The Fallowfield Challenge Cup Final 1899
Posted on May 1, 2018 by Ant Stewart
On April 29th 1899, Oldham played Hunslet at Fallowfield in the third Challenge Cup Final. Thousands of rugby fans from Yorkshire took the train to Manchester to join their Lancastrian counterparts in the first final this side of the Pennines. There was a carnival atmosphere within the ground, but the organisers were nervous, after overcrowding had forced the FA Cup semi-final replay to be abandoned a month earlier. Despite well over 20 000 spectators descending on Fallowfield, everything went off without a hitch.
Oldham were heavy favourites, and the crowds were stunned when Hunslet’s talented Goldthorpe brothers combined to put Hunslet 9-5 in front at half time. However, Oldham’s creative and innovative back division finally woke up in the second half and ran in three unanswered tries. They took the trophy with a 19-9 victory, which was then presented to captain Arthur Lees by Mrs Burnley, wife of the president of the Northern Union.
The NU dignitaries retired for dinner at the Spread Eagle, whilst the victorious team returned to Oldham, and celebrated well into the early hours.
The Road to Fallowfield
Fallowfield Stadium was chosen to host the 1899 Challenge Cup Final. It was Lancashire’s turn to host the match after two successive finals at Headingley, said Lancastrians.
The choice of Fallowfield, however, was controversial, as the Manchester ground had but a month before been the scene of utter chaos during the FA Cup semi-final replay between Liverpool and Sheffield United.
The stadium was badly overcrowded, and in the ensuing crush thousands spit out onto the pitch. With up to 30 000 spectators expected for the rugby final, there were great fears that a repeat incident may play out. “The future of this ground, under present management, was absolutely condemned” declared Sporting Life, but this game gave Fallowfield a chance “to redeem its character.”
The Early Rounds
The final would be played between Oldham and Hunslet. Oldham waltzed into the final with spellbinding back play. In the semi final against Leigh at Wheater’s Field, the Spinners dazzled the 20 000 spectators with four tries. Less credited, however, was their defence, which had only let in one try in the entire competition.
1st Round v Goole. 63-0
2nd Round v Warrington. 14-0
3rd Round v Bradford. 23-3
QF v Widnes. 20-0
SF v Leigh. 16-2
Hunslet’s passage to the final, against Salford at a sodden Bradford (Park Avenue), was less straightforward. “The Parksiders” had taken an early lead, and the Reds did not exactly respond kindly to this state of affairs. They started kicking and charging their way through the game. After Rhapps, their first to be sent off, was dismissed, things got worse. Woodhead followed, and then Salford went into “almost open revolt.”
Three more Salfordians received their marching orders, but the last, Jones, managed to take Gillings, the Hunslet half back, with him, after the two had started a fight on the pitch. Amazingly, four men down, Salford staged a fightback, scoring twice to reduce a fifteen-point deficit to just seven, but Hunslet clung on for victory.
1st Round v Maryport. 11-2
2nd Round v Swinton. 2-0
3rd Round v Castleford. 16-0
QF v Hull. 9-0
SF v Salford. 15-8
On the Eve of the Final…
Oldham were slight favourites, but many anticipated a close contest between the two teams. It was Lancashire against Yorkshire, cunning back play against forward power, the Leeses against the Goldthorpes, the unstoppable force against the immovable object.
Oldham, however, highlighted their confidence by asking the local police if they could keep the Red Lion Hotel open late that Saturday night, anticipating a late finish. “But suppose Hunslet won?” The magistrate asked. “Then we require no extension,” went the reply.
However, on the eve of the match, Salford and Swinton through a spanner in the works by arranging a friendly for the day of the final. Suddenly the concerns were about too few people attending the final.
Why were they doing this? The two Manchester clubs had axes to grind with the union. Firstly, they were upset that the game had been awarded to the Manchester Athletic Club at Fallowfield, rather than to a Northern Union club, who could have sorely benefited from the revenue.
Salford were also resenting of their treatment during the Hunslet game, where there had been no shortage of suggestions of Yorkshire bias.
As for Swinton, they’d been found guilty earlier in the season of breaching professionalism rules, and they weren’t best pleased about it. Fortunately, the two teams were eventually convinced to hold the game the night before.
That night, the teams inspected Fallowfield. The work done in the past month had been immense. Fences had been erected all around the ground to prevent encroachment, and arrangements had been made for additional policing for crowd control. The game still had to compete for attention with the Manchester Cup (association) final between Bury and Stockport County, but things looked promising for Lancashire’s first Challenge Cup final.
The Parksiders were known for their aggressive forward play and stern defence. They were led by Albert Goldthorpe, who’d been at Hunslet since 1888, joining as a teenager.
“Ahr Albert” led from the back, and matched his power with the skill of a smart drop-kick.
His brother Walter joined him in the three-quarters, and but for the Scotsman Ramage, all of the team were English, and most hailed from West Yorkshire.
The Spinners fielded a younger, more diverse line up. Moffatt, Telfer and Fraser formed a triumvirate of Scottish recruits, there were two Welshmen (Thomas and Davies) and even a man from Northampton!
The key players were captain Arthur Lees, the half back, and Tom Fletcher, the centre. Lees was the spark that lit the exciting Oldham back line.
