Victorian athletic festivals in Bradford

Valley Parade has hosted football and rugby but it tends to be overlooked that it was originally also known as an athletics venue, hosting annual athletic festivals between 1887-96.

Athletic festivals became established as a popular phenomenon in the Bradford district from the staging of the first by Bradford Cricket Club, 150 years ago in July, 1869. It was an era when people were actively seeking new forms of leisure and earlier features on VINCIT record the origins of cycling in Bradford the same year and the formation of Bradford Amateur Rowing Club in 1867. Similarly Bradford FC had played its first competitive game in February, 1867. This feature examines the origins of athletic festivals in Bradford including those held at Valley Parade.

The love of deep pockets in Bradford

In April, 1868 a correspondent (‘HW’) wrote to the Bradford Observer: ‘I have often wondered how it is that in a town like Bradford, noted for its love of outdoor sports, no movement has ever been made to establish an amateur athletic yearly meeting for running, jumping etc.’ The letter called upon local cricket clubs to organise such an event, possibly at the ‘Old Cricket Ground, Horton Lane.’

A week later, on 30 April, 1868 the correspondent, ‘Gymnast’ who had previously encouraged the formation of a rowing club provided his explanation: ‘No matter how much the people of Bradford love out-door sports, they love their pockets much better, and have a great objection to disburse their contents in support of that which does not repay them with interest.’

Gymnast’ mentioned that consideration had already been given to organising a festival but it had not been progressed, possibly on account of the fact that events in Huddersfield and Manchester had been loss-making. ‘Gymnast’ argued for the need for broad support to make a venture successful and he called upon the officers of the rifle corps and artillery corps, the committee of the Bradford Old Cricket Club and the Gymnastic Club (on Salem Street) to establish an Amateur Athletic Yearly Meeting.

It is interesting that there was no reference at this time to Bradford FC which was obviously considered peripheral. Instead the letter demonstrates the extent to which the Bradford (Rifle and Artillery) Volunteers were influential with regards to physical activity, a reminder of the fact that sport in Bradford has a strong military heritage.

The identity of ‘Gymnast’ was not revealed, but in a subsequent letter on 7 May, 1868 ‘HW’ presumed him to be a member of the Bradford Gymnasium and my belief is that it was B. Wright who was secretary of the Bradford Gymnastic Club and a founder member of the Bradford Rowing Club the previous year. Towards the end of 1868 came an exchange of correspondence in the Bradford Observer calling for a public gymnasium to be established which referred to the fact that ‘the private one now in existence is not at all well supported.’

What can be inferred from the letter written by ‘Physique’ dated 9 November is that people could not justify subscriptions for a private gym which says a lot about the viability of commercial leisure provision at this time, not to mention the attraction of joining the Volunteers to get free access. If indeed ‘Gymnast’ was involved with Bradford Gymnasium Club his motive in encouraging a Bradford rowing club or a Bradford athletics festival may have been to drive membership of his gym as a means of training.

On 17 December, 1868 ‘Physique’ again wrote to the Bradford Observer calling for a public gymnasium to be opened in the town. He suggested that during the day it could be used for ladies’ classes and mentioned the Liverpool gymnasium where ‘certain days are devoted to the ladies, they having a costume properly adapted for the exercise.’

A later editorial in the Bradford Observer of 2 January, 1869 stated that the writer’s ‘predilections are on the side of open-air pursuits rather than on that of the indoor turning of cranks, or climbing of poles, or twisting around bars…in awful contortions.’ I suspect that this was a view shared by many and the subsequent popularity of athletic festivals and football matches provided the fresh air and a new form of exhibitionism. Notwithstanding, gymnastics remained popular in Bradford and was later encouraged as a form of Muscular Christianity in the 1870s with a gymnasium operated by the Bradford Church Institute.

The Bradford All Saints Gymnastics Club gained a reputation as one of the foremost clubs in Yorkshire in the first decade of the twentieth century. The club claimed its origins to have been in the 1860s, quite possibly from the original gym on Salem Street. Gymnastic displays by the Bradford All Saints Gymnastics Club were regular events at both Park Avenue and Valley Parade either side of World War One, an historic reminder of how athleticism and football later evolved from gymnastic activity.

The first athletic festival in Bradford

Possibly in response to the correspondence the previous year, an inaugural athletics was staged on 24 July, 1869 at the Bradford Cricket Club ground on Great Horton Road which served as the de facto leisure centre of the town. The event was supported by the Rifle Volunteers with Lieutenant-Colonel Hirst of the 3rd Yorkshire (West Riding) Rifle Volunteer Corps acting as president and the band of the corps being present. It proved to be a success, attracting between three to four thousand spectators including ‘many of the elite of Bradford.’

Following the lead of Bradford CC in July, 1869, athletic festivals became commonplace in the following decade and were staged by other local cricket clubs including Shipley, Bradford Moor (later staged at Thornbury United CC following loss of the Bradford Moor ground), Bradford Albion, Eccleshill and Undercliffe. Festivals on the Ilkley racecourse were similarly inaugurated in 1873. One of the pre-eminent organisers of events at Eccleshill and Undercliffe was John Nunn who was at the forefront of promoting athleticism in Bradford. Events were staged in neighbouring towns and villages which attracted Bradford contestants, examples of which in 1869 at Huddersfield, Guiseley and Burley.

The final athletic festival to be staged at the Bradford CC Great Horton Road ground was in 1874. Shortly after the club disbanded following the sale of the ground for residential development and in 1879 the call to develop Park Avenue as a dedicated sports enclosure was driven in good measure by an urge to revive the annual athletic festivals in the town. It was no accident that the name of the newly formed club which occupied the ground was the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club. (The first festival at the new Park Avenue enclosure took place in July, 1881.)

The cult of athleticism

Reporting on the Leeds athletic festival, the Bradford Observer of 13 September, 1869 commented that ‘open air festivals, embracing a programme of running, walking, ‘putting the stone’ and throwing the hammer are now becoming popular’ and referred to events at Mirfield, Guiseley and Buttershaw since the festival at Bradford Cricket Club two months previously. The attendance at Leeds however was less than that at Bradford on account of the weather. Festivals became seen as a way of attracting crowds to the extent that even the Bradford Floral & Horticultural Society resorted to organising such an event at its Peel Park show in July, 1870. In 1873 Bradford CC later relied upon its athletic festival to offset losses from staging cricket.

However as if to anticipate the charge that athletic festivals were commercial ventures with the intent of personal reward, it was stressed that they were organised to raise funds for charity. This endowed further respectability and further distinguished them from the sort of events staged at Quarry Gap. It meant that athletics was firmly associated with a more noble cause or ideal and avoided any embarrassment about making a profit. In Bradford, the principle of raising money for the town’s charities became a central tenet when staging sport. In this way the practice of athleticism was portrayed as a force for good and this had a major influence on Bradford’s sporting culture.

Events at these festivals were what we might expect at a church garden fete rather than being recognisable as modern athletic contests. Those at the inaugural festival at Bradford CC in 1869 were typical: ‘Walking over two miles; throwing the hammer; putting a shot; flat race over 100 yards / 220 yards / a quarter of a mile / one mile; running high jump; standing wide jump; one mile bicycle race; 100 yard hurdle race over eight flights; quarter hurdle race over twelve flights; and throwing the cricket ball.’

They could be characterised as short duration, intensive affairs sufficient to command spectator appeal. They could equally be described as curio events. None of them constituted tests of endurance but I suspect that they were matched to the fitness of contestants. Neither did the selected events demand an onerous training regime. As a measure of performance, in 1869 the 100 yard flat race was won in just over ten seconds.

The suggestion in the Leeds Times on 13 March, 1875 that ‘the annual athletic sports, where the ‘youth and beauty’ of the district assemble to witness the manly efforts of their male friends in games which rival the Olympic sports of old’ seems a bit wide of the mark in terms of describing the events. However, a consistent theme in newspapers is that the festivals attracted a good proportion of female spectators.

Despite the standard the contests were taken seriously and the Bradford festivals consistently attracted contestants from across the country with 206 entrants in 1869. At first, medals and cups were awarded to the first three finishers but within ten years, bigger prizes were at stake and by the end of the 1870s local festivals were attracting large crowds. In July, 1879 as many as ten thousand people attended the Bingley Athletics Festival.

The different festivals vied to attract contestants through the range of prizes that were offered and by introducing new contests, such as ‘Cumberland and Westmoreland’ wrestling at Bradford Albion’s festival on Horton Green in July, 1875.

The respectability of these athletics festivals contrasts to that of the touring ‘English Champions’ show which visited the City Sporting Grounds, Quarry Gap at Laisterdyke in August, 1862. On that occasion the star billing had been an American Seneca Indian, ‘Deerfoot’ who contested a four mile race, winning in just over twenty minutes. The show attracted fifteen hundred spectators with other events such as sack racing, ball gathering, ‘pole-leaping’, a 220 yard race and a one mile race in which local people were invited to participate. The show was part of a tour of the British Isles (which had visited variously Cork, Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, Newcastle, Carlisle, Kendal, Lancaster, York, Malton and Scarborough before reaching Bradford) and would better be described as a travelling athletics circus. Contestants to the four mile race were instructed to wear proper costume – long drawers, guernseys and short-coloured over-drawers whilst Deerfoot wore his Indian costume.

Another example of an event at Quarry Gap that combined athletic accomplishment with showmanship was that in September, 1864, namely the attempt of a 36 year old local lady by the name of Emma Sharp (the wife of a mechanic from Bowling) to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours. The feat attracted much interest and it was reported that on one occasion ‘5,000 females were in attendance.’ The Bradford Observer of 3 November, 1864 reported on the success of her endeavour which had taken place during the preceding six weeks ‘exciting great interest among the sporting and betting fraternity, of whom there have always been some present both night and day.’ It added that ‘Mrs Sharp had gained weight… and grew weary of her task during the latter days, declaring she would never repeat it.’ Admission was charged to the event and it was claimed that Mrs Sharp’s portion of the receipts was at least £500.

Although the athletic festivals remained oriented towards spectator spectacle, the degree of showmanship was replaced by more earnest endeavour involving a broader base of local participants and a number of visiting contestants. The affairs were considered to be far more serious and they also had the endorsement of local dignatories. Thus whereas the Quarry Gap entertainments were typically regarded as a means to generate the sale of alcohol and encourage gambling (the case of a £50 foot race in May, 1863 and an arrow throwing context in March, 1868 being such examples), the festivals were linked with raising monies for local charity and interest was encouraged by the honest competition and rivalry of local men. The venues – typically cricket grounds – were also significant in that the festivals derived respectability from being staged at other than Quarry Gap which was associated as a show ground and between 1855 and 1868 was better known for staging horse racing.

In 1883 The Yorkshireman later made disparaging remarks about the presentation of prizes at the Bradford Sports festival that confirms the snobbery about Quarry Gap… ‘It lowers the standard of our manly English sports, and reduces such a ground as Park Avenue to the level of Quarry Gap and similar places.’

A comment in the Bradford Observer of 1 June, 1865 that ‘gambling produces a mania for all that is sportive and sensational’ summed up the prejudice felt by many towards sports events and the sort of showmanship at Quarry Gap. The link with gambling was thus the biggest obstacle to acceptance of sport. Indeed, what is significant is the extent to which gambling and alcohol dominated popular entertainment in the nineteenth century and there are many examples of contests being staged for ad hoc wagers in front of crowds. (One such was reported in the Leeds Times of 13 September, 1879 concerning a race on what is now the traffic congested A650: ‘A two miles trotting match for £50 took place on the Bradford and Keighley road, the starting point being the milepost opposite the old Sorters’ Gardens and the finishing point being Nab Wood. There were about 2,000 persons on the highway to witness the race, a large number coming from distant places in vehicles.’)

The Huddersfield festival was considered one of the bigger profile events in West Yorkshire and also one of the longest established (first staged in 1865 – in fact, it is likely to have been one of the first in the county).

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The prestige of the competition and the value of prizes helped attract contestants from afar as the pages below attest. The colours of the runners were not those of individual clubs, rather of the individuals themselves (like those of jockeys) and the variety of combinations would have created a colourful display. In practice the colours were most likely to have been displayed with sashes or belts rather than jerseys.

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The other observation is that whilst each runner was affiliated to a sports club, the names of the organisations reveal that they were not limited to athletic clubs but were members of running clubs (ie South London Harriers), gymnasia (ie Liverpool – presumably the same establishment as that which existed twenty years before as referred to above) as well as football clubs – the latter comprising both rugby and association football. Accordingly the races would have pitched competitors from a variety of sporting backgrounds but as far as the Victorians were concerned, they were all athletes who happened to participate in different forms of athleticism. The basis of a successful event was therefore a good field of events tempted by the prizes on offer but it also required the chance benefit of good weather. .

1887-07-14 Fattorinis advert for athletics prizes

A central feature of the athletic contests was the silverware awarded to the winners. The Bradford firm of Fattorini & Sons derived considerable benefit as the foremost local supplier of trophies and medals which were invariably displayed in the windows of its shops on Kirkgate and Westgate in Bradford. This undoubtedly added to the excitement and anticipation ahead of festivals, providing a degree of glamour to the occasion. Tony Fattorini’s enthusiasm for athleticism allowed seemless networking opportunities and helped his firm establish its reputation as the leading designer of sports trophies in England, culminating in the design of the new FA Cup in 1910 of which Bradford City AFC was the inaugural winner in 1911.

Valley Parade’s first athletic festival: 20th August, 1887

When the Manningham FC management committee looked for a new ground in 1886, the original intent was that it would stage other activities such as cycling and athletics alongside rugby football. Although it was recognised that this could have financial benefit, it was also regarded as a means by which the ground would establish for itself a higher profile as more than just a football enclosure. Amon the Manningham FC membership there was also enthusiasm for athletics and John Nunn, by this time a member of the club, could be relied upon to help organise and promote athletic events.

Manningham FC had in fact staged its first athletic festival in conjunction with Airedale Harriers at its Carlisle Road ground in September, 1885 and this was considered a mark of the growing respectability of the club. The staging of athletic festivals was thus seen as a way in which Valley Parade might establish its status as a leading sports ground with reflected glory accruing to Manningham FC.

At the time, the leading athletics club in the district was Airedale Harriers, of which coincidentally Tony Fattorini was a member. It had been hoped that the club could stage an athletic festival at Valley Parade in the summer of 1886 but the ground was not ready and so the event was staged at Lady Royd Cricket Club, Allerton which attracted a crowd of four thousand. The adequacy of the Lady Royd venue had been criticised – it was said that ‘the provision for keeping spectators in check proved inadequate and… people hampered the runners’ – which raised expectations about Valley Parade that staged its first festival the following year. The advert below appeared in The Yorkshireman.

1887-08-18 advert for Airedale Ath fest

The following graphic was published in the Manchester publication, Black & White and to my knowledge is the oldest surviving depiction of Valley Parade. It will be noted that a marquee was erected on what is now the site of the Kop. The ground had a running track around its perimeter that could also be used for cycle races.

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The Manningham FC programme for the event provided a race card of the various contests as well as fixtures for the forthcoming season, 1887/88. The presentation of prizes by Sir Henry Mitchell affirmed the respectability of the event. (Images courtesy of Jon Longman.)

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The inaugural Valley Parade event attracted contestants from across the north and at stake was an impressive array of prizes, the most prestigious of which was an attractive trophy for the winners of the three mile inter-club steeplechase. Manufactured by Fattorini’s, this had a reported value of £40 which was in excess of the average annual wage for a workman. There were three teams of four runners apiece competing for the prize which was won by Salford Harriers. It was said that they had ‘a ridiculously easy journey’ finishing two laps ahead of the fastest runner from the Bradford Trinity club whilst none of the Airedale team finished. The achievement of Salford Harriers was celebrated in the Manchester publication Black & White (pictured).

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Unfortunately the attendance at the Airedale Harrier’s Festival was considered disappointing and it was acknowledged in the press that a profusion of other athletics events in West Yorkshire had saturated public interest. For instance the Bradford Athletic Club festival had taken place at Park Avenue the fortnight before the one at Valley Parade and was generally regarded to be the most prestigious. The Bradford Daily Telegraph reported on 23 January, 1888 that it generated receipts of £464 and a profit of £379. Inevitably there were unfavourable comparisons drawn in relation to that in Manningham.

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The following listing of festivals in August and September, 1887 attests to the prevalence of events in the north of England and the week after the one at Valley Parade, Bowling FC staged its own athletics festival at Usher Street. It was a mark of status that a club had the wherewithal to stage such an event yet few could match the profitability of the Park Avenue event.

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Proxy competition

Local (rugby) football clubs effectively became involved in a proxy competition to stage athletic festivals, with the offer of ever more generous prizes. Undoubtedly this mirrored the intensification of football rivalries during the 1880s as Yorkshire rugby became increasingly commercialised.

1887-08-25 Advert Dewsbury Athletics Festival

As football club finances came under pressure, athletic festivals were relied upon as a means to generate additional monies. Manningham FC continued to host an annual festival until 1896 by which time controversy over rugby professionalism dissuaded amateur athletes from compromising themselves through participation in events staged by Northern Union clubs.

