After the crowds have gone

Talk given at the central library 10 4 2012.

What do we remember of football and footballers?

The problems for historians and fans….

The last forty years of the Victorian period – when the sport became a mass phenomenon – when the rule book established? – how did it spread? – role of the Football Association, formation and growth.

For football clubs the facts are few and scanty, encrusted with legend. The FA has lost all its records 1872-1895, which is precisely the period when we need the information. The press started to take an interest and press of the period is vital, esp the reports of matches. But the informal arrangements which led to clubs being formed, who formed then, when and how is badly documented.

Poor records of clubs till the formation of the league 1888 and the informal arrangements were badly recorded or later lost. There is currently a debate among historians on the earliest clubs, with revisions being made. For example, Stoke City claim to have been formed in 1863, by ex pupils of Charterhouse school, but a recent historian has claimed that checking the records of the school shows that none of the pupils named attended the school that early, and suggests that the real date was 1868. Stoke so far has not accepted the later date. The early years, which I will focus on in this lecture, pose real problems.

However there are real problems with the twentieth century, while the era of the Premiership has certainly given the game more money, but created an information overload which can make distinguishing between fact and fantasy increasingly difficult. Recently the Villa went some four months without a home win. The media were full of the fact that this was the worst home run since Lloyd George was Prime Minister – yet this was disputed. The need for some kind of database, professionally kept, seems to me essential and something I will return to at the end of this talk.

While the FA can be tracked via the FA Cup and some of the developments of the international game, initially only applying in the 4 home countries till the end of the century, the split between the aristocratic FA public school tradition and the working class professional game led to the League, and a lack of professionalism in the FA which persist to this day, amazingly. However once professionalism was accepted, the League game took off but with a lack of resources which means there are many gaps. One of these is the start of Aston Villa which did not even have a printed programme till 1906. The history of the ground is in fact better documented than that of the playing staff until at least the first world war.

A moot question: When did Villa actually start?
In the case of the Villa, as with most clubs, a group of working class men planning to play sport on an amateur basis informally did not catch public attention and they themselves saw no reason to keep records. The first meeting to set the club up is supposed to have happened under a streetlamp in Heathfield Road. The accepted year is 1874, and the first match is normally held to be between Aston Brook St Mary’s Rugby club, and curiously half the match was played under Rugby rules, and half under Association rules. (1) Key Questions: When was the lamplight meeting? Why is it held to be the key event? When was the first match? Why play a match under two different sets of rules?

There are real questions about the accepted account, notably the date of March 1874, and the apparently casual way some young Wesleyans stopped to talk under a street lamp to form the club. The main points of the origins of the club were noted by Peter Morris in his 1962 book, in which he sets out the account which has become generally accepted notably by Simon Inglis in his excellent book on Villa Park, with the first game in March 1874. Morris states:

“The game was taking off in the city in the 1870s with the Birmingham Clerks FC playing at Calthorpe Park (becoming Calthorpe FC), the most powerful in the city and the game gaining public awareness. This attracted the attention of young men at a church in the north of the city.

“The actual cradle of the Villa was located somewhere along Heathfield Rd, now an extension of Trinity Rod where stands Villa Park” thus “The club came into existence not in Aston but on the fringes of Birchfield/Lozells” (p3)

“Late January or February …. in the early part of 1874… a dozen or so members of the Villa Cross (Aston) Weslyan Methodist Chapel stopped on their way home to talk under one of those flickering Street lights along Heathfield Rd”.

“Not until March of that year (1874 TF) did the Villa manage to fix up their first match” (p5) which was on a ground in Birchfields where Wilson Road (Birchfields) now stands thus making the name aston villa even more bizarre and the agreement to play under two codes even stranger as the club was providing the ground.

However closer examination in particular of newspaper reports makes the story more interesting and the date of the first match in 1874 less likely. There are two eyewitness reports which survive.

The earliest newspaper report so far discovered – is in 1887, after Villa won the FA cup – this cites a date in later 1874, but the memories of Jack Hughes 50 years later and who scored the only goal in the St Mary’s game, provide the date as March 1874. As Hughes played in the game, his reference has become accepted though he was by 1924 in his seventies and the memories of old people are distinctly fallible. Together with other evidence they do pin down what happened.

