Thomas Paton: the forgotten man of 1911?

Whilst we rightly laud the achievements of Peter O’Rourke and he is often (rightly) cited as Bradford City’s greatest ever manager, the role of one other individual in City’s golden era, punctuated by the 1911 F.A. Cup win, is often forgotten.

What is overlooked is the fact that the role of a “manager” was very different in the early twentieth century. One of the fundamental differences was that the manager wasn’t responsible for team selection – clubs tended to have a selection committee, consisting of club directors. Though at City we have all-too recent memories of the effect of a club director (with a background in accounting) being involved with team selection, there is a much more positive example of this.

For the period from 1909 to 1911, City’s selection committee was chaired by Thomas Paton. Paton’s role in this most glorious of eras for City has at best been understated and at worst completely disregarded.

Tom Paton was a Scot, born on 26 February 1871 in Ratho, Midlothian to William and Flora Paton.[1]

His first involvement in football administration was as secretary of the St. Bernard’s football club in Edinburgh, a role he was undertaking when only 18 years old.[2] He trained to be an accountant and by the late 1890s his career had brought him to the West Riding.

He was appointed secretary of the Bradford based Yorkshire Woolcombers’ Association (Limited) in November 1899 and then went on to set up an accountancy practice, initially on his own but eventually in partnership with others (the firm of Paton, Boyce and Welch).

His first publicised involvement with City appears to have been in 1906 (though it seems likely that he had been a member of the club since its outset). At that time, the club was run by a committee elected by its members and Paton put himself forward to be elected to that committee at the club’s Annual General Meeting in May 1906. As it happens, at the AGM, it was resolved that a report be commissioned into the club’s financial affairs (which were not in great shape) and the election of new committee members was postponed. Whether the report was at the behest of Tom Paton isn’t clear, but his expertise as an accountant would have assisted. He led the report and presented it at a further meeting in June 1906. The end result of this process was the decision to incorporate the club as a limited liability company (albeit that didn’t happen until 1908).[3] The other important recommendation made in Paton’s presentation was that a “Team Selection Committee” of three members be formed.[4]

Following the report, Paton withdrew his nomination for election to the committee.[5] However, he continued to be a member of the club and was clearly an important figure behind the scenes. He was a prominent figure in calling for amalgamation with Park Avenue in 1907.[6] In 1908, the Athletic News reported the following:

“On January 20, this year, the directors and players of Bradford City were entertained to dinner by the members of the club. Mr. Thomas Paton was the chairman and referring to professionalism, he said that if a man had a gift for playing football, and it was a gift, he saw no reason why he should not earn as much in ten years by the game as he could have earned otherwise in thirty years. But what Mr. Paton wished to say to players was that they should live upon the wages they would have otherwise received at their ordinary occupation and save the extra money they got out of football. It was the duty of the selection committee to see, as far as possible, that the players provided for the inevitable rainy day, so that when their feet had lost their cunning they would not look back on football as a curse, but as a blessing.

Those are words of wisdom. Mr. Thos. Paton has a lifelong experience of the game and players.”[7]

These were fairly enlightened views for the time (the Athletic News noting “If Bradford City can find the time to show such a real interest in the welfare of their players, other clubs can do the same”).

Paton was elected to the board of the club on 26 February 1909 (receiving 179 votes from the shareholders).[8] The next month he was appointed as chairman of the team selection committee (and was also appointed to the club’s finance committee).[9] However, Paton’s influence on player recruitment likely pre-dates this formal appointment. It can be no coincidence that James Logan and Jimmy McDonald joined from St. Bernard’s in 1905 and 1907 respectively. Peter Logan and Harry Graham would also arrive from St. Bernard’s after Paton’s appointment.

Perhaps his first masterstroke following his appointment was the capture of Dicky Bond in May 1909. Bond was already a well-known player, an international and regular in the top flight for Preston. The likes of Jimmy Speirs, Mark Mellors, Frank Thompson and Archie Devine would follow – many of these players forming the bedrock of City’s success over the next few seasons.

Paton’s contacts back in Scotland were invaluable. The recruitment of Scottish players was a very deliberate policy, it being considered that English players were more costly option. Paton himself (being interviewed prior to the 1911 Cup Final) said:

“For instance, to get a player of equal capacity to Bond, we should have to pay an English club at least a thousand pounds. But we can go into Scotland and get uncut stuff cheap and polish it up here. And when we’ve got it and made it into a footballer, even then the anxieties of the directors are not at an end. Only when the season is over can we say to ourselves ‘Well now, it is done with for a bit, anyhow.’”[10]

There is however a sense that, by 1911, the duties were getting a little too much for Tom Paton. At a shareholders’ meeting held at the Mechanics’ Institute in February 1911, he stated that it was with “great diffidence” that he was agreeing to continue as a director and that he found his work as chairman of the Team Selection Committee more than he had bargained for.[11]

The cup success of course followed this a couple of months later. Paton was rightly acknowledged as an architect of this success in the press, the Athletic News describing him as being part of a “Triumvirate”, saying:

“For some time past three men have been instrumental in the building up of Bradford City. I refer to Mr. Pollack (the chairman), Mr. Tom Paton, and Mr. O’Rourke… For a long time Mr. Paton of the well-known firm of Paton, Boyce, and Co., the accountants, was the man behind the scenes. He was the motive power, but there came a day when Mr. Pollack talked of resigning unless Mr. Paton consented to join the board of directors. Since then there has been no concealment of Mr. Paton’s handiwork. The sleeping partner became more active than ever – and probably most of those who have sat with him will agree that Mr. Tom Paton has been the brain of the machine – particularly in the engagement of players and the selection of the team. Combined with the shrewdness and tact of his race – he is an Edinburgh man – he has a high sense of honour.

Moreover he is the very pink of politeness unless his sense of honour is offended. When he is vexed he speaks his mind. He once wrote a letter to the chairman of a famous club in this country which concluded thus:-

“A certain poet once said that man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn. I am one of the countless thousands, but having learnt my lesson I hope I shall have the common sense to see that that strictly conscientious club, of which you have the honour to be the active head, shall not be provided with a second opportunity. If anyone does an unfair thing to me I blame him: if he does it a second time I blame myself.”

These are the words of a man whom it is very advisable to secure as a friend by straight and honest dealing. His enmity is, I should say, something to be avoided, although he is slow to anger.

It is impossible to overestimate the work that Mr. Paton has done for Bradford City. He threatened to retire if ever the City won The Cup. The directors must see that he breaks his word. Once upon a time Mr. Paton was connected with the St. Bernard’s club, Edinburgh, when they won the Scottish Cup. Removing to Bradford, he has fallen in love with the great game a second time, and has played a hand in carrying off the English Cup. But he must not be allowed to withdraw into the privacy of his official sanctum. And he will be so annoyed that I have written this about him but I cannot help it.”[12]

Despite these words, the pressures of being chairman of the Team Selection committee manifested themselves following the cup success. In July 1911, the Athletic News reported:

“The annual meeting of the Bradford City F.C. was a happy function, as might have been expected. Yet there was one fly in the pot of ointment. It is not disputed that no man has done more towards the success of the Bradford City team that Mr. Thomas Paton, who last season was chairman of the selection committee. But having done so much, Mr. Paton feels his own profession must in future have a greater share of his attention and he will not be chairman of the selection committee next season. It is a serious loss to the club.”[13]

Tom Paton resigned as a director the next year. However, that was not the end of the story.

By 1928, City were in dire straits, both on and off the field. Tom Paton had already agreed to act as a consultant to the board in May 1927.[14] At the end of the 1927/28 season, the club were in the bottom division of the league and had run out of money. It appeared that the club were heading for liquidation. Local journalist William Sawyer takes up the story:

“It so happened that on a certain day in May I accidentally met Mr. Tom Paton in the Midland Hotel. He had a travelling rug on his arm and was about to join a train for Scotland to commence his summer vacation at his home on the Ayrshire coast. He had no more than a minute or two to spare. “Well,” I said to him, “It looks like the end of the old club.” “It does,” he replied, “and it’s a pity.” Then he had an idea and with characteristic briskness he said “Look here, Bill; if you can get the board to resign and form a new board, including yourself I will provide you with sufficient money to see you through the close season, but you must get all you can elsewhere and keep my name out of it .” With that he went down the private run-way to the station[15] and I did not see him again for some months. I knew, however, that he was a man of his word and I could rely on his promise.”[16]

There is, I believe, a certain amount of journalistic licence in Sawyer’s retelling of events! It had already been well-publicised in April 1928 that Tom Paton had offered to find £6,000 to keep the club going over the summer (albeit the scheme proposed by Paton had fallen through due to the club’s bank being unwilling to agree terms and Paton, consequently, withdrawing his offer).[17] The City supporters club presented a petition to Paton effectively begging him to provide assistance.[18] There was therefore not really any possibility of Paton’s name being kept out of things.

What is clear is that it was Paton’s money that helped keep the club going that summer. He made a loan to the club totalling around £1,250 which allowed the club to survive (this would be around £78,000 in today’s money).

The detail of that period and the amazing season that followed can be read here

This wasn’t the only example of his generosity in 1928. He had also contributed £1,000 towards a fund to build the new Bradford Infirmary at Daisy Hill (this being a donation rather than a loan).[19]

Despite not being on the board, it is clear that Tom Paton was involved behind the scenes. Herbert Chapman, the Leeds City, Huddersfield Town and Arsenal manager said “In the season when Bradford City were promoted from the Third Division, Mr. Tom Paton was the power behind the club, and it was largely through the energy which he threw into the task that promotion was achieved”.[20] That Paton was highly regarded by one of the greatest managers of the inter-war years speaks volumes.

Such was the turnaround in City’s fortunes, they were able to repay Paton in full during the 1929/30 season.[21] It was reported in 1930 that Tom Paton was going to re-join the board of directors but that doesn’t appear to have come to fruition.[22]

Whilst it was reported in 1925 that he was to retire to take up permanent residence in Girvan[23], this appears to have been a very loose concept of retirement! In the 1930s he moved to Middlesex but continued with his business interests in Bradford. He remained a director of Paton, Boyce and Welch until 1945 and at various times he was a director of Salts (Saltaire) Limited, the company running Sir Titus Salt’s great mill.[24] He died (“suddenly” according to the death notice placed in The Times[25]) on 11 September 1946 at the age of 75 (some newspaper reports erroneously gave his age as 78). His effects were valued at £24,476 17s 5d (around a million pounds by today’s standards).[26]

The accountancy firm that he founded in Bradford eventually became Bostocks Boyce Welch. That firm continues in business to this day and fittingly, its managing director, Alan Biggin has, like Paton, been involved at boardroom level at City for several years.

Given that he was very much a “behind the scenes” man, the above probably only scratches the surface as far as Paton’s contribution to the history of Bradford City goes. Thomas Paton deserves to be much more than a footnote in the history of Bradford City and his name should be up there with the likes of O’Rourke and Spiers as greats of the early decades of the club.

by Kieran Wilkinson


[1] Scotland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950 database.

[2] Scottish Referee – Monday 01 July 1889.

[3] Shipley Times and Express – Friday 22 June 1906.

[4] Leeds Mercury – Friday 22 June 1906.

[5] Leeds Mercury – Friday 29 June 1906.

[6] The Jubilee Story of the Bradford City A.F.C. by W. H. Sawyer, 1953.

[7] Athletic News – Monday 25 May 1908.

[8] Leeds Mercury – Saturday 27 February 1909.

[9] Leeds Mercury – Thursday 11 March 1909.

[10] Leeds Mercury – Thursday 20 April 1911.

[11] Leeds Mercury – Friday 24 February 1911.

[12] Athletic News – Monday 01 May 1911.

[13] Athletic News – Monday 03 July 1911.

[14] Leeds Mercury – Thursday 05 May 1927

[15] The “private run-way” remains in situ (notwithstanding that the station which it served has been moved northwards) and is well preserved. The author’s photographs of it can be seen here

[16] The Jubilee Story of the Bradford City A.F.C. by W. H. Sawyer, 1953.

[17] Nottingham Journal – Saturday 28 April 1928.

[18] Leeds Mercury – Friday 04 May 1928.

[19] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – Tuesday 17 April 1928.

[20] p151 Herbert Chapman on Football, Herbert Chapman, 1934.

[21] Leeds Mercury – Friday 28 February 1930.

[22] Lancashire Evening Post – Saturday 22 February 1930.

[23] Sunday Post – Sunday 20 December 1925.

[24] Shipley Times and Express – Wednesday 13 June 1945.

[25] The Times – Friday 13 September 1946.

[26] England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995.


The Sad Demise of Bradford Northern 1963-64 by Ian Hemmens

Over recent years there has been a terrible feeling of deja-vu with regards to the troubles faced by the city’s premier Rugby League club. As the Bradford Bulls, the club had reached the very heights of the sport reaching the pinnacle as World Club Champions, Serial Super League and Challenge Cup Winners. Over ambition, dubious ownership and the eternal problem of Odsal have conspired a downfall few would have forecast during the glory days.

Now, transport back to 1950, the then Bradford Northern were arguably the sports premier club having just achieved a hat-trick of appearances in the the prestigious Challenge Cup, a playing squad full of internationals featuring some of the biggest names in the sport. If you had said to one of the faithful back then that within 13 years the club would have been liquidated after a terminal decline which culminated in a pathetic attendance for one game of a paltry 324 in the vast Odsal bowl that had just 9 years earlier held a World Record crowd of 102,569 for a Challenge Cup Final Replay, you would have been laughed all the way down Manchester Road!

Before we get to that sad occasion we must go back to the glory days of the immediate post war era, the great players of that era started to grow old together and although certain ones were replaced by arguably stronger players who would in turn become club legends, the club slowly lost ground on its opponents, selling players to rival clubs, not replacing proper quality like for like. Huge stars like Ernest Ward & Ken Traill were allowed to move on, others like the great Trevor Foster finally bowed to old Father time and retired. Charismatic Chairman Harry Hornby pulled 2 rabbits out of the hat with the signings of Kiwis Joe Phillips & Jack McLean who went on to become bona fide club legends but they weren’t replaced but the same quality and then when even the lesser players were sold off, the quality dipped even further. The club took a massive hit in the mid-50s when Harry Hornby had to step down due to ill health. Without its major backer and his entrepreneurial ways the club became almost rudderless.

