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 having being worthwhile [7]. This phenomenon was not confined to Bradford and as soon as peace was declared there was news of Rugby Union clubs being revived, among them Bristol and Leicester both of whom announced 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.’ [8]

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 [9] 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.

LG Apr-19 2

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. [10]

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.

LG Oct-24

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. [11]

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 that attracted decent crowds. In September, 1935 the ground hosted the All Blacks who played a game against a combined Yorkshire & Cumberland XV which was attended by 16,000 spectators.

In February, 1954 another capacity 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] It is quite conceivable that the misery inflicted by the Spanish flu pandemic in the final quarter of 1918 further contributed to this mood, one that could be could be described as an idealistic yearning for wholesome physical activity as a dividend of the peace. It is estimated that two hundred thousand Britons were killed by Spanish flu, roughly a third of the number of war fatalities.

[8] 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.

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

[10] 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.

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

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

The Bradford Boys

The Bradford Boys – Winners of the English Schools Shield 1915/16

by Ian Hemmens

Scan_20190510 (6) - Copy

Bradford Boys record in the English Schools Trophy since the Bradford Schools FA at the Osborne Hotel in 1901 was a very mixed bag of results with a couple of good runs to the later rounds only to lose out to the eventual winners on both occasions.

Every association in those days had the problem of trying to achieve a settled side as boys could and usually did leave school on reaching their fourteenth birthday. The 1915/16 season saw a team created which had only three survivors from the previous years campaign.

Consider the times also. The country was in the middle of the largest conflict to involve the nation. After the earliest optimism driven days of the war, the reality was kicking in with the horrors of the carnage hitting home to just about every community in the land. Whole village, towns and cities saw a generation of young men leave to fight and not return. Every household dreading the arrival of the official brown envelope telling of a love one killed or missing in action.

Boys leaving school had to become the man of the house until they themselves were likely to be conscripted to the forces. Schoolboy football was therefore a welcome release from the worries and pressures approaching their young lives.

The three survivors in the 1915/16 squad were Wellock of Drummond Road, Arnold of Green Lane and Silson of Fairweather Green. These boys were included in a trial on 23rd October 1915 at the Park Avenue ground in Horton. A total of 54 boys divided into four teams. Game One was ‘Blues’ who beat ‘Stripes’ 4-1 – Arnold & Pearson (Whetley Lane) having fine games and standing out. The second game was considered to have more of the ‘Probables’ and again the ‘Blues’ were victorious 3-1 with Maurice Wellock scoring all three goals to stake his claim. The boys were then narrowed down to a ‘Probables’ versus ‘Possibles’ again held at Park Avenue on 9th November.

The draw for the first round of the trophy had pitted Bradford against Dewsbury away from home on 20th November. However the home side scratched from the contest leaving the Bradford Boys to progress to a second round tie with Leeds to be played at Greenfield on 4th December. The team chosen was :

Rawnsley (Whetley), Hume (Whetley), Burke (Parish Church), Taylor (Ryan Street) , Ockerby (Green Lane), Downs (Wyke), Skitt (Bradford Moor), Silson (Fairweather Green), Wellock (Drummond), Arnold (Green Lane) & Pearson (Whetley Lane). Bradford were leading 4-1 when inclement weather caused an abandonment. A 6-0 victory in the replay progressing to Round Three against N. E. Derbyshire who had beaten holders Sheffield in the previous round to be played at Valley Parade on 22nd January. Two goals from ‘Big Mo’, Maurice Wellock and an own goal were sufficient to see them progress. For his age, Wellock was tall and well built, not to mention skillful and able to ride tackles and Bradford used this to their advantage throughout the campaign. Such was his form that between the rounds, it was announced Wellock had been selected to play for England Schoolboys to meet Wales at Bolton in April. Maurice thus achieved the honour of being Bradford’s first ever schoolboy international.

Before this though, between the rounds Skitt and Arnold had reached leaving age having reached fourteen and further trial matches were held at Girlington Rec and Park Avenue before Needham (Lapage) & Armitage (Whetley) were chosen to replace the two leavers.

The fifth round (quarter-final) draw was made with Bradford having to travel for the first time to a game to be played at Anfield against Liverpool Boys. With the match on the horizon, the selection committee was hit with a couple of potentially large dilemmas. Firstly, due to Hume & Silson reaching leaving age, replacements were needed and the further trial games gave an opportunity for Bartle (Wyke) & Hellewell (Usher Street). An even bigger potential calamity was faced when talisman Maurice Wellock was sent off in a fiery match between Drummond and Belle Vue? The committee meeting held on 19th April wisely decided that the sending off of Wellock combined with a censure for the school regarding its future behaviour would be punishment sufficient. Problem averted, it was announced at the same meeting that Wellock had again been selected for England Schoolboys to play Scotland in Glasgow on 24th April.

The game at Anfield saw the Bradford youngsters once again emerge victorious with a 3-2 win, goals courtesy of Wellock (2) & Pearson. Wellock maintained his record of scoring in every round. Diminutive goalkeeper Eric Rawnsley also distinguished himself with a penalty save. Yet again, the draw for the semi-final was kind and Bradford were drawn to play Sunderland at Valley Parade on 15th May. Joe Dean (Horton) came into the side to replace Hellewell at inside right.

The game, as a semi final should be was a close affair with the teams tied at 1-1 until a decisive burst in the last 6 minutes saw the Bradford Boys jubilant in reaching a first Shield Final. Yet again, ‘Big Mo’ with a hat-trick was the hero accompanied by a Downes goal for a final score of 4-1.

At that time, the English Schools allocated the finals alternately and with wonderful fortune, the game was allocated to Valley Parade on 27th May. The opponents however would be West Ham schools, an association with four previous appearances in the final with two victories in 1907 & 1912. Despite this formidable record the Bradford Boys played out a comfortable 3-0 victory to secure the trophy, goals courtesy of Wellock, Pearson and Downs. The West Ham boys hadn’t conceded a goal until the semi-final tie and had travelled up the day before. After being welcomed by the committee they were entertained to a night at the Alhambra by the famed Francis Laidler.

Bradford Boys 1916

The day of the match saw a crowd of around 7,000 at Valley Parade, mostly youngsters or men in khaki. The Bradford team was:

  1. Eric Rawnsley (Whetley Lane)
  2. Herbert Bartle (Wyke)
  3. Jimmy Burke (Parish Church)
  4. Harold Taylor (Ryan Street)
  5. Len Ockerby (Green Lane)
  6. Spencer Armitage (Whetley Lane)
  7. Ted Needham (Lapage)
  8. Joe Dean (Horton)
  9. Maurice Wellock (Drummond)
  10. Joe Downs (Wyke)
  11. Herbert Pearson (Whetley Lane).

Bradford took the lead after ten minutes, Wellock heading home a cross to maintain his wonderful record of scoring in every tie that season to compliment a debut goal in his first international as an England schoolboy. Bradford continued to press home the advantage with ‘Big Mo’ looking like scoring with every touch. Three minutes into the second half, the advantage was doubled when Wellock hit the crossbar but Herbert Pearson was following up to force the ball home. Joe Downs then added the third to complete an emphatic victory for the boys. At the post match reception held at the Osborne Hotel, the Shield was presented to Mr W. L. French, Secretary of the Bradford Schools FA in the presence of the Lord Mayor.


The only player qualified to play the next season was keeper Eric Rawnsley who gained a reputation for penalty saves and was rewarded with a place as reserve for the England Schoolboy team.

As with now, the rate for players progressing to the professional game was attritional and of the victorious Shield winners, only two of the side went on to make their name in the ‘Mens’ game. Midfielder (Half Back) Harold Taylor went on to make over 350 first class appearances for Bradford Park Avenue in the 1920s/30s holding the club record for many years before it was broken in the 1960s by Charlie Atkinson.

Harold Taylor

Maurice Wellock was taken on by the wily Peter O’Rourke at Bradford City and despite making first team appearances during wartime football, he was allowed to leave to Halifax Town. Despite his size, he was still very young and City were an established Division One side in those days with a deadly strike force of Oscar Fox and Jimmy McIlvenny, it would have been hard for Maurice to progress. Maurice had an excellent career after City which included Halifax Town, Blackpool, Darlington, Oldham, Peterborough and Torquay United before spending many years as trainer and groundsman at The Shay. He then ran a bookies shop in his native Manningham. His career despite being used as a centre half at times saw him score almost a goal every other game.

Maurice Wellock

Bradford’s defence of the trophy was ended at the third round stage by Sunderland. It would not be until the 1960s before Bradford again reached the later stages of the Shield competition even with schoolboy prodigies like Albert Geldard and Len Shackleton available to them in earlier decades.

During the time of 1916, with the horrors of the Great War in full swing and every aspect of society feeling the strain, a group of young schoolboys from Bradford brought joy to a city who needed a lift from horrors facing them day to day.


Ian is a regular contributor to VINCIT and has written about a wide variety of clubs and sports. The following is a link to his feature on Albert Geldard. You can find his other features through the drop down menu above.

We welcome contributions from anyone interested in Bradford sport history, irrespective of club or code.

Future planned articles on VINCIT include:

  • Lost sportsgrounds of Bradford.
  • Early association football in Bradford.
  • The origins of cycling in Bradford.
  • The impact of social networks on the origins of Bradford sport.
  • The financial failure of Bradford football clubs.
  • Baseball in Bradford.
  • The politics of Odsal Stadium.
  • The influence of the press on the development of Bradford sport.

Contributions are always welcome!


The role of the railways in the early development of Bradford football

With the news that Bradford has been designated a stop on the Northern Powerhouse Railway it seems topical to consider the historical importance of railways to the district, in particular their contribution to the development of football.

Surprisingly the significance of rail links to Bradford sport has tended to be overlooked. [1] This is astonishing because no-one would dispute the significance of the railways to the economic and social transformation of Great Britain in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the impact of the railways on Bradford’s development was no different and it is hardly surprising that they played a big part in the commercial transformation of sport in the district, from recreational activity into business.

The city’s two railway stations serve as a metaphor for Bradford’s economic decline. Yet although Bradford’s railways are nowadays a fraction of what once existed and what was planned, their legacy remains. Whilst redundant stations have long since been demolished, there are sufficient surviving civil engineering structures in the Bradford district to remind us that the railways had a major impact. They should also be remembered for their role in defining the history of football in the district.

As the Transport for the North body has now recognised, the tragedy for Bradford is that it lacks a through line connection on the railway network, undoubtedly a disadvantage for the economic prospects of the city. During the second half of the nineteenth century Bradford was very much in the grip of railway mania although – as we know to our cost – there was one scheme that proved elusive. Following the collapse of another scheme to construct a (north-south) through line in Bradford, a correspondent to the Leeds Times in January, 1884 wrote: ‘As it was in the beginning – Bradford on a siding – is now – Bradford on a siding – and ever shall be – Bradford on a siding – world without end – Bradford on a siding.[3]

Investment in national rail links has bypassed the city and as things stand, Bradford metaphorically remains on a siding with two railway stations. There was no shortage of schemes to achieve a through line in Bradford but their failing should not allow us to under-estimate the influence of the railways in Bradford, least of all with regards to the commercial development of (rugby) football in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.

The urban geography and topography of the town created limitations on where the game could be played but the railways had a major role in making new venues accessible to people living within and without the district. The best illustration of this was the ground nearby the Stansfield Arms at Apperley Bridge where Bradford FC was based between 1874-80. In the absence of a suitable site near the centre of the town, the railway connection made a relatively peripheral site accessible requiring a journey of around twenty minutes from the Midland station.

In the 1870s the prime consideration was the commuting time for players rather than the means to attract spectators. Apperley Bridge was not convenient for everyone and this gave impetus for games to be played closer to Manningham which was home to a good number of football enthusiasts. Nevertheless, railway connections remained vital with Manningham station serving Lister Park and Peel Park and then after 1875, Frizinghall station encouraged the use of a ground on Frizinghall Road (currently the lower playing fields of Bradford Grammar School).

Railways allowed fixtures with other clubs further afield and were relied upon by each of the leading sides in the Bradford district to attract visiting clubs as well as to fulfil fixtures away from home. Yet another way that railways were influential in their contribution to the sport was by facilitating governing structures to be established which oversaw the administration and control of Yorkshire rugby.

Rail links allowed deputies from across West Yorkshire (and Hull) to attend the regular meetings of the Yorkshire Rugby Union at the Green Dragon Hotel in Leeds and co-ordinate the development of the game. In December, 1888 the Great Northern Railway had boasted an express connection between Bradford and Leeds of only 17 minutes. For Bradford-based representatives this connectivity ensured that the town was able to enjoy political influence in the sport. The same could be said about participation in meetings of the national Rugby Football Union and indeed, railways made possible the selection of a national team comprising players from across the country – note that before 1895, Bradford FC provided more England internationals than any other Yorkshire club.

During the 1870s trains were routinely used for away games and the players of Bradford FC would meet at the railway station on match day. Railway timetables determined both the choice of opposition as well as the time of kick-off and in this way they helped define the earliest sporting rivalries. A further example of how they dictated arrangements was in December, 1872 when the game between Hull FC and Bradford FC was played halfway between in Selby, a consequence of railway schedules as well as the fact that overnight stays were as yet unheard of.

Kick-off times and the duration of games were flexed to accommodate railway timetables. In 1873 for example a Bradford FC game at Girlington was delayed until 3:30pm to allow the Rochdale team to arrive and a game at York in 1875 was similarly delayed until 3:45pm for the benefit of the Bradford Zingari players. In February, 1871 the kick-off for a Bradford FC game against Leeds in Peel Park was moved to 4:30pm owing to the breakdown of a train and its late arrival into Manningham station. (The inconvenience of trekking up the hill from the station was later given as a reason for Bradford FC to relocate into Manningham itself.)

