John Henry Bielby
Image courtesy of Mr Bill Longbones.
Born in 1862, John Henry Bielby was associated with Hull City from its formation in 1904 until his death in 1947. This unusually lengthy period saw him in a number of different roles – his versatility matching his durability. Unlike many of the other founders of the club, his activities were fairly well-documented, and his participation in the running of the club easy to follow. This lengthy association was not a matter of chance, it reflected his tenacious and single-minded devotion to football in the city.
The son of a Fraisthorpe-born labourer who had moved to Hull like thousands of others in search of better prospects, John Henry Bielby – more often referred to as ‘Jack’ – was one of six children living initially in the town centre and then subsequently in the Hessle Road area. There the Bielby family would have seen a rapidly industrialising district, with the expanding fishing community growing steadily westwards, especially along the south side of Hessle Road, where cramped and basic housing was hurriedly thrown up to accommodate the increasing numbers of workers involved in all aspects of the fishing industry.
At the western end of Hessle Road, in the neighbouring semi-rural district of Dairycoates, the North Eastern Railway company had a major engineering site, which provided work for hundreds of men in the area. This thriving activity resulted in an eastward expansion, effectively enclosing the fields of Dairycoates from both sides with Hessle Road as its northern edge. Here too, there was a steady demand for housing, especially on the northern side of Hessle Road. ‘Jack’ Bielby’s occupation, as recorded in the 1881 census is that of bricklayer – a useful profession in an area experiencing a boom in construction of all types. He would also have been aware of the many sporting events which took place on the large field at the southern end of Hessle Road, a few minutes away from his parents’ home in Witty Street.
Having moved out of the family home, Bielby in the 1891 census was recorded as living at 588 Hessle Road, and his profession as ‘foreman bricklayer’. His neighbours, as might have been expected, had railway industry occupations such as ‘NER engine driver’, ’signalman’, ‘railway engine stoker’, ‘porter’ and ‘boiler maker’. A few doors away was the Locomotive Inn, which was patronised not only by the railwaymen of Dairycoates, but also by many local sportsmen, who used it as a convenient place to get changed before and after their exertions. Football, cricket and rugby teams all used the Locomotive, handily positioned over the road from the large recreational field referred to simply as ‘Dairycoates’ in the local newspapers. The Inn was also used as a base for local athletics clubs, especially for cross country and harrier events.
Bielby had been a footballer for one of Hull’s early works teams, the NER Dairycoates Locos from 1881 until 1889, the players being drawn mostly from the employer of the same name, although he and a few others came from other professions. Maintaining his links with the team, he then became its honorary secretary and acted as linesman when needed. Speaking in 1908 of his experiences in local football, he commented “The N.E.R Locos, for one season only, amalgamated with the Hull Town A.F.C .. I was an apprentice at this time, and well remember attending the joint meeting, which was held at a first- class hotel. We were charged 6d for a glass of lemonade, which did not tempt us to often visit the establishment. The amalgamation was not a success. The Hull Town section was composed of well-to-do persons , while our lot were working lads, so naturally the blend was not satisfactory.”
(Hull Town AFC was an offshoot of the Hull Town cricket club, whose members belonged to sections of Hull’s more prosperous social circles, for whom football had often been the winter sport of choice at college or public school. )
As well as his involvement in the local football scene, Bielby participated in the activities of a cricket club close to his Hessle Road home. Formed in 1883, the Albert United Cricket Club played on various West Hull grounds including West Park and Chalk Lane, before settling on a ground opposite the Star and Garter (now Rayners) on Hessle Rd . They earned a reputation as a club who generated funds for charitable causes such as local orphanages , thanks in no small part to the efforts of their secretary John Ramster. Such was the club’s progress that they threatened to rival the Hull Town club as the city’s premier cricket team, as they won many trophies. By 1890 the club had 128 members . Fellow Hull City founder ‘Jack’ Ramster severed his connections with Albert United when he resigned in 1899, his time there overlapping with Bielby’s association. In July 1907 the Hull Daily Mail carried details of the forthcoming Albert United Cricket Carnival, noting that “This event is looked upon as a general half-holiday by residents of West Hull. All along the Hessle-road shopkeepers will display bunting, and should fine weather prevail, I expect previous records will be broken . Last year the Newland Cottage Homes children enjoyed this event, but this year the Spring-bank Orphanage are the recipients of the good things, and all proceeds will be devoted to this institution. “Nil desperandum” has been the motto of the Albertonians, and about £500 has been handed over to the institutions. An enterprise like this means a great deal of labour. Several splendid workers have been connected with the club in bygone years , but no one has worked harder or put more time in on behalf of Albert United than Mr. J.H. Bielby.”
