By MERVYN EDWARDS, Local Historian and Burslem History Club Speaker Secretary

Today, we regard Arnold Bennett – who died in 1931 - as a man of letters, quiet dignity and great mental efficiency – so it may come as a surprise that he wrote about FOOTBALL in his Five Towns novels.  Like most of us, he played jumpers-for-goalposts football as a child – even though his father forbade it, not wanting young Arnold to mix with uncouth youths.  In H K Hales’ autobiography, Bennett is recalled playing on a dusty wasteland, with two tin cans or two piles of coats for goalposts.  Hales recalled Bennett receiving the ball ratherinelegantly – which would have been no surprise considering the brick and rubble littering the ground – and then speeding off to cries of “Come on, Nocker!” and scoring a goal.

Football was popular in Burslem in the late 19th century.  In 1877, we read of a match in Wolstanton between Wolstanton Juveniles and a team called Burslem.  Other local teams were Burslem St John’s, Burslem St Paul’s and Port Vale Rovers, who are referred to in the Staffordshire Knot of 1888.

Jeff Kent’s books on Port Vale are a must for all Vale fans, and I also recommend The Port Vale Miscellany (2010) by Phil Sherwin.  Both authors are specialists in their field, but as a social historian, I have been fortunate enough to unearth quite a lot about Vale’s place in the wider community.

Port Vale football club has existed on the edge of Burslem town centre for much of its history, so it is no surprise that it’s had close connections with charitable causes in Burslem.  There are several  historical connections between the club and the Town Hall.
In the 1880s, there were treats to the “ragged children” and the poor of Burslem, who were amused by Port Vale FC in the Town Hall.  Hundreds of children sat down to a free tea as entertainment – some of it provided by club members who sang Who killed Cock Robin.  It is difficult to imagine present-day Vale stars entertaining the public from a stage, but in 1887, one of the players, Billy Poulson, recited The Patent Hair -brushing Machine.  By the way, fans of Arnold Bennett will remember that this was given as one of the entertainments at the free and easy at the Dragon Hotel in Clayhanger.

The club’s annual dinner often took place at the Town Hall and this was an opportunity for various speakers and club officials to assess the progress of the players and club.  At the 1886 function, it was claimed that there was no better goalkeeper in England than Vale’s number 1, Hanley-born Billy Rowley.  He was sold to Stoke, and won two caps for England. Gatherings such as this would be concluded with songs and recitations.

In the late 19th century, The Leopard Hotel in Burslem occupied numbers 19-21 Market Place.  A few doors away, at number 26, was the Burslem Coffee House, aka the Borough Arms.  It opened in 1879 and was run on temperance principles, being offered as an alternative to the plethora of drinking establishments in the town.  Vale often held meetings at the Coffee House, and it’s evident that one club member at least was unhappy with the arrangement: J. Brindley was a temperance advocate, and at the club’s annual meeting in July, 1885, he told fellow members that he had been averse to attending Vale matches at Mr. Bew’s ground, Mr. Bew being a publican.
The informal gatherings at the Coffee House were evidently agreeable occasions, with music being provided.  There is a reference to the Port Vale Prize Band giving selections from the opera Maritana at the venuein 1888.

As a fan of Potteries football, I have seen both Stoke City and Port Vale play this season (2013-14) and have enjoyed the remarkable hospitality of the GMB’s box at Vale Park.  As a creative type of person, I have one other association with Port Vale – but you’ll have to look up the website of the Barewall Art Gallery in Burslem to find out what it is.

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