Pleasantville was the location of St. John’s premier cricket ground, used for 30-40 years at the end of the 19th Century. At the height of its popularity, thousands watched cricket there, with a grandstand capable of seating hundreds.
Charles Hunt wrote in the Newfoundland Quarterly many years after its decline:-
“All who can remember the cricket matches that were played at Pleasantville know what an ideal ground it was for the playing of the game. The level and spacious ground, the pleasant and picturesque surroundings, the distance from the city, the hospitality of the nearby hotel all tended to give to players and spectators the holiday spirit and to help them derive the greatest possible pleasure from the best of all games.”
The history of the ground is somewhat unclear in that many records were lost in the Great Fire of 1892, so it is not known when games were first played there. The ground was located in the area where the Caribou softball complex and indoor soccer facility are now located, on flat lying land on the north shore of Quidi Vidi Lake. The ground was some distance from the city- 3 miles from the city centre, and well outside of the built up area in the 19th century. The area was farmed from the 1740s onwards, notably by the Ross family, who held a large area of land. In 1874, a large area was declared public land, and set aside for recreation. It is likely that this land was used occasionally for cricket from 1875 onwards (there is a photo of cricketers at Pleasantville in the Provincial Archives with the suggestion it was taken in the 1850s, but it seems probable this is incorrect, and the photo was from a later date; photography was in a primitive state in St. John’s in the 1850s, and this photograph seems to be using a more modern process).
The first newspaper record located to date of cricket at Pleasantville is of a match in 1875 between the Legal and Metropolitan clubs. Records from 1875 to 1891 are sparse as most scorebooks and newspapers were lost in the Great Fire of 1892. We do know cricket was played there, and there are cords of games between the Clergymen of the city, and the Lawyers (the clergymen won), and in 1886 a match between teetotalers and moderate drinkers. PJ Myler in his book “Recollections of Cricket in Newfoundland” marks the period 1880 to 1900 as the peak of St. John’s cricket, with the majority of big matches played in Pleasantville. The Parade ground in town was used for practice, but was sloping, small, and crowded.
Myler comments on the cost of playing at Pleasantville- a tent for scorers or teams had to be carried by horse and cart to the field the day before (although he does recount he and team-mates carrying a tent on their backs). To attend cricket matches it was necessary to take a day or half day off to go to Pleasantville, and as there was no cheap way of getting to or from the grounds, most of those who would like to attend had to walk.
The peak of use was in the 1890s. The field was of good size, and surrounded by a cinder track used for bicycle racing. A grandstand was constructed – photographs of a team posing on it exist in the provincial archives, and it was at least 20 rows of seats high. The scorers had a tent set up at the west end of the ground. In the early days there was no boundary, and all hits were run out- with often the spectators interfering with fielders. By the 1890s the boundary was in place. Crowds were substantial- into the thousands for big matches, and refreshments were available at the nearby hotel “Peter’s” – named after the owner and local landowner Peter Routledge. The hotel later changed hands and became known as Dooley’s. For big matches, the hotel served the players lunch, and visiting teams were entertained there after a match with a hot supper, and sometimes a concert. Admission was charged- 5 cents, but those who could not afford it could watch the game from a distance from the hills rising north of the field.
The wicket would have been cut from natural turf, and given typical St. John’s summers would often have been wet and challenging to bat on. Scores from the period suggest any team totalling 100 or more had done well, and 150 was considered a big score. One century was recorded by Lieutenant Rowe of HMS Pelican against the City – his score of 108 stood for many years as a record for the province until Rahul Vashishtha beat it with an innings of 161 in 2017.
In 1892, the Great Fire devastated St. John’s in July, and the cricket season was abandoned for the year. Over 11,000 were left homeless; the cricket field was one of several open spaces used to house them in tents and other temporary accommodation.
The majority of matches were between the clubs of the city- the dominant Shamrocks, the Terra Nova club, the Mechanics, the Avalon Club, Feildians, and others. The ground did host visitors – frequent matches took place against visiting Navy ships. In 1896 a combined City XI took on the Wanderers club from Halifax, a strong team that beat the city in the first match and had the better part of a draw in the second. In 1900, the Zingari Club of Boston visited, with two matches against a city side – each team winning one.
The 1900 season was the last for which Pleasantville was used as the main ground. The league chose to play its matches in town on the St. Georges field in 901. The main factor was the distance of Pleasantville from the city, but the move to a substandard facility was thought by some to be a contributing factor to the decline of cricket- the game was close to dead by 1910.
The field was still there, and played an important part in Newfoundland history, when it was chosen as the training base for the Newfoundland regiment as it prepared to embark for France in 1914. A tent city was established, and the field was used as the parade ground. It was used as an assembly point and training ground through the fall of 1914 and into 1915. Many of the “First 500” who left Newfoundland from the Pleasantville Ground did not return.
The ground was the site of more non-cricketing excitement in 1919 where it was the take off point for two unsuccessful attempts at flying across the Atlantic, but then fell into disuse until developed by the US Military as part of Fort Pepperell in the second world war.
The area continues to be used for sport, with the Caribou softball complex and indoor soccer facility built in that area. Cricket returned to Pleasantville briefly in 2011 when an exciting match between University and City took place in the indoor soccer centre.
Dave Liverman, August 2018