Set against these problems, the post war years had seen a change in lifestyle by a population worn down by 6 years of war. People were wanting a brighter future than had been given to the population after the carnage of the Great War where promises weren’t kept, life was a huge struggle and the Great Depression of the 1930s killed off much of the trade people relied on for just basic living. By the 1950s, Northern were still having to compete with the Citys 2 professional Soccer clubs, 2 dog tracks, a successful Speedway side, a reasonable Rugby Union side at Lidget Green and this was all before non sporting activities begin to be brought into consideration. A boom in picture houses, dance halls, pubs & clubs as well as milk & coffee bars for the ‘new teenagers’ that ‘appeared’ with the arrival of Rock ‘n Roll from the USA. Homes were starting to be able to buy televisions, cars were becoming more affordable and all these things had a pull on the monies people put aside for leisure activities.

We also now have to face the problem of the ‘elephant in the room’, Odsal Stadium itself. The huge bowl has always seemed to have a life of its own climate wise the cost of maintaining such a huge area has always been a millstone for Northern & the Bulls. Even though the likes of Speedway, Stock Cars, Kabbadi & all others sorts of events brought in valuable income, they also brought with them additional costs due to safety aspects pertaining especially to the motor sport events. In the late 50s the club ran a successful pools competition, a precursor to todays lotteries but in their wisdom they dispensed with its creator who took his idea to Keighley RL and created similar success over at Lawkholme Lane. The club had to go cap in hand to the council twice in a 4 year period to try & renegotiate their rental position and to ask for help and although these gave a temporary respite, the financial spiral was still in a downward direction. Crowds had plummeted from an average of 15000 in 1950 to barely 2500 by the late 50s. These would continue to fall as the fare on offer declined. At shareholder meetings, disgruntled fans would ask why the best talent was continually being sold off, why wasn’t there any visible investment from the Board and what were the Boards plans for halting the decline but sadly there weren’t any answers coming from the Board. They seemed trapped in the downward spiral and unable to find solutions.

1963 saw the low point when a meagre 345 souls turned up to see Northern lose 0-29 to Barrow in a game which brought in just £30 in gate receipts. The clock was now ticking and only one more fixture was fulfilled against Leigh before the full truth of the situation emerged to shocked fans. The headline in the T&A on Tuesday December 10th read ‘The End of the Line for Northern’, Money Difficulties mean we can’t go on. The whole Rugby League community fell into shock, never mind the Bradford public. The RL were informed that the club were unable to fulfill their fixtures as there simply wasn’t any money in the kitty.

Trevor Foster-1964-59

Within days, club legend Trevor Foster (pictured) and assorted business associates offered to take over the club if the present board would resign & liquidate it. As 1963 moved into 1964, meetings were had with the Foster consortium and the RL, shareholders, creditors, the Council to find a way forward but the RL dropped a bombshell announcing that as Northern hadn’t been able to fulfill their fixtures, their membership of the RL was at risk and their players could be classed as free agents & able to sign for other clubs as their contracts hadn’t been respected. This blow raged on into the March of 1964 when it was announced that with no further progress in respect of protecting the players contracts, the RL had no other option but to terminate Northerns membership. March 18th 1964 ultimately was the day the founder member of the Northern Union became extinct.

Club legend Joe Phillips had now joined the fight with Foster to save the club and explore any possible avenues open to keeping Northern going. A consortium was quickly formed and public opinion was gauged before approaching the council about the Odsal problem. The authorities thankfully gave their permission for the bowl to be used if the consortium could form a new club. March 23rd saw them then approach the RL for membership for the new club. A public meeting at St Georges Hall attracted over 1500 to hear the consortiums plans. There were pledges of support from former legends Ernest & Donald Ward, Eric Batten & Vic Darlison. Former Coach Dai Rees also sent a telegram with the inspiring message of ‘Its a long way from Birch Lane to Wembley, it can be done again’.

St Georges Hall 1964

A sum of £5000 was needed by the RL as assurances against the fixtures and other requirements. A £1 share option was started to run the club day to day whilst other donations flooded in along with further promises of assistance. Such a success was the share issue that the consortium were able to officially announce the formation of the new club on 20th April 1964. It would be named Bradford Northern (1964) Limited. By the middle of May the sum required by the RL had been reached and membership was granted for the new club. The prompt & proactive action by Trevor Foster had proved vital as any delay might have seen public enthusiasm & also that of the RL wane & possibly die. Even after such a problematic period, there was still an appetite for professional Rugby League in Bradford.

A ground to play on, fixtures to be looked forward to, the new club was up & running but it now needed a team that would be competitive. Fellow RL clubs were approached for any available players whilst from the previous club, only 6 were retained but they were only squad players. A better class was needed and the 1st signing was Jack Wilkinson from Wakefield Trinity who became Player/Coach. New players arrived almost daily with some of good quality & good potential also. The players such as young Scrum half Ian Brooke also from Trinity, Welsh forward Idwal Fisher along with others such as Levula, Lord, Rae finally saw the squad take some shape for the new season. They made their debut in the Headingley Sevens to create a familiarity between the new players. To the surprise of everyone the new squad took the tournament by storm winning the contest by beating Huddersfield 16-7 in the final. Northern were back!

1st Game -1964-25

The months of worry & trepidation, the hours of hard work to build the new club all came to fruition on Saturday 22nd August 1964 in front of a magnificent crowd of 13,542, the opponents being the beaten 1964 Challenge Cup finalists Hull Kingston Rovers which despite a valiant & honourable fight by the new club saw them succumb to a 20-34 defeat. The spirit shown gave the newclub home that they could at least be competitive. 2 more defeats followed both away at Hunslet & Featherstone before finally on 2nd September a first victory was gained with a 20-12 win over Salford.

1st game v Hull KR

Over the season stability was maintained and a final position of 17th out of 30 clubs was a very creditable & respectable return to the sport. Initial struggles in that first season gave the management an idea of the standards required and it was quickly decided that new blood would be required to compete. Of the 1st starting 13, only 5 would be still there at the final game. Names who would become well loved by the Odsal crowds, Dave Stockwell, Terry Clawson, Alan Rhodes & Tommy Smales amongst them. A mammoth cost of £24,500 had been spent on team building brought a seasonal loss of £20,550 which was £12,451 over that which was the debt when the club had collapsed. The news of these figures brought about fears that another collapse was on the horizon. Such a large debt was surely unsustainable but by any means possible they managed to continue. The council in the meantime had kept its promise to upgrade Odsal and a massive bank of concrete terracing was laid at the Rooley Lane End. On the field the team started to gel the faithful fans were rewarded by a success in the 1965 Yorkshire Cup beating Hunslet 17-8 at Headingley.


After being back in existence only a matter of 14 short months, it was a great reward for everyone who had helped to reform the club and the fans who had backed them. Over the next few years, less choppier waters were entered and the club began once again began to progress towards the upper end of the table. Players of undoubted quality like Welsh stars Berwyn Jones & Terry Price arrived, Geoff Wrigglesworth & Ian Brooke all attained International class which in turn kept the club progressing and the turnstiles ticking over. For now, the club was back and although, several times in the future, problems of varying degrees and severity would hit the club, there would also be a couple of periods of real glory & reward for the club. Rugby League in Bradford is always and has always been a turbulent affair never far way form crisis but also glory to the highest the game can give.

As we speak, the club is again in a dark period of its existence and in fact not even present in Bradford with games for the forthcoming season due to be played in Dewsbury. A mixture of RL politics, bad ownership and the perennial problem of Odsal all no nearer being resolved. Who knows what the future holds, if there is indeed any future but looking back to 1964, it seemed like the end back then until honest people with the club at heart stepped up to save the club from extinction.

by Ian Hemmens

Ian is a regular contributor to VINCIT and has written widely about different sports in the district including boxing, soccer, cricket and speedway. You can find links to his other features about Bradford rugby from this link. Tweets: @IHemmens 

The drop down menu above provides links to features about Bradford sport history. This site is neither code nor club specific! Contributions welcome. 

The Bradford Rifles

We remember the serving and former players of Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue who gave their lives in World War One [1] yet it has long been overlooked that the connections between sport and the military in Bradford go back much further [2]. Remarkably it has been a theme completely overlooked by others in the study of the origins of Bradford sport, even by those with local knowledge claiming academic credentials. We know of Third Lanark FC, a club in Glasgow with military origins. English League club Macclesfield Town is another, descended from the 8th Cheshire Rifle Volunteers formed in 1874. Locally, the Bradford Rifles FC had similar roots although by accident of history it is now an unfamiliar and long forgotten sporting identity.

Soldiering and Bradford’s military heritage

No-one talks about a military heritage in Bradford and few would consider that it had ever been a military town. However, in the second half of the nineteenth century joining the territorial army – or Volunteers as it was then known – represented a leisure activity. A consequence of this is that the identity of our football clubs became closely associated with popular support of the military.

The origins of the Volunteer Corps dates back to 1859 when a new territorial militia force was established in response to the fear of invasion from France. Bradford’s Volunteers comprised separate ‘rifle’ and ‘artillery’ corps and their history is particularly relevant as the movement was possibly the single most influential factor in driving the development of football in the town by popularising the game. This is not necessarily surprising given that the early history of clubs in Huddersfield and Hull during the 1860s was closely linked to the Volunteers and the use of drill fields to play on. The Halifax club, founded in 1873, had similar connections and originated out of a gymnasium which had connections with the Rifle Volunteers in the town. In Scotland where the volunteer movement was particularly strong, placenames in towns provide the clues – ‘Volunteer Park ‘or ‘Drill Field’ being common.

Yet the extent to which the militia shaped the sporting culture in Bradford has seemingly been overlooked and forgotten. The memory of Jimmy Speirs and other serving or former players of Bradford City who were killed in World War One thus needs to be seen within the context of a much longer tradition.

The Volunteers amplified local patriotism in Bradford which became infused into the culture of the town’s leading clubs and Bradford FC in particular. The Volunteers promoted athleticism as a force for good and another dimension to this was the notion that sports events were for the purpose of charity fund raising. It was not simply about playing the game and nor was it just about winning. Bradford FC assumed the same sense of civic duty and purpose that the Volunteers espoused in their own faintly comical manner that appealed to the vanity of many Bradfordians. Exactly the same sort of bombast which characterised the local leadership of the Volunteers in the 1860s and 1870s can be recognised in the ‘high and mighty’ attitude of Bradford FC in the 1880s.

Local Volunteers Corps

3rd WYRV Bradford crest

Unlike the yeomanry cavalry established in 1843, the Volunteer militia formed in 1859 was not intended to respond to civil unrest. Its role was entirely focused on national defence such that it could provide support to the army in the event of a national or imperial emergency, possibly also providing recruits. The specific role of the Artillery Volunteers was to manage coastal batteries and the Bradford corps regularly trained at Scarborough and Morecambe.

Rifle Volunteer battalions were first raised in Bradford in September, 1859. In April, 1860 the original companies of Rifle Volunteers in Bradford were re-designated from 5th and 6th Yorkshire, West Riding Rifle Volunteer Corps to the 3rd Yorkshire, West Riding Rifle Volunteers Corps (3rd YWRRVC) [crest illustrated above and cap badge below] and in October of that year amalgamated with the 24th Corps from Eccleshill. The 39th Corps (based in Bingley, formed in 1861) was associated with the 3rd YWRRVC and relocated to Saltaire in 1871, disbanding in 1875. In 1887 the 3rd YWRRVC became the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment which continued to be based at Belle Vue barracks and a detachment served in South Africa between 1900 and 1904. (Detail from ‘The Rifle Volunteers’ by Ray Westlake, published in 1982).

The 2nd Yorkshire (West Riding) Artillery Volunteer Corps (2nd YWRAVC) was formed in October, 1860 and in 1874 it amalgamated with units from Heckmondwike and Bowling. In 1898 it became the 2nd West Riding of Yorkshire Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers). The Rifle and Artillery Volunteers were distinct from the Yeomanry Cavalry. Although all three corps were comprised of volunteers and had representation in Bradford, the 2nd West Yorkshire Yeomanry Cavalry was not based in the town. Another more fundamental more point of difference was that eligibility for the latter was the possession of a horse.

The historical background of the Volunteer movement is that it came at the same time that a growing number of men were seeking recreational opportunities to make use of increased leisure time arising from the reduction in working hours. A consequence of the 1850 Factory Act was that workers had more leisure time thanks to the reduction in factory hours and a half day Saturday holiday being introduced. Opportunities for recreation were otherwise limited and the Rifle Volunteers met this demand in addition to providing various social activities.

What seems surprising is that a militarist organisation could command cross-party support in a town such as Bradford that had such a strong Nonconformist background. The consensus support is confirmed by the record of attendees at various events organised by the local Volunteers – balls, dinners and prize awards for example – from Conservative politicians such as Francis Powell, Henry Wickham and Henry Mitchell to Liberals and Nonconformists including William Forster and Titus Salt (who had two sons in the Volunteers). Ditto Henry Ripley who was first a Liberal MP, later an Independent MP and then a Conservative candidate.

Prominent industrialists were also involved. Forster was himself behind the formation of a Volunteer unit among his employees in Eccleshill in 1860 (later merged into the 3rd YWRRVC) and held the rank of Captain. Likewise, Major Ripley of HW Ripley & Co, based at Ripleyville in Bowling was closely involved with the 2nd YWRAVC. Harry Armitage, whose family business was also involved with dyeing (the same Lieutenant-Colonel Armitage, later President at Bradford City in 1907) was an officer in 2nd YWRAVC. Key figures in the 3rd YWRRVC were Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Sagar Hirst and Major William Shepherd whose family firms were involved with brewing and worsteds respectively. Both Hirst and Shepherd were members of Bradford Cricket Club. Both were active in the Conservative Party.

One reason why the Volunteers commanded local support is quite simply that, because the movement was popular and politically influential on a national basis, Bradford could not allow itself to be left behind. Apart from contributing to the defence of the realm however, politicians and religious leaders recognised that the Volunteer movement offered a positive example in terms of social conduct and physical well-being. It was also celebrated as a vehicle to foster better relations between the classes and could almost be described as a Boy Scouts movement for men.

Bfd Rifles cap badge.jpg

The Bradford Observer of 23 May, 1861 reported that a bazaar was held at St George’s Hall in aid of ‘the project for erecting a permanent armoury, drill room, and other offices for the Bradford Rifle Volunteer Corps, on ground between North Parade and Lumb Lane’ – the origin of Belle Vue Barracks. Stalls at the bazaar had the following slogans which summarise what the Volunteers saw as their guiding principles: ‘Be ready when wanted’; ‘Our hearths and homes’; ‘For defence, not defiance’; ‘To preserve peace, be prepared for war’; ‘For our Queen and country’; and ‘Labour conquers everything.’ The displays provided a succinct illustration of what the Volunteer movement stood for, allowing people to express their emotional attachment to Britain as well as to Bradford in defence of what people held dear to them. Patriotism in the wider sense was more than just the love of one’s country.

