Lost sports grounds of Bradford: Usher Street

Asked to name the lost sports grounds / stadia of Bradford it is unlikely that Usher Street would spring to mind despite the fact that it was an important venue in the early development of football in Bradford. Sadly it’s never been included on the tours of Bradford sporting landmarks let alone credited as having existed. Odsal, Park Avenue, Birch Lane, Greenfield, City Road… but Usher Street? Like nearby Ripley Ville, no trace remains and it’s been sadly forgotten and overlooked.

Bowling FC

Usher Street was the home of Bowling FC. Formed in 1873, it was the club’s relocation to Usher Street that helped it come to prominence. Originally based at a field between Paley Road and New Hey Road, then Top Hall (with headquarters at the Bowling Park Hotel), Bowling FC had a short stay at the Greenfield Grounds at Dudley Hill. Merger in December, 1883 with Bowling Victoria CC – to become the Bowling Cricket, Athletic & Football Club – led to the development of Usher Street. [1]

By this stage Bradford FC and to a lesser extent Manningham FC were attracting decent crowds to Park Avenue and Carlisle Road and there was a similar motive in the choice of the Usher Street venue which was considered to be in a ‘densely populated district’ and thus likely to ensure that the club was well supported. In relative terms Bowling FC was no less ambitious than either of two senior clubs in the town and by 1890 Bowling had emerged as the third side in the Bradford hierarchy.

Like Manningham, Bowling was essentially a local club but there were good reasons why it was the former, and not the latter who came to challenge Bradford. For a start, by the time Bowling had become established there was already a degree of momentum behind Manningham FC and an established record in cup competition whereas Bowling did not participate until 1883/84 (having been denied entry the previous season). Carlisle Road, and in particular Valley Parade, also possessed advantages in relation to capacity but the biggest factor in favour of Manningham was its geographic location.

The Bowling FC colours were distinctive – navy blue with a white Maltese cross on the chest. Whilst speculative, the cross may have been inspired by a military connection through links with the local Volunteers. [2]

Finding Usher Street

Usher Street is at the foot of Wakefield Road in touching distance of the city centre, parallel (south) of the railway line to Leeds and it runs west-east from Hall Lane to Wakefield Road. The area is now the heart of the Bradford scrap metal industry with a regular flow of skip wagons and it is fair to say that it has seen better days. In fact it is difficult to believe that this was once the site of a cricket and rugby enclosure – the south west corner of the rugby field on Barnard Road is where the higher stone building now stands.

Usher Street now runs through where cricket would have been played. The red brick building in the above photo occupies the southern part of the cricket ground – refer to the map below.

The derelict building to the left in the above photo and below stands where cricket would have been played. (This was a Poor Law Union Relief Station and bears the civic boar’s head motif and date of construction, 1902. Thanks to Kieran Wilkinson for this detail.)

Below: the south-east corner and touchline of the rugby ground bordered the former Great Northern railway line to/from Wakefield.

Nine Hoil

Usher Street was a quintessential Victorian urban sports ground characterised by improvisation and ingenuity. Like Valley Parade on the hillside to the north, it was a ground established in the most improbable location and became known for its distinct slope from the north-east to the south-west with a height differential between the two points of at least ten – maybe fifteen – feet.

As a result, the ground became infamous for what was described as Bowling’s ‘nine hoil’ in the corner near where Barnard Road now joins Usher Street. It was suggested that the slope of the pitch was more pronounced than those of either Mount Pleasant, Batley or Lane Head, Brighouse which were also known for their slopes. The confines of the site also restricted space on the touch lines and in September, 1894 this was blamed for a serious accident during a game.

Whilst it could hardly be compared with the premier sporting enclosure in the district at Park Avenue, the members of Bowling FC were no less proud of their ground. Indeed, for all clubs their ground was an integral part of their identity but equally significant, the original development of Usher Street spoke of the ambition of Bowling FC.

If ever there was a ground redolent of the era and the nineteenth century urban landscape this was it, juxtaposed between industry, railways, a chapel, school and local terraced housing. In contrast, Valley Parade was almost genteel. Usher Street represented a low cost, claustrophobic version of Park Avenue but provided a number of advantages not otherwise available from an open field.

By the standards of the time it would have offered capacity for maybe five thousand spectators. Like Park Avenue, Usher Street staged football, cricket and an annual athletics festival was hosted annually from 1885 in conjunction with Bradford Harriers and later Airedale Harriers.

The football ground was first used in January, 1884. In the previous month the Bowling CA&FC had been formed through amalgamation with Bowling Victoria Cricket Club who were already based at Usher Street, adjacent to the cutting of the surviving Bradford-Leeds line. (The cricket club had been established in 1868 but it is unknown whether it had played at Usher Street throughout.) There must have been a degree of commercial opportunism in the merger of the two and the development of the ground; for example an account in The Yorkshireman of 15 December, 1883 suggests that it came about from the field adjacent to the cricket area becoming available.

