THE STORY OF CHELSEA
CHAPTER 1: From our very unhumble beginnings…
‘One word in conclusion to the football-loving public. Come in your thousands to witness and support the Chelsea lads, and I promise you will not go away disappointed. All roads lead to Stamford Bridge.’
- ‘Old China,’ Football Chat, 5 September 1905
On Good Friday, 13 April 1906, bathed in glorious sunshine, a team that had not even existed 12 months earlier attracted a record Division Two crowd to a corner of west London formerly known only for track and field athletics events and company sports days.
‘A more exciting scene than that which marked the concluding stages of play at Stamford Bridge has seldom been witnessed, even at a cup final,’ enthused the London Daily News newspaper, as Chelsea drew 1-1 with fellow promotion hopefuls Manchester United. ‘Indeed, I have seen the Association trophy won and lost to the accompaniment of far less shouting and cheering than was heard in west London yesterday.’
The setting was ‘one of the most perfect and commodious football enclosures in the country’ and ‘seven minutes from the finish Tommy McDermott, amid tremendous enthusiasm, equalised from a nice overhead pass from Proudfoot.’
The attendance of 67,000 was 11 times the average at second-tier grounds that season. Up in Division One the same day, 35,000 was considered a bumper crowd at Liverpool’s Anfield, and 20,000 big for Manchester City vs Arsenal. As an indication of what Chelsea’s sudden arrival on the London football scene meant, Arsenal would not record a crowd equal to it until 1934.
Although the result locked Chelsea out of the promotion places until the following spring, the Evening Standard newspaper was compelled to hail a campaign that ‘stamps the team among the best in the country’.
The Daily News enthused: ‘It was a picturesque sight, and one which will not easily be forgotten by the supporters of the Chelsea club.’
It sounds like the 67,000 would consider six pence (a shilling for a grandstand seat) as money well spent. They would be coming back for more, as Chelsea’s club directors intended.
A year later to the day, on 13 April 1907, Division One status was secured with the 4-0 thrashing of Wolverhampton. ‘There is no doubt whatever that the London public will readily flock to Chelsea to support the club in its more ambitious doings,’ stated Lloyd’s Weekly, ‘The possibilities in this direction are clearly indicated by the fact that the match with the Wolves yesterday was witnessed by nearly 30,000 spectators.
‘With its splendid playing pitch – one of the best bits of turf in the country – its magnificent stand, and well-banked terraces, the Chelsea club can claim to have the requisite up-to-date appointments, and they will in this respect fully maintain the dignity of the First League.’
According to Athletic News, the freshly-built Stamford Bridge was already the biggest football ground in Britain alongside Crystal Palace and Hampden Park. The Crystal Palace stadium hosted a Southern League side, though, and the latter was home to lowly Queen’s Park. The uniqueness of Chelsea’s enterprise lay in the marrying of a world-class stadium with a club of equal magnitude, which exploded onto the sporting landscape. It had taken the capital’s other Football League club, Woolwich Arsenal, 11 seasons to reach the top flight; west London’s new boys had managed the feat in two.
‘Never before has a team so rapidly built up a “following” as that which, this time last year, had not yet sprung into life,’ glowed the Chelsea FC Chronicle in April 1906. The Chronicle, a prototype match programme, was further evidence of the club’s modern but commercial thinking, an ‘endeavour to provide visitors with something more than the mere twenty-two names of players hidden amidst a number of advertisements on a single small sheet’. It was irreverent, informative, engaging, helping formulate the nascent culture of supporters, publishing fans’ rhymes about players, or discussions of which nickname was best.
(‘The Pensioners’, referring to the red-coated veterans in refuge at the nearby Royal Hospital, was in use as early as September 1905, thankfully eclipsing other Chelsea references of renown such as pottery – ‘Chinamen’ – and pastries – ‘Buns’.)
This astute marketing move instantly generated sales of 4,000 per game at one penny a time, probably the largest circulation of its kind in the country in 1905/06, peaking at 11,000 for that Good Friday game in the first season. Further innovation came in hiring football’s first ball-boys to preserve the energy of larger-than-life goalkeeper Willie Foulke. They also served to accentuate the unique size of the 22-stone, 6ft 2in custodian – another useful splash of publicity for the new venture.
Another point where Chelsea hit the ground running was the ‘bottom line’: revenue. Although the directors were sports fanatics and gamblers, they were businessmen too. Only half of Division One clubs were profitable when Chelsea applied for Football League membership on 29 May 1905, and London’s other representatives, Arsenal, were struggling for an audience. The founding board of directors ensured that the capital’s newest club was exciting and properly financed from the start.
As the association game had spread up north in the 1880s it had been called ‘London rules’. Twenty years after the game had turned professional and begun charging an entry fee, Chelsea aimed to give those words a new meaning in the game.
