Recognition of Bradford’s rugby heritage

The news that the RL museum is to be based in Bradford may have come as a surprise to many people who considered places such as Huddersfield (the ‘birthplace’ of the Northern Union) and Wigan (a town with an identity defined by rugby) to have a stronger call. However it overlooks the fact that Bradford was a leading centre for the development of rugby football in nineteenth century England and that its two senior clubs, Bradford FC and Manningham FC – forerunners of Bradford (Park Avenue) and Bradford City association football clubs – were among the 22 founder members of the Northern Union in August, 1895.

Both clubs played a major role in determining the history of rugby in this country. Theirs was the story of two competing businesses who struggled to co-exist. Fundamentally they were more alike than their followers cared to admit. Their differences were defined principally by urban geography as opposed to social class. Bradford FC, based at Park Avenue – a Victorian cathedral of sport – was the high church alternative to Manningham FC, its non-conformist rival. Between them they represent case studies of how rugby became established as an entertainment industry in the Victorian era. In this regard the example of the Bradford clubs was foremost as an illustration of how a sport became commercialised.

During the nineteenth century Bradford had been one of the fastest growing urban centres in Britain and it was essentially an industrial frontier town. Sport played a massive role in helping to shape the town’s identity and civic patriotism. Both Bradford FC and Manningham FC had a big part in this and provide a unique study of how sporting culture evolved alongside urbanisation and the maturation of a town. In this sense, rugby was as much a product of industrial revolution as an industry in itself. The two Bradford clubs bore witness to a sporting revolution and the transformation of a game based on the supply of enthusiasts to one based on the demand (or otherwise) of spectators.

The Bradford club could trace its origins in 1863 although did not play a competitive game with another club until the winter of 1866/67. To that extent the city of Bradford can boast a sequence of 150 years of competitive rugby. However it was not until around 1872 when things became fairly serious and fixtures were a matter of civic pride against other emergent clubs in Yorkshire. By the mid-1870s Bradford FC under the captaincy of Harry Garnett had established a reputation as one of the leading clubs in the county. Consistent with its new found status, Bradford FC actively promoted the formation of the Yorkshire Challenge Cup competition in 1876 which proved to be a catalyst for the formation of clubs elsewhere in Yorkshire. Bradford FC was also a prominent member of the Yorkshire County Football Club from 1874, the organisation which managed the affairs of rugby in Yorkshire, later reconstituted as the Yorkshire Rugby Union. As the oldest club in the county, Bradford FC saw itself as an aristocrat of the game and was boastful of its role acting to encourage its spread.

In my opinion, it was a matter of accident that rugby – as opposed to soccer – came to be played in Bradford. The example of the town’s senior club undoubtedly encouraged the choice of code and once established, the option of soccer was limited by virtue of the fact that there were insufficient playing areas to accommodate both games. In fact, such was the demand for rugby – known in West Yorkshire simply as ‘football’ – that soccer was crowded out.

It was the opening of Park Avenue in 1880 as home to the newly formed Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club that had a further impact on the growth of rugby through commercialising the game. The new ground and development of facilities made it possible for unprecedented crowds to attend. Park Avenue provided Bradford FC with economic advantage and within ten years the club was considered the wealthiest in England, even subject to tax investigation in 1893. By winning the Yorkshire Challenge Cup in 1884, Bradford FC made rugby fashionable in the district and it was this achievement that led to the formation of junior clubs in every surrounding village and the popularity of the local Charity Cup competition.

Manningham FC had emerged in 1880, in circumstances indirectly related to the opening of Park Avenue and the changes that this created to the composition of other local sides. By 1885 Manningham FC had reached the final of the Yorkshire Cup and established itself as a rival of Bradford FC. That rivalry would become increasingly bitter, akin to a blood feud and this defined the future relationship of the two successor football clubs.

There were numerous incidents that antagonised relations between the two but fundamentally the rivalry was that of business competitors. With relocation to Valley Parade in 1886, Manningham FC became established as a genuine economic threat to Bradford FC which resented the loss of its monopoly. It was not without substance that Manningham members perceived attempts by the Park Avenue organisation to extinguish their own club. Neither missed the opportunity to undermine its rival when the opportunity presented itself and collectively their conduct made a mockery of notions of Victorian sportsmanship.

Bfd FC monogram crest - member season passes.jpg

Of the two, Bradford FC remained the senior and during the ten years prior to 1895 consistently provided at least two members in the England XV. In fact, of all the northern clubs it was Bradford FC that contributed the most internationals during this period. Yorkshire was by far the strongest county when it came to rugby and outsiders viewed Bradford FC as the biggest club in the Broad Acres. Indeed, Bradford FC came to be regarded as one of the leading clubs in Britain alongside Newport, Blackheath and Edinburgh Academicals and could command the most prestigious fixtures of all.