Usher Street, 1893

The adjacent railway embankment was described as a ‘natural grandstand’ and provided an excellent vantage that avoided the need for a raised platform to be built. It also provided a natural barrier to the ground much the same as the deep railway cutting bounded the cricket field to the north. With buildings to the west and east the ground was land locked which ensured that people could not attend for free. My guess is that one, maybe two thousand people were routinely attending matches at the ground when Bowling FC was in its prime at the end of the 1880s.

The Usher Street ground had the further benefit of the proximity of the GNR stations at St Dunstans (opened 1878) and Bowling (1854) in addition to being close to the residential areas of Bowling. The railway embankment would have also provided an excellent view of the Town Hall, not impeded as is now the case.

Other than at Park Avenue, permanent structures at Bradford football grounds in the 1880s were rare and at Carlisle Road consisted only of a raised wooden viewing platform (and that during the 1885/86 season only). It was not uncommon for clubs to exploit the physical relief to provide viewing areas; in this regard the adjacent railway embankment at Usher Street had much in common with the way that the sloping land off South Parade at Valley Parade was used for terracing.

There were no facilities at Usher Street and the club used the Barley Mow pub on Wakefield Road for changing and the Lark Inn as its headquarters. The club’s resources were all focused on levelling the pitch and conversion from wasteland.

The fate of Usher Street

By the late 1890s Bowling FC was heavily indebted and I assume that this arose from expenditure on Usher Street, possibly from the erection of a viewing platform opposite the embankment. The club had been vocal in its opposition to broken time and considered professionalism to represent a threat to its viability. Its collapse was alongside that of other smaller rugby clubs in the north of England. [3]

The club operated on a lease and there was always the likelihood of the land at Usher Street succumbing to development. In particular, it was always vulnerable to the possibility of Usher Street being extended to provide a thoroughfare between Wakefield Road and Hall Lane which is what now exists. The rent paid by Bowling FC must have been relatively high given the potential commercial value of the land and after the club was wound-up in 1900 a laundry was built on the site in 1903 (of which the building between the school and Barnard Road still survives).

Despite being adjacent to a school the ground was never adopted as a playing field and this must have been due to its inadequacies. However the practice was that Bradford’s four main parks – Peel Park, Lister Park, Horton Park and Bowling Park – were used by schools and provided the venues for competition under the auspices of the Bradford Schools Athletics Association.

Shortly after the development of Usher Street, the Bowling Old Lane Cricket Club established its own football section with a football field adjacent to that of cricket at Birch Lane in 1886. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Usher Street had provided the inspiration. Of course Birch Lane was later the home of Bradford Northern RFC between 1908-34.

An association football section was formed at Usher Street in 1897 and Bowling (A)FC became founder members of the second division of the Yorkshire League in the same year. The Bowling club continued in existence until 1900 but the association section became defunct in 1899. (A junior association side of the same name re-emerged in 1902 but it is unclear where this played.)

Despite the central location of Usher Street, Birch Lane was chosen in preference by Bradford FC to host games involving its reserve team or association football side – this despite it being in close proximity to Park Avenue.

Whilst Bowling CC was the junior of Bowling Old Lane CC, Bowling FC was always the senior of the two respective (rugby) football sides. As at Usher Street, association football was later played at Birch Lane. A bizarre modern twist was the merger in 2012 of the two schools which are located adjacent to the sites of the former Bowling FC and Bowling Old Lane FC grounds.

Just as the Broomfields area of Bradford had a big part in the economic history of the district it also contributed to its urban sporting heritage. Yet, like the former industrial village of Ripley Ville there is no surviving physical evidence of the former Usher Street ground.

[Note 1] This feature on VINCIT tells the story of the junior rugby football clubs in Bradford, their origins, ambitions and eventual collapse.

[Note 2] The influence of the Rifle Volunteer movement on Bradford (rugby) football

[Note 3] Bowling FC was among other northern based junior clubs with a predominantly working class membership who opposed professionalism and were critical of the secession of those seniors who formed the Northern Union. The case to reconsider the split in rugby football in 1895 based on what happened in Bradford is told here.

By John Dewhirst

Tweets: @jpdewhirst

Link to John’s blog: Wool City Rivals where you will find content about historic BCAFC programmes, his features in the current BCAFC matchday programme, reviews of books featuring content about Bradford sport and his writing about the history of Bradford City. Links to his other features about the history of Bradford sport from this link.

*** Details of his new book (2020) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals – A History in Colour which tells the story of the rivalry of Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue in the Football League, 1908-70. (Available only online – from the link.)

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