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Early Bristol Football Teams: From Amateur To Professional

With both professional Bristol clubs planning to relocate, City to Ashton Vale and Rovers to the University of the West of England, it would seem appropriate to look into the early Briston football teams in the region.

Compared to many areas in the United Kingdom, football was a late starter in Bristol. But, following the formation of Warmley in 1882, growth was swift. Within a few months, the St George Cricket Club formed a football team section, then came Clifton Association and the Black Arabs, both in 1883.

Charles WrefordBrown from BristolRomantic as it was, the Black Arabs name did not last, and they soon became known as the Purdown Poachers before changing their name to Eastville Rovers in November 1884. Becoming Bristol Eastville Rovers at the start of the 1897-98 campaign, they took on their present Bristol Rovers identity in February 1899.

All these happenings took place in the east of the City, and it was not until 1887 that any significant development took place on the other side of the River Avon. However, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year saw the birth of the Southville Club, which became Bedminster two years later and in 1900 amalgamated with Bristol City, which had been formed as Bristol South End in 1894.

These six early Bristol football teams dominated the local scene in the late Victorian era, and with five of them turning professional, it was grounds for a change in more ways than one.

The Clifton club remained aloof from the professional scene. Still, they folded in 1897 despite one of their earliest players Charles WrefordBrown (reputed for coining the term ‘soccer’) becoming Bristol’s first international in 1889 when he was at Oxford University. Later he became an FA Committee Member and made his fourth and final international appearance in the 3-1 win over Scotland on April 2, 1898.

Another Clifton member, C Lacy-Sweet, was the driving force in bringing about the formation of the Gloucestershire FA in 1886 and the start of the Gloucestershire Senior Cup the following year. Somewhat appropriately, Clifton was the first winner, but it took a replay for them to overcome Warmley.

gas works bristol rovers

The Final

Date: Saturday, March 10, 1898

Venue: St George

Attendance: 2,000

Clifton Association (0) 1(HH Francis 75min), Warmley (0) 1 (Riddell 65min)

Clifton Football Team: FJ Baines; WF Gorton, CH Newham; G Innes-Pocock (Capt), PF Newham, GR Lowndes; H Falcon, C Lacy-Sweet, R Innes-Pocock, AW Francis, HH Francis.

Warmley Football Team: G Godfrey; S Peacock, G Gay; W Noble, H Williams, J Peacock; W Bowler, JR Riddell, P Fussell (Capt), J Mackay, T Nelmes.

Referee: JB Hawkins (Old Carthusians).

Umpires: Dr. WG Grace (Wanderers) & Dr. Rayner.

The Replay

Date: Saturday, March 17, 1898

Venue: St George

Attendance: 2,000

Clifton Association (0) 4 (Colthurst 60m, 65m, Russell 75m, 80m), Warmley (1) 1 (Riddell 35m)

Clifton Football Team: FJ Baines; WF Gorton, PF Newnham; G Innes-Pocock (Capt), C Wreford-Brown, GR Lowndes; R Innes-Pocock, C Lacy-Sweet, CH Russell, AB Colthurst, HH Francis.

Warmley Football Team: G. Godfrey; G Gay, S Peacock; J Peacock, W Noble, H Williams; T Nelmes, J Mackay, JR Riddell, P Fussell (Capt), W Bowler.

Referee: FM Ingram (Essex County).

Umpires: Dr. WG Grace (Wanderers) & WJ Somerton (Eastville Rovers).

This competition was to run until 1996 when Shaun Goater’s goal was enough to clinch a 1-0 win for Bristol City in the 99th final.

early image of a bristol city football club team

Premier Bristol Football Team

Following the formation of the Western League (called the Bristol & District League up to 1895), undoubtedly, the premier Bristol football team was Warmley. Frequently thwarted in the final of the Gloucestershire Senior Cup, they secured the Western League championship in four of the first five seasons: 1892-93, 1893-94, 1895-96 & 1896-97.

Starting their career on the Tennis Court ground, Warmley moved in 1897 to what had been the top ground in the region – the Chequers, a venue that had been developed as the Kingswood Athletic ground in 1889. As the Black Arabs, Bristol Rovers commenced life on the slopes of Purdown before making use of the vast, open spaces on the Downs.

However, it is not difficult to see how they might have acquired their Rovers appendage as further moves to the Three Acres at Ashley Hill, the Schoolmasters’ ground at Horfield. Two different venues at the Ridgeway followed before they ended up at Eastville in April 1897 when they purchased the old home of the Bristol Harlequins Rugby Union Club.

For Clifton, who also started on the Downs, the County Ground at Neville Road was their home when Gloucestershire County Cricket Club opened this venue in 1888 until moving to the Chequers, Lodge Road, Kingswood at the start of the 1892-93 season.

Unfortunately, financial problems five years later caused them to vacate this venue for a ground in Westbury-on-Trym, and the Clifton aristocrats, who played in chocolate and cardinal colors, disbanded in December 1897, not long after suffering a 9-1 FA Cup defeat by Bristol City.

The home ground of the Southville club was in Greville Smyth Park. Still, despite some spirited performances in the Gloucestershire Senior Cup, it was not until joining forces with Bedminster Cricket Club in 1889 that they had the resources to compete with the other major local teams.