To get a sense of the spirit in which the Volunteer movement was established locally, the following quote by Revd W Busfield, rector of Keighley Parish Church at a meeting held to establish a Volunteer Rifle Corps for Keighley (Airedale Rifle Corps) in the Leeds Intelligencer of 25 August, 1860 is pertinent:

‘Apart from the importance of the rifle Volunteer movement, I may perhaps be permitted to state one or two reasons why it is an eminently wholesome and salutary one. The Anglo-Saxon race from time immemorial have been fond of vigorous exercises and outdoor amusements. Our gentry will have their hunting, their moors, and their stubble fields; our middle and lower classes their cricket, foot-ball and wrestling matches. Well: let them follow out these active tastes, by combining the useful and agreeable. Let the useful and able of our population devote a few of their leisure hours to drilling, playing, (if you will) at soldiers, but showing, should any serious occasion arise, that they can do something more than play. Again, in these manufacturing districts a little diversion from the everlasting din of trade might be pleasant. The first Napoleon used to call us a nation of shopkeepers, and though there is nothing discreditable in the honest pursuit of commerce, we may be too entirely and exclusively absorbed in it.

‘…whatever tends to union and brotherhood is most desirable. We have class arrayed against class, to the formenting of mutual jealousies. Something has to be done to mitigate this estrangement. There is a growing toleration of diversities of opinion, and a meeting together of ranks on something like terms of equality. In our churches and chapels the rich and poor meet as one, with the conscious acknowledgement that ‘the Lord is the maker of them all’. Here is an opportunity for joining hand and heart on the same drilling ground, with no other rivalry than who shall be best and soonest fitted for serving his country in the hour of need.’

The general sentiments were consistent with those of the Bradford Cricket Club fifteen years previously and the Volunteers followed the same track as a focal, classless institution in the town which also promoted sporting activity. Hardly surprising perhaps that the leadership of the Rifle Volunteers was filled by prominent members of the cricket club, ironically to the detriment of the ‘Old Club’ which was deprived of their active involvement.

The culture of the Volunteer movement was aligned with that of sport because it fostered – indeed encouraged – competition between different corps who were de facto representatives of their towns. They competed with each other in a number of ways through shooting contests, membership numbers or the attainment of skills and by the late 1870s there were football games with corps raising their own teams. In so doing the Volunteers helped to institutionalise rivalries and this was seen to be in the interests of raising standards of military preparedness for the love of one’s country. Competitive rivalries of this kind were considered a positive phenomenon and equated local pride and patriotism with that at a national level.

Bradford’s volunteers

A good reference on the national Volunteer movement is provided by Hugh Cunningham’s book, The Volunteer Force (published in 1975). The point he makes is that to be a Volunteer required commitment of time, effort and money and despite the fact that membership invariably entailed some financial outlay, there was considerable enthusiasm amongst the working class. Cunningham observed that ‘the Volunteers were fired not so much by love of Britain as by pride in, and a sense of belonging in, their local community’ and indeed this was definitely so in Bradford. His further comments are equally relevant to Bradford: ‘More important, the local corps did not stem from some fringe element in the community, but were from the beginning associated with the local elite. They thus quickly came to play a part in local functions, and their success or failure was seen as a commentary on the civic or village leaders, and on the community as a whole.’

In January, 1860 there was a meeting at St George’s Hall to encourage membership of the Volunteer movement in Bradford on a par with Liverpool and Manchester. It invoked people to put as much energy into the movement as they did with regards to their business, above all emphasising pride in Bradford and the willingness of its people to undertake a patriotic duty. Politically, membership of the Volunteers would have promoted a conservative, unionist outlook.

Cunningham describes the Volunteers as ‘the spectator sport of mid-Victorian Britain’ and again this was true in Bradford. In June, 1862 fifty thousand people witnessed a review of the Volunteers at Peel Park during the Whitsun Gala and three years later, in 1865 sixty thousand watched a mock battle. In October, 1862 there was a ‘sham battle’ in the Upper Park at St. Ives near Bingley with 3rd YWRRVC contesting participating alongside corps from Guiseley, Keighley and Bingley and the day’s events were followed by band music and a firework display. It was described in the Bradford Observer of 9 October, 1862 as an ‘exciting but bloodless battle‘ and the scene of ‘an action fought under General Fairfax, in 1642, and where he encamped.’ The event was reported to have created great interest in Bingley with flags and banners on display and attended by a large number of people from visiting towns that raised £60 from the entrance fee.

The Volunteers brought a sense of pomp to events of the time being prominent in the parade for the opening of the Town Hall in 1873, the formal opening of Lister Park in 1875, the funeral of Sir Titus Salt in January, 1877 or the Royal Visit in 1882. There had been a tradition of military bands playing at Bradford CC games in the 1840s and this was inherited by the band of 3 YWRRVC who regularly played at the club’s Great Horton Road ground. (NB the Royal Visit in 1882 was commemorated by the Norman Arch at the corner of Lister Park in 1883 – the current stone structure replaced the original wooden edifice erected in 1882 and it was constructed with stone from Christ Church on Darley Street, Bradford which had been demolished in 1879).

The Artillery and Rifle Volunteers mobilised public support for donations and prizes, and encouraged attendance at events, whether band concerts, reviews in the park or dress balls. In this way they promoted a Bradford identity and loyalty. The Volunteers embraced civic consciousness and represented the town as its contribution to national defence and as a display of patriotism in Bradford. In short the Volunteers represented the pride and honour of the town on a national – it could be claimed, imperial – stage. Furthermore, if Bradford CC had been an early example of ‘Bradfordism’ and local patriotism, the Volunteers helped raise it to a new level and there would be a natural succession of this sentiment to the town’s senior football club.

Where the Volunteers had a direct impact on football was through the promotion of athleticism and physical activity. The philosophy was that to be effective in their duty, it would require more than military technique. This was as much to do with physical training as the need to make the Volunteers an integral part of the community from which they had been drawn. Speaking at the bazaar in May, 1861 (reported in the Bradford Observer) Lt-Colonel Lister, Commandant of the Rifle Volunteers spoke thus:

‘They wished to see the ground (ie Belle Vue) a place where, during the summer months, those citizens who felt so disposed might witness the drill of the corps from time to time, and also listen to the playing of the band. They proposed also, that the ground should be rendered instrumental for the encouragement of all kinds of manly games. For his own part, he should be glad if they could form a good cricket club. It was true that there was one club in the town which had rendered good service in this respect, and it might be that this ground could be rendered of value to the same end, either in connection with that club, or in some other way. His sole desire was to see this ground so employed that it should conduce to the healthy exercise of the population. There was nothing so clear as this, that we were too incessantly engaged in work which was destroying the mind and the brain, and that it would be a great gain to the community if we could regularly obtain such a variety of out-door relaxation as would tend to counteract this detrimental tendency.’

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From the outset therefore sport was identified as a means of providing an esprit de corps as well as an antidote to urban life and an example to all. In the 1860s, the leadership of the 3rd YWRRVC adopted a proselytising role to promote athleticism. Again, there is a parallel with what Bradford CC had previously considered to be its role in promoting recreational activity in the town from the 1840s.

The Rifle Volunteers were synonymous with the annual athletics festivals held at the Bradford Cricket Club’s Great Horton Road ground between 1869 and 1874. The festivals provided an invaluable public relations opportunity and members of the Volunteers (and the 3rd YWRRVC in particular) were omnipresent either as contestants or band musicians and its officers both organised events and awarded the prizes. Lieutenant-Colonel Hirst acted as President of the co-ordinating body, Bradford Athletic Sports.

The Volunteer movement was at the forefront of athleticism in Bradford and gyms were incorporated in the drill hall at Belle Vue in 1861 and at Hallfield Road in August, 1878. Membership of the Volunteers thereby provided access to facilities that were otherwise only available through private subscription. Involvement in gymnastic displays and athletic festivals provided an opportunity to promote athletic prowess and derive attention, not least recruit new members. For individual Volunteers it was also a great way to show off and derive local fame.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in August, 1875 a football club was established for members of the 3rd YWRRVC although, as mentioned previously there is no evidence that a Rifles cricket club became established to the same extent. The story of that club is told in a succeeding section and it had an important role for the corps in both recruiting new members as well as generating support for the Volunteers from the Bradford public. Football was justified as a suitable form of winter activity with drill tending to be confined to the summer. However, the officers may have also considered preparation for a football or cricket game as a better way to motivate the Volunteers than the repetition of marching or cleaning rifles.

The Manningham drill hall

The Bradford Observer of 5 December, 1861 reported the opening of the new drill hall by Lieutenant–Colonel Lister of Manningham Hall and its description of the building evokes the image of a Tintagel Castle in the midst of Manningham. The glamour of the building would have encouraged new recruits and its popularity is confirmed by the fact that season tickets were sold to the public allowing entry to the parade ground to watch the weekly parades.

The premises are fenced in with substantial stone walls, and are entered by gateways leading from Manningham Lane and Lumb Lane. The parade ground, which is upwards of an acre and a half in extent, is covered near the building with asphalt. The building, which is constructed with stone from the neighbourhood, is in the Italian style of architecture, and presents towards the parade ground a front 150 feet in length; it rests upon a raised terrace twelve feet wide, roofed in so as to form a covered walkway or verandah. The front and sides of the building are flanked with loopholed turrets so constructed that each face may be commanded by the rifle, and the whole, if necessary rendered defensible. The turrets are surmounted with flagstaffs, and the building with ornamental ventilators.

The building internally comprises a drill room, 97 feet by 60 feet and 30 feet high to the apex. For evening drill the room will be brilliantly lighted with gas. In an elevated recess there is a gallery capable of containing about forty musicians; it is also adapted as a platform for speakers. Communicating with the drill room is the armoury, 44 feet by 20 feet, against the walls of which are about 400 rifles. Corresponding with the armoury on the opposite side of the drill-room, there is the gymnasium, 44 feet by 20 feet fitted up with all the modern requisites for gymnastic exercises. There are also within the main building an officers’ orderly room, committee room and store room, all of ample dimensions. To the rear is a stable for the officers’ horses and at the side near Lumb Lane a very comfortable two storied dwelling house, occupied by the drill sergeant. The total cost of construction is £2,000.’ In 1893 the building was replaced with a more utilitarian structure described by contemporary observers as reminiscent of a mill building.

The following illustrations date from 1893. The architectural style adopted in 1893 was consistent with other Volunteer Barracks in northern cities. The best surviving example of which I am aware is on Norfolk Street near Bramall Lane in Sheffield and there is another in Hulme, Manchester which still exists as a territorial centre.

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The 2nd YWRAVC was originally based at Riddiough’s Hotel, Peel Park Hotel and the 5 YWRAVC (from Bowling) at Bowling Iron Works. The amalgamation created urgency to relocate and at the annual prize awards in December, 1874 it was announced that the corps was seeking a building of its own, ‘more convenient and in every way suitable.’ Correspondents to the press complained about getting to Eccleshill, a factor of Bradford’s urban geography and deficient cross-town connections. In 1878 the Artillery Volunteers moved to new premises at Hallfield Road, occupying a school property that had been vacated following the opening of the new Bradford Grammar School in June, 1873 and donated by its commanding officer Major Ripley. Later, in 1894 the 2nd YWRAVC moved to larger premises off Valley Parade, immediately above and parallel to South Parade. The choice of this final address demonstrates that Valley Parade was regarded as accessible due to its relatively central location, and is confirmation of the site’s contemporary appeal.

The adjacent Belle Vue Hotel inevitably had close links with the barracks and served as a meeting room for officers. It was similarly associated with the history of Manningham FC and later that of Bradford City. [3]

Other public houses with links to the barracks included the Volunteers’ Arms on Green Lane and the Barrack Tavern on Lumb Lane. A connection with Manningham FC was that two of its celebrity players, Rob Pocock and Fred Clegg were the respective landlords in the 1890s.

The appeal of the Volunteers

It is quite possible that sport was the principal reason why men joined the Volunteers. As regards football, the 3rd YWRRVC had its own ground at Girlington and it would have provided many with an induction to, and enthusiasm for, the game.

Recreational opportunities were a big attraction to joining the Volunteers. Other than football and athletics, rifle shooting was particularly popular with prizes available for winners of contests on Baildon Moor. Major Shepherd promoted target shooting through the West Riding Rifle Association, linked to the National Rifle Association and comprising many former members of the Volunteers.

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Membership of the Volunteers would have provided a degree of respectability and social prominence that would not otherwise have been accessible to people. The uniform itself was appealing to many, a handsome uniform being described as ‘the passport to the heart of a dame’ by the Bradford Observer in December, 1859. The original uniform of the 3rd YWRRVC in 1859 was reported in the Bradford Observer to be dark grey with black facings, beaded in red. This was changed to dark green in 1863 but in June, 1875, at the request of the members (and with benefactions from Lieutenant-Colonel Hirst, Major Shepherd and Major Muller), scarlet jackets with green facings were adopted to look more like regular soldiers. That same year the new Bradford Rifles Football Club then adopted scarlet and white as its colours.


Attendance at annual camps, mainly at Scarborough, were also popular judging from participation levels which averaged around 90% of total members. Commenting on the reduction in membership of the 3rd YWRRVC in 1877, Colonel Hirst was quoted in the Leeds Mercury of 20 December, 1877 that one reason for this ‘was that the corps did not go into camp at Scarborough this year, and he was sorry that the heavy expense prevented the corps going every year.’ The following year the Volunteers returned to Scarborough and coincidentally enjoyed a recovery in numbers.

Additionally, the Volunteers participated in national events, including shooting competitions at Wimbledon and regular social occasions, such as dress balls that were heavily reported in the press. National and regional reviews were organised on a regular basis which appear to have been memorable occasions. As at Peel Park, displays by the Volunteers were well attended and established a precedent for mass spectator events. One such review was that of West Riding Volunteers at Doncaster race course in August, 1862 which involved 4,000 participants or which 270 from 3rd YWRRVC. The popularity of the event was demonstarted by the attendance of 10,000 spectators including what was described by the Bradford Observer as the ‘elite of the county’. The following month there was a review at Huddersfield involving 1,300 Volunteers and attended by 15,000 spectators.