The Manningham FC festivals became another dimension to the rivalry with Bradford FC although the Valley Parade events never matched the commercial success of those at Park Avenue. Nonetheless those at Valley Parade were reasonably well-attended and in 1893 for example the athletic festival attracted a five thousand crowd which generated a surplus of £83. Athletic festivals at Park Avenue were similarly identified as a source of income, typically to offset the losses of the cricket section and that in July, 1890 was reported to have attracted as many as thirteen thousand people. These were fashionable events but popularity also derived from the gambling opportunities they offered.

During the 1880s the programme of events became progressively more codified for example with standardised running events that would have further attracted betting interest. From 1885 there were more bicycle and tricycle competitions which would have reflected the fashion of the time and also provided more of a spectacle around the perimeter of the cricket ground. However even in 1896 (the final year that the festival was staged) the events continued to include the more sublime such as the 200 yard association football dribbling race but the festival of that year remained popular with 7,000 spectators, 300 entrants and prizes worth £200.

The value of prizes on offer at the athletic festival at Park Avenue in July, 1893 was high in the context of average weekly wages which were in the region of 30 shillings (£1.50) for skilled men. Whilst participants competed as amateurs, the rewards of success were not insignificant and footballers were at a distinct advantage in these events given that the general level of fitness and participation in sport by most people was low. Organisers of athletic contests would have also welcomed the entry of footballers to attract spectators. One such player, Fred Cooper (who joined Bradford FC the following October) was particularly successful in short distance sprints and during the summer months attended various festivals in England as well in South Wales where he had been brought up. (On the same weekend of the Park Avenue festival he had been a prize winner at the Cardiff athletics festival.) Other prominent sprinters who played for Bradford FC included Tommy Dobson and Frank Ritchie.

After 1986 annual sports festivals continued to be staged at Park Avenue but on a far more low key basis with a headline objective of charity fund raising. These continued into the twentieth century, latterly in the guise of the Bradford Police Sports until the 1960s. The golden era of athletic festivals in Bradford however remained the 1880s.

by John Dewhirst Tweets: @jpdewhirst

From his book ROOM AT THE TOP. Other content written by the author about the history of football in Bradford is published on his blog, WOOL CITY RIVALS where you can access his features published in the Bradford City AFC matchday programme as well as book reviews and archive images.


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.

Future articles are scheduled to feature the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport and its sports grounds, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.


The Noble Art – A History of Bradford Boxing, Part Two

By Ian Hemmens

Part 1 of the story saw the origins of bare-knuckle boxing through to the organisation of the sport via the Queensberry Rules featuring notable Bradford Boxing celebrities ranging from ‘Brassey’ & Paddy Mahoney to the Blakeborough Brothers & the Fighting Delaneys up to and just after the Great War. With the tragic loss of Jerry Delaney in the conflict, Bradford’s biggest, brightest hope was lost.

1924 saw Bradfords next big promotion with York fighter Syd Pape being matched with a legend of the sport , Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, a veteran of over 200 bouts and a former World & European Champion. Pape had gained respect with Bradford crowds for his battling & game displays against a noted Aussie heavy called Lloyd. Sadly, the difference in class was there for all to see even from Round 1. Lewis handed out a severe beating but Pape gamely stuck in there despite the crowd calling for the fight to be stopped. The Referee allowed the fight to continue until Pape’s corner threw the towel in during the 2nd Round. Such was the brutality on show, it was perhaps unfortunate that sat at Ringside were the Lord Mayor of Bradford, the Chief Constable & several other notables who allegedly but never proved, were splattered with blood from Syd Pape. The Referee came under severe criticism for allowing the fight to continue but he defended himself as an experienced official saying he was working within accepted rules. This didn’t wash with the officials and the Chief Constable called the whole event a ‘Sickening Spectacle’ which, if it was indicative of the way Boxing was going, would not be allowed in the Windsor Hall or indeed, Bradford as a whole.

As a result, Boxing was banned from anywhere in the Bradford Corporation boundaries. Bradford was not the only place where bouts were banned, Hull, Nottingham & even parts of London also withheld licences. Amateur & Schoolboy boxing under ultra-strict rules was allowed to continue mainly under Police supervision which saw the rise of the Bradford Police Boys Club as a major venue for young, up & coming fighters to learn the right way.

The fallow period lasted a long 6 years before professional boxing was allowed to return to the City. The main venue by this time was the Olympia Buildings on Thornton Road. The Boxing Board of Control had promised to clean up the sport with even stricter rules and more medical securities for fighters before it was allowed licences.

Former Bradford fighter & now Manager Fred Blakeborough organised the event and a crowd of over 4000 showed there was a healthy appetite for the sport in the City. For the next decade, although no Bradford boxers made any notable impression at a higher level, the Olympia held several big bouts of note before gradually fading from the scene with the Windsor Hall once again taking pride of place as the Citys major venue. British Middleweight Champion Len Harvey attracted a crowd of 5000 for his bout with Belgian Theo Sas which to the ire of the crowd lasted a paltry 175 seconds. If that upset the crowd the next big bout featuring Canadian Champ Larry Gains destroyed Marcel Moret in a mere 34 seconds. Stewards, Commissioners & Constables had to go into the crowd to calm them & local Heavyweight Ted Brookes addressed the crowd from the ring to calm events down. Despite the farcical scenes, Larry Gains drew a crowd of 5000 on his return to the City in 1934 for his bout with Polish Champion Bert Casimir. To his credit, Gains had a highly respectable record even holding a joint decision with World Heavyweight giant Primo Carnera earlier in the year. Casimir came boasting of never being knocked down but he had never fought anyone near the class of Larry Gains. After the last farce, what the crowd needed was a competitive bout but after stalking his opponent around the ring for a mere 125 seconds, the first serious punch thrown by Gains put the Pole on the canvas & out for the count. The mortified crowd felt cheated once again & chants of ‘We want our Money back ‘ started growing with stewards once again moving into the arena to protect the Boxers & BBBC officials from their anger.

1934 also saw up & coming Welsh fighter Tommy Farr contest a hard fought draw with South African Eddie Pierce. The Bradford crowd were dubious of Farr’s pedigree but he was to become a British Boxing great when 3 years later he went the distance and very narrowly lost on points to the legendary ‘Brown Bomber’ the one & only Joe Louis.

During this period from a Bradford point of view, the main characters in the Ring were the Melia Brothers from White Abbey, Mick & John. Although Mick was good enough to fight at National level in the ABA ranks, their pro careers never reached any notable heights despite being well respected on the circuit. Popular Local Heavyweight Ted Brookes managed to get a bout with the ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera, the World Heavyweight Champ during an exhibition tour in 1931. It took place at the Winter Gardens in Morecambe and although Ted put up a valiant showing he was caught by one and knocked out by the 6’5” giant. Ted later said he couldn’t remember a thing about the punch. Ted was later offered a contract for another bout with Primo over in Ireland but it was later withdrawn when a better offer was put in. After retiring, Ted had a pie & pea shop up Otley Road and pride of place was a photo of Ted in the Ring with Carnera which Ted would regale his customers with stories of his fight with the ‘Champ’.

As the 1930s progressed, Boxing in Bradford seemed to quietly fade from public view with other more ‘public friendly’ attractions coming to the fore. As well as 2 professional Football teams, Bradford boasted a Rugby League team, A successful Rugby Union team, 2 successful Greyhound tracks, Speedway was introduced at Odsal. Yorkshire Cricket Club played regularly at Park Avenue and the Bradford Cricket League was possibly the strongest in the country. Outside sport but competing for public attention was the rise of Dancehalls, the talking picture sensation of Cinema, a rise in the accessibility of public transport, all placing demands on public income. Add to this the financial slump of the Great Depression all combined to see a sport like Boxing become less palatable to the public. Even Wrestling which was seen as less Bloody & brutal saw a rise in popularity to the detriment of Boxing. With War again on the horizon, it was to be a long fallow period before the sport in the City started to show roots of recovery and recognition once again & it came from an unlikely source.

The immediate post war period brought an almost immediate change of scenery for Boxing. In fact, locally the only thing of note would be an exhibition visit to Leeds by the then unknown but upcoming future World Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson. The whole vista had changed with a series of occurrences. The massive rise of Radio & the coming availability of Television broadened the horizons of families realising there was a whole world out there. The attraction & professional publicity machines by American promoters promoting the likes of Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson & the likes were appealing & on a whole new level to back street boxing halls. The sensational victory by Brit Randolph Turpin over Sugar Ray captured the sport fans attention but locally it was a barren landscape. Another major effect was the introduction of an Entertainment Tax by the government on the profits made by promoters which almost overnight killed off many boxing promotions & the number of halls in the 50s fell by three quarters down to below 200 nationwide. Television was able to offer more money for fighters which meant that locally, promoters couldn’t compete.

TV brought into the big time Characters like Cassius Clay & his gallant British opponent Henry Cooper and local Boxing Halls faced a precarious time as audiences refused to pay the money needed to bring quality bouts to the public.

Dunn & Ali.jpgLocally it was to be the early 70s before interest was perked with a Leeds born but Bradford raised bricklayer & former paratrooper named Richard Dunn came to the attention of the local fans. After years of journeyman bouts going nowhere, a call to veteran manager George Biddles saw his career boom big time and under his management, Dunn, within a year was British Heavyweight Champion following it up by taking the European crown. The whirlwind rise to fame saw him enter the ring in 1976 against arguably the Greatest ever, Muhammed Ali, the former Cassius Clay. Working his was up the rankings, a defeat by the teak tough Jimmy Young in 8 rounds where Dunn was actually ahead on the scorecards, a former sparring partner of Smokin Joe Frazier was no shame or disgrace & his upward trajectory continued with tough fights against well known characters like Danny McAlinden, Billy Aird & Neville Mead before taking the European crown against 6’7” German Bernd August, the Referee stopping the bout in the 3rd. Dunn had fought in the City at locations like the Talk of Yorkshire & The Midland. A typical, dour no nonsense Yorkshire man was now thrust into the national limelight. The fight with Ali was fixed for Munich on 25th May 1976 matching a ‘living legend’ with the ‘Bradford Brickie’ ! Despite a braveness & game showing there was to be no fairytale ending as the bout was stopped in the Round 5 after Ali cut loose leaving the Referee no option but to stop the fight. There was no shame in this and indeed the great Ali was effusive in his praise for the Bradford fighter admiring his courage and never-say-die attitude.

Richard arrived back to Bradford to a wonderful reception and his pride was clear to all as the City honoured him by naming the newly built sports centre in his honour. Bradford was finally back on the Boxing map.

Bradford’s long wait for a locally born Champion finally arrived in 1986 with the Girlington born Featherweight John Doherty and by the time he was finished in the early 1990s, John had been British Champion a record 3 times.

In the stable of local trainer John Celebanski, Doherty made great strides after beginning at the Bradford YMCA. Working his way up the rankings & despite getting cuts on several occasions, notably against future Champion Pat Cowdell, John proceeded to work his way forward even filling St Georges Hall before his date with destiny in Preston against his namesake Pat Doherty. After a slow start, John worked his way into the fight and despite another cut, the Referee gave John the verdict by 2 clear rounds. Bradford finally had its own homegrown Champ.

Defeat came in his next fight against old foe Pat Cowdell, again, cuts halting the Bradford man. A couple of years passed, John taking time out with various injury problems before a victory in a final eliminator against Kevin Pritchard saw John matched with the flamboyant new Champion Floyd Havard. John altered his tactics and kept the showy Havard at close quarters where his powerful punching saw him cause a major upset to regain his title against all odds.

Once again, john was unable to defend his title losing a very closely fought bout with Joey Jacobs before circumstances where for 11 consecutive fights, the Champ was unable to defend his title saw John once again given the chance to win a cherished Lonsdale Belt. Pitched against Sugar Gibiliru of Toxteth at Stockport Town Hall, Girlingtons best was determined to not let the chance of a fabled Belt slip him by and despite a nasty gash on the eye in Round 9, John wore down his opponent and became a 3 time Champion. It was to be the last hurrah for Doherty as after yet again losing his title in 1992, he decided it was time to hang up his gloves. John Doherty can rightly claim his place at the top table of Bradfords Boxing Hall of Fame with his gritty performances and no little talent. Without the handicap of easy cuts who knows how high he could have reached but Bradfords pride in its very own Champion was clear to all.

As Doherty’s career was winding down, like London buses, another Bradford born Boxer became a Champion. West Bowling born Frank Grant had no real background in the sport and secured the honour after no amateur career and only 23 bouts. A short spell behind bars had focussed Frank and whilst a gym orderly had turned him into a fine specimen. A basic training & coaching, his evident promise attracted John Celebanski who added him to his stable. His first couple of bouts showed his inexperience but then his continued exposure to intense training & expertise saw him win 6 bouts in succession, 4 by referee stoppage. By early 1990, a record of 13 from 15 saw Frank catapulted up the Middleweight rankings as an eliminator along with Kid Milo for the title held by the classy Sheffield based Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham. When Milo couldn’t make the fight, Celebanski saw & grasped the chance for his man. Unfortunately, various circumstances , the sudden death of Frank’s Mother, Boxing politics & the backlash from the Michael Watson incident where he suffered brain damage after his defeat by Chris Eubank all conspired to stop the fight being arranged. All boxers were made to take brain scans and Frank’s showed up a small anomaly which was proved to be wrongly diagnosed but nevertheless further delayed his date with destiny.

Graham had further enhanced his reputation as one of Britains best winning & holding titles at both Light Middleweight & Middleweight , indeed his only defeats had been at European level & 2 World title fights. The bout with Frank Grant (pictured below) was set for September 1992 at Elland Road, Leeds on the same bill as Leeds upcoming Super Middleweight Henry Wharton.

frank grantNobody outside his immediate circle & his Bradford fans gave him a chance against the classy ‘Bomber’ but Frank got his gameplan spot on by restricting the Champ in his movement around the ring and continually pinning the Champ against the ropes. Graham, in the 7th started to realise he was in trouble and started to work Grant more winning the next couple of rounds but come the 9th , Frank came out revigourated and his speed & power put the Champ down. Although he beat the count, Frank stormed forward unrelentless until the Referee had no choice but to halt the bout. The eminently qualified Mickey Duff was quoted as saying the 9th Round was one of the best he had ever seen. Bradford had another Champion to celebrate.

Frank defended his title at a packed & rowdy St Georges Hall against the durable John Ashton & there was talk of a bout to be held at Valley Parade to maximise Franks potential. Sadly, a lot of the headlines were caused by unruly elements in the crowd as several fights broke out & the police had to be called to quell the trouble but it had future consequences for fighting in the City. In the ring Frank more than lived up to the billing with the tough Ashton quoted as saying ‘it was like being hit by a truck’ such was Franks power punching. The purists were disparaging of Franks lack of ring craft but there was no denying, after only 25 fights he was a worthy Champion. His ranking rocketed him into the Worlds top 10 with the the great American Champs Gerard McClellan & Roy Jones in his sights. Due to the problems at St Georges Hall his next defence was to be held in Manchester with a Lonsdale Belt at stake. His opponent was Neville Brown from Brendan Ingle’s stable who had a record of 21 wins from 22 fights. Brown & Ingle had done their homework and managed to hold Frank at distance patiently picking him off with well placed jabs. In the 6th Brown opened a cut under Franks eye & his inexperience showed as desperation set in and Brown was able to finish the fight in the 7th. He was to become a valid Champion with several defences before being outclassed by future World Champ Steve Collins.

Frank had hit the heights quickly but bravely decided the fight game wasn’t for him and bowed out gracefully to enter the licensing trade.

Bobby Vanzie

The 1990s saw yet another Bradford product emerge in the form of Lightweight Bobby ‘Viper’ Vanzie (pictured above) who won British & Commonwealth titles and challenged for the Inter Continental title being beaten by Yuri Ramanau.


Junior WitterAlso emerging was Bradford born Light Welterweight Junior Witter (pictured left) who finally reached the promised land after being crown British, European & Commonwealth champion he fought and lost his first World bid losing to Zab Judah in 2000. September 2006 saw ‘The Hitter’ finally be crowned World Champion beating American Demarcus Corley at the Alexandra Palace. He made 2 successful defences before losing on a split decision to American Timothy Bradley. A rematch was offered but then Bradley was stripped of his belt with Witter being matched with mandatory challenger Devon Alexander in 2008. Alexander proved too strong for Witter and despite valiantly trying to continue, his moment of fame had passed. After finally bowing out in 2015, he now runs a gym in South Yorkshire but after over 150 years, Bradford could finally claim its own World Champion.


Recently the gloves have been passed to yet another Welterweight with Bradford born Darren ‘TNT’ Tetley (pictured above) winning the WBO European belt . Another chapter has begun in Bradfords Boxing History.

By Ian Hemmens

Bradford’s boxing heritage: Part One   by Ian Hemmens

Tweets: @IHemmens

References: Bradford Libraries
Boxing in Bradford & Leeds by Ronnie Wharton.

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.

Future articles are scheduled to feature the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford, early athletic festivals in the district and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.

The origins of cycling in Bradford

1887-09-01 Highway Law for cyclists.jpg

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first reported appearance of bicycles – or velocepedes – in Bradford. It was a phenomenon that was extensively reported in the Bradford Daily Telegraph and Bradford Observer as well as the Yorkshireman weekly review that was published in the town.

