The 150th anniversary of competitive football in Bradford


By John Dewhirst

2 February, 2017 marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first competitive fixture played by a Bradford ‘football’ team against representatives of another club / town. It deserves remembrance as the beginnings of rugby in the area but on the basis that soccer had common roots with rugby,  the anniversary has as much relevance for followers of the round ball game in Bradford. The key point is that Bradford’s sporting tradition dates back much further than soccer or rugby league followers have previously recognised. It will therefore be something of a surprise to many that Bradford was actually a pioneering centre of sport.

The occasion of that first fixture was 2nd February, 1867, a contest between the Bradford Football Club – affiliated to Bradford Cricket Club – and opponents from that place to the east, Leeds Clarence FC. It became another dimension of the rivalry between the towns, hitherto defined by commercial as well as civic achievements and to a lesser extent by cricket. Whatever Leeds could do, Bradford sought to do better and during the remainder of the nineteenth century sport came to represent a core component of Bradford identity and local patriotism. For the record, the game was drawn as was the return match in Leeds a week later.

Cricket had been established much longer and the earliest reference to the game in the district dates to 1830 although that is not to say that it was not played before that. The original Bradford Cricket Club had been formed in 1836, originally intended to promote political support for the Tories. By the time that Bradford had been granted its charter in 1847, the club was known for its pluck and during the 1850s was regarded as one of the strongest in Yorkshire. The 1850 Factory Act and the institution of the Saturday afternoon holiday had a profound effect on leisure patterns and in its wake other clubs were formed elsewhere in Bradford such that by 1860 there was a vibrant cricket network in the town. Two surviving cricket clubs in the Bradford district can trace their origins to the 1860s with Bowling Old Lane CC being the oldest, established in 1863 and Saltaire CC which dates from 1865.

Until the mid-1860s, organised sport in Bradford was essentially summer based and there were no outside alternatives to cricket. The second half of that decade however was a period that witnessed the emergence of other organised sports in the district. It was a time when Bradford was an industrial frontier town witnessing unprecedented growth and prosperity. Sport became an antidote to work and there was acknowledgement of the fact that leisure time was a healthy, productive option. Athleticism had been promoted within public schools as a means of character building and was given spiritual endorsement through Muscular Christianity. Further impetus came from the fact that in the aftermath of the Crimea War, this was a decade of military renewal. Ultimately it was the formation of the territorial Volunteer army in 1859 that had much to do with a change in outlook towards sporting recreation and this development – intended to protect the country against the possibility of armed invasion – placed a new focus on physical fitness.

Bradford must have been one of the first towns to have a gymnasium when Sergeant Thomas Sheffield opened his gym on Salem Street in 1853. Thereafter came the formation of the Bradford Gymnastics Club and in 1865 the Bradford Athletic Club which satisfied the growing interest in gymnastics and drill as a form of fitness training, a fashionable option for young men in the town who enjoyed the privileges of money and recreational time. Those of German descent were already familiar with the culture of gymnastics and it seems likely that members of the immigrant community in Bradford were well represented.

Gymnastics was actively promoted by the Volunteers who encouraged and sponsored various public displays. Those who could not afford to attend the private gym on Salem Street could participate in exercises in the gymnasium of the Drill Hall at Belle Vue on Manningham Lane. The Volunteers played a big part in encouraging athleticism as a means of military preparedness. Whereas the so-called ‘Old Club’ – Bradford Cricket Club – had traditionally been considered the leading sporting institution in Bradford, it was the Rifle Volunteers who assumed that role. The formation of the 3rd West Yorkshire Rifle Volunteers in 1859 was later recognised by contemporary observers as a key factor in depriving the Bradford Cricket Club of leadership. The club’s financial difficulties in the second half of the 1860s was another issue that may have persuaded sportsmen in the town to consider other activities.

A Bradford football club had been formed on an ad hoc basis for kick-arounds and footballing exercise as early as 1863. Its link with the cricket club was demonstrated by the fact that it members played on the cricket field off Great Horton Road. The club’s founder captain, Oates Ingham is known to have played football at school – the Bramham College – and presumably he had been motivated to organise ad hoc get-togethers as a social activity with former school friends as well as a means for keeping fit. It was not until the 1866/67 season that the Bradford Football Club could be said to have been organised on a formal basis, playing games with other clubs. Oates Ingham meanwhile severed his connections with the club in 1869 to concentrate on managing the family’s dyeing business and later interviews confirm that he never had any driving ambition to expand the scale of the club’s activities. In other words, he could hardly be described as a football entrepreneur or visionary. (The individual who should be credited with raising the stature of the club as one of the leading sides in Yorkshire was Harry Garnett, 1873-80.)

The early development of ‘football’ in Bradford had lagged behind that in Leeds where a football club had been formed in April, 1864 (and in the same year the game was being played by Leeds Grammar School). Before long however, Bradford had taken the lead at football thanks to a concentration of energy and resources that quickly raised standards. There were two crucial differences between the evolution of football in Bradford and Leeds. The first was that most participants in Bradford tended to be young men beginning their careers in industry, whilst in Leeds they tended to be students (overwhelmingly medics but also law students). In Bradford, a relative shortage of flat sites on which to play served to focus efforts rather than fragment activity. All told, the culture of playing football in Bradford was likely to have been quite different and subsequent events would suggest that it was played in earnest with a single minded emphasis on winning.

