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

The Centenary of the Bradford Rugby Revival

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

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

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

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

horton 1911-12 named

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

A new enthusiasm for Rugby Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions to the Rugby Union revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hickson’s Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground opening

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

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

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

BRFC Myers

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

LG Apr-19 1

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

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

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. [9]

NZ v Aus Bradford

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

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

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. [10]

1923-04-23 t'owd tin pot

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

Apr-25 Bfd Rugby YCC triple

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

new stand LG 1923

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

Bfd rugby YCC 1923 - Copy.jpg

Bfd RFC 1923.jpg

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

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

The fate of Bradford Rugby

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bradford RFC 1974 x

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

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

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

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

By John Dewhirst


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

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

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

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

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

[6] Rugby Reloaded podcast by Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other online articles about Bradford sport by the same author


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

Tweets: @jpdewhirst


Bradford RFC 1920s (5)

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

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

Contributions and feedback are welcome.

The Bradford Boys

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

by Ian Hemmens

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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.

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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 overlooked 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. At the bottom were local clubs, ranging 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.

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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 in 1886, a disputed winning try in the Bradford Charity Cup tie at Valley Parade led to the Bingley players leaving the field three minutes before the end of the game.

During the first half of the 1880s the club derived 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.

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.)

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 in 1885, remaining a member of the first team at Park Avenue until his retirement 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, 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 appear to have made a significant impact and it was claimed in April, 1901 that the club had ended the 1900/01 season ‘£50 better off than at the commencement of the season‘.

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 and the experience may have reinforced attitudes that fusions were not the best way to ensure survival.

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 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.

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, 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

**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.

The origins of women’s football in Bradford

This feature examines the origins of women’s football in Bradford and considers the impact of the Football Association’s ban on women’s football in 1921 on the subsequent development of the game in the district. Case studies of the early Bradford experience provide an illustration of the prejudices about women’s football. Below an advert in the BCAFC programme, April 1921.

The ban on women’s football

The advances of women’s football in the last few years and the growth in its profile make it seem all the more incredible that between 1921-71 the Football Association enforced a ban on women’s football being staged on any of the grounds of its member clubs, whether Football League stadia or amateur pitches.

The ban in December, 1921 came just at the time when certain women’s sides – most notably Dick, Kerr Ladies – had demonstrated a capability to attract huge crowds. The best example of this had been on Boxing Day, 1920 when a reported crowd of 53,000 had attended Goodison Park (and a further 14,000 were locked out) for a game involving the Dick, Kerr team against St Helens Ladies that raised £3,115 for charities. The scale of the crowd is all the more remarkable for then having been the second largest ever recorded for any association game in England.

The Dick, Kerr team, comprising employees of the Dick, Kerr munitions factory in Preston had been formed in 1917 and during World War One had played games to raise money for soldiers’ charities. It was not unique and other teams were formed by female munitions workers. In 1917, fourteen women’s teams entered the new Munitionettes Cup competition which was probably the first to cater solely for women’s football.

After the war Dick, Kerr Ladies had continued to participate in exhibition games across the north of England, including Bradford, with the matches promoted to raise funds for charity – for example, for the benefit of injured ex-servicemen or hospital funds. The emergence in 1921 of the Manningham Mills Ladies team, followed shortly after by Hey’s Ladies, suggest that Dick, Kerr Ladies inspired the formation of other works-based teams. Of itself it was unique within British football that a works side should achieve such prominence.

(It should be highlighted that Dick, Kerr also organised a women’s hockey team around this time and the encouragement of sport in this way needs to be considered in the context of employer paternalism. Similarly, Manningham Mills and Hey’s Brewery fostered women’s cricket teams.)

The Dick, Kerr Ladies team was also relatively unique in so far as its games were exhibition matches – rather than league or cup games – against other women’s sides and in this regard it had more in common with such as the Corinthians who arranged ad hoc fixtures with men’s teams (both professional and amateur). At the time there was no national league or cup competition for women’s football and thus Dick, Kerr Ladies organised games by invitation. Presumably Dick, Kerr Ladies were similarly no different to the Corinthians in avoiding fixtures where costs could not be recovered.

Dick, Kerr's Ladies

Yet why could the Football Association have been so bothered about the rise of women’s football? Casting aside any aspersions about members of the FA’s leadership committees, my belief is that what prompted the ban on the women’s game was concern that the integrity of the (men’s) game might be undermined if football became known equally for showground spectacle (by women) rather than just competitive contest (by men). The fact that outside commercial interests stood to benefit was another factor in this. The Football Association considered itself responsible for upholding the self-respect and standards of the game and it was a legitimate worry that the sport could be de-valued in some way. Take for example the popular opposition that has arisen in the modern era when American promoters have suggested changes to the ‘rules of soccer’ for the principal purpose of making it more of a spectacle. That is not to condone the FA’s ban as opposed to try and understand how it could have come about.

The ostensible reason for the Football Association ban was that although games were advertised as charity fund-raising, it was claimed (following specific incidents in Plymouth and Dundee) that not all the proceeds were applied for that purpose. The inference was that individuals could be making private gain and the FA was known to be sensitive to the spectre of financial irregularity in the game, irrespective of male or female participants.

Discomfort may have also been caused by the fact that the Dick, Kerr side was openly linked to the Preston firm of the same name (later known as English Electric) which would have derived commercial benefit from the publicity. Take for example that the Dick, Kerr Ladies side was credited with pioneering floodlit football and in December, 1920 staged a game under floodlights at Deepdale, Preston in front of a 10,000 crowd. The fact that the Dick, Kerr Ladies enjoyed the advantage of the parent firm possessing core skills in electrical engineering raised the suspicion of gains accruing from linkage with a sponsor. The Football Association thus faced a potential threat that the game might become hijacked by outside commercial interests who were not financially accountable.

It seems likely that the Football Association perceived the phenomenon of women’s football as a material threat. There is a strong case that the ban arose because the FA was concerned that curiosity for, and the distraction of, women’s football might undermine the men’s game. A headline theme was the scale of public interest with attendances at games involving Dick, Kerr Ladies being typically in excess of those of third division clubs in the Football League. During the calendar year of 1921 the side played as many as 67 games with aggregate attendances of around 900,000 – an average of just over 13,000 which was impressive by second division standards.

However, that the Football Association justified its ban by claiming football was not suited to the physiology of women makes it difficult to avoid the accusation of misogyny. The fact that it came so soon after women had been given the vote in 1918 and the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 (which had ended legal discrimination against women) implies a revanchist agenda on the part of the Football Association. From today’s standards the decision is difficult to believe as well as indefensible.

Although a number of prominent male players expressed disapproval about the ban, the Football Association action in 1921 did not prompt political uproar or widespread opposition in the country at large. In other words, at the time it was not considered particularly controversial. How then can the action of the FA be explained? Examples of the early experience of women’s football in Bradford may offer some clues about the social and cultural perspectives that existed a hundred years ago.


The first women footballers in Bradford

The origins and history of women’s football in Bradford has received scant attention. In the limited coverage of the subject, even so-called (or rather, self-proclaimed) leading historians of sport and leisure have fallen into the trap of taking historic mention of women’s football matches at face value. For instance Pendleton, whose book Kick Off! (2018) specifically examines the early history of women’s involvement in sport in Bradford, fails to recognise that in the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, women’s football matches were treated as showground spectacles rather than serious competitive fixtures. Yet this distinction is crucial in understanding the evolution of women’s football in Great Britain and of how it was shaped by social prejudices.

Three separate accounts of women’s football matches in the Bradford district confirm the prejudice and misogyny that existed in relation to female participation, illustrating how games were staged for the amusement and titillation of predominantly male spectators, principally as shows of farce and mockery. Women’s football had novelty value, akin almost to a freak show or circus. The reports of games – all of which were association football – at Windhill, Shipley in 1881, Valley Parade in 1895 and Park Avenue in 1917 are consistent in highlighting that those attending had not done so for the purpose of watching a serious game.

One hundred years ago, at a national level few of those involved with the men’s game took women’s football seriously. In the Victorian era women’s football had been associated with exhibitionism and this continued to pervade attitudes. That few people could imagine otherwise was confirmation of the prejudice and social opinions that were then commonplace. An example of this is the following ballad that was published in the Yorkshire Sports (Bradford) in 1901:

1901 YS Lady footballers

Locally, players and officials from Bradford City AFC can be credited with having given assistance to women’s football with individuals involved with the game at Park Avenue in 1917. Similar goodwill was extended in 1921 towards the newly formed Hey’s Ladies. The support could equally be interpreted that women’s football was not considered a threat to the Valley Parade club, let alone to the men’s game.

In Bradford two new sides had emerged. They were not the pioneers in West Yorkshire however; the Huddersfield Atalanta club had been formed in November, 1920 (non-works related, comprising middle class membership). First came the Manningham Mills Ladies’ side in 1921 (also known as Lister Ladies) whom Dick, Kerr Ladies defeated 6-0 at Valley Parade in front of 14,000 on 13 April (pictured below).

1921 Manningham Ladies

The day after, Dick, Kerr Ladies repeated the victory over Lister’s at Millmoor, Rotherham by 7-0 with a crowd of over ten thousand. In August, 1921 the recently formed Hey’s Ladies (another works side based in Manningham, being that of the eponymous brewery) played Dick, Kerr Ladies in Leeds but were defeated 0-9 and a week later Dick, Kerr’s again defeated Lister’s Ladies, this time by eleven clear goals. In October, 1921 Hey’s Ladies met Dick, Kerr Ladies at Valley Parade and the score was more respectable, a defeat by only 1-4. (The crowd of that game has been variously reported as 4,070 and 10,000 and stated attendances may have been exaggerated for effect.)

