The rich history of St James Park – Exeter’s largest football stadium

David Banks's picture
Authored by David Banks
Posted Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 5:01am

St James Park stadium, home to the Exeter City football club called the Grecians. The field, named after the towering church that’s kept watch over the grounds since its consecration in 1836, possesses a rich history stretching back as far as 1654. Over the course of the nineteenth century people have referred to the two adjoining properties in a number of different ways, including “the field adjoining St James’s Church; St James’s Park; and St James Field” with some names having seen greater popularity than others.

The venue built on land known as Parish Field during the 1800s became Exeter’s City Stadium since its founding in 1904. The land, originally owned by Lady Anne Clifford a philanthropist, rented out the field as farmland to establish a charitable trust during 1654, in memory of her beloved mother, using part of the rent to pay towards the apprenticeship of one of the poorer children.

During the early 1800s Parish Field under curatorship of trustees, described as a section of land located near Exeter, still rented out on seven-year terms until Exeter City eventually began renting the ground during the 1890s to use for Association Football. The rental agreement continued throughout the First World War, used to host Southern League matches, until 1921 when the city finally purchased the land from the trust.

During July 1886, highlighted at a City Council meeting, it appears the proximity of a pig grazing field to nearby houses had become a problem. The meeting concluded with the Inspector of Nuisances having received instruction for serving immediate notice to take further proceedings the moment any pigs became a nuisance.

Interestingly, cricket seems most likely the first sport played on the field, during May 1878 it became home to the St James Institute Cricket Club as part of a move to establish a social centre for the local parish. The 1890s saw James Field become one of the city’s principal sporting venues, alongside County Ground which became new home to The Exeter Rugby Club.

In January 1914, it became a crowd and bookmaking favourite as the grounds saw its most significant sporting event, the hosting of a second round FA Cup tie where a crowd of 9,600 witnessed champions Aston Villa defeat unlucky losers, City, 2-1. Since these proleptic days the popularity of both football and bookmakers, especially that of online sportsbooks such as bet365, have grown immensely.

During 1994 the club troubled by financial difficulties sold the grounds to Beazer Homes, only to have it repurchased by Exeter City Council who again offered to lease it back to the club. As of late many of the venue’s historical buildings have started showing signs their age, mostly brought about by financial neglect. Finances improved during the 1996 season, which saw the club start to reinvest, refurbish, and redevelop St James Park.

Its first major move started in 2000 with the rebuilding of the Big Bank stand to seat 2000 spectators, followed by the complete replacement of the Cowshed terrace in 2001 while a school building formerly belonging to the nearby St James school also underwent a remodelling and repurposing to turn it into a new social club, corporate conference/banqueting and hospitality facilities.