The history of Bradford rugby and the case to reassess the split in the English game in 1895

by John Dewhirst

There has been a temptation to romanticise the formation of the Northern Union in 1895 (forerunner of what became known as the Rugby League in 1922) as a sporting revolution in the interest of the working class. By that time the game of rugby – known in West Yorkshire colloquially as ‘football’ – had been transformed from a sport based on the supply of enthusiastic participants (that is, players) to an entertainment business based on the demand of spectators.

My research of what happened in Bradford in the years leading up to the formation of the breakaway league gives weight to the argument that the split is better described as having been an industry restructuring. In my opinion the motivation of the founder clubs was first and foremost to optimise their profitability rather than the welfare of players. Lingering affections for rugby union in Bradford at the beginning of the twentieth century might also suggest that things were more complex than the generally accepted version of history. Specifically, I challenge the official claim of the Rugby Football League that ‘The breakaway was caused by the northern clubs’ desire to pay players which was outlawed at the time in Rugby Union’.

Further findings of how football evolved in Bradford challenge a number of other ‘long-established truths’ about rugby history. This leads me to believe that local study is vital to enhance understanding of the history of sport in Great Britain and in particular, reasons for the pivotal split in English rugby in 1895. 

A matter of monopoly control

My argument is that the formation of the Northern Union was entirely consistent with previous developments regulating sporting competition in Yorkshire in the nineteenth century, specifically the tendency towards behaviour associated with monopoly competition, or to be precise traits more commonly associated with cartels. The same instinct towards concentration of power was also revealed in the relationship between Bradford FC and Manningham FC. The Park Avenue club actively sought to extinguish the threat of the emergent rival after 1883 in order to preserve its local hegemony. This was the making of a blood feud between the two clubs who were essentially business competitors. In my opinion the overarching theme of nineteenth century rugby in Bradford was about the exercise of monopoly power.

Bradford’s sporting DNA was derived from cricket which set the pattern for sport to become an expression of civic patriotism and loyalty. [1] My research has also revealed a link between the Bradford Cricket Club and the Young England movement in the 1840s [2] that was mirrored in the connection between members of the Primrose League and leadership of Bradford’s senior rugby clubs in the 1890s. As an industrial frontier town in the nineteenth century, sport played an important role in defining a Bradford identity and providing a degree of social unity – themes that appear to have been overlooked in economic and social histories of the town. There were parallels in the way that the leading Yorkshire cricket clubs jockeyed for power and with what happened in Yorkshire rugby. By the 1860s for example, the Bradford Cricket Club had established a reputation of assertiveness in protecting its interests and challenging Sheffield as the dominant player. In the 1870s the Bradford Football Club was no less hesitant it asserting its influence over Yorkshire rugby as a founder member of the Yorkshire County Football Club in 1874. The pentarchy of clubs comprising Bradford, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds and York was a magic circle that dominated Yorkshire rugby at the expense of smaller clubs who began to lobby for representation and an expansion of the ruling body in the first half of the 1880s. (Of course, when we speak of ‘Yorkshire’ rugby it was essentially about West Yorkshire and the East Riding with Sheffield entirely pre-occupied with Association rules football.)

Following the formation of the Yorkshire Rugby Football Union in 1887 and then the creation of district bodies, Yorkshire rugby politics was dominated by the tension between the senior and junior clubs. A consistent gripe was that in matters of adjudication relating to grievances or disputes, the Yorkshire committee favoured the senior clubs. Indeed the larger organisations were unapologetic in their defence of economic interests, resisted proposals for gate sharing in cup games and ultimately, demanded control over promotion and relegation to the Yorkshire Senior Competition league. The junior clubs were said to be placated by being granted the opportunity to compete in the Yorkshire Challenge Cup (launched in the 1877/78 season).

The YSC league was formed in 1892 in response to financial pressures arising principally from a trade depression and the need to protect income. From the outset, there was exclusivity in who was selected for membership and in Bradford, the senior Park Avenue club came close to achieving its objective of excluding Manningham FC. The junior clubs objected to being left out of the league and responded by creating new divisions such that by 1895 Yorkshire rugby had four tiers – the senior competition had 12 members and 38 junior clubs comprised the three subsidiary divisions.

