Lost football grounds of Bradford: Birch Lane

Birch Lane has been the home of the Bowling Old Lane Cricket Club since 1863. Writing in The Athletic News of 2 August, 1887 about the cricket club, Alfred Pullin said that ‘Bowling Old Lane, or, as it is called in the rich vernacular, the ‘Owd Loin,’ is one of those rough and ready districts whose inhabitants are of the out-spoken and unfashionable class, unaccustomed to the smooth tongue which would describe a spade as an agricultural implement, but who are nevertheless constructed of ‘real grit,’ and are clever and good hearted sportsmen to boot.’ 

In 1886 the club extended its estate with the acquisition of an adjacent field and this was used for rugby football from the 1887/88 season. At that time the cricket club was considered the strongest in Bradford and the incentive to launch a football club may have been as much about commercial opportunism as a statement about the club’s stature.

The timing of the venture is notable coming as it did shortly after the development of Usher Street for Bowling FC in 1883 [1] [2]. Around this time there was a boom in the development of local football grounds [3] and the Birch Lane project has to be seen in that context. In relative terms its location was also advantageous with reasonable rail links despite not being central. Whilst it now sits in the midst of urban sprawl, prior to World War One it was on the edge of residential development and surrounded by open fields.

These photos of the cricket ground in the 1970s attest to its prominent position overlooking Bradford. (Images courtesy of Philip Jackson).

The Yorkshireman reported that one contractor had quoted £1,000 to develop the ground and another, £700 but in the end the members did the work themselves at a cost of £300. In itself even the lower amount was a significant amount, an illustration not only of the financial burden for an emergent football club but also of the hubris (naivety?) that it could be repaid. In practice it is highly doubtful that the venture ever repaid the outlay. The fact that the ground was subsequently used by a number of different tenants says as much about the demand for playing space in Bradford as the efforts of the parent cricket club to secure rental income.

The new football (rugby) ground was formally opened on 27 August, 1887 with an exhibition game between Bradford FC and Halifax FC and the reported gate receipts of £70 suggest a crowd of around eight thousand. Nonetheless it did not represent a profit and reference was made in The Yorkshireman of 1 September, 1887 of a Bradford FC forward treating his friends at dinner to a bottle of champagne after the game. His claim that the chairman would pay betrayed his expectation of post-match entertainment and the Bowling Old Lane officials saved his embarrassment when a waiter demanded payment of 9s – the equivalent of two days’ average earnings for a working man.)

The construction of a new pavilion at the cricket ground in 1890 (which was also used by the football section for changing) was further evidence of the ambition of the leadership at Birch Lane. The additional financial exposure probably also reinforced the pressures for the football ground to generate a contribution. The split in English rugby in 1895 caused significant financial problems for junior clubs in the north and the fact that the rugby section at Bowling Old Lane disbanded in May, 1897 would suggest that the parent cricket club had little appetite or means to subsidise the losses of rugby.  

The Birch Lane pavilion constructed in 1890

Nevertheless, the Birch Lane football ground continued to be used for rugby by each of Bradford FC, Bradford Wanderers RFC and Bradford Northern FC. Bradford FC – then playing rugby under the auspices of the Northern Union – adopted Birch Lane for reserve team fixtures and between 1899 and 1903 it was home to the newly formed Bradford Wanderers rugby union club. Most famously it was occupied by Bradford Northern between 1908 and 1934.

The ground was also one of the first in Bradford to stage soccer and was adopted by of the association section of Bradford FC between 1895 and 1898 when Park Avenue was not available and then in 1898/99 was used exclusively. It was also used by Bradford Spartans, a local junior soccer club between 1895/96 and 1897/98.

In 1906 Birch Lane was again adopted for association football with the launch of a Bowling Old Lane team but this lasted for only a couple of seasons and was abandoned as a result of financial losses. [4] It was the launch of soccer at Park Avenue in 1907 that effectively killed the final soccer project at Birch Lane. Prior to that Birch Lane had benefited from the boost to ‘associationism’ from the abandonment of rugby by Manningham FC in 1903 and soccer followers had come to the ground on occasions when first team fixtures were not being played at Valley Parade. From 1907/08 those people went to Park Avenue instead.