Bradford established for itself a reputation as a centre of cycling enthusiasm, benefiting from proximity to the Yorkshire Dales and other beautiful – albeit hilly – surrounding countryside. Local newspapers from the 1870s onwards attest to the popularity of the pastime with detail of weekend club runs featuring in the Friday and Saturday editions of the press. My own club, East Bradford CC was formed in 1899 when the Victorian cycling craze was at its peak and is now the longest surviving in Bradford.

Author JB Priestley (1894-1984) wrote fondly about his adventures on a bike and his excursions from Bradford and asked for his ashes to be buried at Hubberholme (about ten miles north of Kettlewell in the Dales), a place he described as a favourite escape.

The photos above are of St Michael & All Angels church at Hubberholme where Priestley’s ashes were laid and he is commemorated. I have often wondered whether his love of the place was on the basis that if you ride much further you begin to encounter some serious climbs. Could it be that Priestley found good excuse to dismount and instead enjoy the scenery of Upper Wharfedale that Hubberholme afforded him?

The first bicycles in Bradford

What is notable is how rapidly ‘velocipede mania’ became established in Bradford having originated in New York and Paris during 1868. Admittedly such mania was a national phenomenon but it was the viral spread of the craze that seems so remarkable, testament to the efficacy of communications long before the internet. On 12 January, 1869 the Bradford Observer provided an endorsement from a Paris correspondent: ‘I do not see why velocipedes which cost less than a very bad horse, and eat nothing, should not be useful.’ By the spring bicycles were fairly numerous in the town and in May, 1869 the appeal was described thus: ‘Bicycle riding, like skating, combines the pleasure of personal display with the luxury of swift motion through the air. The pursuit admits, too, of ostentation.


A 35kg boneshaker, one of the earliest bicycle designs.

In May, 1869 there was an incident in which three policemen allegedly assaulted a rider – a billiard maker – and pulled him from his bike in Peel Park. In the subsequent court case in which the rider sought action against the policemen, the court accepted that there were no bye-laws to prevent velocipedes being ridden in the park.

A report in the Bradford Observer on 27 August, 1869 stated that ‘Bradford is evidently determined to keep pace with the times… the bicycle was faintly heard of as a Parisian mania… and lo! within twelve months it is an institution amongst us. The swelldom of Bradford does not appear to me to be very enthusiastic about the new means of progression; possibly because there is danger in it. But there is a class which has taken up the bicycle with enthusiasm. The young men, warehousemen, clerks – those who affect gymnastic and athletic exercises, and are mostly members of cricket clubs.’

The same report mentions the opening of a velocinasium on Manningham Lane. The writer asked ‘Can anything be advanced more convincing as a proof of the rapid progress of the town than this fact, that a building has been reared solely and completely for the practice of velocipede riding?…There are other velocipede schools, of smaller size, though of longer standing, in the town. With such a provision, I should think Bradford will soon be competent to turn out quite an army of velocipedists.’ The point to note is that sufficient demand existed for businesses to become established and in so doing, leisure was becoming commercialised.

The Bradford Observer of 24 September, 1869 reported a cycling contest at the Manningham Lane velocinasium for ‘fast and slow racing, and for sports and feats (the latter including tilting at the ring, vaulting, off and on the bicycle, quoit playing on bicycles, and throwing at the target).’

Bicycles were reported to be continually flitting along Manningham Lane in the cool of the evening. For cycling to be a popular pastime in Manningham at the time says as much about the affluence of the township (new bicycles cost anything between £2 and £8, when average weekly pay amounted to 25s) as the fact that Manningham Lane was one of the few flat roads in Bradford. I doubt very much that anyone would have wanted to ride a 40lb wrought iron machine down Great Horton Road.

The aforementioned velocinasium was a ‘large shed with a glazed roof and a smooth wooden floor’ and had sixteen bicycles for rent to patrons and was situated opposite Bowland Street where the now derelict night club stands. The site bears witness to changing patterns and fashion of recreation and in 1876 the building was converted to the Valley Parade (roller) skating rink with a hard maple floor and was used for this purpose until 1901 when it became the depot of The Bradford Motor Car Company Ltd selling horseless carriages – which is to say it became a garage. Skating became extremely popular among young people, considered an excellent way to meet without the interference of chaperones.

Possibly the first bicycle race to be staged in Bradford was at the Bradford Cricket Club Athletics Festival in July, 1869 over one mile which was won in 5 minutes and 31 seconds (a speed of 11mph). This performance should be compared with the world record time of three minutes and one second which was set in Wolverhampton in May, 1874. On the face of it, even allowing for the grass surface it wasn’t an impressive feat by contemporary standards. By way of comparison, the author has ridden 10 miles in under twenty minutes in time trial conditions which is a not uncommon standard among amateur club racers. Nevertheless a modern rider would have a shock forsaking carbon for iron.

Despite bicycles of that era weighing 40lbs and the generally poor quality of roads, feats were recorded in the press of riders attempting relatively long distances. The benchmark for 50 miles was eight hours; by contrast a respectable achievement on modern dual carriageways would be below two hours albeit with a bike weighing a fifth of the original.

The emergence of cycling clubs in Bradford was in parallel to that of football clubs with participants often involved in both activities. Cycling was considered another form of athleticism and participants in grass track cycle races at athletic festivals in Bradford were invariably involved with other sports rather than being dedicated cyclists alone. For instance, on 18 November, 1882 the Leeds Mercury reported how the Bradford Harriers consisted mainly of members of Manningham Bicycle Club.

My research confirms the extent to which the same individuals diversified into new pursuits and for those who could afford it, cycling was a fashionable activity. The emergence of cycling in Bradford illustrates how people were receptive to new recreational opportunities. One of the ways that this came about was through networking and word of mouth with pubs such as the Belle Vue Hotel on Manningham Lane being the meeting place for ‘athletic’ clubs – athletic in the widest sense embracing cycling, football, harrier running and rowing for example. (Other such pubs included the Spotted House on Manningham Lane and the Queens Hotel on Lumb Lane.) However it is difficult to say how many people were active cyclists in Bradford during the first two decades after the first introduction of cycling to the town. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that cycling became a truly popular activity with broad participation and during the 1870s and 1880s it was (rugby) football that captured the attention of young males in Bradford.
The oldest cycle club in the town, the Bradford Bicycling Club was formed in 1874. The North of England CMC (considered the largest) was formed in 1877 and the Manningham club in 1878. There were also workplace clubs such as that at the Bradford Observer formed in 1879 and at Manningham Mills in 1885.

Bradford was considered a hot-bed of cycling activity and the Athletic News of 17 August, 1886 reported that ‘There are few, if any, Yorkshire towns which can boast of greater cycling popularity.’ At the competitive (as opposed to recreational) level however, Bradford was considered to lag behind. Maurice Bonsor, brother of England international Fred Bonsor who played for Bradford FC, was one such Bradford racer who had been unsuccessful. Maurice had even promoted a cycling section within the local Volunteers as a military unit for scouting duties. The consensus among local enthusiasts was that until local riders had the benefit of a dedicated cycle track as a training resource, prizes would elude Bradford cyclists.

The Athletic News of 11 May, 1886 had reported that ‘In such a town of hills and slippery granite a track is much needed. It was proposed to lease a field out Frizinghall nothing has so far come of it, as owing to some legal difficulties, it is not known who is the responsible owner of the ground.’ My assumption is that this referred to the Clock House estate and the same site as that previously occupied by Bradford Zingari FC – currently the lower playing fields of Bradford Grammar School. Therefore, when it was announced that Manningham FC was relocating from Carlisle Road, the Bradford cycling fraternity pinned its hopes on being able to establish a suitable track at the new Valley Parade ground. Whilst the club agreed to incorporate a cinder track, the cyclists aspired to something more ambitious. According to the Athletic News of 25 May, 1886 ‘the cyclists want something like a Crystal Palace track laying and would prevent any running with spikes on it.’ The hope had been for a track five yards in width and four laps to the mile around the perimeter of the Valley Parade pitch. However, because Manningham FC wanted to host athletics events the desired cycling track never came about. Besides, the viability would have been questionable.

In June, 1886 a meeting of ‘wheelmen’ was held at the Alexandra Hotel (which was the headquarters of the Bradford branch of the Cycling Touring Club) to develop a cycling track in the town. Representatives included members of the Manningham, Bradford, Atalanta, Great Horton, Thornbury, Undercliffe clubs and the meeting was presided over by the Bradford FC chairman, Arthur Barrett. The hope was that something might yet come of the Frizinghall site and it was proposed to establish a limited liability company to raise funds for the development. By the beginning of September, 1886 the scheme had fallen through, attributed to difficulties determining the legal title of the land. The problem for the cyclists was the same as that facing the town’s football and cricket clubs, namely a shortage of flat sites.

Cyclists resorted to racing in local parks which led to complaints by the public. On 14 June, 1887 The Athletic News reported that a local cycle dealer had been summoned at the Bradford Police Court for ‘furiously riding through Horton Park’ and asked ‘Why will reckless cyclists endanger the privileges of a large number by little indiscretions? It may be remembered that last year the Bradford parks were threatened to be closed because of the reckless riding of a few.’ Lister Park in particular was used for racing but eventually, in 1894 the so-called ‘scorching nuisance’ resulted in the park being closed to cyclists.

The above cutting confirms that cyclists were treated with disdain by many other road users. This from 1888.

In 1890 the National Cyclists’ Union (which regulated most of the cycling clubs in Britain) had introduced a ban on cycle racing on public roads to avoid bringing the pastime into disrepute. The ban led to non- affiliated clubs organising their own events with disagreement between cyclists on the merits or otherwise that continued long into the following century. In the wake of this, tracks opened elsewhere in West Yorkshire, including at Meanwood Road, Headingley and Fartown. In Bradford cyclists had to make do with either grass tracks or the perimeter cinder tracks at either Park Avenue or Valley Parade.

The introduction of safety bicycles from 1885 represented a milestone for cycling activity through allowing riders to pursue more adventurous rides outdoors. It also encouraged a number of bicycle retailers to become established in Bradford and the following adverts, again from The Yorkshireman in July / August, 1887 give a flavour of the sort of machines being ridden at this time as well as the price. The cost put them out of reach of most workers for whom an average wage would be around 25 shillings. Notable is that traders offered credit terms to make them affordable and that they could be sourced through mail order.

An attraction for local club riders was attendance at summer camps that provided opportunities for competition and recreation, a good example of which was the annual Harrogate camp that attracted riders from across Yorkshire. The following relates to that of 1887.

Although there is record of a Park Avenue (Bradford) Cycling Club in 1890 it is unclear whether this was under the auspices of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club. In 1895 it was not listed among the leading clubs in the town of which most were suburban based. The Leeds CF&AC at Headingley had an active cycle section but in the absence of track facilities there was less reason for cyclists to be based at Park Avenue. Judged from the following account in the Yorkshireman in May, 1892 the club may have been more a recreational than competitive organisation: ‘the Park Avenue Cycling Club are having a strange and certainly novel sort of a competition this evening from eight to nine o’clock, at Park Avenue. The conditions, I believe, are as follows: – Competitors start at eight o’clock and ride backwards and forwards on Park Avenue for an hour, and the committee will select at random a number of miles between four and fourteen, and the man who rides the nearest to that number wins the prize. This is certainly a rum idea, and emanates, I believe, from the wonderful noddle of their hon. sec., and, as he truthfully says, it is entirely a question of luck who wins. I should think so.’

In July, 1894 there were discussions between representatives of local cycling clubs and the Athletic Committee of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club to construct a cycle track around the perimeter of the cricket field at Park Avenue. The Leeds Mercury of 13 July, 1894 reported that plans had been discussed for a track of just under a quarter of a mile around the pitch perimeter, to be constructed of either concrete or wood. It was estimated that 150 cyclists would be prepared to pay an annual subscription of 10s/6d with the intention that local clubs would hold evening events at Park Avenue. The project never progressed and it is unclear whether this was because the venture was not deemed viable or whether the Cricket Club objected. With space constraints it might not have been a practical proposition but most likely it came down to finance given that in July, 1896 it was mentioned once more as a potential project.

Cycle racing however remained a feature of the annual athletics festival, albeit staged on the grass. In April, 1895 Bradford cyclists negotiated with the Midland Railway to rent land for a track and they were offered a ten year lease for £50 per annum. The stipulation was that cyclists be given three months’ notice in the event of the land being required for railway purposes which resulted in discussions being aborted. Finally, in 1896 a track was established in Wibsey.

Bfd Victoria CC.jpg

By the end of the 1890s there had been a mushrooming of cycling clubs in Bradford, not dissimilar to the emergence of rugby clubs across the district in the previous decade. What encouraged people to join were the opportunities for recreation and social engagement rather than competition per se (discouraged as a consequence of the NCU ban). Cycling clubs became the means by which people such as JB Priestley could explore the local countryside and get fit. A ride to Hubberholme from Priestley’s home in Heaton for instance would have clocked at least 70 miles, no mean achievement. It became a cultural phenomenon for weekend camps to be arranged at which cyclists from different clubs would congregate in the Yorkshire Dales and it was not until the 1920s that motorised traffic started to become widespread.

The first reports of motor vehicles in Bradford date from 1906 but it was not necessarily the car that was the biggest risk to early bikers. As the following from 1899 attests, cycling in Bradford could be a perilous activity if you could not control your bike on certain hills (or did not have brakes attached) and notable is that safety warnings were provided for the benefit of cyclists. The one thing that has not changed is the steepness of Moorhead Lane or other celebrated slopes in the district!

By John Dewhirst @jpdewhirst

The author is a former cycle racing time triallist and holds the East Bradford CC (est 1899) records over principal distances.

The origins of cycling in Bradford came at a time when people were seeking new forms of recreational activity. The following features written by the author and published on VINCIT provide further background about the origins of sport in Bradford in the late 1860s:

The origins of Bradford Amateur Rowing Club, established in 1867

The origin of athletic festivals in Bradford

How cricket provided the DNA of Bradford sport

The beginnings of competitive football in Bradford


(The above is taken from his book ROOM AT THE TOP which traces the origins of sport in Bradford and the early history of football in the district. Other features written by the author about the history of Bradford sport can be found from this link.)



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.

Future articles are scheduled to feature local boxing, the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.


Girlington AFC, very nearly Bradford City AFC

By Rob Grillo

Had things been different, the formation in 1903 of Bradford City AFC could have occurred twelve months earlier, if the result of a ploy to create a professional association football at Valley Parade from the seeds sown by two local football clubs and the city’s existing pool of amateur footballers had proved successful.

The Bradford & District FA, founded in March 1899 had overseen an exponential growth in the number of local clubs in the area as the round ball game took over from rugby as the number one winter pastime across the region.

The West Riding, however, was lagging behind the rest of the country. Rugby was still number one in the region, the Yorkshire Rugby Union having accepted that league and cup competition was inevitable and allowing its clubs to introduce the Yorkshire Senior Competition (and a number of lower divisions) as well as the Yorkshire Challenge Cup (t’old Tin Pot). This kept association football at bay for a little longer, while the seeds were sown in the game locally.

Girlington AFC.jpgGirlington AFC was one of clubs that emerged in the late 1890s, in the wake of a failed attempt to form a successful association team at by Bradford CA&FC at Park Avenue. Poorly supported, and seriously outclassed on the field by South Yorkshire opposition, the Park Avenue team had been banished to Birch Lane in the summer of 1898 before folding at the close the 1898/99 season, several of its players becoming dispersed around the junior (in status) clubs located around the city.

The Girlington club was formed by A H Grunberger and several of his acquaintances in 1896. Its first meeting was in August of that year with just nine members in attendance. All members of the club paid an annual subscription and initially paid for their own playing kits and travelling expenses, and in the early days was run on strictly amateur lines. Grunberger himself fulfilled several roles, including those of secretary and financial secretary. F Bradley took over as corresponding secretary, with other early committeemen including: W Rycroft, A Robertshaw, E C Robertshaw, J S Hawkins, F H Kemp, C Firth, P D Mortimer, S Gibson, and A Broadley.

That first season saw the club win four and draw two of their eleven friendly fixtures, against the likes of Bradford Spartans, Shipley and Pudsey. Initally the club played at a ground near the tram terminus at Four Lane Ends, using the Fairweather Green Board Schools for changing facilities. A new ground at Thornton Road was used for the 1898/99 season, before becoming founder members of the Bradford & District League in 1899. Their headquarters by then was the Red Lion Hotel at Four Lane Ends, with another new home ground close by at Duncombe Street, off Ingleby Road. This pitch, which was actually situated with Wallis Street to the north and Duncombe Street to the south, was also one of those considered for the home games for Bradford CA&FC team’s reserve team games in the mid 1890s.

Girlington were immediately successful in the Bradford & District League, being champions in the league’s first two seasons, 1899/1900 and 1900/01. The following season they won the District Cup, after having lost the previous two finals.

A major influence on the original Girlington team was Duncan Menzies, whose brother David had also played with him Park Avenue. The Scot was described in Yorkshire Sports in October 1901 as ‘a tower of strength’ for his club. Although described as ‘rather short of stature’, it was felt that his ‘cleverness with either foot, and sound judgement to draw out a defence’ were important characteristics of his play. He was, it was argued, ‘one of those ‘knacky’ men on his feet who seem to be born footballers’, who it was hoped, would go on to lead Girlington AFC ‘into the higher flights of the ‘socker’ world’.