The issue of broken-time payments

The payment of broken-time to those forced to take time off work to play competitive rugby became an emotive topic for the senior Yorkshire clubs. This was because of the demands placed upon players to play an increasing number of games in a season, coinciding with a period of job insecurity. Financial pressures had forced clubs to increase the number of games to optimise gate receipts and this was sustained by league competition. As a headline issue, broken-time payments came to symbolise the divisions between north and south but it was not the only cause of disagreement. Yorkshire clubs for example resented the southern opposition to rule changes and resistance to the staging of alternate RFU annual general meetings in the north. Those divisions had become raw by the time of the Rugby Union’s annual meeting in September, 1893 when proposals for broken-time to be legalised were defeated. On their part, the southern clubs could be forgiven fears about the domination of English rugby by wealthier northern clubs and the ill-winds of capitalism that left them ill-prepared and impotent to compete. The legions of northern working class players were a bogey for the smaller southern clubs for whom rugby was seemingly threatened with transformation at their expense.

Nevertheless, it is wrong to suggest that northern clubs were united in support of the issue of broken-time payments being allowed. This was demonstrated in 1893 by the fact that a sizeable number of Yorkshire clubs opposed the motion for broken-time at the RFU meeting. A representative of one of the junior Bradford clubs, Bowling Old Lane FC is recorded to have expressed his opposition at that meeting. Contemporary newspaper interviews confirm that other junior clubs in the Bradford district feared a free-for-all at their expense if broken-time was introduced. Once more, the issue revealed the tension between the junior clubs and the seniors in Yorkshire (who had the economic power). Notable however is that on the issue of broken-time payments, a club such as Bowling FC – the third ranking side in Bradford whose membership was solidly working class – had the same economic fears as any of its middle class counterparts in the home counties. In fact, in Yorkshire those fears were even more acute thanks to the proximity of the big clubs. Arguably a similar degree of paranoia exists nowadays in English soccer among followers of lower division clubs who fear the implications of wealth becoming increasingly concentrated in a smaller number of big sides.

Even within the larger clubs, the issue of broken-time appears to have been a divisive issue and on various occasions it was a cause of jealousy between different player cliques at both Manningham FC and Bradford FC. It is also mistaken to suggest that all players in the north demanded broken-time payments. Aside from a small and declining number who had the private means to play without the need for compensation, a good number of leading players in the two senior Bradford clubs were pub landlords and thus, self-employed.

The decision to secede

The history of the two senior Bradford clubs is a case study in democracy and decision-making within nineteenth century sports organisations. Although the football publicans had no personal requirement for broken-time payments they became an influential lobbying group in favour of Bradford FC and Manningham FC joining the breakaway Northern Union and seceding from the Rugby Union.

The football pubs allowed player celebrities the chance to command a personal following to secure influence within their clubs whose decision-making was determined by the one member, one vote member organisation structures. Yet what concerned them was not broken-time per se as opposed to the concern that their clubs might be left behind by others forming a rebel league. Their stance was partisan in nature, to ensure that their clubs would play in any elite northern competition and thereby maintain parity.

Although Bradford FC in particular arranged fixtures with leading southern and Welsh clubs, subsequent to the launch of the Yorkshire Senior Competition in 1892, it was league fixtures that drew the biggest crowds. Whilst value was attached to international selection and the status derived from membership of the RFU, there was a growing irritation and contrariness among members of the senior Yorkshire clubs towards increasingly antagonistic attitudes that were building in the south.  Maybe a fin de siecle mood encouraged thought of radical change with the example of the northern based Football League providing the inspiration for a northern rugby union.

In the case of Bradford FC, the commitment to the Northern Union was very much at the stroke of midnight. The club’s leadership agonised over the financial implications and in the final event it was popular opinion – and the influence of the footballer pubs – that probably swung the decision. Members of the club’s committee had grave misgivings about joining the breakaway competition and subsequent events surely vindicated their concerns.

Opposition within the club to the proposed Northern Union was not an issue of class politics, nor was it necessarily based on affection for the Rugby Union – the concern was that the new body was a rushed affair and too narrow in its composition. Crucially the Bradford leadership favoured a broad based northern union and not simply a league.  The Park Avenue committee also knew that a breakaway would not be universally popular. In 1896 it was reported that Bradford FC suffered a sizeable reduction in membership and a likely reason for this is that these people valued the club’s status in the rugby world and its ability to stage prestige fixtures with touring sides. The loss of such fixtures removed an important differentiator with Manningham FC and henceforth, rugby followers would pick and choose between games against the same (northern) opposition at either Park Avenue or Valley Parade.

