The Roaring Twenties – Rugby Union Reborn

By Ian Hemmens

Rugby in Bradford was THE winter sport. Long before the Association game came along, and long before the ‘Great Split’ of 1895 where a bloc of Northern powerhouse clubs broke away from the RFU in protest at what was seen as a drive by the Southern based ‘Gentlemens’ clubs to put a brake on the success and progress of the North’s clubs by stopping the ‘broken time’ payments to working men in the mills and other industries of the North who gave up their working hours to travel & play in games. It was seen as a step towards professional rugby by the clubs to retain the best players although ironically & hypocritically, the southern clubs always paid ‘expenses’ of various degrees depending on the value of the certain player to the said club.

The Bradford club itself was formed before the RFU itself and by the 1880s was a major power in the land with a strong fixture list against the countries leading clubs. The club continued to be one of the leading lights in the game winning the Yorkshire Challenge Cup known as ‘T’owd Tin Pot’ several times and being a leading player in the formation of the world famous Barbarians club after one notable fixture and a post match ‘oyster supper’ at Leuchter’s Restaurant on Darley Street. The club provided no fewer than 21 International players for the Home Nations all showcasing their talents at the wonderful arena at Horton Park Avenue which the club shared with the Bradford Cricket Club & the Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

All appeared wonderful for the club in its pre-eminent position in both the town & county. Across the town, a junior club was growing quickly and showing huge ambition of its own. The club over at Manningham finally put down roots in its area at Valley Parade and began to grow into a serious rival to the Bradford club. It was a danger to their dominance in the town and by the mid 1890s they were winning trophies also. Also on the horizon was the growing problem of ‘broken time’ payments & professionalism and the growing threat from ‘Soccer’ who had by now formed a competitive league and was playing before growing attendances.

1895 finally saw the ‘Great Split’ with the RFU and the Bradford club adopting professionalism in the Northern Union. A hardy band of traditionalists at Park Avenue were determined to carry on the amateur game and were cast out from the ground to carry on. They named themselves Bradford Wanderers paying for a while ironically at one of Manninghams old grounds at the Branch at Shipley. Several other sites in the City were used and such was the problem of putting down solid roots again it was a case of ‘have posts, will travel’ situation. They joined forces with the Horton club to combine finances & playing strength. By 1913 they were in a position to find a permanent home and the search was on. Men like George Myers, Brothers Herbert & Rawson Robertshaw along with Edward Airey & ex England star Laurie Hickson were the men ready to rebuild the club to new glories.

Unfortunately, 1914 saw events of a far greater concern take over peoples lives as the Great War cast its shadow over the world. The above band of men continued in their task to create a home for the club who by now had been renamed the ‘Bradford Rugby Football Club’. A plot of land at Lidget Green seemed to tick all the boxes and George Myers was a leading light in getting the ground ready ‘for the lads when they come home’. The Lidget Green ground was officially opened in 1919. Although much work had been done levelling, draining & walling it was still very basic & the players had to change in the school on Cemetery Road. Eventually a hut was obtained from the Peel Park gala Committee and put to use as basic changing rooms.

The enthusiasm of the group of ‘re-founders’ was so infectious that it soon spread to the playing staff. Players from various clubs across Yorkshire along with several veterans of the old Horton club answered the call to arms amongst them George Myers own Son Eddie from the Headingley club, destined to become possibly the clubs greatest ever player gaining 18 England Caps as well as 42 Yorkshire Caps.

The fixture secretary worked wonders for the fledgling club no doubt using  the old clubs reputation in the game and possibly calling in a few favours. Clubs of the stature of Blackheath, Leicester, London Welsh, Edinburgh Accies, Rosslyn Park as well as the top clubs in the North all began to appear at Lidget Green with regularity and such quality in itself helped Bradford attract better players to their own ranks. The Bradford Grammar School proved a huge recruiting ground for the club who quickly added extra teams to the roster and an extra playing arena was rented at Bolton Villas for the extra teams to perform on.

Very quickly the teams quality showed through with England trials for Myers, Monk, Roberts & Kinghorn. But for injury, Ferdy Roberts would have won his cap also but despite selection, each time he missed out. Between 1919 & 1928 the club provided no fewer than 30 county players & 5 internationals. At one point there were no less than 17 county players on the staff., a superb show of strength.

After a near miss with defeat to Wakefield in 1920, 1923 saw the team achieve its first honour in winning the T’owd Tin Pot’ and gaining their revenge over Wakefield at Skipton by a 6-0 scoreline. The following year the prestigious trophy was retained, victorious again against Wakefield 14-3 this time at Otley. 1925 saw the club make a hat-trick of victories in the Cup with a resounding 22-9 triumph over Otley, the game played at Ilkley. The first club to achieve a 3 on the trot.

Another major highlight of 1925 was the visit to Lidget Green of the world famous ‘All Blacks’ led by the great George Nepia. They defeated a Yorkshire side 42-4 which featured 7 Bradford players in Myers, Monk, Roberts, D. Smith, Scarth, Wrighton & Haigh-Lumby. The club’s good name was acknowledged nationwide with invitations coming from far & wide for the team to tour including Easter trips to Ireland & the West Country.

Crowds at Lidget Green were well into the 1000s for home fixtures with the Bradford public enjoying the winning Rugby on show. This despite the other attractions on offer of 2 professional football clubs & a professional Rugby League team in the City. The newly developed ground also held 6 Yorkshire Cup finals during the 20s as its reputation as a venue grew. Covered grandstands were added and a clubhouse built along with banked terracing to achieve its potential.

Over the decade, several more touring sides including the Maoris, the Australians visited Lidget Green to play against Bradford and various combined Representative XVs. The home side were always represented well by their strength in depth . As the decade wore on and the clubs top players aged, the finely tuned scouting and development side of the club continued its work and new ‘stars’ appeared to maintain the high standards of the club. New names like Tetley, Simpson, Bonner & Boyce were gaining regular Yorkshire honours as the old guard started to bow out of the limelight.

As the ‘Roaring Twenties’ moved into the 30s the club despite its quality, never again dominated the Yorkshire scene as it had done. It continued to produce good class county players and maintained its prestigious fixture list against the best from far and wide. After WW2 the club continued its existence but lost a valuable source of players when more and more of the BGS boys left for University and then joined clubs who ‘tempted ‘ them away from returning to Bradford for employment as many had done when Bradford was still an industrial powerhouse in the country. “ World Wars a depression and an opening up of the business world es[pecially in the textile world had hit Bradford hard and the City was hit by a slow decline not helped by short sighted leadership in City Hall.

In the 60s a couple of big prospects emerged in Goalkicking machine Phil Carter & future England Scrum Half Roger Pickering but as the standards dropped , so did the crowds and in the face of the competition in the City which for a while had also included Speedway & dog racing, the rise of the cinema and other attractions, by 1982 the club found it needed to leave its home and amalgamate with the Bingley club at their Wagon Lane ground. As of today (2015) the club finds itself at its lowest ebb since the ‘great Betrayal’ of 1907 when it was thrown out of Park Avenue. In these days where top Rugby Union is now ironically fully professional, there have to be doubts if the club can ever return to the glories it had in the ‘Roaring Twenties’.

Photo shows Bradford RFU star Eddie Myers with the England team for the Scotland fixture in 1924. Eddie is seated middle row 2nd left..

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The forthcoming books ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP by John Dewhirst tell the story of the origins of Bradford FC, the circumstances leading to the split in English rugby, the conversion of the Bradford clubs to soccer and the background to rugby union and league in Bradford at the start of the last century.