The issue of class in Bradford (rugby) football

The intensity of the Bradford / Manningham rivalry – described in contemporary reports as a blood feud – gives the temptation to suggest that, as in Glasgow there was an ulterior tension between the two. The claim has been made that the rivalry between Bradford FC and Manningham FC was one based principally on class. In my view this is incorrect and says more about the political agenda and partisan loyalty of modern writers, failing to recognise the actual circumstances of the two clubs and the fact that neither was ever a homogenous body. As I explain in my books, Room at the Top and Life at the Top, the relationship between the two was essentially that of business rivals.

The emergence of the Manningham club arose from the fact that it was located in the centre of a populous district and urban geography dictated allegiance; the convenience of a local club was preferable to those who were time constrained and unable to head across town to Horton Park Avenue (which was more accessible to the south of the district). Both clubs relied upon backyard support but each had its own appeal with distinct personalities and reputations: Bradford FC was known for its celebrity players whilst Manningham had a strong record of developing its own. Similarly, the entertainment facilities and covered accommodation at Park Avenue, as well as its status as the senior town club, made Bradford FC a fashionable option. Ultimately both benefited from floating supporters who were attracted by the standard of football on offer and the fixtures of the day. Suburban stations at Manningham (Midland Railway) and Horton Park (Great Northern) extended the catchment of Valley Parade and Park Avenue beyond the Bradford district to places in Wharfedale, Airedale and even Calderdale. 


The politics of those in charge at both Park Avenue and Valley Parade was remarkably similar and reveals the influence of ‘One Nation’ Conservatism. In fact the distinction between the two clubs was more akin to that of religion: the Bradford club representing an established church that played its games at a cathedral and Manningham was the non-conformist whose home was a chapel. In my opinion blanket generalisations about class are not only misleading but represent a gross simplification and superficial understanding of how the clubs functioned and evolved.

In fact, the social composition of the Bradford FC first team was remarkably fluid in the fifteen years after 1880, the year when the football club was relaunched through merger with Bradford Cricket Club and the Horton Park Avenue ground was opened. Originally the team comprised a majority of working men whose introduction to ‘football’ had been through membership of the Bradford Rifle Volunteers. Yet by 1884, when Bradford FC won the Yorkshire Challenge Cup, Fred Bonsor personified the generation of young men from wealthy backgrounds attracted to what had become a fashionable pastime; the Bradford FC players of that time were true celebrities and known for living the high life. Critics bemoaned the influence of player cliques and the fact that team selection invariably depended upon favouritism – in fact a number of players were said to have joined Manningham FC having been unable to secure a place at Park Avenue. Nevertheless, it is incorrect to argue that the Bradford side was exclusively middle class in its selection.

The introduction of league competition in 1892 had a profound impact on the social composition of the Bradford FC side, a number of whose leading players at the turn of the decade such as England internationals Fred Bonsor, Rawson Robertshaw and Laurie Hickson had hitherto been of solidly middle class families. In March, 1893 the reported comment of a Halifax supporter confirmed that players with ‘cuff and collars’ at Park Avenue were by now the exception and not the rule. In other words, the social transformation of the dressing room – metaphorically away from scented soaps – occurred prior to the split in 1895. The transformation at Manningham FC meanwhile was not quite so marked given that the majority of its players – although not exclusively – were from more modest backgrounds.

After 1892 the two clubs were actively competing against each other for the same players and league competition brought with it a bidding war to secure the best talent. This heralded a new phenomenon for Bradford rugby with the introduction of more ‘foreigners’ to the two leading sides. Whilst ‘imports’ were not new, their numbers were and no longer was it the case that a team would be comprised mainly of locally born players. At Park Avenue in particular, any suggestion of prejudice among club members had more to do with the reliance upon ‘alien’ players from outside the district representing the town club than working class men per se.

During the previous decade, there had already been a trend towards greater representation of players from a working class background. In Bradford, the crowding out of middle class players was not unique and arose from a variety of factors, the most obvious of which that working men proved more deserving of team selection. In Bradford, a not insignificant issue encouraging those who had the option to pursue a career was economic uncertainty. After 1873, the textile industry was subject to a series of trade depressions attributable to foreign tariffs being imposed upon British exports. Increasingly, fathers could no longer afford to subsidise their prodigy offspring to indulge in football and besides, there would have been a filial duty to sustain a family business. By 1890 a tipping point had occurred and thereafter, new players introduced to both the Bradford and Manningham teams were predominantly working class. The comments of the headmaster of Bradford Grammar School, quoted in 1889 to the extent that football (ie rugby) was a ‘vulgar, rough game’ highlight that the sport was no longer deemed an acceptable pastime for the respectable young men of the district.

In 1892, the formation of the Bradford Old Boys under the leadership of former Bradford captain, Fred Bonsor was a case of middle class players decamping to establish their own side. Bonsor struggled with retirement from the game as well as the loss of attention and the creation of the club allowed him the means to continue playing with his cronies. The Bradford Old Boys played a number of local fixtures but the venture was short lived.


