The role of the railways in the early development of Bradford football

Although Bradford remains a railway backwater without a through-line connection, in the nineteenth century the railways played a massive role in the development of football in the district, a phenomenon that has tended to be overlooked. [1] This is astonishing because no-one would dispute the significance of the railways to the economic and social transformation of Great Britain in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the impact of the railways on Bradford’s development was no different and it is hardly surprising that they played a big part in the commercial transformation of sport in the district, from recreational activity into business.

The city’s two railway stations serve as a metaphor for Bradford’s economic decline. Yet although Bradford’s railways are nowadays a fraction of what once existed and what was planned, their legacy remains. Whilst redundant stations have long since been demolished, there are sufficient surviving civil engineering structures in the Bradford district to remind us that the railways had a major impact. They should also be remembered for their role in defining the history of football in the district.

As the Transport for the North body has now recognised, the tragedy for Bradford is that it lacks a through line connection on the railway network, undoubtedly a disadvantage for the economic prospects of the city. During the second half of the nineteenth century Bradford was very much in the grip of railway mania although – as we know to our cost – there was one scheme that proved elusive. Following the collapse of another scheme to construct a (north-south) through line in Bradford, a correspondent to the Leeds Times in January, 1884 wrote: ‘As it was in the beginning – Bradford on a siding – is now – Bradford on a siding – and ever shall be – Bradford on a siding – world without end – Bradford on a siding.[3]

Investment in national rail links has bypassed the city and as things stand, Bradford metaphorically remains on a siding with two railway stations. There was no shortage of schemes to achieve a through line in Bradford but their failing should not allow us to under-estimate the influence of the railways in Bradford, least of all with regards to the commercial development of (rugby) football in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.

The urban geography and topography of the town created limitations on where the game could be played but the railways had a major role in making new venues accessible to people living within and without the district. The best illustration of this was the ground nearby the Stansfield Arms at Apperley Bridge where Bradford FC was based between 1874-80. In the absence of a suitable site near the centre of the town, the railway connection made a relatively peripheral site accessible requiring a journey of around twenty minutes from the Midland station.

In the 1870s the prime consideration was the commuting time for players rather than the means to attract spectators. Apperley Bridge was not convenient for everyone and this gave impetus for games to be played closer to Manningham which was home to a good number of football enthusiasts. Nevertheless, railway connections remained vital with Manningham station serving Lister Park and Peel Park and then after 1875, Frizinghall station encouraged the use of a ground on Frizinghall Road (currently the lower playing fields of Bradford Grammar School).

Railways allowed fixtures with other clubs further afield and were relied upon by each of the leading sides in the Bradford district to attract visiting clubs as well as to fulfil fixtures away from home. Yet another way that railways were influential in their contribution to the sport was by facilitating governing structures to be established which oversaw the administration and control of Yorkshire rugby.

Rail links allowed deputies from across West Yorkshire (and Hull) to attend the regular meetings of the Yorkshire Rugby Union at the Green Dragon Hotel in Leeds and co-ordinate the development of the game. In December, 1888 the Great Northern Railway had boasted an express connection between Bradford and Leeds of only 17 minutes. For Bradford-based representatives this connectivity ensured that the town was able to enjoy political influence in the sport. The same could be said about participation in meetings of the national Rugby Football Union and indeed, railways made possible the selection of a national team comprising players from across the country – note that before 1895, Bradford FC provided more England internationals than any other Yorkshire club.

During the 1870s trains were routinely used for away games and the players of Bradford FC would meet at the railway station on match day. Railway timetables determined both the choice of opposition as well as the time of kick-off and in this way they helped define the earliest sporting rivalries. A further example of how they dictated arrangements was in December, 1872 when the game between Hull FC and Bradford FC was played halfway between in Selby, a consequence of railway schedules as well as the fact that overnight stays were as yet unheard of.

Kick-off times and the duration of games were flexed to accommodate railway timetables. In 1873 for example a Bradford FC game at Girlington was delayed until 3:30pm to allow the Rochdale team to arrive and a game at York in 1875 was similarly delayed until 3:45pm for the benefit of the Bradford Zingari players. In February, 1871 the kick-off for a Bradford FC game against Leeds in Peel Park was moved to 4:30pm owing to the breakdown of a train and its late arrival into Manningham station. (The inconvenience of trekking up the hill from the station was later given as a reason for Bradford FC to relocate into Manningham itself.)

