The pit, the pitch and the pub: Scottish soccer players in the north of England, c. 1870-1900

Originally presented at the North American Conference on British Studies, 14 November 2010, Baltimore.

Soccer’s status as the game of the British working class is undisputed.  The sport exploded in popularity in the early-1870s onwards, especially in the west of Scotland and the north of England and the Midlands.  From the 1880s on, professionalism began a process whereby the game became consolidated as the sport of the working man.  In soccer, the conversion away from amateurism to professionalism was an uncertain one, but one that nevertheless was managed fairly early:  1885 in England, 1893 in Scotland.  This was not the case in cricket, and especially not in rugby.  Steven Tischler has stated with regard to soccer that the administrators of sport, typically based within a London-centric, school-oriented circle, used the term ‘professional’ as a euphemism for ‘working-class’; and, as soccer increasingly became an arena where the labouring class sought social mobility, naturally its participants — many of whom worked in industries with insecure futures — would migrate for better opportunities.  Soccer, thus, shared certain characteristics with another method of working-class social mobility:  the ownership and operation of public houses and hotels.  With pubs typically a focal point of male life in locations of heavy industry, and with sport initially seen as an exercise in conviviality, the publican-footballer — both during and after playing careers — became a fixture of soccer’s social scene.  This paper examines the movement of Scottish footballers to England, along with the use of the licensed and brewing trades as a means for Scottish footballers to advance their careers, during the period 1870-1900.

Early British sport, at the outset, was firmly wedded to other industrial and popular cultural entities.  Sport clubs were not initially seen as capitalist enterprises; rather, early administrators largely stumbled upon the gate-money popularity of sport, and games such as soccer, rugby and cricket initially laid bare the class and occupational tensions running through Victorian society.  Clubs were formed around a number of locations; for example:  factories, private schools, churches and public houses.  From its inception, the game was tied down heavily to locality and class, and this made the transition from amateurism to professionalism a rocky one.  Robert Lewis has examined the growth of professional soccer in Lancashire during the period 1878-1885, when clubs such as Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, Darwen, Blackburn Rovers and Burnley contained disproportionate numbers of Scots in their playing ranks.  Lancashire contained many closely connected mill towns, and rivalry between local soccer clubs and their supporters was fierce and highly partisan.  Scottish players were recruited due to an attractive, ‘dribbling’ playing style that — despite the consternation of the local press — made the paying public return in droves.

There was only one problem:  professionalism, during this time period, was illegal, and England’s Football Association (FA) were suspicious as to why so many Scots came down to the north of England merely to play soccer.  As Lewis has documented, the enticements made to top Scottish players were considerable; and, in many cases, footballers were offered day jobs as compensation for their play.  One club, Preston North End, and its flamboyant chairman, Major William Sudell, was fairly open about its ability to supply Scots with fictitious jobs while paying their players gate money under the table.  The FA finally bowed to the demands of clubs in the north of England in 1885, and legalised professionalism.  The FA was controlled by an amateur southern elite, but they were scared straight by the threat of soccer clubs forming a rival association in the north, as would happen in rugby ten years later.  This legalisation occurred two years after an important watershed in English soccer:  the 1883 FA Cup victory of working-class Lancashire club Blackburn Olympic over Old Etonians.  The paying of professional salaries necessitated more soccer than the local and national cup competitions would allow, and the Football League, with a system borrowed from American baseball, was instituted in 1888.

Nevertheless, this was not simply a matter of Scots being pulled to English soccer.  There were also several push factors as well.  Scottish soccer’s evolution was slightly different than that of English soccer.  The game, too, was controlled by middle-class amateurs, mainly in the form of Queen’s Park Football Club, an organisation with close links to London’s famous Corinthians.  The Scottish Football Association (SFA) would not legalise professionalism until 1893; however, the institution of the Scottish Football League in 1890, three years before this, indicates that professionalism was a poorly kept open secret.  It was around this time that Glasgow’s Rangers and Celtic Football Clubs, together known as the ‘Old Firm’, began to enact their stranglehold on Scottish soccer talent, pushing aside the popular Queen’s Park, staunch opponents of the new professional order who lost out big on soccer talent.  The legalisation of professionalism, however much it benefited the position of the major Glasgow clubs, nevertheless did not stop the haemorrhaging of talent south of the Border, and did little to stop the collapse of village soccer clubs that, previous to 1890, represented the heartlands of Scottish soccer.  Dunbartonshire clubs were famed for their dominance of the Scottish game in the 1870s and 1880s.  Dumbarton Football Club, a group of players closely associated with the Denny shipbuilding concern, and Vale of Leven and Renton, two village clubs comprised almost exclusively of workers involved in the local, paternalistic calico factories, were the early titans of Scottish soccer.  Meanwhile, clubs from coal mining localities in Ayrshire, from places like Kilmarnock, Cumnock, Hurlford and Annbank formed the bulk of new arrivals to Lancashire soccer between 1878 and 1885.  Migration and professionalism thus took their toll on such clubs, ensuring that many of them would not be playing in the higher reaches of Scottish soccer by 1900.