Subsequent reports of the Doncaster event suggest that it was a fairly riotous excursion with guns having been fired from the windows of railway carriages. The Bradford corps had been particularly disappointed by the fact that not only were they delayed in boarding their return train at Doncaster but several of the carriages booked by them had been filled with civilians and part of the Leeds corps. ‘The officers and privates had left great quantities of refreshments in the carriages for their return which included wines of various kinds…To their great disappointment, a large portion of the refreshments had been stolen. Of a large quantity of wine, only about half a bottle of claret was left.’ A commotion on the platform had involved the police and the Bradford Observer noted that: ‘The Bradford corps was treated with great rudeness by the officials connected with the Great Northern Railway.’ The train eventually arrived in Bradford at 1am having left Doncaster at around 10pm.

Much of the staple activity however was military drill which primarily involved marching around Bradford. This served a double purpose of making the Volunteers visible as well as keeping the men occupied and which conjures mental images of the childrens TV programme, ‘Trumpton’ combined with the grand old Duke of York. The suggestion that it was marching for the sake of marching is supported by a letter from a disgruntled member of the Volunteers wrote to the Bradford Observer on 1 November, 1873 complaining about ‘route marching’ around Bradford which ‘the officers interpreted as a march through the streets, stumbling along slippery paving stones, and visiting some of our charming back streets, and then back, tired and grumbling to the barracks.’ The lack of enthusiasm about marching may have encouraged the formation of a football team in 1875 as a means of raising morale.

Public exposure was also maintained by band performances in Lister Park. On the other hand, shooting practice in the park was less well received. In April, 1874 correspondence to the Bradford Observer referred to ‘the nuisance thrust upon us whether we like it or not – parading the best part of the park, frightening our children almost into fits, and wasting our money in useless cracking of guns – is more than I can swallow.’ Another writer asked: ‘Is the presence of our valiant defenders of the volunteer corps absolutely essential to the safety of those who frequent Manningham Park…There must be several other places in the neighbourhood of the town, where these men can play the soldier without being an annoyance to the peaceable and music-loving frequenters of Manningham Park.’

Attitudes to the military

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The Volunteer movement nationally was held to a degree of ridicule as a result of a member accidentally shooting a dog in Wandsworth Park, London in 1860 that led to the cry ‘who shot the dog?.’ Those in Bradford were not immune and the Leeds Times of 22 December, 1883 recorded a speech at a prize giving event in Bradford: ‘At the beginning of the Volunteer movement, and for years after that a Volunteer could scarcely walk the streets without being scoffed at, if not by men, at least by boys.’

However, the fact that the Volunteer movement was enduring confirms that it was both popular as well as credible. Cunningham comments that recruitment peaked when there were imperial crises and the record in Bradford was consistent with this. Notable was the surge in recruitment in 1884 at the time of the Egypt / Sudan crisis.

The attitude of the Bradford public to the Volunteers stands in contrast to that in respect of the regular army. In the 1840s, the popularity of the military in Bradford had been compromised by the anti-social behaviour of soldiers billeted in the town, one of the reasons behind the formation of the yeomanry at that time. Proposals to establish a military camp on Rombalds Moor in January, 1873 provoked considerable opposition among local people prior to being finally rejected in August of that year. As an alternative the barracks at Bradford Moor were expanded and instead of Rombalds Moor, the War Office selected Catterick which is now Europe’s biggest garrison town. How history could have been different.

The Bradford Observer of 8 January, 1873 reported that ‘an announcement was made some time ago that it was the intention of the Government to establish a military encampment on Rombald’s Moor’ but that recently ‘an inspector from the War Department has been in the district inspecting the locality, and it is generally understood that he has recommended that a tract of moorland of from 6,000 to 8,000 acres should be selected for a military camp on Rombald’s Moor, and that the land to be acquired will stretch over from Ilkley across the moor to Bingley.’ The choice was determined by the railway links in both Airedale and Wharfedale as well as the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Bingley ‘for the purpose of conveying the explosive stores.’

The suggestion drew opposition from people in Ilkley who feared ‘it would be disastrous for the town as a place of resort for visitors who there seek to be reinvigorated.’ A meeting of townspeople was told that it was to be the Aldershot of the north with up to 30,000 soldiers encamped and this prompted concern that ‘Satan would find mischief for idle hands’ who happened to be in the prime of their life.

A committee was formed comprising residents of Ilkley and Keighley to protest against the camp and in a letter to the Secretary of State for War included among its objections the ‘pernicious influence of young female lodgers.’ Specifically, it referred to the ‘peculiar temptations that would beset the large number of females who, owing to the higher scale of wages now prevailing, are enabled to live in lodgings and thus withdraw from parental authority and guardianship.’ However, the inveterate correspondent ‘Hortonian’ declared his support for the encampment in a letter to the Bradford Observer on 13 March, 1873 and suggested that apart from generating trade for the district it would be convenient in the case of rioting in Bradford.

Finally, on 9 August, 1873 the Bradford Observer reported that the War Office had abandoned the proposal on account of the uneven land and the ‘severity of the weather to which troops would be exposed during the colder months on such an elevated position.’ The women of Ilkley were safe.

The Bradford Volunteers were never called upon to fight. However, in 1884, at the time of the Egyptian crisis there was heightened excitement that provided the background to Manningham FC adopting claret and amber, the colours of the West Yorkshire Regiment. There was widespread speculation about a possible French invasion and in the event of Yorkshire troops being sent to Sudan, the Volunteers were on standby to provide cover at home. (NB The Bradford Rifle Volunteers of the 3rd West Riding Corps based at Belle Vue – in close proximity to Valley Parade – had close links to the West Yorkshire Regiment.)

How popular were the Volunteers?

On the face of it, the numbers involved with the Volunteers seem low. In 1871 the population of Bradford was 146,000 whilst at that time there were only 800 members in the various Bradford Volunteer corps. Hugh Cunningham wrote that Volunteers represented around 2% of the male population in Yorkshire, aged 15-49 between 1862 and 1881 whereas my estimate for Bradford in 1871 is that less than 1% of the population in this age group were members at that time.

Nevertheless, the statistics are misleading at face value and understate the significance of the movement. In 1884 it was reported that a total of 5,350 men had been members of the 3rd YWRRVC (excluding the artillery corps) since 1861. This number is broadly consistent with Cunningham’s analysis that the average period of membership was fairly low, often no more than three years and likely the period of adulthood before marriage. By that measure alone the proportion of adult males in Bradford who had been members at some stage of their life would have been much higher, possibly 8% (one in twelve) or more.

The significance of the Volunteers was more to do with the level of participation in the constituency from which they were drawn, by coincidence the same group behind the popularity of football in the 1870s. Cunningham concluded firstly that the median age of Volunteers was youthful – typically late teens to early twenties – becaming younger towards the end of the century, and secondly that the Volunteers tended to be drawn from middle class and artisan backgrounds. My estimate is that the total number of males aged 15-30 years in 1861 would have been around 20,000, increasing to around 24,000 in 1871. Of those I doubt that more than 7,500 were in the core catchment demographic at any one time and that being the case, underlying participation in the Volunteers in 1871 would have been in excess of 10% (ie more than one in ten of young males from middle class and artisan backgrounds).

In practice, participation in the Volunteers was restricted to those within close proximity of a drill hall (in Eccleshill, Manningham or Bowling) which means that the effective participation rate was even higher, maybe between 15-20% (which is to say one in seven, maybe one in five). Specifically, in a district such as Manningham where a drill hall was within easy reach, participation would have been greatest and if my estimates are correct it implies that membership was both fashionable and relatively commonplace.

Generous column inches in the local press was a product of media management but it also alludes to the popularity of the Volunteers in Bradford among the same socio-economic group that purchased those newspapers – again, the same group or constituency behind the take-off in football in the 1870s. Hence my strong belief is that among members of the middle and skilled working classes, the Volunteer movement was an extremely influential agent in shaping their behaviour and leisure practice and in Manningham, particularly so. What it meant is that the Volunteer movement helped popularise football, facilitate participation and encourage interest in the game.

Judged from reports of annual prize awards there is no evidence that the Bradford Rifle Volunteers suffered a loss of membership in the 1870s as a consequence of football offering an alternative attraction, a phenomenon that Cunningham says occurred in other parts of the country. A possible reason for this was that there was limited capacity within Bradford football clubs for additional members, a factor of land constraints that put a cap on how many clubs could exist (or teams fielded) in the first place. In my opinion the Volunteers retained and continued to recruit members locally for the very reason that the 3rd YWRRVC provided the means for its members to play. In other words there was hardly any incentive for someone to leave the Volunteers on account of wanting to play football because he had a better chance to do so with them. Besides, such was the reputation of the Volunteers as being at the forefront of athleticism in Bradford that it would have helped retain members. However this did not continue and by January, 1891 it was reported in The Yorkshireman that members were being lost to football, cricket and cycling.

In my opinion the significance of the 3rd YWRRVC in particular is that they made playing football a legitimate, respectable and also fashionable pursuit through promotion of a cult of athleticism as the basis of military preparedness. The Rifles club introduced many Volunteers to football and team listings in newspapers confirm that a number of individuals moved on to play with local clubs, including such as Manningham Clarence FC, a forerunner to Manningham FC.

Officers, Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and privates serving in the 3rd YWRRVC were active members in each of the early football clubs, Bradford FC included. This went some way to define the nature of class relations between players of different backgrounds in the same teams but, equally as significant, it would have lowered the entry barriers for (skilled) working class players to participate in the game. An illustration of how the Volunteers democratised football is provided by the fact that when the Bradford Rifles played its first game in March, 1875 the team comprised two officers and nine NCOs. By the time of the fixture with Bingley in February, 1877 there were two officers in the side but only four NCOs.

The Volunteers encouraged a Bradford identity and the notion of a sense of purpose about their activities. Quite likely the Volunteers brought with them a military, objectives-focused attitude to the game that culturally paved the way to professionalism. In other words, their influence was as much to do with democratising football in Bradford as making it even more single-minded, played less for the sake of playing and more for the purpose of winning in fulfilment of a civic duty.

In the absence of member details it is impossible to gauge the numbers concerned but anecdotal evidence suggests strong representation of Volunteers within both the Bradford FC and Manningham FC teams. Members of the Volunteers and players from the 3rd YWRRVC football club were heavily represented among new joiners to Bradford FC in 1879 and in my opinion were behind a subtle shift in culture at the club following its relaunch at Park Avenue in 1880 (which will be discussed in a later section).

Manningham FC likewise had members from the same background and this goes a long way to explain why the club adopted claret and amber. The proximity of Belle Vue barracks similarly explains how Manningham FC (and later Bradford City) operated with minimal facilities at Valley Parade for so long and how the links with the Volunteers were sustained. The gym facilities were used for training and similarly the barracks were adopted as changing rooms until 1903 when facilities were finally constructed at the Bradford End of the Valley Parade ground. It was also the practice for Manningham FC to rent the Drill Shed for annual club meetings. (In 1906 the club adopted the Artillery Barracks on Cottingley Terrace off Valley Parade as its headquarters prior to the development of offices at the bottom of Burlington Terrace two years’ later.)

Bradford Caledonian FC

A good number of the Volunteer soldiers were members of Bradford Caledonian FC during its short existence between 1873-79 and the connections between the two bodies provide good reason to assume close cultural and social affiliations. In turn, alumni of that club were hugely influential in the early history of both Bradford FC at Park Avenue and Manningham FC at Carlisle Road and later, Valley Parade.

Among them were Arthur Perkins (a former member of Bradford Zingari FC) who moved to Bradford FC in 1877 and later acted as secretary of that club, most notably at the time of the infamous dispute with Manningham in March, 1887 and James Freeman, later President of Manningham FC. WF Frost, who first played for Caledonian in 1874 and then the Rifles in 1875 (and who also guested for Bradford Zingari in 1877), later joined Bradford FC and served as a committee member at the beginning of the 1890s. The Heron cousins – Albert and Ernest – who lived on Hallfield Road and Salem Street, undertook administrative responsibilities for Manningham FC and Bradford Caledonian respectively. Ernest’s occupation as an office assistant probably made him qualified by default.


Others included the three Sim brothers who had been brought up on Southfield Square in Manningham. Their father, a minister of the United Presbyterian Chapel on Simes Street in Bradford, had died in 1864 when the boys were in their early teens. William in particular established a reputation as a keen sportsman, representing Manningham Albion Cricket Club in 1868 and then Bradford FC between 1870 and 1874. In 1874 he also played for Bradford Juniors possibly as a guest player to make up the numbers. At the start of the 1874/75 season he joined Bradford Caledonian and was instrumental in the launch of the Bradford Rifles club in August, 1875 of which one of his brothers was also a member. By the 1878/79 season he was captaining Bradford United and for the final two seasons of his career he played for Bradford FC once more. In total he played for at least five different Bradford sides and what appears to have led him to leave Bradford FC in the first place was its relocation from Girlington to Apperley Bridge in 1874.

By 1874 William Sim had been promoted to sergeant in 3rd YWRRVC and was active in its affairs, regularly winning prizes in rifle contests. He personified a local patriotism and hence his enthusiasm not only for the Rifles football club but later Bradford United and after 1879, Bradford FC.

The medal is that of Sergeant Slater of the Bradford Rifles awarded in a shooting contest in 1880. In 1875 he had been a founder member of Bradford Rifles FC.

The Belle Vue Barracks

In 2016 the Belle Vue Barracks on Manningham Lane were closed, thus ending a military heritage dating back nearly 155 years. With suitable investment and the sort of imagination that our Victorian forebearers displayed, the site could be utilised as an indoor training facility or sports centre. It would be a fabulous way to renew a sporting tradition and the link with Bradford City and a better alternative to the prospect of it becoming derelict.

John Dewhirst

From his book ROOM AT THE TOP (Bantamspast, 2016)

The author is keen to make contact with local collectors and/or historians with Bradford Rifles artefacts or relics in their possession.

Contact: johnpdewhirst at geeeeeeeeemaillllllll dotttt commm / tweets @jpdewhirst


[1] Features about the serving and former BCAFC players who died in the Great War can be found on the author’s blog as follows: Feature on Jimmy Speirs; Feature on Bob Torrance; Remembrance Day reflections.

