Talk Sport - The History of Football in London

David Crout Associate Director for Student Services


March 22, 2016

Sport is an important part of British culture. We love to watch it, talk about it, complain about it and occasionally play it. Each week, as part of our Talk Sport club Phil engages students in one of our favourite pastimes, talking sport. This week we explored the origins of football and its establishment in London.

Adding to the 'bloody English history', rugby football originated mainly from Village or as some called it 'Mob' football through the 14th & 15th centuries. Neighbouring towns completed against each other dragging an inflated pig's bladder by any means possible to markers in each town. Rules you ask? No murder or manslaughter! As you can imagine games were disorganised and violent.

Late 16th century(1581)  the head teacher of St. Pauls School in Barnes is credited in taking mob football and transforming it into organised refereed team rugby football that included smaller team, referees, set positions and even coaches.

26th October 1863 the modern game of Association Football was codified in the Freemasons Tavern (a pub 0.3 miles away from the London Centre) with the Rugby Football Union founded in 1871. Finally and in slang, Rugger (Rugby) and Soccer (Association Football) were separated to their two games. Soccer?? That American word?? No no . . it derived from soc in asSOCiation and was used widely in the UK until the 80s!

The 12 founding clubs of the FA have all since become defunct or play rugby. In 1885 Football became a professional sport and the Football League started in 1888 with the 12 founding clubs all still playing in the Football League today. Early clubs in London formed 15-20 years after clubs in the North and turned professional later. Fulham (1879), Leyton Orient, Dagenham & Redbridge (1881), Queens Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur (1882), Millwall (1885), Woolwich Arsenal (1886), Wimbledon (1889), West Ham (1895) to start with. 

The future of London's initial football history is owed a lot to one man, Sir Henry George Norris, a keen football fan becoming chairman of Fulham and building the present day cottage and Stevenage Road stand for a record £15,000, which is now the oldest remaining stand in Football (112 years). In 1905 as the sport of Athletics lost popularity and Football started to takeover, Guy & Joseph Mears brought Stamford Bridge home to the London Athletics Club with a capacity of 100,000. They asked Fulham for £1,500 per annum rent to move and stage high-profile football matches. Norris (a very proud man) said (and probably not very politely) no! The birth of Chelsea F.C. and within 4 years they finished 11th in Division 1 (D1) with Fulham 10th in Division 2 (D2). Attendances were also 3 times bigger at Chelsea. 1905 also saw the birth of Crystal Palace using the large National Athletics stadium and the start up of Charlton.

Woolwich Arsenal, the first London club to turn professional in 1891 were close to bankruptcy in 1910. Norris after losing ground on Chelsea turned his attention to them and tried to merge Fulham and Arsenal into a superclub which was swiftly rejected by the FA. 1912 Norris became Woolwich Arsenal Chairman and well aware of the problematic location in Woolwich and poor finances, he tenaciously sees the club move 14 miles from South East London to Highbury in North London and into Tottenham's territory. Average attendances rocketed. The 'Woolwich' was dropped from the name and replaced with 'The' and by 1919 they just become just 'Arsenal'. By dropping the name Woolwich, out of the 92 English Football League team today, Arsenal and Port Vale are the only two clubs with names that are not named for a location they have an association with. 

Just to rub salt into the wound, at the end of the 1915 season Tottenham finished bottom of D1 and Arsenal 5th in D2. After the break in football due to the 1st World War and for the commencement of the 1919 season the FA decided to expand D1 from 20 to 22 teams. Derby and Preston finished 1st and 2nd in D2 respectively so were promoted, however somehow and still to this day unknown (maybe bribery?) the FA decided to overlook Barnsley (3rd) and Wolves (4th) to elect Arsenal (5th) into D1 and at the expense of their next door neighbors and relegate Tottenham. Uproar! And since 1919 Arsenal are the only team to have never been relegated from the top-flight of English Football (but you should always remind their fans of how they got there in the first place). Norris eventually was banned from football for life in 1929 guilty of using Arsenal's expense account for personal use!

So that was the shortened version!

More facts and details to fill in between the lines! Want more sport talking! Come along to the next session...