The future of Manningham FC had been safeguarded by membership of the Yorkshire Senior Competition and its leadership committee knew that the club could not afford to be left out of a new Northern Union. The new competition also ensured equality with Bradford FC and helped safeguard the future of Manningham FC. The decision to secede from the Rugby Union was thus based on practical, economic grounds rather than ideological. The consensus among the northern rebels was that it was impossible to remain a member of the RFU with the likelihood of falling foul of stringent anti-professionalism regulations. The Manningham officials knew that their club was in the firing line given that in December, 1894 it had been singled out at an RFU meeting and implicitly accused of professionalism on account of a trip to Paris (where Manningham FC had played Stade de Francais).

The belief in Bradford was that the southern establishment was standing in the way of progress and that change was unavoidable. On its part the Manningham FC committee was reconciled to the breakaway in the belief that any split would not be permanent and that the RFU would eventually come to its senses.  The belief among northern clubs that this might be the case could explain why the Rugby Union was particularly dogmatic, as if to demonstrate that there would be no compromise over professionalism in rugby.

Our knowledge of what happened during the summer of 1895 is likely to remain incomplete. Many of the meetings were conducted in secret, in smoke-filled rooms and my sense is that many of the newspaper reports were speculative in their content. There is also the suggestion that club jealousies encouraged the spread of false information. The football pubs in Bradford assumed importance as a source of news and rumour and I believe it safe to conclude that many opinions were formed from incomplete information.

The Rugby Union out-manoeuvred the rebel clubs but the tactical failure of the latter had more to do with the fact that they were far from united. Historic jealousies among the northern clubs undermined mutual trust and the Bradford FC leadership committee for example resented that the initiative was driven by clubs with lesser pedigree than itself, with less at stake financially and specifically without the same debt commitments. Similarly, populism would have forced the negotiating position of individual club representatives. As a collective body, it was too much to expect that the northern clubs could have matched the political initiative of the RFU leadership in what became a high stakes contest. The likes of William Cail and William Carpmael, acting on behalf of the RFU, calculated that they held the advantage in the game of poker due to divisions not only between the senior northern clubs, but also from antagonisms that existed between them and the junior clubs – for example arising from denial of promotion to the Yorkshire Senior Competition which was an emotive issue in the 1895 close season.

An industry restructuring

It is important to recognise the connection in Yorkshire between the promotion issue and broken-time in the events of 1895. What they had in common was that they were both key drivers of the profitability of the senior clubs – the first being the protection of income (through regulating membership of the YSC to bigger clubs capable of attracting good crowds); the second being the control of wages and, crucially also a safeguard against full professionalism (and the risk of wages being increased to the level paid by soccer clubs). Contrary to what has been claimed, the new Northern Union was not universally acclaimed in the north and in Yorkshire it aroused considerable animosity among the junior clubs who saw it as a cartel, contrary to their interests. In this sense, it was yet another instance of senior clubs promoting monopoly competition and excluding smaller rivals. Again, in 1901, a subsequent restructure of the Northern Union was interpreted as a further example of large clubs instinctively protecting their self-interest at the expense of others.

The formation of the Northern Union (NRU) disturbed the equilibrium that had emerged after the formation of rugby leagues in 1892. The hierarchy of clubs served as a food chain whereby local sides existed as feeders to junior and senior organisations. Once the RFU forbade relations between its members and the rebels, that delicate chain was broken. Perhaps not surprisingly it was the smallest clubs in Yorkshire who next joined the NRU, seceding twelve months after the original schism. The junior – or medium-sized – clubs held back as long as possible and even enjoyed a temporary new lease of life, until financial necessity forced them to switch as a means of self-preservation because rugby union in Yorkshire lost critical mass. [3]

What has been overlooked is that, in Yorkshire at least, the body of the Northern Union was hollowed-out in the shape of an egg-timer with senior clubs at the top and local clubs at the bottom. The absence of numerous medium-sized, junior clubs denied the NRU a pyramid structure. The reason that most of the former junior clubs did not join the Northern Union, or were members for only a couple of years, was that they succumbed to financial failure. The mass insolvency of these clubs in the second  half of the 1890s was thus the equal and opposite to what had happened in the first half of the 1880s when they had mushroomed. In this regard the NRU was not a cause of their failure but the schism of 1895 certainly hastened their disappearance. By the 1890s the finances of the smaller clubs were already precarious and this had a lot to do with the impulsive enthusiasm and naivety behind their emergence in the previous decade – which in the Bradford district came from the excitement of the Yorkshire Challenge Cup. In West Yorkshire their space came to be filled by soccer and in Bradford, sports fields were lost to rugby.

