AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF ECCLES RUGBY FOOTBALL CLUB
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, recognised as the strongest team in Lancashire, who did much to encourage the staggering number of community clubs of the district, from where they sourced their players. In front of 1,300 spectators at their ‘Stoneacre’ ground (opposite the White Lion pub, the origin of Swinton’s name) Eccles beat Clifton to win the final. There was clearly a healthy enthusiasm for rugby in the region for later in the same year Eccles played a match against a team from Glodwick, Oldham where it was reported "both teams played 3 men short”.
The Lancashire County Union was founded on 22nd December 1881 and Eccles became a member in 1886 and in 1887 were first recorded as a member of the RFU, with membership lapsing in 1891. During these turbulent early years, 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 in this region was not only played by the privileged, educated sons of mill owners and shipping importers, but also those who toiled in the collieries, looms and docks. In 1830 the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway had brought industry to the rural community of Eccles, where cotton weaving and coal mining were the principle employment for the population. At Patricroft, where the world's first railway intersected the world's first commercial canal, the Bridgewater foundry and Naysmith's locomotive works were founded. By the time the Manchester Ship Canal and the world’s first swing aqueduct at Barton opened in 1894, the cottages and open fields of the district were already being rapidly replaced with housing for the workers and the wealthy. It's no wonder, when work was done and the whistle blew on Saturday lunch everyone headed to the local pitch to let off steam. However, for working-class 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. The severity of these punishments contributed to a growing sense of frustration and absence of fair play. The professional Football League had been formed in 1888 with six Lancashire clubs amongst the renegades, and it was logical for northern rugby to follow their lead.
The great schism opened up a period of turmoil for rugby across the North of England. Harsh penalties for association simply encouraged more clubs and players to affiliate with the Northern Union and within two years Rugby Union almost ceased to exist in Yorkshire, Cumberland and large parts of Lancashire.
And so it was, under these stormy circumstances, with divided loyalties and shifting allegiances in a district where Northern Union was so prominent, that Eccles would play its earliest fixtures in the 1880s against clubs such as Salford, Swinton, Broughton Rangers, Leigh, Tyldesley, Oldham, Widnes and Rochdale Hornets before committing to amateur principals and re-establishing itself in 1897. With a continuity of existence maintained since then, the club considers this to be our inaugural year.
1897 - 1899
In 1897 Eccles played thier games at Chorlton Fold, off Rocky Lane, Monton (on a site now occupied by Monton Green School) with headquarters at the Blue Bell Hotel. W.H. Brown was the captain and a first team and an "A" team were soon established. By December 1898 Eccles were playing in thier Monton enclosure before "a large and fashionalbe attendence". Fixtures with Liverpool Old Boys, Owens College (Manchester University), Blackley, Manchester Athletic Club, Kersal (first and "A" teams) and Wilmslow were arranged.
1897-98 P17 W8 D0 L9. 1898-99 P23 W11 D0 L12.
1897-98 Back row: F. Crompton, C. Marshall, T. Bradburn, R. Cameron, C. Entwistle; Centre row: C. Hill, N. Sefton, I. Grange, W.H.Brown (Captain), C.C. Harris, H. Lomas, D.H. Brown; Front row: F. Worsley, T.S. Stephens, O.S. O'Neill, F.A. Brown, H.M. Hadfield.
1899 - 1901
In 1899, Eccles moved from Monton to take over the ‘Old Barton Field’ (on the present day site of the Godfrey Ermen Schools built 1903). The Bridgewater Hotel, Patricroft, became the new Headquarters, which entailed a long walk to and from the ground but the busy district provided good gates and the club grew. Contemporary reports in the Eccles Journal, Manchester Courier and Manchester Evening News suggest the established ground was previously occupied by "defunct Northern Union team". The identity of that team is believed to be 'Barton NUFC' who has also used the Bridgewater Hotel for changing facilities and who folded in 1898 due to financial problems. It is possible that a number of their players subsequently joined the Eccles club.
1899-1900 Eccles were captained by Lancashire county player J.E.Kidd, later to become Lancashire County President in 1930. From 1900-1902 Eccles were captained by T.J. Bradburn, a club founding member, who went on to become the Hon. Secretary of the Lancashire Union in the 1920s and Lancashire county representative at the RFU. Whether Tommy Bradburn was related to the famous "Original and Oldest" Eccles Cake baking Bradburns is unknown!
1899-00 P18 W7 D3 L8. 1900-01 P22 W9 D3 L10.
1901 - 1914
In 1901, Eccles moved a short distance to a larger enclosure on Edision Road at the rear of the Rock House Hotel, Peel Green Road, near the Barton swing bridge on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal and were to remain here until the commencement of War in August 1914.
Before the Great War Eccles RFC were considered a formidable opponent, holding their own with the principle clubs of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire, with several players selected for the County and enjoying good local support. Regular opponents included Sale, Heaton Moor, Bowdon Rangers, Furness, Vale of Lune, Preston Grasshoppers, Harrogate, Nottingham, Waterloo, Birkenhead Park and New Brighton.
