Preston Grasshoppers this week celebrates 150 years since the rugby club was founded. Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the life and times of a club at heart of the city’s sporting life
Preston Grasshoppers RFC will be celebrating 150 years on September 28– having held their first meeting at the Bull Hotel in Preston on that date in 1869.
Those in attendance declaring thus, ‘We resolve that a club be formed to play Rugby Football without hacking to be known as the Preston Grasshoppers Football Club’.
Thus laying claim to being among the oldest rugby organisations in the country. Hacking was a tactic whereby an opponent was tripped by kicking their shins. On the formation of the Rugby Union in 1871 leading clubs banned the practice of hacking.
Among the founder members of the club were a number of old boys of Cheltenham College who had participated in the annual Grasshoppers versus Fireflies fixture and from that source their unusual title emerged. A series of club matches followed in the formative years and by February 1870 the club was entertaining Manchester on the fields known as Winckley Meadows, near the Penwortham Bridge.
It was a match thoroughly enjoyed by the spectators who saw kicking and scrambling aplenty and when the game finished Manchester had the only recorded goal and both teams had bruises, bloodied noses and black eyes to testify that it had been a brutal encounter which had lasted two hours.
Other noteworthy opponents were soon on the fixture list such as the Rossall School, Bolton, Windermere College and Kendal who all attracted large crowds as the Grasshoppers became established from 1871 at West Cliff the home of Preston Cricket Club. The matches appeared to become less hostile as the clubs adhered to the rules although injuries were not uncommon.
A visit by Liverpool in January 1874 saw Preston over run with the visitors scoring four tries as one of the Grasshoppers had two front teeth knocked out. Mind you the sporting contest ended with three hearty cheers for both sides. By February 1875 there were signs Preston Grasshoppers were assembling a team to be reckoned with following a trip to Lancaster where they rattled in six tries at the Giant Axe field. The optimism proved well founded as an article in the Athletic News in April 1876 had this to say about them, ‘Of the Lancashire clubs the most successful this year has been the Preston Grasshoppers, in fact the ‘poor and proud’ town has something to be really proud of in its head football club.
‘The Prestonians have beaten the Liverpool twice and thrashed them well, whilst they defeated the Manchester and had very much the best of the return, although luck and one of the umpires was decidedly against them. Besides these brilliant achievements they have been successful in every match with the exception of two drawn fixtures. It is the quality of their performances that has earned them the proud position they occupy, and not the quantity.’
The away match in mid-March, 1876 against Manchester had confirmed their high level of recognition as formidable opponents. A much disputed try by Grasshoppers late in the game levelled the score to maintain their unbeaten sequence.
Thirteen matches played with 11 victories recorded for a club with only 60 members, of whom 35 were playing men was seen as a fine achievement by club secretary Alan Dickson who lived at 33, West Cliff, Preston. A couple more successful years followed with regular gates of more than 1,000 at home fixtures before the popularity of rugby went into decline as Association Football took a grip as even that other local rugby playing club Preston North End turned its attention to soccer.
Determined to carry on with their rugby the Grasshoppers did attract a crowd of more than 500 for the visit of Manchester Rangers in October 1885, unfortunately the match reflected the decline of the Grasshoppers team as they were well beaten. By mid-November when they played the Free Wanderers the match reporter concluded, ‘the Grasshoppers seem to be getting worse every week and would hardly be capable, I fancy, of giving a decent game to a team of boys.’
Eight goals and five tries to nil had brought the scathing comments. Within days the rest of the season’s fixtures were cancelled. By the following March it was announced that the Hunt brothers – William Henry, James Thomas and Robert, all international players from the Preston ranks, were heading to Australia to try their hand at sheep farming.
It would be September 1900 before the name of Preston Grasshoppers would return to the fray. More than 40 players had been recruited and a list of 26 fixtures published with Skipton, Sale, Eccles, Heaton Moor and Birkdale among them. A home victory by 15-3 against Sale in late September suggested the club was once more competitive.
It turned out to be a good season with their 11 wins exceeding the nine losses. The following season they were unbeaten from October winning 12 of their 16 fixtures and drawing two. While a few indifferent season’ followed, the club was generally an established one on the Northern circuit playing at Ribbleside between the two railway bridges. A short spell at West Cliff followed in 1909 and a year later they moved to a pitch just over the old Tram Bridge, changing into their kit at the Bull Hotel.