[2] The forgotten military heritage of Bradford sport: feature in the Bradford City AFC programme vs Plymouth Argyle on 11-Nov-2017

[3] The following link provides a history of the Belle Vue Hotel on Manningham Lane which had its own part in the history of both the Volunteers as well as Manningham FC / Bradford City AFC.


Tweets: @jpdewhirst or @woolcityrivals

Other online articles about Bradford sport by John Dewhirst including those on VINCIT

John contributes to the Bradford City match day programme and his features are also published on his blog Wool City Rivals

Victorian athletic festivals in Bradford

Valley Parade has hosted football and rugby but it tends to be overlooked that it was originally also known as an athletics venue, hosting annual athletic festivals between 1887-96.

Athletic festivals became established as a popular phenomenon in the Bradford district from the staging of the first by Bradford Cricket Club, 150 years ago in July, 1869. It was an era when people were actively seeking new forms of leisure and earlier features on VINCIT record the origins of cycling in Bradford the same year and the formation of Bradford Amateur Rowing Club in 1867. Similarly Bradford FC had played its first competitive game in February, 1867. This feature examines the origins of athletic festivals in Bradford including those held at Valley Parade.

The love of deep pockets in Bradford

In April, 1868 a correspondent (‘HW’) wrote to the Bradford Observer: ‘I have often wondered how it is that in a town like Bradford, noted for its love of outdoor sports, no movement has ever been made to establish an amateur athletic yearly meeting for running, jumping etc.’ The letter called upon local cricket clubs to organise such an event, possibly at the ‘Old Cricket Ground, Horton Lane.’

A week later, on 30 April, 1868 the correspondent, ‘Gymnast’ who had previously encouraged the formation of a rowing club provided his explanation: ‘No matter how much the people of Bradford love out-door sports, they love their pockets much better, and have a great objection to disburse their contents in support of that which does not repay them with interest.’

Gymnast’ mentioned that consideration had already been given to organising a festival but it had not been progressed, possibly on account of the fact that events in Huddersfield and Manchester had been loss-making. ‘Gymnast’ argued for the need for broad support to make a venture successful and he called upon the officers of the rifle corps and artillery corps, the committee of the Bradford Old Cricket Club and the Gymnastic Club (on Salem Street) to establish an Amateur Athletic Yearly Meeting.

It is interesting that there was no reference at this time to Bradford FC which was obviously considered peripheral. Instead the letter demonstrates the extent to which the Bradford (Rifle and Artillery) Volunteers were influential with regards to physical activity, a reminder of the fact that sport in Bradford has a strong military heritage.

The identity of ‘Gymnast’ was not revealed, but in a subsequent letter on 7 May, 1868 ‘HW’ presumed him to be a member of the Bradford Gymnasium and my belief is that it was B. Wright who was secretary of the Bradford Gymnastic Club and a founder member of the Bradford Rowing Club the previous year. Towards the end of 1868 came an exchange of correspondence in the Bradford Observer calling for a public gymnasium to be established which referred to the fact that ‘the private one now in existence is not at all well supported.’

What can be inferred from the letter written by ‘Physique’ dated 9 November is that people could not justify subscriptions for a private gym which says a lot about the viability of commercial leisure provision at this time, not to mention the attraction of joining the Volunteers to get free access. If indeed ‘Gymnast’ was involved with Bradford Gymnasium Club his motive in encouraging a Bradford rowing club or a Bradford athletics festival may have been to drive membership of his gym as a means of training.

On 17 December, 1868 ‘Physique’ again wrote to the Bradford Observer calling for a public gymnasium to be opened in the town. He suggested that during the day it could be used for ladies’ classes and mentioned the Liverpool gymnasium where ‘certain days are devoted to the ladies, they having a costume properly adapted for the exercise.’

A later editorial in the Bradford Observer of 2 January, 1869 stated that the writer’s ‘predilections are on the side of open-air pursuits rather than on that of the indoor turning of cranks, or climbing of poles, or twisting around bars…in awful contortions.’ I suspect that this was a view shared by many and the subsequent popularity of athletic festivals and football matches provided the fresh air and a new form of exhibitionism. Notwithstanding, gymnastics remained popular in Bradford and was later encouraged as a form of Muscular Christianity in the 1870s with a gymnasium operated by the Bradford Church Institute.

The Bradford All Saints Gymnastics Club gained a reputation as one of the foremost clubs in Yorkshire in the first decade of the twentieth century. The club claimed its origins to have been in the 1860s, quite possibly from the original gym on Salem Street. Gymnastic displays by the Bradford All Saints Gymnastics Club were regular events at both Park Avenue and Valley Parade either side of World War One, an historic reminder of how athleticism and football later evolved from gymnastic activity.

The first athletic festival in Bradford

Possibly in response to the correspondence the previous year, an inaugural athletics was staged on 24 July, 1869 at the Bradford Cricket Club ground on Great Horton Road which served as the de facto leisure centre of the town. The event was supported by the Rifle Volunteers with Lieutenant-Colonel Hirst of the 3rd Yorkshire (West Riding) Rifle Volunteer Corps acting as president and the band of the corps being present. It proved to be a success, attracting between three to four thousand spectators including ‘many of the elite of Bradford.’

Following the lead of Bradford CC in July, 1869, athletic festivals became commonplace in the following decade and were staged by other local cricket clubs including Shipley, Bradford Moor (later staged at Thornbury United CC following loss of the Bradford Moor ground), Bradford Albion, Eccleshill and Undercliffe. Festivals on the Ilkley racecourse were similarly inaugurated in 1873. One of the pre-eminent organisers of events at Eccleshill and Undercliffe was John Nunn who was at the forefront of promoting athleticism in Bradford. Events were staged in neighbouring towns and villages which attracted Bradford contestants, examples of which in 1869 at Huddersfield, Guiseley and Burley.

The final athletic festival to be staged at the Bradford CC Great Horton Road ground was in 1874. Shortly after the club disbanded following the sale of the ground for residential development and in 1879 the call to develop Park Avenue as a dedicated sports enclosure was driven in good measure by an urge to revive the annual athletic festivals in the town. It was no accident that the name of the newly formed club which occupied the ground was the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club. (The first festival at the new Park Avenue enclosure took place in July, 1881.)

The cult of athleticism

Reporting on the Leeds athletic festival, the Bradford Observer of 13 September, 1869 commented that ‘open air festivals, embracing a programme of running, walking, ‘putting the stone’ and throwing the hammer are now becoming popular’ and referred to events at Mirfield, Guiseley and Buttershaw since the festival at Bradford Cricket Club two months previously. The attendance at Leeds however was less than that at Bradford on account of the weather. Festivals became seen as a way of attracting crowds to the extent that even the Bradford Floral & Horticultural Society resorted to organising such an event at its Peel Park show in July, 1870. In 1873 Bradford CC later relied upon its athletic festival to offset losses from staging cricket.

However as if to anticipate the charge that athletic festivals were commercial ventures with the intent of personal reward, it was stressed that they were organised to raise funds for charity. This endowed further respectability and further distinguished them from the sort of events staged at Quarry Gap. It meant that athletics was firmly associated with a more noble cause or ideal and avoided any embarrassment about making a profit. In Bradford, the principle of raising money for the town’s charities became a central tenet when staging sport. In this way the practice of athleticism was portrayed as a force for good and this had a major influence on Bradford’s sporting culture.

Events at these festivals were what we might expect at a church garden fete rather than being recognisable as modern athletic contests. Those at the inaugural festival at Bradford CC in 1869 were typical: ‘Walking over two miles; throwing the hammer; putting a shot; flat race over 100 yards / 220 yards / a quarter of a mile / one mile; running high jump; standing wide jump; one mile bicycle race; 100 yard hurdle race over eight flights; quarter hurdle race over twelve flights; and throwing the cricket ball.’

They could be characterised as short duration, intensive affairs sufficient to command spectator appeal. They could equally be described as curio events. None of them constituted tests of endurance but I suspect that they were matched to the fitness of contestants. Neither did the selected events demand an onerous training regime. As a measure of performance, in 1869 the 100 yard flat race was won in just over ten seconds.

The suggestion in the Leeds Times on 13 March, 1875 that ‘the annual athletic sports, where the ‘youth and beauty’ of the district assemble to witness the manly efforts of their male friends in games which rival the Olympic sports of old’ seems a bit wide of the mark in terms of describing the events. However, a consistent theme in newspapers is that the festivals attracted a good proportion of female spectators.

Despite the standard the contests were taken seriously and the Bradford festivals consistently attracted contestants from across the country with 206 entrants in 1869. At first, medals and cups were awarded to the first three finishers but within ten years, bigger prizes were at stake and by the end of the 1870s local festivals were attracting large crowds. In July, 1879 as many as ten thousand people attended the Bingley Athletics Festival.

The different festivals vied to attract contestants through the range of prizes that were offered and by introducing new contests, such as ‘Cumberland and Westmoreland’ wrestling at Bradford Albion’s festival on Horton Green in July, 1875.

The respectability of these athletics festivals contrasts to that of the touring ‘English Champions’ show which visited the City Sporting Grounds, Quarry Gap at Laisterdyke in August, 1862. On that occasion the star billing had been an American Seneca Indian, ‘Deerfoot’ who contested a four mile race, winning in just over twenty minutes. The show attracted fifteen hundred spectators with other events such as sack racing, ball gathering, ‘pole-leaping’, a 220 yard race and a one mile race in which local people were invited to participate. The show was part of a tour of the British Isles (which had visited variously Cork, Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, Newcastle, Carlisle, Kendal, Lancaster, York, Malton and Scarborough before reaching Bradford) and would better be described as a travelling athletics circus. Contestants to the four mile race were instructed to wear proper costume – long drawers, guernseys and short-coloured over-drawers whilst Deerfoot wore his Indian costume.

Another example of an event at Quarry Gap that combined athletic accomplishment with showmanship was that in September, 1864, namely the attempt of a 36 year old local lady by the name of Emma Sharp (the wife of a mechanic from Bowling) to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. The feat attracted much interest and it was reported that on one occasion ‘5,000 females were in attendance.’ The Bradford Observer of 3 November, 1864 reported on the success of her endeavour which had taken place during the preceding six weeks ‘exciting great interest among the sporting and betting fraternity, of whom there have always been some present both night and day.’ It added that ‘Mrs Sharp had gained weight… and grew weary of her task during the latter days, declaring she would never repeat it.’ Admission was charged to the event and it was claimed that Mrs Sharp’s portion of the receipts was at least £500.

Although the athletic festivals remained oriented towards spectator spectacle, the degree of showmanship was replaced by more earnest endeavour involving a broader base of local participants and a number of visiting contestants. The affairs were considered to be far more serious and they also had the endorsement of local dignatories. Thus whereas the Quarry Gap entertainments were typically regarded as a means to generate the sale of alcohol and encourage gambling (the case of a £50 foot race in May, 1863 and an arrow throwing context in March, 1868 being such examples), the festivals were linked with raising monies for local charity and interest was encouraged by the honest competition and rivalry of local men. The venues – typically cricket grounds – were also significant in that the festivals derived respectability from being staged at other than Quarry Gap which was associated as a show ground and between 1855 and 1868 was better known for staging horse racing.

In 1883 The Yorkshireman later made disparaging remarks about the presentation of prizes at the Bradford Sports festival that confirms the snobbery about Quarry Gap… ‘It lowers the standard of our manly English sports, and reduces such a ground as Park Avenue to the level of Quarry Gap and similar places.’

A comment in the Bradford Observer of 1 June, 1865 that ‘gambling produces a mania for all that is sportive and sensational’ summed up the prejudice felt by many towards sports events and the sort of showmanship at Quarry Gap. The link with gambling was thus the biggest obstacle to acceptance of sport. Indeed, what is significant is the extent to which gambling and alcohol dominated popular entertainment in the nineteenth century and there are many examples of contests being staged for ad hoc wagers in front of crowds. (One such was reported in the Leeds Times of 13 September, 1879 concerning a race on what is now the traffic congested A650: ‘A two miles trotting match for £50 took place on the Bradford and Keighley road, the starting point being the milepost opposite the old Sorters’ Gardens and the finishing point being Nab Wood. There were about 2,000 persons on the highway to witness the race, a large number coming from distant places in vehicles.’)

The Huddersfield festival was considered one of the bigger profile events in West Yorkshire and also one of the longest established (first staged in 1865 – in fact, it is likely to have been one of the first in the county).

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The prestige of the competition and the value of prizes helped attract contestants from afar as the pages below attest. The colours of the runners were not those of individual clubs, rather of the individuals themselves (like those of jockeys) and the variety of combinations would have created a colourful display. In practice the colours were most likely to have been displayed with sashes or belts rather than jerseys.

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The other observation is that whilst each runner was affiliated to a sports club, the names of the organisations reveal that they were not limited to athletic clubs but were members of running clubs (ie South London Harriers), gymnasia (ie Liverpool – presumably the same establishment as that which existed twenty years before as referred to above) as well as football clubs – the latter comprising both rugby and association football. Accordingly the races would have pitched competitors from a variety of sporting backgrounds but as far as the Victorians were concerned, they were all athletes who happened to participate in different forms of athleticism. The basis of a successful event was therefore a good field of events tempted by the prizes on offer but it also required the chance benefit of good weather. .

1887-07-14 Fattorinis advert for athletics prizes

A central feature of the athletic contests was the silverware awarded to the winners. The Bradford firm of Fattorini & Sons derived considerable benefit as the foremost local supplier of trophies and medals which were invariably displayed in the windows of its shops on Kirkgate and Westgate in Bradford. This undoubtedly added to the excitement and anticipation ahead of festivals, providing a degree of glamour to the occasion. Tony Fattorini’s enthusiasm for athleticism allowed seemless networking opportunities and helped his firm establish its reputation as the leading designer of sports trophies in England, culminating in the design of the new FA Cup in 1910 of which Bradford City AFC was the inaugural winner in 1911.

Valley Parade’s first athletic festival: 20th August, 1887

When the Manningham FC management committee looked for a new ground in 1886, the original intent was that it would stage other activities such as cycling and athletics alongside rugby football. Although it was recognised that this could have financial benefit, it was also regarded as a means by which the ground would establish for itself a higher profile as more than just a football enclosure. Amon the Manningham FC membership there was also enthusiasm for athletics and John Nunn, by this time a member of the club, could be relied upon to help organise and promote athletic events.

Manningham FC had in fact staged its first athletic festival in conjunction with Airedale Harriers at its Carlisle Road ground in September, 1885 and this was considered a mark of the growing respectability of the club. The staging of athletic festivals was thus seen as a way in which Valley Parade might establish its status as a leading sports ground with reflected glory accruing to Manningham FC.

