The early development of Park Avenue

Park Avenue: The People’s Park.

Flat land has always been at a premium in Bradford and during the town’s rapid development in the nineteenth century the best sites were claimed by industry and housing. Not surprisingly it was at the expense of fields where cricket or football could be played. A common theme for sports clubs in Bradford during the 1860s and 1870s was the shortage of options for where to play and the demand for sports fields far outweighed the availability. The geography of the town and the extent of urban expansion made the problem acutely felt.

The opening of Park Avenue in 1880 therefore had massive significance. It was the long awaited ‘People’s Park’ – it was nothing less than the ‘promised ground’. To understand the psychological importance of Park Avenue goes a long way to explain the subsequent rivalry between Bradford FC and Manningham FC.

The story of Park Avenue went back to the difficulties faced by Bradford Cricket Club to find a secure home. In 1851 it had been forced to vacate its Claremont ground which it had occupied since 1839, the consequence of the advance of bricks and mortar. This had prompted talk about establishing a ‘People’s Park’ – the same language as that of Benjamin Disraeli when he visited Bingley in 1844 and endorsed the game of cricket and recreational activity.

In 1852 the club secured a new ground further up Great Horton Road (adjacent Laisteridge Lane). This venue soon established itself as the de facto centre of sporting activity in Bradford and played a big part in the social calendar of the town, hosting not only prestige cricket fixtures but also archery (from 1844), bowling (from 1864) and athletics festivals (from 1869). Additionally, between 1864-67 it staged the earliest activities of the nascent Bradford Football Club formed in 1863.

Unfortunately, the cricket club was made homeless again in similar circumstances at the end of the summer of 1874 and hence the search for the elusive ‘People’s Park’ began once more. It was the failure to find a suitable and affordable site that led the club to be disbanded. Having been considered the sponsor of sporting activity in Bradford this was considered a major blow to the well-being and self-respect of the town. (The story of how Bradford CC provided the DNA of Bradford sport is told in this feature on VINCIT.)

In July 1878 newspaper correspondence prompted a renewed effort to find a dedicated sports ground and with it a resuscitation of the town’s cricket club whose origins dated to 1837. Other than Four Lane Ends there were no other obvious sites to develop a ground near the centre of Bradford. Even if it was not necessarily easy to get to – for example from Manningham – Park Avenue had the advantage of being in a green field, elevated area beyond the pollution of industry and the Leeds Times reported on 26 April, 1879 that it was ‘in a healthful, breezy position, well out of the smoke.’ (The point was not lost on The Bradford Observer of 6 March, 1880 which similarly referred to the ground’s ‘singular immunity from smoke,’ a comment that betrayed local sensibilities.) It thus satisfied the criteria of allowing a prestige development.

In 1874, Francis Sharp Powell had offered a site to Bradford CC on the east side of Laistridge Lane near Horton Green but this was subsequently rejected over concerns about the length of the lease (10 years) and there is no evidence that this site was considered again. The Park Avenue site by contrast would have preferable given that it was adjacent to the newly developed Horton Park.

The experience of athletics festivals at the former Great Horton Road home of Bradford CC had taught that a new ground would need permanent structures and that it was insufficient to plan for a basic enclosure only. Besides, civic pride dictated otherwise. In other words, it was realised from the start that for the new ‘People’s Park’ to be a success it required fixed investment and needed to be utilised by more than just cricket. This created a financial focus not only to raise funds for the development but also to generate profit to repay borrowings. Almost by accident, the new venture at Park Avenue assumed commercial characteristics that defined the future behaviour of what became the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club.

The ‘Bradford Athletic Sports’ festivals at Great Horton Road had been extremely popular and the Bradford Observer reported on 21 July, 1873 that the event that year had attracted five to six thousand spectators. The success of the festivals encouraged Bradford CC to invest in a new, permanent grandstand that accommodated 700 people:

 ‘The grandstand, which on former occasions has been merely a temporary structure, has this year been erected in a more durable way, it being the intention of the committee to keep it permanently standing for the accommodation of visitors to the cricket matches on the field. It is placed nearer the Ashgrove side of the field than grandstands have been put in former years, and is of larger dimensions than previous erections, being nearly 50 yards in length.’

