England’s Oldest Football Clubs 1815-1889: A New Chronological History of Military Football Teams – 1844-1888

23/01/2020  -  5.35

Martin Westby

Englands Oldest Football Clubs 1815 to 1889 book cover

The March 17th edition of the ‘Athletic News’ 1877, made claim for what it recognised as the earliest ever recorded military football match involving members of the Manchester Royal Volunteers, on 11th February 1776 in Manchester. The earliest pertinent press report I found for military football is from 1844:

"Football – a football match took place on Hampton Court Green on Tuesday last between 12 men of the F and 12 men of the D troop of 13th Lights Dragoons for a supper, which, after a severe struggle, was won by the D troop. Between 30 and 40 sat down to an excellent “spread” at the Toy Tap." (‘Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle’ - Sunday 17 March 1844).

Shadowing this period was the threat of invasion from France, which resulted in the increased building of coastal defences and the instigation of the Volunteer movement to mobilise and organise men ready to fight the French, if or when they came ashore. In the disastrous Crimean War, (whilst the Army numbers were low), the men were increasingly perceived as not fit enough and the amateur officers were heavily criticised.

It is interesting that in the 19th Century when so much of the football argument revolved around the relative merits of amateurism and professionalism, a similar discussion was happening in military circles. In 1879, the Army introduced professional training and the officer class were dominated by County families and County names; another echo of the strong County identity that would be taken up by the various County Football Associations. Following the war in Crimea, reforms were slowly introduced to improve the standard of the Army, in both the men and their facilities. Football would be viewed as a way to improve the overall fitness of recruits, all that said, the military was an enormous source of pride to Victorian Britain and they were held in the highest esteem.

It was the importance of the first school you attended that coloured your future footballing activities. If you started out as a gentleman at Rugby or Eton, then that would be the code that you would want to play at college and of course the code you played in your regiment. The following interesting match report from the Crimea in 1855 shows old Eton boys organising a match, no matter what the conditions:

"Football in the Crimea. Mr. Editor: A match at football took place out here on Tuesday last, March 27th, between the Guards and the Cavalry Division, the Elevens on both sides consisting entirely of old Etonians. The game was contested with great spirit, and ultimately ended in a “tie”, both sides obtaining a “goal”, that of the cavalry was kicked by Capt Coney,1st Royal Dragoons, and the Guardsmen won theirs after a “rouge” (got by Capt Goodlake, Coldstream Guards) as well contested as any ever witnessed in the good old times of Eton. The Elevens were as follows: - Guards: Capt Bathurst, Capt Lord Balgonie, Capt Turner (all Gren. Gds.), Capt Buckley, Capt Blane, Capt Lindsay (all Fus. Gds.), Capt Goodlake, Capt Markham, Capt Tower, Lieut. Wigram, Capt Henerege (all Coldstream Gds). Cavalry: Capt Halford, 5th Drag Gds, Capt Coney, Lieut. Bennett, Lieut. Robertson (all 1st royal Drags), Lieut. Nugent, Lieut. Handley (all 2nd Drags, Scots greys), Capt Adlington, Lieut. Martin (both 6th Lt drags), Capt Tremayne, Capt P. Smith, Capt Jervis (all 12th Lt Drags). Umpires: Capt Learmouth, 17th Lancers: Capt Crawley, Coldstream’s. It is but fair to the cavalry to state that they were deprived of the services of one of their very best men (Lieut. Pepys, 1st Royal Dragoons), who was disabled by an accident just before the commencement of the match. Thus you see, sir, that old Etonians still cling together, and keep up the remembrance of the old school and its games, - yours, &c, Balaklava, Mar 30, 1855. Floreat Etonia." (‘Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle’ - Sunday 22 April 1855).

The personification of the successful military association football team was the Royal Engineers FC (f.1863). The School of Military Engineering was formed in 1812 and it gained a reputation for the physical and mental fitness of its officers over sixty years. Eventually they became known as the Royal Engineers. In February 1863 (eight months before the FA was founded) they played the 5th Fusiliers by an unknown code:

"Football. A most interesting game of football was played on the cricket ground below “A” Lines, South Camp, on Wednesday last, between the officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the Royal Engineers, and the 5th Fusiliers, the number on each side being eighteen. This match had been played, or rather commenced, on two previous occasions, but has not hitherto been brought to a successful issue, as neither have managed to win the number of goals requisite to entitle the winners to claim the victory. In order, therefore, to insure on the present occasion as decided termination to the match, the contending parties were called to the ground at an earlier hour than usual. After a hard fight, the 5th Fusiliers had the honour of claiming the victory. The battle was severely contested throughout on both sides, as all who witnessed it agree in declaring; indeed, the very fact of its having lasted upwards of three hours is pretty strong evidence of the resolution and vigour with which it was conducted. As regards the 5th Fusiliers we may safely say that we have rarely seen men of their weight and size combined with that activity which they possess; their play was exceedingly good, and they were first rate at “following up”, which is the best and surest way of obtaining the victory.