To cater for a growing number of spectators, Girlington’s home matches were played at Valley Parade from 1901, the first soccer team to do so. Those in charge at Manningham Football Club were well aware of the potential that soccer offered, and this gave them the opportunity to hedge their bets without the financial outlay that their neighbours at park Avenue had experienced with their failed soccer experiment.

While this move undoubtedly attracted more spectators for Girlington, raising the club’s profile even further things were not always rosy. With both rugby and soccer being played on the same pitch, then wear and tear of the turf was increased, and several games were cancelled because of this. The ground had also been impacted by the staging of the non-sporting ‘Savage Africa’ show during 1901, which caused unexpected damage to the pitch.

There is also a suggestion that things were not all well behind the scenes, with the Leeds Mercury reporting in November 1901, ‘Girlington are not enjoying the state of tranquility which in other years has been their portion, but the management is making every effort to maintain the great reputation which the team has made for itself. The restlessness of the team suggests and unsatisfactory state of affairs, for with all the new men and outside talent, and the acquisition of the Valley Parade ground, they have not been so successful as expected.’ Additionally, although Manningham club was clearly showing interest in association code, the ground wasn’t available to Girlington as often as expected. With Manningham’s own teams taking preference, and Girlington were behind with their fixtures by the time Christmas arrived. It was still a surprise though when the club disbanded in the summer of 1902 despite being accepted into the West Yorkshire League.

The Bradford Daily Telegraph correspondent known as ‘Goalkeeper’ expressed his surprise on Saturday 19th July 1902: ‘The sensation of local football this week has been the withdrawal of the Girlington club from the West Yorkshire League, and practically the ending of the team seeing that the Bradford Leagues are now all completed. Their collapse is most regrettable. Only last season they gained the height of their ambition and became Cup holders. Their record in local football is really admirable, and only intensifies one’s regret at their unhappy ending. Into the pros and cons of the case I do not propose to enter, but I should have thought that entry into the West Yorkshire League bringing with it Competition matches with such clubs as Hunslet, Huddersfield, Altofts, etc’, to say nothing of Airedale and Rawdon, would have meant the beginning of a new era of prosperity to the club. The dispersion of players among other teams should, however, have its useful side. The experience of one of the older hands amongst a club composed of rising juniors would be bound to be beneficial.’

Had the issue over the pitch been the deciding factor, then Girlington would surely have made an attempt to return to their old ground at Four Lane Ends. They would have had to find a new ground within twelve months anyway, given that the professional Bradford City club was to take the ground solely for themselves. Although there clearly was a pitch issue (confirmed in the Yorkshire Sports on 11th October 1902) it would seem that internal politics led to the closure of the club. There were diagreements regarding the ground options open to them, and also over the number of new players who were drafted in during the season, and whatever the truth was, it caused Girlington’s downfall at the time.

However, an alternative reason – or at least contributing factor – can be proposed. The Bradford FA, in conjunction with the Manningham Football Club, could well have been involved in a strategy to base a professional association football club at Valley Parade from 1902, based around Girlington AFC and the appropriately named Bradford City AFC which had finished close runners-up to Airedale during the 1901-02 Bradford & District League campaign. Players representing that club 9formerly known as Harewood Recreation AFC), along with several of those from Girlington, had already represented a local XI teams in exhibition games but they too folded, at the same time as Girlington in the summer of 1902, this time seemingly without any explanation. John Dewhirst has suggested that behind the scenes the local FA may have tried to form a professional club from the two teams, but when it became obvious that the local pool of players was too short of talent to form a competitive side in, for instance, the Midland League. The scheme was shelved for twelve months, with both clubs disintegrating as a result, while the Bradford & District FA assisted club Manningham in a new application to join the Football League. Given that Manningham had allowed Girlington to use Valley Parade, and their agreement to host local and regional cup finals, then it is obvious that the club were hedging their bets should the round ball game continue to grow exponentially, without taking the risks taken up the road at Park Avenue. Twelve months later, Manningham was indeed elected to the Football League – as Bradford City AFC – but instead with a team imported from regions more established in the round ball game.

In January 1903 there was an effort to reform the Girlington club, with the Yorkshire Evening Post reporting, ‘Practically all the difficulties that caused the team to be disbanded during the present season have been overcome. The old committee who brought the team to such a prominent position are ready to help, and the majority of players have expressed the desire to come back.’ The club sadly failed to be revived at the time but Girlington AFC did reform prior to the 1907/08 season, although there was little coverage of their return in the local press. The new team won the Bradford & District FA Cup again at the first attempt (winning 2-1 against Fairweather Green at their old Valley Parade ground), and played in the second division of the West Yorkshire League. The following season they were back in the top division of the Bradford & District League before fading away before World War One.

Rob Grillo is author of LATE TO THE GAME, Volume 6 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series which tells the story of the origins of association football in Bradford. Details of his book and online ordering is available from this link.


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.

Future articles are scheduled to feature local boxing, the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.



The Paraders’ record breaking season: 1928/29

Bradford City’s Division Three (North) Championship season

by John Dewhirst

BCAFC 1928-29

This year marks the 90th anniversary of one of the most remarkable campaigns in the club’s history when it secured promotion as champions of Division Three (North) in record breaking fashion. It was the reversal of a decline that had begun immediate after the war, relegation from Division One in 1922 having been a major body-blow to the club from which it had not recovered. It did not help that the local economy was depressed and the affairs of both City and Avenue were impacted by the competing attraction of a rugby revival in Bradford at Lidget Green (the new Bradford Rugby Union club had been formed in 1919) and the emergence of Huddersfield Town as a leading club in English football.

Bradford City had been relegated to Division Three (North) in 1927 after a disastrous season in which the team won only 7 games of which only one away from home; the corresponding points tally of just 23 was the lowest in the club’s 19 seasons in the Football League. The 1927/28 campaign was overshadowed by financial turmoil. City finished in 6th place and 15 points behind neighbours Bradford Park Avenue who were champions – Avenue thereby secured a return to Division Two having previously been relegated in 1922. By the end of that season, Bradford City teetered close to insolvency and it was a refinancing combined with a board restructure in May, 1928 that safeguarded the club.

Two individuals in particular were closely involved with the restructuring arrangements. The first, William Sawyer is probably better known. A journalist by background, he was instrumental in the launch of the first match day programmes at Valley Parade in 1909 and remembered for having written a history of the club in 1927. He later served as a director between 1928-30 and 1934-38.

Thomas Paton is best described as the invisible hand at Valley Parade who made possible the club’s success at winning the FA Cup in 1911 and establishing itself as one of the leading sides in England before World War One. Sadly he has tended to be overlooked, not even given a mention in the footnotes of an earlier history of Bradford City’s golden era.

The club’s finances had deteriorated significantly during the relegation season of 1926/27 and the first season in Division Three (North); a signal that things were going from bad to worse had been the resignation of manager Colin Veitch in January, 1928, frustrated by the financial constraints that he was subject to. The then directors at Valley Parade could neither afford to underwrite continuing losses but neither could they afford to write off their loans to the club. Similarly, there was little incentive for a new director or investor to introduce monies if all that did was to service the loans of former directors. With Paton in the background, Sawyer conducted negotiations and secured the agreement of the chairman (and principal creditor) Thomas Power in addition to Messrs Dallas, Driver and Welch to defer loan repayments to them by the club with the promise that if they resigned, new funds would be forthcoming – coordinated by Paton – and hence Bradford City would remain solvent (thereby the old directors would not have to write-off monies owed to them). Notwithstanding, the individuals concerned were still required to remain bank guarantors.

The existing directors had little choice than to agree. To have rejected Sawyer’s plans would have plunged the club into insolvency. They would have been forced to write-off their loans and suffered the opprobrium of the public. There was little else to celebrate the landmark occasion of the club’s silver jubilee of its formation in 1903. Although Bradford City had avoided insolvency, it found itself in a division below cross-town rivals Bradford Park Avenue for the first time in its history (and indeed, City would remain in the shadow of Avenue for much of the next twenty-five years). Having been acclaimed as pioneers of association football in West Yorkshire, City were now at the level of Halifax Town whilst near neighbours Huddersfield Town and Leeds United were established in Division One.

The rescue of Bradford City in the 1928 close season reflected a determination to reverse the decline of the club that had occurred since the end of World War One. Of course, the slide of the two Bradford football clubs was not dissimilar to what had happened to the local textile industry and little by little, the standing of the city – its economy, financial well-being and sporting stature – had been rewritten and not for the better. Sport remained a core ingredient of civic patriotism and identity, Partisan rivalries aside, Bradfordians welcomed the revival of Bradford Park Avenue. However, for so long having been the senior club and standard bearers for the city of Bradford, it was unpalatable for anyone involved at Valley Parade that the Paraders should remain in third division obscurity and surrender its status.

A make or break season

Little wonder then that Sawyer went so far as to suggest that the forthcoming 1928/29 campaign was a make or break season. In August, 1928 for instance he reportedly told the players ‘This club is in a serious position; we have to go up or down, and you are the people who can put us up.’ He knew that the club remained heavily indebted and the only way to repair the balance sheet was through escaping from Division Three (North). Put simply, Bradford City could not afford to spend as long as Bradford Park Avenue had (1922-27) in the lower division. It was as much a matter of finance as self-respect.

The changes at Valley Parade after the board restructuring demonstrated the commitment to lift the club. Whilst the principal headline was the return of Peter O’Rourke as manager and the influx of new players, there was also a major overhaul in the way that the club was run.

O’Rourke was the most obvious candidate for the role of manager at Valley Parade in 1928 and crucially, under no illusions about what the job would entail. His working relationship and familiarity with the likes of Sawyer, Paton and for that matter Jack Nunn would have been a further advantage. So too the fact that he was well known to, and popular with, the supporters. Possibly his most important signing was that of George Livingstone, as trainer in June, 1928. A former Scottish international and player who had represented both senior Manchester clubs as well as Glasgow Rangers and Celtic (in addition to Sunderland and Liverpool), he remains the only man to have scored for both Manchester and Old Firm clubs in respective derby games.

Livingstone had previously been engaged as trainer at Ibrox between 1920-27 and immediately after World War One had been manager of Dumbarton. There is a good chance that he may have been put in touch with City by Tom Paton whose contacts in Scotland were legend. On the other hand, he would have been known to Peter O’Rourke having been a member of the Manchester United side that won the Football League championship in 1910/11. (Livingstone remained at Valley Parade until 1935, latterly assisting Jack Peart between 1930-35 who took over from O’Rourke.)

Much of the success of O’Rourke at Valley Parade before World War One had derived from the contribution of his trainer Charlie Harper and he opted for a similar approach in 1928. Harper had been an accomplished sprinter (acclaimed between 1893-98 as ‘champion professional of the world’) who introduced high standards of fitness and endurance to the City team after his appointment as trainer in 1905 and it is fair to assume that O’Rourke looked for something similar once again. Livingstone had already demonstrated his worth alongside Bill Struth at Glasgow Rangers who later secured legendary status during his 34 years in charge of the ‘Light Blues’. Struth had selected Livingstone after he had been appointed as manager in 1920 and during the seven seasons that they worked together at Ibrox the team finished as champions in five. Livingstone had been forced to resign in 1927 as a consequence of ill-health and the need to recuperate from a reported complex appendicitis. Nevertheless he came to Valley Parade with impeccable qualifications.

With the announcement in July, 1928 that the club had committed to investment in training apparatus in its Burlington Terrace premises, it was clear how priorities were being defined. A gymnasium was installed in the old billiards room and the Yorkshire Sports reported the installation of ‘Livingstone’s apparatus of electrical treatment for injured limbs, two great teak baths each capable of holding 16 players at a time, a big recreation and tea room, and a well equipped kitchen and washing and drying room for the field kit.’ Collectively it amounted to best practice, if not a better way of operating than how things had been done previously.

These subtle changes would have given Bradford City an immediate advantage over most other third division clubs and provide an important insurance policy against players getting injured, as well as through improving rates of recovery. Alongside the investment in training facilities was the appointment of a new groundsman tasked with making improvements to the pitch.

The Yorkshire Sports of 28 August, 1928 reported that ‘the ever-recurring bugbear of the ground trouble appears to have been overcome at last by the thorough preparations the playing area has undergone, and an expanse of rich, green grass is the result, while a new track has taken place of the old cinder running track, and many of the terraces have been improved.’ Judging from a headline in the same paper, sheep played their role in this transformation. In order to preserve the grass at Valley Parade came the decision that the players should train on the Leyland Lane / Garden Lane field in Heaton.

sheep aug-28

Another important development came in the form of a new supporters’ club. The crises of 1927 and 1928 had demonstrated the fragility of the club finances and the growing dependence on fund raising by supporters (much the same as at Park Avenue and Bradford Northern). Efforts were thus made to reconnect with supporters and in November, 1928 new premises were opened by the Bradford City Shareholders’ and Supporters’ Association at 1 Thorncliffe Road. These provided a permanent venue for supporters to meet as well as to host BCSSA events that had previously been held at commercial venues including the Belle Vue Hotel. (NB It seems unlikely that these were licensed.)

What may have prompted the decision to secure club rooms for the BCSSA was that the Bradford Park Avenue Supporters’ Club had itself opened premises at 21 Morley Street at the start of the season. The two clubs were commercial rivals whose initiatives were invariably designed to attain local advantage. Judging from the price of season tickets at Park Avenue and Valley Parade for instance it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Avenue sought to capitalise on the attraction of higher standard football by charging generally lower prices. For the Bradford City directorship, it was another obstacle to financial recovery.

O’Rourke’s signings

Budget constraints were a big factor in determining O’Rourke’s recruitment strategy. Instead of big money transfers or reliance on former high profile players , his approach was quite the opposite. Neither could O’Rourke rely upon players progressing through reserve teams and in June, 1928 the club had resigned membership of the Central League for economy reasons. In fact all of this was no different to what he had been used to the first time as manager of Bradford City between 1905-21.

Prior to World War One, Peter O’Rourke with the help of Tom Paton had been successful in identifying young, talented players in junior (mainly Scottish) football. So too his initial recruitment strategy in 1928 was based entirely on signing players from junior clubs although this time they tended to be Welsh.

This approach contrasted with that of O’Rourke’s predecessor, Colin Veitch who had relied upon signing veteran League players to get out of the third division. Not only was this a more expensive option but it was probably ill-suited to a third division dog-fight that had more to do with kick and rush than fancy football.

In June, 1928 O’Rourke exploited his contacts from when he had been manager of Pontypridd (1922) to secure three players from Aberdare whose financial difficulties had forced it to withdraw an application to join Division Three (South). Among them were Trevor Edmunds, a prolific scorer in Welsh and Southern League football, David Thomas and Alex Davies. Later that month came Cornelius White from Bangor City. Other new signings included J Charlton and J Jamieson from Wallsend and Fred Smith (a goalkeeper) from an Aberdeen junior side, St Machars. Others included Donald McArthur, signed from Scottish junior club, Glasgow West Park and Tom Moon from Dick, Kerrs of Preston.

These were essentially speculative, opportunist signings and although Edmunds and White managed hat tricks on the opening day of the season, none of these players established themselves at the club and all were released nine months later. What may have had something to do with this was that with the exception of George Hobson, a Leeds amateur in the squad, all the close season recruits were from afar and did not relocate. In fact City could not afford to pay them to do so and arrangements were made for players to train near their homes. This could not have been ideal, particularly given the emphasis on fitness and may explain why results were fairly mixed during the initial stage of the season.

O’Rourke was used to having to operate on a shoestring at Valley Parade and it meant that he was not averse to making difficult decisions. Just as he had been prepared to release club favourites such as James Conlin in July, 1906; Bob Whittingham in April, 1910; James Speirs in December, 1912; or Dickie Bond in May, 1922 he sanctioned the transfer of goalkeeper, Jock Ewart to Preston North End. Ewart had made 255 appearances for City between 1912-23 and then returned at the beginning of the 1927/28 season when he played a further 28 times.

As City manager, O’Rourke’s focus was on fitness, a strong work ethic and a strong team spirit that brought the best out of his players as a whole. The characteristic of his approach was to build a team around a tight defence. It was also said that under his supervision, Veitch’s signings performed as they never had before at Valley Parade and longer-serving players such as Ralph Burkinshaw and William Watson enjoyed a new lease of life. As the history of Bradford City has demonstrated time and time again, O’Rourke’s was a successful formula. What is telling from match reports is that whereas supporter barracking had previously been a recurring, problematic issue at Valley Parade in the preceding five years, a good rapport evolved between players and spectators during the 1928/29 season. No doubt O’Rourke recognised that spectators would get behind a hard-working team, an implied criticism maybe of what had happened in the past few years.

Bradford City also benefited from O’Rourke’s experience as a manager, not simply his tactical awareness but his judgement of players and willingness to make changes. Recognising that his close season transfers had not been particularly successful, signings made in October, 1928 proved timely for strengthening the team and getting momentum underway for a promotion challenge. His later recruits, Adam Mitchell (an inside-right from Scottish club, Penicuik) in December, 1928 and then Sandy Cochrane (a Scottish inside forward, from Darlington) in January, 1929 were equally important. Finally, it was the acquisition of Albert Whitehurst from Liverpool in February, 1929 that arguably secured promotion.

In these dealings, the role of Tom Paton was decisive. He was equally a good talent spotter and was credited in the Liverpool Echo for his part in the negotiations for Whitehurst’s signature. Paton provided a good sounding board for O’Rourke and in combination the pairing was an effective partnership.

