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18th October 2017

Why are Sheffield Wednesday called ‘The Owls’?

Sheffield Wednesday Alder

Sheffield Wednesday Alder tree

Sheffield Wednesday Alder

Sheffield Wednesday Alder tree

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!

Adam
Adam
I'm a Chartered Arboriculturist at AWA Tree Consultants Ltd. As well as detailing our recent tree survey and arboricultural consultant work, this blog includes wide ranging arboricultural musings, including tree facts, opinion and anecdotes on trees in human culture.

5 Comments

  1. Avatar Lizzy says:

    Thanks for this really interesting post – I was wondering about the owl thing! Very interesting to learn more about the tree connection.

  2. Avatar Mark Law says:

    I agree!
    What a fascinating piece.

  3. Avatar Richard Kirk says:

    I’ve been an Owls fan for 50 years and I’ve not heard this tale before. Very interesting. I feel enlightened and re educated.

    • Avatar M.B. S8 says:

      The Wednesday Cricket club was formed 1820 and the football club came in to being to keep the Cricket players fit in Autumn/ Winter time. The Clubs original nickname was The Owls and United were called The Cutlers. It was only after the club wanting to expand their ground at Olive Grove, that Owlerton/Hillsborough was mentioned as it was an up and coming area with the right sized plot of land. Previously to this the Club
      had found several sites in Sheffield to move to from Olive Grove and the clubs fans had voted for a site in S9 in the East End of the City, but this site fell through so they had to choose quickly where to move instead and Owlerton was selected because land wise it ticked all the boxes. The Wednesday became the Owls as already said and United started using the Wednesday discarded nickname. The Club changed its name to Sheffield Wednesday in 1929.

      • Adam Adam says:

        Hi and thanks for commenting! While trees, not football, is my area of expertise; I understood that Sheffield Wednesday held the nickname “The Blades” in their early years; however, Wednesday became “The Owls”, in reference to their new ground in Owlerton, and United would later claim “The Blades” nickname for themselves. As detailed in the post, the link is between “Owls”/ “Owlerton” and the Alder tree,‘the Owls’ of Owlerton have nothing to do with birds. ‘Owls’ or ‘Owler’ is an old Yorkshire dialect word for an Alder tree.

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