THE HISTORY OF ECCLES RUGBY FOOTBALL CLUB
1897 - 1914
Legend has has it that during a game of football at Rugby School in 1823, Salford lad William Webb Ellis, with a disregard for the rules, first picked up the ball and ran away with it. Eccles Rugby Football Club took a little longer to find its feet with the game.
The first public record of an Eccles team was 4th January 1881 when they participated in a cup competition organised by Swinton Lions, who were recognised as the strongest team in Lancashire and did much to encourage the junior clubs of the district, from where they sourced their players. In front of 1,300 spectators at Swinton’s ‘Stoneacre’ ground (opposite the White Lion pub, the origin of their name) Eccles beat Clifton to win the final.
There was clearly an enthusiasm for rugby in the region, for later in the same year records state a match between Eccles and a team from Glodwick (possibly Oldham FC) took place with “both teams playing 3 men short”. The Lancashire County Union was founded on 22nd December 1881 and Eccles were first recorded as a member in 1886. Membership of the RFU lapsed in 1891 but Eccles re-established itself in 1897 and with a continuity of existence maintained since then, the club considers this to be our inaugural year.
During these turbulent early years, with divided loyalties and shifting allegiances, it wasn’t uncommon for a club of the district to cease its activities one season, only to revive the next. At this time Rugby was largely a working class game in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Cotton weaving, coal and the ship canal provided the principal employment for the population of Eccles and its neighbours, and rugby players were not only the privileged, educated sons of mill owners and shipping importers, but also those who toiled in the collieries, looms and docks.
For many players, the time to play and train was limited by their need to earn a wage, and the risk of medical bills or missing work through injuries was a serious concern. As a result, many northern clubs wished to compensate their players for loss of income due to rugby commitments. The RFU strongly opposed these ‘broken time’ payments and insisted its members prove their amateurism or face expulsion from the Union. Widespread suspensions and sanctions followed. In August 1895, emergency meetings in Manchester and Huddersfield resulted in an agreement between prominent Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs to break away to form a Northern Union - the great schism and foundation for Rugby League.
And so it came to pass in the early years of its history, Eccles RFC recorded fixtures with Salford, Swinton, Broughton Rangers, Leigh, Widnes and Rochdale Hornets before committing to non-professional principals and entertaining the gentlemen from Sale, Manchester, Bowdon Rangers, Broughton Park, Vale of Lune, Heaton Moor, Nottingham, Harrogate, Waterloo, Wilmslow, New Brighton, Birkenhead Park and Preston Grasshoppers.
Before the Great War Eccles RFC were considered a formidable opponent, playing at the top level and enjoying good local support. In 1897 the club played its games at Chorlton Fold in Monton with headquarters at the Blue Bell Hotel. In 1901 Eccles moved to a ground at the rear of the Rock House Hotel at Barton, near the famous swing bridge on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, and stayed here until the commencement of the First World War.
In September 1912, 3,000 spectators gathered at Barton to watch Eccles v Kendal in the opening match of the season. In the following 1913/14 season, the Eccles 1st XV would win 17 of their 26 games and lose just 3, one of which was at home to Broughton Park by a single drop goal to nil! Eccles forward Harold Bowker and Half Back Reginald Lightbrown Bolton both contributed nine tries each that season and were selected to represent their county. They would soon both be wearing khaki for their country.
On 4th August 1914 war was declared and in early September rugby fixtures in Lancashire were abandoned. ‘Pals’ battalions were raised to encourage work colleagues and team mates to volunteer and serve together. Employers displayed recruitment posters, speeches were given at rugby matches, young men lied about their age and queued up to volunteer in their thousands.
Many Eccles players were amongst the first local heroes to enlist. Many would receive commissions and achieve recognition for bravery in the field. H Bowker joined the Duke of Lancaster Yeomanry and went on to become a 2nd Lt in the Royal Air Corp. Captain R.L Bolton of the Manchester Regiment, was lost at sea on 3rd August 1918 when the hospital ship Warilda was torpedoed by German Submarine in the Channel transporting wounded soldiers home. Cpl. John Bolton, Reggie's brother and goal kicker for Eccles, was killed serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Sadly, many more of their teammates would never return home to play again. Clubs, communities, families were decimated. The old way of life had gone for good.