Rivalry with Stockport County

There was a gulf in standards between Division Two and the regionalised third division (and of the two, the northern section was considered the weaker). Needless to say this was matched by similar inequalities in financial strength between the clubs in the different divisions. Yet whilst most relegated clubs secured a prompt return to the second division, achieving promotion was statistically at least, a difficult proposition. For instance only the champions of the respective third divisions won promotion and this made it extremely competitive between the stronger sides as to who could escape.

In 1928/29 Division Three (North) was dominated by two exceptional teams and this was the season in which the historic rivalry between Bradford City and Stockport County was born, one which had a particular intensity for the best part of the next fifty years.

The League games between the rivals were reported to have been particularly tense affairs with 2-1 home advantage in each case. City derived psychological one-upmanship with a 2-0 victory at Valley Parade in the FA Cup Third Round watched by a bumper crowd of 30,171. Yet for most of the season, Bradford City sat behind Stockport County in the table.

stockport 28-29

It was reported that there was considerable enthusiasm among City supporters for the start of the season and a new era for the club under its famous old manager. An opening 11-1 defeat of Rotherham United provided the best possible start and set a new club record. Nevertheless, at the beginning of October when the club was placed in 5th position there were misgivings being expressed about team strength and the effectiveness of the forwards. The weakness of reserve players forced entry into the transfer market and O’Rourke signed Fred Bedford from Morecambe and James Randall from Ashington (the latter signing financed by new director, Frank Naylor). It had immediate benefit and by the following month the team had confirmed its credentials as a championship contender.

Newspaper reports attributed the improvement in form to the influence of captain Tom Cairns, the strikeforce partnership of Moon and Randall and the versatility of Sam Barkas at wing half. In fact the emergence of Barkas who became a regular in the side from November, 1928 (playing in midfield) was one of the highlights of the season. He made 26 appearances in 1928/29 and subsequently gained a reputation as one of the club’s best players, representing Bradford City on 202 occasions in the League before his £5,000 transfer to Manchester City in April, 1934. Thirty years later he returned to Valley Parade and had responsibility for the club’s pools and fund-raising but left in 1966 amid rumours of embezzlement.

Sam Barkas had joined Bradford City as an eighteen year old in August, 1927 from junior club Middle Dock that competed in the Wearside League. He made his debut in February, 1927 as a right back and had made four appearances in the 1927/28 season. He had four brothers who each played in the Football League, the youngest of whom joined City in 1933/34 and made 16 appearances before signing for Halifax Town in 1934. For the Barkas brothers, becoming a professional footballer was an escape from the Durham coal mines.

A significant factor in the success of the team was the consistency and effectiveness of the defence, the same hallmark that had distinguished O’Rourke’s previous reign at Valley Parade. Between them Watty Shirlaw (goalkeeper), Sam Russell, William Watson, Ralph Burkinshaw and William Summers were virtually ever-present and only Summers (5 out of 42) and Watson (1) missed games that season. Above all, the strong team spirit and a growing self-belief that was shared among the players as well as the supporters was cited as the big difference, exactly the same characteristics instilled by O’Rourke in the City team before World War One.

It was unprecedented to have scored 52 goals in the first 15 games and this was sufficient to have lifted the spirits at Valley Parade. However, what was all the more remarkable was that unlike the defence there had been no consistency in the selection of the forward line and the ongoing changes reflected O’Rourke’s efforts to achieve the ideal combination.

The return League fixture at Edgeley Park on 2nd February, 1929 was billed as one of the most important games played by Bradford City since relegation from Division One in 1922, a true ‘four-pointer’. It was designated by the BCSSA as the occasion of its annual trip and it was estimated that as many as 5,000 followers travelled to Stockport by trains. Defeat in that game came as a major disappointment, not simply because of the result but because it highlighted deficiencies in the side. There was considerable despondency among supporters and after the game at Edgeley Park people feared that City would fall away from the top and concede the championship to County. The considered view was that weakness in the centre forward position was the achilles’ heel of the team.

It seems bizarre that a free-scoring club such as City should not have had a dedicated centre-forward until the signing of Albert Whitehurst in February, 1929. Prior to that, as many as five men – Bedford, Clarke, Moore, Scriven and White – had between them played as a centre-forward but none had been an ideal fit. Whitehurst was an accomplished centre-forward and had been a prolific scorer for Rochdale in Division Three (North). Such had been his record that he was targeted by Liverpool at the start of the 1928/29 season but he struggled to make an impact, scoring twice in only eight games in the first division.

Back in the third division with Bradford City, Whitehurst soon rediscovered his scoring boots. In only his fourth game for the Paraders, he scored seven goals against Tranmere Rovers to equal a Football League record. By the end of the season he had managed two more hat tricks and finished with 24 goals to his credit from only 15 games. He was indeed one of the best signings ever made by the club and Liverpool were understood to have accepted a fee of only £525 – much less than the £1,500 they had paid Rochdale eight months before.

1928 team b

An undefeated run in the final 16 games – with 13 victories and a total of 55 goals scored – secured the title for Bradford City in the last match of the season and Stockport County finished as runners-up. That run coincided with the signing of Albert Whitehurst who scored 24 goals in the last 15 games. During March/April there was a sequence of six fixtures in which City had high scoring victories: 8-0; 8-0; 5-0; 5-0; 3-0 and 4-1; of the 29 goals scored in those games, Albert Whitehurst claimed as many as 17 including 7 in a single game (vs Tranmere Rovers).

Willie Watson D3N medal 1928-29 F

William Watson’s championship medal
In terms of results there was little between the two leading sides. Bradford City managed 27 wins and 9 draws, suffering only 6 defeats out of 42 matches. Stockport gained 28 victories and 6 draws but unlike City, County went undefeated at home and won 19 out of 21 games at Edgeley Park. All told the Paraders finished one point ahead of Stockport although with three points for a win, the tally would have been equal at 90 points apiece. To put this into context, there is a good chance both would have topped 100 points had there been 46 games as is the case for the third tier nowadays.

New Records

What set the teams apart was the goalscoring record and whilst Stockport managed 111 goals for with 58 against, the Bradford City team scored a new Football League record total of 128 goals (of which 82 at Valley Parade), conceding 43. Albert Whitehurst scored the 100th goal at Chesterfield on 16 March, 1929 and from that stage the club began to target a new record to beat the 127 goals scored by Millwall in Division Three (South) the previous season. It was an era of high scoring and Bradford Park Avenue for instance had managed to score 101 goals in three successive seasons to 1927/28.

Previously the highest aggregate number of League goals scored in a season by Bradford City had been 90 in 1907/08, a record subsequently exceeded only in 1928/29 and 1961/62 (94 goals) and matched in 1950/51 (90. (NB Both post-war seasons involved 46 games whereas in 1907/08, 38 games were played and in 1928/29, 42.) The club also set itself new records in 1928/29 with the highest number of goals scored in a League fixture, both at home (11-1) and away (8-2).

The leading goalscorer was Albert Whitehurst with 24 (a new club record) despite having only joined the club in mid-February. The next highest was Tom Moon with 15. However, it was the mark of a free-scoring team that as many as 16 City players scored in League games and of those, 14 got two or more. For Bradford City it was a remarkable transformation because the lack of a prolific goalscorer had been the prime reason for the club’s decline after World War One. In fact, no City striker had managed 20 or more League goals in a season since Frank O’Rourke (20) and Bob Whittingham (21) in 1909/10.

Albert Whitehurst

A characteristic of Division Three (North) was the extent of home advantage and the consensus was that promotion depended on away wins, an adage confirmed by the experience of both Bradford clubs. For example, in 1927/28 City had been defeated only twice at Valley Parade which contrasted with just three victories away from home and ten defeats.

Club officials had admitted that the state of third division grounds had taken them by surprise after relegation in 1927. In April, 1928 the Yorkshire Sports contrasted Feethams, Darlington with the grounds of Barrow, Durham City, Wigan Borough and Rotherham United that were described as ‘unloveliness personified’. Mention was also made of the Rotherham crowd that was said to be unpleasant. As a club with a respectable pedigree, Bradford City was a team that a lot of minnows would have identified as a scalp and quite likely this made the challenge of winning away more difficult.

During 1928/29 City were defeated only 4 times away from home and won 10 out of 21 games. It was a season memorable for its excursions, the first of which was a trip to Carlisle United, newly-elected to the Football League in place of Durham City. The game at Brunton Park was the first in the League and set a new attendance record of 13,496. (For the record the result was 2-2 and there were positive comments made about the standard of the ground.) The 8-2 victory at Ashington in October, 1928 was memorable also as a new club record.

The visit to Nelson on 27 April, 1929 set another attendance record, two years after the fixture with Bradford Park Avenue had attracted 14,143 to the Seedhill ground. Excursion trains priced at 2s 6d carried 7,000 City supporters to Nelson, by far the majority in a 14,979 crowd. City won that game 1-0 but with Stockport winning at Doncaster Rovers it left the Paraders a point behind and a game in hand. Three days later, another fixture in Lancashire provided the opportunity to leapfrog Stockport and go into the final game knowing that a draw would be sufficient to secure promotion.

That penultimate game at Rochdale attracted a 20,000 crowd – around four times higher than the usual gate and a new record for the ground. By winning 3-1 at Spotland, Journalist Dick Williamson (Wanderer) of the Telegraph & Argus was gushing in his praise of the City players for their performance. He described it as a wonderful exhibition of team spirit and singled out Cairns for his own performance, described as one of the best of his career. A large crowd was said to have cheered the team on its arrival back to the old Exchange station.

Bradford City were left in control of their destiny and the championship was won with a 3-1 victory over South Shields at Valley Parade – the attendance for the South Shields game was recorded as 28,778 (although the caption of the photo below suggests that it was much higher).

The advert for the Belle Vue Hotel is a reminder of its historic significance in Valley Parade affairs [1].

The following Thursday, supporters toasted championship success at a celebratory dinner held at the Connaught Rooms. On the menu was claret and amber pudding and Valley Parade trifle.

goal 128 v south sh 1929.jpg

The average League gate at Valley Parade in 1928/29 was 18,551 and this was the highest in the two lower divisions (closely followed by Fulham in Division Three (South)). Away attendances averaged around 12,000, undoubtedly boosted by visiting Bradford City supporters who were a boon to the finances of other clubs. Gate sharing arrangements also benefited visitors to Valley Parade and were thus of net disadvantage to Bradford City.

The crowds at Valley Parade contributed to a financial recovery although ominously the club remained heavily indebted and in December, 1928 was faced with major expenditure to rectify storm damage to the roof of the Midland Road stand. At the start of the season there was a fear that attendances would be depressed with floating supporters preferring to give their allegiance to Bradford Park Avenue. If anything, it was probably the attendances at Valley Parade that constrained those at Park Avenue in the second half of the season. Certainly the Park Avenue gates were boosted by attractive fixtures and Avenue spent most of the season in the top five – finishing 3rd, just below the promotion places. Yet it was the Paraders who had traditionally been the better supported club and this was reflected in the fact that despite Avenue being in the division above City, the average gate at Park Avenue in 1928/29 was only 17,240.

What is remarkable is the extent to which Bradford football attendances improved during 1928/29 with the average at Valley Parade increasing by 52% from 12,180 and those at Park Avenue by 28% from 13,514 in 1927/28 – and these increases were without the benefit of a derby gate which had inflated the average in 1927/28. (NB Despite winning the championship in 1927/28, the Avenue gates had been only marginally higher than in 1926/27 when they were 10,507 whilst those of City had been 12,595.)

The Football League safeguarded gates by ensuring that there were no fixture clashes and (if it could be afforded) it was therefore possible for people to watch League football in Bradford every Saturday. Bradford Northern RFC did not enjoy the same fixture protection and attendances at Birch Lane suffered in 1928/29 as a consequence of the revitalisation of City and Avenue. Neither did it help that Northern had a particularly weak team such that Rugby League was a far less attractive entertainment option.

Football was an escape from a phenomenon that defined the era. There had been a persistently high level of unemployment in Bradford after World War One and after a brief respite during 1926-27, the number of jobless increased sharply from the beginning of 1928, virtually doubling during the next 18 months. What is notable is that the rise in football attendances was in parallel to this increase in unemployment and despite the fact that Bradford had become known as an unemployment blackspot. [2] In this context the attendances at Valley Parade and Park Avenue surely confirm that football was an important feelgood factor for the city.

1929 celebration menu detail

Shortly after the football season ended, on 22nd May, 1929 Valley Parade hosted the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin who held a rally at the ground the week before the General Election. It was a reminder of the traditional political sympathies of those in charge of the two Bradford football clubs. A reported crowd of ten thousand attended the event with Baldwin addressing those assembled from a platform in front of the old main stand. His efforts made little difference and all four Bradford constituencies as well as Shipley continued to elect Labour Party MPs, each with slightly higher majorities and a combined vote of 49% (compared to the Conservatives, 27% and the Liberals, 24%).

No more pudding

The success of Bradford City in record-breaking fashion in 1928/29 created unreasonable expectations, exemplified by a programme cover adopted during the first half of the 1929/30 campaign with a cartoon that claimed ‘Promotion is only a matter of time’. The manner in which Bradford Park Avenue had challenged at the top of Division Two in their first season back convinced City supporters that their club could do likewise, maybe even going one step further and regaining first division status. Why then was the championship season of 1928/29 not a springboard to further success and why was it that only eight years later, in 1937 Bradford City returned to the third tier, to remain a lower division club until 1985?

The answer was money and in my opinion the impact of the trade depression on Bradford football had less to do with attendances as opposed to the willingness or inability of local businessmen to commit significant funds to either of the two senior clubs. Indeed, the fact that unemployment continued to rise – such that by its peak in September, 1931 it was double what it had been two years’ before – confirmed the extent of the downturn in the textile market. In the context of a worsening trade outlook it would have taken a brave man to invest his wealth in Bradford football.

In 1929 O’Rourke delivered what had been asked of him but he would have known that further team strengthening was necessary to consolidate the club in the second division. So it proved and in the 1929/30 season Bradford City narrowly avoided relegation by a single point having struggled throughout.

The bulk of the first team was retained but with notable exceptions (in particular, Sam Barkas), the players who had won promotion were not the men to take the club much further as O’Rourke knew only too well. As for the brilliant Albert Whitehurst, he suffered injuries and could manage only 7 goals in 23 games in Division Two. He eventually left for Tranmere Rovers at the end of the 1930/31 season.

Without the assurance of major investment it would have been a daunting task to rebuild the team and this became the cause of tension between O’Rourke and certain of the Valley Parade directors. Peter O’Rourke was a man who was forthright with his views and probably used to getting his own way. No doubt there was also unease in the boardroom that he was too powerful, someone connected with the club for all but seven years since formation in 1903.

Politics at Valley Parade have typically revolved around money and the relationship between the team manager and the club’s directors. Disagreements over funding for new signings during the 1929/30 season evolved into a debate about extending Peter O’Rourke’s contract beyond the end of the season and that culminated in a boardroom split. In March, 1930 those directors who were supportive of O’Rourke – Messrs Sawyer, Hey and McDermott – resigned and it was no surprise that the manager handed in his notice of resignation in June, 1930. Ultimately it was the failure to invest in the team and build on the momentum of success in 1928/29 that would be the club’s downfall. The financial crisis in 1928 left a shadow over Bradford City AFC as it became distinctly risk-averse with succeeding directors pre-occupied with reducing debt rather than speculating.


[1] The story of the ‘City Rendezvous’, the now forlorn former Belle Vue Hotel at the top of Valley Parade is told here.

[2] In February, 1929 there were more people unemployed in Bradford than in any other Yorkshire town or city (including Sheffield and Hull) and more than twice that in Newcastle. To its credit, Bradford Corporation had introduced a number of work creation programmes dating back to 1922 and again in 1928 it responded to the problem with a number of imaginative as well as ambitious projects across the district.


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Links to other online articles about Bradford sport history 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


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.

Future articles are scheduled to feature local boxing, the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.


The Noble Art: A History of Bradford Boxing, Part One

by Ian Hemmens

From time immemorial, fighting as a contest has attracted interest be it dualling, fencing, wrestling or outright punch-ups. Men would challenge each other with a wager put aside for the victor. These contests of the ‘bare-knuckle’ variety were often brutal and would be fought until the loser could no longer carry on, many bouts lasting hundreds of rounds . These bouts around the early 18th century had little regulation for the welfare of the competitors. A fighter could become famous though by manipulating the press and attracting decent crowds by fighting a local hero in their back yard. There is evidence even of early ‘agents’ promoting certain fighters to enhance their earning power & reputations.

Bradford’s first boxer of note would probably be one John Leachman born in the town in 1815. At 6ft & 12 stones in weight, by the age of 17 he was already building a reputation beating Ned Batterson of Leeds in a contest lasting well over an hour for a purse of £5. Known locally as ‘Brassey’ after a more nationally well known earlier prize-fighter, his reputation continued to grow with several fights across the North & Midlands. 1835 saw a crowd rumoured to be around 12000 watch Leachman beat Irishman Jem Bailey on Baildon Moor for a £10 purse in a fight lasting 135 minutes. 1836 saw Leachman beat the acknowledged Yorkshire Champion Tom Scruton for a £20 purse and the Title.

