Part 2 Sports Services

Introduction

By 1950 only three sports commentary services to hospitals had started in UK. See Part 1.

The first service started In England in 1935 at White Hart Lane, the home of the Tottenham Football Club.

During the 1940’s two commentary services to hospitals started in Scotland. The first service started in August 1946 at Cappielow Park, the home of the Morton Football Club. It was given by the “Morton Blind Football Fans Association” who had been providing a football commentary service since the 1920s to the blind fans at Cappielow Park. The second service in Scotland started three years later, in August 1949 at Kings Park, the home of Stirling Albion Football Club.

In many cases the emerging hospital sports commentary services used the skills of people who for some years had been giving commentaries to the blind.

By the end of the 1950s there would be over 75 sports commentary services providing a service to hospitals in England, Scotland and Wales.

The trigger for this rapid expansion was the commencement on the 27 October 1951 of what was to be a very successful, and most important of all, a highly publicised football commentary service at the Portsmouth Football Club (which is described in detail in Part 2 – History). The service so impressed Vernon Stokes, who was one of the Club’s Directors, that at every opportunity he mentioned the idea to the Chairmen and Directors of other league clubs. His enthusiasm was one of the two major factors that lead to the rapid spread of football and other sports commentary services that took place between 1952 and 1958.

The charitable organisation TOC H, a brief history of which is given in Part 7, was the second major factor in spreading the idea. During the four years following the start of the service at Portsmouth, TOC H was responsible for starting no less than one in three of the new football, rugby and cricket commentary services that were broadcasting to hospitals in 53 towns and cities in Britain. By 1960 the number had risen to 78, of which nearly 30% (22) had been started by TOC H.

Pie chart showing commentary services started by TOC H
Commentary Services Started by TOC H (Towns & Cities in 1960)

This new aspect of the TOC H service had caught the imagination of so many of their members and with numerous enquiries being received they issued, in late 1952, the following advice: “As a preliminary, it is advisable to call together those people who would be concerned in their different ways in the organisation and running of these commentaries, such as: The Secretary of the Football Club(s), The Secretary (or representative) of the Local Hospitals, Old Folks’ Homes, Blind Institutes, etc, etc, the Representative from the Post Office Telephones and his Engineer, together with Representative/s from the people responsible for the Radio Installation within the Hospitals, Homes etc, and their Engineer/s”.

By the end of the 1950s sports commentary services were well established throughout the UK, covering football, rugby, cricket, boxing and bowling. In the London area alone the number of football commentary services had, by 1958, reached 11: Arsenal, Brentford, Charlton, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Millwall, Leyton Orient, QPR, Tottenham, Watford and West Ham.

The first cricket commentary service to a hospital took place from the Warwickshire County Cricket Ground at Edgbaston, Birmingham, in May 1952.

In the same year the first rugby commentary services took place from the Batley and Dewsbury Rugby League grounds. Two years later, in August 1954, the first boxing commentary took place, in Liverpool to the Walton Hospital.

By 1958 the sports commentary service in Liverpool was being relayed to 37 hospitals in Liverpool, Wrexham, Chester, Ormskirk, Heswall, Rainhill, Wallasey, Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port and Bebington.  The largest network of hospitals in the world to receive a hospital broadcast.

In 1952 a football commentary service started in Norwich which was to expand over the years throughout Norfolk. In addition to Norwich the service was to cover hospitals in Cromer, Holt, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Thorpe, Hellesdon, Attleborough and Dereham. The second largest/widest spread network to have existed in terms of towns and cities served.

A national newspaper reported in 1963: “To whatever extent attendances at Football League matches fluctuate from time to time there is a guaranteed ‘gate’ of between 8,000 and 10,000 every Saturday in the Manchester and Salford area. Thousands more enthusiasts all over the country can ‘attend’ games through the agency of the Hospital Commentaries Associations”. The use of the words ‘Hospital Commentary Association’ was to be common throughout the country as the sports services expanded in the 1950s.

The rate of expansion of the dedicated sports commentary services reached its peak in the late 1950s, growing at a much slower pace during the following decade and reaching just over 80 services by 1968. A brief history of many of these services (by town and city) is covered in Part 2 – History.

Graph showing rise of dedicated sports commentary services
Towns & Cities with Commentary Services in UK (1946 to 1969)

The number of services providing sports commentary or match reports continued to expand as the newly emerging music based services started to include sport in their programme schedules. NAHBO’s 1974 Directory lists 99 hospital broadcasting services, of which 25% had their own sports commentary services, covering football, rugby, cricket, ice hockey, bowling and wrestling. By comparison the directory records that 11 of the listed music based stations used the services of “separate sports services”. The number of sports services probably reached a plateau in the mid 1980s, as the rapid expansion of the music based services came to an end.

NAHBO’s 1992 directory records that sports services were operating at 103 football league and non-league grounds in England, Scotland and Wales, at 28 rugby league and union clubs, at eight county cricket clubs and at one ice hockey stadium.

