I was both inspired and fascinated to read the Rev`d James Hunt`s Comment in the Parish News of March 2019. It reminded me of a book I have on the shelf at home and one I hadn`t read for a long time. It is entitled “Thank God for Football” by Peter Lupson. If you are a lover of football or interested in how the church has influenced both football and society for good, then I would thoroughly recommend this book to you.
It tells the story of how many of the great football clubs of this country have their origins rooted in the church. Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Birmingham City, Fulham, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton to name a few, can all trace their existence back to the church. At one time nearly a third of all the clubs that have played in the FA Premier League could thank the church that they exist today!
There was no common pattern as to how these clubs were formed but all emanated in the latter part of the nineteenth century by a church deciding to place an emphasis on service to others – particularly the quality of life of the poor and disadvantaged within their community.
The history of Southampton Football Club is a particularly good example and one in which, through family history, I have a certain amount of knowledge. My great grandfather, Isaac Russell, was a churchwarden at St. Mary`s Church in Southampton towards the end of the nineteenth century. His rector was Canon Basil Wilberforce, grandson of William Wilberforce (who led the abolition of the slave trade movement) and the son of Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford and also Winchester. My great grandfather was a business man in the centre of Southampton and together with his six sons was more interested in cricket than football. Three of his sons played cricket for Hampshire.
At that time there was great poverty and squalor within the inner city and almost inevitably this led to many social problems associated with drink, crime and prostitution. Many parishioners from the business community were privileged but had a sense of mission to the poor and those less fortunate than themselves. Basil Wilberforce responded to these social problems by forming many organisations aimed at specific areas of need and concern. One of which was St. Mary`s Young Men`s Association the forerunner of the Southampton Football Club (The “Saints”) of today! The curate, Rev`d Arthur Sole, chaired the first meeting of The St. Mary`s Young Men`s Association Football Club but it was the rector, Basil Wilberforce, who became the club`s first president. He was also president of The Deanery Cricket Club from its formation in 1871 until 1894.
The football club played its first match on Saturday 21st November 1885 beating Freemantle F.C. by 5 goals to 1. Charles Bromley (whose sister was married to one of my great uncles) scored a hat-trick that day!
How is all this relevant to us today? What are the issues we are facing as a society and how can the church be a force for good? Who would have thought that so many of the major football clubs of today would owe their existence to local churches deciding to do something to try and improve the lives of their parishioners? The church can still make a difference but what proposals do we have to deal with the current wrongs in society? The Christian faith has been responsible for some wonderful things (see James Hunt`s comment in the March Parish News) and can continue to be so in the 21st century. We can all make a difference for the better in our world. We need to think and to pray as to how we can each contribute to our communities.
Who would have thought that Manchester City, possibly the leading football club in England at present, would owe their existence to a clergyman`s daughter!
Churchwarden at Blessed Mary, Upham
The author acknowledges contributions from Peter Lupson`s book.
15th April 2019