Dick Kerr v Listers at VP Apr-21

Photo from Leeds Mercury 14th April, 1921: DKL (stripes) v Lister’s at Valley Parade

What is distinct about the sponsorship by Hey’s Brewery is that, as a consumer-facing business, the promotion of a women’s football team offered considerable commercial opportunity through brand exposure and awareness. By contrast, whilst Dick, Kerr’s (or Lister’s of Manningham Mills) would have enhanced their company profiles and raised employee identity / morale through sponsorship of women’s football, the direct commercial benefits were less obvious. The heritage of Dick, Kerr for example was railway and tramway equipment and whilst football would have enhanced the profile of the firm, the link with selling locomotives could have been no more than indirect. Likewise, whilst the promotion of floodlit football could be portrayed as an advert for the firm’s electrical engineering competences it did not represent a form of direct marketing.

Hey's Brewery lr.jpg

Like Dick, Kerr’s who were understood to have raised as much as £70,000, the games of Hey’s Ladies were advertised for the purpose of generating funds for charity. Therein was a similarity with the local origins of men’s sport because charity fundraising had been a driving factor behind the impetus for athletic sporting events in Bradford in the 1860s. By the 1920s, such had been the track record of football that most people in Bradford would have been cynical at the suggestion that the sport could be a bastion of charitable support. As I have written in my books, the record of men’s football in Bradford at charity fundraising had been poor but this could have made people responsive to the efforts of Hey’s Ladies by virtue they were unsullied by professionalism and epitomised a fresh innocence.

Manningham Mills LR.jpg

Prior to the emergence of either Manningham Ladies or Hey’s Ladies there was little mention of local women’s football in the local press. In fact, I have found no evidence that women’s football was played in Bradford on a competitive basis but this is not surprising in the context of the time. For a start, women tended to enjoy less leisure time than men and were wholly responsible for household duties and childcare. There were also cultural restrictions arising from the expectation of modest clothing being worn which precluded playing football. Notwithstanding there was an active Ladies Hockey League in Bradford which was given coverage by the Yorkshire Sports. Notable is the caption below from 1919.

1919-02-08 ladies hockey bfd7890687057987792192..jpg

Standards of endurance fitness among young women were probably also relatively low, an inevitable consequence of limited physical training and exercise. Not only would this have made football more of a daunting physical challenge but it would have been significant in dictating standards of play, irrespective of skills. Similarly, the dominance of rugby and shortage of playing fields in Bradford effectively crowded out the possibility of other games being played, whether men’s soccer or women’s football (by which I refer to both rugby and association codes) and the lack of available opposition would have been another factor. Besides, women’s football was considered a showground spectacle and something that tended to be ridiculed.

Even though Hey’s Ladies were deemed Yorkshire Champions in 1921 (following an emphatic defeat of Doncaster Ladies on Boxing Day), of four games played against Dick, Kerr Ladies in that year, all ended in defeat and the aggregate score was 1-18. Hence without seeking to trivialise the game, it is a fair assumption that footballing standards were poor and it would be foolish to over-estimate the quality of women’s football. It is also questionable whether women’s football had become more competitive and whether the participation of women had increased. On 13th April, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph ventured that women’s football had been a product of the war and that a majority of the clubs formed had by then disappeared. For example there is no record of Lister’s Ladies after 1921.

Women’s football in the immediate post-war period comprised only a limited number of teams and of the 67 games played by Dick, Kerr Ladies in 1921 no fewer than 13 had been against St Helens Ladies and a further 16 were played against five other sides, of which Lister’s three times and Hey’s, four times. In 1921 Dick, Kerr Ladies went unbeaten in games against 33 different sides (of which at least 10 had names implying scratch representative teams).

Most of the momentum of women’s football surrounded the phenomenon of Dick, Kerr Ladies who became the face of the women’s game (although between 1916-17 the Portsmouth Ladies side had been equally prominent). In that sense maybe the nearest modern equivalent is that of the basketball side Harlem Globetrotters (albeit without the theatrical routines). The timing of the Football Association ban served to arrest that momentum and by denying access to Football League stadia, restricted the possibility of large crowds attending exhibition matches of women’s football which limited its visibility. By banning the use of pitches registered with Football Association affiliated clubs, the options for where women’s football could be played were further curtailed. The FA also banned its registered referees and linesmen from officiating over women’s football.