Q1. Was the first game in 1874?


The first account of Villa’s origins appears to be in the Birmingham Daily Gazette on April 4th 1887. It appears alongside the match report of the FA Cup final victory over another major local side, West Bromwich Albion, 48 hours earlier. Villa had arrived as a major national sporting institution by winning the cup, so explaining how it began was now newsworthy. The Daily Gazette account (2) starts with the unquestioned facts about who began it – the name “was derived from the name of a chapel situated at Villa Cross Handsworth (the chapel is in fact in Lozells-Birchfields and is on the Lozells Road going toward Witton Road CHECK), but the reporter argues that it was in

“the latter part of the year 1874 some of the men having witnessed a match between the Handsworth (sic) and the Grasshoppers – Rugby Rules – a desire was expressed to start a team in connection with the Villa (ie the chapel, TF) and a whip round having produced the amount necessary for the purchase of a ball, the following
Saturday saw a practice game on a piece of waste ground in the Westminster Road. Among these early players were Mr E B Lee, Mr W B Mason, now vice president of the club, Herr Wein and others. During the first season, 1874, only one match was played, St Mary’s being beaten by one goal to none, on a ground lent to the Villa by Mr Wilson, who, seeing them playing on the waste ground before mentioned, volunteered the use of one of his fields. It is curious to notice that as an evidence of the rudimentary knowledge exhibited in this match, one half Rugby rules were played and one half Association rules”.

This report was only a dozen or so years after the alleged formation, so the informant is likely to have been an eye witness and indeed could be Mr Mason, now the vice president of the club. Eye witness memories were fresh, though the curious use of two different codes remains an unexplained oddity and it does not mention a meeting under a street lamp. As this is a third hand report, the article and its claim for a late 1874 match against St Mary’s was trumped by a later account which was from a eyewitness.

The only eye witness account of Villa’s formation discovered so far comes in the form of two articles in the Sunday Mercury of March 1924, written by John Hughes in the 9th March and 30th March editions. Hughes was a good choice, since he scored the winning goal in the famous match against St Mary’s, and highlights the crucial role played by Mr Mason, later the vice president, and naming the men who attended the famous street light meeting and exactly what they were discussing, since he was present.

In his March 9th article, Hughes explains how the Weslyans had begun to consider a winter sport in March 1874, with the obvious local examples being rugby. Two good Rugby clubs played in the city these being the Grasshoppers, based in Adderley Park (near Stechford in the south of the city) and Handsworth. The Weslyans were undecided about Rugby or Association Football, which had not really taken off yet in Birmingham. However “It happened that one of our members, W B Mason, was to assist the Grasshoppers against the Handsworth club, and W H Price, George Matthews, W H Scattergood and myself were deputed to go and see the game and express our opinion”. Hughes states that “The ‘committee of inspection’- Price, Matthews, Scattergood and myself – adjourned from the Rugby match to the top of Heathfield Road and there, in the dim light of the lamp, we held a conference”.

This was the famous meeting under the lamp, we know who was there, and whether or not this was actually the formation of the Villa, it took one key decision. The committee did not like Rugby, it being “too rough for us”.
Thus the lamplight meeting may not have formed the Villa but it made the crucial decision on the code: the Villa would play soccer.

It would appear Hughes, who was in his seventies by 1924, was too eager to place the meeting exactly 50 years earlier. But apart from the date the rest is correct

He later explains that a subsequent meeting to set up a officers and a fund was the real start of the Villa. Having decided to play Association football with the round ball, one had to be purchased. At a second meeting Sixteen men put in one shilling each to do so, and “that in my opinion was the real foundation of the Aston Villa Football Club. As that occurred in the first week of March 1874, I date the origin of the club from then” (3).

It is a matter of opinion: the first game can be seen as the real start. But there is no doubt that pitching into the pot, electing W H Price as captain and “Charlie” H Midgeley as secretary was important steps forward as was the decision, at this meeting, to adopt a kit colours though not yet the claret and blue. But we do not know why the first match was played under two codes, nor firmly when it took place. But on the actual date of the lamplight meeting and the subsequent match with St Mary, the second citing of a Handsworth Grasshoppers match in this article is crucial.

