Accrington is a small town, so it was a short afternoon’s work to retrace 120 years of history. Much of it is buried, but Peel Park is still heavy with memories.

The club

The club that became Accrington Stanley was founded in the early 1890s, as Stanley Villa, by a group of regulars at the Stanley Arms pub on Stanley Street. The pub building still stands at the junction with Washington Street. They played in the Accrington & District League and became Accrington Stanley sometime after 1893, when Accrington FC – th’Owd Reds – resigned from the Football League they had helped found in 1888.

the Stanley Arms

Elected to the newly-formed Third Division (North) in 1921, Stanley enjoyed 40 years of League membership. They were members of Division 3 for 38 of them – rarely rising above mid-table, and more usually ending up towards the foot of the league. Successive top-three finishes between 1954 and 1958, in days when only the champions were promoted, proved a false dawn. By the end of the decade Stanley were relegated.

It’s easy to summarise this record as unremarkable, and in global terms it was. But Stanley, then as now, overachieved simply by being there. Sandwiched between Burnley and Blackburn and competing for support with both, solid League membership was both an accomplishment and a struggle.

The grounds

Stanley Villa started off playing at Moorhead Park. This substantial ground stood on the site of the present-day Accrington Academy, not far from Stanley’s current home at the Crown Ground. The corner flag would have been roughly in line with the corner of Radnor Street and Orange Street. The club played here for two spells, up to 1897 and from 1900-1919.

looking down Orange Street

site of Moorhead Park on left

Stanley moved to the Bell’s Temperance ground in the 1897-98 season, when high rents drove them out of Moorhead Park. They remained there for three years, good seasons which established them as a strong semi-professional side whose expanding support and healthy finances enabled them to return to Moorhead Park in 1900.

former Bell’s Temperance Club – now a kebab shop

the ground was on the left, where the row of houses now stands

Bell’s Temperance was a working mans’ club founded in the 1880s in honour of William Bell, a temperance speaker well known in the North and the inspiration of the local lads who founded it. The club stood on the corner of Edmund Street and Nuttall Street, in a building now occupied by a takeaway. It had its own very successful football team whose ground was opposite the junction of Hudson Street and William Nuttall Street. The latter is the present day Belfield Road, and the site of the ground is beneath a row of houses. The pitch must have had quite a slope!

Bell’s Temperance medal

…of Albert Warburton. Blackburn Olympic captain in 1883 Cup Final

Peel Park

Peel Park (the name both of the ground and the neighbouring district) achieved its two record crowds in that successful 1954-55 season – 17,634 for a friendly against Blackburn in November, and a best-ever League crowd of 15,425 against York the following April. Floodlights also went up that year, among the first in the country. At this time Peel Park had an impressive capacity of around 25,000, but by the time of Stanley’s demise that had dropped due to terracing on the Burnley Road side having been replaced by a new stand. The expense of re-erecting this stand, acquired by Stanley from the Army’s parade ground at Aldershot, is generally regarded as a factor in their financial collapse.

1 Peel Park in its heyday; 2 the new stand (picture, Lancashire Telegraph); 3 an impressive capacity.

The stand on the opposite side, the Hotel Stand – with the Peel Park Hotel behind – was built in 1921, when Stanley first moved in. Straddling the halfway line, by the 1950s its original barrel roof had been joined by a sloping extension over the paddock in front, and by two offset semi-circular gables that have become the ground’s iconic image. Unusually the players entered the field of play, not down a tunnel but via caged steps from a dressing-room block behind the terracing.

1, the Peel Park Hotel; 2 the Hotel Stand

The Peel Park Kop, or Huncoat End, to its right, was a large open terrace dating from the early 1950s. It faced a smaller terrace at the opposite end, backing onto Peel Park school. In the ground’s later years this boasted a low cover that wrapped around the far corner as far as the eighteen-yard line.

1, fans on the Kop; 2, the School End cover (with groundsman’s daughter and her dog).

Decline and fall

It’s sad that Stanley are remembered more for their demise than the near century of history that preceded it. For a club to resign from the League mid-season was almost unprecedented. The black and white photographs of the days immediately before and after that seismic event have entered football folklore.

The facts are stark. Following a spiral into debt caused variously by the new stand, the club’s successful lottery being declared illegal and a drop in crowds caused by poor performances, a creditors’ meeting took place on the evening of Monday 5 March, 1962. The following day a letter was sent to the Football League ending Stanley’s membership. Their debts totalled a crippling £60,000. It was left to Cliff Lloyd of the PFA, secretary Jack Wigglesworth, coach Bill Smith and trainer Harry Hubbick to break the news to the players, who hadn’t been paid for six weeks. By the time they arrived for training on Tuesday morning the washing machine had already been repossessed.

1 fans on the Kop at the last home game v Rochdale; 2 the washing machine departs (picture, Rex Features).

Local businessmen came forward with offers to pay the debt. Stanley tried to withdraw the resignation and go ahead with the following Saturday’s game against Exeter. But it was too late. League secretary Alan Hardaker blocked the move, and the resignation was officially accepted on 11 March.

1 captain Bob Wilson, and the game that never was; 2 the sign comes down (picture, Lancashire Telegraph).

Peel Park today

Competitive football was played in an increasingly ramshackle Peel Park for a further four years, following the formation (and brief success) of a successor club who played in the Lancashire Combination. But they too folded mid-season, in January 1966, and after that the ground was left to decay.

1 the last game at Peel Park, v Glossop in January 1966 (picture, Accrington Observer); 2 Peel Park in ruins, 1970.  

Football has been played at Peel Park more or less continuously since 1962, but the Council – who bought the site in 1965 – had cleared it by the late 1970s. The Hotel Stand was the first to go, destroyed by fire in 1972, and the Kop was the last. Only the 1937 dressing rooms remain, now used by Peel Park FC of the East Lancashire League. Until comparatively recently the rear wall of the School End survived, but this has now been replaced by a modern wire fence.

Archaeological research carried out by the University of Central Lancashire in 2011 focussed on two trenches – one in the centre of the Hotel Side, and one behind the Kop goal. The report can be read here: Peel_Park_2011_excavation_report It’s a fascinating snapshot of the site’s history, some of which – like most things to do with the “old” Stanley – is incredibly poignant. Most moving of all is the report’s conclusion: “Although often considered as a former football ground, the archaeology of Peel Park reveals that its role at the centre of the community persists. It has been and remains a place where football is played and watched; where people meet, smoke and drink; and overwhelmingly, a place where children play.”

picture: Accrington Observer