Dick, Kerr Ladies had been at the centre of the orbit of women’s football and arguably suffered disproportionately from the FA ban. Within a few years of the ban the team’s profile had become diminished as had public interest in women’s football. In 1921 twenty-five clubs had been represented at a meeting in Bradford to form the English Ladies FA but by the following year this had collapsed and with it a structure that could have co-ordinated the women’s game. In 1926 the  Dick, Kerr Ladies side was reincarnated as Preston Ladies and links with the company were severed. Whilst the reasons for this were not disclosed there was inference that the team’s administrator (who had been an employee) had been diverting monies for his own financial benefit, essentially substantiating the original allegations from 1921.

Hey’s Ladies 

1923-04-28 YS advert for Greenfield Athletic groundsUnable to use Valley Parade or Park Avenue, Hey’s Ladies staged a game with Dick, Kerr’s in January, 1922 at the Wakefield Trinity RLFC ground at Belle Vue and later adopted the Greenfield Stadium at Dudley Hill. The latter venue actively advertised its facilities for sporting events in the local press and hence would have been particularly receptive to staging women’s football. Crucially however there is no evidence that the Hey’s Ladies club signed a permanent lease at Greenfield as opposed to using the ground on an ‘as and when required’ (and when available) basis. Previously, Hey’s Ladies had been denied use of the Bradford RFC ground at Lidget Green when the Yorkshire RFU refused to sanction access in March, 1922. Hence the option of Greenfield may have been as a last resort and preferable to the Birch Lane ground which was used by Bradford Northern and generally derided.

The incident relating to Lidget Green is another illustration of prevailing attitudes towards women’s football by male sports administrators who harboured historic prejudice. Denied the use of a soccer ground, in March, 1922 Hey’s Ladies had been keen to stage a high profile fixture with French opposition at the recently opened Rugby Union ground in Bradford (Opened in 1919, Lidget Green was considered a prestigious venue as told from this link).

In expressing his opposition to the use of the ground, the longstanding YRFU committee member James Miller was quoted in the Yorkshire Post of 22 March, 1922 that ‘when women tried to play football, they failed, and made a ridiculous exhibition of themselves. He was against encouraging it, for the game of football among women players was neither good for them not or the game. They were not football matches, but simply woman shows, and they ought not to allow them to make exhibitions of themselves on their grounds. Although the cause – of charity – was right, if people concerned wished to obtain the support of sporting bodies like the Football Association, the Northern Union, and themselves, they must work on different lines.’ The comments of fellow delegates are equally telling. Rev R Huggard of Barnsley, that ‘it was quite out of place for women to make an exhibition of themselves – and sometimes an unseemly exhibition – on football grounds’ whilst H Duncan of Otley considered that ‘football among women would die a natural death.’

Bradford, 1923-4-29.JPG

By the time of the Football Association ban at the end of 1921, the Hey’s Ladies side had established itself among the leading clubs in women’s football and this probably had much to do with the energy and enthusiasm of Arthur Hey, general manager of the Hey’s brewery and later to be a director of Bradford City AFC. His initiative most likely explains how Bradford became linked with developments in the women’s game although there is no evidence that participation in the game by women was any higher in Bradford than elsewhere.

An illustration of the status of Hey’s Ladies was the fact that in April, 1923 the club provided the nucleus of the team in a England representative side that played France at the Stade Pershing in Paris, a fixture that was billed locally as an international. (Image below and of the team thanks to Helge Faller.) That game, a 1-0 victory for ‘England’ appears to have been a return match linked to the visit of a touring French side, Olympique de Paris to Bradford in March, 1922. Denied use of Lidget Green, the game had been staged at Greenfield Athletics Stadium.

In April, 1920 Dick, Kerr Ladies had played a series of games with a French touring side in the North West, including one at Deepdale, Preston that had attracted a crowd of 25,000 and this was followed by a tour of France later in the year. The fixtures enjoyed considerable goodwill in England, considered an extension of the wartime friendship and were promoted to raise funds for the rebuilding of Rheims Cathedral. So popular were the games that a series had been organised in 1921 and again in 1922. This then was the context of the visit of the French side to Bradford when 3,000 people were reported to have attended the game at Greenfield, a 2-0 victory for the home side.

It is unclear what were the arrangements for the game in Paris in 1923 and whether the trip was underwritten by Hey’s Brewery. Either way the Hey’s Ladies side became the de facto England team for the occasion.

France v England 29-apr-1923

The football ‘international’ in Paris in April, 1923 was headline billing of a programme of events organised by La Federation Feminine Sportive de France that included basketball and athletics. Nine of the visiting ‘England’ team were regulars with Hey’s Ladies, the others being players from Dick, Kerr Ladies and St Helens.

