History shows that Notts County is the oldest professional football club in the world. This soccer club is located in the Midlands of the United Kingdom, near Sherwood Forest, famous for its historical association with Robin Hood. Nicknamed ‘The Magpies’ due to their back and white striped jerseys, Notts became one of the twelve founder clubs of the 1888 Football League.
Before establishing the Football Association, the club played a game of its devising since 1862. History shows that Notts County was considered one of the pioneers of the modern game. However, since an article appeared in 1923 in one of the Nottingham newspapers about the club’s early years, there have been questions about when Notts County was formed.
An undated cutting of the article is in the local studies collection of the Nottingham Central Library, but the newspaper is not identified. However, from the typography involved, the newspaper was almost certainly the Nottingham Journal or its stablemate, the Nottingham Evening News, both now defunct. At the same time, the mention of the soccer director Ernest Wright shows the date from about 1923 to 1925 when he left the club’s board.
The article states that “Mr. Ernest Wright, a director of Notts County Football Club, is the fortunate possessor of a minute book in which the club’s doings are recorded from 1864 to 1873.” Extracts are printed from this minute book. The first meeting recorded was held on 7 December 1864 at the George IV Hotel (still surviving as the Mercure Nottingham City Centre George Hotel). Mr. T. Wright took the chair, and the others present were L.Baillon, W.S. Baker, J. Bradley, W. Browne, H. Crompton, H. Davis, A. Elliott, W. Elliott, J. Goddard, J. Hodges, H. Moody, J. Patterson, E. Steegman, J.S. Wright and G.P. Yates.
The first resolution to be passed was that: “A Foot Ball Club be established for this County, and that it shall be named the Notts Foot Ball Club.” Other resolutions invited Frederick C. Smith to be President, installed J. Patterson as secretary and treasurer, and selected a committee consisting of W. Browne, H. Crompton, Mr. Hack.
Now, this seems unequivocal. On 7 December 1864, a football club was formed for Nottinghamshire county, and it was to be known as the Notts Club. Yet, to this day, Notts County proudly boasts that they were formed in 1862, “the oldest Football League club,” as every sports quiz enthusiast knows. Indeed, the very cutting quoted from the early minute book stated: “The club was founded in 1862.” So why and when did 1864 disappear, and how did 1862 come to replace it? The solution to this mystery may highlight the development of similar problems regarding other long-established so-called “facts” in football history.
Phil Soar’s warning over Arsenal’s formation is pertinent here: “Early histories were written by the players who stayed around the longest. So they naturally related the early days of their clubs according to their part in it – perfectly understandably. This does not mean, however, that it is the whole story.”
Early Press Reports Of Notts County
Here are two early press reports which substantiate the 1864 date for Notts County by referring to the recent formation of the club. The day after the meeting, on 8 December, the club set out to do battle in its first match. The Nottingham Daily Guardian reported: “Foot-Ball in Nottingham. Yesterday, a friendly match at this old English game took place in the Meadows, Nottingham, between 20 members of the Trent Valley Club and a like number of a club recently formed in Nottingham.” (later in the report, the Wilford Road end and the Queen’s Walk end establish that the venue was the Meadows Cricket Ground). Then came the first significant match against Sheffield on 2 January 1865. The Nottingham Review reported: “Foot-Ball Match between Nottingham and Sheffield. Last Monday, a match between the Notts and Sheffield Foot-Ball clubs was played on the Meadows Cricket Ground and attracted many spectators. The Notts club had only just been formed while the Sheffield one is of long-standing.” Sheffield FC was established in 1857 and is known for being the world’s first soccer club.
As further support for 1864, on 13 November 1866, the Nottingham Daily Guardian reported on the club’s annual meeting. It said, “Mr. A. Deedes was elected captain in place of J. Patterson, who has held the office for two seasons and wished to be relieved.” The secretary’s report stated that: “This is now the third season of play.” So if 1866-67 was the third season, then 1864-65 must have been the first.
Then, when Charles Alcock brought out his Football Annual for the first time in 1868, the entry under Notts Club read “formed 1864”. In the same year, the club achieved its first entry in a Nottingham reference book. Wright’s Directory gave the following details: “Notts Foot-Ball Club. Play on the Meadows Cricket Ground. The Athletic sports take place in May each year. President: F.C. Smith, Esq. Committee: Messrs A.B. Baillon, R. Daft, W. Elliott, W. Goddard, J.C. Hodges, J. Hack, J. Lambert, J. Patterson, and C. Rothera with power to add to their number. Captain: A. Deedes. Hon. Secretary and Treasurer: E.B. Steegman.”
There is no sign of a formation date here, but the waters begin to muddy in the Nottingham Red Book of 1872 where we find: “This club was established in the year 1863, and for the first year or two, confined itself principally to friendly games among the members in The Park. The first president and one of the principal movers were Dr. Thomas Wright, and its chief supporters were mainly members of the various banks and law offices of the town. This necessitated that all games be played on Thursday afternoon, as this was the general half-holiday for the places of business. Dr. Wright was succeeded by F.C. Smith, Esq., MP, under whose Presidency the club remains. As the club increased in numbers, matches were made with other clubs in the neighborhood, the principal one being that versus Sheffield FC, several of which have now been played with pretty consistent results to both sides. The club now numbers upwards of 80 members, and with late years has played its matches on the Meadows Cricket Ground, kindly lent for the purpose by the Enclosure Committee. The rules played are modifications of the association. Annual subscriptions, 10s [50p]. The officers for 1871-72 are President F.C. Smith, Esq., M.P. Vice-Presidents, Dr. Wright, E.B. Steegman, Esq., Jno. Hack, Esq. Captain, A.B. Baillon, Esq. Vice-Captain, J.C. Hodges, Esq. Hon. Secretary and Treasurer, F.W. Rothera, Esq.”
