BY MARK GODFREY
As the area around London’s now-closed Earls Court exhibition centre undergoes extensive regeneration, a site which played to host the second ever FA Cup final in 1873 will soon become part of a modern housing and retail estate. According to the Lillie Square project website, the development “will feature distinctive contemporary architecture. Rich in variety, it draws from the heritage of west London, referencing and reinterpreting traditional garden squares, mansion blocks and townhouses with generous proportions and the finest materials”.
The former Lillie Bridge Athletic Ground was opened in 1867 on a plot that now lies between West Brompton underground station and Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge and has, since the 1960s, been used as a car park servicing events at Earls Court. Before this it was the site of the Brompton and Fulham Goods and Coal Station, which was opened by the London and North West Railways (LNWR) in 1892 in an area that presently contains several London Underground stations and TfL’s Lillie Bridge depot.
Lillie Bridge ceased to be a sporting venue in 1888 as a consequence of a riot the previous year. According to the Spectator magazine of 24th September 1887, “Two professionals were to run a race in the athletic grounds at Lillie Bridge on Monday; but one of the men was not fit. The bookmakers discovering this, compelled both men to withdraw; and the managers of the place seeing that, put the money received at the gate away in safety. The crowd of betting men, sporting men, athletes, and roughs grew impatient, demanded their money back, and not getting it, wrecked the place. Athletics, whatever their other merits, do not refine, and the mob displayed more than a mob's usual hunger for destruction. The woodwork of the buildings was pulled down, the furniture destroyed, and an effort made to burn up the whole place. The police, who as usual did their duty well, were savagely beaten, and a signal-inspector who was present died suddenly from excitement. The riot was at last quieted by the arrival of an extra body of constables. The police say, we believe, that the crowd was singularly savage; but there have been much more dangerous riots in the North”.
The athletic grounds were a regular haunt for increasingly wealthy, pleasure seeking Victorians looking for sporting entertainment: football, cricket, athletics, bicycle racing, amateur boxing and even hot air balloon festivals all took place there during its varied 20-year lifetime.
Wanderers – winners of the first FA Challenge Cup – were responsible for choosing Lillie Bridge as the venue for the 1873 final. As holders they had earned the privilege not only of a bye to the final but also the choice of where the game would be played, and as their name suggests, without a home ground to call their own, club officials decided on the west London ground.
Their opponents were Oxford University, whose appearance in that particular final directly impacted the game’s kick-off time. On the same day – 29 March 1873 – the annual Oxford-Cambridge University boat race took place on the Thames. As it was scheduled for the afternoon, the FA Cup final was moved to the morning to accommodate spectators who wished to watch both events. Whether this helped the attendance at the football is up for debate; the official attendance at the game was 3000, a figure likely dwarfed by the number of people who would have lined the banks of the river to watch the two crews rowing from Putney to Mortlake. Anyone supporting Oxford University at both events would have been doubly disappointed: the rowers’ three length defeat by Cambridge was preceded by defeat at the football.
Leading Victorian sportsman and future FA president Arthur Kinnaird, 11th Lord Kinnaird, was the star of the show scoring Wanderers’ first goal and wowing the crowd with his dribbling ability. Charles Wollaston – the first player to win the FA Cup five times – made it 2-0. Also on the field winning team that day was Captain William Kenyon-Slaney, scorer of the first ever international goal for England against Scotland at the Kennington Oval just three weeks earlier, and Julian Sturgis, a novelist and poet who was born in the United States and as such was the first foreign player to win the FA Cup.
This part of west London will likely see further development in the coming years. Just a few hundred metres down the Underground’s District Line lies Stamford Bridge stadium which itself hosted three FA Cup finals in the 1920s. Originally a home for the London Athletic Club, in 1905 it was converted to become a venue for football with the creation of Chelsea Football Club by brothers Gus and Joseph Mears. Current Blues’ owner Roman Abramovich submitted a planning application in December 2015 to increase the ground’s capacity to 60,000 with the cost of the project expecting to reach at least £500million.
Lillie Bridge is not the only FA Cup final venue to have completely vanished. Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester (1893) hosted various sports for over a century before Manchester University built halls of residence on the land in the 1990s while Bolton Wanderers’ former home Burnden Park (1901 replay) is now an Asda supermarket. The original Wembley Stadium (1923-2000) was demolished and replaced in 2007 by the current arena while others, such as Crystal Palace (1895-1914), the Racecourse Ground in Derby (1886 replay) and Kennington Oval (1872-1892) all still exist to this day as homes for athletics and cricket respectively.