Around the same time in Nottingham, a certain William Thompson known as ‘Bendigo’ began making moves in the sport which would culminate in him becoming a boxing immortal recognised as one of the early greats. Bendigo announced his arrival on the big time with the defeat of the much bigger & heavier English Champion Ben Caunt. ‘Brassey’ immediately challenged the Champion for a £50 prize but Bendigo ignored the challenge whilst building his reputation touring & giving exhibitions of the ‘Noble Art’. Brassey bided his time then renewed his challenge which was finally accepted. The fight took place near Doncaster at Stocks Moor. After 52 rounds, Bendigo was awarded the win after the fight was stopped with Brassey committing a foul punch to the Champs lower abdomen. Bendigo then lost the rematch with Caunt who in turn lost to ‘Deaf’ Burke. Bendigo then regained the Title beating Burke. Brassey continued to fight all comers but was marginalised from the ‘big time’. Not all areas were in favour of the the fight game and after a small riot after a bout in Salford, Brassey found himself imprisoned for 2 months for inciting the trouble. After his release he resumed and with Bendigo temporarily retired through a bad knee injury, Brassey took on Ben Caunt at Cambridge but the difference in weight & height took its toll in a brutal contest which saw Caunt victorious. Although never a quitter, the punishment was starting to take its toll and despite an offer from Bendigo for a rematch, it would never take place due to lack of backers who thought it a non contest. Sadly for Brassey he finally accepted the inevitable and retired. The years of punishment meant that he died aged only 30 years old when his 2 great rivals Bendigo & Ben Caunt were contesting the title for a 3rd time. Bradfords 1st real star of the fight games time had gone.

It was becoming a time of change. The brutality of some contests, the violence by large unruly crowds, a more educated & open acceptance of medicine & physiology led certain politicians & members of the constabulary to start to try & enforce more restrictions and rules on the sport. These would eventually culminate in the Queensberry Rules devised by the Marquis of Queensberry. They were fairly rudimentary at first but were gradually revised as medical opinion & comments from others involved were added to and adapted. For now though, steps were taken to almost outlaw & fully ban the sport completely by certain parties but this only drove the contests underground. Others of an entrepreneurial nature saw advantages in offering to hold contests in the Theatres & Music Halls as a way of bringing in extra revenue. A major venue in Bradford was the Jollity Vaudeville Theatre on Canal Road, a building later demolished to make way for the Empire Stores Building. Wrestling bouts also proved highly popular at the Jollity & along with the Star Music Hall on Manchester Road, these were the main venues for the sport in Bradford. The Jollity was the venue for the next Bradford hero, Paddy Mahoney. Although born in Liverpool, he arrived in Bradford as a youngster. The family settled along with thousands of other Irish immigrants in the Broomfield area, now gone but situated near the bottom of Wakefield Road until lost in the slum clearances of 1935. A veritable melting pot for boxing, as well as Mahoney & the Atkinson Brothers, The famous ‘Fighting Delaneys’ also came out of Broomfield but more of them later.

Mahoney was boxing at the Jollity as a 16 year old in 1893 beating Johnny McGowan. By now, the bouts were in a ring and gloved, more recognisable to modern day fight fans. Paddy was game for taking on all comers and eventually found himself as British Champion Bantamweight beating Tom Turner of London comfortably on points to become Bradford’s first ‘Gloved’ Champion. Paddy decided to cash in on his fame, taking over the ‘Ashley’ Hotel on Manchester Road & then embarking on a visit to Ireland & the United States to show his skills. After his return, Paddy retired and went into the promotional side. His mantle was taken by Harry Clarkson but Paddy’s Son Jimmy followed his Father into the game and after a short career became a well respected Referee.

The Atkinson Brothers also began as ‘curtain raisers’ at the Jollity, 2 more Broomfield boys who, whilst not reaching the heights of Paddy Mahoney were regulars on the Northern circuit right up to and just after WW1 when age and ill health finally caught up with them.

Several other personalities of Bradford interest made the pre-WW1 boxing scene in Bradford vibrant. Unfortunately, the authorities were also making it hard for the sport to grow & thrive. Tommy Cullen was another of Irish origin who had arrived in Bradford as a youngster. Around the time of crossover from Bare-knuckle to Glove, Tommy made his reputation in local halls graduating up the ladder with sponsorship from local dignitaries with an eye for favourable publicity. After winning a tight contest on Doncaster Racecourse, he was entered in a National event at Aldershot where bouts of all weights took place. Tommy fought his way through to the final and achieved victory. The highpoint of his career. Sadly, he was unable to build on his blossoming rise when he fell from scaffolding whilst working and was left in a wheelchair for the rest of his life although he continued in the sport by putting on promotions & becoming a judge. Seth Rouse was a well known all round sportsman in Bradford around the 1890s. Boxing, running, swimming, arrow throwing, he was game for any contest where a wager was present. He appeared around the district at venues as differing as Greenfield, Harold Park , Old Red Gin Fields & the ‘Carlisle Road Carpet Beating Rooms’! A born entertainer, he could draw huge crowds and was a more than decent boxer. Dick Burge, originally from Newcastle but Bradford based had an excellent record and at his peak he was alleged to be close to a match up with the legend Jack Dempsey who was touring Britain with Jim Corbett but the much anticipated bout never took place.

From 1912, the boom in the sport, driven by the likes of the first black World Champion Jack Johnson. Crowds in Bradford flocked to St Georges Hall to watch cine-film of the Champ in action with many by todays standards, politically uncorrect voices bellowing out of the audience towards Johnson. He, of course , played up to the part of pantomime villain and despite his proficiency was known to tour with several ‘minders’. Johnson was booked to appear in exhibition contests in 1911 at the Palace Theatre to packed houses but illness robbed the Bradford public of the chance to see the sports biggest star in the flesh. At the same time, opposition to the sport was growing even up to the level of Home Secretary who in 1911 refused to grant licenses for johnson to fight the British Champion ‘Bombardier Billy Wells’. Several members of the clergy, the Lord Mayor 7 Chief Constable of Bradford were among the signatories of a petition to ban the sport. The reasons given were the delicate nature of race relations, the possible brutality on show to theatre crowds and if read between the lines, the lack of understanding a black champion defeating a bona-fide English hero would create amongst the general public. It was thought Britain wasn’t quite reading for such things so soon after various colonial episodes such as the Boer War.

The Chief Constable, a Mr Farndale in 1912 said no further licences would be granted for the City for Professional bouts but exhibitions were permitted if policed properly. The embargo lasted for 2 years by which time, Bradford families had produced 2 sets of Brothers destined for great things in the sport.


Brothers in arms

As mentioned earlier, the Broomfields area was a veritable melting pot for Boxers with the Delaney family leading the way. Also prominent was the Blakeborough family. Of the several Brothers, nearly all decent level, Fred Delaney & his younger sibling Jerry Delaney were the best, indeed, Jerry was tipped to reach the very top such was his progress until his tragic end. All the top experts & followers of the sport were excited by the Bradford youngsters progress.

Will Blakeborough

Fred Blakeborough (pictured below) and his Brother Will (pictured right) started their rise just when the local bans began to hit the sport locally. Will moved up to the North East to continue his career whilst Fred, after a promising start at the Bradford Sporting Club at Thornbury, later the Talk of Yorkshire Nightclub. Will’s career was short & somewhat in the shadow of his sibling. Some momentous wins over the Irish Bantamweight Billy Deane & Joby Jordan of Sheffield who had drawn with Jerry Delaney saw Will Blakeborough’s stock rising. A further fight in France against local man Clement proved to be his swansong as he fell to a greater foe when he was killed in action in 1915 aged only 22 whilst serving with the Bradford Pals.

Fred Blakeborough

Fred moved his operations to Manchester where he soon caught the eye with several exciting wins at the Free Trade Hall against some of Lancashires finest. Wins against former rated fighters Marchant, Gordon & McGuinness saw Fred offered a non title bout against the British Champion Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis in Leeds in January of 1914. The bout was cancelled due to a series of strikes in the City but months later in a final eliminator against ‘Seaman’ Hayes, Fred was leading massively on points when Hayes caught him with a lucky punch and took the victory.

By now in 1915, a much bigger conflict was taking place on the fields of France & Flanders. Fred became a PT Instructor at the Catterick Garrison. Continuing to Box, he won several bouts but possibly distracted by the untimely death of his Brother Will, he became very inconsistent losing fights he would normally have won easily. His style was a move & jab rather than a brawler but he lost a couple of big eliminators by trying to mix it with fighters. He met his match against the classy Welshman Llew Edwards and was beaten in 10.

Fred’s next appearance was then in 1919 when he showed his old class against former Champ & Lonsdale Belt holder Billy Benyon but it proved to be his swansong. Admitting he was struggling to make weight, he decided to move into promoting and even later became a renowned Referee. In later years he became a Councillor for the Bradford Moor Ward in the 1950s before his death aged 74 in 1968. The Blakeborough Brothers were popular in Bradford Boxing circles but another family took the sport to new levels in Bradford, the Fighting Delaneys.

Before we tell their story, a novel episode took place with public schoolboy & Son of a local mill owner George Mitchell whose 1st love was actually wrestling announced he would offer the then colossal sum of £200 to fight the World renowned Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Georges Carpentier in Paris. Carpentier had battered Britains best Bombardier Billy Wells & Ted Kid Lewis both within a round and had even fought the ‘Manassa Mauler’ Jack Dempsey for the World Heavyweight Title before gamely losing. It was rumoured that Mitchell had backed himself heavily to survive longer than his compatriots and despite taking a horrific beating in the fight which took place in August 1914, he actually lasted longer than his more renowned countrymen showing great courage if not skill against one of the Worlds top Boxers. The George Mitchell story has a sad ending though when he too was killed in action in 1915 serving with the Public School Battalion.

The Family Delaney

Coming out of the Broomfields area were Bradford’s most prolific boxing family, the Delaneys who over a period of time provide 6 Sons to the sport. William Delaney had arrived in Bradford from Tipperary in the 1870s like many thousands of others seeking work & settled in the predominantly Irish Broomfields area marrying Catherine Durkin and producing 13 children. The second eldest Son Jack was the trailblazer for the family fighting out of a gym on Lee Street off Thornton Road but younger siblings Billy, who for the reason being there was already a fighter by that name, was known as Fred & Jerry were to become nationally known. The was also Frank & Young Fred carrying on the family tradition over a 30 year span which even continued after that with Tommy Madden, a nephew of the Brothers. Under the tutelage of Jim Driscoll at Lee Street, Fred Delaney polished his act learned in streetfighting & boxing booths at fairgrounds although it was acknowledged that his achilles heel was his short, fiery temper which he never managed to control. The main man who managed to thwart Fred’s progress 3 times in the ring was Middlesbrough born Johnnie Summers who knew exactly how to work Fred in the ring and became a British Champion at 2 different weights.

Fred Delaney

Fred (pictured) had moved to Wales following Driscoll who believed in his talent but could not curb his weakness. This weakness always guaranteed a good entertaining fight and Fred was popular in Wales with fight fans.

Returning to Bradford in 1910, Fred took on Manningham based Alf Wood at the Belle Vue Barracks but arguments over the purse delayed the fight and the sell out crowd began to grow restless, the Broomfield brigade supporting their man & Wood’s followers likewise. What could have turned out serious was quelled when the promoter offered to up the purse and calm was restored. The fight went ahead with Fred eventually finishing off Wood in the 15th saving him further punishment.

For the next fight at the Barracks, Fred was top of the bill against Welshman Albert Smith and won a hard fought bout on points. A sign of things to come saw younger Brother Jerry on the undercard for the first time and he totally outclassed Young Wilkinson of Brighouse in the 1st round.

The Brothers began training & sparring together in rooms on Walton Street and onlookers would vouch to the intensity of the Brothers when sparring with each other , no quarter given or asked.

Boxing news Jerry Delaney

Jerry’s first big fight came in 1911 against the other local star Fred Blakeborough at the Coliseum Ice Rink on Toller Lane. Fred was in the corner for his Brother & in his enthusiasm during a hard fought points win, Fred was warned by the Referee as to his behaviour but Jerry got the verdict.

As the Bans on Boxing in Bradford closed the sport down for a period pre WW1, the Brothers had to move elsewhere and at various times were based in the North East, London & even on sponsored tours to the United States & Australia. Fred had big wins in Blackfriars against Wally Pickard & American Kid Davis who had a long unbeaten run in his career till meeting the Broomfield lad. Next came a trip ‘over the pond’ and the long crossing proved debilitating to Fred who wasn’t a good traveller at all & spent most of his time in the US laid up by the effects of the ‘mal-de-mer’!.

After a while and despite receiving favourable press, the Brothers returned home but Fred once again decamped to Wales where a 2 bout scrap with Welsh star Fred Dyer saw him beaten but win the return on a handsome points decision. Dyer had been a Lonsdale Belt holder & was hugely respected in the game. Various eliminators followed and Promoter Joe Jagger wanted to match Fred with the legendary Freddie Welsh for the lightweight championship & Lonsdale Belt. With Jimmy Driscoll & the famous ‘Mighty Atom’ Jimmy Wilde, Freddie Welsh was amongst the greatest of fighters from Wales over his career of 168 contests had seen him achieve title at British , European & finally the World Lightweight title unbeaten between 1914-1917. While the bout was being organised and money for the purse being gathered, Fred’s title hopes were dealt a massive blow when he was knocked out in 5 rounds by Sapper O’Neill in Liverpool in a warm up bout. 1914 saw a win & another defeat as his career wobbled and the title chance become slimmer.

In the meantime after wowing fight fans at the National Sporting Club in London, Jerry was linked with a fight for the World Title if the American Champion could be enticed over here but there was an ‘elephant in the room’. War was declared and all of a sudden, all normalities of life were cast aside as young men signed up with patriotic fervour for the killing fields of France & Flanders and eventually many points beyond was the carnage engulfed the World.

Jerry Delaney 2

Jerry (pictured) had worked his way up the rankings to be the top contender when the call to arms came. In the meantime, Fred had followed Freddie Welsh over to the States to try and get the title fight on and despite sparring sessions, the fight never took place as events elsewhere took over. Fred left for Australia in 1916 after a couple of return bouts against journeymen fighters. Seeing his Brothers called up for active duty, Fred saw no reason to put the family under further duress and was old enough to escape the first draft. To his credit he wasn’t escaping and did eventually join the Australian Army and was gassed & wounded at Vimy Ridge. He did survive though and by now in his mid 30s, he tried to renew his boxing career but was never the same & never regained his previous form as feared & respected fighter in the game.

As Fred’s career drew to a close he became a Trainer & cornerman for his younger sibling ,the ‘real’ Fred who was known as ‘Young Fred’. Based at the Walton Street gym near to the family home in Broomfields. With the Belle Vue Barracks obviously out of consideration during the Great War, plans were in place to use the ‘Kursaal’ Hall up Morley Street. This venue was later renamed the Windsor Hall & Baths as the name ‘Kursaal’ was deemed to Germanic.

After Fred’s problems trying to get the fight with Freddie Welsh, it was Jerry’s rapid rise up the rankings which saw him matched with Welsh for a possible title fight but Welsh made several excuses for not returning to defend his title from America against Bradford’s finest. To be fair some were legitimate, with the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic a major deterrent to Cross- Atlantic travel. Jerry was a far more gifted boxer than Brother Fred who was a scrapper & mauler showing his streetfighting rots. Jerry was far more scientific in the ring using his speed and agility to jab & move away from trouble and use this to pick off opponents and wear them down. His stock was rising with every bout and eventually he became the darling of the London crowds at the National Sporting Club. Every expert & journalist involved in the sport anticipated greatness for the Broomfield Boy who seemed to have an answer to every style of opponent put before him.

As with the patriotic fervour of the time, Jerry volunteered immediately to do his duty in 1914 enlisting in the Sportsmans Battalion. 4 other Delaney Brothers also enlisted in the Army also doing their duty. During training and before he was drafted to France, he continued to fight at the Sporting Club in Exhibition fights as the ‘Fighting Private’ . After his call to the Front line, his duties also included being a PT Instructor for the Battalion and included a promotion to Lance Corporal. After a dawn raid on a German machine gun nest, Jerry led a team back to his own lines and carried a wounded comrade back to safety depite taking 2 bullets himsel, one to the leg & one to the abdomen. His bravery saw him awarded the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal). News of his gallantry reached Bradford & several promoters & fans put together a benefit for Jerry, amongst the attractions, local rival Fred Blakeborough who came from Catterick where he was a PT Instructor.

After treatment for his wounds, Jerry was offered a posting as a PT Instructor back in Britain but as soldier with experience of the camaraderie of the trenches, he refused it to stay with his fellow comrades in France. A few months later in another bombing raid at Delville Wood on the Somme Offensive, Jerry Delaney, the Pride of Broomfields was tragically cut down. The sport was already reeling after losing middleweight Champ Tommy McCormick some weeks earlier & Jerry’s death was further body blow. He was so well thought of, although he never won a title, such was his promise & reputation, ‘Boxing’ paper had his tribute on the front cover & despite being buried in France, Lord Lonsdale paid for a tribute to be placed in Bowling Cemetery in his home town.

The younger Delaney’s Joe & Young Fred had better than average careers at the Regional level never reaching the heights of Jerry or old Fred. A fallow period followed for Bradford boxing ending for several years in 1924 with the Syd Pape versus Ted Kid Lewis title fight at the Windor Halls being so brutal, the local magistrates refused for several years to give boxing any sort of license within the City boundaries.