In 1903/04 season they won 21 of 27 games and were reported in the press as "the most consistent team in the Manchester district". The 1905/06 season was notable for 23 victories from 30 games played, amassing 399 points with T.S. Stevens and R. Cameron selected for Lancashire. In 1906/07 many ground improvements made and J. Clerc, three-quarter of the Racing Club de France joined Eccles. For many years during this period the club would enjoy an annual Easter Tour in Bedfordshire with a fixture against Bedford being the highlight.
In September 1912, a gate of 3,000 gathered at Barton to watch Eccles v Kendal in the opening match of the season in whihc Eccles would go on to win 19 of 28 games. In the following 1913/14 season, the Eccles 1st XV would win 17 of their 26 games, losing just two games away at Manchester and Kersal and one home defeat to Broughton Park by a single drop goal to nil! Eccles were on the rise and 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; he was to survive the war and went on to play for Swinton until 1920. Captain R.L Bolton of the Manchester Regiment, was killed at sea on 3rd August 1918 when the hospital ship Warilda transporting wounded soldiers home was torpedoed by German U-Boat in the Channel. Cpl. John Bolton, Reggie's brother and goal kicker for Eccles, was killed serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Sadly, Murdock, Bateson, Rawinson and 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 - 1924
Following WWI, the return of ex-servicemen lead to meetings and a count of heads. As with many other Lancashire clubs, many former Eccles players did not return from those foreign fields and the club was forced to start afresh with practically nothing remaining other than its reputation from before the war.
The resumption of rugby activities began in October 1919 when Eccles played a Fylde XV at Stott Lane, off Eccles Old Road, near the Hospital. Eccles were composed in the main of discharged soliders, many of whom had suffered wounds. Their efforts were clearly apprecated as the team soon established a good following and fixtures in the 1919-20 season included Broughton park, Bowdon Rangers, Tyldesley, Bury, Manchester and Old Salfordians. If it were not for the perseverance, determination and commitment of those men to overcome those difficult times, Eccles Rugby Football Club would not exist today. Norman Shaw, who served in the Seaforth Highlanders and had survived the war, went on to serve his club as Treasurer and then Club President until the late 1950s.
In 1920 the club moved to a ground in Alder Forest, Winton (close to what is now Winton Cricket Club and Alder Brook School) with changing facilities initially at the Brown Cow Hotel. 1921-24 headquarters moved to the Bridgewater Hotel, Worsley. Reports of the day describe a "fair ring of spectators" enjoying fixtures against visitors including Warrington, Fylde, Blackburn, Bury, Oldham, Kendal, St Helens Old Boys, Old Salfordians, Central Old Boys, Bowdon, North Stafford and Stockport. The club was regaining momentumn and in 1921 almost 1,000 spectators would gather to watch the local derby between Eccles and Tyldesley.
1924 - 1939
In 1924 Eccles moved to a new ground at Barton Lane with changing facilites at the Kings Head Hotel, close to the swing bridge, on a site now occupied by Holy Cross and All Saints RC School.
In 1925 the club moved once again to land owned by Mr Farnworth at Bromyhurst Farm, Redclyffe Road, Davyhulme, on the opposite bank of the ship canal, behind All Saints RC church and facing Barton Power Station, with changing facilities temporaliy accomodated at the Pack Horse Hotel Barton. Eccles quickly established themselves in their new home and a second-hand hut was purchased with 4 dressing rooms, a hot water bolier and a bath installed within the season. By 1928 Eccles had assembled a decent team and distinguished itself as the only club amongst 52 northern clubs to be beaten only once. Despite the inconvenience of waiting for river traffic at Barton Bridge to cross to the pitch, and fires in 1930 and 1937 that destroyed the pavilion, the club flourished with 4 teams, meeting challenges head on and remaining at Redclyffe Road until the outbreak of WW2.
In the 1938/39 season Eccles had a number of very good players and a settled, successful first XV. From September to the end of the year Eccles lost just one game 7-6 away to YMCA and in the remaining half of the season to April only two games ended in defeat; Tyldesley away 18-17 and Whitingham away.
Fixtures were abandoned at the start of the new season in September 1939. The Eccles RFC ground and pavillion were 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 7-year disruption of war ended many playing careers. Eccles and its neighbouring areas were badly hit by bombing during the blitz of 1940 but mercifully, there were only 4 casualties amongst members detailed in club records during WWII - Joe Dickinson (Royal Navy) Bill Walker (Army) Keith Bradburn (RAF) and John Lomox (Merchant Navy). There is a more detailed account of the club's WW2 experience HERE
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.
One Sunday morning in early Autumn of 1947 members of the committee went to inspect a former anti-aircraft gun site in Peel Green; a rough, lumpy field of long grass, full of concrete blocks and holes! Perfect!
