The horrors of the First World War cost Europe an entire generation of young men. British losses to combat were almost one million servicemen. A further two million were left permanently disabled, maimed, damaged. Over 40,000 men lost legs or arms. At home, over 100,000 civilian lives were lost to food shortages and 180,000 lives to the Spanish Flu.
The catastrophic loss of life and economic consequences of war were felt hard in the industrial communities of Lancashire. Between 1914 and 1920 inflation more than doubled, the value of the Pound fell by 60 percent and the nation permanently lost its status as the leading Global exporter. With unemployment increasing and millions still not entitled to vote, the new government of 1918 charged itself with the task of removing social barriers and creating a "land fit for heroes”.
Within this landscape of loss and hardship emerged the tentative shoots of sporting distractions enjoyed before the war. The return of servicemen to their communities naturally lead to meetings in pubs and a count of heads. All those who were willing to play came together, whatever their former allegiances may have been. Many of those who survived the war and came forward at this time, including Tommy Bradburn, Sam Rider, Norman Shaw, were to go on to serve the club for many years. 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.
In 1919 the club was forced to start afresh with practically nothing remaining other than its reputation from before the war. Many of the club's former members did not return from the Great War and it would appear from records that Eccles RFC and Eccles Wesleyans joined forces to form a fifteen. Harold Bowker, the prominent Eccles and Lancashire forward, had occasionally turned out for the Wesley before the war and was married at the Eccles Weslyan church on Wellington Road in 1915 whilst on leave from the front; Eccles team-mates Reginald Bolton and brother John Bolton, both killed in action, also appeared on the church Roll of Honour and we can assume that there were other members and supporters of Eccles Rugby Club amongst the congregation.
The resumption of rugby activities began on October 25th 1919 when Eccles Wesley played a Fylde XV at Stott Lane, off Eccles Old Road, between Hope Hospital and Salford's Willows ground. A report in the Eccles Journal on 31st October stated “The visitors deserved the two points they took away. Both teams were below full strength. Eccles have been fortunate to receive the services of H. Whitehead who in previous years, played at three-quarter for the Eccles Rugby team. The home team, composed in the main of discharged soldiers, many of whom have suffered wounds, are to be congratulated on their efforts." They were clearly appreciated as the club were soon able to field an “A” team and established a good following.
On 14th November, 1919 Eccles beat Broughton Park 3-0 at Stott Lane, Ken Wooller reportedly prominent for the home team. 24th December 1919 Eccles 10 v 6 Tyldesley "A”; On January 1st 1920 Eccles played Fylde at their new Woodlands ground, 6th February 1920 Eccles 23 v Manchester "A” 3. Other fixtures would include Bowdon Rangers, Bury and Old Salfordians.
In the following 1920-21 season the original name of Eccles Rugby Football Club was assumed. The Chairman at this time was Mr J.C. Choate, a prominent local Bank Manager and we presume a shrewd tactic. On 17th December 1920, a good crowd of home and visiting supporters watched Eccles 10 v 17 Tyldesley. Although Stott Lane had well equipped facilities including hot and cold baths, the heavy pitch suffered from drainage issues. A report in the Eccles journal highlights "the ground was in a frightful condition following the heavy rain with mud inches deep in places.” When Fylde visited on 14th January 1921 a difference of opinion arose over the fitness of the ground for play. It was agreed the match would be limited to 40 minutes and two visitors who declined to turn out were substituted by Eccles who found replacements! Other fixtures included Kersal, Bowdon, Bury, Oldham, Cheadle Hulme YMCA and Kendal.
The subsequent season, 1921-22, would see the club move to Alder Forest to play its games with headquarters at the Bridgewater Hotel, Worsley. The first game at the new ground was Eccles "A" v Old Salfordians “A” on Friday 23rd September 1921, followed on Saturday 24th by Eccles 1st XV v Fylde. Fixtures were played against old familiar opponants and at the end of the season a number a players departed to join other clubs in the Manchester district, with members of the club committee having to chip in to enable the accounts to balance! The early twenties were not amongst the happier periods in our history but to the credit of our forebearers, the club was back on its feet and soldiering on.
In February 2021, a member of the Eccles & District History Society made contact with the club to alert us to a century old photograph of the 1920-21 Eccles Rugby Football Club, which had appeared for sale on Ebay! In the background, behind the players and wintery trees, can be seen the distinctive old Vicarage of St James Church, Hope, which identifies the location as Stott Lane. This fortuitous discovery has shone a light into the club's re-emergence following the great war and has provided us with the evidence that Eccles RFC have played in the blue and white hoops for at least 100 years!
Very few documents from this period have survived and we'd be delighted to hear from any local sports historians who can provide information. Before this dated photograph came to light, the earliest documentation of blue and white hoops in the club archives was a letterhead from 1923. Photographs in the clubhouse confirm Eccles RFC wore green jerseys between 1897-1910, and possibly before and after those dates too. It now looks likely that the change in the club's identity, from green to blue and white hoops, can be tied with the upheaval of the First World War and the termination of activities in 1914.
Eccles RFC 1920-1921 at Stott Lane.
To mark our 100th anniversary of the blue and white hoops, the club is producing a limited edition classic Eccles RFC heritage shirt, featuring an embroidered club crest and "1921-2021" detail. This image is a mock up of the proposed design. Advance online orders will be available, via our Covid recovery Crowdfunder, launching Friday 26th February.