Playing on the cricket ground at Greenway Bush Lane, they had a membership that, together with Clifton, was described in 1894 as being the biggest in the district. They moved to Ashton Gate two years later, then known as the Bedminster Athletic Ground, while Messrs WD & HO Wills built a tobacco factory on the cricket field at Greenway Bush Lane.

early image of bristol rovers football club team

Disgruntled Members Start A New Team

Meanwhile, Bristol South End, which had been formed by some disgruntled members of the Bedminster club, had developed the soccer field at St John’s Lane they leased from the Ashton Court Estate. It was good enough for them to be elected to the Southern League in 1897 when they took on their present name and changed their colors from red and blue to red and white.

However, their decision to become Bristol City was only accomplished after overcoming objections by the Gloucestershire FA. It took a visit to FA Headquarters and assurances that the other older clubs, including Bristol Rugby Union Club, did not wish to claim such a name. With City and Warmley adopting professionalism in 1897 and Bedminster, Rovers, and Bristol St George following suit a year later, the scene was set for the survival of the fittest.

Fortunately for Bristol City, they had got a head start by being elected to the top division of the Southern League, while Warmley had to content themselves with a place in the Second Division. However, it did not take long for Warmley to catch up, as they immediately gained promotion, finishing as runners-up in both the league and the test matches, notching up 108 and 14 goals, respectively.

However, the City’s success in finishing as Southern League runners-up and beating Warmley in the Gloucestershire Senior Cup and the Bristol Charity Cup established them as early Bristol’s football top team. This fact provoked Bedminster to put themselves forward for election to the Southern League.

early bristol image of the city

Financial Troubles Ahead

Consequently, the following season saw three local clubs in the top division, while the Rovers and Bristol St George joined the Birmingham and District League. The other significant ground in the locality was the Bell Hill home of St George, where a Western League XI had beaten Aston Villa 2-0 in front of a gathering of 5,380 spectators (receipts of £143.1s.6d) on April 7, 1896. The St George club had moved here in 1894 from a ground situated not far away near the Lord Rodney pub.

St George, who wore white shirts with a red cross and blue shorts in 1888-89 and was reported in 1894 as having been playing in green shirts for some considerable time, was the deadliest rivals of Warmley, a fact which was to see the death of both of them.

If they had acted on an amalgamation attempt during the spring of 1897, then the early Bristol football team scene might well have been entirely different today. Unfortunately, the famous white shirts of Warmley were the first to succumb, knocked out by a combination of bad weather affecting their home gates and the closure of their ground for a month, following unruly crowd incidents during and after a 5-1 defeat at home to Millwall on January 17, 1899.

Resigning a few weeks later, it was not long before local rivals St George followed suit, although they soldiered on until the end of the season. This left just the one survivor in east Bristol, but the sometimes bitter competition between City and Bedminster continued in the west.

billy wedlock bristol city and england player

City And Bedminster Amalgamate

Fortunately, the wiser heads of the Bedminster board of directors realized that the situation was unsustainable and virtually sacrificed their club on the altar of the City’s ambitions in 1900. It was more of absorption than an amalgamation. However, five Bedminster members joined the Bristol City board, and the Bristol Coat of Arms that proudly adorned City’s red shirts in the 1900-01 season was woven in Bedminster’s maroon and old gold colors.

With two grounds at their disposal, City shared their home matches between St John’s Lane and Ashton Gate during the initial season, but with election to the Football League in 1901, they had to choose. Despite the better facilities on offer at Ashton Gate, where England had beaten Wales 4-1 some two years earlier, St John’s Lane was chosen.

The decision seemed to reflect the wishes of the fans as indicated by a poll in The Bristol Magpie, which, by the start of the season, had produced a vote of 582 to 470 in favor of retaining the City’s original home. However, an FA Cup tie with Sheffield United, which saw a record crowd of 17,909 (receipts of £754.11s.9d) crammed into the ground on February 6, 1904, made the directors realize that the scope for improvement at the Lane was somewhat restricted, especially as they were unable to increase the length of the lease.

Consequently, money was spent on redeveloping Ashton Gate, and the venue was re-opened on August 27, 1904, when some 5,000 supporters saw the Probables beat the Possibles 9-0 in a pre-season trial.

st georges park in bristol

Other Local Teams

While other local clubs, such as Staple Hill (formed in 1888), an early Bristol football team that opened the scoring against Manchester United away in the FA Cup in 1905-06. Bristol Amateurs began from the rump of the Bedminster Club when they turned professional in 1898. Bristol East (1899), which took over the Chequers Ground, Mangotsfield (1888) and St Paul’s (1887), which played in Bower Ashton, adjacent to Clifton Bridge Station, gained some measure of prominence around this time.

Warmley, Bristol St George, Clifton Association, Bristol Rovers, Bedminster, and Bristol City dominated the local scene in the early days of Bristol football. Both Warmley and Bristol St George subsequently reformed as amateur clubs, with the latter continuing to this day having frequently made a name for themselves in the FA Amateur Cup as well as in the Gloucestershire County League and such like.

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