“Southport Football Club” wasn’t formed in 1881 and it never claimed to be. It was formed on November 29th 1872, as a Rugby Club and the club’s colours were blue, white and red.
Gladstone was Prime Minister, Victoria was on the throne and Grant was re-elected President of the United states. It was the year that William Webb Ellis, who fifty years earlier was reputed to have run with the ball, passed away and it was the time that for Southport and Birkdale, as growing townships with many ex-public school boy residents, to form a club to formally play the game which had become commonly known as Rugby after the school whose rules it adopted. The first President of this club was the Mayor of Southport, Samuel Swire, who was also the first Secretary of Lancashire County Cricket Club. At the time these were the two most popular sports in the town by some margin.
Dr. George Augustus Coombe, later Sir George Pilkington (House Surgeon and Medical Officer of Southport Hospital from 1870 to 1884) was the driving force behind the formation of the club, with the intention of “improving the physical development of our young townsmen”. W.H. Smith of the District Bank became vice-president, H.P. Stephenson honorary secretary and Stewart Allen honorary treasurer. Backing for the new venture also came from Southport Rowing Club and the Alexandra Cricket Club, the large field next to whose Club on Manchester Road would become Southport Football Club’s first ground. From an OS map at the time the large field appears behind the Hartwood Road area with access off Roe Lane, It is now covered by housing on Melling Road, Irton Road and Grange Avenue.
For half a guinea an honorary membership could be purchased, and for two guineas a life membership.
At the time there were much fewer differences than there are today between Rugby and Association Football and it was a common occurrence for some clubs to switch codes from one week to the next depending on the opposition and agreement between the clubs. The object of the game in the 1870’s was to set up a situation whereby the ball could be kicked between the goal posts and over the crossbar. In order to achieve this, each team would attempt to make progress towards the opposition goal line. If the ball was moved over the goal line the team could take a kick at goal. A kick from anywhere on the field was known as a field goal. The result was decided on the number of goals scored; tries would only be used a few years later. The game being played at this time mainly involved kicking the ball with the feet but play also involved scrummages and rucks, which could last for several minutes. Refereeing of the game in the early years was done by the captains of each team, which meant that “disputed tries’ were common.
Even the number of players in a team could be varied and number up to 20 – the Captains before the game would agree the numbers in each team. This allowed for a handicap system when one team was known to be stronger than the other. Moustaches and beards were apparently fashionable at the time. The boots did not have studs but some players would attach strips of leather to the soles to improve the grip, this was known as “barring the boots.’
Things had begun very well for the club, winning their first fixture, against Sandringham School, by one goal and three touch downs. Their second fixture against the Claughton Club was postponed but the third, against Liverpool College, was won by three goals.
When the Southport Visiter added a “sports and pastimes” section to the newspaper in 1875, the sports popularity in the town grew further. Prior to this, only a partial fixture list had been published in 1873 and any reports of fixtures had been few and far between. The club was one of several playing now playing ‘the handling code’ in the town. Southport Olympic had grown to be able to field two teams, and the town was also able to support The Grasshoppers, Southport Wasps, Southport Hornets and Southport Rangers.
In 1876/77 the scoring mechanism was changed with results now decided by a majority of goals and tries and in some games by a complicated system including “minors’ which appear to be like near misses such as touch in goal, dead balls and missed drop goals. Scoring by points then became the norm, a try one point, conversion 2 points and a dropped goal 3 points.
After 6 years of existence, forward G. Schofield became the first Southport player to be selected for the Lancashire county side, playing against Yorkshire at Whalley Range on 20th January. He also played in the North v South International Trial at Manchester. Scofield played in several Lancashire County matches and appeared in the Southport team photograph in his County jersey.
Around this time, and as older players began to retire, the club began to suffer through a lack of recruits. The Southport Olympic Rugby Club had by this time grown to be the premier Rugby club in the town with younger players choosing “Olympic” over the original Southport club.
After several heavy defeats under the “handling code” Southport Football Club made the permanent switch to Association Football, playing their final Rugby game against Bootle on 29th October, fielding two men short and losing by one goal, eight tries and eleven minor point. Nine of the team that lined lined up in their final three games went on to represent “Southport Football Club” under Association Rules. Those remaining continued to struggle on their own. They are believed to have merged shortly afterwards with Southport Olympic and Southport Wasps, playing under the Southport Olympic name, at a ground at the corner of Scarisbrick New Road and Ash Street backing onto Southbank Road. Association football was played on an adjoining pitch.
The final Rugby line up against Bootle on 29th October was: W. Platt; A.J. Ross, H.M Smith, Hodson (Backs); Richardson, Gregson (three quarter backs); S. Platt, Buggins, J.G. Howard, F. Jackson, Hill, T.B. Burnett, P. Edwards (Forwards)
The association team against Bootle ‘second’ on 12th November was: S. Platt (Goal), B Pidduck, J.G. Howard (Backs) P. Edwards, F. Jackson and T.B. Burnett(Captain) (Halves), J.R. Topliss and F. Holden(Rights) W. Platt(Centre) J. Melross and J. Sykes (Lefts).
The Southport Olympic side that shortly afterwards drew with Liverpool Old Boys was: Wright (back), Howard, Ball, Clegg (threequarters) Rimmer and Barrow (halves), Hazlehurst, Parks, Perry, Jones, Rimmer, Johnson, Lloyd, Wright, and Slack (forwards).
The Lancashire County Rugby Football Union was formed at a meeting held at The Albion Hotel, Manchester on 22nd December 1881, but Southport was not represented.
The Rugby club continued to play under the name of Southport Olympic until 22nd April 1913, when a motion was carried to drop the Olympic title and to play under the name of Southport Rugby Union Football Club. The club still play to this day.