Harry Briggs (1862-1920), Park Avenue benefactor

The modern history of Bradford City has been shaped by high profile characters in charge at Valley Parade. Stafford Heginbotham (1965-73 and 1983-88), Geoffrey Richmond (1995-2002) and Edin Rahic (2016-18) will be remembered for their impact on the fortunes of the club – not all necessarily in a positive light.

At Odsal, Harry Hornby (1937-56) was an influential figure whose entrepreneurial energy was crucial for Bradford Northern. In contrast, at Park Avenue Herbert Metcalfe (1969-70) tends to be cited as the archetypal meddling chairman. In particular, his presence may have been decisive in hastening that club’s exit from the Football League in 1970 and undermining the confidence of other clubs as to how Bradford Park Avenue was being run.

Briggs grave Bowling (2)

However, if you had to name the individual who was arguably most influential in shaping the direction and fate of Bradford football it has to be Harry Briggs who died one hundred years ago on 31st March, 1920. (The photograph shows his family tomb at Bowling Cemetery.) Briggs was the man who personified Bradford Park Avenue AFC to the extent that in 1907 the Yorkshire Sports depicted his face on a cartoon character to accompany match reports about Avenue. It was Harry Briggs who forced conversion from rugby at Park Avenue that led to the formation of Bradford Northern RFC and the bitter soccer rivalry with Bradford City. The competition of three senior clubs in the district arguably fragmented sporting effort and financial investment to the extent that all were denied sustained success and became better known for failure.

Harry Briggs’ father, Edward was the second son of John Briggs of Briggella Mills in Bradford and long before the death of his father and elder brother Moses, he had assumed the managing directorship of the family firm. Under Edward’s management the business established for itself a reputation as innovative and commercially successful.

In 1882 Edward Briggs established a huge state-of-the-art worsted factory and model industrial community at Marki near Warsaw, which was then part of the Russian empire. It was one of the first mills in Europe to be lit by electricity in 1883 and Marki became known as ‘a second edition of Saltaire’.

Edward became a founder member of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club (BCA&FC) at Park Avenue in 1880 and the proximity of his mill allowed him to offer employment to players of the club (thereby avoiding contravention of the Rugby Union’s regulations on amateurism). He became a guarantor of the club’s borrowings and was instrumental in the club’s financial rescue in 1896 when it came close to insolvency.

As part of its rescue Edward insisted on the club having management supervision and introduced Harry to fulfil the role. Edward died in 1898 and Harry inherited his status as the Park Avenue benefactor. From 1896 until his own death in 1920, Harry came to personify the Park Avenue club (much the same as Stafford Heginbotham was the personification of Bradford City at Valley Parade between 1966 and 1972). Harry never concealed his dislike of Manningham FC at Valley Parade who he considered a financial threat to the well-being of Park Avenue.

From 1905 Harry Briggs championed conversion to soccer at Park Avenue and attempted to persuade the City club to transfer to the other side of town in a new merged organisation. The traditional Manningham supporters were suspicious of Briggs and needless to say the overtures for amalgamation were rejected, culminating in a decisive vote of City members on 27 May, 1907.

Briggs recognised that the city of Bradford could not support two first class association sides but he was determined that the sport be adopted at Park Avenue as a more profitable alternative to rugby. Faced with rejection by the City membership and with family pride at stake, Harry dug himself deeper into an expensive hole and ended up increasing his financial commitment to funding Park Avenue.

Harry’s father was a brilliant businessman as Sarah Dietz (1) has convincingly portrayed. I agree with her assessment that this represented an enormous burden for Harry – his only son – who lived in Edward’s shadow even after his death. Harry was desperate to please his father and there is circumstantial evidence that this extended to playing both rugby and cricket at Park Avenue. The whim may have been accommodated by the club leadership as a gesture of gratitude to Edward and I am doubtful that Harry was selected on merit. (A consistent theme in accounts of meetings of the BCA&FC was the extent of obsequiousness towards the Briggs family.)