This commentary provides an understanding of the finances of Bradford CC and infers that the construction of temporary grandstands and refreshment tents had previously represented a large proportion of the expense in staging games. The report of the club’s meeting in the Bradford Observer of 8 November, 1873 states that cost of the grandstand was £210 whereas temporary structures had previously cost £40. The investment reflected the importance of the athletics festival to the finances of the club and in 1873 this alone generated income of £274 out of £1,032 in total. The festival contributed a profit of £151 whereas the profits from cricket were only £35. Therefore, the erection of a permanent grandstand would have allowed considerable future savings and potentially transformed the club’s profitability. Another illustration of the benefit of permanent structures came in September, 1874 when the refreshment tents erected for the All England game at Great Horton Road were blown away (in what the Bradford Observer described as a hurricane).

In January, 1874 the Great Horton Road ground staged the Yorkshire v Lancashire rugby game, organised by Bradford FC, and expenditure on the new grandstand may have been with this in mind. Irrespective, the grandstand would have made the fixture possible.

It is highly unlikely that the grandstand was covered or that it offered more than a viewing platform and I would assume that a permanent structure had never before been erected due to considerations of cost and the fact that the club operated on a short lease. The irony is that the grandstand was not used by Bradford CC beyond 1874 and I suspect that it was moved to the Bradford Albion ground at Horton Green when Great Horton Road was vacated. The surplus provided by the festival in 1873 had made a compelling case for the grandstand and provided more learning for the future. It demonstrated that for Bradford CC – and for Bradford ‘athletics’ – to thrive and prosper, a future ground had to accommodate more than cricket. However, to make permanent structures feasible, security of tenure was required.

The cost of developing Park Avenue

The construction of Park Avenue was funded by a combination of public subscription and debt finance and the fact that this was possible confirms the importance of the ground to public-minded individuals who were not necessarily sportsmen. It shows how athleticism had become idealised as a noble cause in Bradford, not simply for the recreation that it provided but as an expression of civic pride, a means of raising funds for charity and as a unifying force for the people of the town. This was entirely consistent with what Bradford Cricket Club had stood for in the 1840s and the sentiments expressed by the Volunteer movement.

A list of subscribers was published in the Bradford Observer of 6 March, 1880 which listed benefactions in the total amount of £1,498. There appears to have been three categories for subscription. The first was for dignitaries and it was probably deliberate that the serving lord mayor, Angus Holden (who was also nominated president of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club) should have made the largest donation of £200. Other donations came from cross-party politicians, Sir Isaac Holden and Arthur Illingworth (both Liberals), Sir Henry W Ripley (Conservative) and notables including Lt-Col Harry Hirst (commander of the 3rd Yorkshire West Riding Rifle Volunteer Corps – the Bradford Rifles – and joint owner of the family brewery) and Henry Mitchell (founder of Bradford Technical College, Weslyan benefactor and prominent supporter of the Conservative Party who was later knighted). The sum of £50 was also received from Messrs Mitchell & Shepherd of which Major William Shepherd was the owner and the same amount from the family firm of J Harper Mitchell JP.

The second category of subscribers were local businesses who were invited to subscribe £21 (twenty guineas) apiece which provided life membership of the club. Included among them were donations from Edward Briggs (whose firm was based at nearby Briggella Mills) and his two brothers, John and Moses. Another was Harry Armitage, later to become president of Bradford City at Valley Parade and a man who argued for merger of his club with Bradford FC at Park Avenue in 1907. A third category embraced more modest donations from private individuals and smaller traders, with amounts listed of between £1 and £10.

The vast majority of the donations came from business sources but what is notable about the published subscribers is the extent to which they reflected a broad spectrum of political opinion as well as commerce. Nevertheless, the extent of generosity should not be overstated. Although the amount donated for the development of Park Avenue was unprecedented (that is to say, as a sports enclosure) it nevertheless represented a small fraction of what was contributed for places of worship.

