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 locations of Stanley FC / East End FC football grounds (1881-1886), maps 1878 and present day
Byker locations of Stanley FC / East End grounds (1881-1886), maps 1878 and present day

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), 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), 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

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 location of East End FC football ground (1886-1892), maps 1894 and present day
Heaton location of East End FC football ground (1886-1892), maps 1886 and present day

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.

Subject: Football

52 thoughts on “Before St James’ Park: the origins of Newcastle United

  1. When you think how important the football club is to the city, it’s amazing there’s nothing to mark these locations. I’m sure between them, the club and the council could come up with a plaque or information board. Fascinating read, cheers.

  2. Although I lived relatively close to what had been the Heaton ground as a child, I’d no idea that Ncle United originated in part from that location. I’ve lived for many years in Langkawi, Malaysia but recall well the area.

    Thank you for a well researched and extremely interesting article!

  3. Mate really enjoyed the article Aussie Mags supporter since KK was at the helm the first time round Haway the Lads!

  4. Good article. Although I knew that there had been West End and East End teams I always thought they had been officially merged. And didn’t East End (my own birth area, I’m from Walker Dene originally) play in Red & White? Sacrilege!!!

  5. Very interesting article, never knew any of this! Toon fan since birth… from Sheffield, currently in Leeds. Nice to know where the birth of such a big club occured!

  6. Had we remained in Heaton we would be just like Everton/Liverpool to-day – hemmed in by Victorian terraces. The move to the Shrine of St James was inspired and has given us a uniquely imposing city-centre cathedral.

  7. Well done to the person(s) who have done this piece of amazing research! My family have been in the St.Peters area of Byker since the 1880s & It would have been great to know more info on the club(s) early days of Stanley & Rosewood etc but like many I didnt know exactly where the pitch/club/ground was until now.I am very proud of the humble beginings on both sides of the city of our great club. I also wish we could make more of the fact that Newcastle United are the only club who can truly call themselves UNITED!

  8. Not a local lad, live in Warwickshire but been an NUFC supporter since my hero Super Mac graced the pitch in the old Div 1. !!

    Very interesting and informative, may be the club and council will get together mark the locations, may be tours could be arranged.

  9. As a life long mag from Burradon, now exiled in Leeds. I learned a lot from this article. Things you would have thought were common knowledge to a Toon fan. Still, it’s never too late to learn. Thanks for a great insight to the Toon’s history.

  10. Thanks for the comments. More coming next week on the origins and early days of St James’ Park.

  11. Great piece of research, like others I knew the basics of the merger but never knew my old stomping ground in Heaton once was such a hotbed of pre-magpie fandom. Bookmarking this page for updates!

  12. Very well documented …. captures both the historical facts and the context exceptionally well. Knew a bit of this (like most folk I guess) but never seen this presented in such a coherent manner. In fact, Im sure every book/article just rehashes the same old “East/West End .. humble beginnings .. merger ..” and really start with Hughie gallagher or the first FA Cup Finals. Great stuff .. too brief!!

  13. Great bit here, many thanks, but i am shocked!

    I always thought it was a merger, but i was wrong!!

    Many thanks for this, keep up the work..10/10 😉

    P.S. Up East End!

  14. Excellent read. I have lived in Brighton since 1985 but never missed a match for years prior to that and get back whenever possible but that’s usually very 2/3 years. Next visit I am taking in the TOUR. I agre with comment that the club and council should Mark these spots, perhaps an old fashioned floodlight style lamp post and plaque. Thanks for the tour.

  15. Hey, was the first strip of Newcastle United red and white?

    Did East play in Red ‘n’ White, and West End in Black ‘n’ White originally, but when the ‘United’ came about, they play in red and white for the first season?

  16. Hats off to you for taking the time to investigate our club’s deepest history and trawl the back streets of our beloved city to provide a very interesting and fascinating read.

  17. Great article. All previous histories have never covered this with any sort of detail. We are so lucky these days that everything is documented, filmed and photographed it would be great if there were any photos from any of these grounds. Now if I can only get my time machine working!

  18. Brilliant ,
    We have a history and St James cathedral is always part of it unlike the mackems who moved into there characterless leggo stadium,
    Alan from Shetland Isles.

  19. Great work lads, would be great to know the origins of West End too, I think they started as a cricket club too in Elswick, I believe both played in red and white but legend has it that at a club meeting at Bath Lane Hall during the very infancy of Newcastle United the colours of Black and White were chosen in recognition of the uniform worn by the royalist cavaliers who defended Newcastle during the civil war! now that would be some legend! the colour change was definitely required as most of the teams in the league wore Red and White at the time

  20. I was led to believe, and im sure ive read it somewere that the ground was at irid brickfielfd park in heaton? Just a bit further down rd than were u said.

  21. @gareth I’ve read that too, on an internet forum I think, but it’s not quite right – the map on this page shows the true location.

  22. @Magpie Mick I’d love to see some photos of these old grounds too Mick, but having trawled around I just don’t think they exist unfortunately. If anyone knows otherwise (or does have a time machine!) please let me know.

  23. hi mate if your doing a project about st james park i was working there when the building ov the new stadium and have some relly good photos ov the demolish and taken frm top ov the 4 cranes that were there.

  24. From what I’d heard, we got our first black and white kit donated to us by Notts County when our club first went pro. I may be wrong like, but I’ve always had a lot of time for the other ‘magpies’ due to this.

  25. Lovely piece mate! As a lifelong Mag, I’ve always wondered about the exact origins of the club. Should be more made of this, truly a bit of community history. Well done, looking forwrad to more.

  26. What a wonderful story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Now living in Australia, looking at those photos took me back to my youth. My brother in law used to live in a house located in the Byker Wall. I wonder if he knows the significance of the Wall and what used to happen on that land all those years ago. Looking forward to reading more about our great club, Newcastle Utd. Great work.

  27. A fascinating article and having grown up in East End watching a lot of local football brings it all back. I also lived on chilling ham road for ten years and knew about the local ground but was not sure exactly where it was. Thanks John T

  28. Fascinating stuff. You may be interested to know that the gate posts at the Bothal St location are in fact one of the few remains of Victoria Jubilee School. Never realised that as I frollicked in the plyaground as a child I was standing on a bit of local history. (If your interested the other remains are part of the caretakers house and the school wall.)

  29. @Barry Phillips Thanks Barry. Interested to know that the gates are Victorian, although they were obviously built after East End had left the area. I think the school was built in the late 1890s to commemorate Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, by which time East End / Newcastle United were at SJP.

  30. @Simon Jackson Hi Simon, never heard that link, I know Juventus got their colours from Notts County. Football League teams were supposed to register different colours, which I think precipitated Newcastle’s change from red shirts, but doesn’t explain how they ended up wearing black and white when Notts County were already playing in those colours. More on strips to come.

  31. thanks Paul for the well put together article. i love newcastle united and i love the history of nufc and this article you have written is top class!i have always wanted to know the old locations of our old pitches and you have done that for me . many thanks Graham

  32. The entrance on Bothal Street was to my ex-school Victoria Jubilee Junior School,which I attended till 1963

  33. Hi there , im trying to find out a little more about the club before its joining as my granfather played for either west end or east end,he worked at the railways at heaton and played cricket aswell. i would like to see his name on a team sheet or similar photograph would be briliant,my dad bought the claret strip for the kids years ago as he said that was there colours,im not so sure now reading this.

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