Newspaper coverage of what was happening in Leeds undoubtedly acted as encouragement to those in Bradford with Leeds papers being widely read in the town. An impetus towards competition came from awareness of contests such as the first reported match between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC in December, 1862 or the Varsity match which was first staged in 1863. In 1865 there had been a challenge match between the recently formed Leeds Football Club and Norfolk FC of Sheffield. It was hardly surprising that a Bradford team should seek to defend the town’s honour in sporting challenges and this was the background to the first game staged by Bradford Football Club in February, 1867. In fact the contest appears to have been connected to a curling match the previous week and it may have been the case that football was an extension of the earlier challenge. That first football fixture was followed by a series of games with other sides on successive Saturdays – the opposition including Leeds Clarence once more, Leeds Grammar School and the 51st Kings Own Light Infantry.

Quite literally, organised football had taken off and this was the origins of the competitive game in Bradford with rugby and soccer sharing the same roots. What was played would be unrecognisable to ourselves and seems best described as having been a mix of Association and Rugby rules. There were also links with cricket. Given connections between the Bradford Football Club and the Bradford Cricket Club it was no coincidence that the first opponents should be Leeds Clarence, itself a cricket club – and rivals of Bradford CC – for whom football was a winter activity.

Participants regarded football as another option for exercise or ‘athleticism’ in the widest sense. A number of those involved with the Bradford athletics and gymnastics clubs played with the Bradford Football Club and were similarly connected with other activities including rowing, cycling and swimming. The gymnasts were enthusiastic to diversify in other activities and defined themselves as athletes in the wider sense without necessarily limiting themselves to a single activity. The formation of organisations such as Bradford Swimming Club in 1866 and Bradford Rowing Club in 1867 are testament to the fact that there was demand for new forms of exercise. Similarly, in 1869 came the inaugural Bradford Athletics Festival.

Cycling in Bradford can likewise trace its origins to this era. The pastime became a popular pursuit from the spring of 1869, only twelve months after the first appearance of bicycles in Paris. Manningham Lane was witness to cycling activity which had as much to do with it being flat as the fact that it was a busy boulevard in the midst of a thriving community. In 1869 a velocinasium was opened on Manningham Lane on the site now occupied by the derelict night club opposite Bowland Street.

The man who epitomised the new age of athleticism in Bradford was Jack Nunn (1841-1929), a Post Office clerk who became celebrated as a local bohemian. His sporting accomplishments were those of legend and in later life he was involved with the abandonment of rugby by Manningham FC in 1903 and responsible for the redevelopment of Valley Parade. His role in the construction of the vast terrace behind the Manningham end goalmouth in 1906 for example was commemorated in it being christened ‘Nunn’s Kop’. Nunn was known for his participation in a multitude of sports (with the exception of cricket) during the 1860s as well as amateur dramatics.

The Bradford Football Club relocated from the cricket ground in 1870 and was based at a number of venues including Peel Park, North Park Road and Four Lane Ends, before moving to Apperley Bridge in 1874 where it remained until 1880 when the Park Avenue enclosure was opened. The ground at Apperley Bridge survives, adjacent to the Stansfield Arms. By the mid-1870s the Bradford club was regarded as one of the strongest in Yorkshire and by the end of the 1880s was ranked among the best in the British Isles. Notable is that by 1890 the club was reputedly the richest in England. In 1895 Bradford FC seceded from the Rugby Union to become a founder member of the Northern Union and by 1907 changed codes once more, abandoning rugby for soccer.

Bradford FC was not alone however and by the mid 1880s, Bradford ‘football’ – the colloquial description of rugby – was defined by the intense rivalry that existed between the Park Avenue side and Manningham FC (formed in 1880 and likewise, founder members of the Northern Union). The relationship was described as a blood feud and persisted into the twentieth century when rugby was abandoned at Valley Parade in 1903 and the two Bradford clubs became rivals in the Football League between 1908-70.

Within a couple of decades of that first season of competitive fixtures, rugby football in Yorkshire had been transformed into an entertainment business, from a game based on the supply of enthusiasts to the demand of paying spectators. It was a remarkable development that justifies talk of a sporting revolution of which Bradford was a leading player. Yet whereas historians have written about the influence of non-conformity and religion as well as German immigation on the life and workings of nineteenth century Bradford, the importance of sport to the social history of the district has been overlooked. This is despite the fact that rugby had a major role in defining a Bradford identity and a ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic that captivated popular opinion.

The cultural spirit of the city’s motto – labor omnia vincit (work conquers everything) – was applied to sport and the success of Bradford’s rugby clubs was considered an expression of local patriotism and pride. If we accept that Bradford has an identity problem nowadays then surely there is a lesson to be learned from the nineteenth century and its proud sporting heritage.

John is author of ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP which narrate the origins of professional football in Bradford. Details at

Categories: Opinion


1 reply

  1. Hi John

    Many thanks for putting this article together.

    It was a great read and thoroughly enjoyed it. I always find these articles about our past really interesting as it helps put in context what Bradford City is today and how far we have come.

    I think it’s vitally important that we maintain these links to our past and do not forget the origins of our Club and articles like this help with that.

    Many thanks.

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