The 1870s had been a decade of church building in Bradford, matched by the opening of non-conformist chapels and The Leeds Times of 31 May, 1879 reported there to be 36 establishment churches and 94 chapels with capacity of 17,772 and 42,094 respectively. Since 1860 alone there had been 13 new chuches and 32 chapels and a Church Building Society had been formed in Bradford in 1859 to progress construction of church building. Many of the largest Anglican churches in Bradford came from that movement which was funded by individual benefactors like Sir Francis Sharp Powell and this had prompted competition from other sects funded by benefactions such as the Wensleyans (who enjoyed the patronage of Sir Henry Mitchell) and the Baptists (supported by Alfred Illingworth).

To get a sense of the amounts invested in spiritual salvation, in April, 1878 a new Baptist Chapel in Girlington had been opened which cost £8,000 to build. It had an organ worth £650, presented by Angus Holden JP. It could be said that the depression in trade had given many industrialists time to reflect on other matters. To put the fund-raising for Park Avenue into further context, subscriptions for the ground were also dwarfed by what had been raised in Bradford during 1875 for the Asia Minor famine fund. The suffering of people in Turkey had come to prominence as a humanitarian disaster and commentators used the opportunity to contrast governance in the Ottoman Empire with enlighted British rule in India. Just under £4,000 was raised in Bradford through public donations, nearly three times as much as that contributed for Park Avenue.

The Leeds Times of 13 March, 1880 reported that the total cost of construction was in the region of £4,000, principally for the purpose of levelling the ground and constructing pavilions although my estimate is that the total cost may have been closer to £5,500. An appeal for further subscriptions was made but it is unknown how much that raised. To make up the difference, reliance was placed upon debt funding through an overdraft secured by guarantees from individual members.

The subscribers

Perhaps surprising is that whilst names of people formerly associated with Bradford Cricket Club are recognisable, the same cannot be said about former players of Bradford Football Club. Ironically the only name being identifiable as having a football connection was that of W E Scharff, stuff merchant whose son had played with Bradford Caledonian FC in 1875. The lack of donations from former players and in particular, other merchants hints at a shift in the social background of those involved with the new Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club in contrast to the preceding Bradford club. What is notable is that in 1880 it was industrialists rather than merchants who emerged as a dominant group at Park Avenue. It was as if they were attracted to get involved as a means of deriving social prestige.

The mill owners of Bradford were quite distinct from merchants who tended to be of foreign origin, better educated and more cosmopolitan. The following extract written by the author and poet, Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940) about the German community in Bradford hints at possible discrimination by members of Bradford Cricket Club. Wolfe was Italian-born but came from a Jewish family with a German father and lived in Bradford; a former Bradford Grammar School pupil he was one of the most popular writers in Britain in the 1920s. His comments provide a wonderful illustration of the enthusiasm of German immigrants in Bradford to become part of local society, a desire for social assimilation and more than just economic integration.

Writing in his book Now a Stranger, London, Cassell and Company, 1933 (p.126) about German (Jewish) merchants in Bradford, Wolfe observed: ‘In their speech they used Yorkshire phrases, and clipped their vowels. They attempted slow utterance in lieu of gesture and volubility. The men at the weekends smoked unusually large pipes, drank whiskey-and-sodas, and wore Norfolk jackets, alarmingly checked, and the thickest of heather mixture stockings underneath their breeches. They were followers of Lord Salisbury to a man, feeling there was something un-English about the formidable rhetoric of Mr Gladstone. If there had been hunting in Bradford, they would all have been fox hunting men. In the absence of hunting, the elder men took a hand at whist while the younger ones were experts on cricket averages, and would have joined the Bradford club if there had been any chance of being elected. The women went further. They contrived (and without the help of cosmetics) to develop an English complexion…They consented to abandon their natural good taste in dress, and to wear the drab and clumsy apparel habitual among their Christian neighbours. They [p.127] educated their children in the English virtues – reticence, sportsmanship and inattention to thought.

Germans proprietors had previously encouraged the formation of cricket teams among their workers and in the 1860s the sons of German merchants had been involved as players with Bradford FC. After 1880 there is limited evidence of second or third generation German immigrants being involved with Bradford football clubs, almost as if they were excluded from participation or chose to remain aloof. In fact, it was only after the conversion to soccer at Valley Parade that men of German extraction resumed a contribution to sport in the district.

What we can conclude from the list of subscribers to Park Avenue is that this was very much a civic initiative as opposed to being that of members alone. It signified support for the ground and its facilities rather than for the club itself; it was a park for the people and support was a demonstration of being public minded. The sentiment was exactly the same as that in 1851 and likewise the same language of the former Young England movement.