By 1925 the Hey’s Ladies team had ceased to exist. Any number of reasons could be offered for its demise – the lack of opposition; the failure to secure succession of new players; the cost of staging games at Greenfield; the loss of enthusiasm. In fact few games are recorded to have been played subsequent to the team winning the Whitehead Lifeboat Shield in competition against five other sides in May, 1922. It is notable that the Yorkshire Sports as a dedicated sports newspaper had no coverage of high profile fixtures involving Hey’s players – whether for example the games against French opposition in 1922 and 1923 or the Whitehead tournament at Greenfield. Reports in the daily local papers were basic and matter of fact rather than affording the oxygen of publicity, all of which ensured that public interest remained limited and did nothing to uplift the status of the women’s game.


Exhibition games of women’s football continued to be staged in Bradford on an ad hoc basis. The above cutting for instance is from November, 1932. Similarly the reputation of the former Dick, Kerr side endured and as Preston Ladies they played an exhibition match against a Belgian representative side at Odsal Stadium in August, 1939. (Thanks to Kieran Wilkinson for this information about the Odsal game.)

All of the effort relating to women’s football in Bradford had been concentrated in the two Manningham works sides as distinct from attempts to encourage grass-roots participation by women at playing the game. It seems highly unlikely that any local women’s sides ever existed. There were no league structures and the Bradford & District Football Association which had been established in 1899 to promote soccer – and was evangelical in doing so – played no role in encouraging the women’s game. In all probability the phenomenon of females playing football – if at all – was confined to ad hoc, informal street or playground games among schoolgirls which is a long way removed from organised team football.

Judging from press coverage there appears to have been much greater participation among women in hockey as opposed to football and this was arguably a more common and better established winter sport for women. The fact that it was staged on local cricket grounds also provided opportunities for the sport (ie given a shortage of football playing fields).

The still birth of women’s football in Bradford, as in the rest of England was in good measure due to the prejudice and attitudes of the day handed down from earlier decades. We now consider the local experience of what happened in Bradford prior to the formation of either the Lister’s Ladies or Hay’s Ladies clubs to understand how opinions had been shaped.

The shaping of prejudice towards women’s football

A game at Windhill, Shipley in June, 1881 was possibly the first involving women to be played in Bradford. It was one of a series of exhibition games between teams of women purportedly representing England and Scotland, staged in Scotland the previous month and then across the north of England in Blackpool, Manchester and Blackburn. The fact that Bradford was chosen as part of the tour reflects the fact that it was recognised as a centre of enthusiasm for football. However, this was not an initiative to encourage female participation in football. It was literally a crude commercial entertainment venture to attract a male audience.

Of note, the games in Glasgow and Manchester had provoked crowd disturbances. Newspaper reports are not clear what could have been the cause but it is possible that the crowd had objected to the standard of the entertainment and/or that their expectations had not been met. A common cause of crowd disturbance in the 1880s was to do with betting disputes, invariably because scores were deemed unfavourable or unjust and sometimes grievances that the outcome of the games had been rigged. We can only speculate but for disturbances to have occurred twice inevitably raises suspicions about gambling disputes.

By the time the troupe (that appears to have originated from Glasgow) had arrived in Shipley, provincial newspapers had already railed about the spectacle. The Dundee Courier of 20 May, 1881 for instance commented that ‘the unsuitability of the game to women in every way, for all reasons, is sufficiently obvious’.

The Dublin Daily Express of 23 June, 1881 similarly reported on two of those games that had recently taken place in Manchester, equally dismissive of what had occurred. The reporter referred to the players having been ‘attired in a costume which is neither graceful nor very becoming’ and hinted at lewd display: ‘The score or so of young women who do not hesitate to gratify vulgar curiosity by taking part in what is termed a ladies’ football match.’

Impudent women in unwomanly garb

The account of the Windhill game that appeared in The Yorkshireman of 18 June, 1881 was entirely consistent in expressing its own disapproval. What is unambiguous is that the event was staged solely for the purpose of entertaining a male audience, capitalising on the growing enthusiasm for football. That the game was staged at Windhill as opposed to the district’s premier sporting enclosure at Park Avenue is a demonstration that it was highly unlikely to have been deemed a respectable show.

‘There is no branch of human knowledge, industry, or advancement in which women have not – whilst actuated, no doubt, by that feeling of mental superiority which every one of them feels she possesses over those over-rated and altogether despicable beings, the men – in recent times encroached upon the special privileges of the other sex.

‘I should, with the characteristic blindness and folly of my mindless sex, have imagined her disqualified (to play football).

‘I marvelled much when I heard that a comparatively obscure place like Windhill had been chosen as the scene of an exhibition of so advanced a kind as a female football contest.