Match reports in Bradford newspapers confirm that Harry Briggs made a handful of appearances for Bradford Cricket Club during the 1880 season although there is no evidence of participation in subsequent years. In 1903, a correspondent to the Bradford Daily Telegraph credited him with having bowled the first ball at Park Avenue (in 1880) to the groundsman, Henry Boden (a game that was played on the football ground because the cricket pitch was not ready until the 1881 season). Given the solemnity of the occasion it was notable that the honour should have been granted to an 18 year old whose cricketing skills were never subsequently called upon.

As regards football, he was originally selected in the Bradford FC reserve team in October, 1881 and was selected on four occasions for the first team in January and February, 1882. Thereafter there is no further mention of him which is consistent with the suggestion that he was injured and forced to retire from the game. It was also claimed that when his footballing career came to an end, he donated the £50 insurance proceeds to charities. ‘Injury’ may have been his face-saver.

Harry Briggs saw it as his duty to uphold and even aggrandise his father’s reputation. An incentive for Harry to invest in Rolls-Royce was that it allowed him the chance to prove himself as a businessman in his own right and when it came to Park Avenue, he could not disappoint his father’s legacy. Consequently, Harry opted for the sort of bold venture that he believed his father would have approved of. He knew that if there were two clubs in Bradford it would undermine the profits of both but his chosen strategy was to vanquish the other through underwriting a new Bradford Park Avenue club. Hell would have no fury like a Harry Briggs scorned. By any measure it was a reckless, high stakes response.

For a businessman who stood no chance of financial gain from his benevolence and who publicly acknowledged the financial risk of forming a soccer club to compete with Bradford City, his behaviour seems extraordinary. Yet it was the same obsessiveness that he displayed in his passion for Rolls-Royce racing cars. In C W Morton’s History of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, (1964) there is mention of a claim that Briggs’ ‘enthusiasm for motor cars and his interest in the Rolls-Royce stifled his business acumen.’

During the amalgamation controversy Briggs was successful in alienating most of those around him and it is revealing that the Bradford Daily Argus of 27 May intimated that he was in a minority of one among the Park Avenue leadership in favouring amalgamation. In fact, the paper was later requested to retract that allegation which Briggs would have considered damaging to his cause. Faced with the partisan opposition of Manninghamites the remainder of the Bradford FC committee had come to the belief that the club should launch its own soccer club, independent of Bradford City. By this stage pride made it difficult for Bradford members to prostrate their club to the whims of those at Valley Parade. However, it put further pressure on Harry Briggs because he knew that he would be the man expected to finance the launch of a Bradford Park Avenue soccer club.

Briggs pursued amalgamation to the end and whilst he supported the decision to create a Park Avenue team and appoint Fred Halliday as secretary-manager I believe that he saw this measure as a bluff rather than as an end game. In his interview with the Bradford Daily Argus on 14 May, 1907 Briggs had been explicit about the disadvantage of two clubs in Bradford.

It was not simply partisan prejudice that caused the City committee to oppose relocation to Park Avenue. Harry Briggs was himself the principal obstacle to a fusion of the two clubs. For more than a decade he had wielded power at Park Avenue and on occasions his conduct had alienated players and supporters at his own club as well as those at Valley Parade. (In fact it is tempting to see similarities with a recent chairman at Valley Parade!)

Bradford FC had been known for its high and mighty attitude in the 1880s and Briggs was seen as a continuation of this, the Napoleon of Park Avenue who wanted to impose his will and was used to getting his own way. He quite literally embodied the Park Avenue bogey of old – the attempts by the ‘town club’ to extinguish the insubordinate challenger which was Manningham FC.

For the majority of his adult life Harry Briggs had made it his mission to ensure the ascendancy of Bradford FC over Manningham FC. Readers of Room at the Top will recall the incident in December, 1891 when he had done all in his power to make the Park Avenue pitch playable, spurning the goodwill gesture of Manningham FC to make Valley Parade available so that a game with Runcorn would not have to be postponed. Harry’s devotion to his father served to perpetuate prejudices about Manningham FC which dated from the beginning. It was now a complete volte-face, the man who had wanted to eliminate the Valley Parade organisation was trying to woo it.