Football journeys became a big part of the esprit de corps of teams and generally associated with rowdyism and drunken antics. In February, 1884 there is an account of the Bradford FC players returning by train from Sunderland via York station where they were forced to spend the night. The legend was that the station master had been so annoyed by their behaviour that he blew his whistle and the Bradford train departed early (without the Bradford team on board). Before too long it became the norm for the larger clubs to embark on an annual tour that was the highlight of the season for the participants.

By the mid-1880s Bradford FC looked beyond the confines of Yorkshire as the club chased the prestige and status of games in Scotland and the south of England. In November, 1883 it embarked on its first tour of Scotland and the defeat of Northern FC (NB based in Newcastle), Edinburgh Academicals and Glasgow University helped to define its credentials. After winning the Yorkshire Cup the following year it organised an ambitious tour in November, 1884 involving games against Marlborough Nomads, Oxford University and Cambridge University, the success of which was a defining moment in the profile and self-image of the club. The same railway connections allowed fixtures to be reciprocated at Park Avenue and in so doing Bradford FC was able to build its reputation as a leading side in England and this helped to attract spectators. Subsequent tours by Bradford FC included games in Wales. Manningham FC was equally adventurous and could boast tours of Devon, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – none of which would have been possible without rail travel.

Railways similarly ensured that the Yorkshire Senior Competition (YSC) launched in 1892 could function and fixtures could be fulfilled that allowed league football to become institutionalised. However, the benefit of this was not confined to Bradford FC and Manningham FC who were among the leading sides in the first division. By 1895 a total of 64 clubs comprised the four divisions of the YSC, of which 14 were from the Bradford district. These included the two seniors in the top tier – Bradford FC and Manningham FC; second tier – Bowling FC; third tier – Bowling Old Lane, Keighley & Shipley; fourth tier – Bingley, Brownroyd Recreation, Idle, Low Moor St Mark’s, Saltaire, Silsden, Wibsey & Windhill. In other words, railways helped a competitive league structure to become established across West Yorkshire (as well as Hull and York) that impacted on junior rugby, arguably raising standards through competition as well as further encouraging rivalry. Each of the above named clubs were gate taking – charging people to attend – and hence the railways can be credited with providing stimulus to spectator sport in the district.

The Bradford FC players came to be regarded as celebrities and high class rail travel added to the glamour with touring arrangements reported in the local press. On 21 November, 1893 a Bradford FC squad comprising twenty players travelled to Cambridge for a game against the university side. They travelled in a Pullman Dining Car from the Midland Station in Bradford at 3:30pm, arriving at 9:05pm for a game the following day, kicking off at 2:30pm. They then departed at 4:55pm to arrive in Bradford at 10:50pm. In December, 1894 Manningham FC went one better with a trip to Paris, likewise travelling in Pullman coaches from the Midland Station.

Railway links also encouraged innovations in training and the pretence of ‘scientific football‘. For instance, in preparation for the club’s Yorkshire Cup tie at Park Avenue, Manningham FC players stayed in Blackpool for four days. The practice appears to have been copied from Lancashire soccer clubs: the previous year Blackburn Olympic FC had sent its players to Blackpool ahead of the FA Cup final against Old Etonians whilst Blackburn Rovers and Darwen prepared for their Lancashire Cup Final with breaks in Morecambe and Blackpool respectively. Although a trip to Blackpool helped Blackburn Olympic lift the FA Cup, as far as Manningham FC was concerned, it proved futile. Nevertheless, once again in 1906 the Bradford City squad spent time at Blackpool ahead of a cup tie at Everton. (The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 19 February, 1906 described the resort as a ‘favourite of athletes seeking to get to top form‘.)

Proximity to a railway connection was considered a condition precedent by those evaluating options for a sporting venue. The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 17 July, 1878 quoted the treasurer of Bradford Cricket Club regarding the search for a new ground: ‘He thought that there would be no difficulty getting a ground, but they would not get one so central as the old one (ie at Great Horton Road), and as other towns had done, they might go outside and get a ground near a railway station.’ Another correspondent on 11 September, 1875 had suggested that Bradford CC should move to the ground of Eccleshill CC on account of it being ‘within three minutes’ walk from the station and the fare is 21/2 d.’ The opening of a new station at Horton Park in 1880 would have been considered a significant factor justifying the development of Park Avenue by the newly merged Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club.