Fred Delaney got a job with the Bradford & District Newspapers where he remained and continued to live in West Bowling until his death after a long illness in 1949 aged 64. It was truly the end of an era for Bradford Boxing where local lads had reached for the top and in the case of Jerry Delaney, almost touched it. The tragedy of his loss was felt for many years by the Bradford sporting public who had seen their local hero snatched from their grasp on the cusp of greatness.

Part TWO to follow on VINCIT later this year

  • Thanks to Bradford Libraries
  • Boxing in Bradford & Leeds by Ronnie Wharton
  • Internet Sources on Bareknuckle Boxing

Ian Hemmens is on twitter:     @IHemmens


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.

Future articles are scheduled to feature boxing, cycling, football, the forgotten sports grounds of Bradford, the politics of Bradford sport and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

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A Game fit for Heroes: The revival of Bradford Rugby, 1919

The Centenary of the Bradford Rugby Revival

This month marks the centenary of the opening of the Scholemoor ground in Lidget Green in March, 1919 and the revival of a Bradford Rugby Union club as successor to the former (amateur) Bradford FC.

During the first decade of the twentieth century there were frustrated attempts to revive Rugby Union in the Bradford district, principally through the Bradford Wanderers and Horton clubs [1] and in 1907 there had been hopes of restoring the amateur code to Park Avenue. Those efforts reflected an underlying dissatisfaction among traditional rugby followers that the Northern Union had proved lacking and was a poor alternative to the traditional code. The criticisms of the professional game were various, foremost of which was a distaste for how rugby had become commercialised that critics believed was to the detriment of the game itself.Going back to the immediate aftermath of the so-called ‘Great Split’ in 1895, the breakaway rebels had alienated followers of the junior sides who blamed the Northern Union for the financial difficulties of their clubs. [2] By the end of the nineteenth century most had succumbed to insolvency and it remained a grudge against the Northern Union that the juniors had disappeared. To be fair, most of those clubs were financially vulnerable well before the Northern Union came about but the rupture in 1895 made survival a more difficult task. [3]

The rule changes of the Northern Union including the introduction of thirteen aside in 1906 had also alienated rugby fans. In Bradford, and at Park Avenue in particular, much of the antipathy towards the Northern Union had arisen from the fact that whereas prior to 1895 Bradford FC had enjoyed a prestigious fixture card with games against the leading sides of Scotland, Wales and southern England, within the Northern Union there was much less variety or glamour.

As I highlight in LIFE AT THE TOP [4], the tension between the professional and amateur variants of the game was not entirely a matter of class antagonism. Indeed, the experience in Bradford suggests that class identity and mockery of social mores did not become a part of the rivalry between the two codes until around 1905. This phenomenon had much to do with the Northern Union losing its appeal to the public who opted instead for association football and locally, the launch of Bradford City AFC at Valley Parade in 1903 had prompted the desertion of spectators from Park Avenue. In response, the Northern Union sought to promote itself as the peoples’ game. Whilst this made little impact on the popularity of the Northern Union in relation to soccer, it served to differentiate the Northern Union from the Rugby Union in so far as by 1905 the latter game had become a distinctly middle class pursuit. Indeed, whereas many of the junior clubs in the Bradford district who had continued to play Rugby Union after 1895 could be described as working class in their composition, after their disappearance by the end of that decade, Rugby Union in Yorkshire was played almost exclusively by public schools (ie Bradford Grammar School and Woodhouse Grove) and their alumni. However to suggest that after 1895 working class people in Bradford had no affection for traditional rugby – played according to Rugby Union rules – is misleading.

horton 1911-12 named

Prior to World War One, the efforts to sustain a vibrant Rugby Union club in Bradford had floundered on two fundamental issues. The first was the lack of a centrally located ground. The second was the difficulty recruiting new players given that the game did not have the catchment of many young players in the district unlike for example during the 1880s. The issue of where Rugby Union was played was another factor in this in so far as a central ground would have made it more convenient to attract potential recruits. Not surprisingly, those efforts to revive Rugby Union in Bradford prior to World War One made little headway. Ironically, land for a new ground at Lidget Green overlooking the Scholemoor cemetery had been secured in May, 1914 but the outbreak of hostilities three months’ later meant that plans for its development were put on hold. Horton RUFC, the leading side in the district that would have played at the ground, quite possibly relaunching itself as ‘Bradford’.

A new enthusiasm for Rugby Union

By the end of the war the circumstances were better suited to reviving a Bradford Rugby Union club as a successor to the original Bradford FC that had played at Park Avenue. Although the war may have helped reconnect men with Rugby Union (as the game of choice in the armed services), the change in attitude was probably more to do with idealised notions of what the peace should bring and of how sport might contribute to building a brave new world. During 1917 and 1918, editorials in the Yorkshire Sports were already giving thought to peacetime sport. Boxing for example was identified as likely to be popular, presumably because participation had been encouraged in the army [5]. Rugby Union football had similarly been promoted by the armed services and rugby historian Tony Collins has explained how World War One raised the prestige of Rugby Union as the winter sport of the military. [6]

The high casualty rates among rugby players had raised the prestige of the sport. Indeed, Horton RUFC was probably the worst affected of all Bradford sports clubs by the conflict and it was claimed that as many as 15 of the 59 members were killed in World War One and a further 20 had been wounded. This sacrifice further encouraged the efforts to revive Rugby Union in the city and it was considered a gesture of appreciation to the fighting men to endow Bradford with a rugby club to provide the opportunity for future comradeship, recreation and glory. Whilst these were lofty ideals there was a public mood to aspire to something noble that helped reconcile minds to the sacrifice of armed conflict being worthwhile. It was not only in Bradford and as soon as peace was declared came news of Rugby Union clubs being revived, among them Bristol and Leicester announcing plans within days of the Armistice.

The Lidget Green site had been waste land but work began in 1918 to drain and level. The Yorkshire Post of 20th January, 1919 reported that the pitch was ‘on a broad plateau overlooking the Thornton Valley with a beautiful and bracing situation’! The terracing was based on ash banks. A total of £3,000 had been spent on the ground with ‘requisite funds forthcoming from gentlemen in Bradford who feel the necessity for encouraging amateur sport in the city and the neighbourhood.’ It was noted that ‘there had been no appeal for funds, such was not desired, nor was it necessary.’ [7]

Bradford derived a fillip from the new ground being selected as a venue for games in the King’s Cup tournament that was staged in March, 1919 between military sides representing the white Dominions of the British Empire – Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand as well as representatives of the ‘Mother Country’ and the RAF . The competition has been described as rugby’s first ‘World Cup’ whereas it was promoted to bolster imperial unity and excluded non-Empire sides, the most obvious of which being France. Bradford was the only northern venue for the King’s Cup [8} which was quite a coup and this provided the impulse to attract recruits for a new Bradford Rugby Union club that became known simply as ‘Bradford Rugby’.

In Bradford there was a particular affinity with Rugby Union dating back 35 years to when Bradford established for itself a reputation as a rugby hotspot, not due simply to the achievements of Bradford FC or latterly Manningham FC, but the fact that the game was well-established with a strong football culture in the town. For instance there had been a multitude of clubs at junior and local level considered to be of decent standard. Journalists from other towns frequently remarked on the enthusiasm for the game in Bradford. Rugby football had played a big role in defining a Bradford identity and the players of Bradford FC who won the Yorkshire Cup in 1884 had achieved celebrity status. Of the two rival clubs, Bradford FC had by far a more glamorous reputation than Manningham FC. Bradford FC, based at the prestigious Park Avenue ground was considered the town club and its success winning the Yorkshire Challenge Cup in 1884 was the catalyst for prominence on a national stage. Inevitably there were fond memories of the good times when Bradford had commanded such attention.

Fred Bonsor - Rawson Robertshaw - Edgar Wilkinson - Laurie Hickson 1896-97

The legend of Bradford’s rugby history was a source of pride, a reminder of the city’s former greatness and it is not surprising then that nostalgia for those glory years should have had emotional appeal amidst the trauma of war. Prior to the outbreak of the conflict in 1914 there had been a mood of self-confidence in the city that was enjoying a period of economic prosperity and cultural vitality. In other words the rekindling of enthusiasm for Rugby Union and talk of a revived club in Bradford was aligned with the mood of the time to build for the future and restore what had previously been lost.

Reactions to the Rugby Union revival

In all likelihood the nostalgia for amateur rugby was greatest among those in late middle age with misty-eyed recollections of their youth. It seems unlikely to have been shared equally by former partisan Manningham FC members who had long since reconciled themselves to soccer. Their own club had been transformed into one of the leading sides in the Football League, FA Cup winners in 1911 and members of Division One since 1908. Rugby Union (and rugby in general) was viewed as irrelevant and City supporters would have been indifferent to the code’s revival.

Bradford City AFC was by now well-established and thoughts for the future were firmly about carrying on from where things had been left. A good number of the Valley Parade heroes from those heady days were still part of the club and in 1919/20 for instance, eight players who had represented City in the last regular season, 1914/15 provided the nucleus of the first team. Conspicuous by his absence however was Bob Torrance, who had made been killed in action near Ypres in April, 1918. For all involved with the club it must have been a difficult experience but presumably one that encouraged a close bond between players and supporters.

Although supporters of Bradford Park Avenue would have been similarly dismissive about rugby, the leadership of the club was nonetheless sensitive about the revival of a Bradford Rugby Union club. The ‘Great Betrayal’ of 1907 had been controversial and divisive in equal measure as well as fresh in the memory. Park Avenue remained the de facto spiritual home of Bradford sport and Bradford Park Avenue AFC still had ambitions of establishing itself as the senior association club in the city (and by virtue of having finished above Bradford City in the last peacetime season of the Football League it was not an unrealistic objective).

The relative status of football clubs in Bradford had been an emotive topic going back to the original rivalry of Manningham FC and Bradford FC. What Bradford Park Avenue AFC did not want was a resurgent Bradford Rugby club laying claim to inheriting the mantle as natural successors to Bradford FC and usurping its own pretensions, let alone laying claim to Park Avenue as potential tenants. Such was the insecurity at Bradford Park Avenue AFC that the proximity of Bradford Rugby’s Scholemoor ground at Lidget Green to Park Avenue (less than a mile) was also viewed as a threat to its gates. In the Yorkshire Evening Post of 15th March, 1919 Harry Briggs was anxious to dismiss the suggestion that his club was antagonistic to the new venture and offered the use of Park Avenue to the new Bradford Rugby club should it be necessary.

As for Bradford Northern RFC, ever since formation in 1907 (after the ‘Great Betrayal’ at Park Avenue when rugby was abandoned in favour of soccer) the club had struggled to remain a viable entity and during the war there was even talk of disbanding. It had been kept alive through the efforts of its members and directors whose attitude towards Rugby Union could be described as cynical and suspicious if not hostile. Noteworthy is that the Bradford Northern club of the time had much in common with the original Bradford FC when it had been in its prime given that the majority of its players were of local origin. There was the suggestion among Northern Union followers that a new Bradford Rugby Union club would be a positive development in that it might be a source of new talent and the recruitment of players. Despite the bravado, a new rugby club in the city would have constituted a threat to Bradford Northern. Considered one of the weaker sides, Bradford Northern had been perennial strugglers in the Northern Union since formation and the chances of the club providing displays of exhibition rugby were remote. Thus Bradford Northern was vulnerable to the emergence of a decent Bradford Rugby Union club that would make it even more reliant on its partisan followers and the Birch Lane club was less likely to attract those floating spectators who were now offered another option for Saturday afternoon winter entertainment.

What enthusiasts of each of the football codes – Association, Rugby Union and Northern Union – had in common after the hardship of war was a desire to get back to normal. Nothing epitomised that better than the opportunity to watch their favourite game. Thus 1919 and the resumption of peacetime competition was a fresh start for all and the 1919/20 season was one of the most eagerly anticipated by each Bradford club. Other peacetime recreational habits were revived included the reintroduction of trotting races at Greenfield, Dudley Hill in March, 1919 after a break of two years.

Hickson’s Leadership

What is important to understand is that the original ascendancy of Bradford FC had been a very local affair. The heroes of the 1884 team were mostly Bradford men who continued to live in the area. The role of Laurie Hickson, President of the Yorkshire RFU in the revival of the amateur game in Bradford is deserving of particular mention and it was his status within the RFU hierarchy that would have secured Bradford’s involvement in the prestigious King’s Cup tournament. (To my knowledge it is the only time that a Bradford sports ground has hosted ties in an international tournament involving national representatives.)

Hickson had signed for Bradford FC from Bingley FC in 1882 at the age of 21. During a ten year career he was a member of the club’s 1884 Yorkshire Cup winning side and was selected 6 times for England between 1887-90, once as captain. During this time he participated in the club’s high profile tours and fixtures at Park Avenue against leading sides from England, Scotland and Wales. In 1890 he was made a founder member of the Barbarians having been present at the dinner in Bradford at which the touring club was conceived.

After retirement as a player he remained closely involved with affairs at Park Avenue, elected to the leadership committee. However he did not sever his connections in 1895 when Bradford FC seceded from the Rugby Union and remained a member of the powerful Finance & Property Committee of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club from its creation in 1892. He likewise remained a Vice President of the club until 1907 when in that same year he argued passionately for a return to Rugby Union at Park Avenue. At one stage it seemed that he might be successful but his campaigning made him subject to ridicule and critics argued against him that Rugby Union could never be made to pay if the code was restored. In 1919 this would have made him all the more determined to prove otherwise that the amateur game could be re-established at a senior level in Bradford and Hickson would have realised that he would never have a better chance to do so.

Hickson (pictured, left above) provided the figurehead, fronting a leadership group that included other former members of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club, among them Edward Airey, a former treasurer and committee man (pictured, right) as well as Herbert Robertshaw, a former teammate (pictured, middle). All three were also respected industrialists in Bradford. Hickson and Robertshaw’s involvement personified the golden era of Bradford rugby and its traditions. Crucially they were men capable of delivering the project in a manner that the 1884 team captain, Fred Bonsor could not. Prior to 1907 Bonsor had frequently been the champion of Rugby Union in the Bradford /Leeds press. However he did so in a manner that discredited his cause through unrestrained criticism of the Northern Union and repetitive talk of the good old days that must surely have been considered tiresome. By contrast Hickson was able to articulate a vision for the revival of Rugby Union in Bradford. Besides, in 1908 Bonsor had returned once again to Canada to make his fortune as a farmer on the prairies such that he could not embarrass the Bradford Rugby Union promoters. Admittedly Hickson’s vision for Rugby Union was heavily idealised and derived its succour from mythical content. Yet whilst we can be cynical, people were genuinely receptive to the notion of rediscovering the past and deriving comfort from a period that was fondly remembered. At a time of considerable trauma after the circumstances of war it was hardly surprising that there should be such an impulse.

The cult of athleticism in the nineteenth century had fostered notions of how sport benefited participants through healthy and purposeful recreation. It was also considered an expression of civic patriotism and all of this was at the heart of Hickson’s vision. Equally Hickson was against the corruption of sport through commercial interest and pursuit of the profit motive. (Instead, the traditional belief was that any monetary operating surplus should be contributed towards charity.) His championing of amateur Rugby Union was likewise a rejection of professionalism as well as gambling. Not only did this distinguish Rugby Union from the Northern Union code but also in relation to professional (association) football. Of course sport had been encouraged as a means of physical well-meaning with patriotic benefit for the defence of hearth and home through armed service. For Hickson, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the volunteer territorials who had lost a son in the war, this was another theme that had resonance.

Hickson was a prominent Conservative in Bradford but it would be wrong to suggest that enthusiasm for Rugby Union in Bradford was monopolised by Tories despite its imperial associations. An illustration of this was provided by the example of Alderman Joseph Hayhurst, installed as Bradford’s first Labour Lord Mayor on 9th November, 1918 only two days before the end of war. By background Hayhurst was General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Dyers and he confessed a love of Rugby Union from having followed Bradford FC and Manningham FC in his youth. As Lord Mayor he was called upon to be the civic dignitary at the opening of the Scholemoor ground in March, 1919 and did not spare effusive comments about the game. Sadly Hayhurst died in office only three months later on 13th June.

During the summer of 1919 Hickson also had a lead role in the efforts to revive Bradford cricket. In 1915 Bradford Cricket Club had been wound up and by the end of the war its ground at Park Avenue was in need of major repair. Hickson became involved in discussions with Harry Briggs to buy the freehold and as with the Scholemoor initiative, Hickson became a trustee in the eventual purchase in 1920. Although the new Bradford RFC and revived Bradford Cricket Club had common support they remained independent entities and there was no suggestion of re-establishing the merged organisation that had been formed at Park Avenue in 1880 and which existed until 1907. With regards Bradford cricket, there was an uncanny resemblance to the efforts of Bob Appleyard and his ‘Friends of Park Avenue’ campaign in 1986 with Hickson similarly acting to safeguard the ground as a cricket venue in 1919. On his death in August, 1920 Hickson was rightly acclaimed for his contribution to the sporting life of Bradford and his various efforts should be remembered for having played a big part in the recovery of the city from war and the transition to peace. Three of his sons – Lawrie, Stanley and Fred – subsequently played for Bradford Rugby.