Bielby played occasionally for the team, but was more effective in behind-the scenes roles at the club.
His path would later cross that of the ‘well-to-do persons’ of the Hull Town Cricket Club, when, by now a Hull City director and ERFA official, he had the responsibility of finding a ground to play the friendly against Manchester City at a few hours’ notice in the Spring of 1905, and then successively finding a working agreement with the directors of the cricket club, whose football offshoot had briefly been his team mates as mentioned above.
When City needed to build their ground alongside the cricket club’s enclosure in 1905/6, the construction, was overseen by Bielby (who engaged local firm J.H. Carr & Sons of Alexandra Road to build the stands and J Taylor & Sons of Caroline Street to build the new entrance to the ground). Bielby would continue to take care of ground maintenance and related matters for many years to come.
A typical anecdote about his involvement with the fabric of City’s football ground can be found in an account of the club’s 1908 AGM, in which chairman Alywn Smith ‘s words were reported : “…Incidentally in speaking of the east stand, Mr Smith referred to the work of Mr. J.H. Bielby , who had not received a penny piece for all the work he had done on the ground. Mr Bielby had received nothing directly or indirectly from the club, and the shareholders and directors were under a very deep debt of gratitude to him. If it had not been for Mr Bielby the ground would not have been what it was (cheers). He hoped that if anybody heard anything outside saying that Mr. Bielby had been paid for his services, they would promptly contradict and correct it (applause). ”
Bielby was of the few founders of the club to be interviewed by the local newspapers about his past in the game, and who was able to provide a first- hand account of the evolution of the game in Hull and the East Riding.
At the time of the following profile in the Hull Graphic magazine by an uncredited journalist in 1908, Bielby was still at the centre of the club directorate and very much involved with its running, as well as performing his tasks within the ERFA. Disappointingly, the article does not address the circumstances of the club’s formation in 1904 despite being intimately involved in it, but details his crucial role in establishing a formal football organisation in the city.
…My original intention was to give the readers of the Graphic a brief outline of the formation and growth of the Association in Hull, but I find the name of Jack Bielby so intermixed and interwoven with everything that has taken place in connection with the upbuilding of Association Football in this district, that the history of Hull Soccer and Mr. Bielby’s football career are inseparable. Practically the first Association Club in Hull, the Dairycoates N.E.R. Loco had him for a playing member, and since that time for a continuous period of 27 years, he has been actively associated with the game in Hull. It will do none of us any harm to glance back a few years and see the rapid strides the game has made in Hull, and note to whom the rapid development is due.
The first incident of note was the playing of the first English Cup Tie ever played in Hull. The first round of the English Cup found N.E.R. Loco. drawn to play Lincoln City on a field upon which now stands the Church of St. Mary’s and Peter’s. I think I am correct in saying the team chosen to represent the Hull Club was as follows:- Charlton (now a follower of Hull City); Balmforth and Shepherdson,; Geo. Hall, Timmins and Frank Milner; Barr, Neal, Teddy North, Dick Lawson, Mick Millar, and Fred Peat. Milner and North, I believe, have sons now playing for City Juniors. The locals must have made a fairly creditable show, although being beat by 5 goals to 1. This was in the season 1884, the Dairycoates N.E.R. Loco. and a team from Holmes’ Tannery being practically the only teams in Hull, matches being played with Grimsby M.S. and I., Grimsby White Star, Brigg Amateurs, etc. The Dairycoates team entered for what was known as the Scarbro’ Cup, meeting and defeating among others Scarbro’ Oliver’s Mount, Kirkbymoorside, Filey, and drawing with Scarborough St. Mary’s in the final at Scarbro’. The replay took place on a field opposite West Park, and the Hull men found themselves winners of the Scarbro’ Cup. Unfortunately the cup was found to be purely mythical. An actual cup never existed. The authorities had evidently never bargained for an outside club winning this phantom cup. The rounds cost each member of the Hull Club about £5 each expenses, and after much trouble the club was awarded £5 in lieu of the cup.