1919 - 1939
Following WW1, Eccles RFC struggled to regain its pre-war status. The club recommenced rugby activities in October 1919, playing against a FlydeXV , at Stott Lane off Eccles New Road, with a team composed in the main of discharged soldiers, many of whom had suffered injuries. If it were not for the perseverance, determination and commitment of those men to overcome difficult times, Eccles Rugby Football Club would not exist today. Norman Shaw, who had survived the war, went on to serve his club as Treasurer and then President until the late 1950s.
In 1920 the club moved to a ground at Alder Forest, Winton, with changing facilities at the Brown Cow Hotel. The following year headquarters were set up at the Bridgewater Hotel Worsley and nearly thousand supporters were to watch the local tie between Eccles and Tyldesley . In 1924 Eccles moved to a new ground at Barton Lane near the Kings Head Hotel, and in 1925 the club moved again to land at Bromyhurst Farm, Redclyffe Road, on the opposite bank of the ship canal (B&Q). Despite the inconvenience of waiting for river traffic to cross Barton Bridge, and a fire in 1930 that destroyed the pavilion, the club flourished with 4 teams, remaining here until the outbreak of war in September 1939.
The Eccles RFC ground was taken over by a Royal Artillery Search Light Battery, who promptly formed a rugby team and played matches against other service teams on the field. Once again the disruption of war ended many playing careers. Mercifully, there were only 3 casualties amongst members during WWII - Joe Dickinson (Royal Navy) Bill Walker (Army) and Keith Bradburn (RAF).
1946 - 1976
In June 1946 a new club committee was formed with Norman Shaw, Norman Bisbey, Bob Challoner Arthur Gilbody and Tom Povey elected to office. Headquarters were set up at the Cross Keys Hotel and fixtures recommenced at Redclyffe Road, near Barton Bridge, but the focus of those gentlemen and the members was to find a permanent home for the club, something that had evaded Eccles for its first 50 years.
On the 2nd of October 1948, Eccles Rugby Football Club 1st XV played their first home game at their new ground on land at the junction of Gorton Street and Guilford Road, Peel Green. Two Maycrete huts had been purchased from Knowsley Hall, on the Earl of Derby’s estate. Norman Bisbey and Tom Povey had visited the Army Barracks on the estate where they had selected the best two prefabricated huts on the camp and submitted a tender. These two huts, which had previously served as a Sergeant’s Mess and a Chapel, would soon become a rugby pavilion. At the start of the 1948 season, one of the new members joining Eccles was Harry Broomhead, who had just finished his National Service with the Royal Air Force. Harry was to prove over the many following years one of the most loyal hard working irreplaceable members ever to be associated with the club in its long history.
In 1955, Eccles RFC were proud to see former player Harry Scott recieve an England cap playing France at Twickenham. Harry had departed the club for National Service in the Royal Navy and went on to enjoy a distinguished career with Lancashire and Manchester. Although the club regularly fielded four teams in 1950s, playing fortunes varied and following a particularly poor season for the 1st XV in 1960 (2 wins from 36 games) efforts were made to radically correct the lack of younger members.
An instrumental figure in the solution was Rudi Sheldon, a schoolmaster who had joined from a club in the south of England, who commenced a programme of attracting school leavers to join Eccles RFC. The club’s first Colts XV was formed in 1962 and with regular fixtures players of ability were cultivated. Two loyal forwards from this period stand out - Brian Griffiths and Mike Bateman, gentleman still involved with the club today. By 1966-67 Eccles 1XV had returned to enjoying 23 wins from 38 games. Fourteen seasons of satisfaction would follow from the first colts experiment, with many young men remaining loyal to the club and going on to become members of some fine Eccles first XVs. The seeds of the club’s Home Grown principles were sown.