‘Reader I know what you will at once ejaculate when you reach this point, ‘What were they like?’ Well, that’s just what I mean to tell you so far as I can. Imagine to yourself a mixture of disbanded ‘extra’ ballet girls, dissipated mill girls, and dubious maidens with light, metallic-looking, dyed, flaxen hair, and usually known as ‘canary birds,’ and let your imagination as much figure as possible – waist sashes, loose flannel breeches reaching to the knees, ordinary coarse striped stockings and unlimited impudence. It was not like football; although the players were evidently purporting to play an ‘Association’ game, it had none of the spirit of the game, for the players – with the exception of one dusky-looking female, with an evident dash of nigger blood in her, who was christened ‘the demon’ – struggled or lolled about in an enervated, half-hearted way. Bless your life, the spectators didn’t attend to see a game of football, they went to see a lot of impudent women in unwomanly garb, and engaged in a brutal occupation.

‘The contending parties professed to represent England and Scotland, but not a man I asked, and I asked many, could tell me which was which, and I doubt if the players themselves knew which side they belonged to. There was palpably no genuine rivalry between the sides except to command the admiration of the male spectators as much as possible. The whole of the players evidently had an impression the plain English of which was ‘We must do something as an excuse for having as little clothing on as possible and acting as little like women as we can.’ And they carried out the idea by listlessly struggling with a ball and, whenever it was at all feasible, getting near the spectators. As to those, they were mostly Bradfordians, fast merchants’ clerks, betting men, publicans, and men about town generally, with a sprinkling of other male individuals who attended out of ‘curiosity.’ I cannot say that all the spectators were youthful, for there were present many men well stricken in years whom no amount of curiosity should have induced to lend countenance to such a display.

‘The character of the show was indicated in the spectators themselves, for throughout the latter there was an all-pervading air of looseness,

‘There were plenty of Germans of course amongst the spectators in the field, and I heard one of them say, ‘All zese girls are in ze game vat you call ‘forwards’. I suppose.’ All around the field a running fire of coarse comments was kept up by the spectators.

‘It beats cock fighting into fits, enthusiastically claimed a dirty man, clothed in a seedy check suit.

‘At last the game was concluded and the players all made a rush for the gate. As they ran so did the spectators and, incredible as it may seem, many of the latter seized the former bodily and hugged them amorously.

‘I turned towards Bradford, asking myself whether this show will not inaugurate a new phase in the already pretty extensive list of degrading amusements, and whether we shall not ere long be subjected to female cricket matches, and swimming contests, and athletic sports and, well, I really dare not picture even to myself what besides.’

A further example is that of another exhibition game by the so-called ‘Lady Footballers’ at Valley Parade in May, 1895. This was part of a series of matches organised by a group of female footballers as a commercial venture and they toured the country to exploit the curiosity of people in women’s football. It was again another showground spectacle and it is unambiguous that the crowd had not assembled for the purpose of watching a competitive contest or to witness a game of soccer (at that time a code uncommon in Bradford).

A miserable travesty of a splendid game

The following is the report from the Bradford Daily Telegraph on 8 May, 1895:

‘Although the visit of the Lady Footballers to Valley Parade last night had only been advertised for one day a crowd of between 2,000 and 3,000 people turned up to see the fun. It was fun that was expected by the spectators, and fun was all that was forthcoming, the attempts at football being feeble and farcical.

There was nothing in the costume of the lady footballers to shock the sensibilities of Mrs Grundy, but all the same the attire is not likely to become popular with the fair sex, for the simple reason that it is not becoming. Had the lady footballers been less favoured by Nature they would have presented a ‘dowdy’ appearance, but the natural beauty and grace of several saved the team from this.

To the regret of many Rugbyites the ladies played yesterday evening under Association rules, and owing to the half-hearted way in which most of the players entered into their work the exhibition at times fell woefully flat. Several members of the team seemed, as the crowd put it, afraid of hurting the ball, and they persistently refused to ‘give it boot.’

The kicking of some was so gentle as to suggest parlour football, but there was one exception. A young girl operating on the left wing, who was styled ‘Tommy’ by the London spectators under the belief that she was a boy, put in a lot of dashing play and fairly roused the crowd from its lethargy to cheering. She was certainly worth any three of the other players, but at the same time it should be said that one or two other players did not ‘frame’ at all badly.

The great drawback to ladies’ football, however, seems to lie in the fact that it seems a physical impossibility for ladies to run quickly and gracefully. As an exhibition of football the play was a miserable travesty of a splendid game and as an entertainment it soon became tedious.’

The game would have been the first soccer match to have been staged at Valley Parade although the historic significance was not recognised at the time (or subsequently). A further point to note is that for Manningham FC to have consented to host the event would imply that there were no misgivings about decency. (The organiser was the so-called British Ladies Football Club that had been formed in January, 1895 and which toured Great Britain during its brief existence until around September, 1896. Having been established by a woman with an upper class background, and with a genuine commitment to playing football, the project was afforded a degree of respectability despite being unashamedly commercial in nature.)