The Founding Fathers
Let us go back to 10 March 1905 and the founding meeting opposite the entrance to Stamford Bridge, then an athletics track with a small pavilion. It was in an upstairs room of the Rising Sun pub, run by Edwin Hurford Janes, that the Chelsea Football & Athletic Club company was baptised, its ambition stated, and shares sold. The room was a well-used local space, hosting death inquests as well as the Royal Alfred lodge of Freemasons.
The scale of the club, started from scratch, promised to be huge in every aspect. On Thursday 20 April, Chelsea Football & Athletic Club registered at Companies House with a capital of £5,000 from 3,505 shares allotted; 2,500 had been subscribed to straight away in the inaugural meeting upstairs at the Rising Sun on Friday 10 March. Around the same time, Southern League Division Two Clapton Orient, founded in 1881 and London’s second oldest football club, converted to a limited company with a share subscription of £500 – 10 times smaller than Chelsea’s. Sports news agency J E Dixon & Co. sent out the following press release: ‘It has been decided to form a professional football club, to be called the Chelsea Football Club, for Stamford-bridge.’
Rather than the factory moguls and sons of toil who typically steered northern and midland clubs, the driving forces at the heart of Chelsea were the well-to-do and the well-meaning. There were entrepreneurs, fun-loving publicans, an athletics club secretary, and a whip-maker to the gentry on the board, and men of influence and social conscience on the panel of Presidents and Vice-Presidents.
The nexus connecting the board and Chelsea FC was the Mears Contracting and Wharfinger business on the Thames at Crabtree Wharf. Apart from the business-owning Mears brothers, Henry Augustus or Gus, and Joseph Theophilus, Tom Lewin Kinton was business manager for both companies and John Henry Maltby their legal adviser, while Paddington Basin-based contractor Henry Boyer was the brother-in-law of the Mears.
Underpinning their company was a Trust, set up by family patriarch Joseph Theophilus Mears senior, who had died in 1894 with an estate valued at £88,207 – £2.25m in today’s money. It was from the JT Mears Trust that Gus borrowed the money to buy the freehold and raise the stadium at Stamford Bridge for which, as landlord, he charged the club £1,500 a year in rent.
Gus was a free spirit. He made no attempt to repay the loan before his alcohol-related death in 1912, even after selling the south-west corner of the Stamford Bridge site to Oswald Stoll in 1910, and was admonished by Trust manager Kinton for buying ‘fancy cars’ and keeping bad company instead. Nevertheless, the Trust could pay huge regular dividends to family members for decades to come and, thus sustained, the Mearses dominated the Chelsea boardroom until 1980.
The Janes family, of whom Alfred and his nephew Edwin were Chelsea board members, ran pubs with most of the watering holes in the catchment area of the Bridge on their portfolio, including the Rising Sun. The benefits of tens of thousands of thirsty men and women arriving on their doorsteps every fortnight hardly needed highlighting.
West Londoner George Thomas, who left the Royal Navy to set up a liner-provisioning business at Southampton dock that made his fortune, also played a key role. (Under new ownership the same company provided the food and drink for the Titanic in 1912.) Thomas built and owned Southampton’s ground The Dell, so his expertise was immensely valuable in 1905.
Another place at the table was taken by George Schomberg, a whip maker at a time when horses powered every type of transport, who kept premises on Brompton Road adjoining Tattershall’s bloodstock market. The Chelsea FC Chronicle dubbed him ‘Count Schomberg’, though that was the name of a famous racehorse of the day and a wink to his passion for the turf.
Then there was shipping clerk, military man, and the club’s first chair, Claude Kirby. Kirby was well connected in Edwardian high society and another sporting visionary. The anonymous Chelsea interviewee in a Sporting Life article of the time was probably Kirby, since the piece was glued in his scrapbook for posterity. The exchange not only provides an insight into the directors’ thinking at a crucial moment for the club but expresses its first voice: one that is bullish, well-versed and smart.
Fulham Football Club, once mooted as potential tenants of the new Stamford Bridge, were kicking off about the proximity of Chelsea to Craven Cottage, but the respondent was having none of it.
‘The Stamford Bridge ground, as you know, is just on the Fulham side of the railway, and it will be the nearest ground to London proper of a big professional club,’ he briefed. ‘Why, within a radius of three miles there is a population of nearly 1,500,000 people, and it is absurd to suggest that this is not a large enough population to support two clubs.’
The new outfit’s ambition would know no bounds, monetarily or otherwise, he warned.
‘It is not giving anything away to tell you that behind this concern there is an influential body of gentlemen who will not hesitate to spend whatever is necessary to get together one of the best teams in the country. We are not going in for a second-rate combination, as that would be of no use. We want the best, and intend to have it.
'We fully realise that London football enthusiasts are not now content with what satisfied them a few years ago. Professional football of the highest class is what they want, and it is our intention to meet that want. London is London, and cannot be compared with any other place. Why, we have a population of seven million people, and only some half-dozen really good professional clubs to cater for them. In a few years’ time it may be found that is not too many, because the Londoner is taking to football; London will be the real centre of football in this country.’