By this time several new clubs had sprung up, including Kingston Amateurs, St . Paul’s, Blue Star, Beverley Church Institute, and Gough’s, the latter club having the reputation of drawing more money than any club before or since except Hull City. Sir Seymour King now came upon the scene with a cup and this formed the first league. Here we find Messrs. F. Stringer, Alf. Spring, Ted Wells, Percy Harrison, and Hobson, of Beverley, all figuring in this launch of a league, Mr. Stringer being the first secretary. From that time up to the present the Soccer cause has been advancing with steady strides. It has always been particularly fortunate in having capable officials, and under the guidance of men like Mr. Bielby no opportunities for improvement have been lost. No better men can be obtained for guiding the affairs of even a Football Association than men who are a success in their own business, and Mr Bielby is such a man. At the time of the formation of the first Leagues all business had to be transacted through Scarbro’, inasmuch as the Hull League was affiliated to Scarbro’. Of course this could not go on long, the local officials being too enterprising, and about twelve years ago Messrs. Spring and Bielby were primarily responsible for an appeal to the Football Association for direct affiliation, the clubs in Hull then numbering twenty- two, with the head- quarters of the Association at the Queen’s Hotel, and Ted Wells secretary. The request was granted, and one would have thought the local officials would have rested content. Not so, however, contentment or apathy is an unknown quality with men like Mr. Bielby, and we find them three years ago applying for direct representation.
The all important meeting was held at the Station Hotel, Hull, when Mr. Bielby and several colleagues met Messrs. Crump and Walfall of the F.A., and books and papers were produced and the E.R.F.A. were complimented and commended for the economical way the Association was managed. Needless to add, direct representation was granted, and Mr. Alf. Spring appointed as the first representative.
I should mention the local association upon being directly affiliated were allotted shares in F.A., and as a mark of esteem and appreciation, Messrs. Bielby and Spring were given the shares by the Council. And now when Soccer has reached such a successful stage it behoves us to look back with pride upon the process of evolution and to give the credit where it is due, and I know of no one more entitled to a larger measure of credit and praise than Mr. Bielby, for 27 years a soccer worker, the oldest referee in Hull , and for 14 years treasurer of the E.R.F.A.. He also finds time to render valuable assistance as a Director of Hull City, and as such received a mark of their appreciation last season.
The writer has crossed swords with him on many occasions, but is one of the first to take his cap off to Mr. Bielby’s abilities. A young referee could not go to a better quarter for advice, a man with a sharp intellect, possessed of indomitable courage and the courage of his convictions, and a powerful, impressive speaker, one who speaks from a practical knowledge of things, and who is hard to beat in an argument.
I trust Mr. Bielby will long be spared to honour local football with his assistance, and that he will live to see all his ideals realised.
As well as providing a detailed account of his footballing activities, the article briefly mentions Bielby’s officiating experience. He was a linesman at City’s first-ever game in 1904 against Notts. County , and took charge of many local amateur games in which he would have encountered local young players, among them future founding directors Fred Levitt, Mark Andrews, Ben Saunders Frost and Willie Hay, as they turned out for their respective clubs Hessle and the original short-lived Hull City.
Bielby passed away in the freezing month of January 1947 and although his death made a brief front article in the Hull Daily Mail, his achievements in around the turn of the century were not highlighted in the brief summary of his life. In a devastated post war city with food rationing and bomb sites still pockmarking many of the streets, the death of an ageing pre-war football director struggled to capture the attention of most of the population. Likewise his funeral went unreported at a time when widespread death was still commonplace in local and national life. Thus a proportionate and merited tribute to his life’s footballing endeavours undeservedly eluded him, and his pivotal role in Hull’s football history is thus largely unremembered.
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