Football journeys became a big part of the esprit de corps of teams and generally associated with rowdyism and drunken antics. In February, 1884 there is an account of the Bradford FC players returning by train from Sunderland via York station where they were forced to spend the night. The legend was that the station master had been so annoyed by their behaviour that he blew his whistle and the Bradford train departed early (without the Bradford team on board). Before too long it became the norm for the larger clubs to embark on an annual tour that was the highlight of the season for the participants.

By the mid-1880s Bradford FC looked beyond the confines of Yorkshire as the club chased the prestige and status of games in Scotland and the south of England. In November, 1883 it embarked on its first tour of Scotland and the defeat of Northern FC (NB based in Newcastle), Edinburgh Academicals and Glasgow University helped to define its credentials. After winning the Yorkshire Cup the following year it organised an ambitious tour in November, 1884 involving games against Marlborough Nomads, Oxford University and Cambridge University, the success of which was a defining moment in the profile and self-image of the club. The same railway connections allowed fixtures to be reciprocated at Park Avenue and in so doing Bradford FC was able to build its reputation as a leading side in England and this helped to attract spectators. Subsequent tours by Bradford FC included games in Wales. Manningham FC was equally adventurous and could boast tours of Devon, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – none of which would have been possible without rail travel.

Railways similarly ensured that the Yorkshire Senior Competition (YSC) launched in 1892 could function and fixtures could be fulfilled that allowed league football to become institutionalised. However, the benefit of this was not confined to Bradford FC and Manningham FC who were among the leading sides in the first division. By 1895 a total of 64 clubs comprised the four divisions of the YSC, of which 14 were from the Bradford district. These included the two seniors in the top tier – Bradford FC and Manningham FC; second tier – Bowling FC; third tier – Bowling Old Lane, Keighley & Shipley; fourth tier – Bingley, Brownroyd Recreation, Idle, Low Moor St Mark’s, Saltaire, Silsden, Wibsey & Windhill. In other words, railways helped a competitive league structure to become established across West Yorkshire (as well as Hull and York) that impacted on junior rugby, arguably raising standards through competition as well as further encouraging rivalry. Each of the above named clubs were gate taking – charging people to attend – and hence the railways can be credited with providing stimulus to spectator sport in the district.

The Bradford FC players came to be regarded as celebrities and high class rail travel added to the glamour with touring arrangements reported in the local press. On 21 November, 1893 a Bradford FC squad comprising twenty players travelled to Cambridge for a game against the university side. They travelled in a Pullman Dining Car from the Midland Station in Bradford at 3:30pm, arriving at 9:05pm for a game the following day, kicking off at 2:30pm. They then departed at 4:55pm to arrive in Bradford at 10:50pm. In December, 1894 Manningham FC went one better with a trip to Paris, likewise travelling in Pullman coaches from the Midland Station.

Railway links also encouraged innovations in training and the pretence of ‘scientific football‘. For instance, in preparation for the club’s Yorkshire Cup tie at Park Avenue, Manningham FC players stayed in Blackpool for four days. The practice appears to have been copied from Lancashire soccer clubs: the previous year Blackburn Olympic FC had sent its players to Blackpool ahead of the FA Cup final against Old Etonians whilst Blackburn Rovers and Darwen prepared for their Lancashire Cup Final with breaks in Morecambe and Blackpool respectively. Although a trip to Blackpool helped Blackburn Olympic lift the FA Cup, as far as Manningham FC was concerned, it proved futile. Nevertheless, once again in 1906 the Bradford City squad spent time at Blackpool ahead of a cup tie at Everton. (The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 19 February, 1906 described the resort as a ‘favourite of athletes seeking to get to top form‘.)

Proximity to a railway connection was considered a condition precedent by those evaluating options for a sporting venue. The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 17 July, 1878 quoted the treasurer of Bradford Cricket Club regarding the search for a new ground: ‘He thought that there would be no difficulty getting a ground, but they would not get one so central as the old one (ie at Great Horton Road), and as other towns had done, they might go outside and get a ground near a railway station.’ Another correspondent on 11 September, 1875 had suggested that Bradford CC should move to the ground of Eccleshill CC on account of it being ‘within three minutes’ walk from the station and the fare is 21/2 d.’ The opening of a new station at Horton Park in 1880 would have been considered a significant factor justifying the development of Park Avenue by the newly merged Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club.

It was no coincidence that each of the major grounds in Bradford were within walking distance of a railway connection. For example not just Valley Parade (Manningham station) and Park Avenue (Horton Park) but Usher Street, home of Bowling FC (St Dunstans) and Bowling Old Lane, home of the eponymous Bowling Old Lane FC (Bowling). Clubs also relied upon horse drawn transport for transit from stations and to / from hotels that were used for dressing. In this regard the Manningham FC accounts for the 1893/94 season included expenditure on waggonettes (four wheel horse-drawn vehicles) of £53 for visiting as well as its own players.

It was not simply that football grounds were based around the railway network, the urban geography of Bradford was shaped by railway speculation and this had further influence on the location of sports grounds. The Valley Parade site for instance had been earmarked as a consignment warehouse by the Midland Railway but the financial downturn that began at the end of 1873 led to plans being deferred and then eventually abandoned in 1884 after the collapse of the so-called Bradford Central Railway scheme – hence the opportunity in 1886 for Manningham FC to utilise a vacant plot close to the city centre. [2]  The various attempts at developing a cross-rail link in the town impacted on land use firstly around the Thornton Road / Whetley Hill area which led to the eviction of Bradford FC from Four Lane Ends in 1874 and then, following the Bradford Central Railway scheme the forced relocation of Bradford Rangers FC from Four Lane Ends to Apperley Bridge. A beneficiary was Manningham CC who occupied the vacant Whetley Lane site in 1878 after the eventual collapse of the scheme unveiled by the Midland Railway in 1873 for a tunnel underneath Manningham from Spring Gardens (adjacent to the existing line) to Whetley Lane in Girlington. [3] 

The final attempt at a cross-rail link in 1897 (the so-called West Riding Lines scheme) led to a planning blight in the centre of Bradford for twenty years as uncertainty existed over future land use. With concerns over security of tenure at Valley Parade a decisive factor in members of Bradford City AFC rejecting merger proposals and relocation to Park Avenue in 1907 was the willingness of the club’s landlords, the Midland Railway to grant a long-term lease to the club. At the time the Midland was concerned that if City relocated that it would lose potential passenger income derived from visiting spectators who might instead travel on the Great Northern line to Horton Park, a factor that could have also disadvantaged its cross-rail scheme.

manningham station

The importance of Manningham station for the Midland Railway was that it served visitors to Peel Park (and those attending the West Riding Galas) and provided transport for those working in Bradford, encouraging the development of the area as a popular suburb. Latterly it benefited from football traffic to/from Valley Parade.

Scan_20190702 (7) - Copy.jpg

The potential relocation of Bradford City to Park Avenue would have impacted on passenger revenue to/from Manningham station, the cost of which would be all the greater if a link was built and the club won promotion to Division One (which was the case in 1908). In a delicious irony it then begs the question whether the issue of a central through station in Bradford compromised the chances of the two clubs joining together. The Midland for example had every incentive to keep Bradford City at Valley Parade and was therefore willing to promise security of tenure.

By the 1880s there was a commercial imperative to attract spectators and proximity to a railway station amounted to a strategic commercial advantage. Nevertheless it is impossible to say how many football supporters were carried by the railways to games involving the Bradford clubs. The local rail network was limited in its ability to convey people from one side of the district to another but its importance was that it allowed people to travel into town from the suburbs or outside the district whence they could make an onward journey to the likes of Valley Parade or Park Avenue through a further rail connection, on foot, by taxi-cab or horse-drawn tram. The railways thus extended the catchment area of Bradford clubs and allowed people to get into Bradford to attend games.

Prior to 1895 at least Bradford FC attracted visitors from outside the Bradford district to witness big games and this further raised the stature and influence of the club within West Yorkshire. (During the 1880s the team had also comprised players who lived outside the district such as Skipton, Leeds and Wharfedale.) It is similarly reported that Manningham FC attracted spectators from the Aire valley (who would have utilised the Midland Railway line) and after the launch of Bradford City in 1903 a good proportion of spectators came from outside Bradford to support the pioneering soccer club – the first member of the Football League to be based in West Yorkshire.

Railways were also the means by which Bradford people could attend games elsewhere. Excursions were regularly arranged for important cup games and on occasions the numbers travelling were respectable. In November, 1883 The Athletic News reported that a special excursion train had been booked from Bradford to convey the players and supporters of Manningham FC to Hull. Likewise, in April, 1885 it was reported that as many as ten excursion trains converged on Halifax to allow Bradford FC and Batley FC supporters watch their sides in the Yorkshire Cup semi-final.

The strategic importance of football to the railways was commented upon in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 4 February, 1899 quoting mention in the Athletic Record that ‘never in any previous seasons on record have so many matches been played, and never have our railways been patronised to such an extent as they have been during the season that is now in progress.’ It was stated that ‘it is a well-known fact that our great railway companies drive more pecuniary benefit directly through football than all the other branches of British pastime combined.’

The railway companies recognised the commercial opportunity of promoting excursion trips as the illustration from 1896 attests.

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Such was the popularity of these journeys that after 1905 an away game was nominated each season for the annual outing of Bradford City supporters and in April, 1905 an estimated 2,000 followers saw the fixture at Grimsby Town. In February, 1908 the practice of an annual trip was adopted by the Park Avenue club and 1,000 followers travelled to London to see the Queens Park Rangers game. In this way the railways contributed to a distinct football culture. [4]

Away travel played its part in the viral spread of supporter behaviours, a good example of which being the exposure of City followers to singing at matches which was then replicated at Valley Parade. In this way, railways had their impact on the atmosphere at grounds. A good example of this was the adoption of the ‘Pompey chimes’ by Grimsby supporters subsequent to the visit of Portsmouth to Blundell Park for an FA Cup tie in 1901/02. The singing of the so-called ‘Pontoon Choir‘ at Grimsby made an impression upon Bradford people in September, 1903 and again during the return game at Valley Parade such that it inspired the ‘Hello Chorus‘ to be sung in Bradford. The practice of annual trips by Bradford City supporters had itself been copied from the example of Woolwich Arsenal whose fans had nominated Valley Parade for their own excursion the previous season.

In February, 1904 an estimated three thousand Arsenal fans travelled to follow their team against Bradford City – a game that was forced to be abandoned on account of the weather. However it was not unprecedented for there to be large away followings in Bradford. For instance games with Halifax prior to 1895 were known to attract a good number of visitors at Park Avenue and Valley Parade and the vitality of West Yorkshire ‘football’ competition was derived from the proximity and accessibility of neighbouring towns. Railways facilitated those rivalries but even in the 1880s people travelled from further afield and in March, 1886, a reported 800 people – out of a 10,000 crowd – came from Hull to follow their side against Manningham FC at Carlisle Road.

The popularity of the Yorkshire Challenge Cup after the inaugural season in 1877/78 and the Yorkshire Senior Competition after 1892 was based around local rivalries and the phenomenon of travelling supporters would have been an element in the success and appeal of those competitions. Yet although there was the example of Seth Firth, a Bradford FC supporter whose death was reported in the Bradford Daily Telegraph in March, 1903, credited with having followed his club home and away for each game, it would be wrong to suggest that this was common practice. Few would have been able to afford regular travel every other week and indeed in Bradford it became the practice for enthusiasts to float between clubs on the basis of attractive fixtures and/or when one of the seniors was playing away. (Even so, floaters would have accounted for no more than 15% to 20% of a bumper gate.)

The majority of spectators lived nearby and their experience of football would have been within Bradford alone and without reliance upon railways. Thus Bowling FC had its own local catchment and the support of Manningham FC and Bradford FC was based around the surrounding area. As I explain in my book ROOM AT THE TOP, a key factor in the emergence of Manningham FC in 1880 had been the demand for a local club. Whilst not impossible it was nonetheless inconvenient and time consuming for people based in the Manningham area to attend matches at Park Avenue in Horton. The haphazard and frenetic development of Bradford along a north / north-west axis had been at the expense of urban planning and/or a suitable road infrastructure to facilitate travel across the district.

Ownership of one’s own horse and trap, or indeed being able to afford a horse drawn cab, was the exception to the rule. It was not simply that ‘Shank’s pony’ was time-consuming, anyone reliant upon walking around Bradford would do so at the expense of their footwear. However people began to look outside of their locality on a day-to-day basis thanks to the evolution of a public transport network in Bradford after 1882 which had become well-established by 1903 with an extensive electric tram network. It was this that provided affordable and timely travel for the masses within urban areas.

In terms of direct access, Valley Parade was arguably better served than Park Avenue. Both horse trams and steam vehicles turned at Lister Park and electric trams served Manningham Lane from 1892 whereas the electric tram service from Victoria Square to Horton Bank Top did not commence until August, 1898. Electric trams enhanced the means to attend matches and would have played a role in generating the relatively high attendances at Valley Parade after rugby was abandoned in favour of soccer (a sport that was fashionable and commanded considerable support among younger people and women for whom rugby had lost its appeal). Writing in the Yorkshire Evening Post of 26 September, 1903 ‘Old Ebor’ marvelled at the gates at Valley Parade during the first month of soccer and contrasted them to the gates that Northern Union clubs could expect. He explained the crowds at Valley Parade were ‘not all from Bradford itself, but the city itself is so admirably situated, and so well connected by railways and trams, that other towns contribute liberally.’

In 1907 one of the deciding criteria of the newly-formed Bradford Northern club was that a new ground had to be on a penny tram route, an illustration of how public transport options continued to dominate the choice of location. (Ironically the club was forced to locate at Greenfield, Dudley Hill which was not on a direct tram route but then secured Birch Lane the following season – the ground that had been the preferred option in 1907.)

