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Auckland Castle exhibition celebrates our most successful football team

The Birth of the Blues looks at the history and triumphs of Bishop Auckland FC, 10 time winners of the FA Amateur Cup

Ian Horrocks Georgina Ascroft inspects a 1950's Subuteo table football set in the colours of Bishop Aukland FC at the start of The Birth of the Blues Exhibition at Auckland Castle
Georgina Ascroft inspects a 1950's Subuteo table football set in the colours of Bishop Aukland FC at the start of The Birth of the Blues Exhibition at Auckland Castle

On a big weekend for Newcastle United, where winning trophies is said not to be a priority, a new exhibition focuses on a neighbouring club that can’t seem to get enough of them.

Bishop Auckland Football Club has won the FA Amateur Cup no fewer than 10 times – three in a row from 1955-57 – and been the losing finalist on eight other occasions.

In its colourful 133-year history the club has produced a string of top players and achieved what many may consider its greatest achievement – to be the only amateur club to have featured as a Subbuteo team.

Players past and present gathered to celebrate the launch of the exhibition, The Birth of the Blues, which opens this weekend at Auckland Castle as a joint venture with Durham Amateur Football Trust.

Huge crowds attend a victory parade through Bishop Auckland Market Place in the 1950s
Huge crowds attend a victory parade through Bishop Auckland Market Place in the 1950s

The exhibition tells the story of the club from its inception in the 1880s, through the glory days of the 1950s and up to the present day.

It brings together rare objects and memorabilia including the FA Amateur Cup, Olympic medals worn by one of the club’s greatest players, Bob Hardisty, and the rare Subbuteo team.

If the venue – the former residence of the Bishops of Durham and home to treasured religious art – raises an eyebrow, it shouldn’t.

A little known fact about Bishop Auckland FC is that the club owes its origins to a kickabout in the local market place among students studying theology at Auckland Castle.

When the ball smashed a window at the home of Rev George Eden, who was private chaplain to Bishop Joseph Lightfoot, he angrily demanded to know what was to be done with the “Auckland brotherhood”.

Football was seen as good for instilling discipline and teamwork so a game was arranged between the students and local school pupils.

Ian Horrocks Auckland Castle chef Luke Orwin (L) poses in 1950's kit with the FA Amateur Cup and current Bishop Auckland player Lewis Brown
Auckland Castle chef Luke Orwin (L) poses in 1950's kit with the FA Amateur Cup and current Bishop Auckland player Lewis Brown

Rev Eden chose the name Bishop Auckland Church Institute Club and the team colours combined the blues of Oxford and Cambridge universities where most of the students came from.

The team got off to a winning start, picking up the Durham Challenge Cup in 1886, but that same year a new Auckland Town team was set up, combining Church Institute players and some of the local lads.

In 1892 the team became Bishop Auckland FC, one of the founding members of the Northern League. The two-tone blue strips were retained.

Georgina Ascroft, Auckland Castle’s community archivist who has been involved in putting the exhibition together, said: “Bishop Auckland FC is one of the oldest, most successful and famous amateur football teams in the country.

“Players like Bob Hardisty, Derek Lewin, Bob Thursby and Ernest Proud were household names in their day, and the club was so feted that in 1923 the team travelled to Spain to play a friendly against Barcelona.

Current Bishop Aukland player Lewis Brown (L) with former player Derek Lewin playing Subuteo table football with a 1950's set
Current Bishop Aukland player Lewis Brown (L) with former player Derek Lewin playing Subuteo table football with a 1950's set

“The club won the FA Amateur Cup a staggering 10 times and has been Northern League winners 19 times, an astounding five times in the 1950s alone.

“So successful was the club during that period that in 1958 Bob Hardisty, Derek Lewin and Warren Bradley were sent to play for Manchester United after they lost seven of their players in the Munich air crash.”

Georgina said the idea of football as being like a religion was true in Bishop Auckland on a number of levels.

“Sadly amateur football clubs only attract crowds of a few hundred these days but in the game’s heyday, when the sport was community based, thousands would turn out.”

League games regularly attracted crowds of more than 20,000 while 100,000 would attend the Wembley cup finals.

The Auckland Castle Church Institute team outside Auckland Castle in 1886
The Auckland Castle Church Institute team outside Auckland Castle in 1886

“We hope through this exhibition the public will see that Bishop Auckland, both as a team and a town, has been successful and that both can be successful again,” said Georgina.

“We are celebrating the past with a mind to inspiring today’s generation.”

The Birth of the Blues runs until September 28 at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland.

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