1977 - 1997
Faithful to the recurrent pattern of decline and regrowth in our club’s story, the success with youth lost its momentum by the end of 1970s. There’s no evidence to prove it was the appointment of the club’s present day Chairman, Paul Thorpe, as Colts Captain in 1983 that lead to the demise of the Eccles Colts, but it was to be 15 years before the colts were to run out again onto the green pastures of Gorton Street!
A distraction to the issue came in the form of a new clubhouse, opened in April 1983, with the original building retained for changing and baths. Harry Broomhead, now serving as club president was a driving force behind this positive development, and many other club members were engaged in its construction.
In 1983 and 1985 the first XV, under the captaincy of Dave Nicholls, won the Griffin Plaque Competition (the hard fought annual knock-out competition, initiated by Broughton Park and named after their club emblem, was played between clubs of the Manchester and North Cheshire area) but this success was based around a core of senior players who were fast approaching their sell-by dates! With the expiration of the previously well-established colts, the flow of players into the senior teams had slowed and by the late 1980s the playing strength of the club had weakened. The answer, as before, lay in a return to a Home Grown policy.
In 1991, with the objective of recruiting and developing young players, a Mini and Junior Section was established with Dave Nicholls and 3XV Captain Brian Wilkinson instrumental in nurturing the green shoots. The sun shone brightly on those dads and lads that first Sunday autumnal morning session (Danny Nicholls, Carl and Adam Wilkinson, Thomas Chapman, amongst the crop) and indeed it continues to shine on what has developed into one of the finest and deep-rooted M&J sections in the North of England. The club owes a debt of gratitude to both former players for their efforts, over many years, both on and off the field, in cultivating and encouraging this area of growth. The bedlam we all now enjoy on a Sunday morning is down to them getting out on a field with snotty-nosed kids and a ball!
As the word spread, numbers swelled and the early Eccles coaching sessions were a mix of ages, 5-10, and may have been described as ‘unstructured’ to the untrained eye! That Christmas, following a 1XV fixture with Tyldesley RUFC, a conversation in the bar between Dave and his opposition centre, revealed that they had also suffered a similar demise in recruitment, and their M&J section was now in its third season and going well. Generously, a couple of the Tyldesley dads volunteered to come down to Eccles with their youngsters, for a joint training session, which ended in a game between the mixed-age teams - our first ever mini and juniors fixture.
Fuelled by “beans on toast for fifty” fun and fast, free-flowing rugby soon became the Eccles Juniors trade mark. ‘International tours’ to Drogheda, Ireland and Pwllehlli Wales were organised and festivals were initiated. Mid-week training was soon introduced and during one balmy pre-season Wednesday evening, Dave Nicholls spotted two errant youths, having a kick about on the first team pitch and invited the lads to join his session - future Director of Rugby Sam Simpson was recruited!
With the assistance of numerous enthusiastic parents and players over the decades, the Eccles Junior section flourished and in 2021 will celebrate its 30th anniversary. As the years past, Minis became Juniors, Juniors became Colts and Colts became Seniors.
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-- WORK IN PROGRESS NOTES —
[Info needed here - names of 1XV players who began in the Juniors - and notable contributions of coaches - Trevor and John Parrott, Gaz Hamer, Billy Borrett and Gaz Grieve]
In Summer 1993, after 45 years of service, the old clubhouse was replaced with the new building. The new changing rooms and facilities were ready for use in the opening fixture of the new season on 1st September.
In 1997 Eccles RFC celebrated its centenary and embraced a whole new world establishing a Ladies team, now the premier Ladies team in Greater Manchester.
[Info needed here from Ladies section on notable contributions].
1998 - 2018
— WORK IN PROGRESS NOTES —
In 1998 the club prepared itself to enter the new millennium and registered as a Friendly and Provident Society. In the same year the Colts returned and, with the success of the junior section and the emergence of the women’s team, the club was awarded a Lottery grant in 2002 for mixed-use changing facilities, increased training lighting and other improvements.
In 2003, the Club further extended and refurbished the Clubhouse in order to accommodate the swelling ranks. An all weather pitch was installed in 2004 funded by the RFU and government, in appreciation for our commitment to community rugby.