Why was England such an attractive prospect to many Scottish footballers?  Soccer, in some respects, was reflective of general trends, and this included migration outwith Scotland for work.  Sociologist Herbert Moorhouse states that during the twentieth century ‘the English league and Scottish league have stood in a relation of buyer and seller’.  This comment hits upon a deeper nerve in Scottish historiography.  Emigration from Scotland during the nineteenth century was primarily motivated by economics.  Within Highland Scotland, there were the Clearances, the collective name for a group of land reorganisation schemes executed to make way for grazing grounds, which eventually became intrinsically linked to emigration.  This was coupled with the Highland Famine, striking in 1846, one year later than in Ireland.  Both famines pushed migrants into the Scottish central belt, from Glasgow east to the Lothians.  There was no shortage of labour.  A booming manufacturing sector in this region, however, hid darker truths about the Scottish economy.  Tom Devine states that around 1860, Scottish wages were around 20% lower than within comparative trades in England.  This was seen as an incentive for businesses with imperial connections to establish themselves, but these were nevertheless industries that relied heavily on an export market.  This produced wild fluctuations in employment in periods up to the Great War.  In particular, the shipbuilding industry along the River Clyde was a high-stakes game that often saw abrupt reversals of fortune.  England, on the other hand, had a far more diverse economy, including a service industry, and a manufacturing sector that catered to the domestic market.  The natural increase in Scottish population lost by emigration between 1861 and 1910 was 50.6%; only Ireland had a poorer rate in Europe at this time.  Between 1841 and 1931, around 750,000 Scots moved elsewhere within the United Kingdom.  Especially in Lancashire, there were long-established routes of migration, and concentrations of Scots had long existed in Liverpool and Manchester, most of whom were associated with manufacturing.  Regions of heavy industry such as this became the primary focus of Scottish movement after 1870, whereas before it had been to London.

There is little doubt that many of the opportunities provided for Scottish footballers came through their trades in Scotland.  By the mid-1880s, it was an open secret within the Scottish sport newspapers that Rangers, who were then based in Kinning Park, Glasgow, were able to offer jobs at the Govan shipyards of Fairfield’s to potential ‘amateur’ recruits.  Many hired hands on Clydeside eventually found themselves on Tyneside, where the first Scottish professionals to find their way to the region in the mid- to late-1880s were originally employed on the Clyde shipyards.  Many of these subsequent footballers listed the trade directories of Tyne and Wear during this period, and into to mid-1890s, were listed by their original trade.  One of the most famous examples was John Auld, originally from the pit village of Lugar in Ayrshire, who was a defender with Lugar Boswell Thistle and later one of Glasgow’s most successful clubs, the Third Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers, or Third Lanark.  Auld was drawn to Sunderland Football Club in 1889 by a £300 cheque, a £170 signing-on bonus, and the promise of a boot-making business waiting for him in the Wearside town.  Within Lewis’s own examples, there is Struthers, a Bolton Wanderers footballer originally from Partick, Glasgow, who moved down to Lancashire around 1884 to take up employment at the Park Mill Spinning Company.  But it’s in the licensed trades where the main hubs of social and physical mobility took place amongst early Scottish footballers.  In a recent article on Scottish migrants in Tyne and Wear, John A. Burnett states that networks made in circles of employment in the north of England were used to recruit fellow Scots.  On Lewis’s list, this includes another Partick native, Fergie Suter, who first appeared with Lancashire’s Turton FC in 1878, and played for a variety of other clubs — including Blackburn Rovers — while running a pub in Blackburn.  Another Glasgow import, former Rangers man Hugh McIntyre, also ended up with Blackburn Rovers, and began running a local pub in 1884.  Kilmarnock FC’s Johnnie Goodall came to Bolton in 1883 and began work at the Robin Hood Inn, which coincidentally was the meeting place and headquarters of Great Lever FC, who Goodall played for.  This may have been exactly the break that Scottish footballers were looking for in order to advance in life.  The Scottish newspapers railed against the filthy lucre of the English league, but they were not above printing classified advertisements paid for by English soccer clubs looking for a few good men.  One unnamed Burton-on-Trent club printed an advert in 24 June 1890’s edition of Scottish Referee.  It read:

First-class Centre or Inside Forward required to undertake management of large Hotel and Spirit Vaults, and play with local team in Midlands.  Good Salary.  Satisfactory References and Security.