This entry includes the first mention of matches being played among members in The Park. This venue frequently recurs in many later accounts, though, as we have seen above, the club played games on the Meadows Cricket ground directly after the 1864 formation. Thus, already, players’ reminiscences appear to be coloring the historical record.
Nevertheless, Alcock’s Annual continued to give 1864 as the formation date for some years; then, a date was omitted only for 1862 to appear in the 1886 edition. The Notts club itself seems to have become uncertain, and a letterhead which survives from 1881 when Harry Corsham was secretary gives a formation date of 1860! However, there has been no other claim for this particular date, and 1864 was reinstated in a short history of Notts County in a brochure published by the club in the early 1890s to go with a bazaar it was holding to raise funds. On 31 March 1894 (the day Notts were winning the F.A. Cup), the Nottingham Journal copied this information: “History of the Notts Club. The Notts Club was founded in 1864 and is one of the oldest football organizations in the country. Its first members included Richard Daft, Major Hack (who died recently), and Mr. Blake Baillon. These gentlemen with others met in The Park Hollow and kicked the ball about with such satisfaction to themselves that they decided to form a club.”
Richard Daft, mentioned here, was a famous Nottinghamshire cricket batsman and captain. In his book Kings of Cricket, published in 1893, he described his footballing exploits, though without giving any dates: “As a young man, I played regularly with the Notts County Football Club when it was first formed. I believe I played center-forward, but I am not quite sure about this as we were never very particular in those days about keeping in place. Charging and dribbling were the chief features of the game about that time, and often very rough play was indulged in.”
The actual establishment of 1862 as the formation date came in several publications from the turn of the century, which carried articles on the early days of famous clubs. For example, the Real Football book by J.A.H. Catton in 1900 stated: “The Notts Club was commenced in 1862 by several gentlemen, chiefly bankers, lawyers and other professional men, who amused themselves in the hollow of what is known as The Park. The principal pioneers were Mr. F.C. Smith, Major Hack, Mr. R. Daft, Mr . Bernard Bradley, Mr. W. Patterson, Mr. W.A, Mr. J.C. Hodges, and Mr. A. Blake Baillon. They dressed in amber and black jerseys and had rare matches among the members. They were popularly voted madmen.”
The Book of Football
The Book of Football published in 1906 quoted: “It was in 1862 that some well-known young fellows, mostly men of good social position, used to practice football in The Park. They included Major Hack, a notable sportsman, one of the best rifle shots in the town, F.C. Smith, Bernard Bradley, W. Patterson, A. Blake Baillon, W.A. Hodges, J.C. Hodges, and the well-known Richard Daft.”
The book Association Football & the Men Who Made It by Alfred Gibson and William Pickford (1905-06) mentioned: “As far back as 1862 some young men, nearly all of whom became either notable citizens of notable sportsmen later in life, used to practice football in The Park. Among them were A.B. Baillon, the famous Richard Daft, F.C. Smith, Major Hack, and the brothers Hodges.”
Some of these articles appear to be repeating earlier ones, and we can see how errors became fact. For instance, the first secretary, John Patterson, is given in The Real Football as W. Patterson and copied across into The Book of Football with the same incorrect initial. Also, the Member of Parliament, Mr. Frederick C. Smith, who accepted the invitation to become President, is now named among the players.
50th Aniversary of Notts County
On 31 May 1912, Notts County held a banquet to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the club’s formation. So now 1862 was official.
From this mass of what appears at first sight to be confusing information, we can extract a likely sequence of events that can answer nearly every question. In 1862 young men who worked mainly in banks and law offices used their Thursday half-holiday to play football in The Park. They played among themselves, and there was no formal organization because none was needed. Such recreation is not newsworthy. The newspapers, therefore, did not mention it.
The Nottingham Red Book of 1872 gives 1863 as the date for these games in The Park. In the light of its mention of the length of time matches among members went on (“for the first year or two”), the winter of 1862-63 seems more likely than 1863-64. As the football season ran only from November to March, the games are likely to have started in the last month or two of 1862. The Red Book also said that the first President and a principal mover was Dr. Thomas Wright. He was in the chair at the 1864 meeting when the club was formed, and Frederick C. Smith was invited to be President. This contradiction confirms that play of some sort took place before 1864-65 and that Dr. Wright had some involvement with the developments that led to the 1864 formation meeting.
The probable outcome of the early practice matches was that as the players improved, they wanted to test themselves against others and beat them. Perhaps they already sounded out Sheffield FC to take them on. The next step would have been to start a proper club, and the minutes of the 1864 meeting show that the committee was indeed instructed to draw up club rules and purchase caps and equipment, something that had not been necessary for the more impromptu games in The Park. This is confirmed in the 1894 Nottingham Journal extract quoted earlier: “These … kicked the ball about with such satisfaction to themselves that they decided to form a club.”
As time went on, we can see that the memories of the pioneers became blurred, mixing details of their earlier pre-formal matches in The Park with the formation of the club proper. No doubt the correct entry for the formation of Notts County should be a qualified one: Founded 1864 after informal play since 1862.
Notts County is a club with a rich and storied history. Despite not achieving many successes, they are known for their prestige and heritage in the football community. Fans worldwide owe them some gratitude for their part in the formation and evolution of the game we enjoy today.
Main Image: Reuters
Old Notts County Team Image – EMPICS Sport
Meadows Cricket Ground – John Sutton
Notts County Plaque – John Beniston