In 1908 the new Bradford Park Avenue club made an attempt to safeguard soccer at Birch Lane presumably with the intention of adopting the Bowling Old Lane side as a nursery and to use the ground for reserve fixtures and training. However it was Bradford Northern who secured the lease at the ground. The Yorkshire Evening Post of 25 May, 1908 reported that the committee of Bowling Old Lane Cricket, Athletic & Football Club voted to accept an offer from Bradford Northern Rugby Club to use the ground for a rental of £30. A counter-offer from Bradford (Park Avenue) AFC of £60 to use the ground for two seasons to ‘encourage the Association code in this district’ was rejected. At this stage the club had not secured Football League membership and offered to augment the rent if election was secured the following week.

In part, rejection of the offer from Bradford Park Avenue may have had something to do with animosity towards club chairman Harry Briggs but the Bradford Daily Argus of 30 May, 1908 reported that there was little sympathy for soccer amongst the membership of the club and a committee member was quoted as saying that ‘it would be a scandalous shame after the manner Rugby had been supported for the last twenty or thirty years in Bradford to let it die a natural death.’ Ironically an offer of £50 from the new Bradford Northern Union club (seeking a home after being evicted from Park Avenue in the ‘Great Betrayal’ of Bradford’s conversion to association) had been rejected the previous year.

In comparison to the Greenfield Athletics Ground where Northern had been based in 1907/08, Birch Lane offered the benefit of being closer to town and accessible by tram. Nonetheless the ground was always considered inadequate by virtue of lack of facilities and the poor state of the pitch.

Birch Lane remained home to Bradford Northern RFC, from 1908 to 1934 when the club moved to Odsal. The ground was within reasonable walking distance of Bowling station but was lacking in facilities. An open stand of twelve terraces was constructed in 1908 along one side of the field but was not covered until 1929. The record crowd for a Bradford Northern game was 10,807 for a cup tie in 1924 against Dewsbury. In October, 1908 Birch Lane staged a prestigious fixture between Bradford Northern and the Australian touring side but the attendance of only 4,000 was a big disappointment and the receipts amounted to only £134. The Yorkshire Post reported that neither Park Avenue nor Valley Parade had been available to stage the match and ‘possibly the gloomy atmosphere kept some of the public away.’ Prior to the opening of Odsal Stadium, big games came to be played elsewhere and Valley Parade – rather than Park Avenue – was used on four occasions to stage high profile games, the first of which in February, 1920. [5]

Although the cricket ground survives, the football area has since been built over with housing. The first development on the football ground was the residential estate based around Elwyn Road / Elwyn Grove, constructed by the firm of RJ Patchett Ltd. Research by Kieran Wilkinson has confirmed that those properties had been built by August, 1936 which implies that the land was sold shortly after Bradford Northern had vacated. [6]

NOTES

[1] Refer to an earlier feature on VINCIT about the development of Usher Street from this link.

[2] Birch Lane was generally considered to be the better football ground in comparison to Usher Street. Despite the central location of the latter it was not adopted by Bradford FC to host games involving its reserve team or association football side despite also being in close proximity to Park Avenue. I believe that Bradford subsequently selected Birch Lane on account of the limitations of Usher Street as an enclosure and the standard of its pitch.

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

[3] The story of the junior rugby clubs of Bradford in the last quarter of the nineteenth century is told on VINCIT from this link.

[4] Bowling Old Lane AFC boasted one of the first local players to have progressed into the Football League when Charles Lund signed for Barnsley in 1907 at the end of his first season playing soccer. He was a man of sporting pedigree and during 1905/06 had played rugby for Victoria Rangers.

[5] There are very few surviving photographs of Birch Lane when it was home to Bradford Northern but a number have been secured and will feature in a forthcoming book by the author as part of the bantamspast History Revisited series (details from this link).

[6] The following links to the history of Birch Lane on Wikipedia that refers specifically to the ground continuing to be used for rugby after 1934 and which has been cited elsewhere online. The research of Kieran Wilkinson and myself has been unable to confirm that Birch Lane was used for junior rugby after 1934 – even if that was the case it could not have been for more than a season at most, that is 1934/35. (Bradford Northern historian Trevor Delaney confirms the club used Horsfall as the venue for reserve games after the move to Odsal.)

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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The following photos of the cricket ground (below) were taken in April, 2021 (the rugby ground was to the right).