At a later meeting of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club, the Yorkshire Post of 26 January, 1882 quoted the club’s vice president, J H Mitchell: ‘There was no doubt they would make a profit from year to year, but he thought there should be some special effort to clear off the present debt, because it was of great importance that the ground should be retained to the people of Bradford forever. They had also got a capital cricket ground, and that should never be lost to the town – but if they once let it pass out of their hands, he could not see where they would get another ground so favourably situated…’ He suggested a bazaar to raise funds: ‘It would be just one of those happy occasions when all classes of people could unite, if only on the ground that there was no chapel or church connected with it (laughter)… If they could only clear off their debt they could, of course, afford to provide sport for the people of the town at a much cheaper rate than now.’

Mitchell was acknowledging religious division in Bradford which was a divisive theme in local politics between nonconformists and Anglicans. Park Avenue was seen to transcend those divisions and help unite the people. Although not described as such at the time, Park Avenue stood for ‘One Bradford’ even if that was to the exclusion of Bradford’s Germans.

The development

The Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club took on a lease of the ground for 14 years from Francis Sharp Powell (expiring in February, 1893). There is no record of what was paid in terms of rent but my guess is that it was relatively low, possibly no more than £50 per annum. In 1891 the club entered discussions to buy the site from Powell, albeit through a 999 year lease. The protracted nature of negotiations leads me to believe that Powell thought that he had been over generous in consenting to a low rental in 1879.

The scheme required the relocation of an existing tenant from the site of Park Avenue which was arranged by J H Mitchell who also provided land for the development. The Leeds Times reported on 31 May, 1879 that: ‘The promoters are greatly indebted to Mr J H Mitchell for the part he has taken in the matter. Had not that gentleman freely undertaken to effect an exchange of land with Mr Booth, the former tenant of the ground, and also to throw into it a considerable portion of his private park, the scheme could not have come before the public in its present shape.’

The ground was literally a green field site and the division between football and cricket was relatively arbitrary with the cricket field taking two-thirds of the area. The allocation had lasting implications. The following are descriptions of Park Avenue from contemporary reports:

The Leeds Times 31 May, 1879: ‘The football ground will be contiguous to Horton Park-avenue, and at its lower end will be 121 yards wide, the width of the upper or terrace end being 145 yards and the distance from the terrace to Horton Park Avenue 86 yards. On this terrace will be erected a grand stand thirty yards in length, having frontages to the football ground and the cricket ground. Dressing and refreshment rooms will be provided.

 ‘The cricket ground will be 166 yards by 137. The ground when laid with turf will have a fall of one yard in 137, so as to allow the water to pass off, but to the eye it will appear a perfect level. It will be bounded by a path four yards in width, prepared for athletic exercises, forming a course of three laps to the mile…At the corner of the ground adjoining Horton Park will be erected an entrance lodge, with living room and bed room for the groundsman, and money-taker’s room.’

The Leeds Times, 24 July, 1880: ‘The new area has an area of over eight and a half acres, and is divided into two parts, the higher part being set apart for cricket and the lower part for football. Two pavilions are being erected on the ground, one for the upper part and the other for the lower.

 ‘The principal structure at the upper portion of the field, has a frontage of 130 feet, and is intended for the use of members and subscribers. It is a two storey building, in a modified Italian style of architecture, with over-hanging eaves. There is a capacious grandstand in front. At the south end of the building, on the ground floor, are dressing rooms for the cricketers, the home and visiting teams each having separate apartments and lavatories. In the corresponding wing are living rooms for the ground men or steward, and ladies’ cloak and retirement rooms, the latter having direct communication with the steward’s apartments. At the back of the building is a refreshment bar, measuring 60ft by 13ft, and in the basement below are beer cellars. At the back of the building also have been constructed ample conveniences. In the upper storey of the pavilion the arrangements are excellent. The south gable affords an approach by a staircase to a large assembly hall or dining room, and is capable of seating over 130 people. The front of this room facing the cricket ground is closed in with a roofed balcony, which will seat about 200. At the south end of the dining hall are a committee room and a commodious scoring box. At the other end of the building are steward’s bedrooms, a room for ordinary purposes, and a room set apart for the representatives of the press.

