Atherton sports ground helped launch England careers

A 1920s sports day with the Ena mill in the background

Local historian Alf Ridyard takes a look back at an iconic football ground for yesteryear in his Tash Tales...

We take another step back in our time machine and look at one of Atherton’s iconic enclosed football grounds, which unfortunately disappeared in the 1970s.

Flapper Fold was the home, latterly, of Howe Bridge Mills FC.

The ground dates back to the end of the 19th century which is when we begin our tale.

The ground was just an open piece of land between Factory Street, Gloucester Street, Flapper Fold Lane and the Gas Works at the opposite end. At that time it was the home of Atherton Church House FC.

In 1903, ground enclosure took place, as the Church House team had joined the semi-professional Lancashire Combination Division Two.
Success soon came and in 1904/05 when the team were promoted to Division One and this brought about a name change for the team and from this date they were known as Atherton FC.

The ground now, as we stated, was enclosed which enabled controlled paid entry, field perimeter fencing was also installed.

There is no date given but a stand was also erected on the Factory Street side. The team continued with limited success.

Relegation to Division Two followed in 1909, and then promotion again in 1913.

This season proved to be one of the teams most successful as they finished fifth, a position they attained in 1924/25.

Mediocrity is the best way to describe the team’s achievements over the years, the team finally resigned from the league in 1930 and disbanded as Atherton FC.

The dominant team in Atherton by now was the Atherton Collieries team across town at Alder House.

Atherton did have its moments in history though and it produced its fair share of professionals and the greatest match in the club’s history was played at the ground on May 2, 1923, when the Bolton Wanderers cup final team played its first game after that momentous first Wembley final at Flapper Fold, winning 4-0.

All the Bolton team from the final with the exception of goalkeeper Dick Pym and Welsh international Teddy Vizard played. The Bolton team and the officials of both clubs attended an after match meal at the Wheatsheaf Hotel on Market Street, where agreement was made to make it an annual fixture.

A plaque to mark the historic game was displayed in the dressing rooms and was still there at the ground’s demise.

Post-1930 when the club had folded, Bolton played Atherton Colls, but the original game in 1923 was a match to acknowledge the fact that three of the Bolton cup final team players originated from the Atherton club, including Billy Butler (signed 1920, 407games) and Bob Haworth (signed 1919, 305 games) although it seems both players defected to the newly formed

Atherton Colls during Atherton’s inactivity immediately after World War One.

Although born in Bolton, half-back Harry Nuttall (326 games) was the third player, with him signing at Bolton in 1921.

Also members of Atherton FC were Jack Sillcock from Spring View, Wigan, who went on to play 423 games for Manchester United (1919-1934) and Jack Fort from Plank Lane, Leigh, who played 37 games for Atherton. In 1910 he was snapped up by Exeter City, for whom he played almost 100 games before the Great War intervened, and 250 games for Millwall FC.

Four of the five we have highlighted that turned professional from Atherton, Butler, Sillcock, Nuttall and Fort remarkably all went on to play for England.

After the club’s demise the ground was purchased by the Howe Bridge Mills spinning company and the ground changed direction in 1933 when rugby league was played on the pitch.

Tommy Clarkson, the former Leigh international full-back, was elected coach.

Jobs for the boys springs to mind as coincidentally he worked for Sir John Holden at his Mather Lane mill in Leigh.

Sir John being the Company owner and his two sons both played for the CEM team.

In fact, John junior was good enough to be chosen to play for GB amateurs against France in 1935/36.

By 1935 the CEM team were the Leigh and district champions, going through the season with a 100% record.

Crowds of 500 to 600 were recorded at the Flapper Fold ground during CEM’s successful season, however, two seasons later the team folded.

Again it may be coincidence but both Sir John’s sons had moved away from the area with work commitments.

Still, the company were regular users of the ground for company sports days and fetes.

Also around this time, we had boxing and wrestling matches, add to this further land purchases on the other side of Gloucester Street where cricket, hockey, bowls and tennis were all played on excellent facilities by company teams and we can see the welfare of his staff was well catered for.

We find little evidence of the continuance of football on the field in the 1930s but Atherton Collieries were still thriving across town playing in the Bolton Combination.

We have to surmise the Second World War also played its part in no footballing activities being recorded.

Howe Bridge Mills FC were a team that had existed since 1919 and one assumes played on the ground after the demise of Atherton FC and the rugby league team.

They certainly were the incumbent team in the 1940s.

Howe Bridge Mills FC played in the Bolton Combination after World War II and although no records of championships or cup finals exist, they were always a stubborn team to beat.

My own football career started there as a 14-year-old in 1962/3 with the team playing in the Combination Premier Division.

The facilities, I doubt, had changed a great deal since Bolton played there in 1923.

The old stone communal bath was heated by an antiquated coal-fired boiler, and an old coal-burning stove provided heating for the whole building which resembled a POW hut.

The ground also had the remnants of coal slag banking’s surrounding the field.

They were still in evidence from times long forgotten, the stand that occupied the Factory Street side of the ground had also disappeared and the drainage system had also seen better days.

During late-season games, the ground became like a school playground.

The 1950s and 60s saw the Atherton charity cup games played on the ground, always attracting large crowds.

All this was to fall foul of the town planners and the collapse of the cotton industry and the inability of the cotton companies to keep the land.

By the 1970s the whole complex was in decline – the cricket , hockey, bowls and tennis had also all gone from the site.

The football field is now a housing estate, the only connection is Seddon Close, a tribute paid to Jim Seddon who almost single-handedly kept Howe Bridge Mills FC going through the 50s and 60s.

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