At the time, the leading athletics club in the district was Airedale Harriers, of which coincidentally Tony Fattorini was a member. It had been hoped that the club could stage an athletic festival at Valley Parade in the summer of 1886 but the ground was not ready and so the event was staged at Lady Royd Cricket Club, Allerton which attracted a crowd of four thousand. The adequacy of the Lady Royd venue had been criticised – it was said that ‘the provision for keeping spectators in check proved inadequate and… people hampered the runners’ – which raised expectations about Valley Parade that staged its first festival the following year. The advert below appeared in The Yorkshireman.

1887-08-18 advert for Airedale Ath fest

The following graphic was published in the Manchester publication, Black & White and to my knowledge is the oldest surviving depiction of Valley Parade. It will be noted that a marquee was erected on what is now the site of the Kop. The ground had a running track around its perimeter that could also be used for cycle races.

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The Manningham FC programme for the event provided a race card of the various contests as well as fixtures for the forthcoming season, 1887/88. The presentation of prizes by Sir Henry Mitchell affirmed the respectability of the event. (Images courtesy of Jon Longman.)

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The inaugural Valley Parade event attracted contestants from across the north and at stake was an impressive array of prizes, the most prestigious of which was an attractive trophy for the winners of the three mile inter-club steeplechase. Manufactured by Fattorini’s, this had a reported value of £40 which was in excess of the average annual wage for a workman. There were three teams of four runners apiece competing for the prize which was won by Salford Harriers. It was said that they had ‘a ridiculously easy journey’ finishing two laps ahead of the fastest runner from the Bradford Trinity club whilst none of the Airedale team finished. The achievement of Salford Harriers was celebrated in the Manchester publication Black & White (pictured).

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Unfortunately the attendance at the Airedale Harrier’s Festival was considered disappointing and it was acknowledged in the press that a profusion of other athletics events in West Yorkshire had saturated public interest. For instance the Bradford Athletic Club festival had taken place at Park Avenue the fortnight before the one at Valley Parade and was generally regarded to be the most prestigious. The Bradford Daily Telegraph reported on 23 January, 1888 that it generated receipts of £464 and a profit of £379. Inevitably there were unfavourable comparisons drawn in relation to that in Manningham.

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The following listing of festivals in August and September, 1887 attests to the prevalence of events in the north of England and the week after the one at Valley Parade, Bowling FC staged its own athletics festival at Usher Street. It was a mark of status that a club had the wherewithal to stage such an event yet few could match the profitability of the Park Avenue event.

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Proxy competition

Local (rugby) football clubs effectively became involved in a proxy competition to stage athletic festivals, with the offer of ever more generous prizes. Undoubtedly this mirrored the intensification of football rivalries during the 1880s as Yorkshire rugby became increasingly commercialised.

1887-08-25 Advert Dewsbury Athletics Festival

As football club finances came under pressure, athletic festivals were relied upon as a means to generate additional monies. Manningham FC continued to host an annual festival until 1896 by which time controversy over rugby professionalism dissuaded amateur athletes from compromising themselves through participation in events staged by Northern Union clubs.

The Manningham FC festivals became another dimension to the rivalry with Bradford FC although the Valley Parade events never matched the commercial success of those at Park Avenue. Nonetheless those at Valley Parade were reasonably well-attended and in 1893 for example the athletic festival attracted a five thousand crowd which generated a surplus of £83. Athletic festivals at Park Avenue were similarly identified as a source of income, typically to offset the losses of the cricket section and that in July, 1890 was reported to have attracted as many as thirteen thousand people. These were fashionable events but popularity also derived from the gambling opportunities they offered.

During the 1880s the programme of events became progressively more codified for example with standardised running events that would have further attracted betting interest. From 1885 there were more bicycle and tricycle competitions which would have reflected the fashion of the time and also provided more of a spectacle around the perimeter of the cricket ground. However even in 1896 (the final year that the festival was staged) the events continued to include the more sublime such as the 200 yard association football dribbling race but the festival of that year remained popular with 7,000 spectators, 300 entrants and prizes worth £200.

The value of prizes on offer at the athletic festival at Park Avenue in July, 1893 was high in the context of average weekly wages which were in the region of 30 shillings (£1.50) for skilled men. Whilst participants competed as amateurs, the rewards of success were not insignificant and footballers were at a distinct advantage in these events given that the general level of fitness and participation in sport by most people was low. Organisers of athletic contests would have also welcomed the entry of footballers to attract spectators. One such player, Fred Cooper (who joined Bradford FC the following October) was particularly successful in short distance sprints and during the summer months attended various festivals in England as well in South Wales where he had been brought up. (On the same weekend of the Park Avenue festival he had been a prize winner at the Cardiff athletics festival.) Other prominent sprinters who played for Bradford FC included Tommy Dobson and Frank Ritchie.

After 1986 annual sports festivals continued to be staged at Park Avenue but on a far more low key basis with a headline objective of charity fund raising. These continued into the twentieth century, latterly in the guise of the Bradford Police Sports until the 1960s. The golden era of athletic festivals in Bradford however remained the 1880s.

by John Dewhirst Tweets: @jpdewhirst

From his book ROOM AT THE TOP. Other content written by the author about the history of football in Bradford is published on his blog, WOOL CITY RIVALS where you can access his features published in the Bradford City AFC matchday programme as well as book reviews and archive images.


VINCIT provides an accessible go-to reference about all aspects of Bradford sport history and is neither code nor club specific. We encourage you to explore the site through the menu above.

Future articles are scheduled to feature the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport and its sports grounds, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.


The Noble Art – A History of Bradford Boxing, Part Two

By Ian Hemmens

Part 1 of the story saw the origins of bare-knuckle boxing through to the organisation of the sport via the Queensberry Rules featuring notable Bradford Boxing celebrities ranging from ‘Brassey’ & Paddy Mahoney to the Blakeborough Brothers & the Fighting Delaneys up to and just after the Great War. With the tragic loss of Jerry Delaney in the conflict, Bradford’s biggest, brightest hope was lost.

1924 saw Bradfords next big promotion with York fighter Syd Pape being matched with a legend of the sport , Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, a veteran of over 200 bouts and a former World & European Champion. Pape had gained respect with Bradford crowds for his battling & game displays against a noted Aussie heavy called Lloyd. Sadly, the difference in class was there for all to see even from Round 1. Lewis handed out a severe beating but Pape gamely stuck in there despite the crowd calling for the fight to be stopped. The Referee allowed the fight to continue until Pape’s corner threw the towel in during the 2nd Round. Such was the brutality on show, it was perhaps unfortunate that sat at Ringside were the Lord Mayor of Bradford, the Chief Constable & several other notables who allegedly but never proved, were splattered with blood from Syd Pape. The Referee came under severe criticism for allowing the fight to continue but he defended himself as an experienced official saying he was working within accepted rules. This didn’t wash with the officials and the Chief Constable called the whole event a ‘Sickening Spectacle’ which, if it was indicative of the way Boxing was going, would not be allowed in the Windsor Hall or indeed, Bradford as a whole.

As a result, Boxing was banned from anywhere in the Bradford Corporation boundaries. Bradford was not the only place where bouts were banned, Hull, Nottingham & even parts of London also withheld licences. Amateur & Schoolboy boxing under ultra-strict rules was allowed to continue mainly under Police supervision which saw the rise of the Bradford Police Boys Club as a major venue for young, up & coming fighters to learn the right way.

The fallow period lasted a long 6 years before professional boxing was allowed to return to the City. The main venue by this time was the Olympia Buildings on Thornton Road. The Boxing Board of Control had promised to clean up the sport with even stricter rules and more medical securities for fighters before it was allowed licences.

Former Bradford fighter & now Manager Fred Blakeborough organised the event and a crowd of over 4000 showed there was a healthy appetite for the sport in the City. For the next decade, although no Bradford boxers made any notable impression at a higher level, the Olympia held several big bouts of note before gradually fading from the scene with the Windsor Hall once again taking pride of place as the Citys major venue. British Middleweight Champion Len Harvey attracted a crowd of 5000 for his bout with Belgian Theo Sas which to the ire of the crowd lasted a paltry 175 seconds. If that upset the crowd the next big bout featuring Canadian Champ Larry Gains destroyed Marcel Moret in a mere 34 seconds. Stewards, Commissioners & Constables had to go into the crowd to calm them & local Heavyweight Ted Brookes addressed the crowd from the ring to calm events down. Despite the farcical scenes, Larry Gains drew a crowd of 5000 on his return to the City in 1934 for his bout with Polish Champion Bert Casimir. To his credit, Gains had a highly respectable record even holding a joint decision with World Heavyweight giant Primo Carnera earlier in the year. Casimir came boasting of never being knocked down but he had never fought anyone near the class of Larry Gains. After the last farce, what the crowd needed was a competitive bout but after stalking his opponent around the ring for a mere 125 seconds, the first serious punch thrown by Gains put the Pole on the canvas & out for the count. The mortified crowd felt cheated once again & chants of ‘We want our Money back ‘ started growing with stewards once again moving into the arena to protect the Boxers & BBBC officials from their anger.

1934 also saw up & coming Welsh fighter Tommy Farr contest a hard fought draw with South African Eddie Pierce. The Bradford crowd were dubious of Farr’s pedigree but he was to become a British Boxing great when 3 years later he went the distance and very narrowly lost on points to the legendary ‘Brown Bomber’ the one & only Joe Louis.

During this period from a Bradford point of view, the main characters in the Ring were the Melia Brothers from White Abbey, Mick & John. Although Mick was good enough to fight at National level in the ABA ranks, their pro careers never reached any notable heights despite being well respected on the circuit. Popular Local Heavyweight Ted Brookes managed to get a bout with the ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera, the World Heavyweight Champ during an exhibition tour in 1931. It took place at the Winter Gardens in Morecambe and although Ted put up a valiant showing he was caught by one and knocked out by the 6’5” giant. Ted later said he couldn’t remember a thing about the punch. Ted was later offered a contract for another bout with Primo over in Ireland but it was later withdrawn when a better offer was put in. After retiring, Ted had a pie & pea shop up Otley Road and pride of place was a photo of Ted in the Ring with Carnera which Ted would regale his customers with stories of his fight with the ‘Champ’.

As the 1930s progressed, Boxing in Bradford seemed to quietly fade from public view with other more ‘public friendly’ attractions coming to the fore. As well as 2 professional Football teams, Bradford boasted a Rugby League team, A successful Rugby Union team, 2 successful Greyhound tracks, Speedway was introduced at Odsal. Yorkshire Cricket Club played regularly at Park Avenue and the Bradford Cricket League was possibly the strongest in the country. Outside sport but competing for public attention was the rise of Dancehalls, the talking picture sensation of Cinema, a rise in the accessibility of public transport, all placing demands on public income. Add to this the financial slump of the Great Depression all combined to see a sport like Boxing become less palatable to the public. Even Wrestling which was seen as less Bloody & brutal saw a rise in popularity to the detriment of Boxing. With War again on the horizon, it was to be a long fallow period before the sport in the City started to show roots of recovery and recognition once again & it came from an unlikely source.

The immediate post war period brought an almost immediate change of scenery for Boxing. In fact, locally the only thing of note would be an exhibition visit to Leeds by the then unknown but upcoming future World Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson. The whole vista had changed with a series of occurrences. The massive rise of Radio & the coming availability of Television broadened the horizons of families realising there was a whole world out there. The attraction & professional publicity machines by American promoters promoting the likes of Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson & the likes were appealing & on a whole new level to back street boxing halls. The sensational victory by Brit Randolph Turpin over Sugar Ray captured the sport fans attention but locally it was a barren landscape. Another major effect was the introduction of an Entertainment Tax by the government on the profits made by promoters which almost overnight killed off many boxing promotions & the number of halls in the 50s fell by three quarters down to below 200 nationwide. Television was able to offer more money for fighters which meant that locally, promoters couldn’t compete.

TV brought into the big time Characters like Cassius Clay & his gallant British opponent Henry Cooper and local Boxing Halls faced a precarious time as audiences refused to pay the money needed to bring quality bouts to the public.

Dunn & Ali.jpgLocally it was to be the early 70s before interest was perked with a Leeds born but Bradford raised bricklayer & former paratrooper named Richard Dunn came to the attention of the local fans. After years of journeyman bouts going nowhere, a call to veteran manager George Biddles saw his career boom big time and under his management, Dunn, within a year was British Heavyweight Champion following it up by taking the European crown. The whirlwind rise to fame saw him enter the ring in 1976 against arguably the Greatest ever, Muhammed Ali, the former Cassius Clay. Working his was up the rankings, a defeat by the teak tough Jimmy Young in 8 rounds where Dunn was actually ahead on the scorecards, a former sparring partner of Smokin Joe Frazier was no shame or disgrace & his upward trajectory continued with tough fights against well known characters like Danny McAlinden, Billy Aird & Neville Mead before taking the European crown against 6’7” German Bernd August, the Referee stopping the bout in the 3rd. Dunn had fought in the City at locations like the Talk of Yorkshire & The Midland. A typical, dour no nonsense Yorkshire man was now thrust into the national limelight. The fight with Ali was fixed for Munich on 25th May 1976 matching a ‘living legend’ with the ‘Bradford Brickie’ ! Despite a braveness & game showing there was to be no fairytale ending as the bout was stopped in the Round 5 after Ali cut loose leaving the Referee no option but to stop the fight. There was no shame in this and indeed the great Ali was effusive in his praise for the Bradford fighter admiring his courage and never-say-die attitude.

Richard arrived back to Bradford to a wonderful reception and his pride was clear to all as the City honoured him by naming the newly built sports centre in his honour. Bradford was finally back on the Boxing map.

Bradford’s long wait for a locally born Champion finally arrived in 1986 with the Girlington born Featherweight John Doherty and by the time he was finished in the early 1990s, John had been British Champion a record 3 times.

In the stable of local trainer John Celebanski, Doherty made great strides after beginning at the Bradford YMCA. Working his way up the rankings & despite getting cuts on several occasions, notably against future Champion Pat Cowdell, John proceeded to work his way forward even filling St Georges Hall before his date with destiny in Preston against his namesake Pat Doherty. After a slow start, John worked his way into the fight and despite another cut, the Referee gave John the verdict by 2 clear rounds. Bradford finally had its own homegrown Champ.

