UP THE VALE!
The sponsorship deal linking the GMB trade union to Port Vale FC in Stoke-on-Trent continues to benefit both parties – and besides, it’s a wholly appropriate partnership when you consider the early days of this homely little football club.
Vale’s community role in the distant past can be explored through a look at our local newspapers over the years. Information I have harvested underlines the close relationship with the club and its working-class support in Burslem.
James Mason was once a Vale player, who went on to become an international referee. His reminiscences were recorded in the Newcastle Times newspaper in 1944, and he remembered that when Vale played at Westport in the early 1880s, the players changed at the still-extant Travellers Rest pub in Dale Hall, and then walked to the ground. Upon moving to their next ground, in Moorland Road, they changed at the New Inn in Market Place, Burslem, from where they also walked to their headquarters. It wasn’t until a little later that these working-class lads were driven to their ground.
The club has existed on the edge of Burslem town centre for much of its history, so it is no surprise that it has had close connections with the wider community – and 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.
Port Vale-orientated meetings have been convened at numerous venues in Burslem since the club was formed, and in recent years, the Supporters’ Club has held meetings at the Leopard. In the late 19th century, The Leopard Hotel in Burslem originally 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. It was aimed at working men. Vale often held meetings at the Coffee House, and it is evident that one club member at least was happy with the arrangement. J. Brindley was a temperance advocate, and at the club’s annual meeting in 1885, he told fellow members that he had been averse to attending Vale matches at Mr. Bew’s ground (in Moorland Road), 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 venue in 1888.
One local lad who made good is darts legend Phil Taylor, who made the throwaway remark in recent years that he thinks he is a better singer than fellow Vale fan Robbie Williams. Phil is one of a number of celebrities who helped to make a modern recording of The Port Vale War Cry. This is a supporters’ song that was composed by Fred Glen in 1920.
It was launched at a club smoking concert at the Albion Hotel in Hanley, with the supporters’ club chairman, the Rev. A. Hurst, beseeching the club members to “Sing it to your wives and children, Sing it on the ground and in the streets, and make yourself perfect nuisances with it.” Incidentally, in the first match after the song had been launched, Vale beat Hull City 4-0, so there was an immediate impact!