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1881 and all that

Amongst the many changes that have taken place at the club in the 18 months since the departure of Charlie Clapham (which will eventually be properly documented), the renaming of the “Grandstand Bar”, under the Main Stand at the club’s Haig Avenue ground, to the “1881 Lounge” has been warmly received. It’s seen rightly as a nod to legacy or the history of the club….but what, or maybe even who’s, history is it a nod to? Why do we claim 1881 as our date of foundation at all? It’s a simple question, but its really not a simple answer if you’ve spent any time looking at it.

I’m going to be blunt – The club that we support today was not founded in 1881. BUT there is still a good reason for claiming the date anyway – It all depends on what you the take the date to signify.

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?


“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.

The first President of this club was the Mayor of Southport, Samuel Swire, who incidentally was also the first Secretary of Lancashire CCC. 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”.

The first ground is recorded as being a large field near to Roe Lane and the club’s colours were blue, white and red.

At the time there were much fewer differences than there are today between Rugby and Association Football and it was a common occurrance for some clubs to switch codes from one week to the next depending on the opposition and agreement between the clubs. After several heavy defeats under the “handling code” however they made the permanent switch to Association Football. On the 15th October 1881 “Southport Football Club” played their final Rugby game against Wavertree. A number of the players made the switch to the round ball game and the remainder are thought to have joined a newly formed merger between Southport Wasps and Southport Olympic (which kept the Olympic name) who would play at a ground on the corner of Scarisbrick New road and Ash Street backing onto Southbank Road.

Six of the team that lined lined up against Wavertree were part of the “Southport Football Club” side that played Bootle ‘second’ in their first match under Association Rules, on 12th November, on an adjoining pitch at Scarisbrick New Road.

The Southport team was S.Platt (Goal), B Pidduck, JG Howard(Backs) P.Edwards, F Jackson and TB Burnett(Captain) (Halves), JR Topliss and F Holden(Rights) W Platt(Centre) J Melross and J. Sykes (Lefts).

Who was responsible for the switch? Well, whilst contrary to what has been reported over the years, the switch in codes can not have been under the guidance of Ralph Rylance. In the 1881 Census, taken in April of the same year Ralph Rylance (born Ralph Leather) still lived in Bolton with his Wife Mary and elderly mother Margaret Whalley (maiden name Rylance). His son James Arthur Leather Rylance’s birth at the end that year was not registered in Southport and Ralph, a solicitors Clerk in Blackburn, played for Blackburn Law against Southport in one of the earliest games.

There is a big difference between the change being driven by someone, and the change having already happened and them helping to establish it. To put another popular belief to bed, whilst it had originally been thought that it was not even possible to buy footballs in the town at the time of Rylance’s arrival but that is also untrue. He did bring 3 footballs with him from his former club, but there was a sports store on Lord Street where it was possible to purchase footballs – for the few at the time that would have been interested in doing so.

It is more likely that the trigger to change to Association Football may have come from Thomas Blundell Burnett, a former Welsh International goalkeeper who lived in Southport (99 Railway Street). It’s interesting to note that whilst an international goalkeeper only a few years earlier, he actually played outfield in Southport’s first association game, leaving the keeping role to the popular Squire Platt.

Rylance did eventually switch over to play for “the Reds” and was elected club captain in September 1882 at the AGM at the Bold Arms Hotel.

In a bid to strengthen it’s local perception “Southport Football Club” merged with the Southport Athletic Society in 1884/85 and moved to the 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. Some of the most prominent were Southport Wanderers, High Park, Churchtown and Southport Old Boys. A charity cup competition was formed for the local sides to compete with the proceeds going to Southport Infirmary.

As the premier 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. Southport Football Club were certainly recognised as the leading club in the town and were also recognised as one of the “senior” Lancashire sides at the time, as can be evidenced by their placing within the Lancashire Senior (rather than junior) 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 twenty six 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’s first football club folded. 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 the club did two things to rectify it. First, they opted to join the Liverpool FA and went on to pick up the Liverpool junior cup against Earlestown at Everton’s Anfield Road ground a year later.

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”.

The club continued to grow and strengthen and two years later, on the 12th June 1888, professional football was born in Southport. The club renamed to “Southport Central Association Football Club” and the rest, as they say, is history.

So there we have it. The potted early history of a rugby club that became a football club under the “guidance” of a man who wasn’t actually there, went bust and had its players, fans and identity assumed by a totally different club.

It may sound ridiculous but somewhere in amongst that are various “histories” have been reported. Clear as Mud.

If you want the date of formation of the original “Southport Football Club”, its 1872….but they didn’t play football.

If you want the date of the first association football game in the town, you use 1881, but that club technically went bust in 1886 and actually played AGAINST the club that THIS club is a direct decendent of.

BUT if you want to use the date THIS club was formed you’re going to struggle…..thats actually Southport Wanderers, who changed name to Southport Football Club in 1886, but there’s no known date of their original formation. We think its around 1884 but we can’t actually be certain (look out for future articles on this).

If you want the date the first professional club was born its 1888…but that club was just Southport Football Club (nee Wanderers) becoming professional. I’ve discounted this option personally, but I could argue for any of the other options.

It’s really not simple at all is it? Even if we squinted at it and for convenience said the original Southport Football Club didn’t really go under, they actually merged with Southport Wanderers (which is a view that some people choose to take), we’re still left with a quandry….Do we pick the “merger” date (as many clubs who merge today do) and go with 1886? Or do we pick the founding date of one of the 2 merging clubs? If we were to do that we would probably pick the older of the two, of which there is little doubt was Southport Football Club. Wanderers we don’t actually know for certain anyway but for Southport Football club you could then take either 1872 or 1881 depending on how inclined you are.

The club itself have claimed 1881 for many years and I’m comfortable with it. Had they chosen 1886 however, I think I would be equally as comfortable. I’ve wrestled with this for years but none of the answers seem truly “right”. Picking the one known fact, that on 12th November 1881 “Southport Football Club” played an association football game for the first time, is as good a fact as any to pin your legacy to.

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