In the twentieth century tram and bus networks assumed the strategic importance that railways had enjoyed previously but even so, it would be wrong to under-estimate the enduring importance of the railways for Bradford football prior to motor coaches dominating long-distance travel after the last war. Without the trains, many of the fixtures involving far away sides could not have been fulfilled and in which case supporters would have had no reason to attend a match. In other words the importance of railways was not based simply around the number of people that they carried to games, it was the fact that they facilitated the sort of fixtures that would attract spectators in the first place.

The experience in Bradford demonstrates that the railways helped make competitive football (ie rugby) appealing by allowing clubs to broaden their horizons and give birth to a football culture. Of course Bradford was not unique in having railway connections – and other towns / clubs also benefited – but with today’s skeletal network it is easy to under-estimate just how important the railways were for the development of commercialised sport in Bradford and West Yorkshire as a whole.

The competitiveness of Yorkshire rugby in the 1880s and 1890s was a foretaste of soccer in the twentieth century on a national scale with the very same ingredients (ie compelling fixtures; an engaging spectator experience; popular interest; local pride; and press attention). The railways underpinned the early success of rugby in West Yorkshire and the measure of how the game became entrenched is that it took soccer until the twentieth century to become established locally, long after being recognised as the principal winter sport in England as a whole.

By John Dewhirst



[1] An example of this was a recent publication by someone who describes himself as ‘one of the north’s leading historians of sport and leisure’. His book (reviewed here) purports to provide an authoritative account of the growth of spectator sports in Bradford in the nineteenth century yet gives no recognition to the importance of railways. It is a remarkable oversight for anyone claiming such academic credentials.

[2] Refer to my feature about The origins of Valley Parade and Midland Road – a story about railway developments.

[3] For more detail about these schemes refer to another article by the author on the subject of aborted cross-town rail links in Bradford: On a Siding (published on his blog in January, 2018).

[4] A further example of how the railways facilitated football excursions and organised away travel is provided on the author’s blog about the day when visiting Portsmouth and Chelsea supporters came to Bradford for FA Cup games at Park Avenue and Valley Parade respectively (on 3rd February, 1912): LINK HERE

[5] Feature about Railway excursions to the 1911 FA Cup final.



The above is taken from the author’s book ROOM AT THE TOP, (pub BANTAMSPAST, 2016) which also includes images / maps relating to the railway network in Bradford and plans for its development. You can read about the origins of sport and football – rugby and soccer – in Bradford in his books ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP which form part of the BANTAMSPAST HISTORY REVISITED series.   ***   [Link to purchase the books]   ***

If anyone wishes to reproduce this text the author expects due credit to be given for his research. Tweets: @jpdewhirst or @woolcityrivals

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  

Subsequent articles on VINCIT will examine other themes that had influence on the early development of Bradford football and the commercialising of sport in the district. 



Gone to the Dogs

by Ian Hemmens

Between the two world wars, Bradford, although still a fairly prestigious city in the textile & mercantile sense, had lost some of the greatness that epitomised it as a leading player during its Victorian & Edwardian heydays. The Great War not only saw a lost generation of Men and a decimated workforce but a change in the world order of doing business in ways which affected Bradford trade. The diminishing German population of Bradford & their business savvy & acumen was sorely missed.

As the country started the long rebuild, new ideas were gaining ground in stronger rights for workers with unrest and revolution in the air in several countries, Votes at last for women, a partial collapse of the old class ridden society where everyone knew their place. People were questioning the old ideals.

 As the workforce was more widely spread due to shortages, people found more time on their hands. The old Victorian music halls found themselves being overtaken by the new craze from the United States, namely talking pictures and newsreels which made the world seem a whole lot smaller. Old time dance halls saw a rise in popularity with jazz & big band offering the live entertainment.

 On the sport front, Bradford was well served for offering entertainment having two Football League clubs, a Rugby League club, a Rugby Union club, a superb cricket arena at Park Avenue which Yorkshire used regularly, a vibrant cricket league, roller skating rink.

 In the 1930s Speedway would enter the arena along with a second greyhound track in the Brownroyd area of the City on Legrams Lane.

 1926 though saw the entry of greyhounds to Bradford when the National Greyhound Racing Club took over the greenfield stadium at Dudley Hill. The arena was already well established in Bradford, in 1906 it consisted of an athletics track and had featured trotting meetings on its eliptical shaped track.


 It had also seen local Soccer games before the newly formed Bradford Northern Rugby League club  rented the arena in 1907 from Whitaker’s Brewery for £8. The attached Greenfield Hotel became the club’s headquarters. Northern spent only the single season there the highlight beating the touring New Zealand side. Northern had spent £302 on improvements, a Grandstand, the pitch and perimeter fencing. The clubs first AGM in June 1908 saw them leave and move to Birch Lane which was regarded as nearer town and with better transport links. The Greenfield arena resorted back to its original use of athletics meets and trotting derbyies.

 The year 1926 saw the arena become one of the first in the UK to become a greyhound track. By now more developed with much more covered accommodation for spectators, the development saw a large Tote board erected at one end and a clubhouse built with betting facilities enclosed. Race day kennels and a paddock were built behind the main stand and residential kennels also provided for local animals.


 The arena had a successful start but suffered a blow when on the night of 29th October 1927, severe gale force winds ripped the roofs off both stands and the betting enclosure. Two major investors oversaw repairs to what was seen as a prestigious track in the north, the Greyhound Racing Association & the Electric Hare Company of Liverpool. The circuit had a 420 yard circumference which catered for both flat races and hare races at a variety of distances from 300 to 700 yards in length. The shape of the track featured a long run to the finish which heightened the excitement for punters. A third stand was eventually built on the third bend bringing the capacity to 7,000.

Race highlights feature famous trainer Jimmy Rimmer of Waterloo Cup fame set a track record 504 winners in  one season in 1932. Rimmer went on to become a trainer at the top London tracks in future years .

 In 1934, a Greenfield trained dog named ‘Deemsters Mike’ represented the track in the National Greyhound Derby Final and also won the Northern title in the Flat race.

 The year 1931 saw the National Cup ran over 500 yards held at Greenfield, a big honour for the track which was won by a dog named Doumergue in 29.34 seconds. The club was run by members with an annual subscription of 1 guinea.

 During the 1930s, Britain saw a short-lived craze to establish baseball in the country and Greenfield had a team but the craze didn’t last.

Greenfield baseball

 Post war, as attendances started to dwindle, other avenues were explored and after the demise of the Tudors/Boomerangs Speedway team at Odsal, the reconstituted team named the Panthers arrived in 1961 to race on the newly laid speedway track which was laid inside the dog track. The experiment, despite the expertise of speedway legend Johnnie Hoskins, only lasted a year and ended with a double header meet with Sheffield and Leicester in October, 1962.

Greenfield aerial

 The attendances at the dog racing continued to dwindle until after pull outs by investors saw the old arena finally close for business in March 1969. A sad end to an exciting piece of Bradford Sporting History. Sadly, no trace remains of such a fine arena, the stadiums footprint being totally covered by industrial buildings and warehousing. 

Greenfield 1

The final meeting was on March 5th 1969 with an attendance of 4790. Many more than had regularly attended and was probably boosted by sentimentality for the old place and a final goodbye to many memories.

greenfield bradfordg

 With the success of greyhound racing in the 1930s, across the city in the Brownroyd area saw the building of a second track just off the Legrams lane tram route. Surrounded on all sides by industrial buildings and a freight carrying railway line, it was known as the City Stadium officially opened on Monday 15th August 1932 five years after the opening of Greenfield. It also featured a Tote board and seating with kennelling on the Legrams Lane side.


Officially and originally affiliated to the rival British Greyhound Track Control Society, when this body disbanded in 1935 the stadium owners became independent and unaffiliated. Compared to Greenfield the facilities were very basic and probably the tracks biggest claim to fame was the fact it featured in several scenes in the famous & successful 1958 film ‘Room at the Top’. As regards the racing it specialised in handicap races over its 470 yard distance. As with other tracks, efforts were made to find other sources of income as crowds struggled. A velodrome was created around the track for cycle racing, karting races were held as seen in the fantastic images provided by Graeme Wright. Also tried out was baseball with the ‘City Sox’ using the arena (photo below) but as with Greenfield, the craze never really established itself and soon folded. Dog meetings were held on Wednesday & Saturday afternoons and clearly had plenty of competition of many sports in Bradford to compete with.

City Sox @ Legrams

 The Betting & Gaming Act of 1960 allowed the opening of high street betting shops and this affected the Tote turnover and attendances. 1963 also saw a serious fire caused over £50,000 damage from which the track never recovered. The last Greyhound meeting was held on Wednesday afternoon of 30th October 1965. Cycling events continued for a while but with the track being a hard surface with tight bends it wasn’t conducive to fast sprinting.



 The track was originally built on the site of an old mine on scrubland with a dye works belching out noxious fumes on one side and the railway wrapping itself around the track. Nothing now remains of the track , now also under industrial units although a tip of the hat to its old use is there with a road named ‘Greyhound Drive’ leading to the industrial units.

City aerial

 Bradford invested largely in the greyhound craze which really had its peak in the 1930s and the two tracks were decently supported for a while despite all the other distractions in the City but sadly, eventually fell foul of dwindling support.  Attempts to diversify to maintain the arenas sadly also failed. Even in the strongholds in London, the sport is a shadow of its former self. These days the nearest tracks are at Kinsley near Pontefract and at Owlerton in Sheffield.

ADDENDUM – Keighley greyhounds

Ten miles up the Aire Valley in Keighley, the buzz of the 30s craze of Greyhound Racing that had led Keighlians to travel to Bradford for their fix was finally catered for when they got their own track.

!947 saw the conversion of the old Keighley Town stadium known as Parkwood, although technically it was in the Aireworth district for Greyhound Racing. Originally called Parkwood AFC, a name change to Keighley Town saw the team rise to a top quality amateur status without ever worrying the highest standards of the game. For a proper history please reference the book on Keighley football by Rob Grillo, highly recommended. Town folded for the first time in 1948 but their ground was placed between the River Worth & Beeches Road approximately behind the present Aireworth Vets Practice & the Harrison & Clough factory.


The track opened for racing on 22nd November 1947 and operated as an independent track outside the affiliation of the NGRC. Such tracks were known as ‘flapping’ tracks. The racing took place on Tuesday evenings & Saturday evenings at 7.30pm. My own family legend has it that local men would visit the track after an afternoon watching Rugby League at Lawkholme Lane and return home via several public houses worse for wear and skint after a full day out watching sport & drinking much to the ire of their wives.

The track was 410 yards in length and major race distances were over 306 & 518 yards. There was a mechanised ‘Hare’ system & photo finish apparatus. Very much ahead of its time for the immediate post war era. A licensed bar, snack area and car parking made it all the more attractive for the punters. I remember going in the 1960s with my Uncle & cousin who lived in Keighley and can remember the buzz of a very decent crowd as the dogs burst out of the traps. It was one of my first exposures to sport. The kennels for the resident dogs were housed over in Steeton .

As mentioned, crowds were always pretty healthy with the track well within walking distance of the town centre & also the rugby ground.

Parkwood van

1965  saw a dog named ‘Rusty’ break the track record in a time of 29.05 seconds but there was a mystery and potential scandal around the achievement as it was alleged that ‘Rusty’ was in fact a dog named ‘Hi Joe’ which had been stolen from the NGRC licensed kennels of Noreen Collinand had in fact won a prestigious Juvenile race and was one of the favourites for the 1965 Greyhound Derby. The mystery was never solved as the dog once again vanished after its triumph at Parkwood.

As with the rest of the industry, as the 1970s approached the crowds dwindled and the march of progress saw the track finally close on Christmas Eve 1974 due to proposals for the route of the new Aire Valley road which today cuts across the footprint of the old site. It was the end after almost 30 years of racing in the town. The road was finally opened (A650) in 1988 and covers twhat was the southern part of the stadium. Nothing remains now but a football ground covers what was the Northern end of the stadium.

 Photo images thanks to Graeme Wright, Mick Pendleton.

Ian has contributed articles to VINCIT about a broad range of sports and links can be found from the drop down menu above.

Future planned articles on VINCIT include:

  • The story of how railways impacted on the development of football in Bradford in the nineteenth century.
  • Lost sportsgrounds of Bradford.
  • Early association football in Bradford.
  • The origins of cycling in Bradford.
  • The impact of social networks on the origins of Bradford sport.
  • The financial failure of Bradford football clubs.
  • Baseball in Bradford.
  • The politics of Odsal Stadium.
  • The influence of the press on the development of Bradford sport.

Contributions are always welcome!

The forgotten story of Shipley FC

The forgotten story of the origins of football in Bradford and the significance of the junior clubs in the district…

What motivated me to write my books about the origins and development of sport in Bradford is the fact that there have been so many simplistic narratives about what happened. In the final quarter of the nineteenth century Bradford was known as a centre of sporting enthusiasm and a hotbed of rugby football with a vibrant network of clubs of different sizes. Yet surprisingly, coverage of their existence has previously amounted to little more than a passing footnote.

My interest in Shipley FC arose from wanting to discover more about a club that would have been my local side, playing opposite the Ring Of Bells public house. It reveals an alternate perspective to the history of rugby in the Bradford district and demonstrates that the story of how spectator sport developed in Bradford cannot be told with an exclusive focus on Bradford FC and Manningham FC alone.

Football supporters in Bradford have tended to ignore what happened before the formation of Bradford City AFC in 1903 despite the fact that the club had its origins as a rugby organisation. (NB Prior to World War One the term ‘football’ was synonymous with both rugby and soccer but in West Yorkshire it tended to mean rugby.)