Yorkshire: Starting in the mid-1950s Yorkshire County Cricket games were being covered by one of four services: Bradford Hospitals Broadcasting Association, Sheffield Sports Commentaries Committee, Leeds Cricket & Football Hospitals Relay Association or Huddersfield Hospitals Broadcast Committee. The game being preceded by the phrase “Relayed through the courtesy of the …. “. The popularity of cricket in Yorkshire was an important factor in the development of the sports commentary service in that county and helped spread the idea of hospital broadcasting to many other towns and cities in the United Kingdom.

In 1959 sports commentary services were operating in 10 towns and cities in Yorkshire. An inter-town network in Huddersfield, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Batley, Dewsbury and Wakefield participated in “swapping” commentaries on cricket, soccer and rugby matches. Mr R Watson, Secretary and Treasurer of the Leeds Cricket and Football Hospitals Relays Association wrote in the mid 1950s about a meeting of an inter-town network: “This meeting was also attended by representatives from the Huddersfield Hospitals Broadcast Committee and the Sheffield Sports Commentaries Committee for Hospital Patients. It was agreed that in future all three organisations would co-operate for the relaying of Cricket Commentaries from Headingley, Fartown, and Bramell Lane grounds to all hospitals and Welfare Homes served by any of the three networks. This liaison was also to apply to football matches where necessary. Bradford was to be invited to join the scheme when their Broadcast organisation was functioning”.

Huddersfield Hospitals Broadcasting Association’s log book records: “First Association Football Inter-Town broadcast, 6 September 1954 Sheffield Wednesday V Town” and makes references, including names and addresses, to services in Wakefield, Huddersfield, Leeds, Sheffield and, outside Yorkshire, Wolverhampton and West Ham (The Friends of Plaistow).

North East of England: In the North East of England upwards of 44 hospitals are reported to have been linked together on occasions, inter-feeding football commentary services to and from towns and cities including Newcastle, Sunderland, Durham, South Shields, Hartlepool, Gateshead, Middlesboro and, on at least one occasion, Glasgow. The earliest known reference to the start of this link up was in 1956 when it was announced that commentaries from Roker Park, Sunderland, would be permitted to be relayed to the Newcastle and Gateshead hospitals.

By the mid 1960s Radio Tyneside, the music based hospital broadcasting service in Newcastle, was featuring football on Saturday afternoon either from Newcastle or Sunderland. Dave Nicholson of Radio Tyneside reported that the Sunderland commentary came via a landline from Roker Park and was provided by hospital broadcasting service Radio Sunderland. In addition Radio Sunderland had a line to Radio Durham so they also could receive the football commentaries. The landline link to Newcastle and Durham continued until Radio Sunderland moved to a new studio in the 1970s at which time the line was disconnected.

An entry in the 1969 AGM minutes of the ‘Sunderland Hospital Broadcasting Association’ reads: “The Secretary reported on his visit to Ibrox Park with Mr A Smith of Durham to relay the first leg of the Inter-Cities Fair Cup Semi-Final between Rangers and Newcastle”. In the same minutes representatives from broadcasting services in Durham and South Shields expressed appreciation: “For football broadcasts over the last 5 years”.

A booklet produced for the Tyneside Hospitals Commentators Association (Newcastle) prior to the start of the 1959/60 football season included the following statement: “When commentaries were started by a team of commentators from Roker Park, Sunderland, to hospitals in the Wearside area, Rediffusion arranged for reciprocal facilities, and this means that patients in hospitals in Tyne and Wear receive a commentary every week on a first team match played either at St James’ Park, Newcastle, or Roker Park, Sunderland”.

Wales: The expansion of hospital broadcasts throughout the 1950s extended to four locations in Wales with football commentary services starting at Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham. Regrettably practically nothing is known about the history of the football commentary services at Cardiff, Newport and Swansea.

The earliest reference to a sporting connection in Cardiff is found in a magazine issued by the Leeds Cricket and Football Hospitals Relay Association, which read: “On January 7th, 1956, Leeds United played Cardiff City in the first of their three successive meetings in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup at EIland Road. The commentaries on these three matches were also relayed to hospitals in South Wales, by arrangement with the Cardiff City Supporters’ Club”. It is known that all three clubs were approached in 1957 to join an association of (football) hospital broadcasters.

Scotland: Along with the services that started in Greenock (1946) and Stirling (1949), several football commentary services started in Scotland during the 1950s and 1960s.

These towns and cities included Dunfermline (1951), Kilmarnock (1952), Glasgow (1952), Edinburgh (1952), Dundee (1953), Ayr (1953), Aberdeen (1956), Arbroath (late 1950s) and Paisley (1968).

In many cases these commentary services in Scotland used the skills of people who for some years had been giving commentaries to the blind. In Edinburgh commentaries to the blind fans of the Hearts Football Club, which were started in the late 1940s, were also extended to simultaneously include hospital patients in 1952.

In the 1960s commentary services from the Hearts Football Club at Tynecastle and the Hibernian Football Club at Easter Road were being relayed to 16 hospitals in Edinburgh. The largest landline network of hospitals in Scotland.