High Park: A Historic Hotbed of Football

Section of 1889 Town Plan showing High Park FC Wennington Road/Roe Lane ground. Reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Scotland.

The placename of High Park dates back to at least 1762. It was first distinguished on mid C19th maps, originally lying outside of Southport proper, until a further boundary extension in 1875. Upon becoming part of the expanding town, it experienced rapid growth in the latter part of the C19th. As well as local families, who resided in the original cottages spread along the area’s oldest throughfare, Park Lane, there was also an influx of people from other areas, into this new working-class district.

 Section of 1859 OS map via https://www.davidrumsey.com
Section of 1859 OS map via https://www.davidrumsey.com

Sport & Politics were popular here; The area became known as ‘the Headquarters of Radicalism’, with no public houses (the nearest being at Churchtown or Blowick) and an extraordinary number of churches. By 1879 there was a rugby team, namely High Park Grasshoppers and I believe it’s likely this club switched codes to association football (as others did), as in 1884 we find that High Park Football Club had been formed. The team’s first playing field was an enclosed ground at Devonshire Road. Its exact location is not known however, it must be considered that Warren Road did not exist at this time and an extension of The Pool cut across where the playing pitch is today therefore, I will suggest that this ground was either where Warren Road is today, or a combination of the two pitches that exist today. In March 1886, 800 hundred fans gathered there for the visit of Everton in the district cup, which saw the Toffees’ walk away with a narrowly fought 2-1 win. High Park’s nickname at this time was ‘The Parkites’ or also, ‘The Villagers’.

Section of 1892/93 OS Map, showing the Devonshire Road field area before Warren Road was built. Reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Scotland.

 Later that year on 14th August 1886, ‘a grand football match’ took place pitting High Park against Blackburn Olympic at Devonshire Road. Just three years previous Blackburn Olympic had lifted the FA Cup. On the same day an advert appeared in Cricket & Football Field from secretary, Mr. Amos Ball, inviting clubs to arrange matches against High Park FC. Two months later, the same paper featured a report on a ‘lively cup tie’, between rivals High Park and Westhoughton and mentioned that nobody understood why this rivalry existed. It described the treatment that the Westhoughton players had endured at the previous meeting when the High Park spectators, ‘kicked them off the field, filling their noble breasts’. Some might say that a century later, not much had changed!

High Park also had a rivalry with another local team: Southport Central. This rivalry stemmed from High Park refusing to join forces with other local clubs to form Central in 1888. In January 1889, they played each other in the Charity (Infirmary) Cup at Devonshire Road in front of a then record crowd for the town for an association game of 2,500 fans. The outcome of this match was a draw, and it was decided that a replay should be arranged for the 26th however, High Park requested that the game be postponed due to some of their players being unavailable. The request was refused yet High Park chose to withdraw from the competition completely, causing a war of words in the local press between the two clubs and both sets of fans.

Newspaper cutting showing the High Park team before their game v Southport Central at Devonshire Road, January 19th 1889. It looks to me like they’re in front of a covered stand. Published c1936 in the Southport Journal newspaper. Image courtesy of David Goldstraw.

 In the summer of 1889, the club moved to a new ground on Wennington Road, close to Roe Lane, approximately where the junction with Chester Road is now, taking in the vicinity of Bengarth Road. On September 2nd of that year, they welcomed one of the founding members of the football league, Bolton Wanderers to mark the occasion. The Parkites star man at this time was Lawrence ‘Loll’ Halsall, who later played in the football league for Blackpool and Preston North End.

1889 Town Plan showing the site of High Park FC’s second ground. There were further pitches across the road in the vicinity of where Stretton Drive is today. Reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Scotland.
Geo-referenced section of 1889 Town Plan, showing the ground to be at the Wennington/Chester Road junction, taking in some of the rear gardens on Bengarth Road. Reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Scotland.