Ground opening

The opening game for the Scholemoor ground at Dracup Avenue, Lidget Green was on 8th March, 1919 for a challenge match between representative teams of Yorkshire and New Zealand, the latter ‘All Blacks’ comprising members of the New Zealand military. The Yorkshire Evening Post of 7th March had reported that ‘the Colonials visit marks the commencement of a new era in Bradford, or rather the revival of an old, for the real Rugby game is to be given a fresh start‘. It was a prestige fixture, all the more remarkable for the fact that on the same day New Zealand were due to play Canada at Portsmouth in the King’s Cup and yet they fielded the strongest side in Bradford.

The Lord Mayor, Alderman Joseph Hayhurst conducted a brief ceremony (at which the Lord Mayor of Leeds was also present) before the game and celebrations continued after the match in a style reminiscent of the original Bradford club, involving dinner at the Talbot Hotel followed by a smoking concert. Laurie Hickson proclaimed that the ground had been opened with the sole objective of catering for amateurs but that the club was not to be run with the intention of making a profit. The Lord Mayor’s language was entirely consistent with that of Hickson, adding that ‘the old Bradford club had bred real men, and in the days to come he hoped equally thrilling stories would be told about the true sporting ways of the present day amateurs’ adding ‘there will be no squaring of matches here. Bookies will not be known.’ He said that he was reminded of the 1881-90 era, the ‘great days of the old Bradford Club… in those days they were all hero worshippers, and used to pay homage to such names as Bonsor, the brothers Robertshaw, Ritchie and Hickson.’

It represented a yearning for a sporting idyll, free from the corruption of money-making or gambling. In his speech Alderman Hayhurst declared that ‘the ground would be used for the development of physique and pure sport and spectators could be sure of the best team winning. The public would find pure relaxation.’ It was as if the clock could be turned back before rugby had become commercialised.

BRFC Myers

However if ever there was a mythical golden era of sportsmanship in Bradford rugby it would have been the first half of the 1870s before Hickson and Robertshaw had played for Bradford FC. Instead, local nostalgia was focused on a supposed golden era in the following decade when Hickson had coincidentally been in his prime. This overlooked the fact that the game had rapidly become commercialised in the 1880s and by the middle of that decade traditional ideals were increasingly only being paid lip service. Indeed there were emergent contradictions, the most obvious of which was that lease commitments pushed clubs towards commercialisation. In turn the commitment to charitable giving was sacrificed to the obligation to repayment of monies borrowed to develop grounds. However what older generations of Bradfordians recalled was that the 1880s had been a decade in which Bradford FC had been known as one of the top sides in Great Britain. That above all else ensured that memories of the era would be cherished.

LG Apr-19 1

It was incidental that the Yorkshire side was heavily defeated 5-44 in the contest with the New Zealanders. What was more significant was that the game attracted a crowd of 10,000, confirming local interest in the revival of rugby traditions in Bradford. It was reported that there was a reunion of old supporters from the days of rugby pre-1907 at Park Avenue (which must have been similar to the reunion of former followers of the original (1908-74) Bradford Park Avenue AFC when it reformed in 1988).

The gate receipts of £355 were said to have been the highest for a rugby match in the city since 1906. Inevitably it raised hopes among advocates of Rugby Union that their code would usurp the rival variant in Bradford. Praise was also given to the Lidget Green ground and whilst it did not have the grandeur of Park Avenue, it would have compared favourably with Birch Lane, home of Bradford Northern. The directors of the latter must have looked on with jealousy, regretting that their own club was not similarly blessed.

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A fortnight later, on 22nd March the planned game between the Australia and New Zealand military teams at Lidget Green was postponed on account of snowfall and it was eventually played on 12th April (a 6-5 victory by Australia) in front of a crowd reported to be ‘six to eight thousand’ in size. It was a shock defeat but on 16th April, New Zealand defeated the Mother Country to win the King’s Cup at Twickenham. [9]

NZ v Aus Bradford

Fullback, Captain Bruce ‘Jackie’ Beith is tackled in the match between Australia and New Zealand at Bradford on 9th April, 1919. Identified: 1. A. Wilson, New Zealand (NZ); 2. Referee Mr Yeadon; 3. Private A. Singe, NZ forward; 4. Captain Bruce ‘Jackie’ Beith; 5. unidentified NZ forward; 6. Sergeant Joseph Murray; 7. Corporal Vivian ‘Viv’ Dunn; 8. R. Sellars, NZ; 9. unidentified NZ, obscured; 10. Lieutenant Horace ‘Dick’ Pountney; 11. Lieutenant Ernest ‘Bill’ Cody; 12. Ernest ‘Moke’ Belliss, NZ. (Thanks to Phil Atkinson for the photo.)

Bradford Rugby Club played its first game on 29th March against a scratch team selected by the Yorkshire Rugby Union secretary, RF Oates in which the home side succumbed to a 8-24 defeat.

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The new Bradford club drew upon the nucleus of the former Horton RUFC albeit whose membership had been depleted in the war. The star player was Eddie Myers, a Bradford man who had previously played for Headingley and who won the first of 18 England caps as a Bradford player in 1920. The launch of Bradford RUFC in 1919 encouraged interest in Rugby Union and it is no coincidence that another longstanding club in the district, Bradford Salem RUFC was formed shortly afterwards in 1924. Bingley RUFC was similarly revived in 1922. [10]

1923-04-23 t'owd tin pot

In 1923 Bradford RUFC emulated Bradford FC’s achievement in 1884 by winning the Yorkshire Challenge Cup, admittedly by then not as competitively contested. Between 1923-25 Bradford set a new record by winning the cup in three successive seasons (photograph below of the 1925 final at Ilkley) and it was reported that its games often attracted five figure attendances. New Zealand sides returned in 1924, 1926 and 1935.

Apr-25 Bfd Rugby YCC triple

The facilities at the ground remained basic but they were sufficient for the club’s needs and allowed it to remain independent. The North Stand was re-erected from Peel Park having previously been used for galas and in 1923 the club erected a covered stand on the south side at Scholemoor (see photo below – a structure that became prone to vandalism and was eventually declared unsafe and condemned in the 1970s). The club’s reserve pitch was off Hollingworth Lane but the use of this was lost in the 1950s when it was developed for warehousing by Fields (printers).

new stand LG 1923

During the club’s first decade of existence there is a good chance that it cannibalised attendances at the other senior Bradford clubs. To what extent is impossible to say but in the first half of the 1920s the success of Bradford Rugby contrasted with the doldrums of the other three who were each struggling and downwardly mobile.

Bfd rugby YCC 1923 - Copy.jpg

Bfd RFC 1923.jpg

The revitalisation of Avenue in 1927/28 and then City in 1928/29 restored the old order. By this time Bradford Rugby was already beginning to fade and could no longer be considered a threat.

1929-10-23 The Tatler Bradford RUFC (2)

The fate of Bradford Rugby

In the 1930s Bradford RUFC drifted out of favour with the Bradford public, for whom it was simply another entertainment option. There were a number of reasons for this, the first was that fashions changed and in Bradford it tended to be the case that public affection switched between the four senior clubs – Bradford City, Bradford Park Avenue, Bradford Northern and Bradford Rugby – each of whom competed for attention. After the opening of Odsal in 1934 for example, Rugby League became the most popular rugby code in the city and even began to attract spectators from the round ball game. Secondly, Bradford RUFC struggled to recruit sufficient players of good standard to ensure succession planning. A third handicap was the club’s location. Whilst Scholemoor was adequate as a basic ground, within ten years it was surrounded by housing that created practical difficulties of access and parking as well as the later problem of persistent vandalism. Similarly, with no suitable facilities nearby the club became forced to rely on fields across the city to stage reserve and youth team games (latterly the King George V playing fields off Canal Road). This made it difficult to co-ordinate activities, for example to fulfil parallel fixtures involving first team and reserve fixtures and it also compromised options for training and the development of juniors.

Whilst Bradford RUFC eschewed professionalism and commercial activity it still faced financial obligations for the upkeep of its ground. There was no escaping the financial imperative to make a surplus to fund those commitments. By the late 1930s ‘Bradford Rugby’ (as Bradford RUFC became known) was struggling to attract public interest, finding it difficult to recruit new players and was having to appeal to the goodwill of its members to remain solvent. Despite its early promise in the 1920s, thereafter it became relatively insignificant in terms of sporting interest beyond its own membership and a hardcore of Rugby Union enthusiasts. Nevertheless, Scholemoor continued to host prestige county games which attracted decent crowds.

In February, 1954 a 16,000 crowd attended a game between the NE Counties and the All Blacks in the 21st game of their tour which the visitors won 16-0 to remain undefeated in England. An eight ton road roller was used to help prepare the pitch after a heavy frost and this was later blamed for crushing the drains, a cause of future waterlogging.

Hickson had envisaged Bradford RUFC to be in the making of Bradford FC as a club staging headline fixtures at Scholemoor as had been the case at Park Avenue in the 1880s, effectively offering alternative entertainment to that of Bradford City, Bradford Park Avenue or Bradford Northern. Instead the club became better known as somewhere to play Rugby Union rather than to watch and this was actually much closer to the early origins of Bradford FC prior to the mid-1870s when the onus had similarly been on participation.

In October, 1965 Scholemoor hosted a game with the Barbarians touring side to mark the 75th anniversary of its formation in Bradford and the centenary of Bradford Rugby the following year. Although the origins of Bradford FC could be traced to 1863, the date of formation has tended to be regarded as 1866 when affairs were organised on a more formal basis. The centenary reminded the club of its heritage and latterly it referred to itself as Bradford RFC, dropping the ‘U’ on the basis that it could claim ancestry as the oldest in Yorkshire. Bradford lost that game with the Barbarians 3-47 and were said to have been ‘punished but not disgraced’.

By the late 1960s there was a general consensus that the Scholemoor ground was no longer ideal for the club’s needs and its encouragement of participation in Rugby Union. This prompted consideration of options that included the first suggestion of merger with Bingley RUFC. In 1969 Bradford Corporation offered a site outside the city’s boundary between Thornbury / Pudsey (currently used by Bradford University sports teams). The move was rejected on the basis of being too distant [11] and after an aborted attempt to introduce greyhound racing at Lidget Green (that would have been unpalatable to Hickson), Bradford RUFC set about modernising its ground.


By the standards of professional football stadia, facilities at Scholemoor were modest although they were considered highly respectable in Rugby Union circles. The emphasis of investment in the ground was not on spectator facilities as opposed to amenities for members. The club had originally used a local school for changing rooms before erecting a large wooden hut of the type associated with Scout groups or church halls, eventually replaced in December, 1972 by a permanent structure. A clubhouse was constructed in the 1920s comprising bar and catering facilities as well as a meeting room, replaced in 1974 by a new structure that also included squash courts to capitalise on the popularity of the game at the time.

Scholemoor continued to host decent crowds. In December, 1972 for instance as many as 14,000 attended Lidget Green for the fixture between the NE Counties and New Zealand. It was also an attendance that compared favourably to any at Valley Parade or Park Avenue at that time.

In common with the three main football grounds in the city, the fate of Scholemoor was dictated by local authority planners and it became something of a pawn in the grand schemes of City Hall. At the beginning of the 1970s Bradford Corporation successfully opposed the introduction of greyhound racing and the cynic could be forgiven the suggestion that this served to keep its options open with regards the future use of the ground. In 1980 for example, it was reported that Bradford Metropolitan District Council investigated the possibility of Bradford Northern being relocated to allow Odsal to be divested for land-fill and waste disposal. Nothing came of this but after refusing planning permission for a Morrisons supermarket development, the council was able to make a discounted and uncontested bid for ownership in 1982. The subsequent reincarnation of Scholemoor as a civic sports centre in 1983 with an all-weather pitch (as well as the squash courts) most likely accomplished what had been on the planners’ agenda since the end of the 1960s. However, after a fanfare opening the centre eventually closed in 2000 and was left derelict for six years before community leaders reclaimed the site. Like Park Avenue, it was another tragic waste that insulted the efforts of Bradford’s sporting forebears such as Laurie Hickson.

Bradford RFC 1974 x

When Bradford Rugby relocated to Wagon Lane in Cottingley to merge with Bingley RUFC in 1982 the club was already but a shadow of its former self. By the end of the 1970s it was struggling to recruit talented new players and handicapped by the fact that Rugby Union was still only played by three local schools – Bradford GS, Thornton GS and Woodhouse Grove. Whereas many rugby playing boys had traditionally returned to Bradford after university, often to join family businesses, this had become much less common. Another change was the relocation of many middle class families away from once affluent suburbs in Bradford to outlying areas that undermined the convenience or attraction of Scholemoor. By the time that professionalism was legalised by the Rugby Union in 1995 there was little prospect that Bradford & Bingley RFC – as a successor to the original Bradford FC – would become a leading side in the national game, something that would have pleased Hickson notwithstanding that the club was by now ranked among junior sides (the equivalent of a village team in the hierarchy of the late nineteenth century).

The Bradford & Bingley Sports grounds accommodate a first team rugby pitch, training fields and adjoining cricket pitch. It is home to a canoe club as well as Bingley Harriers AC. There is a degree of irony that Bradford CC abandoned Park Avenue in 1986, moving to Wagon Lane and merging with Bingley CC as cohabitants with the rugby club. Whilst Wagon Lane lacks the grandeur of the Victorian Park Avenue enclosure, in many ways the site in Bingley has much in common with what existed in Horton, fulfilling the original objective of a dedicated sports complex.

After conversion to an artificial football pitch in 1983, the Scholemoor site enjoyed a brief renaissance only to become derelict, latterly converted to an adventure playground. Had timing been different, Scholemoor could have provided a suitable home for Bradford Park Avenue as a non-league venue although the issue of vandalism would have remained a problem. Car parking would similarly have been difficult to accommodate and the congestion of Bradford’s ring road is now far worse, making access arguably more difficult than ever before.

Bradford Rugby never emulated Bradford FC and Rugby Union was not restored to prominence in the district as Hickson had hoped. Like Park Avenue, Scholemoor is testament to a lost dream, a monument to sporting ambition that succumbed both to economics – the forces of supply and demand that dictate financial viability and the means of existence – as well as local authority machinations. Just as at Park Avenue, the visitor to Scholemoor will detect few clues – the remnants of terracing aside – that it had been a football ground replete with a couple of grandstands.

By John Dewhirst


[1] The early history of Bradford RFC is told on VINCIT Note that the Bradford Wanderers club which was the principal amateur side in the district at the turn of the centre had not been formed until 1899 (contrary to what has been written elsewhere).

[2] The circumstances of the Great Split of 1895 in Bradford is told on VINCIT

[3] The forgotten story of Shipley FC and the fate of other junior rugby sides feature on VINCIT

[4] LIFE AT THE TOP published by Bantamspast, 2016

[5] A series of open air boxing tournaments took place at Valley Parade in May, June and July, 1919.

[6] Rugby Reloaded podcast by Tony Collins

[7] Prior reference by another writer to ‘Lidget Green’ as a sports venue refers to Horton Grange. Contrary to what has been written elsewhere the site at Scholemoor had not been used prior to 1919.

[8] The other venues included Newport, Swnsea, Inverleith, Portsmouth, Gloucester, Leicester and Twickenham.

[9] For further reading, refer: The King’s Cup 1919 – Rugby’s first ‘World Cup’ by Evans & Atkinson, St David’s Press (Cardiff) 2015. My thanks to Phil Atkinson, Editor of Touchlines (published by Rugby Memorabilia Society) magazine for letting me feature his scans of the programme cartoon and ticket as well as the photo of NZ v Australia at Scholemoor in 1919. Refer also to a feature on the World Rugby Museum blog.

[10] Of Bradford’s other surviving historic Rugby Union clubs, Baildon RUFC was formed in 1912 and Wibsey RUFC in 1932.

[11] My suspicion is that the enthusiasm for relocation was much greater on the part of Bradford Corporation than Bradford RFC with the former identifying the strategic value of Scholemoor for its own objectives. This is a theme to be the subject of a future feature on VINCIT.

[12] My thanks also to John Wright and Richard Lowther (Burglar Bill) for feedback.

The above menu provides links to other features about the early history of Bradford rugby, both amateur and professional.

The author has written widely about the history of Bradford City AFC. His books, ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP (pub bantamspast, 2016) narrate the origins of sport in Bradford, the development of sporting culture in the town in the nineteenth century and of how sport came to be commercialised. He provides the background to how Manningham FC and Bradford FC became established and of how they converted to professional soccer in the twentieth century as Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue. These are possibly also the first business histories of nineteenth century rugby. John is currently working on a new history of the rivalry of the two sides as members of the Football League in WOOL CITY RIVALS (FALL FROM THE TOP).

His books form part of the BANTAMSPAST HISTORY REVISITED SERIES which seeks to offer a fresh interpretation of the history of sport in Bradford, addressing why events happened in the way that they did rather than simply stating what occurred (which is the characteristic of many sports histories).

Other online articles about Bradford sport by the same author


John contributes to the Bradford City match day programme and his features are also published on his blog Wool City Rivals where you can also find occasional Book Reviews

Tweets: @jpdewhirst


Bradford RFC 1920s (5)

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.

Future articles are scheduled to feature boxing, cycling, football, the forgotten sports grounds of Bradford, the politics of Bradford sport and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

Contributions and feedback are welcome.