With respect to the Royal Engineers, we may just as safely say that their pluck and activity were conspicuous throughout; their adversaries were certainly, on the average, heavier men, perhaps one-fourth heavier than themselves, with strength in proportion, and weight and strength combined, as everybody knows, carry everything before them on the football ground: in fact, it was evident to all that it was only through the pluck, activity, and good running of the Engineers that the match lasted such a long time. We have been informed that, with the exception of a few officers and one sergeant, all the Engineers were from one company; and
should this be the case, it is exceedingly creditable to them, taking into consideration the great disproportion in numbers from which the two sides had to be selected, that they should have given a fine regiments like the 5th Fusiliers such an amount of trouble to overcome them we cannot help remarking on the good feeling which existed throughout the game between the two combating parties, so much so that we are informed that now that they have played out their friendly match, it is the wish of some of the men on both sides to join together and try their luck against two other regiments in camp. Should the 5th Fusiliers get up a match with another regiment, we are quite sure that all those who appreciate the manly game of football, will enjoy a fine sight in witnessing it. We sincerely hope that we may frequently be
able to report on matches of football during the remaining winter months, and, observing the friendly manner in which the game under notice was carried on, we cannot but think that this manly exercise must conduce to much cordiality between the regimens concerned."

(‘Aldershot Military Gazette’ - Saturday 21 February 1863).

In the following year officers also wanted to be involved in the game:

“Officers” Football Club. “Matches will be played (weather permitting), every Monday and Thursday, on the Cricket Ground, at the bottom of A Lines, South Camp, commencing at 3p.m.” “H. H. Clifford, A. Q. M. G., Secretary and Treasurer.

(‘Aldershot Military Gazette’ - Saturday 22 October 1864).

The Royal Engineers AFC (Chatham, Kent) (who joined the FA on the 8th December 1863) are ranked in equal 15th position on my main listing and are the 5th oldest surviving Association football club. Whilst classifying military teams as closed membership and not including them in my main club classification, the Royal Engineers have to be the exception to this rule in the same way that the Oxford and Cambridge Association sides are in the educational chapter. The first sign of them straying from the Association code was in 1887 when they are listed as playing both codes, but it seems that they had from the beginning, a very robust style:

"The team contained many old Rugbeians and as late as 1873 hacking was very common. The Royal Engineers scored a large number of goals by literally barging the opposing goalkeeper through his own goal. (‘Football - the early seventies by R.M. Ruck”, Royal Engineers Journal, Royal Engineers Journal December 1928).

The Royal Engineers successfully made it in to very first year FA Cup final on 16th March 1872, where they lost 1-0 to the Wanderers.

The Royal Engineers were the first southern club side to play northern opponents (Sheffield FA, Derbyshire FA and Nottingham Forest FC) in 1873:

"The Sappers team undertook the first football tour ever made in 1873, visiting Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby." (‘Wickets and Goals’ by J.A.H. Catton).

The Royal Engineers were credited with the strategy of long and short passing to circumvent the old-style school game and this combined with organised teamwork, were the main reasons for their early success. (The Queens Park team in Glasgow were working on the same tactics at around the same time.) In 1874, club captain, Major Marindin was made FA President, a position he held until 1890. In all, the Sappers would play in four FA Cup Finals at the Kennington Oval. They lost three of these, but in 1875 beat Old Etonians 2-0 in a replay after the first game had ended 1-1. Over a period of four seasons (1871/72 – 1874/75) they produced a set of astounding statistics:

Played 86, Won 74, Lost 3, Drawn 9, Goals for 244, Goals against 21.

Two of the three defeats occurred in FA Cup finals.

I discovered Major Marindin captaining Harwich FC (1875) (‘Essex Standard’ - Friday 03 March 1876) at the age of thirty-seven. After Marindin stopped playing he took up the whistle and refereed eight FA Cup Finals between 1880 and 1890.


Martin Westby

Martin Westby has run a website called ‘Soccerbilia’ for over fifteen years which has become the definitive resource archive collection for vintage football newspapers, periodicals and magazines dating from the 1880s. This archive provides a rich contemporary story of how the game and clubs. It began inspiring Martin in 2014 to start work on a comprehensive classification of all types of football between 1815 and 1889. He underscored the Soccerbilia research with five years of careful analysis of the Alcock ‘Football Annuals’, that ran from 1868 to 1908. No complete run of the ‘Football Annual’ exists in one place and it is the first time that anyone has sourced all the consecutive copies and methodically worked through and captured this unique data.

Martin originally comes from Sheffield and due to a number of significant local footballing anniversaries occurring in 2017, he used his newly found data to write ‘A History of Sheffield Football 1857-1889: Speed, Science and Bottom’, and in the process kick started the ‘Sheffield Home of Football’ project. The book has since been used as the primary source for an interactive walking app funded by Sheffield Libraries. More information is available about this book at: https://www.englandsoldestfootballclubs.com/sheffield-home-of-football/

In the summer of 2019, Martin released ‘England’s Oldest Football Clubs 1815-1889: A new chronological classification of early football (Folk, School, Military, County, Rugby, & Association)’ with more information about this book to be found at: https://www.englandsoldestfootballclubs.com/englands-oldest-football-clubs-1815-1889/ .

These two books are not for sale on Amazon and are only available from Martin’s website: https://www.englandsoldestfootballclubs.com/

Martin can be contacted on Twitter at: @martinwestby and by e-mail at: martin@EnglandsOldestFootballClubs.com