Fortune saw that by 1891, High Park had won the Lancashire Alliance. They then amalgamated with Churchtown to form North Meols FC, at first continuing to play at Wennington Road before housing development meant that had to move to a new ground on what was then known as ‘The Steels’, the ground being between the original Churchgate path and close to Peets Farm on the original length of Peets Lane. Other local teams, including Southport Trinity and St. Luke’s also played at The Steels ground. The Southport Standard gave the following account of this new ground August 30th, 1893:

‘North Meols have been compelled to abandon their old quarters in Roe Lane. Their new ground is situated in Peet’s Lane (Churchtown end). A number of willing workers have erected boards around the field, and all will be in apple-pie order when the proper time arrives’.

Southport Standard, August 30th 1893
1909/11 OS map showing the site of the football ground on ‘The Steels’. Peets Farm is across the road which is the vicinity of Kings Hey Drive/Churchgate junction today. Reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Scotland.

The paper also mentioned that star man ‘Lollie’ Halsall had returned to his ‘old love’, the left wing. However, the amalgamation didn’t last long as in 1895 North Meols were wound up.

Lol Halsall courtesy of David Goldstraw

A new team emerged representing the area in the early C20th, namely Park Villa, who also played at an enclosed ground, this time described as Warren Road, where admission fees were charged to gain entry. Dan Hayes, author of The Town’s Game, suggests that this could have been the old High Park FC ground that Park Villa were playing at. Local sports historian, Michael Braham described them as a ‘useful team’, meeting Southport Central in the FA Cup c1912. One Park Villa player at this time was John Barton, who went onto to play for Blackburn Rovers and Rochdale in the football league. By the 1920’s High Park FC had reformed, playing Prescot Cables in the FA Cup in 1929.

Park Villa 1931/32, courtesy of David Goldstraw. David’s grandfather, George Sutherland is stood to the right of the goalkeeper, who you’re about to read about below…

The 1930’s saw one of High Park’s greatest footballing son’s come into the limelight, goalkeeper George Bradshaw. In 1932 he was creating interest with a number of clubs and when playing for Park Villa. He was noticed when they faced New Brighton reserves, saving a penalty from Ben Twell, who was known to have a very powerful shot. The penalty rendered Bradshaw unconscious, but he came to and continued to give a formidable display between the sticks, prompting the now defunct football league club, (New Brighton) to sign him. From there he went on to play for Everton, Doncaster Rovers, Arsenal (but did not appear), Bury and Oldham Athletic before retiring to his grocers shop on the corner of Devonshire Road & High Park Road.

Liverpool Echo article on George Bradshaw. Source: British Newspaper Archive via Find My Past. With thanks to Wayne Cowling.

Another High Parker to turn professional in the 1930s was Eddie Wainwright, signing for Everton in 1939, although his first match for the Blues wasn’t until after WWII. He played 207 times for Everton between 1946 & 1956 and then further 100 time for Rochdale.

Johnny Fairhurst of Canning Road signed for Blackburn Rovers in 1938. His son, Graham, tells us his story:

‘My father was a good footballer (right half) and I have his trophies and scrapbook. He played for High Park from being a junior and he must have been spotted by a Blackburn Rovers scout late in 1938 and was signed-up by them and played with them through 1939 until he was called up into the Army in October 1939. The War put paid to his playing career.

He went to All Saint’s School in Wennington Road and from his scrapbook, it seems pretty clear that All Saints had a good schoolboys side and this was one source of players for the High Park club.

In the 1930s High Park were a very successful side under Tom Williamson as the manager and Jimmy Disley as trainer (Jimmy lived in Salisbury Street). My father lived in Canning Road and the Eckersley family lived almost directly across the road. I think Billy Eckersley had an older brother who was the same age as my father and who also played for High Park immediately pre-WW2.

Images courtesy of Graham Fairhurst

In 1947, it was my father who recommended Billy to Blackburn Rovers and was rewarded for this with a cheque for £20 – a not inconsiderable sum in those days! However, Blackburn certainly got their money’s worth from Billy’.

Letter from Blackburn Rovers to John Fairhurst, confirming that it was he who recommended Bill Eckersley to Blackburn. Courtesy of Graham Fairhurst

Eckersley would go on to play for England at the highest level. He was a one club man, who made 406 appearances for Blackburn Rovers and 17 for his country, his first cap coming versus Spain at the 1950 World Cup.

