Heaton was, as many readers will know, the home for many years of East End, the team that became Newcastle United. But in the 1880s and ‘90s East End was just one of many teams that played in Heaton. Recently we were shown a photograph that led us to research the early history of one of them.
This silver memento was found some decades ago among the possessions of a deceased relative of Stephen Maddison, who told us that the person whose name was engraved on it ‘W Donaldson, Captain, Heaton Rovers 1893-4’ was not, as far as he knew, a member of his family. It lay forgotten for many a number of decades until it came into Stephen’s possession and he asked Heaton History Group whether we could tell him anything about Heaton Rovers or W Donaldson.
Luckily, contemporary newspaper reports have helped us build up a picture of the club’s early years. Although there is a single reference to a team called Heaton Rovers playing a match in March 1885, the club appears to have been founded in 1887, the year before the Football League was founded. The first of what would become regular references in the press to their matches was, in fact, to a game against Heaton Malcolm (presumably with a connection to the street of that name) on 19 March 1887 that was never played. It had been postponed in order to allow players to watch the Northumberland Cup Final between West End and Shankhouse, which was being played in Heaton on the same day.
The club’s secretary, G W Greener, who at that time was living in Heaton’s Morley Street, confirmed this conjecture in an 1890 dispute about other clubs not fulfilling their fixtures. It is clear from appeals in the press for opponents that, at this time, Rovers was a club for boys aged 12 to 14 years. The following year, the secretary appealed for players between the ages of 14 and 15.
There were lots of disputes reported during the club’s early years, on and off the pitch and with the press. G W Greener regularly took opponents to task for the state of their pitch, for fielding unregistered, over-age or otherwise illegal players and wrote to the press to correct mistakes in their reporting. Games were also abandoned because of on field arguments. Remember this was at a time when the rules of the game were in their infancy. Even at the top level, referees and penalty kicks were not introduced until 1891. Even the duration of a match wasn’t fixed at 90 minutes until 1897, the same time as teams were formally required to comprise 11 players.
But the boot was on the other foot following Rovers’ one and only mention in the national press:
Under a headline ‘Extraordinary Goal Scoring’ the famous newspaper ‘The Sporting Life’ reported ‘On Saturday when the Heaton Rovers and Union Harriers (Byker) met, the former won by 22 goals to 2. Shortly after half time, Rovers scored 6 goals in 10 minutes.’ (7 April 1888).
Even in the current free scoring Premier League, we haven’t seen anything quite like that (but we are publishing before the Newcastle United attack takes on the leaky Manchester United defence).
However a couple of weeks later, ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ issued a rebuttal: ’Union Harriers beg to contradict the score…. as the match was never played.’ (26 April 1888).
It’s interesting to track how far Rovers were prepared to travel for a fixture. Advertising vacant dates in the 1888-9 season for what was now an under 16 team, G W Greener (who was now living in Byker) cited a radius of ‘about eight miles’ (‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ 12 June 1888). Early season matches against Swalwell and Scotswood Harriers were within the specified distance but, early the following year, a Rovers’ fixture v Gainsborough appeared alongside fixtures such as Everton v Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa v West Brom, both of which will grace the Premier League this season. (‘York Herald’ 26 January 1889).
It’s not completely clear where Rovers played home games during the early years. They boasted of having a home ground as early as 1888 but we don’t yet know where it was. Certainly by spring 1890, they were playing at least some of their matches on East End’s ground, which was roughly where Chillingham Road Metro Station is now. They also sometimes seem to have played at Millers Lane in Walkergate.
The 1890-91 season was a good one for the club. In February, their record was: Played 23 Won 16 Drawn 4 Lost 2 For 75 goals Against 19. They boasted that no Northumberland side had beaten them, ‘only Felling and Washington’. In March, it was announced Rovers would play Weetslade in ‘the final of the medals competition’. The match was played at the East End ground on the same day as senior teams played the final of the Northumberland FA Cup Final. There was an admission charge of 6d to watch both games. We are indebted to ‘The Morpeth Herald’ (18 April 1891) for a full match report of the final of ‘this new competition for players aged 18 and under’ – and the first Rovers’ team sheet we have seen: ‘Donaldson’ was one of the half backs. Heaton Rovers won the game 2-0, their first trophy that we know of. Presumably W Donaldson will have won a medal but evidently not the one Stephen has. Jubilant new secretary, Frank Purdy, expressed a hope that the team would stay together and announced that the club’s fourth anniversary would be celebrated with a grand dinner.
Soon after, we hear that Leighton Football Club had amalgamated with Heaton Rovers and it had been decided to form a reserve team. The club was going from strength to strength. There was great excitement in Blyth the following Christmas when it was arranged that a ‘Blyth young lady’ would kick off Blyth Star’s match v Rovers: ’This innovation will be such a novelty in the annals of football that the whole of the inhabitants should be in the field at 10.00m as play commences at 10.30 and give the twinklers a bumper gate’ (‘Blyth Weekly News’ 24 December 1892).
