The following review is provided by Mike Huggins, Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at the University of Cumbria, for the British Association of Local History. Mike has published well over one hundred books, chapters, and peer-reviewed articles on the history of British sport across the past three centuries. His book The Victorians and Sport (2004) provides a useful overview of themes such as amateurism, professionalism, sporting stars and sporting local loyalties.
Recent decades have seen a growing interest in the sources, methods, and approaches to the local history of sport. Given football’s primacy, it is unsurprising that an ever-growing number of club histories have been published, encouraged by enthusiastic supporters with an interest in history, the growth in self-publishing, and the wider growth of interest and publishing of family, local and sports history. Through the 1980s and beyond Breedon books published ‘A Complete History’ of many leading clubs, competently blending statistical and written material, and this influenced later work. The National Football Museum in Manchester has provided a useful starting point for researchers. Its associated research centre possesses several hundred club histories, alongside a wide range of potentially rich sources for those studying football’s history, from memorabilia to the FA’s material on club transfers, attendances and so on.
Daniel Hayes’s book focuses not on a particular club, but on the rugby and association football clubs in Southport in the years from 1872 to 1889, taking their detailed history back to the early origins of the town’s clubs, before the period studied by Geoff Wilde and Michael Braham, The Sandgrounders: A Complete League History of Southport F.C. (Palatine, 1995). Relatively few local studies focus on both codes, and so this one offers opportunities for comparisons. Its approach is chronological, covering early origins, then soccer and rugby separately, season by season. Local historians have begun exploring the lives of individual players and officials in more detail, and Hayes researched pen portraits of eighteen leading figures. As elsewhere there are detailed statistics, the listings of fixtures and teams and results over time for leading Southport rugby and football clubs. The main sources used are newspapers, largely the local press.
The study sheds light on Southport’s relative lack of club continuity, and the struggles clubs faced to survive. Not all clubs prospered. The original Southport Club, the Southport Gymnasium and Football Club (1872) switched from rugby to soccer. Players switched codes or teams. Clubs split. Others amalgamated. New clubs emerged. Pages 209-214 (first edition paperback) helpfully list the origins and links between Southport’s various clubs. As elsewhere, the early amateur fixtures faced problems: players failing to turn up, arriving late, transport problems, regular disputes in an era before the emergence of professional referees, and sometimes teams leaving the field. Increased numbers might mean a ‘Swifts’, ‘Junior’, ‘Second’, or even the ‘Pippins’ team, all needing friendly fixtures. For the amateur sides, finance was constantly a struggle, despite attempts to raise money through athletic sports or balls.
The focus is far more on the players, games, and results than the wider context, so there is limited indication of the clubs’ involvement in wider sporting debates, and the town’s attitudes to these. Nationally, many clubs were fearful that rugby might become dominated by working-class professional players. Rugby union in Lancashire was even opposed to cup matches, lest they encourage concealed part-time professionalism, but Southport entered the West Lancashire and Border Towns Challenge cup, a competition against the wishes of the Lancashire rugby union authorities, on its founding in 1886. By 1889 the later rounds were attracting five-figure crowds for teams such as Wigan. But unable to compete at that level, the club had broken up by October 1889. More analysis of local rugby socio-cultural attitudes to these debates would have been interesting. Similarly in soccer, elsewhere, the 1880s moves to create a representative top local side led to tensions between those supporting amateurism, those wanting the best local players and those prepared to see payment for imported professionals. Was this the case in Southport? The new Southport Central club initially had seven imported players, mainly from the Blackburn area, on its formation in 1888, though early gates were small. Some comparative figures for gate income and attendances for Lancashire clubs in towns of similar size to get a sense of where Southport stood regionally would be helpful.
While the book is largely of interest to fans of Southport’s rugby and soccer clubs, and its local historians, it sheds useful light on the early years of rugby and soccer there.
Mike has helpfully highlighted a misprint on p.198 (first edition paperback) ‘made legal in the rugby game’ which should in fact, read ‘made illegal in the rugby game’, and this will be corrected in the second edition which I hope to publish next year.
Mike’s observation in relation to the Olympic club’s entry into the West Lancashire and Border Towns Rugby Union Cup and the reaction to professionalism is an interesting one. The time period of the book stops just short of much of the wider discussions surrounding professionalism (largely 1892 onwards) however as I continue to research the post Olympic (1889) rugby history it is right that the professionalism debate had a huge bearing on “what happened next” for rugby in Southport. At the time of Olympic’s existence however there was no discussion locally of its societal impact.
After Olympic’s demise a new club was formed two years later, Southport Rugby Union Football Club, but this lasted only 2 years. The club had difficulty in arranging matches against purely amateur teams, many of those Olympic had faced within the West Lancashire and Border Towns Union had grown beyond the reaches of what Southport could offer. These were tough days for the game as a whole in Lancashire and issues included difficulties about insurance payments made, questions about movement of players from club to club, complaints about financial losses due to non-fulfilment of fixtures, and frivolous requests for permission to pay players. The club limped through two seasons before the storm over professionalism arrived in the form of demand for payment for broken time, shaking the county to its foundations.
Many of Olympic’s West Lancs opponents grew in stature after the introduction of the cup competition and developed sporting rivalries which stand the test of time (Wigan v Saints for example). Had Olympic remained a viable entity and kicked on from their clashes with Wigan in the competition in 1888 and 1889, they may well have joined their rivals in the Northern Union breakaway of 1895, which later became today’s Rugby League.
As part of my research for a potential follow-up book I had already spoken to renowned Rugby Historian Tony Collins surrounding any possible involvement in the discussions surrounding broken time payments but neither of us are yet to find any record. Tony helpfully added “As with a lot of middle-class rugby clubs in the north at that time, I suspect Southport Olympic were squeezed on one side by the rise of working class rugby clubs (St Helens, Warrington etc) and the massive boom in football, especially being so close to Liverpool. Many simply gave up and left the road clear for football, and were reformed or members joined the second wave of exclusive rugby union clubs which emerged in the 1900s.”