Hughes was firm about the date of the crucial events being early 1874, stating in his second article that the St Mary’s match took place “on the third Saturday in March 1874” (4)

Dating the meeting under the street lamp.

But this cannot be so. The date of the formation has to be AFTER March 1874 because we can date the famous meeting. The clue is in the rugby match between Grasshoppers and Handsworth, an event which occurs in both the Gazette report of 1887 and Hughes reminiscences in 1924. The Gazette report states the decision to form the club took place after seeing the match – which is oversimplifying, the decision had already been taken in principle is was the code that was decided under the streetlamp. Hughes argues that while it took the crucial decision to play under soccer rules it was buying the ball which was the key moment. Possibly it was the first actual game; that issue remains to be resolved by further research. But we can now date the famous meeting under the street lamp, who was there, and what they decided, with absolute precision as the rugby game the ‘committee of inspection’ as Hughes calls it can be dated.

The date of the Grasshoppers – Handsworth Rugby match must be the one reported in the Birmingham Morning News for Monday (check) 24th November 1874. The report states that “On Saturday the above match was played at Heathfield” which was – the report states – “the Handsworth ground” – Grasshoppers playing in ground at Adderley South Birmingham). (5) Thus it is clear that on Saturday 22nd November 1874, John Hughes and his colleagues were at a ground at Heathfield, watched the Grasshoppers- Handsworth Rugby game, walked up the Heathfield Road, stopped under a street light to confer, decided that they preferred soccer to Rugby, and reported this back to their Wesleyan friends.

At a subsequent meeting sixteen of these – sixteen players had formed the teams at the Rugby game, not fifteen a side an oddity reported by the Morning News – accepted the decision to go for the round ball game and chipped in to buy a football. Whether John Hughes is right to argue this was the moment Villa were formed is arguable, but the course of events is now fixed. The lamplight meeting, having been on 24th November 1874, means that John Hughes is wrong to see the date as being the third Saturday in March 1874, but something significant may have happened on the third Saturday in March 1875, a year later…. But that is a different story. What we have established is that a group of men from the Weslyan chapel in Lozells wanted to form a team to play a winter sport, sent a group to inspect a rugby match, this group met under the street lamp in Heathfield Rd, chose to play soccer, and this meeting was on November 22nd 1874. John Hughes in 1924 got the date wrong.

We have yet to track down the famous march with Aston Brook St Mary’s rugby club, meant to have been the first game Villa ever played, but one thing is now clear. Whenever that match took place, it took place after November 22nd 1874. The street lamp had done its job. Villa would for ever be a soccer team playing under Association rules, and this was the significance of the meeting in Heathfield Road under the streetlamp. Villa was in business – as a soccer club.

6th April 2012

(1) Peter Morris, Aston Villa The Sportsman’s book club London, 1962 p5. Morris has the first half scoreless,
fifteen on each side. Morris believes that the club started “in the early part of 1874” (p3) which refers to the St Mary’s match.

He argues the round ball came out at half time “hired for one shilling and six pence” and produced this at half time. The formation was then goalie, 3 backs, 4 half backs, seven forwards. (W formation – early) Jack Hughes scored the winning goal, first in Villa History. Team

W Scattergood, W H Price (Captn), W Weiss, F Knight, E B Lee, G Matthews, H Matthews, C H Midgeley, J Hughes, W Such, W Whateley, G Page, A Robbins, W B Mason (Secretary) and W G Sothers. (15 players)

This is taken from John Hughes article. 16 bought the ball according to Hughes, and 16 were the team lists in the |Grasshoppers match. IS THIS THE EARLIEST BOOK ON THE VILLA?
No more games till 1875-76 season he thinks.

(2) Birmingham Daily Gazette Monday 4th April 1887 page…

(3) All quotes this para from the Mercury article 9th March 1924.

(4) Sunday Mercury 30th April 1924. ….

(5) Birmingham Morning News, 24th November 1874. Underneath, a second report states that only same day Birmingham Cricket -Football Club played Birmingham Clerks Association Football club on the grounds of the Birmingham Cricket Club, which were the Aston Lower Grounds. Twenty five years later the Aston Lower Grounds would be the site of Villa Park.

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