It was no coincidence that each of the major grounds in Bradford were within walking distance of a railway connection. For example not just Valley Parade (Manningham station) and Park Avenue (Horton Park) but Usher Street, home of Bowling FC (St Dunstans) and Bowling Old Lane, home of the eponymous Bowling Old Lane FC (Bowling). Clubs also relied upon horse drawn transport for transit from stations and to / from hotels that were used for dressing. In this regard the Manningham FC accounts for the 1893/94 season included expenditure on waggonettes (four wheel horse-drawn vehicles) of £53 for visiting as well as its own players.

It was not simply that football grounds were based around the railway network, the urban geography of Bradford was shaped by railway speculation and this had further influence on the location of sports grounds. The Valley Parade site for instance had been earmarked as a consignment warehouse by the Midland Railway but the financial downturn that began at the end of 1873 led to plans being deferred and then eventually abandoned in 1884 after the collapse of the so-called Bradford Central Railway scheme – hence the opportunity in 1886 for Manningham FC to utilise a vacant plot close to the city centre. [2]  The various attempts at developing a cross-rail link in the town impacted on land use firstly around the Thornton Road / Whetley Hill area which led to the eviction of Bradford FC from Four Lane Ends in 1874 and then, following the Bradford Central Railway scheme the forced relocation of Bradford Rangers FC from Four Lane Ends to Apperley Bridge. A beneficiary was Manningham CC who occupied the vacant Whetley Lane site in 1878 after the eventual collapse of the scheme unveiled by the Midland Railway in 1873 for a tunnel underneath Manningham from Spring Gardens (adjacent to the existing line) to Whetley Lane in Girlington. [3] 

The final attempt at a cross-rail link in 1897 (the so-called West Riding Lines scheme) led to a planning blight in the centre of Bradford for twenty years as uncertainty existed over future land use. With concerns over security of tenure at Valley Parade a decisive factor in members of Bradford City AFC rejecting merger proposals and relocation to Park Avenue in 1907 was the willingness of the club’s landlords, the Midland Railway to grant a long-term lease to the club. At the time the Midland was concerned that if City relocated that it would lose potential passenger income derived from visiting spectators who might instead travel on the Great Northern line to Horton Park, a factor that could have also disadvantaged its cross-rail scheme.

manningham station

The importance of Manningham station for the Midland Railway was that it served visitors to Peel Park (and those attending the West Riding Galas) and provided transport for those working in Bradford, encouraging the development of the area as a popular suburb. Latterly it benefited from football traffic to/from Valley Parade.

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The potential relocation of Bradford City to Park Avenue would have impacted on passenger revenue to/from Manningham station, the cost of which would be all the greater if a link was built and the club won promotion to Division One (which was the case in 1908). In a delicious irony it then begs the question whether the issue of a central through station in Bradford compromised the chances of the two clubs joining together. The Midland for example had every incentive to keep Bradford City at Valley Parade and was therefore willing to promise security of tenure.

By the 1880s there was a commercial imperative to attract spectators and proximity to a railway station amounted to a strategic commercial advantage. Nevertheless it is impossible to say how many football supporters were carried by the railways to games involving the Bradford clubs. The local rail network was limited in its ability to convey people from one side of the district to another but its importance was that it allowed people to travel into town from the suburbs or outside the district whence they could make an onward journey to the likes of Valley Parade or Park Avenue through a further rail connection, on foot, by taxi-cab or horse-drawn tram. The railways thus extended the catchment area of Bradford clubs and allowed people to get into Bradford to attend games.

Prior to 1895 at least Bradford FC attracted visitors from outside the Bradford district to witness big games and this further raised the stature and influence of the club within West Yorkshire. (During the 1880s the team had also comprised players who lived outside the district such as Skipton, Leeds and Wharfedale.) It is similarly reported that Manningham FC attracted spectators from the Aire valley (who would have utilised the Midland Railway line) and after the launch of Bradford City in 1903 a good proportion of spectators came from outside Bradford to support the pioneering soccer club – the first member of the Football League to be based in West Yorkshire.