Personality and culture: Bradford FC v Manningham FC

A measure of the stature of Bradford FC was the standard of fixtures that the club could command. The Bradford club was the team to beat and in the ten years prior to 1895 consistently provided at least two members of the England XV team every season. This alone gave the club and all associated with it a degree of swagger, no different from that surrounding one of today’s Premier League giants. The fact that the Barbarians were formed in Bradford in April, 1890 reflected the status of the club and town as a rugby centre. (Founder, William Carpmael used the Alexandra Hotel in Bradford as a base for his touring party who played games with Yorkshire sides and two Bradford FC players became founder members.)

The personality of the Bradford club was quite distinct from that of Manningham. Other than its fame, this arose from three other key factors: (i) its relative size; (ii) its wealth; and (iii) its original purpose as the town’s senior representative in the pursuit of civic sporting glory. As a commercial organisation it was much bigger than Manningham and this was reflected by the fact that attendances tended to be higher at Park Avenue than Valley Parade. By 1890, the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club was reputedly the richest in England, a measure of commercial success. Its size, with roughly double the number of members as Manningham and its scale of activities, embracing cricket and athletics as well as football, made it a more complex and political organisation. In practice this meant that the experience of membership would have been much different to that of Manningham FC and that the two clubs would have appealed to people in unique ways. In addition to the rivalry of the seniors, the existence of half a dozen decent junior sides in the Bradford district offered tremendous choice and variety for rugby followers as well as a rich football culture. (Indeed, Bradford of the 1880s and 1890s can rightly claim to have been a sporting centre with well-established clubs catering variously to cricket, athletics, cycling, gymnastics and for that matter, chess.)

Many of those involved in positions of leadership at Park Avenue were self-made men and this surely helps explain what became known as the club’s brash ‘high and mighty’ attitude to other sides. Indeed, Bradford FC was not universally admired in other Yorkshire towns on account of its arrogance and unashamed pursuit of self-interest. However, Bradford members tended to view criticism in the Leeds press – and the Yorkshire Post in particular – as jealousy. It ensured that Yorkshire rivals – Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax and not just Manningham – were sufficiently well-motivated to raise their game. After 1892, derbies with Manningham were described as ‘hair and skin’ affairs which was a measure of the passions and the fact that the smaller club considered them an opportunity to prove itself.

The Manningham club tended to eschew the so-called ‘masher’ culture more commonly associated with Park Avenue and its leadership tended to be more cultured and educated. To some extent this mirrored the social rivalry in late nineteenth century Bradford of mill owners on the one hand (who were more prevalent at Park Avenue) and the more cosmopolitan wool merchants on the other (who provided the leadership of Manningham FC by the end of the nineteenth century). Valley Parade was always a basic, utilitarian ground with limited facilities but had the advantage of central location. Park Avenue was by contrast much bigger and more developed but the Manningham membership expressed pride in self-help and the fact that their ground had been built from limited resources. Park Avenue was originally part-funded by public subscription but Bradford FC was always reliant upon debt – something to which the Manningham members remained averse.

The Manningham FC ethos is thus better described as that of Samuel Smiles. It was certainly not that of Keir Hardie and indeed, the awkward fact for those who have peddled the myth that the club aligned itself with the Manningham Mills strikers in 1891 (for which there is no substantive evidence) is that the Manningham FC leadership was predominantly Conservative in its sympathies and its secretary sat on the Bradford Police Watch Committee.


The Northern Union and class identity in Bradford

The language of class permeated the dispute over the split in English rugby in 1895 and beyond. Perhaps not surprisingly, historians have focused on the schism having been driven by class conflict but I question whether an obsession with class has served only to impede the study of rugby history. I do not dispute that for many in the south, the working class player from an unknown Yorkshire village was symptomatic of how northern rugby was in the ascendancy and casting a shadow over the fate of the national game. However, I suspect southern commentators vilified working class players as the scapegoat because to do so was the easiest way to narrate economic developments in the sport and mobilise opinion against professionalism. For example, the subtlety of broken-time compensation payments as distinct from wholescale, full professionalism was not fully understood in the south whereas the scourge of working men playing rugby was. It represented the gross simplification of a wider issue much in the same way that today’s tabloid press has preferred to castigate east European labourers in Britain as a proxy for opposing immigration.

In Yorkshire, contemporary reports allude to the condescending attitude of the RFU’s southern leadership after 1893 and it was openly acknowledged at the time that the dispute with the south was about influence and control of the direction of English rugby. Even so, as far as Bradford was concerned, I have seen nothing to suggest that class was a defining issue at the time of the breakaway in 1895 and it is notable that at Park Avenue and Valley Parade there were no resignations among prominent members of the respective leadership committees in protest. Indeed, emotive language about class only started to become reported in the local Bradford press after 1900 when rugby union began to make a recovery in Yorkshire and Northern Union followers were inclined to make disparaging remarks about the amateur game and its participants. This is hardly surprising given that at the start of the century there remained examples of working class Rugby Union sides in West Yorkshire whereas by 1905, Yorkshire rugby union was predominantly a middle class sport, played in the main by boys educated in independent schools.