Any hope Hunslet had depended on the Yorkshiremen smothering Lees before he could deliver the ball to the three-quarter line. And If he could find Cumberland superstar Fletcher, then Hunslet would be in very serious trouble.
“The rugby enthusiast…will come in his thousands” predicted Sporting Life (April 28th 1899).
In Manchester, the morning of the 29th was…wet.
That morning, trains heading from Yorkshire to Manchester were laden with extra carriages and full to the brim. At 11am, the exclusive party of the Yorkshire Committee boarded at Leeds, in their own special saloon car provided by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. They picked up more dignitaries at Low Moor and Halifax before arriving in Manchester. Upon arrival, they took lunch at the Spread Eagle, before boarding specially-provided charabancs south to Fallowfield.
Most others took the tram. For about three hours the Wilmslow Road resembled an army of ants, as a constant stream of people marched upon south Manchester – one hundred years later, this journey would become the busiest bus route in Europe.
Amazingly, the sun then came out. The wind had dropped, and excitement built in expectation of a good game. In anticipation, many had already taken their places in the pavilion, or on the velodrome banking (depending on their wealth), well before the teams themselves had arrived.
There were press everywhere, from all over the country. The early arrivals were entertained by a marathon set from the Manchester Military Band, as the excitement and the tension grew.
The Bradford Daily Telegraph (April 30th 1899) noted the diversity of the crowd – “good humoured,” with an even mix of partisans, rugby fans, dignitaries and curious locals.
There was also a significant amount of women in the crowd, highlighting that northern rugby had continued to appeal to women as fans despite a growing movement against the participation of women in British sport. “The attendance of ladies at the encounter was a record for Northern Union football,” noted the Telegraph.
Oldham led out the teams in their red and white jerseys, swiftly followed by the Yorkshire white jerseys of Hunslet.
3.30pm. Kick Off.
The fervour of the build-up ran through the teams, who started brightly. Albert Goldthorpe landed an early penalty. Oldham immediately responded, as Sam Lees crossed for the first try of the match. He converted himself. Hunslet pushed back before the crowd could catch its breath, and their forwards pressed the Oldham defence to its limit. “The Men of Spindledom” held firm, thanks to the efforts of Barnes, Moffatt and Frater, and they continued to repel the Yorkshiremen despite losing Telfer to injury.
After twenty minutes of solid pressure, the Goldthorpes combined to score for Hunslet. Albert intercepted possession, Walter crossed, Albert converted. Another penalty, and Hunslet took a surprise 9-5 lead into half-time. The crowd could now stop holding their breath, for a little while at least. The linesman were less perturbed – Messrs Waller and Houghton were observed puffing big cigars throughout the match.
Until now, Fletcher had been kept muzzled, but after the break, the man from Seaton found his freedom. The Lancastrians in the crowd buzzed with excitement, but wave after wave of Oldham attack was smothered by the Hunslet defence. Suddenly, sharp passing play saw Northants winger Williams cross in the corner. The Yorkshire dam had been breached.
Five minutes later, Moffatt smartly found his way through, and Oldham were in front. Hunslet were on the back foot and panicking. A fumble let Joe Lees in, before Williams crossed again after some classic expansive back play. Game over. Oldham won 19 points to 9.
Mrs Burnley, wife of the president of the Union, took to the field to present the Spinners with their cup and medals. The dignitaries then boarded charabancs back to the Spread Eagle for even more food, before the Yorkshire contingent headed home, pondering how their team had been so outdone by Oldham’s “scientific” back play.
The victors, meanwhile, headed to the Red Lion for their long-anticipated celebration. By all accounts, it did not disappoint.
“Oh what a night! Never in the history of Oldham has such a scene been witnessed as that on Saturday evening when the Cup came to the Hilly Milly Borough.” (Athletic News, 1st May 1899)
News had reached Oldham before the first trainload of fans had returned. By 9pm the streets were full of revellers.
“No jubilee celebration – nothing – could equal it.”
A band played the team back into the town, blasting out “See the Conquering Hero Comes.” A procession grew, and grew wild. The players, rugby cup winners I might remind you, struggled to push their way into the Red Lion amidst a crowd of men, women and children, all who wanted to touch the cup.
Inside the hotel, the players celebrated, drinking various concoctions out of the cup itself. Outside, thousands thronged, and players came out one by one to the open window to thank the crowd for their support.
This match heralded a new era in the way rugby league was played. The “clockwork”, energetic play of Oldham’s backs, typical of Lancashire, had shocked the traditionally dominant Yorkshire teams, whose rugby philosophy was bedrocked by strong forward play. Swinton would take the trophy the following year with similar blistering back play, and in 1902, Broughton Rangers would take the double with one of the most exciting teams ever to play the game.
Oldham and Arthur Lees would yet taste further glory, winning the league in 1906.
Yet, when Yorkshire rose again, they did so with ferocity, and it was Hunslet that would lead the revival. Their backs had caught up with the Lancashire clubs, but somehow their forwards had got even stronger. Albert Goldthorpe, now in his 20th year with the team, led the Parksiders to win “All Four Cups” – the first team ever to do so.
In 2008, Rugby Leaguer & League Express inaugurated the “Albert Goldthorpe Medal,” presented to the “best and fairest player” in Super League.
Fallowfield could consider its reputation, to some extent, restored, after an entertaining final unmarred by crushes or encroachments. The Northern Union would return to the ground the following year.