By the 1890s the Yorkshire rugby industry was characterised by over-supply and in this context, the formation of the Northern Union in 1895 occasioned an industry restructuring.  (It could even be argued that the defence of amateurism by the RFU was an equivalent economic strategy to control competition.) With regards to the Northern Union, parallels could be made with what happened in soccer such as the launch of the Premier League in 1992 or in northern rugby, the Super League in 1996. First and foremost, it was about optimising profitability for the members – these were all examples of naked sports capitalism just as the formation of the Yorkshire Senior Competition league in 1892 had been. Subsequent to 1895, the changes to the Northern Union – professionalism, rule changes and thirteen aside – were driven by commercial criteria to attract crowds as the sport came under increasing competition from soccer. The need for change is evident from analysis of gate receipts at Valley Parade (home of Manningham FC) and at Park Avenue (Bradford FC) with a plateauing of aggregate revenues after 1892 and – on the basis that more games were being played – a drop in average attendances. It was the decline in profitability that ultimately led to the eventual abandonment of rugby at Valley Parade and Park Avenue in 1903 and 1907 respectively. There is no other town in England in which two leading sports clubs have switched codes on two separate occasions.

 The issue of class in Bradford (rugby) football

The intensity of the Bradford / Manningham rivalry – described in contemporary reports as a blood feud – gives the temptation to suggest that, as in Glasgow there was an ulterior tension between the two. The claim has been made that the rivalry between Bradford FC and Manningham FC was one based principally on class. In my view this is incorrect and says more about the political agenda and partisan loyalty of modern writers, failing to recognise the actual circumstances of the two clubs and the fact that neither was ever a homogenous body. As I explain in my books, Room at the Top and Life at the Top, the relationship between the two was essentially that of business rivals.

The emergence of the Manningham club arose from the fact that it was located in the centre of a populous district and urban geography dictated allegiance; the convenience of a local club was preferable to those who were time constrained and unable to head across town to Horton Park Avenue (which was more accessible to the south of the district). Both clubs relied upon backyard support but each had its own appeal with distinct personalities and reputations: Bradford FC was known for its celebrity players whilst Manningham had a strong record of developing its own. Similarly, the entertainment facilities and covered accommodation at Park Avenue, as well as its status as the senior town club, made Bradford FC a fashionable option. Ultimately both benefited from floating supporters who were attracted by the standard of football on offer and the fixtures of the day. Suburban stations at Manningham (Midland Railway) and Horton Park (Great Northern) extended the catchment of Valley Parade and Park Avenue beyond the Bradford district to places in Wharfedale, Airedale and even Calderdale.

The politics of those in charge at both Park Avenue and Valley Parade was remarkably similar and reveals the influence of ‘One Nation’ Conservatism. In fact the distinction between the two clubs was more akin to that of religion: the Bradford club representing an established church that played its games at a cathedral and Manningham was the non-conformist whose home was a chapel. In my opinion blanket generalisations about class are not only misleading but represent a gross simplification and superficial understanding of how the clubs functioned and evolved.

In fact, the social composition of the Bradford FC first team was remarkably fluid in the fifteen years after 1880, the year when the football club was relaunched through merger with Bradford Cricket Club and the Horton Park Avenue ground was opened. Originally the team comprised a majority of working men whose introduction to ‘football’ had been through membership of the Bradford Rifle Volunteers. Yet by 1884, when Bradford FC won the Yorkshire Challenge Cup, Fred Bonsor personified the generation of young men from wealthy backgrounds attracted to what had become a fashionable pastime; the Bradford FC players of that time were true celebrities and known for living the high life. Critics bemoaned the influence of player cliques and the fact that team selection invariably depended upon favouritism – in fact a number of players were said to have joined Manningham FC having been unable to secure a place at Park Avenue. Nevertheless, it is incorrect to argue that the Bradford side was exclusively middle class in its selection.

The introduction of league competition in 1892 had a profound impact on the social composition of the Bradford FC side, a number of whose leading players at the turn of the decade such as England internationals Fred Bonsor, Rawson Robertshaw and Laurie Hickson had hitherto been of solidly middle class families. In March, 1893 the reported comment of a Halifax supporter confirmed that players with ‘cuff and collars’ at Park Avenue were by now the exception and not the rule. In other words, the social transformation of the dressing room – metaphorically away from scented soaps – occurred prior to the split in 1895. The transformation at Manningham FC meanwhile was not quite so marked given that the majority of its players – although not exclusively – were from more modest backgrounds.

