All-conquering heroes

"Wanted, number of persons to form a football club to play on Woodhouse Moor a few days a week from 7 to 8am."

It was a clarion call that would lay the foundation of a sports club that became the pride of south Leeds.

The one-line add was placed in the Leeds Mercury in March 1864 by railway clerk Mr H I Jenkinson, keen to get the young men of Leeds into the new craze they called football.

Over the coming decades, the club, originally called Leeds Athletic morphed into Hunslet Cricket Football and Athletic club.

Once firmly entrenched to the south of the river Aire, it was at rugby which the club excelled at.

The club was the jewel in the crown of a community which was once home to more than 72,000 people and provided much of the city’s industrial muscle.

A century ago this spring, Hunslet became the first team to do the unprecedented ‘quadruple’ of winning all four competitions in one season.

A blow-by-blow account of the team’s epic year has now been lovingly re-counted by lifelong Hunslet supporter Bryan Smith.

Talent

Mr Smith, a retired teacher originally from Middleton, has spent countless hours studying old match reports and traced surviving relatives of the history-making team.

He said: “The Hunslet club of the early 20th century had everything going for it.

“There was a large catchment area – not only the 72,000 people in Hunslet itself, but in the outlying villages of Beeston, Stourton, Middleton, Rothwell, Methley and beyond.

“It had a large following. There were over 140,000 attendances at Parkside in 1907-08 and an average crowd of nearly 7,000. They could attract the best players and were bursting with quality. Eight players of that squad would become internationals such was the calibre of the team that started the season.”

By the start of the 1907/08 campaign, they had amassed a squad of players brimming with talent, confidence, youth and experience under the guiding hand of the club’s founding father, industrialist Billy Gilston and the captaincy of Albert Goldthorpe, the city of Leeds’ first genuine sporting superstar.

Albert, a supreme goal-kicker, half back and talismanic captain who scored over 1500 points during 15 years as a Hunslet player, was part of a rugby playing dynasty of five brothers – the others were Walter, William, James and John – who all played for the club over its formative years.

For just 500 Gilston was a able to muster a team made up mainly of local lads and players from outlying pit villages, in particular Featherstone, who were coaxed to the club as their own team was temporarily defunct.

It included a fearsome forward line which would forever be known as the ‘Terrible Six’.

They were led by the legendary Harry Wilson and included Charles Cappleman, Billy Brooks, John Higson, Jack Randall, Jack Smales and Tom Walsh.

Also in the side was a teenager from Fitzwilliam, Billy Batten. The 17-year-old winger would become one of the greatest players ever to pick up a rugby ball, and the only former Hunslet player to be in the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

A great showman on the field, his flamboyance soon became legendary at Parkside. His most famous tactic was to leap over opponents as they crouched to tackle him.

Together they turned their Parkside home into a fortress.

Not every game was a trailblazing display but they developed an uncanny knack of grinding out results and winning by the narrowest of margins which saw them bring home all four trophies – the Northern Union Challenge Cup and Championship and the Yorkshire Cup and Yorkshire Senior Competition.

Triumphant

In all they won 37, drew three and lost just six matches in a gruelling 46-game league and cup campaign.

The success of the south Leeds club had their supporters in rapture.

Crowds of around 20,000 welcomed them home from winning the challenge cup and, a fortnight later, the championship final trophy.

The enormity of the feat was not lost by the media at the time.

The Yorkshire Evening Post declared: “The triumphant march of the footballers of Hunslet will go down in history as the most notable affair of football, ever known in the north of England.”

On April 25 1908, Leeds railway station and City Square was brought to a standstill as Hunslet returned from their 14-0 demolition of Hull in the Challenge Cup final at Huddersfield’s Fartown ground.

The YEP reported: “The station barriers were closed and guarded by police, while outside a band waited to give the opening notes of welcome, as the team passed on their char-a-banc, which was bedecked in the club colours.

“When the team arrived, there were tremendous scenes of enthusiasm. Albert Goldthorpe, bearing the cup aloft, was carried shoulder high through the station to the char-a-banc, while the band struck up See the Conquering Hero Comes and gave the lead to the crowd with the famous ditty: We’ve Swept the Seas Before Boys.

“The people sang and shouted themselves hoarse as the team and officials drove away along the principal thoroughfares and so down to Hunslet, where there was further rejoicing.”

The rejoicing became even more frenzied on May 9 when they sealed the unprecedented ‘quadruple’ of wins by beating Oldham 12-2 in the Championship final re-play at Wakefield’s Belle Vue stadium.

Such huge gatherings had not been seen since the city welcomed home troops returning from the Boer War.

“Albert Goldthorpe and his fellows were heroes of the night.

“The char-a-banc, which bore the Hunslet players seemed to act like magic upon the dense crowd which flanked Boar Lane and Briggate.

“If the crowd on Boar Lane and Briggate had been imposing, it was on the other side of Leeds Bridge that the popularity of Hunslet;s succession of victories became more pronounced. Dozens of wagonettes, all gaily decorated, joined in the procession.”

The triumph is still recalled proudly by anyone connected to Hunslet, even though there is only one person left who remembers it – proud Hunslet fan 111-year-old Florence Baldwin.

They were days before the decline of heavy industry and the construction of the M1 tore away at the community.

It was always going to be tough to recreate such halcyon days, but fast forward 100 and surely no one would have been able to predict the club’s very future would be in serious jeopardy.

Last October, Hunslet Hawks was fighting for its very existence after crowds at South Leeds Stadium were down below 300.

The 7,000-strong gates which once packed out Parkside are nothing but a 35-year-old memory with the old ground flattened beneath an industrial estate.

Mr Smith believes the great triumphs of yesteryear cannot be remembered without a lament on how far the club, and others like it, have been allowed to fall by the wayside in comparison to today’s Super League giants of the game like Leeds, St Helens, Bradford and Wigan.

“A 100 years later and, for starters, the top teams attract sponsorship from national, international and (in a few cases) multinational companies.

“At its highest level, rugby league is a business. Players are full time, they enjoy top class private health care, dietary and life-style education and have opportunities for higher and local education.

“Although clubs continue to emphasise their ‘community’ and ‘local’ links, there are few professional clubs who are truly local, in the way that the Hunslet team of 1907-1908 belonged to the Hunslet people – times have changed.”

Mr Smith is currently seeking a publisher for his research. He can be contacted on 0113 262 8183.

tony.gardner@ypn.co.uk