Rugby League followers have similarly tended to overlook what happened prior to the launch of the Northern Union in 1895. Going further back you find common roots between rugby and cricket in Bradford.

The history of the origins of sport in Bradford and these common links has been ignored. Likewise the subtleties of what happened have been missed altogether and it is a subject area that has fallen foul of simplistic narratives. Surprisingly perhaps it has been overlooked that Bradford sport in the nineteenth century was heavily influenced by the military and motives of charitable giving. Sport was also recognised by our Victorian forebears as an important form of expression for civic pride and identity (or what was then described as local patriotism), another theme that has been forgotten despite its relevance for today.

Juniors rugby

Bradford is known as having been at the centre of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century but it should also be recognised for a prominent role in the sporting revolution that took place in late Victorian Britain. In the 1880s the Bradford district derived a reputation as a hotbed of ‘football’, albeit the oval ball variety. The Association rules game was virtually unknown and attempts to promote it at Park Avenue in 1882 were thwarted by rugby enthusiasts whose sport claimed all available playing fields. To all intents and purposes, ‘soccer’ was crowded out until the end of the nineteenth century.

The introduction of the Yorkshire Challenge Cup competition in the 1877/78 season had been the catalyst for the spread of rugby and it was the triumph of Bradford FC in 1884 that gave added impetus to the enthusiasm. The competition captivated peoples’ imagination and the possibility of sporting glory inspired the emergence of new clubs whose numbers mushroomed in the wake of Bradford’s cup victory. The opening of Park Avenue in 1880 similarly had a big impact on local interest and the ground regularly hosted capacity crowds such that it was progressively enlarged during the decade. Football became a fashionable pastime among a broad cross-section of the population and so too it acquired a glamorous image with the stars – so-called ‘cracks’ – of Bradford FC being the celebrities of their era.

Further momentum was given to the game by the launch of the Bradford Charity Cup in the 1884/85 season. The trophy presented by Isaac Smith, Mayor of Bradford was known as the ‘small pot’ (the Yorkshire Cup was referred to as ‘t’owd pot’) and it became a focus for intense competition between junior clubs in the district. The Bradford Charity Cup gave a sense of purpose for smaller sides and a real opportunity for glory in a competition that remained fairly open; during the ten seasons of its existence between 1884/85 and 1893/94 there were seven different winners of the trophy and a total of ten different clubs reached the final.

Apart from the first two seasons when Manningham FC was allowed to enter its first team (and duly won the cup in each), the Bradford Charity Cup was confined to junior clubs in the Bradford district as well as the Bradford FC and Manningham ‘A’ sides (ie reserves). At its peak there were sixteen entrants with the final and semi-finals played at Park Avenue, the final at Easter weekend. The contribution of the competition to developing a localised football culture should not be under-estimated and it played a big role in sustaining support for junior rugby. Similarly, the manner in which it encouraged local sporting rivalries was a precursor to the impact of the Bradford & District Football League after 1899 and the Bradford Cricket League from 1903 which inherited the same passions.

By the end of the 1880s there was a defined hierarchy of clubs in what now constitutes the Bradford metropolitan district. At the top were the two senior clubs – Bradford FC and Manningham FC (who relocated to Valley Parade in 1886) – and then Bowling FC was acknowledged to be the nearest challenger below them. The next tier comprised around ten junior sides. Among the juniors, status was jealously guarded and whilst smaller clubs such as such as Bingley or Dudley Hill would typically play games with the Bradford and Manningham reserves, the likes of Cleckheaton and Bowling had higher aspirations and considered such fixtures infra dig. Among  these clubs in particular a form of one-upmanship and proxy competition began to develop as they sought to upgrade their facilities.

At the bottom of the hierarchy were local clubs. These ranged from village sides such as Heaton FC (who had their own dedicated fields) to nursery clubs who were invariably based in local parks (Lister Park being a particular hub of activity).

A chain emerged whereby larger clubs would poach talented players from their smaller brethren who served as feeder clubs. A good example of this was the career of the celebrated full-back George Lorimer who died in 1897 at the height of his fame as full back for Manningham FC. Lorimer’s induction to rugby had been park football as a member of Manningham Free Wanderers in 1887 and he moved to Heaton FC and then Manningham Clarence before eventually joining Manningham FC in 1889. The flow of players was not one way and junior clubs also secured those who fell out of favour in the teams of seniors or preferred a less demanding routine.

Individuals could dream of upward mobility and the possibility of county or even international honours. However, it was the prospect of cup exploits that focused minds. Arguably, success in the Yorkshire Cup or for that matter, the Bradford Charity Cup became the raison d’etre of junior sides and provided the bravado to invest in grounds. It became a matter of pride among the respective organisations to boast a self-respecting home venue, fully enclosed and possessing a ‘grandstand’ (which was in practice an uncovered viewing platform). The actual financial commitment was modest but in emotional and relative terms it was not insignificant. Payment of annual rent was the principal liability of any club but it was the construction of grandstands and ground improvements, as well as maintenance, that dictated the economics.

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A precarious existence

The finances of junior clubs could at best be described as precarious and considerable damage was inflicted by bad weather through postponements or from the expense of straw or oak husks to make a field playable. Invariably a glamour cup-tie or a big game with a local rival made the difference between profit and loss in a season’s workings. By the end of the 1880s financial reality had begun to catch up with these clubs who found themselves weighed down by indebtedness and increasingly desperate circumstances. The trade depression at the beginning of the following decade increased the difficulties further. Bradford Trinity, a club formed in 1880 – the same year as Manningham FC – decided to disband at the beginning of the 1894/95 season on account that the draw for the Yorkshire Challenge Cup had not afforded them a home tie.

The problems of the junior clubs were further exacerbated arising from their structures and weaknesses in financial management. As member organisations, subscribing members enjoyed the privilege of one man per vote but they were also equally liable for repayment of liabilities. Once a club found itself in difficulty there was little incentive for members to renew and as a consequence, financial difficulties were compounded by a drop in subscription revenue. All told, their structures impeded capital raising to fund losses and dissuaded people from getting involved who might have had the business skills to manage a club’s affairs. Not surprisingly it was not sustainable.

The loss of a ground arising from urban development was a factor that could crystallise the liabilities of a club and in this regard, Manningham Rangers is a good example. In September, 1891 for instance a benefit game had to be organised at Valley Parade to raise funds for Manningham Rangers to repay its liabilities prior to dissolution after its Oak Lane ground (roughly bordered by what is now Dartmouth Terrace and Garfield Avenue) was requisitioned for building. Formed in 1882 Manningham Rangers was a classic case of a club that had been formed in the heat of enthusiasm for rugby in Bradford. In 1884 its membership was reported to have been 55 and at the club’s AGM the same year it reported its expenditure to ‘have been rather heavy’ which had presumably related to the expense of ground development and maintenance.

Manningham Rangers became a feeder to Manningham FC (which afforded it the occasional use of Valley Parade) and a number of its players including Alf Barraclough and Ike Newton graduated to the senior Manningham side. On the other hand, the half-back Arthur Briggs – nicknamed ‘Spafter’ – was acclaimed as the successor to Fred Bonsor at Park Avenue after moving from Manningham Rangers via Bowling Old Lane.

Scan_20190510 - Copy (2)

By the start of the 1890s most junior clubs were struggling to remain solvent and the looming issue of broken time payments had grave implications for their finances. Although sympathetic to the needs of individual players, few clubs could afford to pay generous expenses. In 1894 the secretary of Bowling FC was realistic in his assessment that professionalism was an inevitable outcome for northern rugby. Nonetheless he had grave misgivings about how clubs such as his own could accommodate on a widespread basis even the intermediary measure of just broken time payments. The likes of Bowling FC were all too mindful of the delicate balancing act that they already faced between financial failure and survival; the fear was that legalisation of broken time monies would expose junior clubs to an auction for talent in which they could not compete.

The winding-up and disappearance of countless junior sides across Yorkshire and Lancashire by the end of the decade was as dramatic as their sudden emergence in the 1880s. If previously their financial difficulties had been overcome by arranging a fixtures with a local senior side, by 1900 the reality was that rugby football no longer had the same appeal and the leading Northern Union clubs had their own problems. Neither was it feasible for the Northern Union to repay the debts of the juniors and they were to all intents and purposes left to their fate, described by the Yorkshire Post of 12th February, 1900 as a consequence of their ‘overweening ambitions’.

The example of Heaton FC

Heaton FC was a good example of a club that over-committed itself in chasing a dream – it was a shooting star that fell to earth in little more than seven years. Established in January, 1884 the club had an impressive rise that was propelled by enthusiasm and ambition in equal measure. Its original name – Heaton Cricket & Football Club – hints that it may have started life as an offshoot of the parent cricket club. Yet by April, 1891 it was on its last legs, the first of many junior clubs who disappeared in that decade almost as quickly as they had emerged in the 1880s.

(NB Although the Heaton club played according to Rugby Union rules and was, to all intents and purposes, a rugby club it was common practice in West Yorkshire at the time to be known as a football club and the term ‘football’ is best interpreted in the generic sense rather than code specific.)

In the 1885/86 season Heaton FC was one of the sixteen clubs invited to compete in the Bradford Charity Cup which was confirmation that it was regarded as one of the stronger sides in the district. Indeed the proof of its credentials was demonstrated by reaching the second round where it was defeated by the Bradford ‘A’ team. That particular tie in December, 1885 was played in front of three thousand spectators at Park Avenue and provided a taste of the big time for a village club formed less than two years previously.

Heaton FC had its headquarters at the King’s Arms – less than half a mile apart from the Fountain Inn which was later adopted by Manningham Rangers. Its home venue was originally the Heaton recreation ground adjacent to the cemetery but a creditable record in the Bradford Charity Cup fuelled the confidence of members and encouraged the search for a new ground. In 1887 Heaton FC secured a field off Emm Lane – most likely the site of the St Bede’s playing fields – and its first game there in August, 1887 was commemorated with an exhibition match against a Manningham XV.

The year 1887 was probably the peak of football fever in Bradford and a measure of this was the launch by The Yorkshireman magazine of a dedicated football publication in September. It seemed that there was a contagious enthusiasm to commit monies in the pursuit of sporting glory. Heaton FC was not the only club investing in a new ground. So too the Bowling Old Lane football ground opened the same weekend as that at Emm Lane. Similarly, Shipley FC announced in August that it had invested £80 improving its ground opposite the Ring of Bells. Earlier, in March there had been the controversy of a postponed cup tie at Park Avenue which defined the future relationship between the Bradford and Manningham clubs. The affair arguably reflected badly upon the game, inviting ridicule that a sporting dispute should be referred to the Crown Court. The respectability of (rugby) football was to be further tested in relation to the financial viability of its also-ran clubs – the headline profitability of Bradford FC would be proven to be the exception as opposed to the rule.

The calibre of Heaton FC was confirmed by victory over the Bradford ‘A’ team in December, 1887 and in March, 1888 the Heaton side was defeated in the semi-final of the Bradford Charity Cup by Cleckheaton, a poorly attended game at Park Avenue. The achievement proved to be the apogee for Heaton FC and three years later the club disbanded, having struggled to service its debts. The expense of the new ground had undermined its prospects of survival and in the end it was forced to rely upon the goodwill of other clubs to pay its liabilities. Fund raising efforts for this purpose included a testimonial played on behalf of Heaton FC at Valley Parade in April, 1891.

Ironically Heaton FC achieved a creditable record in the development of young players but this served only for it to become a de facto nursery side for Manningham FC rather than for its own benefit. George Lorimer was one such player who graduated to Valley Parade via Manningham Clarence in 1889 where he became established as one of the best full-backs of his era. Another former player, Horace Duckett represented England in 1893 whilst a Bradford FC player.

The case of Shipley FC

Shipley is a town to the north of Bradford whose growth in the nineteenth century was similarly driven by the textiles industry. With a population of around 20,000 in 1890, it was roughly an eighth of the size of its larger neighbour.

Shipley FC provides an interesting case study of the fate of junior clubs and their experience after the split in English rugby in 1895. Shipley FC was better placed than many others to survive. Although traditionally ranked as a third tier club, it had the potential benefit of a decent local catchment with a strong local identity.

The club was also one of longest established in the Bradford area. The formation of Shipley FC in 1876 was at the same time as that of Bingley FC and Keighley FC – evidence that football mania had spread down the Aire valley and of a parochial instinct to keep up with neighbouring towns. The club had a relatively modest existence and highlights of the season tended to be games with near neighbours Windhill FC and Saltaire FC (who were based within the Shipley district).

There was similarly a close rivalry with Bingley FC and Keighley FC. That with Bingley was impacted by an incident in a Bradford Charity Cup tie at Valley Parade in 1886 when a disputed winning try led to the Bingley players leaving the field three minutes before the end of the game. It was not unique to Shipley that by the end of the 1880s local football had established its own folklore and countless legends of petty grievances that sustained public interest.

During the first half of the 1880s Shipley FC began to derive kudos from the graduation of its players to one of the seniors – either Bradford FC or Manningham FC. In common with other clubs of similar stature there was genuine pride when former Shipley men made the grade at a higher level. (NB In the Bradford district there was a sense of patriotic duty for a player to represent the town club, Bradford FC.) In common with other junior sides, Shipley FC became a feeder to the nearby senior clubs with a number of its players graduating to both Bradford FC and Manningham FC. At the beginning of the 1884/85 season for example a couple of Shipley players were enticed to join Manningham FC, by this stage emerging as a serious challenger to Bradford FC.

Shipley FC 1886-87

Shipley FC 1886/87: Back row, left to right: A Thornton, H Shaw, J Moore, C Brumfit, H Walker, W Woodward, and F Hanson (umpire). Middle row, left to right: S Holmes, S Hodgson, J Dawson (captain), J Hartley, J Hardaker, and Lister Wade. Front row, left to right: James Wade, T Horsfall, G Bateson and C Bailey.