Liverpool Echo photo of Bill Eckersley. Source: British Newspaper Archive via Find My Past. With thanks to Wayne Cowling.
Letter from High Park chairman G. Sutherland to Blackburn Rovers. Courtesy of David Goldstraw & Mike Braham.

The swinging sixties saw a High Park side go on a journey where no other club from England had gone before: Behind the Iron Curtain! In 1968 High Park FC went on a tour of Russia, organised via chairman, Dave Dugan’s business contacts. The tour included games in front of huge crowds against teams such as FC Rostov and Traktor Volvograd (FC Rotor Volvograd). The previous season, the team had won the Sunday second division title, beating their closest rivals the Prince of Wales 3-2. However, the Prince got their revenge in the following cup final at Sea Cop in front of an estimated crowd of 400, which included Jeff Astle’s West Bromwich Albion, who were in training in Southport ahead of their FA Cup final against Everton.

High Park FC 1968 pictured before their final at Sea Cop v Prince of Wales. Image courtesy of Geoff Wright.

L-R Back row- Fred Sumner, Mick Clarke, Dennis Rimmer, Jimmy Simms, Bobby Edwards, Roy Andrews, Eric Norris, Dave Dugan (Chairman)

L-R Front row- Eric Davies, Harry McWade, Mick Greer, Arthur Rimmer, Allan Johnson, Colin Blanchard

Specially produced brochure for the High Park FC Tour of Russia. Courtesy of Geoff Wright.
Screenshot of the High Park FC programme v Traktor Volgograd. Source: footballprogrammecentre.co.uk

The High Park side included Mick Clarke whose son Peter has played professionally since 1999 for no less than eleven clubs, including Everton, Huddersfield Town, Oldham Athletic, Blackpool and his current club Walsall. Mark Simms, son of Jimmy signed for Bury and enjoyed spells in non-league. Jimmy later managed the team and rebuilt the Devonshire Road changing rooms after they were destroyed by vandals. Another High Parker who is currently making the headlines is Tony Blanchard, son of Colin from the 1968 team. He is the current manager of non-league step five side, Anstey Nomads FC, who have recently made history by becoming the first team from their level to reach the FA Cup 4th qualifying round, when they will take on Paul Cook’s Chesterfield on October 15th, 2022.

The 1970’s saw a number of players from Southport make the long trip to Devon to represent Plymouth Argyle. This was was thanks to local scout and well known lifeguard, Verdi Godwin. High Parker, Martin Hodge was spotted playing for Southport Trinity before marking the trip to the south-west. He played for many football league clubs including; Plymouth Argyle, Everton, Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester City. His time at Wednesday is well remembered by their fans.

The early 1990’s saw High Parker, Tony Rodwell become a Blackpool player, enjoying 142 appearances for the Seasiders, before spells at Scarborough and Wigan Athletic in the Football League. After his professional career ended, he played non-league football for Witton Albion and Hyde United, before returning to his roots playing for Sunday district league side Churchtown, who played on Devonshire Road and despite their name, were essentially a team representing the High Park area. Another current professional player who hails from the district of High Park is Jake Bidwell, who plays for Championship side Coventry City. Jake progressed through Everton’s academy before moving on to Brentford, Queen’s Park Rangers, and Swansea City.

Given the history of football in the area dating back to 1884 and the flow of High Parkers into professionalism/national spotlight, could High Park lay claim to being Southport’s footballing hotbed?

David Walshe (Secret Sand Land) Copyright 2022.

Featured Image: Section of 1889 Town Plan showing High Park FC Wennington Road/Roe Lane ground. Reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Scotland.

With special thanks to the following:

Sources used:

  • British Newspaper Archives website, (inc. archives found via Find My Past)
  • The Towns Game – Dan Hayes
  • National Library of Scotland website
  • The Southport Standard
  • The Southport Journal
  • The Southport Visiter
  • Wikipedia
  • Football Programme Centre chat forum

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