Wealthy, well-connected people had spotted a possible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dominate a growing football market in the nation’s capital. It was abundantly clear nothing was going to stop the first expensively backed juggernaut of London football from hitting the road.
Others outside the board were vital in guiding Chelsea’s early steps. William Lewis, the club secretary of ‘influence, tact and kindly disposition’ was poached from Brentford and, as stand-in manager during the 1906/07 season, would secure the club’s first promotion. And ‘Godfather of Chelsea FC’ Fred Parker was the man with the original masterplan.
Implementing the plan
Fanaticism for sport was one thing that united all these guiding lights. Another was freemasonry: a mystical, hierarchical, secret society designed for mutual advancement – a Victorian LinkedIn. Through freemasonry the new club had connections in football, politics and to royalty that would prove fruitful and prestigious.
In modern times the titles President and Vice-president were a method of offering wealthy supporters a closeness to the goings-on at the club without any executive power and in return for very considerable investment.
In the formative years, when reputation and fame were still to be earned, they were the select few in whose pocket every ambitious organisation wishes to have a hand, and on whose network of contacts they love to draw. Chelsea chose their first few presidential candidates with flair and pragmatism, bringing instant sporting and political clout.
The first on board as President was Lord Cadogan, the biggest landowner in the area and whose Eton blue racing colours provided Chelsea’s shirt colour for the opening two seasons. Early vice-presidents included all-round sports personality Charles Burgess Fry (social reformer and ‘the greatest living Englishman’), Harry Venn (a runner-up in that contest and LAC official), local politicians of Conservative and Liberal hue, among them Emslie Horniman, MP, a tea magnate, museum founder, and philanthropist. (Chelsea have held summer coaching sessions in the park named for him: Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance.)
The final piece in the jigsaw was the most important: the talent. Four days after the founding meeting, Football Chat reported that ‘the secretary-manager is still to be appointed, but from an immense number of applications, five gentlemen have been selected for final consideration.’
By 23 March, former Rangers and Scotland international John Tait Robertson, known as Jacky or Jock, and known to CB Fry and George Thomas from his time at Southampton, had been appointed player-secretary-manager. While steel came down from Glasgow to build the stadium according to architect Archibald Leitch’s design, Robertson and Parker travelled the country recruiting the best available footballers at top dollar prices. It was a spree equal to the first months of the Roman Abramovich’s ownership, in scope if not media coverage.
Armed with this strong roster, Parker stewarded Chelsea through election to Division Two during the Football League’s annual meeting at the Tavistock Hotel on 29 May 1905. While others had drunk till 3am the night before, Parker tipped the staff serving ‘Scotch and pollies’ to give him non-alcoholic ginger beer instead, so his lobbying would hit home.
Over breakfast at the Tavistock, Kirby and Robertson were downhearted. Parker backed himself with a £5 sporting wager then made his pitch to the clubs. There was £3,000 in the bank, he said, the redeveloped ground was the best in the land, and then, as he read the impressive list of players, he was interrupted – his three minutes were up.
‘I will not trespass on you further,’ he concluded, ‘beyond suggesting that … you will come to the conclusion that you really cannot refuse us.’ Ambition, quality, cockiness, and money – those first impressions of Chelsea would set the tone for the opening few seasons.
The new Stamford Bridge opened to universal acclaim with a 4-0 friendly win against Liverpool at 5.15pm on 4 September 1905. A week later the first Division Two visitors were sent back to Hull with a 5-1 drubbing, and the ‘baby’ team hit third place, remaining there virtually the whole season.
From nothing but a vision a few months earlier, new jewels had now been added to England’s sporting crown. And just 13 months and three days after the founding meeting at the Rising Sun pub, that huge Manchester United match brimmed with validation for the audacious ambition and achievements of Chelsea FC.
Lloyd’s Weekly’s eulogy, though, had a sting in the tail: ‘It only remains for them to command success,’ it warned, ‘a somewhat elusive attainment even with the best of intentions.’
London Athletic FC?
The Chelsea story might have been completely different if we can believe the memory passed down from Dora Bull, the wife of Edwin Hurford Janes. As a child, long before her future husband helped start the club, she recalled being present for a meeting around her living room table at 31 Margaretta Street to discuss starting a football club to play at the recently opened Stamford Bridge. Her father Walter Bull was there, as was Joseph Mears senior, father of the brothers who would eventually co-found the club a generation later.
Remarkably, this ‘family fable’ checks out. The Stamford Bridge grounds had been leased since 1877 by the London Athletic Club (LAC), and on 9 February 1881 their Committee had ‘resolved to hold a meeting at Stamford Bridge to discuss whether it would be advisable to form a football Club in connection with the LAC’. Dora probably witnessed a preparatory discussion.
Of course nothing came of this, and in any case the new entity would surely have been named London Athletic FC, not Chelsea. Never the less it is tantalising glimpse of what might have been: the date is a whole three months before London’s second oldest club, Clapton Orient, were founded on Sunday 15 May 1881.