A short history of Newcastle United’s black and white stripes

Why do Newcastle United play in black and white stripes? And did they really play in red and white? In the third (and last?) trawl through the club’s history, here’s a look at NUFC’s early kits. Previous posts covered the original grounds of NUFC, and the history of St James’ Park. Kit illustrations are courtesy of David Moor at the excellent Historical Football Kits.

There’s no record of the colours worn by Stanley FC, the original club that later became Newcastle United. But Stanley changed its name to East End in October 1882, and we know that from at least 1883 East End wore navy blue jerseys and white knickerbockers. So the club that became Newcastle United probably started out wearing blue and white.

Stanley FC / East End / Newcastle United kit history
East End / Newcastle United kits (L-R) 1883, 1890, 1894, 2010 (www.historicalkits.co.uk)

For fashionistas, the long-sleeved jerseys were most likely fairly heavy knitted affairs, and knickerbockers were baggy knee-length trousers. Most teams wore solid colours, or ‘halved’ shirts, and few wore stripes, as they were too difficult to manufacture.

As jersey knitting ‘technology’ improved, East End’s kit saw some variations, and at one point the club wore navy shirts with one orange stripe sewn on – a design revisited by Adidas for a Newcastle away kit to a mixed reception in 1997/98.

However, by the time East End had established itself as a major club in the North East, playing at Heaton Junction off Chillingham Road, the club played in – horror of horrors – red and white. Not quite like Sunderland, but East End’s first kit was red jerseys and white knickerbockers.

West End, East Ends’ cross-town rivals, didn’t play in black and white either. The West Enders played in red and black hooped shirts, and then, after setting up home at St James’ Park, in red and black halved shirts. It’s difficult to pinpoint exact colours as none of the kits survive, and obviously the few photos that exist are black and white. Adidas designers interpreted West End’s hooped shirt as maroon and blue for another away shirt homage in 1995/96.

In 1892, after West End folded, East End moved to St James’ Park and the club changed its name to Newcastle United. The name change was intended to help ‘obtain the unanimous support of the public’ – and to appease fans of former rivals West End in the hope that they would switch allegiance. But the club still played in red jerseys and white knickerbockers. For the 1893/94 season, the club left the Northern League and joined the second division of the Football League.

Under Football League rules, clubs were supposed to register different colours, but Newcastle retained their red shirts – causing multiple kit clashes. In fact, there was a kit clash in their very first League match, away to the then-named Woolwich Arsenal. The home side wore red, so Newcastle played in their change kit of black and white stripes.

Newcastle East End supporters cards showing red and white colours
East End supporters cards showing the red and white colours, as displayed at St James’ Park

A permanent switch to black and white soon followed, most likely to reduce kit clashes, and perhaps as a further attempt to appease West End fans. The decision was taken in 1894, as the minutes from the club meeting reveal: ‘It was agreed that the Club’s colours should be changed from red shirts and white knickers to black and white shirts (two inch stripe) and dark knickers.’

Those dark knickers were originally grey (or possibly a washed-out black…) but were soon changed to blue, until the 1920s when the club eventually settled on black shorts. The stockings, some say socks, were black, and have pretty much remained so, barring several ill-fated dalliances with white. (Has Newcastle ever won anything in white socks..?)

Newcastle weren’t the first club to wear black and white stripes. Notts County, the world’s oldest professional club, wore black and white from around 1890. (County were also in the second division in 1894, so there was still at least one kit clash. They had reached the play-off promotion ‘test match’, but lost to Liverpool. Perhaps Newcastle decided to switch to black and white stripes thinking that County would be promoted to the first division?)

Juventus began wearing black and white stripes in 1903 due to a connection with Notts County via player John Savage. Grimsby Town started wearing the black and white around 1909. And Dunfermline Athletic adopted the colours around the same time.

But the earliest club I can find wearing black and white stripes is St Mirren, who were wearing them from around 1884. Other sides that wear black and white include Udinese, Atlético Mineiro and Botafogo.

East End, soon to become Newcastle United, in red shirts and white shorts, c. 1892
East End, soon to become Newcastle United, in red shirts and white shorts, circa 1892

So why did Newcastle United settle on black and white stripes? There’s no official reason recorded, but there are several theories.

One theory harks back to the English Civil War, the Marquis of Newcastle William Cavendish, and his Whitecoats regiment. The regiment wore undyed woollen coats (which they swore to dye red with the enemy’s blood) and fought under the Cavendish heraldic crest, which is primarily black and white.

Another theory involves Dominican friars, who have also long been associated with Newcastle. Blackfriars, just a Steve Harper sliced clearance from St James’ Park, is a Dominican Friary dating back to the 13th century, and Dominican friars wore black and white robes.

A third theory involves a pair of magpies that nested in the St James’ Park stand and were ‘adopted’ by the Newcastle players. St James’ did have a rudimentary stand, built in 1899. I suppose it’s possible that the club got its colours and nickname from the nesting birds, but it seems a bit convenient.

The earliest Newcastle United team photograph showing the black and white stripes, from 1894
The earliest Newcastle United team photograph showing black and white stripes, from 1894

Unfortunately, the real reason Newcastle United play in black and white stripes is almost certainly much less romantic. The club had to change colours to avoid kit clashes. And there happened to be a black and white striped kit available. There may be nothing more to it than that.

The black and white striped kit belonged to the Northumberland FA county side. (Newcastle, of course, was part of Northumberland until the county of Tyne and Wear was created in 1974.) It was also worn by the Newcastle & District side, and an England XI that played at St James’ Park around this time. Football kits were expensive to buy, and it made sense to share them. And East End and Newcastle United also shared that very same kit.

In football historian Arthur Appleton’s excellent ‘Hotbed of Soccer’ book, he states very clearly that East End ‘played in red, with their alternative strip the county jerseys of black and white stripes’.

So why did the Northumberland county team wear black and white? It turns out that the county of Northumberland has an official tartan, a checked pattern also known as Shepherd Plaid. And Shepherd Plaid just happens to be black and white. It’s closely linked to the Percys, the powerful family that held the Dukedom of Northumberland, and is made using undyed black and white sheep’s wool.

Fragments of the Plaid have been found that date back to the third century AD, meaning it was worn when the Romans were here. The Romans founded Newcastle as a settlement called Pons Aelius, or Aelian Bridge, named for Emperor Hadrian. So there has been a link between Newcastle and Shepherd Plaid since the very earliest days of the town. In summary, Newcastle has always been associated with black and white. They’ve long become established as the colours that unite this club, its city, and the Geordie nation.

[UPDATE 01/04/2011: Thanks to David Moor of Historical Football Kits, I’m now able to provide an additional nugget of information. David has spotted a reference in the book Pioneers of the North by NUFC historian Paul Joannou and Alan Candlish to an amateur second XI formed by Newcastle East End in 1891. While East End played in red shirts and white shorts, East End Amateurs played in black and white stripes, providing further evidence that East End / Newcastle United did have access to a set of kit in those colours.

Interestingly, the book also features a photograph of the West End reserve team after their Northumberland Challenge Cup win in March 1892. They are also wearing black and white stripes – indeed their jerseys appear to be identical to those worn by Newcastle United in the 1894 photo shown above.]

You can follow me on Twitter (@paulbrownUK). This post is a research exercise as part of a bigger Newcastle United project. If you have any further information or insight into the above please post a comment or get in touch.

The previous posts were Before St James’ Park: the origins of Newcastle United and Home ground: a wander around Newcastle’s St James’ Park.

You can read more Newcastle United posts here.

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