In October, 1886, Shipley FC was able to boast that one of its men – Charles Brumfitt – had graduated to Park Avenue to become a member of the town’s premier side. Sadly, things did not work out and he returned to Shipley FC a few weeks later. Newspaper reports suggested that he had been excluded from the Bradford FC team on account of favouritism. Nonetheless, Brumfitt did not suffer from his association with Bradford and he represented Yorkshire in 1887 as a Shipley player.


Shipley FC cup record

The Athletic News of 12 October, 1886 described Shipley FC as a ‘coming’ club… ‘a much smarter lot than many people think’ and this reputation appears to have been sufficient to attract Widnes to Shipley in December, 1887 for a game on their Yorkshire tour. However, until the formation of a league competition in 1892, Shipley’s ranking in Yorkshire rugby was judged on its performance in the Yorkshire Challenge Cup and in that regard, it had a mediocre record. The club’s entry to the cup for the first time in the 1881/82 season arose from the withdrawal of higher profile pedigree sides and hence there was no surprise when Shipley FC was knocked out in the opening round. Between 1882 and 1895 the club never progressed beyond the second round. A consequence of this was that the Yorkshire Cup was never a money-spinner for Shipley FC and it never had the luck of a lucrative home tie. In March, 1893 for example the first round home tie with Armley generated gate money of only £24 (with a corresponding crowd of just under two thousand) and the second round tie that season was unlikely to have attracted an attendance in excess of four thousand.

A particular bogey team in the Yorkshire Cup was Dudley Hill who defeated Shipley twice, in 1883/84 and then 1886/87. Nevertheless, Shipley enjoyed a couple of glamour ties: in March, 1892 the team was defeated in the first round by near neighbours Manningham at Valley Parade and then in March, 1895 it suffered an opening round defeat at the cup holders Halifax.

Shipley FC was also involved in a couple of controversial cup ties, the circumstances of which provide a fascinating insight into the Victorian game. In March, 1893 Shipley had played Wortley at home in the second round, at stake a third round tie at Otley. Wortley managed a narrow victory but Shipley contested the result when it became known that the Wortley side had included a couple of Wakefield men. The tie was ordered to be replayed, on this occasion at Valley Parade but once again Wortley emerged as victors.

The following season, Shipley FC was defeated in the first round by Hull KR. On this occasion it was controversy about a drunken referee that led the tie to be replayed. The Hull Daily Mail of 20 March, 1894 was circumspect in describing the ‘allegations against the referee‘ that led to the cup tie being restaged despite the Hull side having defeated Shipley, 7-0. It was alleged that George Bateson, the Shipley captain had drawn attention to the ‘referee’s condition’ and that he did not think he was in a fit condition to act as referee – during the course of the game ‘decisions were given that were not in accordance with the rules.’ One of the Hull KR supporters protested that the referee, Mr C. Berry was perfectly sober before the start of the game but being of a ‘free and easy disposition’ it gave the Shipley players the wrong impression of his condition! The Yorkshire Rugby Union ordered that the game should be replayed at Castleford and Hull KR won that game, 14-0.

Shipley FC had the best record of all clubs in the Bradford Charity Cup and its achievements in the competition represented the only honours credited to the club prior to 1895. Shipley were losing finalists in 1886/87 and then winners in successive seasons, 1888/89 and 1889/90. On both occasions Shipley defeated Buttershaw in the final although in 1890 had been scheduled to play Manningham ‘A’. Buttershaw had previously won the cup in 1888 and stood in when the Manningham team was unable to participate due to being on tour in South Wales.

Possibly the largest crowd for a game involving Shipley FC was the Bradford Charity Cup final of 1886/87 against Cleckheaton that was attended by twelve thousand. Also at Park Avenue, the attendance for the final in 1889 was reported to have been eight thousand and the semi-final against Bowling Old Lane in 1890 attracted seven thousand. However, by virtue perhaps of the final in 1890 being something of an exhibition game, the crowd was said to have been only three thousand. The celebrations that followed victory at Park Avenue on Easter Monday, 1890 were recorded in the Shipley Times and confirmed the enthusiasm for the competition. It was said that the victors were brought back to Shipley in an open waggonnette and the successful players were greeted by the Saltaire Brass Brand and excursionists enjoying the Easter holiday at Shipley Glen, a local beauty spot.

Unfortunately the club’s record in the Bradford Charity Cup was overshadowed by the death of Lister Wade as a consequence of injuries sustained during the course of the semi-final tie with Saltaire FC at Park Avenue in March, 1889. The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 9 March reported that several rough incidents had occurred in the second half of the game and that he had been ‘recklessly charged by two opponents’ and forced to leave the field with ‘bleeding from the ears’. Yorkshire rugby had become associated with violent play and the incident was widely reported throughout Britain in syndicated despatches that gave further credence to the sport’s critics.

At the end of November, 1889 a Shipley player, George Flaxington broke his leg in the first round Bradford Charity Cup tie with Manningham Rangers. The North Eastern Gazette of 2 December, 1889 reported that ‘Being a cup tie encounter, there was a good deal of excitement and some rough play.’ Commenting on the incidence of violence, the observation was made at the club’s AGM in June 1890 that ‘Betting was responsible for a good many injuries, as it often happened that a player who had made a bet of 2s., and thought he was going to lose it, would half kick a man to death rather than lose.’ (Reported in the Shipley Times of 28 June, 1890.)

Shipley Baines

The finances

In 1884/85 Shipley FC reported income of £97 and in 1886/87 it was £136; by 1889/90 this had increased to £263. With limited cost commitments in 1884/85 and 1886/87, the club was also able to boast decent operating surpluses of £20 and £15 respectively. In 1889/90 the operating surplus was only £3, a consequence of the significant increase in expenses.

The earlier profitability of Shipley FC encouraged investment in its ground and at the club’s AGM in 1887 it was said that ‘a great many improvements for the convenience of spectators in the field were contemplated, and would no doubt be carried out during the summer months‘ (as quoted in the Bradford Observer of 4 May, 1887). Accordingly, the wooden grandstand constructed on its ground opposite the Ring of Bells may have dated from then with the timing of the investment prompted by the decision of rivals Windhill FC who had committed to spending £100 on developing a new ground in the same year. (This was a major commitment for Windhill FC because in 1887/88 its gate receipts amounted to only £57 and in May, 1888 the Windhill members faced a situation where £20 of club funds was unaccounted for and the cash book was missing.)

Ring of Bells ground.jpg

The growing stature of the club may be gauged from the growth in turnover: revenues of £263 in 1889/90 were hardly insubstantial in the context of average weekly earnings of around £1. Nevertheless, when measured in financial terms, Shipley FC was a relative minnow compared to the likes of Bradford FC or Manningham FC whose revenues that season were £3,420 and £942 respectively. Despite the higher income, it is striking that in 1889/90 the operating surplus of Shipley FC was only £3, evidence of a finely balanced if not precarious existence. New monies were being absorbed almost as quickly as they were being earned and with minimal reserves it only took a match postponement to instigate a financial crisis.

The increase in operating costs was accounted for by the expense of rail fares, playing kit, print costs and advertising as well as straw (to protect the field). The comments of the Shipley chairman at the AGM, quoted in the Shipley Times of 28 June, 1890 reveal the burden of travel costs, considered unavoidable for an ambitious club: ‘The committee was endeavouring to reduce the expenses but considering the gates, the railway fares were enormous. He had brought the matter up before, and he thought that if they got fixtures nearer home it would be to their advantage, although the prestige of the club should not be sacrificed to save a few shillings.‘ It was also revealed that the squad comprised just 15 players, two reserve men, two trainers, an umpire and an officer. ‘A good deal of money was paid for men coming from Idle, Tong Park and Manningham while training. These men came down three or four times a week, when there fares would amount to 1/6 or 2s. The railway fares last year were £63 but they did not go to West Hartlepool or Askam.’

Other items of expenditure would have been directly related to the players themselves, classified innocuously as ‘refreshments’ but quite possibly including illicit boot money (the term applied to covert monetary rewards, literally dropped into players’ boots). In 1889/90 the annual rent charge was reported to have been £11 and further expense would have derived from the upkeep and improvement of the ground as well as repayment of debt relating to ground development.

A local institution

By the start of the 1890s Shipley FC was well-established in its community. The Shipley team comprised men who were motivated to play for local honour and the relative lack of honours should not be interpreted as lack of passion or commitment. Furthermore, reported crowds of around two thousand for holiday fixtures reveal the interest of local people in the club’s affairs. Involvement with the club also afforded a degree of social prominence that was not restricted to the players themselves.

Responsibility for managing the club’s affairs bestowed status on committee members. One person who became involved was Maurice Bonsor who lived nearby at Hall Royd in Shipley and in 1892 he was elected president of Shipley FC. The Bonsor family (which was of French descent) had settled in Shipley and the father, Robert was a textiles dyer. Maurice is better known for having been the brother of England international and Bradford FC captain Fred Bonsor (who guested for Saltaire FC in December, 1891 against Shipley). Nevertheless, he had a respectable record in his own right as a local sportsman.

1892 Maurice Bonsor

In 1881 Maurice had joined Bradford Trinity and was latterly captain of the second team before he joined Bradford FC. Between 1883 and 1887 he was an irregular member of the first team at Park Avenue and he remained an active squad player prior to his retirement from the game in1890. Maurice was also a captain in the Rifle Volunteers and as a keen cyclist was responsible for organising a ‘Cyclist Section’ within the Bradford corps. Fred enjoyed celebrity status in Bradford and there is the sense that Maurice’s patronage of Shipley FC was his way of defining a reputation and legacy. Indeed, the egos and vanity of committee members was a major factor in driving the development of individual rugby clubs.

Nevertheless, as financial commitments increased and football clubs began to accrue liabilities, the responsibility of office brought with it the personal risk of having to repay debts in the event of winding-up. The issue weighed on peoples’ minds and would later deter individuals from seeking election to Shipley’s leadership committee. The same consideration may have dissuaded Bonsor from maintaining his involvement with the club.

Shipley FC at the time of the rugby split in 1895

In 1892 Shipley joined the third tier of the new Yorkshire league competition. In the last season under the auspices of the Yorkshire RFU a total of 64 clubs comprised the four divisions, of which 14 were from the Bradford district listed as follows: Seniors in the top tier: Bradford FC and Manningham FC; second tier: Bowling FC; third tier: Bowling Old Lane, Keighley and Shipley; fourth tier: Bingley, Brownroyd Recreation, Idle, Low Moor St Mark’s, Saltaire, Silsden, Wibsey and Windhill.

Newspaper reports confirm that league games were highly competitive. Yet the sporting world inhabited by Shipley FC seems quaint in contrast to what we are familiar with. A wonderful illustration of the practical differences between then and now is provided by the Shipley correspondent of the Yorkshire Evening Post on 29 January, 1894: ‘There was a singular misapprehension at Shipley, on Saturday, as to the result of the football match between the Hull Kingston Rovers and Shipley, and apparently it was due to the referee getting bewildered by the storm. The spectators on both sides believed the result to be a draw, but as they were leaving the field a question to the referee elicited the response that Shipley were the winners with 8 points to 6. Further inquiries, however, showed that the storm had played havoc with the referee’s pencillings, and he had concluded that the Shipley men were entitled to a goal from a try, and not a penalty goal. The point was, however, really a penalty goal and the match was a draw after all. Owing to the storm, good football was out of the question, and Shipley were disappointed in not winning.’

Around the time of the split in 1895 Shipley FC was struggling to make ends meet and was faced with servicing debts that had built up from the costs of ground development as well as the funding of trading losses. It was hardly a unique state of affairs and the trade depression at the turn of the decade was blamed for having exacerbated the financial difficulties of most clubs in the Bradford area (by virtue of impact on disposable incomes). In December, 1894 the prospective Unionist MP for Shipley, Fortescue Flannery had encouraged the three Shipley-based clubs – Saltaire, Shipley and Windhill – to combine.

The Leeds Mercury of 5 December, 1894 quoted Flannery who had ‘suggested that if the three clubs amalgamated they could get a team which would carry them to the front rank of football clubs in Yorkshire.‘ Windhill FC had been runners-up in the Bradford Charity Cup in 1892 and 1894 – an achievement that may have fostered unrealistic expectations – and its membership could not be persuaded to give up independence or abandon the Crag End ground. Merger discussions continued between Saltaire and Shipley although these were reported to have been aborted in March, 1895 on account of the Saltaire club’s objections to playing at Shipley’s ground. However whilst amalgamation made sense, the obstacles were more than just emotional. A combined club for instance still faced the obligation to repay the collective debts and few members would have relished inheriting the liabilities of rival clubs in addition to their own.

Increasingly, Shipley FC came to rely upon fund raising social events to remain viable. During the 1896/97 and 1897/98 seasons the Ring of Bells ground also hosted the newly formed Shipley AFC which may have been a further attempt to generate additional income. The side was one of few playing the association code in the Bradford area at the time but became defunct before the launch of the Bradford & District FA which boosted the game after 1899. Arguably the soccer initiative was premature and the Shipley club might otherwise have established itself as a leading pioneer of the game. (The town never had a soccer club of any stature; although a revived Shipley AFC emerged in 1900 and joined the Bradford & District FA in 1901, it disbanded in 1920 on account of indebtedness.)

A new opportunity for Shipley

The new Northern Union competition that came into being at the end of August, 1895 was not universally popular in the north and certainly not in the Bradford district. Criticism of the breakaway came from those who looked upon it as a de facto cartel, dismissive of the interests of smaller clubs such as Shipley. The breakaway was viewed with a high degree of cynicism and the Shipley committee identified an opportunity for the club to attract people who were alienated by the decision of the seniors to secede from the Rugby Union.


The formation of the Northern Union gave Shipley a new lease of life and the possibility of defining for itself a new niche as the leading side in the district among those remaining within the Rugby Union. In the absence of the seniors, clubs such as Shipley viewed the breakaway of the rebels as an opportunity to grab the limelight as well as a means of financial salvation.

Optimism was raised by the defection of prominent players from Bradford FC. For example, James Barron and Harold Ramsden joined Bingley FC with whom they later obtained England caps and the Shipley FC team was strengthened by the return of Yorkshire county player Herbert Ward (see Baines card above). Similarly, Frank Murgatroyd re-joined Idle FC and Arthur Briggs opted to join Pudsey. These players wanted to avoid the prospect of being ‘professionalised’ by playing Northern Union football at Park Avenue and by returning to their local clubs believed that they would avoid compromising their chances of county and national selection.

The Shipley team was further strengthened by the inclusion of Charles Emmott (pictured), a former England international half-back (capped once in 1892 against Wales) and Yorkshire county player (for whom he made four appearances between 1890/91 and 1891/92) whilst with Bradford FC. Emmott was a Saltaire man and had played with his local club after making his debut in 1885. In September, 1890 he had transferred to Park Avenue before returning to Saltaire FC at the start of the 1892/93 season. He then had another brief spell with Bradford FC in 1893/94, signed by that club in September, 1893 as an emergency response to the team’s loss of form but re-joined Saltaire once again before moving to Bowling FC midway through the 1894/95 season. As an established joiner by trade, Emmott would not have been concerned with receipt of broken time payments and his transfer to Shipley FC in September, 1895 (at the age of 26 years) was presumably with the intent of remaining an amateur and reviving his county career. He remained with the club until January, 1901, ending his playing days with Windhill FC. In 1904 he was appointed trainer of Bradford Wanderers RUFC who were based at Red Beck Fields, Shipley.

Charlie Emmott

At the end of the 1895/96 season Shipley FC finished as champions of the new second tier league of the Yorkshire Rugby Union whilst neighbours Idle FC finished top of the third tier.


During the following season, 1896/97 Shipley FC established itself as the top amateur side in the district and its members had genuine ambitions about the club reaching the heights of English rugby.

Scan 1896 rail

In 1896/97 Shipley FC were beaten finalists in the Yorkshire Cup, losing to Hull KR. Despite the competition being much diminished in the absence of senior clubs, the achievement fuelled the improbable dream that the club could transform itself and become one of the leading sides in the country. It was claimed that the occasion of the final was the first in 18 years to suffer rainfall but this was no excuse for a gate described as one of ‘meagre dimensions’.

Even so, Shipley FC appears to have benefited from higher attendances after 1895. On the same day in October, 1896 for example there were three thousand spectators at Shipley to witness the game with Featherstone and only five thousand at Park Avenue to watch Bradford FC and Liversedge. On 22 January, 1898 the Yorkshire Evening Post ventured that Shipley FC had had a record gate for the visit of Keighley with receipts in excess of £80: ‘It has often been remarked that gates in Bradford are not now what they were in former times. One explanation of this is to be found in the rise of clubs like Shipley, Bingley, and Keighley. Many enthusiasts from the Airedale district used to go to Park Avenue and Valley Parade not long ago for their football. They now find a sufficient attraction nearer home.’ The crowd at the Ring of Bells ground on that occasion must have been close to six thousand.

The following season Shipley were winners of the first division, ahead of local rivals Keighley who were runners-up and Bingley who managed only to avoid the wooden spoon. Nevertheless, the mood of optimism and confidence was tempered by financial worries. The Shipley Times of 18 March, 1899 reported the dinner in ‘celebration of their having carried off the premier honours of the Yorkshire No.1 Competition.’ The chairman had congratulated the club but ‘wished to see the club occupying an even better position, and if its supporters only pulled themselves together and wiped off the debt which a present hampered it he had no doubt they would succeed, and he need not say they would be chary of contracting similar debts in future.’ Another official was quoted to the extent that ‘every year Shipley were getting nearer to the top of the tree in matters of football so far as Yorkshire was concerned, and their efforts during the present season, taken on their merits, were not only a credit to the players and the committee, but to the town.’

Shipley Baines

The collapse of a dream

The immediate aftermath of the split in 1895 had revealed the interdependence of the senior and junior clubs and both groups became losers. For the latter, the RFU ban on relations with the Northern Union took away an umbilical cord. The seniors were also impacted by new complications about recruiting local talent from sides whom they had always considered de facto nurseries. For the players, graduation to one of the senior clubs was now a make or break affair. Having represented a senior club or even played a trial game with a Northern Union side, the individual concerned ‘professionalised himself’ and by being denied amateur status was thus prevented from ever playing with a junior club under the auspices of the Yorkshire Rugby Union. In other words, where previously there had been a food chain between the small and large clubs as well as the backflow from senior to junior clubs, the free movement was now restricted in one direction only.

In 1897 Shipley FC was reminded of its relative status in the rugby world with the defection of Nim Greenwood to Manningham FC. Greenwood (pictured) had been one of the club’s leading players and a member of the cup team defeated by Hull KR in the Yorkshire Cup final. His loss was a major blow to Shipley and demonstrated that the Northern Union would always be a magnet for leading players in the Yorkshire Rugby Union. (He is remembered as one of the best of his era and after five years at Valley Parade joined Pontefact before transferring to Bradford FC in the second half of the 1903/04 season. Greenwood was in the Bradford team during the final season of rugby at Park Avenue in 1906/07 and in 1906 was a member of the club’s Northern Union Challenge Cup winning team.)

Nim Greenwood ex Shipley FC - Bradford FC NUCC 1906

The problem that the junior clubs faced was that they were forbidden to play fixtures with sides who had joined the Northern Union. At a stroke this removed the financial benefit of prestige games, in particular cup ties. Similarly, Bradford FC and Manningham FC had previously taken it upon themselves to organise friendlies with struggling junior sides to sustain their finances but this charity was no longer possible.

Before long there began to be misgivings in Yorkshire about whether the traditional junior clubs could survive as members of the Rugby Union in parallel to the Northern Union. The impasse between the RFU and Northern Union offered little prospect for junior clubs to resolve their financial difficulties. If anything, the pressures increased as a consequence of being forced to travel longer distances to secure fixtures and being unable to attract the public to games involving mediocre or nondescript opposition. In 1897 there was even talk of establishing a new, separate union of those clubs to represent their interests and this was prompted by charges of professionalism against Hull KR which most observers considered unfair. The subsequent defection of Hull KR to the Northern Union was generally interpreted to have dealt a blow to a third way solution and forced a binary choice. With the benefit of hindsight, the move by Hull KR was highly significant in determining the fate of those left behind as members of the Yorkshire Rugby Union.

The timing was cruel for Shipley FC which could rightfully consider that it had the opportunity to make a name for itself in Yorkshire rugby. Even if the competitions were weakened as a result of defection to the Northern Union, Shipley FC could still boast having been a finalist in the Yorkshire Challenge Cup of the1896/97 season and in 1898/99 champions of the top tier of the Yorkshire Senior Competition. It was confirmation to partisan supporters that Shipley FC was on the verge of a breakthrough and therefore it must have seemed almost as if a rug was being pulled from under its feet as one by one, other junior clubs either fell by the wayside or opted to join the Northern Union. For Shipley FC, the dream ended no sooner than it had begun.

Shipley FC and the Northern Union

Despite the depletion of the Yorkshire Rugby Union, and with it the loss of critical mass, there was still guarded optimism among the membership of Shipley FC. In 1896/97 the cup run had helped Shipley to generate record receipts of £364, albeit with an operating surplus of only £1. The following season, income fell by 7% but remained at a respectable level by historic standards. Even though there was a profit of only £3, the financial outlook was not critical and at that stage it could not be said that the club was disadvantaged by its membership of the Yorkshire Rugby Union.

The disbanding of Saltaire FC also presented an opportunity. Shipley FC inherited its wooden grandstand which was removed from Saltaire’s ground off Albert Road and it was also able to call upon the support of its former rival. It led the Leeds Times of 10 September, 1898 to suggest that the club’s position this season ‘will be strengthened by the recent demise of the Saltaire organisation.’

Shipley became known as a club that was loyal to the Yorkshire Rugby Union, dismissive about joining the Northern Union. A good reason for this was that Shipley FC had established itself as one of the leading clubs and enjoyed a status that had previously been denied. The Shipley Times report of the Shipley FC AGM of 18 August, 1898 confirmed that ‘the chief reason for remaining in the Yorkshire Union was that if Shipley FC joined the Northern Union they would have no chance of getting a player into the county, they would have no representation, and they had no guarantee of promotion by merit. Seeing that the club had now got to the top of the ladder in Yorkshire amateur football as it existed, he thought the best thing they could do was to remain loyal to the English Union.’

Although there remained a degree of bitterness towards the original rebels it was telling that there was a softening of attitude towards the Northern Union. At the same meeting, the chairman acknowledged that ‘at one time he did not think much of the tactics of that organisation, but to his mind they were in a vastly different position to what they were when they left the Yorkshire Union. They now had open professionalism and promotion by merit, and their action was now altogether open and above board.’ He added that the best thing they could do was forming another union of their own, an option discussed among other Yorkshire clubs the previous year prior to the defection of Hull KR. In other words, far from considering the Yorkshire Rugby Union to be ideal it was viewed as a ‘least worst’ option and a comfort blanket that afforded familiarity.

It was not an exaggeration to say the viability of junior clubs was questionable. Shipley FC was no exception to this but unlike many others it had the good fortune for its bank borrowings to be guaranteed by a benefactor. Percy Illingworth was another man of means to be involved with the club, the youngest son of the Bradford industrialist Henry Illingworth. Percy boasted a creditable football pedigree having represented Cambridge University, Blackheath and, as a guest player, Bradford FC. It is my belief that he – and possibly Maurice Bonsor – had encouraged the club’s ambitions to become a leading side within the Rugby Union after 1895. Illingworth’s motive to guarantee the bank borrowings in 1899 might even have been to discourage Shipley FC from joining the Northern Union. Yet even though Illingworth provided support he could hardly be described as a sugar daddy who was prepared to underwrite losses indefinitely and at the AGM in August, 1899 it was reported that his guarantee was limited to £40, only a third of the total debt at that time.

(Like Maurice and Fred Bonsor, Percy Illingworth was another prominent Bradford football personality who served in the South African war between 1899-00. Had Illingworth been actively involved with Shipley FC affairs in the 1899 close season then quite possibly he may have persuaded the club to remain in the Rugby Union.)

Loyalty to the Yorkshire Rugby Union was inevitably tested at the end of the 1898/99 season when, despite winning the first division of the Yorkshire RFU competition, there was a 30% collapse in gate receipts. It left no room for sentimentality and members were more concerned about facing personal liability for the club’s growing indebtedness. Not everyone was in favour of the club joining the Northern Union and it was a contentious issue that divided opinion. The collapse of cricket leagues in Yorkshire in 1899 and scepticism about the sustainability of competitive leagues had even led some to question whether the Northern Union had a future. There was an impasse between different factions which was not surprising given what was at stake and the sheer uncertainty of outcomes. It must have felt like a jump into the unknown, a bet on the future of the club.

The Shipley Times of 18 March 1899 reported a meeting of members: ‘The chairman appealed for help in the endeavour which the club were making to free themselves from the debt which had hung like a millstone round their necks for many years. If they could not wipe out that debt now, when the club was practically at the zenith of its fame, he did not know when they would be able to do it… there was no denying that the gates had not come up to expectations.’ With regards the Northern Union, the chairman said ‘they had thrashed the matter out time after time and he did not think the situation had altered. The club was better off without it. They were not governed by the rod of iron which dominated the operations of many of the clubs in the Northern Union – some of which he knew would be only too glad to return to the Rugby Union.

The Shipley FC AGM was delayed until the summer, most likely on account of the politics between different member factions. In the meantime, local rivals, Windhill FC – the ‘Crag Enders‘ – seceded immediately after the end of the 1898/99 season but what is intriguing is that that club attempted to rename itself ‘Shipley’ as a Northern Union club. I find it difficult to believe that this initiative was entirely unrelated to the disagreements that were ongoing between members of Shipley FC. Yet whether it was a case of mischief or commercial opportunism, Windhill FC sought to position itself as the Shipley representative in the Northern Union with the intention to rename the club ‘Shipley Northern Union FC’.

The move constituted a threat to Shipley FC with the implication of local players and even spectators being attracted to Windhill at the expense of the former. The Yorkshire committee of the Northern Union pre-empted this but it was not until the beginning of September, 1899 that it refused to grant authority for the name change. Agreement already existed between the Northern Union and the Football Association to prevent duplicate names but the Windhill case represented a rare example of co-operation with the Yorkshire Rugby Union to prevent an identity clash.

The Shipley Times report of 9 August, 1899 spoke of the heated debate when the AGM of Shipley members eventually took place: ‘some members expressed dissatisfaction at the manner in which the club had been worked during the last season. The question of old liabilities continually cropped up, and mainly on account of being held responsible for the debts, most of the late officers were unwilling to be re-elected. There was a stalemate in terms of future options although joining the Northern Union was rejected. It was agreed that the old committee would meet to determine a course of action for the forthcoming season.’

The reluctance of people to accept office on account of the club’s liabilities led to the old committee being asked to resolve the deadlock and a final decision was made three weeks later on 30 August to join the Northern Union. The decision was made at roughly the same time as the conclusion of the Windhill renaming saga which must have had a bearing on the outcome. Ultimately, the fact that defection took place in the last week of August, close to the beginning of the 1899/00 season suggests that it was not well-planned.

