Birch – Rusholme Ruffians
“There is a steady, plodding character, very much like Manchester life in general, about Birch; a determined persistence which is certain to meet its reward in any matter, let alone the “heathenish” and “brutal” Rugby Union game.”
There was a short time, in the late-19th century, when a Rusholme rugby club was one of the best teams in the north of England. They were called Birch, named after the neighbourhood that now sits just behind the Curry Mile and the grounds of Manchester Grammar School.
The team were founded around 1870. They started playing association football, but quickly switched to rugby so they could participate in Manchester’s then-favourite winter pastime. By the middle of the decade they had gained a reputation as a “rough and ready lot,” but more importantly, as a team with a lot of heart and great collective spirit.
They soon took the significant scalps of their reputable neighbours, the Manchester Rangers and the Free Wanderers. By 1880, the Birch were one of the better outfits in Lancashire, and could command an enviable fixture card. The club was also instrumental in the formation of the Lancashire Football Union in 1881.
Birch had several homes during their existence. For the most part they plied their trade on a field behind St James’ Church, nowadays between Birchfield Park and the MGS classrooms. In their later years they also turned out at Longsight Cricket Club (still there) and on a field off Slade Lane in Burnage. The club, for a short time, played a big part in Rusholme life. By the mid-1870s they had over 100 members, and their annual ball (usually held at Rusholme Public Hall) had quite a reputation.
The club declined as the 1880s wore on. It is not clear why exactly Birch fell so quickly from the moderate heights of their peak, but at this time Rusholme became a crowded sporting territory. Association football had taken hold in South Manchester, and the arrival of the reformed Manchester Rangers at nearby Platt Lane stole away the attentions of local rugby fans.
The team entered the South-East Lancashire Cup in 1889 and 1890, but made little impact. The provincial teams of north Manchester, Bury and Salford, who once would have but dreamed for a fixture against Birch, had now far surpassed the old Rusholme club. In less than a decade, Birch had become a lumbering dinosaur in the diverse, dynamic realm of Manchester rugby. In the 1890s, as many old clubs struggled to make ends meet in this crowded market, Birch ceased to exist.