 ‘The lower pavilion has frontages both to the cricket and football grounds, but is more particularly adapted for the latter. Overlooking the cricket ground is a grandstand capable of accommodating 300 persons, and a similar stand faces the football ground. The internal arrangements of this building are similar to those in the other building.’

Park Avenue 1890

Description of the ground in 1890

An Australian connection?

The dual-facing grandstand at Park Avenue that separated the football and cricket fields was an innovative structure and I am unaware of other examples at leading football grounds in England. By contrast, at Bramall Lane in Sheffield the cricket and football grounds were three sided with a void on the shared side. Ironically the Park Avenue leadership was to later opt for that configuration in its plans for redevelopment of the ground in 1892 but these had to be aborted through lack of finance. Park Avenue therefore retained its dual-facing grandstand and this was again the case in 1907 when the ground was redeveloped for the newly formed Bradford Park Avenue AFC and a new stand constructed. (The same grandstand survived until the demolition of the ground in 1980, by chance 100 years after the original development of Park Avenue.)

The inspiration for the structure at Park Avenue was quite likely derived from the development of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in Victoria, Australia. A visit to the MCG with its 100,000 capacity catering principally for Aussie Rules football and cricket offers few clues of it having anything in common with Park Avenue. It surely ranks as one of the most advanced stadiums in the world with facilities that are state of the art. Additionally there is a museum as well as an extensive reference library covering all aspects of Australian sport.

The MCG is testament to the commercial transformation of sport and by the time that a new ground was being considered in Bradford the MCG had already established itself as one of the leading enclosures in the British Empire. Melbourne was well known as a centre of cricket enthusiasm and it had been widely reported in England that the MCG had had a crowd of 25,000 for a game against an All England XI on New Year’s Day, 1862. The MCG was also known for hosting football matches and the Sporting Gazette of 1st September, 1877 reported that there had been crowds of up to 10,000 – an unprecedented number of people, virtually unheard of in England. The scale of expenditure on a new grandstand at the MCG in 1876 was equally newsworthy.

The minutes of the Melbourne CC committee record construction of a new grandstand ‘of ingenious design’ at the MCG in 1876 and what distinguished the grandstand was the fact that it provided reversible seating. The Melbourne Argus reported that ‘The floor of the stand is suspended on hinges along the middle line, so that once certain movable supports have been withdrawn from beneath the top of the incline, the floor can be sloped in the opposite direction, to enable the public to look down upon football play instead of upon an empty cricket ground.’

According to the Yorkshire Gazette of 19 May, 1877 ‘Many folks have laughed at the Melbourne Cricket Club, which for the present has gone to the fore amongst the rival clubs here, and on whose splendid ground the match (with an All England Eleven) was played, for building such an enormous grandstand. It holds 3,000 spectators, and cost nearly £10,000. Since the crowds that have gathered there during the All England match, however, these scoffers will have changed their minds. The committee knew the Australian taste’ (NB in its report of the Melbourne grandstand burning down in 1884, the Bradford Daily Telegraph stated the cost to have been £5,930.) The development of the Melbourne grandstand thus provided an early case study in the economics of sport.

Unlike the stand at Melbourne, that at Park Avenue did not have reversible seating with an equal number of permanent benches facing either side and this meant that in Bradford the grandstand would only ever be half full. The capacity of the Melbourne stand was also greater by virtue that it had a much bigger footprint. According to the Melbourne CC committee minutes, the grandstand accommodated 2,000 spectators and a surviving plan suggest that it was at least 215ft in length. The corresponding stand at Bradford was no more than 100ft long and the number of people who could be seated in the dual-facing stand in Bradford at a football or cricket match was much lower, reported as above to be 300.

In 1880, football was considered secondary to the investment in cricket facilities at Park Avenue and hence what we would regard as a modest grandstand. By the time that Bradford FC had won the Yorkshire County Cup in 1884, football had become the dominant sport. Hence when the lower grandstand was extended in 1885, the seated capacity for football was substantially increased at the expense of cricket accommodation.