BFC 1901 (2018_07_29 21_34_58 UTC)

In 1895 the two Bradford clubs became founder members of the Northern Union. The commitment of Bradford FC was not confirmed until the final moment and when rugby was later abandoned at Park Avenue in 1907 the club was unfairly described as having always been lukewarm towards the breakaway competition. In 1909 this led to remaining members in the Northern Union seeking to withdraw ‘founder status’ from the phoenix Bradford Northern club at Birch Lane. Bitterness also surrounded the defection of Manningham FC in 1903 and the formation of Bradford City AFC in the same year; the fact that Manningham FC had been winners of the inaugural Northern Union championship tended to be overlooked. In both cases, soccer was adopted at Valley Parade and Park Avenue because rugby was no longer a game that would pay.

After the end of World War One rugby enjoyed a revival in Bradford but it was the amateur Rugby Union club, Bradford RFC rather than Bradford Northern – so called to highlight the fact that it was a member of the Northern Union – who stole the headlines. In fact Bradford Northern struggled for most of its first twenty-five years to remain solvent. The club’s fortunes were transformed by the opening of the Odsal Stadium in 1934, the potential of which captured the imagination of the Rugby League community as a northern alternative to Wembley. That potential was demonstrated in 1954 by a record, reported 102,000 crowd at Odsal for the Challenge Cup Final replay. The prestige offered by playing the annual Challenge Cup Final at Wembley meant that the London venue was retained and this, as well as jealousies within the Rugby League ultimately robbed Odsal of its opportunity to stage massive crowds on a more regular basis.

Bradford Northern struggled with the financial commitment to maintain the stadium, let alone to develop it extensively. The affairs of Bradford Northern became closely interlinked with the economics of Odsal. After establishing itself as a leading club in the Rugby League just after World War Two, by the second half of the 1950’s Bradford Northern was struggling and by 1964 succumbed to insolvency and disappeared from fixture lists for a year.

The record of Bradford Northern during the 1970s and 1980s was pretty undistinguished but the club was revitalised by the Super League in 1996 and reincarnated as Bradford Bulls. At last it seemed that the Odsal side could benefit from the size of the city that it represented. In 1996 the Bulls were inaugural champions of the Super League and in 2002 crowned as World Club Champions. For reasons best explained by others the last five years have been a period of financial difficulty and the Bulls have suffered the wrong type of headlines. Yet the fact that the Bradford side no longer dominates the Rugby League does not detract from the fact that it symbolises the ongoing struggle of professional rugby to compete with the soccer juggernaut. The very financial failings of Bradford FC / Bradford Northern / Bulls are testament to the competitive environment in which Rugby League has had to co-exist with soccer. As an added twist to the story, Bradford FC was among other West Yorkshire clubs who briefly promoted soccer alongside rugby as a form of commercial insurance in the latter half of the 1890s.

The history of Bradford rugby has demonstrated all the extremes that sport can offer – from success to disappointment, from profit to loss. Yet it was not just the story of two senior clubs because Bradford was home to a good number of junior clubs. Notable is that virtually all of them had disappeared within five years of the launch of the Northern Union; interestingly, none of them had been enthusiastic about the breakaway competition in 1895. A closer look at the experience of those smaller clubs offers fresh perspectives about the Northern Union and a challenge to some of the myths that have surrounded its early years.

The sporting reputation of Bradford has been coloured by the record of its clubs in the twentieth century for whom underperformance and financial failure was the norm – not to mention the Valley Parade disaster in 1985 which was itself a product of financial failings. The historic heritage of Bradford as a pioneering sports town has sadly been overlooked but I welcome the opening of the National Rugby League museum in 2020 as a form of recognition for the part that Bradford played in the sporting revolution of the nineteenth century. Although I write as a soccer enthusiast, the common football heritage of rugby and soccer in the city should not be ignored and in particular the events of the decades that preceded the formation of the Northern Union in 1895. Above all, the history of Bradford FC and Manningham FC explains exactly why the Northern Union was formed in the first place and its uneasy co-existence with soccer from the very beginning.

John Dewhirst

John is the author of ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP which tell the story of the origins of football in Bradford, the development of Park Avenue and Valley Parade and the later conversion from rugby to soccer.

Details of the books in the Bantamspast History Revisited series

His blog: Wool City Rivals

POSTSCRIPT: Feature on World Rugby Museum website

Other online articles about Bradford sport by the same author

The drop down menu above provides links to other content about the history of rugby in Bradford.

***Sadly the plans to bring the museum to Bradford came to nothing, a result of funding constraints.


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