At the club’s AGM in May 1948 members were pleased to hear the Club Secretary report that a lease on land at Peel Green was being negotiated and two Maycrete huts had been purchased from Knowsley Hall, on the Earl of Derby’s estate. Committee members Norman Bisbey and Tom Povey had visited the former Army Barracks where they had selected the best two huts on the camp and submitted a tender. Supplies of gas, water and electricity were obtained to the site “immediately behind Barton Hall Cricket Club which can be reached from Guilford Road or Gorton Street” and following a lot of hard work that summer from the club members, the ex-army Sergeant’s Mess and Chapel would become a rugby pavilion!
On the 2nd of October 1948, Eccles Rugby Football Club 1st XV played their first home game at their new ground, celebrating a 38-3 win over Central Old Boys. 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 joined Eccles around the same time as Harry Broomhead, departing the club for National Service in the Royal Navy and went on to enjoy a distinguished career with Lancashire and Manchester.
Eccles RFC grew in reputation and membership in the 1950s and the club regularly fielded four teams. However, playing fortunes varied and the performance of the first XV declined towards the end of the decade with just 8 victories in 1958/59 and 6 in 1959/60. Following a particularly poor season in 1960 (2 wins from 36 games) significant efforts were made to radically correct the lack of younger members. An instrumental figure in the solution was Rudi Sheldon, a local schoolmaster who had joined Eccles RFC from a club in the south of England, who commenced a programme of recruiting school leavers. The club’s first Colts XV was formed in 1962 and with regular fixtures, many 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.
In the late 1960s Broughton Park in introduced an end of season knock out competition for teams in the Manchester region, the winners of which recieved the Griffin Plaque, named after thier club emblem. The hard fought Semi-Finals and Final were played at Broughton Park and Eccles were entrants to the competiton from its earliest days, enjoying good success and lifting the plaque on five times in seven years, 1970-71, 1972-73, 1973-74, 1974-75 and 1976-77.
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 but this success was based around a core of senior players who were now 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.
In Summer 1993, after 45 years of service, the old clubhouse was replaced with the new building extension, the new changing rooms and facilities made ready for use for the opening fixture of the new season on 1st September 1993.
In 1997 Eccles RFC celebrated its centenary and embraced a whole new world establishing a Ladies team.
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1998 onwards - WORK IN PROGRESS
Info needed - notable home grown junior players who made the transition to 1XV, notable contributions of club captains and coaches - community rugby coach, Trev Parrott, funded by the club and the RFU, tireless work in the local schools, Junior recruitment and formation of the girls teams.
Info needed - notable contributions of players, coaches, captains for the Ladies section.
1998 - 2018
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 1XV played at Level 8 of the RFU structure for 10 seasons. In 2009, Sam Simpson (after progressing through the Eccles minis, juniors and colts was furthering his career as loosehead prop at Sedgley Park) returned to Gorton Street to coach Eccles to League promotion and Lancashire Plate victory, the first in the club’s history. Eccles remained at Level 7 for four seasons before winning promotion to Level 6 in 2014, where we were to remain for 3 seasons. This was a buoyant period for the club, with home grown talent making significant contributions to both mens and ladies teams. The second and third teams had built steadily as Colts moved up through the ranks and there was talk of a fourth team.
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 is obviously at the centre of everything the Club does. 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 rewarded 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. The following spring the nine young people from Eccles were invited to Buckinham Palace to meet HRH Prince William and recieve thier DofE Gold Awards.
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.
INTO THE FUTURE
The club began the 2018/19 season determined to arrest the decline with a refocus on the development of home grown youth. In October 2018 Eccles RFC celebrated 70 years at Gorton Street by gathering players on the pitch from all its 16 teams - a fitting symbol of our club’s ethos in rugby for all.
In April 2019 the 1XV secured promotion back to Level 7, winning 16 out of 20 league games and reaching the Lancashire plate final. The Senior Colts also won thier Divisional title and the Colts League Lancashire & Cheshire Plate. In additon to the silverwear the RFU rewarded our commitment to our community by awarding a £55k grant for a new 3G articifical turf pitch. In the same year Eccles RFC were one of the first clubs in the region to take up Walking Rugby which has made big strides with strong numbers. A very successful 2019 was capped off with awards recogition, winning two prestigous regional 'Club of the Year' Awards and earning finalist nominations in the Sport England 'Club of the Year' award for the Greater Manchester region and the National Sport Mirror awards.
The club remains ambitious and progressive. We continue our faith in developing youth and Eccles RFC now has over 300 active members, from under six to over eighty! 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.
Incomplete. More info needed -
Lancashire Plate Winners 2009
Senior Colts Halbro Colts League Cup Winners 2009
Senior Colts Raging Bull Cock O' th' North Challenge Trophy Winners 2009
Griffin Plaque Winners 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1983 and 1985.