At the end of the 1892-3 season, a meeting was held to launch a new competition ‘open to players who have taken part in this season’s English, Northumberland or Durham Senior Cup ties’ and ‘promoted by Wallsend NE Rangers’. It took place on 11 April 1893 at the Cafe, Wallsend with ‘Mr G W Greener of Heaton Rovers’ in the chair. The draw took place for the first round and, hopefully coincidentally, Heaton Rovers, received a bye. Intriguingly ’11 silver medals’ were explicitly mentioned as being offered in the competition. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find out any more details. Did the competition take place? How far did Rovers progress? Did they even win it? And is it the medal that W Donaldson received for captaining the team to glory now in Stephen’s possession? It’s tempting to think so.
However, there is some contradictory evidence. The following season, that in which the engraving states that W Donaldson was captain, was reported to be a much less successful campaign than those that had preceded it. At the club’s ‘8th AGM‘ on 16 June 1894, presided over by F W Purdy and held at Henderson’s Cocoa Rooms on Shields Road, it was reported that the first team had fallen back considerably, having played 19 matches of which only 3 had been won. The second team had won 12 out of 17. But the club had successfully obtained a place in the Tyneside League and they had a small balance in hand of 14s 5d. Interestingly, the club president was listed as C T Maling and A Ripley was now said to be the captain. Presumably, he had replaced Donaldson at the end of the previous season. There was no mention of any trophies. Perhaps W Donaldson’s medal was in recognition of his one season as captain.
On the other hand, it could have been the case that the previously mentioned cup competition had taken place between the Wallsend meeting on 11 April 1893 and the previous year’s AGM, which presumably took place in June 1893 and so would have been celebrated then, making the contrast with the following unsuccessful year even more stark. We don’t yet know but feel that the answer is out there somewhere in football archives. If you can help, please get in touch.
Even if it was going through a comparatively lean time, the club still had plenty of life left in it. The last mention that we have found so far was on 6 December 1909 when they were heavily beaten 8-2 by Wallsend Victoria but that may be more to do with the lack of digitised local papers between then and the outbreak of WW1 than on it being the final straw for the club.
But Heaton Rovers is only part of the story. What do we know about W Donaldson and some of the other key characters in its history?
C T Maling The club president referred to at the 1894 AGM was Christopher Thompson Maling of the famous pottery family. At this time he was almost 70 years old. The family’s Ford B factory at St Lawrence, Walker was the largest pottery in Britain when it was built in 1879 and Maling’s 1891 census return serves as an indicator of his wealth. A widower, he was living on Ellison Place in Newcastle with three grown up children, aged between 22 and 26 plus a ladies’ maid, a footman, two housemaids, a cook, a laundress, a kitchen maid, a professional nurse and a waiting maid. Hopefully, he had enough money left over after paying his staff to fork out for the odd football!
F W ‘Frank’ Purdy We think the club secretary who succeeded G W Greener could have William Francis Purdy, an engine driver’s son, who in 1891 was an 18 year old clerk to a shipbroker. The family were living at 16 Chillingham Road, very close to Rovers’ ground. He spent his early married life in Byker but later returned to Heaton, living at 44 Sackville Road and 17 Swindon Terrace. He died in 1929, aged c 57.
G W Greener George William Greener, son of Frederick Cawthorn Greener, an iron forgeman, was born in Northumberland but in 1881, aged nine, was living with his parents and four siblings in Middlesbrough. When Heaton Rovers was founded in 1887 with him as secretary, the family were living in Heaton. He would have been only around 14 or 15 years old, the same age as the players he was trying to attract to play both in and against the team. The family soon moved to Byker but George didn’t stay in the area as an adult. He married Lillie in 1898 and by 1901 the couple were living in Gateshead and in 1911 in Hartlepool with three children. George described his occupation as a ‘forge clerk’. He died in 1928, aged 56.
What is striking about both the secretaries during Rovers’ early years is how young they were. G W Greener, in particular, was rarely out of the newspapers, taking every opportunity to promote the football club and also founding a cricket team. He also took on positions beyond the club itself. The youth of early football organisers has been noted elsewhere and is perhaps not surprising considering how few of their parents’ or teachers’ generation would have any experience of playing or supporting a team.
A Ripley Andrew Ripley was the captain who succeeded W Donaldson. Another engine driver’s son, born in St Anthony’s in 1874, Andrew would have been around 20 years old when he took over the captaincy. After getting married, he briefly lived in Cullercoats but by 1911 had returned to Walker with his wife and five children. He died in 1947, aged 74.
And so to the name on the medal, W Donaldson. Unfortunately, there are a number of possibilities for the identity of the Heaton Rovers captain living to the east of Newcastle, some of about the expected age, perhaps the most likely being:
William Richardson Donaldson, son of Thomas, a stonemason, and Annie, who was born in Amble in July 1873 but by 1891, aged 18, was living with his parents and six siblings in Harbottle St, Byker and working as a blacksmith. He married Isabella in 1899. Wallsend Freemasons’ records in 1908 list his profession then as a ‘contractor’. In 1911, the couple were still living in Wallsend with their three children. Official records sometimes included William’s middle name and on other occasions, it was omitted. But maybe someone will be able to confirm this or tell us otherwise? It would be good to know more about an early figure in Heaton’s football history.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Stephen Maddison for sending us the photograph of the medal and explaining how he came by it. Thank you too to Stephen for permission to publish the photograph.
British Newspaper Archives
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