There were two key reasons cited in the Leeds Mercury of 2 September, 1899 for the decision. The first was a dearth of fixtures with the few arranged being far below the standard of prior years and only 16 games having been scheduled for the forthcoming season. The second was that the club had to face the probability of having their ranks considerably weakened by the migration of their players to wealthier Northern Union clubs. The defection of two leading players at the end of August, 1899 may have prompted the decision to secede to the Northern Union with Ernie Jacobson moving to Hunslet and Herbert Ward rejoining Bradford FC.

A further issue was that the club was aggrieved at only having been granted one county trial match by the Yorkshire Union. The consensus within the committee had been ‘that to remain longer in the Rugby Union would be to court disaster.’ It was said that the players favoured the move and ‘a majority of the members of the club have for some time been hankering after a change.’

The Northern Union had an attraction for the rank and file players because it offered better fixtures and more local games. Not only did this promise higher gate revenues; a reduction in travelling also ensured lower costs and had benefit for the finances. Membership of the Northern Union was seen as an insurance policy to retain players but it also offered advantages for recruitment simply because the number playing the amateur game was diminishing.

Yet whilst these were considerations common to other clubs, there were also issues that were specific to Shipley FC in dictating the choice of the Northern Union. A defensive response to Windhill’s action was one such factor. Another was the impasse between factions of the Shipley membership to determine a viable future for the club and in the final event the old committee acted almost like receivers of the club. The lack of consensus among members threatened the club’s ability to deal with its increased indebtedness, a factor which had dissuaded people from getting involved with the management of its affairs. Accepting the status quo by default was therefore hardly an option and hence radical decision was considered necessary to reinvigorate Shipley FC.

1899-09-16 BDT Shipley cartoon

Nevertheless, Shipley FC came close to be excluded from the Northern Union which would have been embarrassing having resigned from the Yorkshire Rugby Union. Club officials needed to lobby the Northern Union clubs both for late admission to the league and for fixtures to be arranged. Thankfully Antonio Fattorini of Manningham FC is known to have supported the application of Shipley in the face of opposition from others, including the members of Windhill. A suggestion that the club was in disarray is provided by the fact that Shipley’s opening game in the Northern Union was a crushing defeat at Dewsbury.

The end for Shipley FC

The move to the Northern Union was not popular with everyone. Shipley FC went from the top division of the Yorkshire Rugby Union to the second tier of the Northern Union in Yorkshire and this was the dilemma for Shipley FC, to be a big fish in a draining pond or to be a small fish in deeper waters. It also illustrated that defecting to the Northern Union was never going to be a magic solution to financial difficulties. And so it proved in 1899/00 when total income during the club’s first season in the Northern Union was only £112 – a reduction of £106, nearly half of that in the previous year – with a deficit of £23.

Shipley FC Dec-00

Shipley v Keighley, 25th December 1900

During the 1900/01 season the club made a determined effort to raise funds through various social events alive and the fund-raising efforts were nothing less than innovative. The Shipley Times of 8 September, 1900 announced that a grand bazaar was to be held at Christmas to remove the debt and on 29 December, 1900 it was reported that on Christmas Eve a ‘Corean Bazaar’ was held in the Shipley Central Infants’ School, opened by Percy Illingworth who declared ‘that a town so well organised and so well-contained as Shipley ought to have a football team worthy of the reputation of the place. He treated that all who appreciated football as an outdoor sport would endeavour to bring about that state of things, and would rally to the support of the committee in their effort to accomplish their laudable aims. He was an ardent supporter of all outdoor games and he did not think there was anything more suited to the temperament and genius of our people than Rugby football. It drew forth many qualities, among them courage, good temper, and endurance.’

Illingworth confessed that ‘he viewed with some feeling of apprehension the time of the split in Rugby football. He was one of those who thought that if a little more discretion had been shown on both sides they would still have been playing under the rule of the Rugby Union, a body which was now sadly in need of the help of its old Yorkshire supporters who were now under the Northern Union. He was not particularly fond of a crowd at football matches. He would prefer to see 10,000 playing than 30 playing and 10,000 watching; but he was afraid the club treasurers would not agree with him.’ His comments reveal that he was primarily concerned with the survival of Shipley FC as a local institution and that prejudices about the Northern Union were secondary to this. The support of chairman, William Denby – who was the owner of the dye works at Tong Park – similarly betrayed local patriotism. In acknowledging him, Illingworth said of Denby that ‘there was no good cause in Shipley which had not that gentleman on its side.’

Illingworth declared his hope that the bazaar would be a success to clear the club’s debt of £120 ‘a small one for a town like Shipley‘. The fund-raising efforts probably also encouraged support for the club through promotion of the holiday fixture with Keighley FC on Christmas Day, 1900 at the Ring Of Bells ground. It was reported in the Bradford Daily Telegraph that seven thousand people attended the game and in the absence of railway connections it was claimed that hundreds of people had resorted to walking down the Aire Valley en masse to Shipley.

It seems likely that the crowd for the derby game at Shipley constituted the record attendance at the ground which would have provided a considerable boost to the club’s finances. Whether the attendance was actually as high as seven thousand is questionable and whether the club was able to collect monies from all the spectators is another question entirely. For a start, the site of the ground was not extensive and the perimeter structures would have been rudimentary, possibly no more than tarpaulin covers with a couple of entrances at which gate money was collected.

From a financial perspective the 1900/01 season was something of a success for Shipley FC. It was subsequently reported in April, 1901 that the club had ended the campaign ‘£50 better off than at the commencement of the season’ which probably encouraged a sense of optimism among Shipley supporters that the club could stabilise its affairs and enjoy a revival.

There were no further attempts at merger with either Saltaire or Windhill but it is doubtful whether this could have transformed the prospects of Shipley FC. The experience of football in the Spen Valley had demonstrated that amalgamation was easier said than done. For example in 1899 the officials of the Liversedge and Heckmondwike clubs had resisted coming together despite their financial difficulties and the fact that the Spen Valley – like the Shipley district – could not support two professional sides. The case for merger of those clubs was strong and the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 8 April, 1899 ascribed the reason why it didn’t happen to the self-interest of the individuals concerned. The following year Liversedge combined with Cleckheaton FC following the latter’s secession to the Northern Union. However, this arrangement was generally accepted to have been a failure in terms of both financial outcomes and playing performances. The experience of Liversedge / Cleckheaton may have reinforced attitudes that fusions were not the best way to ensure survival.

Indeed, it is telling that apart from Liversedge / Cleckheaton no other amalgamations occurred among junior rugby clubs in West Yorkshire and besides. Such was the independent-mindedness and competitiveness between rivals that the emotional baggage of any merger was always going to be a major obstacle. With the Saltaire club having wound-up in 1898, the Shipley committee must have concluded that if Windhill FC was left to collapse under its debts then this would be a preferential outcome.

The record of Shipley FC in the Northern Union was modest. Denied a place in the Northern Union Challenge Cup competition of 1899/00 (presumably on account of late registration), in 1900/01 it suffered a first round defeat at Stockport.

Shipley was one of the stronger sides in the Yorkshire Second Competition Western Division and in 1900/01 there had been a close race between Heckmondwike, Shipley, Sowerby Bridge and Keighley for the championship. However, it was Heckmondwike who were champions of the division during the two seasons of Shipley’s membership.

1901-02-16 YS cartoon

Yorkshire Sports cartoon, February 1901

In April, 1901 the Shipley members were informed that the Earl of Rosse had recently sold the club’s ground opposite its headquarters at the Ring Of Bells for residential development and that the club had been given notice to vacate by the end of the month. The short notice period is worthy of mention as it hardly provided security of tenure for the club, another factor conspiring against robust finances or more extensive development of facilities.

Having investigated the possibility of a new ground the leadership decided that it could not afford the cost of levelling the land and building a retaining wall. (The site of the ground is reported as having been ‘between the railway and the canal with its entrance in Ashley Lane’ but there is also reference to a field at Jane Hills.) In July, 1901 it was decided to disband Shipley FC but at least the club avoided the indignity of Bingley FC the previous December, whose landlord distrained for non-payment of rent and removed the goal posts at Wagon Lane.

Nevertheless, Shipley FC had outstanding debts of £83 and its members were liable for this. In October, 1901 the auction of the remnants of the club’s two wooden stands realised only £7 and additional fund-raising activity had to continue until the end of the year.

Within ten years of the rugby split that had occurred in 1895, the Bradford district had become a soccer stronghold. The city boasted the first Football League club in West Yorkshire and the Bradford & District Football League comprised local sides from every suburb and village. Rugby was played in only a handful of schools and most striking of all, the junior rugby clubs of what is now the Bradford Metropolitan District were virtually extinct – the most notable exception being Keighley FC who by this stage was one of the leading Northern Union sides in the county. (The only other survivor was Wyke FC, again a member of the Northern Union.)

The emergence of Shipley Victoria FC after the winding-up of Shipley FC may have been an attempt by former Shipley members and enthusiasts to continue playing Northern Union rugby. However Shipley Victoria existed at a very junior level as members of the second division of the Bradford & District Rugby Union and had a fleeting existence. The team ground shared with Windhill Rangers at Cowling Road, Windhill.

The end of Windhill FC

No further attempt was made by Windhill FC to assume the ‘Shipley’ identity and in July, 1901 the Shipley members rejected a proposal for a committee to investigate the possibility of merger with Windhill FC. (Irrespective it is unlikely that Windhill members would have had any enthusiasm to combine and take responsibility for the Shipley debts).

Windhill FC eventually disbanded at the end of the 1902/03 season, succumbing to its financial difficulties which were compounded by poor accounting and weak controls. In March, 1903 there was embarrassment at the fact that the club had been unable to fulfil a fixture at Sowerby Bridge on account of not having sufficient funds to pay the rail fare. During the course of inquiry it emerged that a cheque payment from a benefactor had been ‘lost’, a not dissimilar situation to that in 1888 when the financial records had gone missing. The donation had been made by Sir Fortescue Flannery, by this time the Shipley MP (1895-1906) and his support for Windhill FC is another example of the far-reaching links between Conservative politicians and football clubs in the Bradford district and surrounding areas. The Shipley Times of 6 March 1903 disclosed the internal investigations within the club and recriminations: ‘In the course of a heated discussion it appeared that the financial difficulties of the club were due to a great measure to the way in which the books of the club had been kept… and that the present officials thought that the interests of the club would be best served by ‘hushing’ the matter up.

Whether Windhill FC enjoyed favourable political patronage is a matter of speculation but it is notable that alone of other junior rugby clubs in the Bradford district and vicinity, its ground at Crag End was safeguarded thanks to civic intervention. In January, 1901 Shipley District Council agreed to the purchase and ‘laying out’ of the Windhill Cricket & Football Field as a public recreation ground at a cost of £3,000. The Shipley Times of 2 February reported that ‘the proposed recreation ground at Windhill was in a densely populated district, and it was thought that it would very unadvisable to let it be disposed of for building purposes.’ It is unclear if the Windhill club enjoyed beneficial lease arrangements from the new ownership but the decision is notable, representing as it did a fairly enlightened policy. (Arguably the proximity of alternative recreational facilities at Red Beck Fields dissuaded Shipley Council from seeking to protect the home of Shipley FC at the Ring of Bells ground from property development. However, being situated in a relatively affluent area, the case for intervention would have been much weaker.)

At the end of June, 1904 nearby Idle FC was wound up. Bumper receipts from its cup tie reply with Manningham FC the previous February had provided temporary respite but the club was not viable and its members recognised the futility of continuing. Blame for the club’s demise was attributed to the Northern Union. Such sentiments were consistent with those of many other rugby followers in Bradford and reflected growing disenchantment with the code around that time.


The fate of Keighley FC

Keighley FC had similar pretensions to those of Shipley and had finished as runners-up in the top tier of the Yorkshire Rugby Union in 1897/98 and then 1898/99. It had previously been champions of the YSC second division in 1896/97 (twelve months after Shipley FC won the same title). Shipley’s defection to the Northern Union in 1899 removed a key competitor and in 1899/00 Keighley secured the YSC first division championship (again, emulating Shipley’s achievement the previous year). Nevertheless, rumours in the Bradford Daily Telegraph in January, 1900 of Keighley following Shipley into the Northern Union proved accurate and at the end of the season Keighley seceded alongside the Bingley, Cleckheaton, Otley and Wyke clubs.

In 1900/01, league rivalry between Keighley and Shipley was renewed as fellow members of the Northern Union’s Yorkshire Second Competition Western Division. The motives of Keighley FC had been entirely financial, specifically to benefit from better crowds and to reduce travelling costs. In terms of fostering local interest, membership of the league was seemingly ideal with a total of fifteen other clubs in the division and no more than twenty miles between them. Five of those were based in Calderdale and five were from Airedale – Bingley, Idle and Windhill in addition to Keighley and Shipley. (The remaining clubs were Dewsbury, Heckmondwike, Kirkstall, Birstall and Otley.)

In 1901/02, with the disbanding of Shipley FC, it was Manningham FC who became local rivals for Keighley FC. The following season Keighley finished above Manningham to secure promotion to the top tier of the Northern Union as champions of the newly formed second division (that embraced Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs).

Although Keighley FC was relegated at the end of 1903/04, in 1905/06 it was ranked fifth highest in the north and in 1906/07 it was fourth (pictured below), finishing above Bradford FC. Prior to the outcome of World War One it was the strongest club in what is now the Bradford Metropolitan District. It was a remarkable ascendancy, an achievement that defied Shipley FC. Arguably Keighley benefited from the demise of Shipley in 1901 and the conversion of Manningham FC to soccer in 1903 – as Bradford City AFC – because it was able to attract rugby enthusiasts along the Midland Railway / Aire valley corridor. Similarly in 1901 and 1903 it was able to recruit former Shipley and Manningham players.