Harry Briggs was seen as a playboy who had lived a life of privilege without having had much responsibility – whilst the titular head of his father’s old firm at Briggella Mills, in the background it was his uncle Francis Whitehead who ran the business.

In the absence of trust, he was thus the benefactor that no-one wanted, all the more emotive given the historic enmity between Manningham and Bradford. The irony in this is that Briggs offered major concessions. A degree of pragmatism was shown by the willingness to sacrifice his club’s identity in 1907 (to adopt that of ‘Bradford City’) and four years later to jettison the traditional colours of Bradford FC by adopting green and white as the price to secure Tom Maley as manager.

Should history remember Harry Briggs as a pig-headed fool or as a saint?

Harry Briggs YS graphic

The memory of Harry Briggs has been dictated by the rivalry of Bradford FC and Manningham FC. To the supporters of the former he was a saviour and guarantor. In the eyes of the latter he was considered a Machiavellian character with megalomaniac intent. He is also remembered as the man who had confidence to invest £10,000 in the floatation of Rolls-Royce in December, 1906 and someone possessed with considerable passion for its cars. Rather unkindly this has led at least one writer to compare him to Toad of Toad Hall (2). Author Kenneth Grahame’s character of the Edwardian era was similarly obsessed with motor cars, at that time a product of fancy and for which a mass market had still to be developed.

Yet whilst Briggs – in common with Toad – had enjoyed a privileged upbringing, inherited his father’s wealth and been something of a mid-life playboy, it would be unfair to suggest he was the conceited or lazy buffoon implied by the characterisation. Nonetheless, it is difficult to avoid the observation of him as a somewhat pathetic figure, wholly out of his depth in the leadership role he found himself. Judged from his statements, as well as his actions, there is a sense that on occasions he was gripped by panic and his muddling contrasted with the strategic direction and diplomacy of his contemporary, Alfred Ayrton at Valley Parade. He had never had direct experience managing people and accounts of his conduct suggest that his inter-personal skills were woefully under-developed. No wonder that the conversion process at Park Avenue was such a clumsy affair.

Briggs’ investment in Rolls-Royce and his commitment to soccer at Park Avenue surely reveals a man desperate to carve an independent reputation for himself whilst at the same time gaining the approval of his deceased father. The tragedy is that Briggs may have overreached himself just at the moment that he had committed to his projects. There is the suggestion that by the second half of 1907 he was financially stretched and no longer able to bankroll his new soccer club to the extent he originally intended. Indeed, Bradford Park Avenue failed to make an immediate impact on the Second Division when elected in 1908 and promotion was only achieved at the sixth attempt. The death in March, 1907 of his uncle, Francis (Frank) Whitehead – who had shared the management and ownership of J Briggs & Co. at Briggella with Harry after Edward’s death – led to changes in the Bradford business through the inheritance of Harry’s Polish-based cousin. Circumstantial evidence suggests that all of this tied up his capital, if not depleted it through the transfer of funds out of the firm.

The aggressive funding of Bradford Park Avenue that had been feared by those at Valley Parade did not materialise. Indeed, it was not until the appointment of Tom Maley at the end of February, 1911 that there was new momentum to the Park Avenue venture. Likewise, Harry’s investment – and directorship – in Rolls-Royce may have captured his attention, so much so that in March, 1907 at the time of the Bradford City merger dispute he was simultaneously trying to persuade the company to establish a new factory on his land in Bradford (presumably nearby Briggella Mills and Park Avenue). Instead, Derby was chosen but it might have otherwise had a major impact on the development of the Bradford economy.