After 1892 the two clubs were actively competing against each other for the same players and league competition brought with it a bidding war to secure the best talent. This heralded a new phenomenon for Bradford rugby with the introduction of more ‘foreigners’ to the two leading sides. Whilst ‘imports’ were not new, their numbers were and no longer was it the case that a team would be comprised mainly of locally born players.  At Park Avenue in particular, any suggestion of prejudice among club members had more to do with the reliance upon ‘alien’ players from outside the district representing the town club than working class men per se.

During the previous decade, there had already been a trend towards greater representation of players from a working class background. In Bradford, the crowding out of middle class players was not unique and arose from a variety of factors, the most obvious of which that working men proved more deserving of team selection. In Bradford, a not insignificant issue encouraging those who had the option to pursue a career was economic uncertainty. After 1873, the textile industry was subject to a series of trade depressions attributable to foreign tariffs being imposed upon British exports. Increasingly, fathers could no longer afford to subsidise their prodigy offspring to indulge in football and besides, there would have been a filial duty to sustain a family business. By 1890 a tipping point had occurred and thereafter, new players introduced to both the Bradford and Manningham teams were predominantly working class. The comments of the headmaster of Bradford Grammar School, quoted in 1889 to the extent that football (ie rugby) was a ‘vulgar, rough game’ highlight that the sport was no longer deemed an acceptable pastime for the respectable young men of the district.

In 1892, the formation of the Bradford Old Boys under the leadership of former Bradford captain, Fred Bonsor was a case of middle class players decamping to establish their own side. Bonsor struggled with retirement from the game as well as the loss of attention and the creation of the club allowed him the means to continue playing with his cronies. The Bradford Old Boys played a number of local fixtures but the venture was short lived.

 Personality and culture: Bradford FC v Manningham FC

A measure of the stature of Bradford FC was the standard of fixtures that the club could command. The Bradford club was the team to beat and in the ten years prior to 1895 consistently provided at least two members of the England XV team every season. This alone gave the club and all associated with it a degree of swagger, no different from that surrounding one of today’s Premier League giants. The fact that the Barbarians were formed in Bradford in April, 1890 reflected the status of the club and town as a rugby centre. (Founder, William Carpmael used the Alexandra Hotel in Bradford as a base for his touring party who played games with Yorkshire sides and two Bradford FC players became founder members.)

The personality of the Bradford club was quite distinct from that of Manningham. Other than its fame, this arose from three other key factors: (i) its relative size; (ii) its wealth; and (iii) its original purpose as the town’s senior representative in the pursuit of civic sporting glory. As a commercial organisation it was much bigger than Manningham and this was reflected by the fact that attendances tended to be higher at Park Avenue than Valley Parade. By 1890, the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club was reputedly the richest in England, a measure of commercial success. Its size, with roughly double the number of members as Manningham and its scale of activities, embracing cricket and athletics as well as football, made it a more complex and political organisation. In practice this meant that the experience of membership would have been much different to that of Manningham FC and that the two clubs would have appealed to people in unique ways. In addition to the rivalry of the seniors, the existence of half a dozen decent junior sides in the Bradford district offered tremendous choice and variety for rugby followers as well as a rich football culture. (Indeed, Bradford of the 1880s and 1890s can rightly claim to have been a sporting centre with well-established clubs catering variously to cricket, athletics, cycling, gymnastics and for that matter, chess.)

Many of those involved in positions of leadership at Park Avenue were self-made men and this surely helps explain what became known as the club’s brash ‘high and mighty’ attitude to other sides. Indeed, Bradford FC was not universally admired in other Yorkshire towns on account of its arrogance and unashamed pursuit of self-interest. However, Bradford members tended to view criticism in the Leeds press – and the Yorkshire Post in particular – as jealousy.  It ensured that Yorkshire rivals – Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax and not just Manningham – were sufficiently well-motivated to raise their game. After 1892, derbies with Manningham were described as ‘hair and skin’ affairs which was a measure of the passions and the fact that the smaller club considered them an opportunity to prove itself.