Railways were also the means by which Bradford people could attend games elsewhere. Excursions were regularly arranged for important cup games and on occasions the numbers travelling were respectable. In November, 1883 The Athletic News reported that a special excursion train had been booked from Bradford to convey the players and supporters of Manningham FC to Hull. Likewise, in April, 1885 it was reported that as many as ten excursion trains converged on Halifax to allow Bradford FC and Batley FC supporters watch their sides in the Yorkshire Cup semi-final.

The strategic importance of football to the railways was commented upon in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 4 February, 1899 quoting mention in the Athletic Record that ‘never in any previous seasons on record have so many matches been played, and never have our railways been patronised to such an extent as they have been during the season that is now in progress.’ It was stated that ‘it is a well-known fact that our great railway companies drive more pecuniary benefit directly through football than all the other branches of British pastime combined.’

The railway companies recognised the commercial opportunity of promoting excursion trips as the illustration from 1896 attests.

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Such was the popularity of these journeys that after 1905 an away game was nominated each season for the annual outing of Bradford City supporters and in April, 1905 an estimated 2,000 followers saw the fixture at Grimsby Town. In February, 1908 the practice of an annual trip was adopted by the Park Avenue club and 1,000 followers travelled to London to see the Queens Park Rangers game. In this way the railways contributed to a distinct football culture. [4]

Away travel played its part in the viral spread of supporter behaviours, a good example of which being the exposure of City followers to singing at matches which was then replicated at Valley Parade. In this way, railways had their impact on the atmosphere at grounds. A good example of this was the adoption of the ‘Pompey chimes’ by Grimsby supporters subsequent to the visit of Portsmouth to Blundell Park for an FA Cup tie in 1901/02. The singing of the so-called ‘Pontoon Choir‘ at Grimsby made an impression upon Bradford people in September, 1903 and again during the return game at Valley Parade such that it inspired the ‘Hello Chorus‘ to be sung in Bradford. The practice of annual trips by Bradford City supporters had itself been copied from the example of Woolwich Arsenal whose fans had nominated Valley Parade for their own excursion the previous season.

In February, 1904 an estimated three thousand Arsenal fans travelled to follow their team against Bradford City – a game that was forced to be abandoned on account of the weather. However it was not unprecedented for there to be large away followings in Bradford. For instance games with Halifax prior to 1895 were known to attract a good number of visitors at Park Avenue and Valley Parade and the vitality of West Yorkshire ‘football’ competition was derived from the proximity and accessibility of neighbouring towns. Railways facilitated those rivalries but even in the 1880s people travelled from further afield and in March, 1886, a reported 800 people – out of a 10,000 crowd – came from Hull to follow their side against Manningham FC at Carlisle Road.

The popularity of the Yorkshire Challenge Cup after the inaugural season in 1877/78 and the Yorkshire Senior Competition after 1892 was based around local rivalries and the phenomenon of travelling supporters would have been an element in the success and appeal of those competitions. Yet although there was the example of Seth Firth, a Bradford FC supporter whose death was reported in the Bradford Daily Telegraph in March, 1903, credited with having followed his club home and away for each game, it would be wrong to suggest that this was common practice. Few would have been able to afford regular travel every other week and indeed in Bradford it became the practice for enthusiasts to float between clubs on the basis of attractive fixtures and/or when one of the seniors was playing away. (Even so, floaters would have accounted for no more than 15% to 20% of a bumper gate.)

The majority of spectators lived nearby and their experience of football would have been within Bradford alone and without reliance upon railways. Thus Bowling FC had its own local catchment and the support of Manningham FC and Bradford FC was based around the surrounding area. As I explain in my book ROOM AT THE TOP, a key factor in the emergence of Manningham FC in 1880 had been the demand for a local club. Whilst not impossible it was nonetheless inconvenient and time consuming for people based in the Manningham area to attend matches at Park Avenue in Horton. The haphazard and frenetic development of Bradford along a north / north-west axis had been at the expense of urban planning and/or a suitable road infrastructure to facilitate travel across the district.

Ownership of one’s own horse and trap, or indeed being able to afford a horse drawn cab, was the exception to the rule. It was not simply that ‘Shank’s pony’ was time-consuming, anyone reliant upon walking around Bradford would do so at the expense of their footwear. However people began to look outside of their locality on a day-to-day basis thanks to the evolution of a public transport network in Bradford after 1882 which had become well-established by 1903 with an extensive electric tram network. It was this that provided affordable and timely travel for the masses within urban areas.

