The City of Perth is fortunate to have two huge expanses of open parkland. Called the North and South Inches, it was at the latter that the players of the infant St Johnstone FC trained and played their earliest home matches.
It's widely accepted that the Club was formed in 1884 but during research on his book "Bristling with Possibilities – The Official History of St Johnstone FC" published in 1997, author Alastair Blair found, within the pages of The Perthshire Constitutional newspaper dated 25th February 1885, a report on a meeting, which had taken the previous evening. The report read as follows: "At a meeting of the St Johnstone Cricket Club held on 6th inst. It was proposed to start an Association Football Club. A meeting for that purpose was held last night, when the following office bearers were elected...". So the Club was actually formed on 24th February 1885 but for the sake of simplicity and consistency the year 1884 continues to be shown within the club crest.
Although it appears that members of the St Johnstone Cricket Club had certainly first kicked a ball around on the inch in the summer and autumn of 1884, the first ever match played by St Johnstone FC took place on 7th March 1885 when Caledonian Railway were defeated 1-0. That historic game of football took place on the South Inch – in all probability, to be exact, it is likely to have taken place on the Lesser South Inch, the area of parkland to the east of the road to Edinburgh which is still used for football to this day.
Four more matches were played at the South Inch but it became clear that if the fledgling club was going to establish itself as a serious footballing force they were going to have to follow the lead of other Perth sides such as Fair City Athletic and Pullars Rangers and find themselves a ground they could call their own.
The twenty original members of the Club each gave £1 and following negotiations with Sir Robert Moncrieff over the summer of 1885 a lease was taken out on a strip of land known as Craigie Haugh. Directly opposite Perth prison (itself opened in 1842) the new ground was situated just behind the present-day petrol station on land now occupied by Stephens the housebuilder.
The ground was named the St Johnstone Recreation Grounds and was to be home for the club until 1924. The official opening of the ground took place on 15th August 1885 when the highly respected – and already seven times winners of the Scottish Cup - Queen's Park took on Our Boys of Dundee, the Glasgow side winning 6-0.
St Johnstone's first game at their new home was on 12th September 1885 when Dundee side Our Boys Old Boys inflicted a 6-2 defeat.
In the years that followed Saints made extensive use of their ground. Friendly matches, the many cup competitions which were the order of the day at that time (Perthshire Cup, Reid Cup, Atholl Cup), Northern League (Saints admitted in 1891), Scottish FA Cup, Central League, City and County League – all these competitions and many more featured at the Edinburgh road venue.
The playing surface was frequently, to put it kindly, 'on the soft side'. In his book, Alastair Blair tells of the time in 1909 when Saints were drawn at home to Rangers in the 1st round of the Scottish Cup. It was the biggest game in the club's twenty four year history but in the preceding week the Recreation Grounds were so badly flooded that the Fire Brigade spent from Thursday morning to Friday at noon pumping water from the playing surface. A group of volunteers then scraped the pitch and spread several tons of cinders on it and despite further rain – and the offer of £100 from Rangers to switch the tie to Glasgow – the match took place as scheduled with Rangers winning 3-0.
Water ingress to the park continued to be a problem over the years – four years later such a problem occurred DURING a Scottish Cup 2nd round tie against East Fife on 8th February 1913. The Perthshire Courier report from the time states "The game had not been long in progress when water commenced to make its appearance round the track ...the tide sent the water back the drain pipes and got outlet at various parts around the pitch. As the water made, so speculation was rife as to the match being brought to an abrupt conclusion before time had expired. Deep trenches were made and a willing staff of workers were kept employed bailing out the water. It was no 'small drop in the bucket' but a God flood and but for the energy of Groundsman McVean and his many helpers coping with the 'invasion', the match could not have been played out."
The Courier reporter went onto say "It can be said safely that there has been more money spent by St Johnstone in trying to combat the elements as affecting the ground than the cost of fitting up a palatial establishment where the floods cometh not! Countless matches have had to be postponed through flooding and thousands of tons of sand and cinders have been sunk in the bog ...the pitch must be heightened about five feet or another ground secured. This question of ground cannot be put off much longer; the existence of the Club is at stake."
Two years later and the troublesome playing surface found another use with large areas of it being turned over to the military authorities as part of the Great War effort and the club had to make representations to those authorities to repair the pitch once the War effort had ended.
We can’t be 100% sure but it is likely that the biggest crowd ever to watch a game at the St Johnstone Recreation Grounds was the approximately 12,000 who crammed in for a promotion battle with Clydebank in April 1923 – Saints won the game but didn't make the First Division.
A meeting of the Club shareholders held in the Guild Hall on 26th February 1924 spelled the beginning of the end for "The Recs". Attendees were informed that it was an informal meeting to get the views on the requirement for a new grandstand at the existing ground or a move to a new home.
Mr Charles Craig submitted the following report: "The present playing pitch is 110 yards by 70 yards with 5 yard margins round same. The access to the high embankments at three corners is very much restricted and the only available place for the grandstand would be with its back to Proudfoot Buildings. The aspect was none too good as the afternoon sun would be shining into the face of the stand occupants. It was estimated that to prevent recurrence of flooding it would be necessary to raise the present level by three feet. This would probably cost £3,000-£4,000 including cutting turf and relaying same with all the necessary drains and outlets, but did not include making embankments in and round the playing pitch. The turf proposed would require to be carted from the nearest source available. The present stand and pavilion would require to be demolished and as these buildings were in more or less a dilapidated condition would be of no value when they moved, but would rather incur further outlay. The attention of the directors had been drawn to the difficulties in controlling large crowds leaving after the finish of matches owing to the congested nature of the exits."
The ground Committee having carefully considered all the circumstances were forced to the conclusion that the reconstruction of the present ground was not practical and a move to a new stadium was the only option.
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