Leeds has a proud sporting history, and it’s the home of amazing athletes and incredible teams, but who knew we used to be the home of a literal football factory? The clue to digging into this history is a sales leaflet in our social history collection, that the museum team came across as part of a larger project assessing what objects relating to sports history we have.
The flyer was produced in 1899 by John Blakey Ltd to advertise the different kinds of footballs they made, and the prices they sold for on the wholesale market. They described their factory as a Football Works, with an address on Lady Lane in Leeds. Made of leather or cowhide, the balls were made for both rugby and football and came in children’s sizes, as well as for adults. There is a similar leaflet in the collection of the National Football Museum that dates slightly earlier to 1895. From the tone of both leaflets, it is clear football production was a new venture for John Blakey and the firm was working hard to drum up business – they could “turn out quantities at very short notice”. The 1899 copy tells that they had “trebled their output” from the 1898 season!
Significantly, standardisation of the size of footballs was only set out in 1872 by the Football Association (FA). They stated that balls “must be spherical with a circumference of 27-28 inches”. These dimensions are still used today! Looking at the tone of the leaflet, the design emphasises continuity, and it’s interesting to wonder if this factory was the first in Leeds to produce balls to these new officials standards!
Newspaper articles and historic maps help us to discover how Blakey expanded the capacity of his factories. Using the 1890 ordnance survey map we can understand more clearly where the factory was. If you look at the map below, in the centre is a building called Virginia Works – this was owned by E Blakey who bought it from a cabinet maker called E W Batley in a sale on 6 December 1867. From cabinet making, Blakey adapted the building to a leatherworks, producing the boots and shoes that are described on the map. Much of the skills needed to make a boot are like those that are needed to make balls and the manufacture of footballs was an extension of the products they already made. The warehouse in the map was also owned by Blakey, and it is this building that took the name of the street it was on – Lady Lane.
What did the factory look like? Whilst maps show us the streets and a basic plan, they don’t show us what kind of building the workers would be going into every day. In 1902, after the death of John Blakey, the Virginia Works and their contents were sold at auction. This photograph was taken on 30 November 1927 from the Prussia Street end of the building, prior to its demolition and shows a six-storey building with a few signs of disrepair. By this time, the football works had closed, and the building was occupied by a furniture maker and a rag merchant. The works themselves seem to have been demolished shortly afterwards, as part of the widening of The Headrow and Eastgate that took place from 1928 to 1932.
Insight into what the working culture of Blakey’s factories was like comes from another newspaper report. This relates that on 22 May 1896 employees from the Brunswick Works, which were also owned by John Blakey, donated to the families of the 63 victims of Peckfield Colliery Disaster in Micklefield. We can perhaps assume that other employees may have felt sympathy with other causes too. Over 140 women worked at the Brunswick Works, which mainly focused on the production and packaging of Boot Protectors.
In 1886, in a notice for the incorporation of the Wireine Sock Company, John Blakey was described as owner of Brunswick Works and Virginia Works, and Lady Lane, Leeds, as well as being the “patentee of the Boot Protector”. In the twentieth century the factory moved to Armley, and in this post a colleague discusses its work there. It’s good to add some prehistory to the company, as well as add a new perspective to footballs in Leeds! You can see the leaflet on display at Abbey House Museum during 2023.
By Lucy Moore, with contributions from Brent Riley, Mick Booth and Steve Boothroyd