A weakness for gossiping

In common with other British towns, women’s football became more common during World War One with games staged between factory teams, invariably to raise funds for war charities. The comments below from the (Bradford) Yorkshire Sports in December, 1916 confirm that women’s football was not taken seriously and that there were no pretensions for it to be treated as an equivalent to the male game.

1916-dec womens football

It is noteworthy that the writer thought fit to make comparison with the earlier tour by the British Ladies Football Club of 1895. What is striking is not so much the condescending language, rather the fact that the tour remained uppermost in the mind of football commentators and influencers. Yet the extraordinary phenomenon of women’s football was still considered deserving of column inches elsewhere in the paper, even if they only served to provide further mockery.


In August, 1917 a women’s game was staged at Park Avenue between two works sides representing the Phoenix Dynamo Company and Thwaites. Again, newspaper reports hint that the game was an entertainment spectacle rather than a competitive contest of skill. The Leeds Mercury of 7 August, 1917 pointedly referred to the women footballers that ‘their methods were not quite orthodox’ but was more charitable in acknowledging the entertainment: ‘Apart from a weakness for gossiping with the crowd when they ought to have been getting on with the game, they did very well, and the fun never waned.’


It will be noted that unlike in 1881, or even 1895, in 1917 there was no suggestion of social impropriety. Whilst this reflected that attitudes had changed and that it might now be considered harmless fun, justification for the activity was also derived from the fact that it was linked to the war effort. Yet the above reports from 1916 and 1917 were still dismissive about the merits of women’s football and it is therefore easy to see how prejudices would have been shaped about women’s football ahead of the Football Association ban in 1921. Indeed there is no reason to believe that attitudes in Bradford were any different to those elsewhere.

Shows of pure burlesque?

A further dimension to the prejudice is illustrated by another example of what happened in Bradford, this time with regards to the Football Association’s response to the staging of pantomime soccer games at Valley Parade in 1907. Annual pantomime charity football matches had been held at the end of the panto season in February between artistes in costume from the rival Bradford shows. The tradition had begun at Valley Parade in 1891 (presumably on account of proximity to theatres on Manningham Lane) but had then been staged at Park Avenue from 1893. The fixture was revived at Valley Parade after the conversion of Manningham FC to soccer in 1903 but in February, 1907 the Football Association adopted a rather highbrow attitude and was reported to have ‘intimated that they did not wish the game to become pure burlesque.’ I should imagine that women’s football was similarly dismissed as burlesque.

A Craze of the Future?

In spite of the negativity, a correspondent to the Yorkshire Sports in June, 1917 had ventured that there might be a future for women’s football, even though contemporary medical opinion suggested that some form of modification was necessary. In the final event the Football Association would never have sanctioned such changes to the sanctity of the game and nor would existing professional clubs have tolerated the emergence of a competitive threat. In the context of the time therefore, the subsequent FA ban seems entirely understandable.


(NB The Northern Union had felt obliged to make a series of changes to the rules of traditional rugby (union) for its code, the most obvious of which being a switch to thirteen aside in 1906. These changes were considered necessary to maintain the interest of the public in the face of competition from soccer and the Football Association might reasonably have considered that a similar threat would emerge in relation to its own rules if the women’s game was encouraged.)

What might have happened?

How women’s football might have developed had there not been a Football Association ban is a matter of conjecture but it is intriguing to consider the local implications. There had already been a fragmentation of sporting options in Bradford at the beginning of the 1920s. Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue faced competition not just from Bradford Northern RFC, but also from a resurgent interest in rugby union and a revived Bradford rugby club at Lidget Green. Might attendances at Valley Parade or Park Avenue have been cannibalised by women’s football had the FA ban not been imposed or would the novelty of women’s football have simply worn off?

Sp23 Tyke.jpgThere are parallels in West Yorkshire between the Football Association’s attempt to suffocate women’s football in 1921 and with what had happened towards the end of the nineteenth century when it was widely felt that senior Northern Union (rugby) clubs had deliberately acted to discourage the take-up of association football through withdrawal of support to their own soccer sides. Yet while women’s football was denied an umbilical cord in 1921, the history of Bradford soccer suggests that more would have been necessary for women’s football to thrive and participation to be encouraged at a grass-roots level.

In Bradford at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaders of the Bradford & District FA – so-called associationists – recognised that for soccer to take hold in a rugby stronghold would require deep foundations. Critical success factors that they identified included the supply of local players, a suitably competitive league / cup infrastructure and a network of evenly matched teams to raise standards, the oxygen of local press coverage as well as the inspiration of a local professional club. The association itself was equally important in order to provide effective leadership and promote the sport. Much the same would have been necessary for women’s football to become established.

