In 1951 a bank manager from Warrington named George Greaves, and who was the Lancashire County goalkeeper as well as a stalwart of Warrington H.C., envisaged a hockey festival based in Blackpool. He thought Blackpool had in its Stanley Park the land for a number of grass pitches and the town would be able to offer many off-the-field entertainments. He happened to have a close friend who was a senior officer of Blackpool Council and George used this connection to approach the Council who promised every encouragement and every help in facilitating a Festival. George decided to restrict the event to men’s hockey and he set about gathering a group to assist in the preparations for the First Annual Festival, Easter 1952.
George collared a hockey-playing teenage clerk at his bank and instructed him to be the Festival Treasurer, then persuaded others at his Club and at other clubs in the Warrington area to assist. This teenage clerk – Malcolm Walker – thought it unwise to turn down a request from his boss, little knowing he was to serve as Treasurer until 1985, a magnificent thirty-three years!
Twenty teams applied to participate, all North of England clubs except for Liverpool University who provided a student team.
Each team was asked to provide an umpire who was required to umpire matches not involving their own team. The result was that it became common after an evening’s carousal for the youngest player – whether he had ever umpired a match or not – to be pulled out of bed the next morning and instructed to umpire an early match. So the standard of umpiring varied considerably in quality right through to the late 1980s when qualified and experienced umpires were invited to the Festival.
Two pitches were laid out in the centre of the sports arena and as there was not yet a running track surrounding the centre grass these were full-size pitches. On the grass elsewhere in the park five other pitches were laid out – three official pitches and two kept for practice and relief wet weather pitches. Apart from under the two arena pitches there was no drainage, so in many years the parkland pitches were exceedingly muddy and uneven.
Whilst the Festival was to begin on Good Friday morning and finish mid-afternoon on Easter Monday, there was to be no hockey played on the Sunday, Easter Day. This was a stipulation of the Council and reflected the feelings and beliefs of the time – Sundays were a day of rest and under no circumstances could the people of Blackpool be affronted with the sight of two-hundred and fifty men playing hockey on Easter Day.
This ‘day of rest’ continued until 1956 when the Council relented to permit one Sunday game – A Festival Select XI against a County Select XI.
It was not to be until 1968 that full-scale Sunday fixtures were played.
For many years no record of the results was made. All matches were regarded as ‘friendlies’. It was not until 1969 that, under pressure from players to make things more competitive, a league was produced. Then in 1972 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Festival George Greaves presented a fine solid-silver cup to be presented to the team with the best record at the completion of each Festival. When this George Greaves Trophy could hold no more inscriptions it was replaced with The Danson Cup in 2011.
Of course the social scene is a vital ingredient of any festival, but only token arrangements were on offer in the early years The programme for the 1952 Festival states ‘MORNING COFFEE, LIGHT REFRESHMENTS AND TEAS MAY BE OBTAINED AT THE STANLEY PARK CAFÉ DURING PLAYING HOURS (how many players today would be searching for morning coffee?)
The only organised social event was: An opening Dinner has been arranged for Friday, April 11th, at the Casino, South Shore at 6.45pm. His Worship the Mayor of Blackpool has been invited as a guest of honour of the Blackpool Hockey Festival, and all Clubs are asked to give the Dinner their full support.
It was also suggested that players might care to meet at a local pub – The Fleece – in the evenings.
Once it had become firmly established in many players’ calendars, the Festival developed at a rapid rate. Clubs and touring squads started returning year after year.
An important development came in 1969 with the forming of a partnership with Blackpool Cricket Club. Being adjacent to the Stanley Park, this was to be henceforth the social centre of the Festival. The following year ‘mixed’ hockey was introduced, something that was soon to become a major feature of the Festival.
Recognising the growing importance of the Festival to the town’s economy and reputation, in 1976 Blackpool Council presented The Centenary Trophy to mark the centenary of the borough’s charter. It was decided to award the trophy each year to an individual or organisation that has made special contributions to the Festival.
As the number of applications for entry grew the organising committee recognised the need for hiring pitches at venues beyond the Park. These have been, variously, Kirkham Grammar School, Rossall School, Lytham St. Annes High School, King Edward V11 and Queen Mary School and, currently, the Blackpool Fylde College at Bispham.
The provision of two astroturf pitches in Stanley Park in 1986 transformed the Festival to the extent that players of high quality started coming along to experience what many call The Magic that is Blackpool.
To this should be added that the Cricket Club in very recent times has allowed two high-quality grass pitches to be laid out on its outfield.
The Festival has had the good fortune to have had a succession of individuals who have been totally committed to continuing and improving the Festivals.
The Founder of the Festival, George Greaves, retained commitment to the Festival as its President until his death in 1990. His successor, the hugely-popular ‘Bunny’ Wain, was only in post as President for a few months before he too died after very many years service in other capacities.
George Robson, having attended every Festival since 1965, was then appointed as both President and Chairman and remains in post these many years later.
In most organisations it is the Secretary who is the key figure and who drives things along. Tim Oddy gave sterling service until the mid-seventies when Peter Danson from Buxton HC stepped forward to become both secretary and fixture secretary. With an intense passion for his sport, Peter was from the start an outstanding force behind the Festivals, becoming known as Mr Blackpool. One of his many innovations was the introduction of ladies’ hockey in 1997.
Before deciding to step down in 2011 he ensured a new, talented group of devotees were in place to take over the running the Festivals.
From 2011 to date the new enlarged committee has found many new sponsors and has massively expanded the social aspects of the Festival. A five year plan has been devised to develop the Festival into the major British hockey festival.
With no shortage of team applications, a band of reliable qualified umpires, three astroturf pitches, two quality grass pitches, a stunning programme of social events, an ever-growing talented and dedicated organising committee as well as the backing of both the Cricket Club and Blackpool Council, the future of the Festival is assured.
Festival President and Chairman