1881 and all that

In 2018, less than 18 months after the end of the longstanding Chairmanship of Charlie Clapham, I wrote an article in which I welcomed the refurbishment and renaming of the “Grandstand Bar”, under the Main Stand at the club’s Haig Avenue ground, to the “1881 Lounge” by the new board. It was a nod to the history of the club and therefore as someone who spent a considerable amount of time researching and writing about the history of the club, I welcomed it. I therefore took the opportunity to shed some light on the 1881 claim as far as I understood it. Indeed, what my article sought to do was to persuade people that despite the obvious questions over the use of the year, there were still perfectly valid reasons for using it. And, in the years since, it has been used on shirts, and even on the flags flying proudly at the ground.

Ever since Mike Braham first began to document the club’s history there have been questions raised over whether the club we have today is the one that started with the same name in 1881. His book highlighted some of the early challenges as football began in the town and he has therefore always been the first to acknowledge that there might be legitimate claim made for another date. He, more than anyone else, has been the person most supportive of my research in the years since whilst I sought to find the real answer.

So, is 1881 correct?

It’s a simple question…and four years on from that article, having now spent more time looking at this specific issue than anyone else ever has, there is a simple answer.

I’m going to be blunt – the club that we support today was not founded in 1881. The research that was undertaken for “The Town’s Game” has categorically disproved that.

There is however still a good reason to celebrate the year anyway – so long as you understand what it signifies and what you’re celebrating.

So first, a little background….

Association Football in Southport did begin in 1881 and it’s an accepted fact that on November 12th “Southport Football Club” played its first match under association rules against a Bootle second XI.

Simple. End of story…right?


Firstly, Thomas Blundell Burnett, the former Welsh football international that encouraged the switch of codes from rugby to football had in fact taken a team across to Burscough on 8th October for a game of association football, clearly testing the water to see if there was sufficient interest. The game was reported as being “Burnett’s Southport” however, rather than Southport Football Club. After two more Rugby fixtures (15th and 29th), the switch was indeed made permanently.

However, this wasn’t the first “Southport Football Club”. It wasn’t even the second.

The first Southport Football Club was actually formed in November 1872, as a rugby club. Most people know that the club began as a rugby club so this won’t be news to many. However, this original club stopped playing in 1879!

Southport Wasps, a different club, took over the mantle for one further season, dropping Wasps from their name to become Southport Football Club number two. It was clearly a different club, 11 of the players had taken to the field in the last game under the Wasps nomenclature, and they even wore different colours (red, white and blue rather than black, red and amber)…but even they stopped altogether in 1880.

There was no Southport Football Club in 1880-81.

Great…1881 it is then? Well, no.

In 1881, an attempt was made to reform the club. So, after a one year gap, a switch to all red rather than red, white and blue, a change of captain, a new committee and a change of venue (for Wasps), we have Southport Football Club number three. However it lasted for only three games before the aforementioned switch took place.

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.

Contrary to what has been reported over the years, the switch in codes was not under the guidance of Ralph Rylance. This is something on which at least I have been consistent on! I’d always questioned it, but we now know we can blame his son Walter for making this claim in 1931 and for it being repeated, seemingly without question, ever since.

In a bid to strengthen it’s local perception “Southport Football Club” merged with the Southport Athletic Society in 1884/85 and moved to their athletic sports ground on Sussex Road. They also changed from their red jerseys to red and white stripes.

As football began to grow in popularity in the town other clubs also sprang up. One of the most prominent was Southport Wanderers who would go on to play a significant role in the story. Four years ago we had no idea where they had come from but now know that they were formed as an off-shoot of Southport Olympic rugby club in 1884.

A charity cup competition was formed for the local sides to compete with the proceeds going to Southport Infirmary. As the longest established side in the town it was little surprise that Southport Football Club prevailed over Crescent in the final in the first year of competition and success on the field locally continued in 1885/86, beating Southport Wanderers 4-0 to retain the charity cup.

Off the field however the club was not in a healthy state and at the start of the 1885/86 season they were facing stiff competition from over twenty other clubs in the town. Southport Football Club were forced to sever their connections with the Athletic Society and in the Athletic Society’s Annual report the Committee regretted ‘their unfortunate connection with the Football Club which resulted in the Society incurring an expenditure on their account of £88-3 shillings.

After five years existence Southport Football club folded….again.

At least six former Southport players and many of their supporters transferred their affiliations to Southport Wanderers after invitation at the Wanderers’ AGM in June, at which a representative of the Southport club had been present.

Lancashire FA refused the new club permission to enter the Lancashire Senior Cup and did not recognise Wanderers as having assumed the former club’s senior status. Frustrated by their perceived poor treatment Wanderers did two things to rectify it.

  • First, they opted to join the Liverpool FA and.
  • Secondly, on 28th September 1886, at a General Meeting held in Mather’s saleroom, it was unanimously decided to adopt the name of the former defunct “Southport Football Club”.

Step forward Southport Football Club number four.

The club continued to grow and strengthen but after professionalism was legalised in 1885, there had been growing calls from local commentators and supporters, in particular the Southport Guardian newspaper, for a new club to be formed that could truly represent the town and compete with the best in the land on a professional footing. Local football was all well and good, but civic pride was at stake!

When the captains and secretaries of many of these local clubs and a number of prominent local businessmen met to discuss the formation of a brand new club on 12th June 1888 it signalled the end for many of these amateur outfits. Southport Football Club (nee wanderers) stopped playing altogether.

The new club was named “Southport Central Association Football Club”. It had a new name, new colours (white and blue), new kit (with the towns crest embroidered on the chest), new committee, new players (most of whom were professionals), and even a new ground.

So…there you have it. After all is said and done, it really is actually quite simple.

If you want to use the date this club was really formed then it’s definitely 1888. If you don’t want to use 1888, then it really is a bit of a mess, and there really can be no justification for it.

To claim otherwise would mean ignoring evidence, pretending that the original Southport association Football Club didn’t really go under, or that they and Southport Wanderers actually merged. And, even if you did chose to take that view, and there’s at least an argument for that, we would still be left with a quandry…. Why would we pick 1881 over the date of the “merger”, as clubs who merge today do? Why wouldn’t the date be 1886?

It’s a slippery slope. If you continued down this path you would have to claim that Southport Football Club (nee Wanderers) then changed and became professional in 1888…but they didn’t. Every single  contemporary source states that Central was a new club. Even their own AGM in 1889 states it to be a club that had existed for just 1 year.

Prior to spending the past few years of my life dedicated to researching precisely this point, I thought I understood why 1881 was used and even championed it myself. But I was wrong, and i’m now revisiting previous articles to correct any errors. Whilst written in good faith at the time to continue to claim 1881 as the formation of this club would be to ignore the evidence staring at you in the face.

1888 may be an inconvenient truth, but it is the truth.

So where does it leave me when I look at the 1881 Lounge?

Well, many people believe that a good professional football club should be at the heart of its local community. For that to be the case it should be outward looking, inviting and welcoming to all. It must recognise and acknowledge that whilst it may be the biggest club in the town, there are many other football clubs that existed before it, and many who exist alongside it, all of whom who form part of the social fabric of the town, and without whom the club would not really exist.

1881 was the first time any club played a game of association football in our town. It’s not this club, but it is precisely because of that I actually think the 1881 Lounge is a pretty good name! It is “The Town’s Game” after all!!


The full story of the early ancestors to today’s football club can be found in ‘The Town’s Game: The Origins of Rugby and Association Football in Southport (1872-1889)’