The Manningham club tended to eschew the so-called ‘masher’ culture more commonly associated with Park Avenue and its leadership tended to be more cultured and educated. To some extent this mirrored the social rivalry in late nineteenth century Bradford of mill owners on the one hand (who were more prevalent at Park Avenue) and the more cosmopolitan wool merchants on the other (who provided the leadership of Manningham FC by the end of the nineteenth century). Valley Parade was always a basic, utilitarian ground with limited facilities but had the advantage of central location. Park Avenue was by contrast much bigger and more developed but the Manningham membership expressed pride in self-help and the fact that their ground had been built from limited resources. Park Avenue was originally part-funded by public subscription but Bradford FC was always reliant upon debt – something to which the Manningham members remained averse.

 The Manningham FC ethos is thus better described as that of Samuel Smiles. It was certainly not that of Keir Hardie and indeed, the awkward fact for the individual [4] who has enthusiastically peddled the myth that the club aligned itself with the Manningham Mills strikers in 1891 (for which there is no substantive evidence) is that the Manningham FC leadership was predominantly Conservative in its sympathies and its secretary sat on the Bradford Police Watch Committee.

 The Northern Union and class identity in Bradford

 The language of class permeated the dispute over the split in English rugby in 1895 and beyond. Perhaps not surprisingly, historians have focused on the schism having been driven by class conflict but I question whether an obsession with class has served only to impede the study of rugby history. I do not dispute that for many in the south, the working class player from an unknown Yorkshire village was symptomatic of how northern rugby was in the ascendancy and casting a shadow over the fate of the national game. However, I suspect southern commentators vilified working class players as the scapegoat because to do so was the easiest way to narrate economic developments in the sport and mobilise opinion against professionalism. For example, the subtlety of broken-time compensation payments as distinct from wholescale, full professionalism was not fully understood in the south whereas the scourge of working men playing rugby was. It represented the gross simplification of a wider issue much in the same way that today’s tabloid press has preferred to castigate east European labourers in Britain as a proxy when opposing immigration.

 In Yorkshire, contemporary reports allude to the condescending attitude of the RFU’s southern leadership after 1893 and it was openly acknowledged at the time that the dispute with the south was about influence and control of the direction of English rugby. Even so, as far as Bradford was concerned, I have seen nothing to suggest that class was a defining issue at the time of the breakaway in 1895 and it is notable that at Park Avenue and Valley Parade there were no resignations among prominent members of the respective leadership committees in protest. Indeed, emotive language about class only started to become reported in the local Bradford press after 1905 when rugby union began to make a recovery in Yorkshire and Northern Union followers were inclined to make disparaging remarks about the amateur game and its participants. This is hardly surprising given that at the start of the century there remained examples of working class Rugby Union sides in West Yorkshire whereas by 1905, Yorkshire rugby union was predominantly a middle class sport, played in the main by boys educated in independent schools.

 The Rugby Union had not helped itself with its dogmatic and uncompromising defence of amateurism. In the north, this had prevented contact between players or teams of the rival codes and the RFU cordon sanitaire invited accusations of elitism. Not surprisingly, in 1907 when Bradford FC members debated a return to the Rugby Union, there was a bitter reaction among those who supported the Northern Union game. Correspondence in the press confirms that opposition was driven by class prejudice with mocking references about the social mores of rugby union.

 In Bradford, the events of 1907 were far more divisive among rugby followers than what had happened in 1895. Thereafter, the Northern Union game was inextricably linked with a working class identity. Yet, even if the division within English rugby came to be seen as a matter of class conflict, that is quite distinct from suggesting this dimension was the true cause of the schism in 1895.

 My belief is that in Bradford at least, the Northern Union actively fostered a class identity as a defensive mechanism to kindle popular support in the wake of criticism following the disappearance of so many junior sides. In the Bradford district, the Northern Union game was unable to compete with soccer and after 1895 never captured the public imagination in the same way as the traditional code prior to the split. People were lost to rugby with the disbanding of junior clubs in the district and blame for their failure was widely attributed to the breakaway Northern Union. The criticism was unfair and equal blame could be apportioned to the policy of the RFU in preventing co-operation between the two codes. However, the Northern Union was the scapegoat for having been the agent of change.

 It is notable that after World War One, and certainly prior to the opening of Odsal Stadium (home of the Bradford Northern club) in 1934, it was the reformed Bradford Rugby (union) club that held the initiative and commanded popular support in the district. In the meantime, Bradford Northern struggled to survive and the club attracted only meagre crowds until relocating to Odsal, a massive ground formed out of a municipal rubbish tip. In other words, it was hardly the case that in Bradford, Rugby Union was handicapped by popular bias for the rival code or that the Northern Union game was held in high affection locally.

