Rugby Union

Bradford is surely unique in boasting two football clubs which both played rugby union and then turned to rugby league before adopting the round ball code. But while Manningham rugby club is now only remembered for its claret and amber colours, Park Avenue, the Bulls and the Bees all take pride in their common ancestry which they share in part with a fourth sport, cricket. So which is the real Bradford FC?  Let us begin by looking at the history of rugby union at Park Avenue.

In 1863, an informal group composed largely of ex-Bramham College students started playing rugby in Bradford. Three years later these pioneers constituted themselves into a town club and Bradford FC was born. Over its early years the club played under a set of rules that have been described as a compromise between the then early forms of Association and what became Rugby Union rules. Standardization did not come until after the formation of the Rugby Union in 1871. Generally clubs played fixtures according to the home team’s rules, or some compromise would be agreed. It is thus possible that Bradford FC could have played fixtures under association rules over 130 years ago.

Bradford’s first official fixture list was issued in 1872. Two seasons later, the club went through the entire season not only undefeated, but without having a single point scored against them. This was the first year of H.W.T. Garnett’s captaincy. The next season saw Bradford supply five men to the county side, and one of them, Tom Tetley, was capped for England.

Despite the growth of soccer in Lancashire, South Yorkshire and the rest of the country, the West Yorkshire clubs remained loyal to the 15-a-side code. Five senior clubs Bradford, Huddersfield, Hull, Leeds Athletic and Sheffield were the backbone of Yorkshire rugby. A County Union was formed in 1874 and they introduced a Yorkshire Cup competition in 1876. “Th’owd Tin Pot” drew fantastic crowds in its early days and the trophy is still played for today.

Trevor Delaney’s “The Grounds of Rugby League” records that Bradford played their first season on the old Horton cricket ground on All Saints Road where Yorkshire had played Nottinghamshire on 22-24 June of that year. Because of damage to the cricket square, Bradford had to move to a field in Laisteridge Lane, from where they migrated to North Park Road, Manningham, then Peel Park, and later to a ground at Girlington. In 1874/75 they played on a field at Apperley Bridge.

Prior to 1879, Bradford Cricket Club (formed 1836) played on a ground in the neighbourhood of Claremont on what is now Pemberton Drive. Trustees bought the freehold of Park Avenue from Mr Francis Sharp Powell, M.P. for £4,000 in 1879 and an agreement was reached between the cricket club and the rugby club at Apperley Bridge to form the Bradford Cricket, Athletic and Football Club. Park Avenue would also become one of the homes of Yorkshire County Cricket Club for over a century.

Park Avenue’s eight acres were officially opened with a cricket match on 20th July 1880. The first rugby match on 25th September 1880 against Bradford Rangers was played on a section of the cricket field. On the opposite side of Park Avenue, Horton Park station on the Bradford Exchange – Queensbury – Halifax/Keighley line was opened by the Great Northern on November 1st 1880.

The layout of the rugby enclosure with its original double fronted pavilion/stand was not developed until about 1884. Although there were dressing rooms on the ground, the club’s headquarters were in the town centre at the Talbot Hotel on Darley Street. The club later moved its HQ to the Alexandra Hotel on Great Horton Road where the world famous Barbarians club was formed in 1890.

bradford fc 1884

Bradford FC 1884

One of the most famous eras in the history of the club, an era that was to last a dozen years or more, started with the move to Park Avenue in 1880-1. Bradford boasted such famous names  among its players as Laurie Hickson, Fred Bonsor, Herbert and Rawson Robertshaw, Joe Hawcridge, Tom Broadlev, Herbert Ward, W. H. Smith, the side’s skipper, and others too numerous to mention. In 1884, the Yorkshire Challenge Cup (t’owd tin pot) came Bradford’s way for the first time. The famous Blackheath club (with Sale and Manchester one of the oldest Rugger clubs in England, they were founded in 1861) visited Bradford for the first time in 1886, but they went home defeated!

Then—in 1895—came the “great split”. Bradford, together with such clubs as Salford, Wakefield Trinity, Halifax, Broughton Rangers and Huddersfield broke away from the Rugby Union in September that year and formed the Northern Rugby Union. The “split” is a long story but came about chiefly over the question of payment for broken time. Bradford Northern Union team continued to play at Park Avenue—they played there in fact until 1907, when
the ground was turned over to Soccer.

But the flag of Rugby Union was still kept flying by the Bradford Wanderers club with the late Mr. S. H. Wray as secretary-in-chief. In 1903 another club, Bradford Rangers, was formed. They played on a ground close to the Bradford club’s eventual home at Lidget Green. However after a short time, the Wanderers and the Rangers amalgamated and played on the Branch ground at Shipley.

The next Rugby Union step in Bradford was the formation of two small clubs, Horton (1904-5) and Bradford Old Boys. Horton lasted until 1914 and by that time had absorbed all the other local clubs in the area. Ground difficulty had always been the big difficulty in the Bradford area. The Wanderers for instance played on several grounds, while Horton commenced activities at Southfield Lane, then moved to Fagley and later still to Thornbury.

The famous Eddie Myers, later to become an English international, was an early member of the Horton club. The Horton and Bradford Wanderers clubs eventually amalgamated to reform the Bradford club. The club eventually settled at Lidget Green, a ground good enough to host visits from touring sides. However Bradford felt their progress was inhibited by a lack of pitches for their lower fifteens and so in 1983 they amalgamated with junior club Bingley and moved to the broad acres of Wagon Lane. Scholemoor sports centre was built on the old Lidget Green site, but this is now derelict .

So are the Bees the original Bradford FC? The Rugger purist might say that the “split” of 1895 caused a definite break in Bradford Rugger Club’s history. However, in an article in Yorkshire Illustrated in 1949, club historian Francis Coakes begs to differ. “Surely the Wanderers are the link. They commenced at the time of the “split” and fused with Horton to become the present Bradford club.” The truth is that all three clubs, the Bees, the Bulls and the Avenue are “Bradford”. The club which isn’t is the one playing in Manningham!

(The information in this article is based on the researches of Trevor Delaney, Graham Williams, Graeme Wright and Francis Coakes)


Perhaps the most famous rugby painting of them all belongs to the Yorkshire RFU and hangs on the wall of the President's Suite in the West Stand of Twickenham Stadium. The painting depicts the tussle between two of England’s fiercest historic rivals, Yorkshire (in white) and Lancashire, at Park Avenue on November 25th 1893. At that time, these two counties dominated English rugby, and their players the English national team. The score was Yorkshire 1 Goal, 2 Tries (11 points) to 1 Try (3 points).

W.B. Wollen’s masterpiece has aroused controversy owing to its historical inaccuracy. At least one player, T.H. Dobson, is depicted who did not take part in the match, while another ‘ghost’ player has been painted out for reasons unknown. The faces of the match officials have also been replaced by RFU dignitaries, while contemporary maps and drawings show no evidence of Italianate buildings so close to the ground and unblackened by the soot from Bradford’s mills.



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