Before St James’ Park: the origins of Newcastle United

Last week, I set out with photographer Paul J White to locate all four football grounds used by the club that became Newcastle United. This is what we found:

This is where it all started for Newcastle United, in a car park behind a tile warehouse, a couple of miles east of St James’ Park. We’re just off Walker Road, some say the A186, which runs east from Newcastle city centre, past Byker and St Peter’s. Back in the 1880s, this particular stretch of Walker Road, at the bottom of Raby Street, was known as Stanley Street. It was here, in November 1881, that Stanley FC was formed, a precursor of the club we now know as Newcastle United.

Former location of Stanley FC football ground (1881), Raby Street, Byker

Former location of Stanley FC football ground (1881), Raby Street, Byker

The football team was formed to give the players of Stanley Cricket Club something to do in the winter months. They played on open space behind a Methodist chapel. The chapel no longer exists, and the site is now occupied by St Peter’s Social Club. Next to the club is the tile warehouse, and behind that is the car park, which represents a best estimate of the location of the Stanley FC pitch.

You can’t imagine that the pitch could have been flat, located on the fairly steep bank that leads from the river up to Byker. At that time the players would likely have had a view all the way down to the Tyne, of the docks, shipbuilding yards and other bustling industries that lined the river. There were brick works, potteries and manure works nearby, and of course the river, which at the time would have pretty much been like an open sewer. Not, you would think, the ideal location for a football pitch.

There’s nothing here now to mark the birthplace of Stanley FC and Newcastle United. There’s just a triangle of grass, with green commercial wheelie bin in the middle, and four wintery trees arranged, if you use your imagination, like two sets of goalposts. It’s time to move on, as Stanley FC did, up the bank to Byker.

Byker is probably most famous outside of the area for being the fictional setting of Byker Grove, the TV show that kickstarted the careers of Ant and Dec and, to an admittedly lesser extent, Spuggy. It’s also well known for the strikingly unique Byker Wall 1970s housing development. Interestingly, the next two homes of the club that would become Newcastle United are located at either end of the half-mile long wall.

In 1882, Stanley FC changed its name to East End, most likely to avoid confusion with a team from the town of Stanley in County Durham. Around the same time, they moved to a new pitch behind St Michael’s Vicarage. The church still stands, partly hidden inside the Byker Wall development, although the vicarage itself is gone. A small block of flats, The Old Vicarage, now marks its location.

Former location of Stanley FC / East End football ground (1882-1884), Bothal Street, Byker

Former location of Stanley FC / East End football ground (1882-1884), Bothal Street, Byker

The football pitch would have stood between the vicarage and Union Street / Bothal Street. There’s some open grass there now, and a row of the Byker Wall’s distinctive maisonettes. A set of gate posts mark the boundary between the open space and the road. This is a much flatter area than the Stanley Street location, although it’s still on a hill, and it’s nearer to the much more populated areas of Byker and Heaton.

To get to the next location, we’ve got to find our way through the labyrinthine estate to the opposite end of the Byker Wall, to Dalton Street, next to the railway line. East End moved here in 1884, to a pitch newly vacated by the defunct Newcastle Rangers FC. The location of the pitch would have been somewhere between what was Norfolk Road and the Byker Ropery, or today midway between Conyers Road and St Michael’s Road.

Former location of East End football ground (1884-1886), Dalton Street, Byker

Former location of East End football ground (1884-1886), Dalton Street, Byker

Again, the location is on an incline, high above the river. This vantage point offers sweeping views over the Ouseburn Valley and down to the Tyne. The railway is still there, separated from Dalton Street by a stone wall. It’s easy to imagine that the occasional caser must have disappeared over that wall down onto the railway tracks below.

By this point we know that East End were attracting crowds of several hundred spectators. Although most of their fixtures were friendly matches, they were enjoying some success in local cup competitions. And in 1886, with Byker expanding around them, East End moved home again, this time to Heaton. So we’re now heading a mile north of the Byker Wall.

Former location of East End football ground (1886-1892), Hartford Street, Heaton

Former location of East End football ground (1886-1892), Hartford Street, Heaton

The new ground – and it was this time a football ground rather than a football pitch – was at Heaton Junction, off Chillingham Road, at the corner of Spencer Street and Hartford Street. These streets still survive, and it’s easy to imagine groups of spectators turning off Chillingham Road and thronging into the narrow approach of Hartford Street. ‘Play up East End!’

The area is now partly covered by terraced housing and a derelict concrete railway yard. Again, there’s nothing to suggest that this was once one of the most important locations in the city.

East End’s first match in Heaton saw them beat cross-city rivals West End 3-2 in front of around 2,000 spectators – a massive increase over the crowds attracted to Dalton Street.

Heaton Junction was a proper football ground, with fencing, turnstiles, a timber grandstand, and even, eventually, an elevated press box. It was considered to be far superior to West End’s ground – a sloping, boggy field just north of the old Newcastle city walls known as St James’ Park.

Heaton became East End’s natural home, and they began to be referred to in press reports as the ‘Heatonians’. The area was rapidly expanding, with hundreds of houses being built on the other side of Chillingham Road. As the population of Heaton grew, so did East End’s attendances. In 1889, East End joined the Northern League and became a professional outfit. Soon they were attracting attendances of up to 5,000 to Heaton Junction.

Across town, West End could rarely attract 1,500. In May 1892, after struggling for more than a year, West End was disbanded. The lease for St James’ Park was available, and East End were under pressure from the railway company over the possible redevelopment of Heaton Junction. So the club that would become Newcastle United moved one last time.

East End took over the lease at St James’ Park, much to the chagrin of many supporters in Heaton. Former supporters of West End were also aggrieved. There was no merger, with West End already defunct, but, in order to ‘obtain the unanimous support of the public’, in December 1892, East End changed its name to Newcastle United.

By this time, Stanley Street had disappeared from the map and houses had been built on the open space behind the chapel. Both the St Michael’s Vicarage and Dalton Street pitches had also been covered by housing. The Heaton Junction ground disappeared a few years later.

Today they all look like pretty unremarkable locations, but perhaps they’re worth remembering. 130 years ago they were the grounds of the original players and supporters of one of the biggest football clubs in the country.

All photographs by Paul J White. You can follow him on Twitter (@PJ).

My book about the early history of Newcastle United is All With Smiling Faces.

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football, history, true adventure. The Guardian, Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, Longreads, Deadspin, etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK