BY MARK WILSON
One of the great Victorian football clubs – defunct for over 120 years – have been reformed with the aim of raising money for charity and the dream of competing in the FA Cup; the competition they won five times including the first ever running back in 1872.
1859 was an eventful year. It heralded the beginning of Viscount Palmerston’s first stint as Prime Minister of Queen Victoria’s government. Also that year Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities were first published. Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in the world just as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson departed it and the chimes of the Great Bell in the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster – Big Ben to you and me – were first heard across London.
To the north east of the capital, a bunch of former public school boys – many from that most exclusive of institutions, Harrow – founded their own association football club. It was quite the thing to do with one’s leisure time in the Victorian era; often well-to-do, well-educated amateurs getting together and challenging like-minded sportsmen to a spot of friendly competition on the field of play. All for the love of the game.
In the 1800s, versions of football were played in private, fee-paying schools in the south or by factory workers in the north, where they often worked a 6-day week. In the south, richer people didn’t need to work as much so had more leisure time and, as was the trend in Victorian sport, decided to try and establish some consistency about the rules under which they competed. If Rugby School wanted to play Eton, for example, there would have been a serious debate about whose rules they should play by.
In 1863, a number of clubs and schools got together to form the Football Association – Wanderers were one of the founder members but were known as ‘Forest Club’ back then because they had been playing in Epping Forest since 1859. The rules they agreed on took decades to be widely adopted but they still form the backbone of the game we play today.
Charles William and John Forster Alcock were brothers from a family of wealthy ship brokers from Sunderland who moved to London with their parents. They enrolled in Harrow School and, soon after leaving, got together with John Pardoe and brothers A and WJ Thompson and decided to form a football club. They initially played fixtures throughout the south – their first match as Forest was a win over the original Crystal Palace team on 15th March 1862, with the game played 15 v 15!
The next year, after 18 games unbeaten, Charles was elected to the FA and fell out with his brother John. It is unclear what the reason for the disagreement was – John had recently divorced, which was a social taboo in Victorian England, but it is reputed that they had different visions for the club they had built. John wanted them to pay the increased fees that their pitch’s landowner was asking and remain in Epping but Charles felt they could succeed as a nomadic club, akin to The Butterflies Cricket Club. Charles’ Wanderers and John’s Forest played one match against each other; the former won out and their first recorded match in their new identity was a 1-0 win over No Names Club, Kilburn, on 2nd of March 1864 with a goal by AM Tebbut. Forest finally folded in March 1865 and Wanderers, having played ‘home’ matches on Battersea Park, Clapham Common and Middlesex County Cricket Club, finally found a home ground in the Kennington Oval. With choices limited, most players were attracted by a well-organised operation and Wanderers were precisely that – ‘The Sporting Gazette’ proclaimed them “The MCC of football” in 1870.
In 1871, Charles proposed the creation of the FA Cup which began that same season with Wanderers beating Royal Engineers in the first final, held at the Oval. Wanderers and 14 other clubs entered and, defeating Harrow Chequers and Clapham Rovers and drawing with Crystal Palace and Queen’s Park of Glasgow, they reached the final where they met Royal Engineers. Morton Peto Betts scored the winning goal and history was made. The club retained the trophy in 1873 with a 2-0 in over Oxford University, when it was a ‘challenge’ cup – whereby the winner of the knock-out tournament would face the holder. This format was abandoned for the following season and the club lost to Oxford in the quarter-finals twice in a row, before regaining the cup in 1876 (3-0 v Old Etonians) and retaining it in 1877 (2-1 v Oxford University) and 1878 (3-1 v Royal Engineers). Their record of 5 wins is equal ninth best to this day.
Wanderers’ founding father, Charles, was coincidentally elected Secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club, the tenants of the Oval, in 1872. Alcock was a visionary of the age – aside from founding Wanderers, he was secretary of the Football Association between 1870 and 1895, was President of the Referees’ Association, President of the Surrey FA and Vice-President of the London FA, captained England four times, arranged and played in all five of the unofficial internationals between England and Scotland (1870-72), scored over 100 goals (playing for Surrey, Upton Park, Harrow Pilgrims, Gitanos and Crystal Palace in addition to Forest and Wanderers) and even officiated the 1875 and 1879 FA Cup finals. Outside of football, Alcock was editor of the Football Annual and James Lillywhite’s Cricket Annual, sub-editor of The Sportsman, publisher of Cricket and Football magazines and was an accomplished writer. In the cricketing sphere, Alcock arranged the first Test match between England and Australia in 1880, played for the Marylebone Cricket Club against Middlesex CC, became Secretary of Surrey CC and, bizarrely, captained France against Germany! Even with all this in his life, Alcock additionally turned out for Blackheath Rugby Club and raised a family.