 The Great Betrayal

 When rugby was eventually abandoned at Park Avenue in 1907 it became known as ‘The Great Betrayal’ and it was with heavy heart that rugby followers came to terms with the prospect of an end to forty years of competitive rugby in Bradford. However, by 1907 there was considerable disillusionment with the Northern Union in the city and it is telling that Jimmy Wright, one of the original ‘football pub’ landlords in 1895 who had lobbied to join the breakaway, was later wholesome in his support of the rugby union revival in Bradford. This was not some form of revanchist, counter-revolution with class undertones. At its heart was frustration with what the Northern Union had become and a perceived tendency on the part of the code’s administrators towards forever tinkering with the rules of the game.

 Bradford FC had seen itself as the Blackheath of the north but lost its aristocratic self-image as a member of the Northern Union. Neither could Manningham FC claim that its sojourn in the Northern Union had been satisfactory, this was despite the club having been inaugural champions of the new competition in 1896. Ultimately neither club could make rugby pay – or at least not to the level needed to meet financial commitments. In January, 1907 the Bradford FC committee had forced the other senior Yorkshire clubs to vote on a return to the RFU rules and a reversion to fifteen aside. The unanimous referendum in support of the Northern Union alternative represented a milestone for that competition, ending speculation about mass re-entry to the Rugby Union (however unlikely it seemed). In Bradford, the Park Avenue club members split three ways in an acrimonious divorce that led to the formation of the Bradford Park Avenue soccer club and the Bradford Northern rugby club; those who favoured rugby union joined either of the two local amateur clubs. 

Shades of Grey

From the vantage of the twenty-first century, the formation of the Northern Union appears to have been a fairly clean-cut event that invites a romantic narrative of it having been a popular revolution, motivated to protect the interests of the working man and enjoying universal acclaim in the north. All told, from the evidence of what happened in Bradford, it was far from being such a black and white affair but then revolutions are rarely what revolutionaries claim them to have been. In the final reckoning, I doubt very much that the leadership of either the Manningham or Bradford clubs – or other smaller clubs in the Bradford district – would concur with what modern historians have said about the cause of the split in 1895. I therefore believe that the Bradford case study validates the call for more bottom-up, local analysis to challenge existing narratives about sporting history.

[1] Cricket – the DNA of Bradford Sport

[2] The political origins of Bradford Cricket Club

[3] The story of Shipley FC and Bradford’s other c19th junior rugby clubs

[4] Dr David Pendleton – review of his book from this link


Postscript. To an outsider such as myself (with no particular enthusiasm for either code of rugby) the history of the Rugby League seems dominated by dogma and the myths of 1895. Whether cultural or ideological it reflects the bitterness of the Great Split and all that followed. The orthodoxy of thought about the causes of the breakaway is emotionally upheld and little quarter has been given to revisionist thought that there was more to it than class tensions in Victorian society. My suggestion that capitalist instincts and the defence of profit was a factor in the formation of the Northern Union has proved difficult for some people to stomach. It therefore seems ironic that a current theme for discussion among followers of Rugby Union is the proposal to ring-fence the RU Premiership and put a stop to promotion / relegation to and from the second tier. And for what purpose other than to protect profit and investment?? Surely it is a re-run of an earlier controversy going back more than 120 years.

John Dewhirst is author of ROOM AT THE TOP, A History of the Origins of Professional Football in Bradford and the rivalry or Bradford FC and Manningham FC (Bantamspast, 2016) and LIFE AT THE TOP, The rivalry of Manningham FC and Bradford FC and their Conversion from Rugby to Soccer (Bantamspast, 2016). Refer BANTAMSPAST website for details. Anyone seeking quotes or references to substantiate his observations as above is encouraged to refer to the books.

The following features by the same author offer further insight into the early history of  Bradford rugby:

Centenary of the Bradford Rugby revival in 1919 and the Scholemoor ground at Lidget Green, Bradford

The influence of the Rifle Volunteers on Bradford sport in c19th

The role of the railways in the development of Bradford sport

The story of Shipley FC and Bradford’s other c19th junior rugby clubs

The significance of sport in shaping a Bradford identity

History of the Bradford Charity Cup and the makings of a football culture in the district


Other articles by the same author on the history of Bradford sport

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