From The Vaults

15 February 2021
The Formation of Sunderland FC

Keith Gregson examines links between the founding of the Rugby Football Union in 1871 and the establishment of Sunderland Football Club in 1873.

Between Christmas and New Year 1873 a group of young men assembled on the ground of Sunderland Cricket Club at Holmeside near the town centre in order to play a game of football under the rugby rules. This was reported in the local press as the first game for the recently formed Sunderland Club. A 'large number of spectators' was present and the two sides were described as 'pick-up'. The local paper named the two captains as well as the scorer of the only try. There is also a photograph in the club archive of some of the players early in 1874 when the club had started to play regular games against other sides. The players involved in Sunderland's first match and first season were all from well-heeled families involved in shipbuilding and allied trades, shipping and the professions. Some were teenagers and two, at least, were still away at school and thus recorded as 'absent' when the photograph was taken.

It is fairly easy to put the formation of Sunderland Football Club into context both nationally and regionally. By the 1870s, football had divided into two codes - the association code or 'dribbling' game and the rugby code or 'handling' game. In Sunderland what was to become the internationally renowned association club was founded some six or seven years after the rugby club and has become known as Sunderland AFC (or simply SAFC) as a result. Both forms of football had developed from the traditional 'street' football and school football games and during the early and middle nineteenth century most organised football was played in schools, colleges and universities. Many of the games were 'pickup' as in the schoolyard games of later years where all who wished to play grouped together and two captains 'picked' sides. The rules applied at universities and colleges in particular came out of individual schools with those emanating from Rugby School increasingly popular with those who preferred the handling game. As time passed clubs dedicated to each of the two codes started to be formed - especially after the formation of the Football Association (1863) and the Rugby Football Union (1871). Sunderland RFC was one of the first rugby clubs to be formed in north east England. Some if not all of its players had played at boarding school and had met up to play occasional games with other former pupils from the wider counties of Durham and Yorkshire prior to 1873. Significantly, the two schoolboys mentioned earlier - sons of Sir James Laing shipbuilder - were at Wellington College in 1873. The college had been one of the founding members of the RFU in 1871. One of the brothers - James- captained the school team while his brother, Arthur, was destined to captain Sunderland RFC's first county cup winning side.

Sunderland RFC was thus formed by a group of young men schooled in different places but united by links of class and age and, in most cases, some experience of playing one of the forms of football. They lived in the detached houses and semi-villas newly built in the suburbs or beside the sea and chose to play the game for leisure, entertainment and companionship. How far this was typical can be gauged only by asking the same 'formation' question of the many clubs founded during the mid to late Victorian period.'

The Recent Research

The starting point here is the formation of the RFU in January 1871. A number of sites, including the RFU's own, record the founding meeting;

On January 26, 1871 21 clubs were represented by 32 people at a meeting chaired by E C Holmes, the Captain of Richmond Club. It was held at the Pall Mall Restaurant in London. Within two hours the Rugby Union was formed. Algernon Rutter of Richmond was elected as the first President, with Edwin Ash as the first Secretary/Treasurer.

One of the clubs represented at the inaugural meeting was Wellington College whose delegate was A J English. (The original list of attendees is now on view at the Rugby World Museum). English is referred to as a fine sportsman in J L Bevir's contemporary school history. At the time of the 1871 census, weeks after the inaugural meeting of the RFU, Augustus J English was at school - 19 years old and born in the East Indies. A cursory research of other sites reveals that he may have later enjoyed a successful career as an officer in the Hussars. What is more significant perhaps from the view of Sunderland RFC is that both the Laing brothers were at the same school as English and are placed in the school on the same census - age 14 and 15.

It is at this point that the digitization of the Wellington School magazine for the 1870s begins to play a part. The search engine attached to The Wellingtonian reveals 38 hits on the Laing brothers around the time of the formation of the Sunderland club. They were involved in various sports -including squash racquets - and played 'football' together for various houses or pick up teams and for the school itself. Significantly they were both named in a school side which took on fellow RFU founder Richmond in October 1873 - weeks before the formation of the Sunderland club. The following February and weeks after the Sunderland club's formation they were also part of a '20' chosen for a school fixture. Between the two matches they returned home for Christmas, met up with friends for a pick-up game and, with them, chose to play by the 'Rugby rules'. They then returned to school and do not feature again for the rest of that season. They came back to Sunderland from time to time during the following couple of seasons and also turned out for the old Durham County side. However they did not play regularly for SRFC until the late 70s. Both had a major role in the side which in 1881 won the first ever Durham Challenge Cup and both continued to play for and support the club thereafter.

Despite the Laings frequent absences, the new club began to put down roots. The Sunderland Echo for 1874 is now digitized and the search engine of the (fee-paying) British Newspaper Archive has come up trumps with references to the club's first season. If the links with the formation of the RFU, Wellington College (and indeed via the Laings with Richmond) are of interest so too is the role of the local cricket club. Only three weeks after the Christmas holiday match, the Echo records a meeting of the cricket club where the existence of the football club and the use of the Holmeside cricket ground was re-affirmed - also, interestingly and as the title of this article suggests, the football side was 'recently formed ' and 'mainly from among yourselves' i.e. the cricketers. Things then began to move swiftly. By March the club has played twice against Darlington and once against the Newcastle College of Physical Sciences. In the side was a young Abel Chapman, destined to become a famed explorer; also Paddy Junor one of the found members of Glasgow Academicals. In April four of the Sunderland Club played for Durham against Yorkshire at Leeds and during the following month Whit Sports were held at the Sunderland ground with some races specifically for the members of 'Sunderland Football Club'.

By the autumn of 1874 there was already the feel of a club in the air. The season started with a 'big-sided practice' which involves five Kayll brothers including Harry - Durham County and Sunderland's first international. A number of fixtures were arranged as well as the prospect of a return game with Yorkshire - this time in Durham. This match took place at Darlington in December 1874 with, yet again, four Sunderland players in the side.

The ability to access digitised versions of The Wellingtonian and the Sunderland Echo (with ease!) allows the writing of a more solid account of the origins of Sunderland RFC. The club can now proudly trace its roots with some assurance to the very formation of the Rugby Football Union and, through two youngsters who were to serve that club for years, to links with two of the RFU's founding clubs. At the same time, local reports have shown that the existence of a 'grounded' cricket club (traceable to at least 1834 through records) plus a group of keen locals contributed to the start of a journey still being undertaken almost 150 years later.

Have any other club historians discovered similar origins or is this atypical? I would welcome a discussion.

About the Author - Keith Gregson is a regular contributor to 'From the Vaults' and previous blogs on the site may be of interest to researchers. Details of his work on SRFC ('One among Many') and the Sunderland club and the First World War ('The Ashbrooke Boys') can be found on his website at

If you would like to submit a club history for publication, please contact [email protected]

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