Defeat came in his next fight against old foe Pat Cowdell, again, cuts halting the Bradford man. A couple of years passed, John taking time out with various injury problems before a victory in a final eliminator against Kevin Pritchard saw John matched with the flamboyant new Champion Floyd Havard. John altered his tactics and kept the showy Havard at close quarters where his powerful punching saw him cause a major upset to regain his title against all odds.

Once again, john was unable to defend his title losing a very closely fought bout with Joey Jacobs before circumstances where for 11 consecutive fights, the Champ was unable to defend his title saw John once again given the chance to win a cherished Lonsdale Belt. Pitched against Sugar Gibiliru of Toxteth at Stockport Town Hall, Girlingtons best was determined to not let the chance of a fabled Belt slip him by and despite a nasty gash on the eye in Round 9, John wore down his opponent and became a 3 time Champion. It was to be the last hurrah for Doherty as after yet again losing his title in 1992, he decided it was time to hang up his gloves. John Doherty can rightly claim his place at the top table of Bradfords Boxing Hall of Fame with his gritty performances and no little talent. Without the handicap of easy cuts who knows how high he could have reached but Bradfords pride in its very own Champion was clear to all.

As Doherty’s career was winding down, like London buses, another Bradford born Boxer became a Champion. West Bowling born Frank Grant had no real background in the sport and secured the honour after no amateur career and only 23 bouts. A short spell behind bars had focussed Frank and whilst a gym orderly had turned him into a fine specimen. A basic training & coaching, his evident promise attracted John Celebanski who added him to his stable. His first couple of bouts showed his inexperience but then his continued exposure to intense training & expertise saw him win 6 bouts in succession, 4 by referee stoppage. By early 1990, a record of 13 from 15 saw Frank catapulted up the Middleweight rankings as an eliminator along with Kid Milo for the title held by the classy Sheffield based Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham. When Milo couldn’t make the fight, Celebanski saw & grasped the chance for his man. Unfortunately, various circumstances , the sudden death of Frank’s Mother, Boxing politics & the backlash from the Michael Watson incident where he suffered brain damage after his defeat by Chris Eubank all conspired to stop the fight being arranged. All boxers were made to take brain scans and Frank’s showed up a small anomaly which was proved to be wrongly diagnosed but nevertheless further delayed his date with destiny.

Graham had further enhanced his reputation as one of Britains best winning & holding titles at both Light Middleweight & Middleweight , indeed his only defeats had been at European level & 2 World title fights. The bout with Frank Grant (pictured below) was set for September 1992 at Elland Road, Leeds on the same bill as Leeds upcoming Super Middleweight Henry Wharton.

frank grantNobody outside his immediate circle & his Bradford fans gave him a chance against the classy ‘Bomber’ but Frank got his gameplan spot on by restricting the Champ in his movement around the ring and continually pinning the Champ against the ropes. Graham, in the 7th started to realise he was in trouble and started to work Grant more winning the next couple of rounds but come the 9th , Frank came out revigourated and his speed & power put the Champ down. Although he beat the count, Frank stormed forward unrelentless until the Referee had no choice but to halt the bout. The eminently qualified Mickey Duff was quoted as saying the 9th Round was one of the best he had ever seen. Bradford had another Champion to celebrate.

Frank defended his title at a packed & rowdy St Georges Hall against the durable John Ashton & there was talk of a bout to be held at Valley Parade to maximise Franks potential. Sadly, a lot of the headlines were caused by unruly elements in the crowd as several fights broke out & the police had to be called to quell the trouble but it had future consequences for fighting in the City. In the ring Frank more than lived up to the billing with the tough Ashton quoted as saying ‘it was like being hit by a truck’ such was Franks power punching. The purists were disparaging of Franks lack of ring craft but there was no denying, after only 25 fights he was a worthy Champion. His ranking rocketed him into the Worlds top 10 with the the great American Champs Gerard McClellan & Roy Jones in his sights. Due to the problems at St Georges Hall his next defence was to be held in Manchester with a Lonsdale Belt at stake. His opponent was Neville Brown from Brendan Ingle’s stable who had a record of 21 wins from 22 fights. Brown & Ingle had done their homework and managed to hold Frank at distance patiently picking him off with well placed jabs. In the 6th Brown opened a cut under Franks eye & his inexperience showed as desperation set in and Brown was able to finish the fight in the 7th. He was to become a valid Champion with several defences before being outclassed by future World Champ Steve Collins.

Frank had hit the heights quickly but bravely decided the fight game wasn’t for him and bowed out gracefully to enter the licensing trade.

Bobby Vanzie

The 1990s saw yet another Bradford product emerge in the form of Lightweight Bobby ‘Viper’ Vanzie (pictured above) who won British & Commonwealth titles and challenged for the Inter Continental title being beaten by Yuri Ramanau.


Junior WitterAlso emerging was Bradford born Light Welterweight Junior Witter (pictured left) who finally reached the promised land after being crown British, European & Commonwealth champion he fought and lost his first World bid losing to Zab Judah in 2000. September 2006 saw ‘The Hitter’ finally be crowned World Champion beating American Demarcus Corley at the Alexandra Palace. He made 2 successful defences before losing on a split decision to American Timothy Bradley. A rematch was offered but then Bradley was stripped of his belt with Witter being matched with mandatory challenger Devon Alexander in 2008. Alexander proved too strong for Witter and despite valiantly trying to continue, his moment of fame had passed. After finally bowing out in 2015, he now runs a gym in South Yorkshire but after over 150 years, Bradford could finally claim its own World Champion.


Recently the gloves have been passed to yet another Welterweight with Bradford born Darren ‘TNT’ Tetley (pictured above) winning the WBO European belt . Another chapter has begun in Bradfords Boxing History.

By Ian Hemmens

Bradford’s boxing heritage: Part One   by Ian Hemmens

Tweets: @IHemmens

References: Bradford Libraries
Boxing in Bradford & Leeds by Ronnie Wharton.

VINCIT provides an accessible go-to reference about all aspects of Bradford sport history and is neither code nor club specific. We encourage you to explore the site through the menu above.

Future articles are scheduled to feature the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford, early athletic festivals in the district and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.

The origins of cycling in Bradford

1887-09-01 Highway Law for cyclists.jpg

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first reported appearance of bicycles – or velocepedes – in Bradford. It was a phenomenon that was extensively reported in the Bradford Daily Telegraph and Bradford Observer as well as the Yorkshireman weekly review that was published in the town.

Bradford established for itself a reputation as a centre of cycling enthusiasm, benefiting from proximity to the Yorkshire Dales and other beautiful – albeit hilly – surrounding countryside. Local newspapers from the 1870s onwards attest to the popularity of the pastime with detail of weekend club runs featuring in the Friday and Saturday editions of the press. My own club, East Bradford CC was formed in 1899 when the Victorian cycling craze was at its peak and is now the longest surviving in Bradford.

Author JB Priestley (1894-1984) wrote fondly about his adventures on a bike and his excursions from Bradford and asked for his ashes to be buried at Hubberholme (about ten miles north of Kettlewell in the Dales), a place he described as a favourite escape.

The photos above are of St Michael & All Angels church at Hubberholme where Priestley’s ashes were laid and he is commemorated. I have often wondered whether his love of the place was on the basis that if you ride much further you begin to encounter some serious climbs. Could it be that Priestley found good excuse to dismount and instead enjoy the scenery of Upper Wharfedale that Hubberholme afforded him?

The first bicycles in Bradford

What is notable is how rapidly ‘velocipede mania’ became established in Bradford having originated in New York and Paris during 1868. Admittedly such mania was a national phenomenon but it was the viral spread of the craze that seems so remarkable, testament to the efficacy of communications long before the internet. On 12 January, 1869 the Bradford Observer provided an endorsement from a Paris correspondent: ‘I do not see why velocipedes which cost less than a very bad horse, and eat nothing, should not be useful.’ By the spring bicycles were fairly numerous in the town and in May, 1869 the appeal was described thus: ‘Bicycle riding, like skating, combines the pleasure of personal display with the luxury of swift motion through the air. The pursuit admits, too, of ostentation.


A 35kg boneshaker, one of the earliest bicycle designs.

In May, 1869 there was an incident in which three policemen allegedly assaulted a rider – a billiard maker – and pulled him from his bike in Peel Park. In the subsequent court case in which the rider sought action against the policemen, the court accepted that there were no bye-laws to prevent velocipedes being ridden in the park.

A report in the Bradford Observer on 27 August, 1869 stated that ‘Bradford is evidently determined to keep pace with the times… the bicycle was faintly heard of as a Parisian mania… and lo! within twelve months it is an institution amongst us. The swelldom of Bradford does not appear to me to be very enthusiastic about the new means of progression; possibly because there is danger in it. But there is a class which has taken up the bicycle with enthusiasm. The young men, warehousemen, clerks – those who affect gymnastic and athletic exercises, and are mostly members of cricket clubs.’

The same report mentions the opening of a velocinasium on Manningham Lane. The writer asked ‘Can anything be advanced more convincing as a proof of the rapid progress of the town than this fact, that a building has been reared solely and completely for the practice of velocipede riding?…There are other velocipede schools, of smaller size, though of longer standing, in the town. With such a provision, I should think Bradford will soon be competent to turn out quite an army of velocipedists.’ The point to note is that sufficient demand existed for businesses to become established and in so doing, leisure was becoming commercialised.

The Bradford Observer of 24 September, 1869 reported a cycling contest at the Manningham Lane velocinasium for ‘fast and slow racing, and for sports and feats (the latter including tilting at the ring, vaulting, off and on the bicycle, quoit playing on bicycles, and throwing at the target).’

Bicycles were reported to be continually flitting along Manningham Lane in the cool of the evening. For cycling to be a popular pastime in Manningham at the time says as much about the affluence of the township (new bicycles cost anything between £2 and £8, when average weekly pay amounted to 25s) as the fact that Manningham Lane was one of the few flat roads in Bradford. I doubt very much that anyone would have wanted to ride a 40lb wrought iron machine down Great Horton Road.

The aforementioned velocinasium was a ‘large shed with a glazed roof and a smooth wooden floor’ and had sixteen bicycles for rent to patrons and was situated opposite Bowland Street where the now derelict night club stands. The site bears witness to changing patterns and fashion of recreation and in 1876 the building was converted to the Valley Parade (roller) skating rink with a hard maple floor and was used for this purpose until 1901 when it became the depot of The Bradford Motor Car Company Ltd selling horseless carriages – which is to say it became a garage. Skating became extremely popular among young people, considered an excellent way to meet without the interference of chaperones.

Possibly the first bicycle race to be staged in Bradford was at the Bradford Cricket Club Athletics Festival in July, 1869 over one mile which was won in 5 minutes and 31 seconds (a speed of 11mph). This performance should be compared with the world record time of three minutes and one second which was set in Wolverhampton in May, 1874. On the face of it, even allowing for the grass surface it wasn’t an impressive feat by contemporary standards. By way of comparison, the author has ridden 10 miles in under twenty minutes in time trial conditions which is a not uncommon standard among amateur club racers. Nevertheless a modern rider would have a shock forsaking carbon for iron.

Despite bicycles of that era weighing 40lbs and the generally poor quality of roads, feats were recorded in the press of riders attempting relatively long distances. The benchmark for 50 miles was eight hours; by contrast a respectable achievement on modern dual carriageways would be below two hours albeit with a bike weighing a fifth of the original.

The emergence of cycling clubs in Bradford was in parallel to that of football clubs with participants often involved in both activities. Cycling was considered another form of athleticism and participants in grass track cycle races at athletic festivals in Bradford were invariably involved with other sports rather than being dedicated cyclists alone. For instance, on 18 November, 1882 the Leeds Mercury reported how the Bradford Harriers consisted mainly of members of Manningham Bicycle Club.

My research confirms the extent to which the same individuals diversified into new pursuits and for those who could afford it, cycling was a fashionable activity. The emergence of cycling in Bradford illustrates how people were receptive to new recreational opportunities. One of the ways that this came about was through networking and word of mouth with pubs such as the Belle Vue Hotel on Manningham Lane being the meeting place for ‘athletic’ clubs – athletic in the widest sense embracing cycling, football, harrier running and rowing for example. (Other such pubs included the Spotted House on Manningham Lane and the Queens Hotel on Lumb Lane.) However it is difficult to say how many people were active cyclists in Bradford during the first two decades after the first introduction of cycling to the town. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that cycling became a truly popular activity with broad participation and during the 1870s and 1880s it was (rugby) football that captured the attention of young males in Bradford.
The oldest cycle club in the town, the Bradford Bicycling Club was formed in 1874. The North of England CMC (considered the largest) was formed in 1877 and the Manningham club in 1878. There were also workplace clubs such as that at the Bradford Observer formed in 1879 and at Manningham Mills in 1885.

Bradford was considered a hot-bed of cycling activity and the Athletic News of 17 August, 1886 reported that ‘There are few, if any, Yorkshire towns which can boast of greater cycling popularity.’ At the competitive (as opposed to recreational) level however, Bradford was considered to lag behind. Maurice Bonsor, brother of England international Fred Bonsor who played for Bradford FC, was one such Bradford racer who had been unsuccessful. Maurice had even promoted a cycling section within the local Volunteers as a military unit for scouting duties. The consensus among local enthusiasts was that until local riders had the benefit of a dedicated cycle track as a training resource, prizes would elude Bradford cyclists.

The Athletic News of 11 May, 1886 had reported that ‘In such a town of hills and slippery granite a track is much needed. It was proposed to lease a field out Frizinghall nothing has so far come of it, as owing to some legal difficulties, it is not known who is the responsible owner of the ground.’ My assumption is that this referred to the Clock House estate and the same site as that previously occupied by Bradford Zingari FC – currently the lower playing fields of Bradford Grammar School. Therefore, when it was announced that Manningham FC was relocating from Carlisle Road, the Bradford cycling fraternity pinned its hopes on being able to establish a suitable track at the new Valley Parade ground. Whilst the club agreed to incorporate a cinder track, the cyclists aspired to something more ambitious. According to the Athletic News of 25 May, 1886 ‘the cyclists want something like a Crystal Palace track laying and would prevent any running with spikes on it.’ The hope had been for a track five yards in width and four laps to the mile around the perimeter of the Valley Parade pitch. However, because Manningham FC wanted to host athletics events the desired cycling track never came about. Besides, the viability would have been questionable.