The evidence linking Melbourne with Bradford is circumstantial and not confirmed by surviving documentary sources but it seems inconceivable that anyone contemplating designs for a new sports ground would not have heard about the development at Melbourne. For instance, the MCG had recently staged games with visiting English teams in 1877 and again at the beginning of January, 1879. Besides, Bradford had trade links with Melbourne that would have provided familiarity.

Nor would it have been unreasonable for Bradfordians to benchmark Melbourne. In 1880 for example Melbourne’s population of roughly 280,000 was only slightly higher than that of the Bradford district (recorded as 254,124 in 1881). In many respects Melbourne was a British city and its civic architecture dating from that era is indistinguishable from that of an English provincial centre. What it had in common with Bradford was that both had experienced rapid population growth driven by inward migration and both derived wealth from wool (although in Melbourne’s case there had been a gold rush in the 1850s and 1860s).

The civic elders of Bradford and Melbourne shared a similar self-confidence borne out of economic success and by the 1880s they had similarly embraced sport as a form of civic patriotism and expression of British imperial values. For Park Avenue to have copied the development at Melbourne would have been entirely in keeping with the cultural spirit in Bradford at the time, representing a clear statement of ambition and an intent to adopt a leading example of ground design.

The construction of the reversible stand represented a major watershed for the Melbourne Cricket Ground, making it an attractive venue for promoters and the public. It thereby ensured the financial stability of the club and played its part in the commercial transformation of sport in Melbourne. The development of Park Avenue had similar impact in Bradford. A difference between the two is that in Melbourne it was cricket that led the way and in fact in the late nineteenth century, (Australian Rules) football was only played at the MCG on a regular basis between 1879-83. At Park Avenue it was (Rugby Union) football that was the driver of commercial activity.

In 1880 Park Avenue hosted the visiting Australian cricket tourists on two occasions, on 9th August for a match against a ‘Bradford 18’ and the second on 20th September for a game against ‘Players of the North’. The second game appears to have been arranged at short notice and the Sydney Mail of 27th November, 1880 reported lobbying by Bradford representatives at the Oval earlier in September. Given that the Australians were scheduled to visit Dewsbury and Huddersfield it was a matter of pride that a first class game should be played in Bradford and it provided an opportunity for the newly formed Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club to show off its new sports enclosure.

Australian newspapers were consistent in their complimentary accounts about Park Avenue and Melbourne CC officials were sufficiently impressed by Park Avenue that the Bradford Daily Telegraph reported on 10th February, 1881 that ‘A communication from the secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club has recently been received by the hon. secretary of the Bradford Cricket Club asking for a sketch plan of the cricket pavilion at Park Avenue ground. The Melbourne Cricket Club have had under discussions for some months past various plans for a new pavilion, but none of them has come up to their ideas. The latter states that Mr Alexander of the Australian Cricket Team, has brought over a photograph of the pavilion, and that he was so enthusiastic in his praise of the arrangements of the building, that the writer is anxious to have a sketch of the ground plan and elevation. The Club has now a separate grandstand, capable of accommodating about 3,000 people, but a pavilion is required for the accommodation of members, the number of whom is now around 800. The club do not wish to spend more than £2,500 or £3,000 on the contemplated erection. In a postscript Mr Wardill adds that Mr Alexander’s photograph of the Bradford Cricket Club pavilion had been framed, and was hanging in their pavilion.’

 It was praise indeed and a measure of the development at Park Avenue that it should be recognised in this way. Nevertheless, when a new pavilion was constructed at the MCG in 1881 (known as the second members’ pavilion that remained in use until 1927) it did not bear resemblance to that at Park Avenue and the Bradford design was evidently not adopted. [1]

Park Avenue 1926 Yorkshire v Australians

Park Avenue, 1926: Yorkshire vs Australia

The significance of Park Avenue

Park Avenue was formally opened by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Holden on 20 July, 1880 who declared his hope that ‘the public of Bradford would take an increased interest in the Bradford club so that Park Avenue might be used in the rational enjoyment of cricket and football.’ The ceremony included a military display and the principal guests of honour were officers of the 103 Regiment of Foot (Royal Bombay Fusiliers) who had been garrisoned in Bradford for the previous three months. The Lord Mayor’s toast to ‘the Army, Navy and Reserved Forces’ was a reminder of the traditional influence of the military with sport in the town.