In terms of direct access, Valley Parade was arguably better served than Park Avenue. Both horse trams and steam vehicles turned at Lister Park and electric trams served Manningham Lane from 1892 whereas the electric tram service from Victoria Square to Horton Bank Top did not commence until August, 1898. Electric trams enhanced the means to attend matches and would have played a role in generating the relatively high attendances at Valley Parade after rugby was abandoned in favour of soccer (a sport that was fashionable and commanded considerable support among younger people and women for whom rugby had lost its appeal). Writing in the Yorkshire Evening Post of 26 September, 1903 ‘Old Ebor’ marvelled at the gates at Valley Parade during the first month of soccer and contrasted them to the gates that Northern Union clubs could expect. He explained the crowds at Valley Parade were ‘not all from Bradford itself, but the city itself is so admirably situated, and so well connected by railways and trams, that other towns contribute liberally.’

In 1907 one of the deciding criteria of the newly-formed Bradford Northern club was that a new ground had to be on a penny tram route, an illustration of how public transport options continued to dominate the choice of location. (Ironically the club was forced to locate at Greenfield, Dudley Hill which was not on a direct tram route but then secured Birch Lane the following season – the ground that had been the preferred option in 1907.)

In the twentieth century tram and bus networks assumed the strategic importance that railways had enjoyed previously but even so, it would be wrong to under-estimate the enduring importance of the railways for Bradford football prior to motor coaches dominating long-distance travel after the last war. Without the trains, many of the fixtures involving far away sides could not have been fulfilled and in which case supporters would have had no reason to attend a match. In other words the importance of railways was not based simply around the number of people that they carried to games, it was the fact that they facilitated the sort of fixtures that would attract spectators in the first place.

The experience in Bradford demonstrates that the railways helped make competitive football (ie rugby) appealing by allowing clubs to broaden their horizons and give birth to a football culture. Of course Bradford was not unique in having railway connections – and other towns / clubs also benefited – but with today’s skeletal network it is easy to under-estimate just how important the railways were for the development of commercialised sport in Bradford and West Yorkshire as a whole.

The competitiveness of Yorkshire rugby in the 1880s and 1890s was a foretaste of soccer in the twentieth century on a national scale with the very same ingredients (ie compelling fixtures; an engaging spectator experience; popular interest; local pride; and press attention). The railways underpinned the early success of rugby in West Yorkshire and the measure of how the game became entrenched is that it took soccer until the twentieth century to become established locally, long after being recognised as the principal winter sport in England as a whole.

By John Dewhirst



[1] An example of this was a recent publication by an author who describes himself as ‘one of the north’s leading historians of sport and leisure’. His book (reviewed here) purports to provide an authoritative account of the growth of spectator sports in Bradford in the nineteenth century yet gives no recognition to the importance of railways. It is a remarkable oversight for anyone claiming such academic credentials.

[2] Refer to my feature about The origins of Valley Parade and Midland Road – a story about railway developments.

[3] For more detail about these schemes refer to another article by the author on the subject of aborted cross-town rail links in Bradford: On a Siding (published on his blog in January, 2018).

[4] A further example of how the railways facilitated football excursions and organised away travel is provided on the author’s blog about the day when visiting Portsmouth and Chelsea supporters came to Bradford for FA Cup games at Park Avenue and Valley Parade respectively (on 3rd February, 1912): LINK HERE

[5] Feature about Railway excursions to the 1911 FA Cup final.


The above is taken from the author’s book ROOM AT THE TOP, (pub BANTAMSPAST, 2016) which also includes images / maps relating to the railway network in Bradford and plans for its development. You can read about the origins of sport and football – rugby and soccer – in Bradford in his books ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP which form part of the BANTAMSPAST HISTORY REVISITED series.   ***   [Link to purchase the books]   ***

If anyone wishes to reproduce this text the author expects due credit to be given for his research. Tweets: @jpdewhirst or @woolcityrivals

Other online articles about Bradford sport by the same author

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

Subsequent articles on VINCIT will examine other themes that had influence on the early development of Bradford football and the commercialising of sport in the district. 

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