With regards local press coverage, it is notable that there was photographic coverage of women’s football in the Yorkshire Sports during spring 1921 (albeit limited) which happened to be when the paper was expanding photo content. However the coverage abruptly ceased at the end of the 1920/21 season although women’s hockey, tennis and cricket teams were subsequently featured. That there were no match reports or mention about the subsequent ban on women’s football in the same title confirms that it was still not an activity taken seriously. In July, 1922 a game between Hey’s Ladies and a celebrity Jockeys XI at Greenfield (Dudley Hill) epitomised the status of women’s football in Bradford – photographs from the Yorkshire Sports of 8th July, 1922 below.

Undoubtedly the Football Association ban was damaging by preventing prestige exhibition matches and the corresponding visibility and inspiration that they might provide. There was further harm arising from restrictions on junior soccer clubs sponsoring women’s football through sharing facilities. Nevertheless there were other major obstacles to the promotion of women’s football at a grass roots level. For instance, the Bradford & District FA had attached considerable importance to the schoolboy game as a means of propagating enthusiasm and new talent but schoolgirl sport would continue to be undeveloped for a long time to come. (For that matter there were insufficient playing fields in Bradford for existing school needs with much reliance upon the city’s main parks. This was a factor that assisted the spread of women’s hockey given that it was played on cricket grounds.)


Even if the Football Association had not enforced its ban, women’s football surely lacked the necessary ingredients and local foundations to establish and sustain itself at a national level. There were also challenges for senior, elite clubs to become established. In particular it was acknowledged that the strength of the Dick, Kerr team was due to the willingness and ability of the firm to pay good wages to talented footballers. Crucially, women’s football would have continued to remain dependent upon the sponsorship of employers to support players and be sympathetic to them having time off work – this was because there was little prospect that professionalism would have been a viable option for many players or women’s sides as stand alone entities. Likewise, as had been the case in the second half of the 1890s, emergent soccer clubs would remain beholden upon the support of professional (Football League or Northern Union/Rugby League) clubs for the use of stadia if a breakthrough in support was to be achieved. As the experience in West Yorkshire in the previous century had demonstrated, those professional clubs had the means at their disposal to prevent the prospect of a competitor attraction becoming established and refuse ground sharing. Even without an FA ban, women’s football needed the enduring goodwill of the men’s game.

The sheer dominance of Dick, Kerr Ladies also highlighted that at a national level women’s football was far from being broadly based to provide compelling interest in league or cup competitions as a means to regularly attract spectators. The novelty value of women’s football would probably have worn off in the absence of new teams emerging or a change in the format of the game away from reliance on exhibition matches.

Women’s football would have been vulnerable to competition and in all likelihood, would have faced adverse comparison with other forms of football as spectator attractions, judged on the standard of game being played. Because women’s football would have struggled to become professionalised, how could it have raised standards to compete with the men’s game? As an entertainment business, women’s football would have faced further competition from emergent attractions such as greyhounds and speedway as well as the rise of the cinema. Consequently it would have been difficult for the game to secure a profitable niche with men’s football and rugby having established support and traditions to rely upon. In other words the commercial opportunities in the inter-war period were limited.

On balance therefore, it seems fanciful to believe that the women’s game would have thrived in Bradford or the country as a whole. Indeed, it would take at least five decades for a supportive environment to evolve. It was not simply that women’s football required a change in cultural attitudes and social acceptance as a competitive sport, it also needed the economic fundamentals to be in place.



Without wishing to appear dismissive, I believe the emergent craze for women’s football in the aftermath of World War One would have petered out almost as dramatically as it had begun, even without the Football Association ban. In Bradford the shifting fortunes of soccer, amateur rugby and then professional rugby in the inter-war years demonstrate that ‘football’ was subject to changing fashions and popularity. How could women’s football have been immune if it was to avoid resorting to being a showground spectacle or lobbying for a change of rules?

Thus my belief is that the infamous ban was far from being the only factor in the still birth of women’s football at a senior level. Furthermore, whilst the Football Association ban might well be deemed indefensible by modern standards, we need to accept that the context of its enforcement was entirely different and take account of the historical setting of the prejudices and circumstances at that time. As I have sought to demonstrate, what happened in Bradford provides insight into that historical context.

by John Dewhirst



Yorkshire Sports 16 April, 1921

Other online articles about Bradford sport by the same author

John contributes to the Bradford City match day programme. You will find these, book reviews and other features on his blog Wool City Rivals


You will find articles about a broad range of sports on VINCIT with new features published every two to three weeks. We welcome contributions about the sporting history of Bradford and are happy to feature any sport or club provided it has a Bradford heritage.

Planned articles in the next few months include features on the impact of the railways on Bradford sport; the political background to the history of Odsal Stadium; Bradford soccer clubs in the 1880s and 1890s; the story of Shipley FC; the impact of social networks on the early development of Bradford sport; amateur football in the Bradford district; and a compendium of Bradford sports stadia.