There was a major split between north and south at the time because northern football clubs were often run by factory owners for their own enjoyment and charged spectators to watch. Northern players argued that they should receive a cut of the payments and, after some time, the factory owners relented. However, the FA expressly forbade paying footballers, obeying the Victorian/Christian ethics of the time that championed amateurism. In the 1880s, the arguments exacerbated; the southern gentlemen could not comprehend the notion of being paid to play a sport. However, the industrialists who owned companies and clubs, often employing players in menial roles to ensure their loyalty to their team, argued that they should be entitled to overtly pay players for playing and those players believed that once significant attendances were being recorded at matches – with proportionally hefty gate receipts – they ought to be compensated for their art and skill. In 1885, there was a breakthrough but clubs were only allowed to pay players who were born or lived for two years within a 6-mile radius of the club’s ground. The FA Cup tie between Billy Suddell’s Preston North End and Upton Park resulted in a protest from the beaten Londoners that PNE had fielded professionals recruited from Scotland and, afterwards, three clubs withdrew from the competition and thirty predominantly northern clubs threatened to withdraw from the FA and set up their own union. From 1882 to 1926, all but two FA Cup Finals were won by a northern team and 1888 saw the start of the Football League which constituted 12 clubs based in the industrial north and midlands.
After protracted arguments, the Amateur FA was established in 1907, when the FA, with former Wanderer Lord Arthur Kinnaird as Chairman, partially relented and allowed players to be paid expenses for travelling to games or missing days at work if they got injured; a step too far for many of the clubs, including Clapham Rovers, who had to choose which organisation to support. Coincidentally, Charles Alcock passed away in 1907 aged 64, having played 199 times and scored 82 goals for Wanderers.
Wanderers folded in 1887, only nine years after their fifth FA Cup win, for a couple of key reasons. Firstly, the southern schools began to see the appeal of football when previously they had only sanctioned cricket teams. That meant that they began to form teams specifically for their former pupils, like Old Harrovians (Harrow) and Old Etonians (Eton). Secondly, the best players could now go and earn a wage, whether within the strict FA rules or not for northern clubs, such as Preston North End, Sheffield, Derby County, Notts County and so on. It was just a year after the club folded, the Football League played its first weekly fixtures. Who knows where Wanderers might be if the league had started just 10 years earlier.
In 2009, with the support of the Alcock family, the club was reformed. I took over the running of a regular Wednesday night 7-a-side game at Kennington Park astro and, having been asked about arranging and 11-a-side match, began researching which teams were local to us. I discovered the Wanderers story and began doing some research. Karen Gunnell, John Alcock’s great-great-granddaughter, told me that nobody had tried to reform the club to her knowledge but that, speaking for the family, she would gladly give us their blessing as we were raising money for charity, which we continue to do. We arranged our first match against one of Wanderers’ old adversaries Oxford University at their Iffley Road ground with David Elleray officiating – but rather than field an Old Boys team as we’d agreed, their 1st XI turned out. We were duly spanked but had such a fantastic time that we resolved to arrange some more matches. We played UNICEF, Royal Engineers, Clapham Rovers and The Foreign & Commonwealth Office as well as a few others in our first few seasons but quickly decided that we needed to be playing more regularly and against competition that matched our standard (six of our first nine games were won with margins of more than four goals!)
We started in the Surrey South Eastern Combination Junior Division 4 (If the Premier League is step 1 on the ladder, we started in step 17) and were promoted at the second time of asking, missing out on the title on goal difference due to a points deduction for an administrative error. In 2013, we restaged the first FA Cup Final against Royal Engineers at The Oval cricket ground, where over twenty FA Cup Finals have been held. Charles Alcock’s great-great-grand-nephew, Johannes Gunnell, even played a couple of games for us. We romped to the Junior Division 3 title last season and have just finished 4th in Junior Division 2. We may be promoted again for next season, pending a decision by the league committee, and we will have 3 sides in the competition in the 2015-16 season – the 1sts, the 2nds in Junior Division 4 and a Development team for 16-21 year-olds in Junior Division 3, who are run by our charity partners, Football Beyond Borders. Our ultimate goal for the 1st XI is to return to the FA Cup by the 2021-22 season, just in time for the 150th renewal of the world famous FA Challenge Cup – brainchild of Wanderers’ founder Charles W. Alcock.