As a result of soft conditions, the opening game of Gentlemen versus Players was played on the adjoining football field due to bad weather. By a strange twist of fate, the first rugby match on 25 September 1880 against Bradford Rangers was played on a section of the cricket field. (In 2014 there was redevelopment of Park Avenue funded by the English Cricket Board and wickets are now sited on the old football pitch, hence not for the first time that cricket has been played there.)

In 1880 the new Park Avenue ground represented the realisation of a long held objective to secure a permanent sports ground in Bradford. It allowed Bradford Cricket Club the opportunity to reassert itself as a leading club in Yorkshire and to stage high profile games in Bradford after a lengthy absence. After the disappointing circumstances in which the club had declined in the ten years prior to becoming dormant, it allowed Bradford CC to relaunch itself with the same lofty ideals that it had promoted in the 1840s.

Bradford CC had been handicapped by the lack of a first class ground until the opening of Park Avenue in 1880 and this had compromised the ability of Bradford to propose an alternative venue to Bramall Lane, Sheffield. It therefore explains why the development of Park Avenue was of such significance not only to Bradford CC but to the town itself. At the celebration dinner for the opening of Park Avenue, the Lord Mayor, Angus Holden declared that ‘establishment of the club was the beginning of a new era in the reputation of the town for good cricket.’ A tradition was inaugurated at Park Avenue with the regular hosting of the Australian tourists from 1880 onwards and there were as many as ten different matches involving the Aussies at Park Avenue between 1880-99 – a mark of the high profile of Bradford cricket. The final decade of the nineteenth century was arguably the glory era of Yorkshire cricket at Park Avenue and whilst those in Leeds claimed the superiority of Headingley on account of size, in West Yorkshire it was generally agreed that Park Avenue and Headingley were both superior to Bramall Lane on account of air pollution in that part of Sheffield. (However, there continued to be deference towards the latter on account of its reputation as the traditional home of Yorkshire cricket.)

The Park Avenue ground also allowed the town to host a representative football club. Had the existing Bradford Football Club not agreed to relocate from Apperley Bridge and become part of the new set up alongside a revived Bradford Cricket Club, it is almost certain that a new club would have been formed. By embracing the original Bradford FC with origins dating back to 1863, it allowed the new Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club to inherit its record and boast of continuity as one of the top Yorkshire clubs.

Park Avenue also harnessed the hopes of Bradford people to secure room at the top, to achieve sporting acclaim for the town consistent with its achievements in industry or commerce. The new Bradford sporting enclosure was itself pioneering in relation to other towns and for the townsfolk provided a source of pride, much the same as other civic buildings or parks constructed in the previous decade. It was for the good of Bradford as a town and for the good of Bradford people, to encourage athleticism and to provide a stage for the best that Bradford could offer. As if this was insufficient the ground existed so that – once the debt funding had been repaid – sport could be applied for charitable giving. It was more than just a ground.

In addition to cricket and football Park Avenue provided for athletics (including short distance cycle races), lawn tennis, archery and quoits. The latter two activities were considered female sports and by accommodating them it could be claimed the ground served all the people. During its existence it also hosted bowling, association football and lacrosse.

Athletics festivals were staged on an annual basis. The first, in July, 1881 is reported to have attracted a crowd of around six thousand and the proceeds of £160 demonstrated the potential of Park Avenue for charity fund raising. It was the commitment to the town’s charities – typically support of the infirmary – that would define the status of Park Avenue in Bradford.  The athletics events became an opportunity for displays of Bradford pride and community, no less symbolic than the charitable purpose. Festivals were discontinued after 1896, a consequence of the controversy over professionalism in sport but were replaced by the annual Park Avenue Children’s Sports Day, the first of which was held on 12 July, 1898, organised by the Bradford Schools Athletics Association to raise money for its own activities. This established a new tradition with school sports events continuing to be staged at Park Avenue until the 1960s.

The prospect of developing a ground allowed the Bradford Cricket Club to be reformed in 1879 after remaining dormant for four years. It provided security of tenure with no risk of the ground being used for housing development, the fate of the Great Horton Road site in 1874 which put the future of the club in doubt. Security of tenure was an issue that concerned most, if not all the prominent sports clubs in Bradford – cricket and football alike – but for the town’s representative club it was a particularly sensitive matter.

