In his book on Stephen Spender John Sutherland writes that during a visit to Gibraltar in the 1930s, his Uncle, Arthur Loveday had urgently advised him to join the Gibraltar Polo Club if he " wanted to meet anybody at all decent." It would seem that during the early 20th century chasing a ball on horseback was beginning to rival hunting foxes as an upper class pastime for the military of Gibraltar - and perhaps one or two civilians.1
A picture that perhaps conveys the enormous popularity of horse based sports in the Campo area among the British in Gibraltar
It has been argued that Polo on the European continent was first played in Malta in the 1870s, although 'hockey on horseback' was also played by Hussar officers in 1869. Whatever the case, Gibraltar was not all that far behind - The Gibraltar Garrison Polo Club was founded as early as 1881. 2
Less than six years later In July 1897, the first international match took place in the Aramilla grounds in Granada. The newly formed Gibraltar Garrison Polo Club team took on a Spanish team was captained by the Marquis de Larios ( see LINK ) with his brothers Ernesto and Leopoldo and the Duque of Arión. Larios was in fact a dual nationality Gibraltarian and no less than the Master of the Calpe Hunt. ( see LINK )
1891 - Pablo Larios
The Marqués de Torre-Soto - when he was just plain Don Pedro Gonzalez - is reputed to be the first Spaniard to play the game. He apparently learned it in England at a time when it was probably only played by cavalry officers.
The Marqués de Torre-Soto on his 87th birthday
The first game was played - around 1870 - rather spontaneously in open countryside with goals marked by poles stuck in the ground. It seems to have petered out for a while but was restarted in 1893 when several people with English surnames - Audley Blyth, Archibald Gold and Sidney Gold - arrived in town in 1893. Thay are attributed to have been responsible for reviving it. Although there is no evidence one way or the other it is possible that these gentlemen may have been from Gibraltar. The upshot was the creation of the Club de Polo de Jerez,
The first games were often the result of friendly reunions between friends rather than seriously organised matches. Gonzales supplied the ponies and the equipment - including the headgear which was in those day in the form of a Goya. The local Jerezana saddle was eventually replaced by more practical English gear - as was the Goya hat to the pillbox which was in vogue in England. 3
A proper polo ground built on the vineyards of El Pinar ensured that matches against the Gibraltar Garrison Polo Club became regular features and continued unabated until 1931 when the creation of the Spanish Second Republic seems to have made the wealthy reconsider whether they should continue to flaunt their expensive perks as they had in the past.
A young player posing in the Alameda Grand Parade in the 1910s. At the time, polo was played in Campamento every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3.30 pm on the dot.
But the British had other options. According to an article in the Polo Magazine, the game was played three times a week, from October to May, in nearby Tangier and matches between teams from Gibraltar, the Navy and the French Cavalry at Rabat were commonplace. 4
The suggestion is that it was not just the military who enjoyed the sport; civilian teams were also involved. Nevertheless apart from the Larios family - who might just count as Gibraltarians - I have not been able to trace the names of any locals who may have actually taken part.
1914 - A polo team from Gibraltar somewhere near Campamento
One of the problems with playing the game was the need for the right kind of horse - or pony. During a match some players required a fresh pony for each game or chukker. Four per player was not unusual and it would not do to use any old nag. The East Surrey Battalion, for example, seem to have spent most of their waking moments playing sport and - among other achievements - were renowned for their polo playing prowess. When they were transferred from Jersey to Gibraltar, their hunting and polo playing activities were serious curtailed. They had been forced to leave their chargers behind.
In Tangier the local sources were French owned Anglo-Arabs and Barbs, although British officers often went to the enormous inconvenience of bringing their own from Gibraltar. 4
1927-28 Regimental Polo Team. Winners, Gibraltar Garrison Polo Cup
Lt Magee, Lt Maurice, Lt Lawton, Lt Kennedy
Certain regiments were less keen on the sport than others. In 1935 two infantry regiment contributed between them nearly fifty per cent of the membership. When they left it is quite obvious from the following quote that a lot of fingers were kept well crossed that their replacements would fill the gap.
The two new regiments, Ist Bn. The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and 2nd Bn. The Gordon Highlanders, are both very keen on polo, and when they have suited them-selves to ponies will no doubt give a good account of themselves. The usual tournaments all promise to attract good entries, even if the standard will not be as high as in previous years. Capt. M. Ripley, the honorary secretary of the Gibraltar Polo Club, writes on May 23rd: "At the time of writing an unusual feature of this season is that we have already been stopped ten days' play, due to rain almost as England! "
Getting ready for a game.
Not even the Spanish Civil War was able to stop members of the Gibraltar Garrison from playing the game. Writing about polo on the Rock during those dark days, a correspondent of the Field magazine proved that it would take more than a bloody civil war to dampen the ardour of the officers of the British army in Gibraltar when it came to playing two of their most cherished activities.
When Spain was closed we played polo on the centre of the Gibraltar Race-course at North Front. We played chukkers of three a side with a large rubber ball, as the ground is mostly soft sand. Soon after permission had been given for the hounds to exercise in Spain, the Spanish authorities allowed us to go out to play polo again at Campamento, where we are still playing .
Normally polo stops at the end of September to give the ponies a rest before the hunting season, and generally the autumn rains make the ground unplayable, but this year the weather has been kind and the going at Campamento is now far better than ever it is in the summer. 5
Gibraltar 1927 - Lt Magee, Lt Kennedy, Capt Lunn, Lt Lawton, Lt Doyle, Lt Maurice.
In fact even though the Club's activities ended rather abruptly on July 18th 1936, the grounds were only closed for about three months. As hunting remained out of the question, tournaments continued to be held even throughout the winter weather permitting. When the 1937 Spring season began, there were even more members available than the previous year. 6
1938 - Teams from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment (Andrew Schembri - with thanks)
World War II seems to have curtailed polo playing - at least as a sport enjoyed by Garrison officers. Over the years it seems to have become something of an adjunct to the Calpe Hunt without ever achieving the kind of international popularity and fame enjoyed by this particular institution. The sad lack of involvement by local residents is - in a sense - par for the course.
1960s photo of an area in Campamento close to where the game was played and still known locally today as el Polo