Harry Briggs failed to achieve his objective of a merged club at Park Avenue and this can similarly be attributed to the fact that he alienated those whose support and trust he needed. Had he exercised more decisive leadership – or had the benefit of wise counsel – in 1905 or 1906 his goal might have been achieved. (Even so, it didn’t alter the fact that he remained a contentious figure in the eyes of Valley Parade members.) Likewise, in 1899 he could have chosen to sustain the soccer experiment on a low key basis for at least a couple of years more and this might have been the basis for conversion from rugby.

The death of his uncle in March, 1907 may have been significant. It removed a possible restraint on him embarking on what was undoubtedly a sequence of impulsive and risky ventures – not to mention expensive – through the launch of a second Bradford club, investment in redeveloping Park Avenue in 1907, membership of the Southern League in the same year and then, resignation from the Southern League in 1908 without any guarantee of a place in the Football League. In the end Briggs was saved from absolute disaster by circumstance and good fortune. With hindsight his decisions may seem visionary and inspired. All I can say is that if he drove his racing car in the same fashion it would have been pretty scary to be his passenger.

In contrast to many others who became involved with Bradford sport, Harry Briggs should be remembered favourably and deserves credit for his genuine commitment. In assuming the burden, he was not motivated by personal gain or vanity but by duty to his father and the belief that Park Avenue existed for a noble purpose, the creed that it served to promote sport and raise money for charity. His mission was to safeguard the ground that Edward Briggs and his father’s generation had secured in 1879 for the benefit of the people of Bradford. For him, what was on the line was family honour and he applied himself to the task with zeal.

The tragedy for the Park Avenue club was the death of Harry Briggs in 1920 at the age of only 58 (his father too had passed away at the same age). He died on 31st March, just over three weeks after his side had been defeated in the FA Cup Quarter-Finals by Chelsea.

Harry died at his home at Cottingley Manor and is buried in the Briggs Tomb at Bowling Cemetery. It left Bradford (PA) AFC without an obvious successor or bank guarantor and the club was forced to cope without ownership of the Park Avenue freehold. These were fundamental issues that handicapped his club and made it difficult to stand on its own two feet. Briggs knew that Bradford could not support two senior soccer clubs and he recognised the futility of them clinging resolutely to their independence. His assessment proved correct but there is irony in the fact that his behaviour drove a bigger wedge between them.

In 1920 there were signs that Bradford Park Avenue might overtake Bradford City whose finances had been exhausted. Both City and Avenue fell from grace in the 1920s – from being rivals in Division One in 1920/21 to contesting derbies in Division Three (North) by 1927/28. Had Bradford retained its membership of the first division it would have enjoyed a dominant position that Bradford City would have struggled to overcome. Final victory would then have been certain for Park Avenue. His death one hundred years ago effectively put an end to the Park Avenue ambitions and fifty years later his club lost its membership of the Football League that Harry had jealously coveted.

by John Dewhirst

From his book Life at the Top, a history of the rivalry of Manningham FC and Bradford FC pub Bantamspast, 2016. This narrates the circumstances of the two clubs changing code from Rugby Union in 1895 and then from the Northern Union in 1903 and 1907 respectively. He is currently working on a history of the rivalry of the two clubs as soccer rivals in the twentieth century.

Notes:

(1). Sarah Dietz is the author of British Entrepreneurship in Poland: A Case Study of Bradford Mills at Marki near Warsaw, 1883-1939, Routledge, 2015.

(2). Harry Briggs is compared to Toad of Toad Hall by Richard Sanders in Beastly Fury, The Strange Birth of British Football, Bantam Press, 2009. (His book contains a number of inaccuracies about Bradford City and Park Avenue but is readable and puts the story of what happened in Bradford at the turn of the twentieth century into a broader context of what was going on elsewhere in the country.)

 

Link to John’s blog: Wool City Rivals where you will find his features in the current BCAFC matchday programme, book reviews and other content about the history of Bradford City.
Future planned articles on VINCIT will feature former BCAFC manager Jimmy Wheeler, the original development of Park Avenue in 1879-80; the history of sports journalism in Bradford; the politics of Odsal Stadium; the history of Bradford sports grounds and the history of crowd violence in Bradford.
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