Sheffield is home to the world’s oldest football club, Sheffield FC, which was formed in 1857. Today the main teams are Sheffield United ‘The Blades’ and Sheffield Wednesday ‘The Owls’. While ‘The Blades’ name is easily attributed to Sheffield’s main historic industry, most people don’t know why Sheffield Wednesday are known as ‘The Owls’.
People would be forgiven in thinking the team once had a pet owl as the mascot, or some other strigine link. In fact, the reason Sheffield Wednesday are known as ‘The Owls’ is nothing to do with birds, but is everything to do with trees, in particular the Common Alder tree, Alnus glutinosa.
Sheffield Wednesday football club turned professional in April 1887 . It was called ‘Wednesday’ as the players were mainly traders who were only free to play on Wednesdays. In 1898, Sheffield Wednesday moved grounds from the central Olive Grove site to the suburb of Owlerton, and they took residence at what was then called the Owlerton Stadium. From this point on Wednesday became known as ‘The Owls’; however, ‘the Owls’ of Owlerton have nothing to do with birds. ‘Owls’ or ‘Owler’ is an old Yorkshire dialect word for an Alder tree. The Alder or Owler tree is found in many Sheffield place names, which testifies to the fact that the city was well wooded during its early history, and also that the Alder formed a key tree species of the area. Local place names referring to the Alder include Owler Bar (meaning ‘Alders on the wooded hill’), Owler Car (meaning ‘wet swampy Alder woodland’), and Owlerton (meaning ‘farm in the Alder wood’).
Unaware of the true meaning of the name Owler, the football fans at the new stadium in the district of Owlerton gave Wednesday the nickname of ‘The Owls’, and not ‘The Alders’. This also led to the design of the club’s badge which is dominated by an owl.
In 2016/17 the club revealed a new crest. It is a version of the original club logo and shows a shield with a traditionally drawn owl perched on a branch. It’s possible the original artist was aware of the meaning of Owler and so included a tree branch in the logo – or maybe not. Alder is easily identified by the crimson male catkins and the female cones, none of which are obviously apparent on the club crest and logo. Perhaps in the future, new logo designs could include the addition of some catkins on the branch, which would indicate the Owl is perched on an Alder branch. This would be a nice nod to the arboreal heritage of the club grounds.
The writer Henry Thoreau wrote about the Alder: “If you are sick and despairing, go forth in winter and see the red alder catkins dangling at the extremity of the twigs all in the wintry air, like long, hard mulberries, promising a new spring and the fulfillment of all our hopes.”
Sheffield based AWA Tree Consultants are experts in tree surveys (if not football!), so we would obviously be pleased to see the Alder tree officially recognised. But most long-suffering football fans of any team will appreciate feeling ‘sick and despairing’ at some point during the long winter season. If the Alder catkins do indeed promise the “fulfillment of all our hopes”, it could only be a good thing to include some some on the next Sheffield Wednesday crest!