Victor Clemence who won the under 14s 100 yard race. He became Ilfracombe’s star winger and later chairman of the club. He was so good, in fact, that he had trials with Arsenal, Spurs and Luton but turned down a professional contract so that he could continue working in the family business.
Ilfracombe’s football club was very successful and produced some great individual players. During the inter-war years, the club produced not only many country players, but also amateur internationals such as Harvey Chadder who captained England. The club won county trophies on a regular basis.
Some of the big home matches attracted crowds as large as 4,000 people and extra coaches had to be added to trains to get the many enthusiastic fans to away matches.
Written by Neil Holloway - Ilfracombe Historian