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hurlingham [ archive ]
legends of the ball

Before creating a national home for British polo, the Cowdray family revived the game post-war and first paved the way for international competition, as Liz Higgins reports

Victorian engineer and industrialist Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson purchased the Cowdray estate at Midhurst, West Sussex, in 1909. His eldest son, the Hon Harold Pearson, had learnt to play polo at Oxford University and his love of the sport resulted in grounds being laid out at Cowdray House in 1910. Chukkas started in April, although most competitions coincided with the festival of racing at nearby Goodwood in late July – the principal cup being the Cowdray Park Challenge Cup still played for today. When Harold acquired the estate in 1919, he renamed his ‘Capron House’ team (named after his former residence) to ‘Cowdray Park’ accordingly. The yellow of their shirts was their signature colour to match the Liberal Party, which he and his father supported.

The new Lord Cowdray’s only son, John, shared his father’s passion for the sport and also played at Oxford, as well as at home with three of his five sisters. Tragically, in 1933 Lord Cowdray died aged just 51 and John, at 23, inherited the estate. He was to prove even more important to the game than his father.

Polo came to a halt during World War II. Every piece of available land was cultivated to support the war effort, and – as cavalry regiments had given way to mechanisation – there were few ponies or indeed players left at war’s end. John Cowdray single-mindedly instituted a revival of polo in the UK, despite having lost his left arm at Dunkirk. With great bravery he had an artificial limb fitted so he could continue to play. He imported 50 ponies from Argentina and by summer 1947 he was organising tournaments and loaning ponies to friends. His team was often augmented by his sisters Yoskyl, Angela and Daphne.

In 1948 the Cowdray Park Challenge Cup drew a large number of spectators including Argentinians Jack Nelson and Luis Lacey, who thought the standard of play good enough to invite an English team to Argentina. A year later, John Cowdray took English players to play in the Argentine Open and in 1951 offered a return visit for the first revival of the Coronation Cup since 1939.

During the early Fifties, thousands flocked to the grounds to catch a glimpse of Princess Elizabeth and her dashing husband Prince Philip, who often played for Cowdray Park. In 1955, when the Prince formed his own polo club in Windsor Great Park, the Coronation Cup was given a new home. John Cowdray decided to launch his own major trophy, the Cowdray Park Gold Cup. The first tournament was played in 1956 and was a huge success. The home team had its first win in 1958, beating Woolmers Park 10-3. They appeared in the final 11 more times, the most memorable being in 1990 when the match went into two extra chukkas and Hildon finally snatched victory at 10-9.

For more than 50 years, Cowdray’s members have watched the world’s greatest polo players in action during the Gold Cup, witnessing 16-year-old Adolfo Cambiaso winning the Gold Cup with Tramontana in 1991; seeing Carlos Gracida win the cup ten

Thousands came to catch a glimpse of Princess Elizabeth and her dashing husband

times; as well as watching prominent players such as Withers, the Hipwoods, Hill, Gonzalez, Heguy and Merlos, all of whom conjure up exciting moments in the Gold Cup’s illustrious history. And telling the story has been the Voice of Polo himself, Terry Hanlon, who joined the club in 1975.

John Cowdray was keen to see as many young people as possible get a chance to play, and in 1977 offered a home for the Pony Club Polo Championships. The finals are still played on the famous Cowdray Lawns.

The polo community mourned the death of John Cowdray in January 1995. He made Cowdray Park a mecca for polo enthusiasts, raised awareness of the sport and set many young players on the path to professional careers. His greatest legacy is the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the club that plays more polo than any other in the UK, with a full programme of domestic competitions, six HPA tournaments, an international test match and four weeks of the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup for the British Open Polo Championship which remains to this day the trophy that every player dreams of winning.