THE CRITTALL SPORTSGROUND and TENNIS IN BRAINTREE
A recent historical perspective by Phil Welch
The club is the successor to the Tennis section of the Crittall Social and Athletic Club that began with the opening of the Crittall Sports Ground in 1920. The ground stretched from Cressing Road to the site of the new Millennium Way. It housed football, cricket, bowls, tennis, rounders and Braintree’s first athletics track. At this time Braintree’s large employers all provided sports grounds but this was the most comprehensive. Over the years since its heyday in the late 1930’s and again just after the war parts of the ground were sold off, almost all to continue the sports clubs began by Crittalls. The Crittall Tennis section became the leading club of the Halstead and District Tennis League and its grass courts housed the League’s individual tournaments as well as team matches. As the 1970’s unfolded the cost of sports ground maintenance became a difficulty for Crittalls. The first part to go was the Football Club, which purchased its part of the ground and became independent although it retains to this day the nickname “The Iron” which dates from the Crittall days. By 1982 the surrounds of the tennis courts had become so dilapidated that they were no longer acceptable for league tennis. The Tennis section closed but with Crittalls support a private members club was formed having about 20 members.
A tradition born of necessity began in 1982 as members worked to maintain the courts and clubhouse. The courts were ready for the first season in 1983 and much work on the (old) clubhouse was undertaken. Many building and court improvements followed as the tennis activities widened to include Open Tournaments, coaching, an expanded tennis programme, and perhaps most significantly the first Summer School for juniors in 1987. In 1989 the Crittall move to Springwood was announced, which began a long period of uncertainty for the Tennis Club. In 1991 Crittalls left the Clockhouse Way ground and the Tennis Club were told to leave. After an appeal to Norcross, then Crittalls parent company, and with support from Braintree District Council the Club was allowed to stay temporarily on the ground. Throughout 1992/3 the worries about the future continued and caused a severe decline in membership numbers. Towards the end of this period Norcross appointed Tim Rix (a tennis player!) to manage their interests in Braintree. The Club was given assurances about its future, which guaranteed courts on this site or elsewhere in Braintree if a planned development of the ground for housing was allowed. A Public Enquiry reported in November 1993 refusing support for the development. Norcross made an agreement with Braintree District Council covering all the Crittall sites in Braintree. Ownership of the sports ground was transferred to the District Council. Its dilapidated state was a concern for the Council, so its restoration became one of the first problems to be tackled under the Single Regeneration Budget for East Braintree. The Tennis Club, together with the Football Club and Braintree Cricket Club worked with the Council to plan and carry out the restoration of the ground for the three outdoor sports.
The Tennis Club decided to use the major part of their SRB allocation to make an application to the National Lottery for support to build new all-weather courts and refurbish the grass courts. The ground was leased to the Tennis Club but a misunderstanding occurred about the crediting of the newly acquired ground in the partnership contribution to the rebuilding. The District Council’s Officers and Members were determined that this project should succeed. To their great credit they agreed that the ground lease would be for 50 years at a rent of one peppercorn. Hence the Lottery grant, which had been in danger, was made for £72 000. The Council also helped the project in three further ways. They provided accounting services, cash flow and technical advice. The project was managed by close co-operation between the Club and the Council. Because it was part of an SRB operation no VAT was levied on the expenditure.
Work on the new courts began in February 1996 and on the buildings in August. The new courts came into use for the 1996 summer season. Work on the buildings, completing the original project and then further phases, continued for six years. There is now a first-class Clubhouse and workshop, which is probably the finest at any members club in the county.
For the first time a professional coach worked at the club in 1997 causing the number of juniors coached to treble. The senior and junior membership numbers began to recover as activities expanded. Work with primary schools began with support from the Lawn Tennis Association. The Open Tournaments continued to attract entries from a wide area of Essex and Suffolk. Junior Ratings Tournaments were introduced. THE Coach changed twice until the present incumbent Rob Hardy accepted a near full-time contract. Very successful schemes for junior training have been introduced. The Summer Schools have run for 16 consecutive years, often two weeks, next year probably three. The half-term holiday just ended saw a veritable hive of activity every day. The Club had 11 senior and 4 junior teams in league play last summer. The Club has changed from its struggling and little-known image in the early 1990’s to a thriving and very successful organisation today. A symbol of this success was, last year, a junior player being ranked No 1 in his age group in Essex.