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 and drill training was initially organised at the ground of Bradford Cricket Club as well as in Manningham Park. This connection with the cricket club was the first link with Bradford sport and arose most likely from the enthusiasm of its commander, Lt-Col Harry Hirst who was also involved with the ‘Old Club’ (as Bradford CC was known). It was convenient because the cricket ground was one of the few available venues in Bradford for such activity.

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.

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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 and 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 3rd 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. Its football club fulfilled 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 5th 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.

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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.

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.)

An advert in the Bradford City AFC programme for the fixture with Everton on 29th March, 1913 for the National Service League confirms the sympathy among the club’s leadership for military training as a form of patriotic duty. The National Service League was established in 1902 and lobbied for compulsory military training for home defence. For the generations involved with the Rifle Volunteers this would have struck a chord and is another illustration of the political outlook of the Valley Parade leadership that was strongly Conservative and imperialist in its support [4].

National Service League 29-Mar-13

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. The name provides clues of the Scottish ancestry of certain members with Bradford Caledonian clubs having been long-established in Bradford since the early decades of the nineteenth century.

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.

[4] The political allegiance of the Valley Parade leadership pre 1920 is discussed in this feature on VINCIT.


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