At the outbreak of the First World War like many rugby clubs the Grasshoppers ceased playing. A lot of the club’s players were enlisted and quite a few died in the conflict. Former skipper Capt John Lawrence Whitfield, Lt Keith Hayden Moore, Lt Harold Smith and Capt Arthur Lea Harris, a former club secretary, among those who paid with their lives.
Only in September 1921 did the members of Preston Grasshoppers meet back at the Bull and Royal to get their side together again. The captain of the reborn side was full back Charles Plant who had begun playing for the team in 1911. Among their earliest opponents after resumption of fixtures were Vale Of Lune at Lancaster where they lost 11-0.
An increasing number of club fixtures were played in the following years and in August 1925 a new skipper Dr DJ Davies was announced. A scrum half from Wales, he was a resident surgeon at the Preston Royal Infirmary.
During a season of ups and downs, when they ran four teams, they finished with a home fixture against Dick, Kerrs at Farringdon Park winning by 9-0. The Grasshoppers were gradually improving and held their own against formidable opponents throughout the rest of the decade. One notable success was in April 1929 when they competed in the Manchester sevens and won the cup. Defeating Blackburn by 28-0 in the final, after an earlier victory over Waterloo by 19-6.
At the start of the 1930s they were sharing their Farringdon Park base with the emerging Preston Speedway promoters and a couple of years later they departed their home venue when they were bought out by a greyhound racing syndicate.
After a couple of years of a nomadic existence the club acquired land at the rear of the Plough Inn, on Blackpool Road. The formidable Furness were the first visitors to Lea in late September 1935 and they defeated the Grasshoppers by 10-5 with some hard tackling.
That first season at Lea saw the Grasshoppers struggle at times although they did manage to win seven of their 24 fixtures by the end of April. Unfortunately, the following season was worse with only five wins and 21 losses recorded, although home victories over Carlisle, Heaton Moor and Kersal were pleasing.
Season 1937/8 was much better as they had a record of 14 wins from 24 matches by the end of March. Grasshoppers form slumped the following season although they did manage a seventh win of the campaign in their last home fixture against Oldham by 14-3. Within weeks members of the Grasshoppers club were answering the call and joining up as the war clouds gathered, a number enlisting with the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry.
September 1940 gave a foretaste of what was ahead when the Grasshoppers played an RAF side in their first home game of the season, winning by 19-0. Many servicemen turned out for the Grasshoppers in the season ahead and along with recruits from Hutton Grammar School they won 10 of their 23 fixtures. Sadly, two former players Ronald Buckley and Bill Bailey had been killed in action.
It was a similar story throughout the war years with illustrious guest players turning out for the Grasshoppers and traditional fixtures against the likes of Fylde, Waterloo, Blackburn and Furness being contested with a mixed bag of players and results.
With the war over, the Grasshoppers first home fixture at Lea was well attended as they hung on for a 6-6 draw against an impressive New Brighton. By late October 1947 they were regarded as one of the best sides in the north, a decisive 21-0 victory at Vale of Lune confirming their ranking.
From the outset of the 1950s the Grasshoppers had plenty of top class fixtures against the likes of Ilkley who they beat 9-6 away, the Belfast side CIYMS who they beat at Ravenhill in January 1950 by 12-8 and Birkenhead Park who beat them by 23-3 in December 1950.
In the middle of the decade Grasshoppers earned a reputation for victories on their travels against the likes of Belfast, Wigan, Kendal and at Manchester University. But the 1955/6 season ended disappointingly with a drab performance as Kendal gained revenge at Lea by a 12-6 victory. It was all smiles early in the next season when Fylde were beaten at Lea by 17-9. In 1957/58 new opponents the Royal Signals, Beckenham and Huddersfield were included in a 35 match schedule. Besides the first team the Grasshoppers regularly fielded four other teams, an achievement that was quite costly.
In the early 1960s the Grasshoppers had a useful side and had opposition such as St Helen’s, Old Birkonians, Heaton Moor, Furness, Wigan, Liverpool University and Birkenhead Park to keep them on their toes. In early September 1964 the Grasshoppers opened their season with a first ever visit by Rugby, despite getting caught in a traffic jam which delayed the kick off, the visitors were in rampant form winning by 20-0. The following season in September the Grasshoppers were the first side to play Birmingham on their new ground and recorded a 17-3 win, scoring four tries.