September 2009 marked a tragic event in the club’s history. Whilst playing for Eccles RFC, Christopher Tickle suffered a severe neck injury and sadly died in hospital three weeks later. Chris was a popular 23 year old with a great love of life and sports, an infectious sense of humour, a willingness to help others and was about to begin studying at Salford University. In March 2010 he was posthumously awarded The Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award by HRH Prince Phillip. As a tribute to Christopher, Eccles RFC was to become the first rugby club in the country to establish its own DofE awards programme in 2011 and continues honour his memory each year with its fundraising activities in aid of spinal injuries research.
Between 1998-2009 Eccles Mens 1XV played at Level 8 of the RFU structure for 10 seasons. In 2009, a 26 year old Sam Simpson (who after progressing through the Eccles minis, juniors and colts was furthering his career as loose head prop at Sedgley Park) returned to Gorton Street to coach the Eccles 1XV to promotion and Lancashire Plate victory, the first in the club’s history. Eccles were to remain at Level 7 for 4 seasons before wining promotion to Level 6 in 2014.
2014-17 was a buoyant period for Eccles. The men playing their rugby in Level 6 and the Ladies playing their rugby in XXXX.
In October 2014 Eccles RFC was selected to host a publicity day for the RFU National All Schools Programme aimed at increasing state school participation in rugby. HRH Prince Harry attended the event and joined in coaching sessions on the glorious green turf of the Gorton Street pitches. The club not not miss the opportunity to present His Royal Highness with the local delicacy Eccles Cakes. After the event, Jonathan Dance, President of the RFU was kind enough to write " It was a privilege to come to a real rugby club where the game in all its aspects was obviously at the centre of everything the Club did. Congratulations to the Committee and all its members not only on the Club but for all it is doing for the game. It was a fantastic occasion and got huge publicity for the game. I find it hard to imagine a more appropriate place to hold it." Praise indeed.
The honours continued in 2015 when William Webb Ellis returned home, with Eccles RFC selected by the RFU and Salford Council to host the England Team World Cup Trophy Tour.
In 2017 Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme awarded Eccles RFC with its own operating licence, in recognition of its success. In this same year, as tribute to former Eccles players who had volunteered and sacrificed their lives in WW1, nine Eccles RFC U18s undertook an expedition to the Somme to retrace the journey on foot of the Salford Pals Battalions 100 years before them. On arriving at their final destination of Thiepval, the young people laid poppy wreaths before meeting with Baron Edward Llewellyn, OBE, Her Majesty's Ambassador to France and Colonel Borneman, Military Attache, British Embassy Paris. On returning from France, in recognition of their efforts, the club hosted a commemorative match between the Eccles 1XV and the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, in which the colts played thier part.
Although there was plenty to celebrate off the pitch, 2017 and 2018 marked a low point on it, with back to back relegations as the Mens 1XV returned to Level 8. The Ladies section also endured a difficult period of transition.
October 2018 - Eccles RFC celebrated 70 years at Gorton Street by gathering players on the pitch from all its 16 teams - U7s to adults. A fitting symbol of our club’s ethos of inclusivity, community, camaraderie, and rugby for all, regardless of age, gender, ability or circumstances.
April 2019 - the Eccles fought against the decline of recent seasons. Eccles 1XV secured promotion back to Level 7, winning 16 out of 20 league games.
The 2019/20 season is yet to kick off but our future is bright. Recruitment and membership are increasing. We are ambitious and progressive.
The RFU have rewarded our commitment to our community by awardeding a £55k grant for a new 3G articifical turf pitch.
As the club knows all too well from its own history, there are no short cuts to success and with hard work, all things prosper.
“Labore Omnia Florent” as the ancient townsfolk of Eccles no doubt once said.
[Add Eccles RFC Honours]
Eccles RFC Mens 1XV
1998-2009 Level 8 (10 seasons)
2009-14, Level 7 (4 seasons)
2014-17, Level 6 (3 seasons)
2017-18, Level 7
2018-19 Level 8
2019-20 Level 7