Keighley NRFC 1907.jpg

In November, 1907 when the new Bradford Northern club played Keighley at Greenfield it was remarked that there were as many Bradford district players in the Lawkholme Lane side as the home team and that the fixture could hence be classed as a local ‘derby’.

Had Shipley FC not faced eviction in 1901 and the expense of relocation, quite possibly its members would have prolonged the struggle and it might have been Shipley and not Keighley – now known as Keighley Cougars in the Rugby League – who survived.

A new Shipley club

The Shipley identity was revived in September, 1908 by members of the Bradford Wanderers rugby union club who opted to rename their organisation. The Wanderers played in Shipley and the club’s decision was intended to encourage local interest – prompted perhaps by the revival of Otley RFC the previous year. It revealed a distinct identity and sense of local autonomy that is not so quaint as might be presupposed.

The extent to which Shipley people were independent-minded in relation to Bradford is notable and provides historic context to recent suggestions about Shipley seceding from the jurisdiction of the wider Bradford Metropolitan District. In 1938 for example, the Shipley Times & Express reported celebrations in the town when the compulsory incorporation of Shipley into the Bradford district was rejected in Parliament. It echoed similar sentiments in 1901 when Baildon residents had lobbied to remain within the Shipley district rather than be absorbed into Bradford. The resistance was as much driven by economic reasoning as sentimentality and ever since the 1880s there had been sensitivity in Shipley about the cost of water supplies from Bradford Corporation. Shipley people were also mindful about higher property rate levies in Bradford.

Bfd Wanderers lo-res

The Bradford Wanderers club had been formed in 1899 and originally played its games at Birch Lane which had been vacated as a result of the Bowling Old Lane rugby section disbanding in 1897. In 1903 the club had relocated to Red Beck Fields off Otley Road and used the nearby Branch Hotel as its headquarters. (This was the same ground that had been used by Manningham Albion – a predecessor of Manningham FC – in 1879/80 and until 1883, by the original Shipley FC. Sadly the Branch Hotel is no more to be seen having been demolished in August, 2018.) Bradford Wanderers became known as the ‘Red Beck Amateurs’. However, in 1906 when the club merged with Bradford Rangers it became known as plain ‘Bradford’, thereby implying the inheritance of the town club’s rugby union heritage.

The reason for the merger was to remove competition between Rangers and Wanderers for new recruits. By combining it was felt that standards could be improved and the future of rugby union in the area safeguarded. Nevertheless, the move was not welcomed by all and a new club, Horton RUFC was formed. A crucial point of difference was that the Horton club was based in Bradford and more convenient to those living in the south of the city – much the same factor that had driven the way in which rugby had originally evolved in the district during the three preceding decades. (At the time of the merger it was reported that the combined club had hoped to play at the former Lidget Green ground of Bradford Rangers. However it is unclear why this did not happen and how it was that the Horton club adopted the ground.)

The emergence of Horton undermined the initiative at Shipley and hence within two years came the seemingly radical measure of changing the latter club’s name. The decision to forsake the Bradford identity for that of Shipley needs to be seen in the context of the ‘Great Betrayal’ in 1907 when rugby had been abandoned at Park Avenue. This had led to the emergence of two new sporting identities – Bradford Park Avenue and Bradford Northern – and the disappearance of the ‘Bradford’ rugby club. Mindful of possible confusion, the renaming of Bradford Wanderers to ‘Shipley’ can be interpreted as signifying a fresh start for rugby in the area and the adoption of a distinct identity. Furthermore the club did not have its base within the Bradford boundaries and it could appeal to those who had followed the original Shipley FC. Undoubtedly there would have been a sentiment among local rugby followers of unfinished business from the previous decade as well as an eye to what Keighley FC had achieved.

The appeal to ‘local patriotism’ in Shipley may also have been encouraged by long time benefactor and patron Percy Illingworth who was president of Bradford Wanderers and by this time also the MP for Shipley (a Liberal, elected 1906 and serving MP until his death in 1915). The underlying motive for a relaunch however was to attract new recruits to the club to safeguard its survival and give vibrancy. The fact that the club had found itself struggling to compete with Horton RUFC – by this time established as the leading rugby union side in the Bradford district – was the fundamental issue.

horton 1911-12 named

The challenge for the club was not so much one of finance; it was the struggle to recruit new players. By this stage there were few who played rugby union and before long came the realisation that Shipley RFC was disadvantaged by being based at the Red Beck Fields which it shared with the town’s soccer side that played in the Bradford & District League. In December, 1909 a home fixture was arranged with Skipton at the Stanacre ground of Victoria Rangers (who had disbanded the previous summer and converted from Northern Union to soccer). The Leeds Mercury of 1 January, 1910 reported the experiment and said that the club was even considering a revival of its earlier ‘Bradford Wanderers’ identity, a decision that was clearly driven by recruitment needs. Ultimately the Shipley identity was sacrificed and the club – renamed as Bradford Wanderers – later everted to the tradition home of Bradford rugby at Apperley Bridge.

Bradford Wanderers briefly disbanded in 1912 before reforming once more. The club’s somewhat transient existence came down to the difficulty of recruiting new members, a malaise that continued to affect rugby union in Bradford with reliance upon former Bradford Grammar School (and to a lesser extent Woodhouse Grove School) boys to fill the ranks. Immediately after World War One the remaining members of Bradford Wanderers joined those of Horton to form Bradford RFC at Lidget Green. [Refer here about the revival of Bradford rugby union in 1919]

Shipley FC remembered

Virtually nothing remains other than Baines trade cards as a reminder that Shipley had its own rugby club. Yet whilst the history of the Rugby League has tended to focus on the big names, the fate of junior sides such as Shipley FC was equally significant. The story of Shipley is part of the narrative of how rugby became commercialised as an entertainment industry and of how this impacted on the fate of smaller clubs. The case of Shipley FC also contradicts the prevailing version of the 1895 split in English rugby that junior sides in Yorkshire were enthusiastic about seceding from the Rugby Union and that class identity was a driver of this.

Although its playing colours of black, scarlet and blue were more distinctive than its playing record, Shipley FC should be remembered as one of those bread and butter clubs who were part of the sporting revolution that took place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in the Bradford area. The story of Shipley FC is also a reminder that no meaningful history of rugby at a national level can be written without considering the fate of unglamorous and long forgotten local sides.

By John Dewhirst [ @jpdewhirst ]

**My thanks to Stuart Quinn for allowing me to feature two of his Shipley cards (pub Baines of Bradford) in this feature.

Links to other online features:

More on the history of Bradford rugby on VINCIT

The Bradford Charity Cup

How the Bradford case study contradicts the orthodox view re 1895

The revival of Rugby Union in Bradford in 1919

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) explain 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. 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 features about Bradford Sport History by John Dewhirst

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


The Albert Geldard story



16th September 1929 was a significant milestone in the annals of both the Football League and more relevantly, Bradford Sporting History.

 At the tender age of 15 years, 156 days, Bradford born youngster Albert Geldard made his Football League debut for Second Division Bradford (Park Avenue) against Millwall at the Den in South London.

 Just  as an aside, Albert’s record was amazingly equalled in 1951 by Wrexham’s Ken Roberts against…………..Bradford (Park Avenue)!

Geldard 3

 It has since been broken by Barnsley youngster Reuben Noble-Lazarus on 30th September 2008 who lowered the bar to 15 years and 45 days of age. As another sign of the times, Noble-Lazarus wasn’t allowed any payment and had to go to school the next morning. Albert in 1929 was already working in the office for a firm of dyers and had to seek permission to make the two day journey to London to fulfil the fixture. He recalled that Avenue’s trainer, the former Bradford City winger Albert Bartlett had told the players after a reserve game in the Midland League to report to the ground the following morning,  a Sunday, as the club’s Directors were selecting the travelling party for the trip to London. Geldard had to ask if this was correct as he had just broken into the reserve team at his tender age. Bartlett insisted he was to attend but arrived late not being irreverent enough to sneak out of church early for his date with destiny.

 Once it was confirmed he was in the party, there was also the small matter of gaining his Father’s permission & also that of his employers. He was taken in Chairman Stanley Waddilove’s limousine to firstly, his home, then place of work and thankfully, all permissions were granted. The team travelled by train and he shared a room with Avenues ex-England half-back Alf Quantrill. The game itself was won 2-0 and passed the youngster by in the main playing on a surge of nerves and adrenaline. The next day after travelling back North he had to report to work and faced the inevitable barrage of questions about the game, how he felt , how did he play etc.

 This, though, was only the beginning. Albert Geldard was born 11th April 1914 in the Brownroyd area of Bradford. His Father Frederick was an outstanding winger in Bradford Amateur Football and both Albert & his elder Brother Norman inherited their Fathers sporting prowess.

By 1925 and now attending Whetley Lane school, he was representing Bradford Boys, his Brother Norman Captaining the side against Ardsley. The following season saw him & Norman selected for the Yorkshire Boys team thus becoming the 1st Brothers to appear for the side in the same season. At this time, Whetley Lane were dominant in Bradford Schools football, cricket & athletics, no doubt helped by the 2 Geldard Boys. Norman was good enough to be offered trials at both Huddersfield Town & Bradford Park Avenue but by this time he was committed to a career outside sport and his work commitments meant he  never entered the professional ranks. Albert on the other hand went from strength to strength. In his final season at school, he scored an incredible 113 goals for his side including a 22 goal haul in a 35 goal victory against a hapless Carr Lane School.

Spring 1927 saw Albert selected for his 1st International trial in a North v Midlands match at Newark. His inside partner was a ‘little boy from Sunderland’ named Raich Carter. The 2 were kept together when the England team was selected for a match against Wales at Bristol Rovers Eastville ground. I believe this made him the 1st Bradford born schoolboy international since 1914 when Maurice Wellock of Bradford City was selected. In 1927 & 1928, Albert played for every representative side at Junior level, Captaining the Yorkshire Boys side. He also represented Bradford Boys at Cricket and had to make the decision on leaving school whether to spend his free time pursuing a career in Football or Cricket.

As mentioned earlier, upon leaving school Albert gained employment as a clerk in a Dyeing Company but he continued his football with the Manningham Mills club.

At the tender age of just 12, Albert had been spotted by the Secretary-Manager of Park Avenue, Claude Ingram and after gaining the permission of albert’s Father, at the age of 15 made his debut for the Reserves against Northern Nomads on 9th March 1929. After showing well in the following seasons Pre-season practise games, the local press were already raving about the potential of the youngster. After his full debut, word quickly spread about the young prodigy and to ward off interest from Charlton Athletic amongst others, Albert signed Professional terms with Bradford Park Avenue on his 17th Birthday. At first he was drip-fed games with the 1st team to ease him in to the professional game. One of his rivals for a place was the Welsh international Eddie Parris who was a great friend of Alberts.

Between 1929 & 1932, Albert made 34 appearances scoring 6 goals before a bid of £4000 was accepted by the club from Everton. The week after his transfer, he made his 1st team debut at Middlesbrough providing the centres for the legendary Dixie Dean. At Everton, as well as supplying the ammunition for Dean, his successor, another legend, Tommy Lawton was a great admirer of Alberts tricky wing play, great crossing ability and his blistering speed. It  was acknowledged that Lawton uttered the memorable quote that Albert was so quick ‘He could catch pigeons’.

Soccer - Football League - Everton

1933 saw Albert selected for the FA Cup Final team after an injury scare in the Semi Final. At only 19 years of age he was one of the youngest ever Finalists and provided the cross for Jimmy Dunn’s winning goal for the Toffees. To add to the excitement of playing in the FA Cup Final, the week before, Albert had learned to his surprise that he had been selected for the England touring party to visit Italy & Switzerland. Albert was selected against Italy and became the first Bradford born England International. He also played against Switzerland in Berne  but had to leave the field injured. He was to make 2 further England appearances.

During his Everton career he made 180 appearances scoring 38 goals. A decent return when the wingers job was usually to supply crosses for the Centre Forward.

Albert Geldard 2

By 1938 however, Albert had fallen out of favour with certain sections of the Goodison crowd and was in fact dropped to accomdate Torry Gillick on the wing. In the March, Everton transferred Albert to Bolton Wanderers for a fee of £7000. his time at Bolton was blighted by injury and he found himself in & out of the side before in 1939, the country once again found itself at War with Germany. Bolton’s players enlisted en masse and Albert was, as many players were, assigned as a PT instructor seeing service in France, Italy  & Greece before returning home. He was one of the more fortunate ones as his Captain at Bolton, the England International Harry Goslin, was killed in action.

By 1946 , albert decided to bow out at the top and despite a season in amateur football with Darwen, he retired to concentrate  on his future in Waste management with a firm in Bury.

 Outside football, his interests included conjuring and magic tricks, being introduced to it by  his Uncle Will. On signing for Everton, he met a noted magician of the era, one Oscar Paulsen who introduced him the the Liverpool Magic Circle. His slight of hand also matched his speed on the field and he became an accomplished conjuror entertaining his team mates on long away trips and even appearing in several shows after the war in the Bury area. He was always a welcome guest at Everton reunions for the 1933 Cup Winners.

On a visit back to Bradford, he met his old friend, the England international full back Sam Barkas. At one point in 1929, Geldard at Park Avenue & Barkas at Bradford City were the 2 bright young stars of Bradford football both going on to represent their country.

During his career he collected all the press reports, programmes and photographs of his career and was a keen member of the PFA whilst at Bolton, campaigning to improve the lot of his professional colleagues and also had a spell as a journalist with the Sunday Post. He was shy, private person who never boasted of his exploits and his place in history as the youngest ever player.

 Albert Geldard, a true legend of Bradford sport died aged 75 on October 8th 1989.