The year 1969 was a significant one for the Preston Grasshoppers as they celebrated their centenary. They arranged a fixture against the Old Cheltonians, a club with which they had links from the very early days. Traditionally the Old Cheltonians were old boys of Cheltenham College and although they did not have regular fixtures at this time, they drew a side together from all over the country to face the Grasshoppers, skippered by Mike Bowen. The fixture took place on the second Saturday of September before an enthusiastic crowd.
Veteran wing forward Alan Marsh went over for the first try for the Grasshoppers and then after the visitors had missed with a penalty kick newcomer John Heritage crossed between the posts to increase the lead, with Thomas converting successfully.
Despite some bright play from Old Cheltonians, Grasshoppers kept a grip on the match and marked the occasion with a 30 – 5 victory. Both Heritage and David Worth finishing with two tries, and Tony Nelson and Mike Bowen also getting a try each. Back in 1953 there had been talk of the Grasshoppers moving from Lea to a new ground and finally in 1973 the move to Lightfoot Green was complete.
The first visitors to the new ground being Vale of Lune. A new clubhouse and changing rooms costing over £60,000 meant that for a while the Grasshoppers had financial troubles.
From 1961 Lancashire Constabulary had been using the Grasshoppers facilities and this link led to county standard players such as Alan Wylie and Mick Parker playing for the side at weekends.
The 1970s were a difficult period performance wise although things improved towards the end of the decade under the captaincy of Stan Liptrot. In 1979/80 season for the first time in 10 years they managed to win more games than they lost with Roy Dransfield as skipper.
The arrival of Dick Greenwood, the future England coach, primarily to coach the squad, had a significant impact on the playing side and the upturn in fortunes enabled them to arrange higher class fixtures. In 1984 the top 24 teams in the country were placed in merit leagues and by 1987 the National League system was introduced, Preston Grasshoppers being placed in the Area League North.
Grasshoppers had secured the service of the burly Blackpool policeman Wade Dooley before the new structure was in place and after impressing with club and county he was selected for England in January 1985.
He went on to play 55 times for England, playing for his country until 1993 as well as playing on the British Lions tour to Australia in 1989. Although he left the Grasshoppers to spend a couple of seasons with Fylde he did return to Lightfoot Green before his playing days ended in 1994.
In the summer of 1995 the rugby union bowed to increasing pressure and became an official professional sport. A move which would prove significant as the development of the leagues continued.
In the 1998-9 season the Grasshoppers won promotion as champions from what was then the Jewson National Two North. A couple of ups and downs followed in the years ahead and the divisional format altered with the North Premier (Level Five) eventually introduced.
Twice in season 2004/5 and 2017/18 the Grasshoppers moved up to the next level as champions. Leaving them currently in National League North Two above mid-table. They also enjoyed Lancashire Cup success on three occasions in 2003, 2006 and 2012, when they beat Sedgley Park in the final tie. Although the competition ceased in 2013 they have memories of some epic cup tussles with their old rivals Fylde, Orrell, Sedgley Park and Vale of Lune down the years from when the Lancashire Cup was introduced in 1971 (last season the competition was resurrected as the John Burgess Lancashire Cup).
The season 1996/7 saw the Grasshoppers in the national spotlight as they progressed to the fifth round of the national knock out competition the Pilkington Cup. A victory at home to Stoke by 28-10, was followed by a second round success at New Brighton by 24-12, and then local rivals Fylde were beaten at Lightfoot Green by 24-12, a convincing victory by 28-18 at Liverpool St Helens, inspired by former Rugby League star Steve Kerry, earning them a home tie against Northampton. Despite being cheered on by a record crowd of morer than 3,000 the Grasshoppers fell to a 40-11 defeat in December 1996.
Kerry began his rugby playing days with Hoppers Mini Juniors going on to become the one of the club’s most prolific points scorers totalling almost 1,000 before joining Salford RLFC, returning in 1996 to score another 500 plus.
The fixtures that are most eagerly awaited by supporters of the Grasshoppers are the meetings with Fylde and in early September 2018 they met in league action for the first time in seven years. Grasshoppers came out winners in the encounter at Lightfoot Green, but Fylde turned the tables just before Christmas winning by 33-17.
Down the years the two clubs have when possible taken to the field in a number of memorable Boxing Day derbies that drew large crowds and were tense passionate affairs. Of course, their noisy neighbours have also cause to celebrate in 2019 having been formed back in July 1919.
For Preston Grasshoppers the long road to a 150 year celebration has had many obstacles along the way but those pioneering local rugby enthusiasts of Victorian days would be proud of the club and its achievements.