Tony Collins and Wray Vamplew, in their classic 2002 monograph Mud, Sweat and Beers:  A Cultural History of Sport and Alcohol, state that sport was ‘an integral part of the day-to-day culture’ of the British pub.  Players were often hired for their popularity with clubs’ supporters; and, despite gambling being banned in British public houses in 1853, the practice nevertheless continued illegally well into the twentieth century.  Collins and Vamplew state that most pubs had bookmakers’ agents among their regular customers.  In regions of Scotland and England, the needs the pubs filled for sport was more basic, and the establishments were often used as changing rooms and meeting places for clubs.  This was especially the case in Ayrshire, where eight clubs registered with the SFA in 1880 had as their locker rooms public houses.  Tradesmen and labourers — especially Catholic ones — in late nineteenth-century Scotland viewed the ownership of public houses as a means of social mobility.  In industrial locations, pubs — like the soccer pitch — mirrored the conviviality of a very masculine workplace, one which almost entirely excluded women.  Amongst migrant Scots, too, the pub trade was a common profession.  The censuses in Sunderland from the mid- to late-nineteenth century, for example, show a disproportionate number of Scots and Irish involved in the licensed trades.  There was a rumour that half of the early-1890s Sunderland ‘team of all talents’, one which could turn out an all-Scottish eleven, were publicans.  In turn, owners of public houses and breweries came to control much of the emerging professional game.  In Scotland, Celtic FC, founded in 1887 by a Roman Catholic monk as a charity group for mainly — if not exclusively — Catholic, Irish-descendent boys in Glasgow’s East End, by a few years had fixed up most new recruits with public houses and whisky shops.  When Celtic became a limited liability company, publicans bought good portions of the shares.

In a Victorian Scotland where working-class Presbyterians stayed close to the Conservative party, and where Liberal Unionist employers far outweighed Liberal ones, much of the discourse surrounding Celtic’s success on the pitch was of a dog-whistle nature, one meant to show Celtic’s perceived alien ‘Irish-ness’ in a negative light.  In England, the relationship of the brewing trade to the game tells a very different picture, specifically in Merseyside, an area not without its own sectarian issues.  The development of soccer in the region was heavily influenced by and centred around the pub and brewing trades.  The enmity shared between Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs comes in the formation of the latter in 1892.  Everton, formed in 1878 by members of St. Domingo’s New Connexional Methodist Church, made the fateful decision of placing the club headquarters at the Sandon Hotel in Anfield, owned by John Houlding, a local brewer and leading Conservative.  Houlding became the club’s primary backer, much to the chagrin of the Liberal, teetotal, nonconformist elements of the club.  Houlding’s failure in taking over Everton led to his formation of Liverpool FC in 1892.  Houlding brought no players with him from Everton, and desperately needed them to initiate the club’s inaugural season.  An Irish friend of his, John McKenna, by day a vaccination officer, was quickly able to recruit thirteen Scottish players, and the club became nicknamed ‘the Team of the Macs’ due to the frequency of the prefix amongst new club members.  Both Houlding and McKenna were Freemasons and Orangemen, but several of their early recruits were known to be Catholics.  Success and profit, then, trumped class and ethnicity.

But before one reads too far into the potential of sport as a means of triumphing over class, it is instructive to look at Merseyside’s local newspapers, in this case one from Bootle, a town with a high migrant population based around docklands recently opened just to the north of Liverpool.  In their 15 January 1887 paper, the Bootle Times eulogised Alderman James Leslie, a sixty-year-old man originally from Glasgow who had settled in Liverpool first in 1864, moving up to Bootle shortly afterwards.  He was a builder and contractor by trade, and was first elected to the Bootle Town Council in 1872, serving as mayor from 1884-85.  Aside from his place of birth and his membership in the local Presbyterian Church, very little is made of his Scottish-ness.  A far different treatment was given to members of the professional Bootle Football Club later that year by the same paper.  The 1 October 1887 issue criticised by the soccer club for importing too many players from Scotland and Wales, and they received a supportive letter the next week, stating:

Bootle Football Club, indeed!  Absurd isn’t it, to term a company of football players, who are foreigners to the town the Bootle team?… A club which is supposed to be local, but is no more local than would be the gentlemen’s team, were they to play here — is simply worked by a few outsiders.

What was the distinction, then, that made the town’s Scottish mayor a ‘Bootle man’ and Scottish footballers foreigners?  Were all of the Scottish workers on the Merseyside docks at the time, many of whom came from the west of Scotland, treated with similar contempt?  One can only speculate.  But the pipeline for Scottish footballers had nevertheless been established, and these many connections would continue to be used for generations to come.  When Liverpool FC’s most famous manager, the Glenbuck, Ayrshire native and former coal miner Bill Shankly, first came to Carlisle United in the early-1930s, he was brought there by his maternal uncle Bill Blyth, a former professional footballer who supported himself by becoming a publican.


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