In June, 1886 a meeting of ‘wheelmen’ was held at the Alexandra Hotel (which was the headquarters of the Bradford branch of the Cycling Touring Club) to develop a cycling track in the town. Representatives included members of the Manningham, Bradford, Atalanta, Great Horton, Thornbury, Undercliffe clubs and the meeting was presided over by the Bradford FC chairman, Arthur Barrett. The hope was that something might yet come of the Frizinghall site and it was proposed to establish a limited liability company to raise funds for the development. By the beginning of September, 1886 the scheme had fallen through, attributed to difficulties determining the legal title of the land. The problem for the cyclists was the same as that facing the town’s football and cricket clubs, namely a shortage of flat sites.

Cyclists resorted to racing in local parks which led to complaints by the public. On 14 June, 1887 The Athletic News reported that a local cycle dealer had been summoned at the Bradford Police Court for ‘furiously riding through Horton Park’ and asked ‘Why will reckless cyclists endanger the privileges of a large number by little indiscretions? It may be remembered that last year the Bradford parks were threatened to be closed because of the reckless riding of a few.’ Lister Park in particular was used for racing but eventually, in 1894 the so-called ‘scorching nuisance’ resulted in the park being closed to cyclists.

The above cutting confirms that cyclists were treated with disdain by many other road users. This from 1888.

In 1890 the National Cyclists’ Union (which regulated most of the cycling clubs in Britain) had introduced a ban on cycle racing on public roads to avoid bringing the pastime into disrepute. The ban led to non- affiliated clubs organising their own events with disagreement between cyclists on the merits or otherwise that continued long into the following century. In the wake of this, tracks opened elsewhere in West Yorkshire, including at Meanwood Road, Headingley and Fartown. In Bradford cyclists had to make do with either grass tracks or the perimeter cinder tracks at either Park Avenue or Valley Parade.

The introduction of safety bicycles from 1885 represented a milestone for cycling activity through allowing riders to pursue more adventurous rides outdoors. It also encouraged a number of bicycle retailers to become established in Bradford and the following adverts, again from The Yorkshireman in July / August, 1887 give a flavour of the sort of machines being ridden at this time as well as the price. The cost put them out of reach of most workers for whom an average wage would be around 25 shillings. Notable is that traders offered credit terms to make them affordable and that they could be sourced through mail order.

An attraction for local club riders was attendance at summer camps that provided opportunities for competition and recreation, a good example of which was the annual Harrogate camp that attracted riders from across Yorkshire. The following relates to that of 1887.

Although there is record of a Park Avenue (Bradford) Cycling Club in 1890 it is unclear whether this was under the auspices of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club. In 1895 it was not listed among the leading clubs in the town of which most were suburban based. The Leeds CF&AC at Headingley had an active cycle section but in the absence of track facilities there was less reason for cyclists to be based at Park Avenue. Judged from the following account in the Yorkshireman in May, 1892 the club may have been more a recreational than competitive organisation: ‘the Park Avenue Cycling Club are having a strange and certainly novel sort of a competition this evening from eight to nine o’clock, at Park Avenue. The conditions, I believe, are as follows: – Competitors start at eight o’clock and ride backwards and forwards on Park Avenue for an hour, and the committee will select at random a number of miles between four and fourteen, and the man who rides the nearest to that number wins the prize. This is certainly a rum idea, and emanates, I believe, from the wonderful noddle of their hon. sec., and, as he truthfully says, it is entirely a question of luck who wins. I should think so.’

In July, 1894 there were discussions between representatives of local cycling clubs and the Athletic Committee of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club to construct a cycle track around the perimeter of the cricket field at Park Avenue. The Leeds Mercury of 13 July, 1894 reported that plans had been discussed for a track of just under a quarter of a mile around the pitch perimeter, to be constructed of either concrete or wood. It was estimated that 150 cyclists would be prepared to pay an annual subscription of 10s/6d with the intention that local clubs would hold evening events at Park Avenue. The project never progressed and it is unclear whether this was because the venture was not deemed viable or whether the Cricket Club objected. With space constraints it might not have been a practical proposition but most likely it came down to finance given that in July, 1896 it was mentioned once more as a potential project.

Cycle racing however remained a feature of the annual athletics festival, albeit staged on the grass. In April, 1895 Bradford cyclists negotiated with the Midland Railway to rent land for a track and they were offered a ten year lease for £50 per annum. The stipulation was that cyclists be given three months’ notice in the event of the land being required for railway purposes which resulted in discussions being aborted. Finally, in 1896 a track was established in Wibsey.

Bfd Victoria CC.jpg

By the end of the 1890s there had been a mushrooming of cycling clubs in Bradford, not dissimilar to the emergence of rugby clubs across the district in the previous decade. What encouraged people to join were the opportunities for recreation and social engagement rather than competition per se (discouraged as a consequence of the NCU ban). Cycling clubs became the means by which people such as JB Priestley could explore the local countryside and get fit. A ride to Hubberholme from Priestley’s home in Heaton for instance would have clocked at least 70 miles, no mean achievement. It became a cultural phenomenon for weekend camps to be arranged at which cyclists from different clubs would congregate in the Yorkshire Dales and it was not until the 1920s that motorised traffic started to become widespread.

The first reports of motor vehicles in Bradford date from 1906 but it was not necessarily the car that was the biggest risk to early bikers. As the following from 1899 attests, cycling in Bradford could be a perilous activity if you could not control your bike on certain hills (or did not have brakes attached) and notable is that safety warnings were provided for the benefit of cyclists. The one thing that has not changed is the steepness of Moorhead Lane or other celebrated slopes in the district!

By John Dewhirst @jpdewhirst

The author is a former cycle racing time triallist and holds the East Bradford CC (est 1899) records over principal distances.

The origins of cycling in Bradford came at a time when people were seeking new forms of recreational activity. The following features written by the author and published on VINCIT provide further background about the origins of sport in Bradford in the late 1860s:

The origins of Bradford Amateur Rowing Club, established in 1867

The origin of athletic festivals in Bradford

How cricket provided the DNA of Bradford sport

The beginnings of competitive football in Bradford


(The above is taken from his book ROOM AT THE TOP which traces the origins of sport in Bradford and the early history of football in the district. Other features written by the author about the history of Bradford sport can be found from this link.)



VINCIT provides an accessible go-to reference about all aspects of Bradford sport history and is neither code nor club specific. We encourage you to explore the site through the menu above.

Future articles are scheduled to feature local boxing, the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.


Girlington AFC, very nearly Bradford City AFC

By Rob Grillo

Had things been different, the formation in 1903 of Bradford City AFC could have occurred twelve months earlier, if the result of a ploy to create a professional association football at Valley Parade from the seeds sown by two local football clubs and the city’s existing pool of amateur footballers had proved successful.

The Bradford & District FA, founded in March 1899 had overseen an exponential growth in the number of local clubs in the area as the round ball game took over from rugby as the number one winter pastime across the region.

The West Riding, however, was lagging behind the rest of the country. Rugby was still number one in the region, the Yorkshire Rugby Union having accepted that league and cup competition was inevitable and allowing its clubs to introduce the Yorkshire Senior Competition (and a number of lower divisions) as well as the Yorkshire Challenge Cup (t’old Tin Pot). This kept association football at bay for a little longer, while the seeds were sown in the game locally.

Girlington AFC.jpgGirlington AFC was one of clubs that emerged in the late 1890s, in the wake of a failed attempt to form a successful association team at by Bradford CA&FC at Park Avenue. Poorly supported, and seriously outclassed on the field by South Yorkshire opposition, the Park Avenue team had been banished to Birch Lane in the summer of 1898 before folding at the close the 1898/99 season, several of its players becoming dispersed around the junior (in status) clubs located around the city.

The Girlington club was formed by A H Grunberger and several of his acquaintances in 1896. Its first meeting was in August of that year with just nine members in attendance. All members of the club paid an annual subscription and initially paid for their own playing kits and travelling expenses, and in the early days was run on strictly amateur lines. Grunberger himself fulfilled several roles, including those of secretary and financial secretary. F Bradley took over as corresponding secretary, with other early committeemen including: W Rycroft, A Robertshaw, E C Robertshaw, J S Hawkins, F H Kemp, C Firth, P D Mortimer, S Gibson, and A Broadley.

That first season saw the club win four and draw two of their eleven friendly fixtures, against the likes of Bradford Spartans, Shipley and Pudsey. Initally the club played at a ground near the tram terminus at Four Lane Ends, using the Fairweather Green Board Schools for changing facilities. A new ground at Thornton Road was used for the 1898/99 season, before becoming founder members of the Bradford & District League in 1899. Their headquarters by then was the Red Lion Hotel at Four Lane Ends, with another new home ground close by at Duncombe Street, off Ingleby Road. This pitch, which was actually situated with Wallis Street to the north and Duncombe Street to the south, was also one of those considered for the home games for Bradford CA&FC team’s reserve team games in the mid 1890s.

Girlington were immediately successful in the Bradford & District League, being champions in the league’s first two seasons, 1899/1900 and 1900/01. The following season they won the District Cup, after having lost the previous two finals.

A major influence on the original Girlington team was Duncan Menzies, whose brother David had also played with him Park Avenue. The Scot was described in Yorkshire Sports in October 1901 as ‘a tower of strength’ for his club. Although described as ‘rather short of stature’, it was felt that his ‘cleverness with either foot, and sound judgement to draw out a defence’ were important characteristics of his play. He was, it was argued, ‘one of those ‘knacky’ men on his feet who seem to be born footballers’, who it was hoped, would go on to lead Girlington AFC ‘into the higher flights of the ‘socker’ world’.

To cater for a growing number of spectators, Girlington’s home matches were played at Valley Parade from 1901, the first soccer team to do so. Those in charge at Manningham Football Club were well aware of the potential that soccer offered, and this gave them the opportunity to hedge their bets without the financial outlay that their neighbours at park Avenue had experienced with their failed soccer experiment.

While this move undoubtedly attracted more spectators for Girlington, raising the club’s profile even further things were not always rosy. With both rugby and soccer being played on the same pitch, then wear and tear of the turf was increased, and several games were cancelled because of this. The ground had also been impacted by the staging of the non-sporting ‘Savage Africa’ show during 1901, which caused unexpected damage to the pitch.

There is also a suggestion that things were not all well behind the scenes, with the Leeds Mercury reporting in November 1901, ‘Girlington are not enjoying the state of tranquility which in other years has been their portion, but the management is making every effort to maintain the great reputation which the team has made for itself. The restlessness of the team suggests and unsatisfactory state of affairs, for with all the new men and outside talent, and the acquisition of the Valley Parade ground, they have not been so successful as expected.’ Additionally, although Manningham club was clearly showing interest in association code, the ground wasn’t available to Girlington as often as expected. With Manningham’s own teams taking preference, and Girlington were behind with their fixtures by the time Christmas arrived. It was still a surprise though when the club disbanded in the summer of 1902 despite being accepted into the West Yorkshire League.

The Bradford Daily Telegraph correspondent known as ‘Goalkeeper’ expressed his surprise on Saturday 19th July 1902: ‘The sensation of local football this week has been the withdrawal of the Girlington club from the West Yorkshire League, and practically the ending of the team seeing that the Bradford Leagues are now all completed. Their collapse is most regrettable. Only last season they gained the height of their ambition and became Cup holders. Their record in local football is really admirable, and only intensifies one’s regret at their unhappy ending. Into the pros and cons of the case I do not propose to enter, but I should have thought that entry into the West Yorkshire League bringing with it Competition matches with such clubs as Hunslet, Huddersfield, Altofts, etc’, to say nothing of Airedale and Rawdon, would have meant the beginning of a new era of prosperity to the club. The dispersion of players among other teams should, however, have its useful side. The experience of one of the older hands amongst a club composed of rising juniors would be bound to be beneficial.’

Had the issue over the pitch been the deciding factor, then Girlington would surely have made an attempt to return to their old ground at Four Lane Ends. They would have had to find a new ground within twelve months anyway, given that the professional Bradford City club was to take the ground solely for themselves. Although there clearly was a pitch issue (confirmed in the Yorkshire Sports on 11th October 1902) it would seem that internal politics led to the closure of the club. There were diagreements regarding the ground options open to them, and also over the number of new players who were drafted in during the season, and whatever the truth was, it caused Girlington’s downfall at the time.

However, an alternative reason – or at least contributing factor – can be proposed. The Bradford FA, in conjunction with the Manningham Football Club, could well have been involved in a strategy to base a professional association football club at Valley Parade from 1902, based around Girlington AFC and the appropriately named Bradford City AFC which had finished close runners-up to Airedale during the 1901-02 Bradford & District League campaign. Players representing that club 9formerly known as Harewood Recreation AFC), along with several of those from Girlington, had already represented a local XI teams in exhibition games but they too folded, at the same time as Girlington in the summer of 1902, this time seemingly without any explanation. John Dewhirst has suggested that behind the scenes the local FA may have tried to form a professional club from the two teams, but when it became obvious that the local pool of players was too short of talent to form a competitive side in, for instance, the Midland League. The scheme was shelved for twelve months, with both clubs disintegrating as a result, while the Bradford & District FA assisted club Manningham in a new application to join the Football League. Given that Manningham had allowed Girlington to use Valley Parade, and their agreement to host local and regional cup finals, then it is obvious that the club were hedging their bets should the round ball game continue to grow exponentially, without taking the risks taken up the road at Park Avenue. Twelve months later, Manningham was indeed elected to the Football League – as Bradford City AFC – but instead with a team imported from regions more established in the round ball game.

In January 1903 there was an effort to reform the Girlington club, with the Yorkshire Evening Post reporting, ‘Practically all the difficulties that caused the team to be disbanded during the present season have been overcome. The old committee who brought the team to such a prominent position are ready to help, and the majority of players have expressed the desire to come back.’ The club sadly failed to be revived at the time but Girlington AFC did reform prior to the 1907/08 season, although there was little coverage of their return in the local press. The new team won the Bradford & District FA Cup again at the first attempt (winning 2-1 against Fairweather Green at their old Valley Parade ground), and played in the second division of the West Yorkshire League. The following season they were back in the top division of the Bradford & District League before fading away before World War One.

Rob Grillo is author of LATE TO THE GAME, Volume 6 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series which tells the story of the origins of association football in Bradford. Details of his book and online ordering is available from this link.


VINCIT provides an accessible go-to reference about all aspects of Bradford sport history and is neither code nor club specific. We encourage you to explore the site through the menu above.

Future articles are scheduled to feature local boxing, the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.