The History of the Southern Football League
The Formation of the Southern League
The first attempt to form a league in southern England to rival the Football League came from a proposal by former England international Charlie Bambridge in 1890. His idea failed to generate a positive response due to the powerful Old Boys’ network of clubs from the public schools – then dominant in the south.
The London FA decided to convene a meeting at the Salutation Tavern in Newgate Street, London on 13th March 1890 to consider a proposed ‘Southern League’. The main critic was the influential founder of the Football Association, Mr N.L.Jackson, who claimed that such a league would not really benefit London football. His motion ‘That it was not desirable to form a league’ was seconded by Mr J Farmer and narrowly passed 47-46.
Woolwich Arsenal investigated the subject two years later by sending a circular to suitable clubs to form a ‘Southern League’. They had caused a stir in the south by adopting professionalism at their AGM in 1891 and found themselves expelled by the London FA and refused entry from all cup competitions in the south.
This left them with no alternative but to play against the professional clubs from the Midlands and North in friendly games which confirmed their opinion that a league in the south was badly needed. The circular sent to clubs led to a meeting on 2nd February 1892 at the Anderton’s Hotel, Fleet Street, for those clubs interested in forming a Southern League.
A total of 26 clubs attended the meeting and discussions ended with a motion from Fred Bearsley of Woolwich Arsenal ‘That a league be formed for London and the South’. Seconded by William Henderson of Millwall the motion was carried and the meeting proceeded to elect twelve clubs. The result was as follows:
Chatham 26, Luton Town 26, Milwall Athletic 25, Marlow 24, Swindon Town 24, Reading 22, West Herts 21, Ilford 19, Woolwich Arsenal 19, Chiswick Park 18, Old St Marks 15, and Crouch End 12. The latter club withdrew after being selected. The unsuccessful clubs were:
Chesham 10, Wolverton 9, City Ramblers 8, Woodville 8, Uxbridge 7, St Albans 6, Erith 3, Westminster Criterion 2, Old St Stephens 2, Upton Park 2, and Tottenham Hotspur 1.
However, the enthusiasm generated in Fleet Street rapidly disappeared when the delegates returned to their own committees. Playing with professionals, even if retaining amateur status, would displease the London FA and county bodies. The clubs refused to ratify the decisions which their delegates had overwhelmingly agreed at the meeting and within a fortnight five clubs had dropped out and the idea again died.
It was late 1893 when the next attempt was made, this time by Milwall Athletic officials. Their secretary William Henderson discussed the idea with the Chairman Colin Gordon who in turn discussed it with Nat Whittaker. A meeting was arranged at the Billiter Coffee Rooms, Fenchurch Street, London on 12th January 1894.
Seconded by Mr W Roger of Reading, William Henderson proposed ‘That this meeting is of the opinion that it is in the interests of football that a southern league should be formed and pledges to all in its power to form such a league’.
The following clubs were in attendance – Chatham, Clapton, Ilford, Luton Town, Milwall Athletic, Reading, and 2nd Scots Guards. They decided to invite the following clubs to a further meeting – Casuals, Crouch End, Crusaders, Old Carthusians, Old Westminsters, Royal Ordnance Factories, and Swindon Town.
Only Royal Ordnance Factories and Swindon Town accepted the invitation which resulted in a league of nine clubs. Although the league had been planned basically for professional clubs, it differed from the Football League by allowing amateur clubs as well – Clapton, Ilford, Reading, and Royal Ordnance factories.
After the late withdrawal of a fifth amateur club, 2nd Scots Guards, the Southern League accepted Southampton St Mary’s and amid renewed enthusiasm a second division was formed. Clubs elected were Bromley, Chesham, Maidenhead, New Brompton, Old St Stephens, Sheppey United, and Uxbridge. Woolwich Arsenal wanted to enter their reserve side but the other clubs decided that this ‘was an audacious proposal and one not to be entertained’.
The following officers were elected: Chairman – Robert Clark (Clapton), Secretary – William Henderson (Millwall Athletic), Treasurer - Colin Gordon (Milwall Athletic).
Henderson’s tenure was brief, resigning before a ball was kicked in the embryonic league and replaced by Nat Whittaker. The management committee consisted of J Dowsett (Ilford), T P Moore (Royal Ordnance), J G Stone (Chesham), and W J Wadhams (Old St Stephens).