We know that in 1880 the ambitions of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club were relatively modest in terms of the likely crowds at Park Avenue. The development of the ground was consistent with this, seeking to optimise hospitality rather than necessarily maximising capacity. The limited footprint of the estate had implications in the twentieth century but the original investment in refreshment facilities undoubtedly acted as a spur to the popularity and financial success of Park Avenue, remaining an important differentiator with Valley Parade. By the mid-1880s the facilities would have been significant in making match-day at Park Avenue a fashionable option among the emergent middle classes. The lack of the same at Carlisle Road, and after 1886 at Valley Parade, may have also played a part in defining the self-image of Manningham FC as an enthusiasts’ club in contrast to Bradford FC whose appeal became derived from more than just the football.

Until 1904, Park Avenue remained the only ground in Bradford to provide covered accommodation for spectators and this afforded it a luxury status. It should be noted that when Victorians spoke of ‘pavilions’ they meant a covered facility whereas when they spoke of grandstands it meant an uncovered viewing platform that incorporated bench seating. By the start of the twentieth century a grandstand or stand had the meaning that we now recognise.

The symbolic significance of Park Avenue should not be underestimated and is confirmed by the willingness of people to subscribe to a fund for the land to be developed. The ground assumed a quasi-religious status in the town as an asset – a temple of sport – to be safeguarded by a proud townspeople. In my opinion this state of mind continued beyond the eventual demolition of the football ground in 1980, that of the cricket pavilion in 1986 and the abandonment of the cricket ground as a first class venue in 1996. Park Avenue was entwined with the identity of Bradford and its derelict state prompted the detachment of many Bradfordians with their home city such was its emotional symbolism. Even now, mention of Park Avenue prompts misty-eyed nostalgia among those who attended football and cricket games at the ground, not to mention those who supported Bradford (Park Avenue) AFC whose name was derived from its home.

The status of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club became inseparable from its role as guardian of the town’s sports ground, the de facto trustee in possession. This became a key element in the self-image and personality of Bradford FC and bestowed upon it a special importance which had implications for other clubs in the district. As far as Bradford Football Club was concerned, upholding the honour of Bradford and safeguarding Park Avenue gave it a sense of entitlement and privilege. In other words, Park Avenue led Bradford FC to consider itself superior to any other club – Manningham FC in particular, a mindset that continued for the best part of the next hundred years, long after conversion to soccer.

The development of Park Avenue in 1879-80 has to be seen in the broader context of a period which shaped the footprint of Bradford. The 1870s was a decade that defined Bradford’s urban identity through iconic buildings, civic parks and the designs of the Bradford Improvement Act which provided a framework for road building, water supply and town planning. The fruits of that decade have been enduring and included the buildings such as the new Town Hall which came to be regarded as shorthand for Bradford. Park Avenue followed the sequence of new parks in Manningham, Horton and Bowling. It was no coincidence that the name of the ground was derived from its proximity to Horton Park and hence ‘Park Avenue’. By ending the long wait for a permanent sports ground in the town it represented another form of urban improvement, a contribution to what was described in the language of the time as the mental and physical well-being of Bradford.

Sadly, very little remains of Park Avenue as a reminder of the former grandeur of the sports enclosure and the bold venture that it represented.

John Dewhirst


[1] Thanks to the archivists at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for their assistance. Visitors to Melbourne are encouraged to visit the museum and library at the ground. 


Model in the MCG museum of the reversible stand


The MCG in February, 2020

John is the author of Room at the Top (Bantamspast 2016) which narrates the origins of cricket and sport in Bradford and can be contacted through DM to the twitter address above.

Links to other features written by the author about the origins and history of Bradford sport

Other features about the history of cricket in Bradford can be found elsewhere on VINCIT 

VINCIT provides an accessible go-to reference about all aspects of Bradford sport history and is neither code nor club specific. We encourage you to explore the site through the menu above. Link here to other features on Bradford cricket published on VINCIT.

Future planned articles on VINCIT will feature Reminiscences about Bradford City; Bradford’s nineteenth century England RU internationals, 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.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.