The Rugby Union had not helped itself with its dogmatic and uncompromising defence of amateurism. In the north, this had prevented contact between players or teams of the rival codes and the RFU cordon sanitaire invited accusations of elitism. Not surprisingly, in 1907 when Bradford FC members debated a return to the Rugby Union, there was a bitter reaction among those who supported the Northern Union game. Correspondence in the press confirms that opposition was driven by class prejudice with mocking references about the social mores of rugby union.

In Bradford, the events of 1907 were far more divisive among rugby followers than what had happened in 1895. Thereafter, the Northern Union game was inextricably linked with a working class identity. Yet, even if the division within English rugby came to be seen as a matter of class conflict, that is quite distinct from suggesting this dimension was the true cause of the schism in 1895.

My belief is that in Bradford at least, the Northern Union actively fostered a class identity as a defensive mechanism to kindle popular support in the wake of criticism following the disappearance of so many junior sides. In the Bradford district, the Northern Union game was unable to compete with soccer and after 1895 never captured the public imagination in the same way as the traditional code prior to the split. People were lost to rugby with the disbanding of junior clubs in the district and blame for their failure was widely attributed to the breakaway Northern Union. The criticism was unfair and equal blame could be apportioned to the policy of the RFU in preventing co-operation between the two codes. However, the Northern Union was the scapegoat for having been the agent of change.

It is notable that after World War One, and certainly prior to the opening of Odsal Stadium (home of the Bradford Northern club) in 1934, it was the reformed Bradford Rugby (union) club that held the initiative and commanded popular support in the district. In the meantime, Bradford Northern struggled to survive and the club attracted only meagre crowds until relocating to Odsal, a massive ground formed out of a municipal rubbish tip. In other words, it was hardly the case that in Bradford, Rugby Union was handicapped by popular bias for the rival code or that the Northern Union game was held in high affection locally.

The Great Betrayal

When rugby was eventually abandoned at Park Avenue in 1907 it became known as ‘The Great Betrayal’ and it was with heavy heart that rugby followers came to terms with the prospect of an end to forty years of competitive rugby in Bradford. However, by 1907 there was considerable disillusionment with the Northern Union in the city and it is telling that Jimmy Wright, one of the original ‘football pub’ landlords in 1895 who had lobbied to join the breakaway, was later wholesome in his support of the rugby union revival in Bradford. This was not some form of revanchist, counter-revolution with class undertones. At its heart was frustration with what the Northern Union had become and a perceived tendency on the part of the code’s administrators towards forever tinkering with the rules of the game.

Bradford FC had seen itself as the Blackheath of the north but lost its aristocratic self-image as a member of the Northern Union. Neither could Manningham FC claim that its sojourn in the Northern Union had been satisfactory, this was despite the club having been inaugural champions of the new competition in 1896. Ultimately neither club could make rugby pay – or at least not to the level needed to meet financial commitments. In January, 1907 the Bradford FC committee had forced the other senior Yorkshire clubs to vote on a return to the RFU rules and a reversion to fifteen aside. The unanimous referendum in support of the Northern Union alternative represented a milestone for that competition, ending speculation about mass re-entry to the Rugby Union (however unlikely it seemed). In Bradford, the Park Avenue club members split three ways in an acrimonious divorce that led to the formation of the Bradford Park Avenue soccer club and the Bradford Northern rugby club; those who favoured rugby union joined either of the two local amateur clubs.


Shades of Grey

From the vantage of the twenty-first century, the formation of the Northern Union appears to have been a fairly clean-cut event that invites a romantic narrative of it having been a popular revolution, motivated to protect the interests of the working man and enjoying universal acclaim in the north. All told, from the evidence of what happened in Bradford, it was far from being such a black and white affair but then revolutions are rarely what revolutionaries claim them to have been. In the final reckoning however, I doubt very much that the leadership of either the Manningham or Bradford clubs – or other smaller clubs in the Bradford district – would concur with what modern historians have said about the cause of the split in 1895. I therefore believe that the Bradford case study validates the call for more bottom-up, local analysis to challenge existing narratives about sporting history.

Article © John Dewhirst 


Links to other articles in this series –

Rethinking 1895 – A Bradford Perspective – Part 1 –

Rethinking 1895 – A Bradford Perspective: Part 2 –


John Dewhirst is author of ROOM AT THE TOP, A History of the Origins of Professional Football in Bradford and the rivalry or Bradford FC and Manningham FC (Bantamspast, 2016) and LIFE AT THE TOP, The rivalry of Manningham FC and Bradford FC and their Conversion from Rugby to Soccer (Bantamspast, 2016). Refer for details.