The Real Early History of Reading FC

Almost every history of Reading FC has depended on the first account of its early years written, anonymously, in 1906. It contains numerous errors and biases uncovered by Roger Titford in his 2016 publication of ‘The Lost Years of Reading FC’. To set the records straight we’re pleased to present an excerpt from his book.

“I would like to re-write, in as few words as the original (just over one thousand), the relevant passage from the Book of Football chapter on Reading FC, given, I believe, we now have a firmer and more balanced grasp of the facts than that writer had at his disposal in 1906.  Here goes:  
    
The Reading Football Club is one of the oldest such institutions in the country.  It was founded in the winter of 1871-72 (the precise date is unknown) at a meeting of young businessmen, shop-keepers and students in Gun Street, Reading.  At the time there was no football being played in the town but a desire to emulate the interest stimulated by the game in nearby Maidenhead, Henley and Marlow.  The first match took place on 21 February 1872 on the Reading Recreation Ground (now Kings Meadow) against Reading School and resulted in a 0-0 draw.

In its first year the club had a slow and sporadic start playing only six matches, sometimes 12 or 13 a side.  But after the formation of a rival club, Reading Hornets in 1873, matches became more frequent and better organised, usually played against neighbouring town teams. Reading’s star player in those days was full back Brownlow Haygarth who became captain in 1874 and played for England in 1875.  He was succeeded as captain by Harry Rogers who, like many other players, appeared for both Reading and Reading Hornets. Several influential young men joined the club in the mid-1870s including John Martin, Charles Field, Stanley Hayward (all future Mayors of Reading), Edgar Field (who played twice for England), Thomas Turner and William Barnett.  This group was to dominate the club for at least the next decade, first on the field as players and then as officials and administrators.  The club’s fortunes improved decidedly in 1877 when it moved home matches to the Reading Cricket Ground, where an admission charge could be made, and when Reading Hornets faded away after two important players, Sillence and Richardson, joined the club.  This was also the season Reading first entered the FA Cup, something they have done every single season since, a record that only Notts County, of the league clubs, can match.

In 1878-79 the club was further strengthened by the inclusion of the Welsh international (and future Welsh captain) John Morgan at full back and enjoyed its most successful season yet.  In the FA Cup Reading lost to the eventual winners Old Etonians by a single goal and in the inaugural Berks & Bucks Challenge Cup claimed the trophy with a single goal victory over the principal local rival, Marlow. The triumphant team that day was comprised largely of lawyers, teachers, accountants and other professional men.

The next season the impetus was lost following the tragic death, from an epileptic fit, on the pitch of the popular captain, Rogers.  This occurred in the match against Pilgrims on 25th October 1879 and the club decided not to play again until after Christmas.  But soon the club regained its enthusiasm and for a brief period around 1880-82 could be regarded as one of the strongest in the south outside London.  It also sought to promote the sport by organising the Reading Challenge Cup for lesser clubs within the town.  Unfortunately the success of this competition was to draw interest away from the principal club in the short term and it was abandoned in 1890. 

Another factor that held the club back was frequency with which fixtures were lost due to the nearby Thames flooding.  In 1882 therefore Reading decided to play home matches in Coley Park, an enclosed estate to the south of the town.  At the same time the nature of football as a sport was changing rapidly, with rules that separated it further from rugby, new formations and an emphasis on passing rather than rushing and, in the north, the growth of considerable spectator interest and revenue.

Reading’s rather amateur-orientated outlook had little interest in keeping up with these developments and consequently few new first-class players came to play regularly for the club.  There were exceptions – Tom Skurray (later a hugely successful director of a brewery), Oswald Hayward and Horace Walker – but the club came to increasingly rely on borrowing players. For six years between 1885-1890 Reading did not win an FA Cup-tie and could never get past Marlow in the Berks & Bucks Cup.  Interest in the town team declined, few attended matches in Coley Park and it was little surprise when Reading were beaten by South Reading in the Berks & Bucks Cup semi-final of 1887.

The small governing clique of the Reading committee hung on until 1888-89 but the fixture list was unappealing to spectators while rivals such as Reading Albions, South Reading and Earley grew in strength.  At the end of 1888-89 the owner of Coley Park announced that the ground would no longer be available and Edgar Field, William Barnett, Stanley and Oswald Hayward all resigned their positions at the club. Reading was now at its lowest ebb.  Horace Walker, who had made his debut at the age of 16 in 1880, took charge as secretary-treasurer.  He first attempted to boost the strength of the club by merging with, or absorbing Kendrick FC and then in October 1889 gaining the assistance of the secretary of Earley FC, Arthur Webb, and several of his players to play at the new ground at Caversham Cricket Club.

The mixed team was not a great success.  For a brief period in May 1890 there was a genuine threat that South Reading, Reading Albions and Earley might combine to form a Reading United club that would eclipse the original club totally.  Instead Walker revived the old club completely by improving the fixture list and finding better players from all over the town and beyond.  Henry Hewitt from Devon was a great centre-forward and Frank Deane from Caversham a cool-headed captain while more working-class men joined the team.  The Berks & Bucks Cup was won back in 1892, amid unprecedented enthusiasm, the 1st Round Proper of the FA Cup reached in 1894 (sadly 0-18 to the great Preston North End) and the quarter-final of the Amateur Cup the following year.

Under Walker’s management Reading had quickly become the most important club in the town again and built a substantial following but his methods – importing soldiers to fill gaps in the team and being a little loose on the expenses – did not find favour with all.  He drove the club towards founder-membership of the Southern League in 1894.  The majority of clubs there were, or soon turned, professional and in the summer of 1895 Reading faced the same critical decision.  The vote split the club with a smaller faction under James Simonds (president of the club since its foundation) and Arthur Webb leaving to set up Reading Amateurs.  But the majority of members and players stayed with the newly professional Reading FC which was soon to move to Elm Park (1896) and set up as a limited company (1897).”

From ‘The Lost Years of Reading FC’ by Roger Titford, available via the Megastore or STAR Base.

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