The Foundation of England’s Football League Clubs

With Charlton Athletic celebrating it’s 110th birthday this week.  We thought it would be worthwhile looking at how Charlton’s origins compare to the other 91 clubs in English league football.

The first thing to say is that the foundation of our club is quite unique.  It is the only league club to be founded by local youths with no previous organisation to help them.  There are seven other clubs whose foundation was based around schools, though the setting up of these clubs was based around old boys, school masters or organised games.  The boys of Charlton are different in that they took the initiative to get themselves organised.  We can’t claim self-sufficiency to be solely located in South London though; Hull City were set up by a group of local men, whilst several other clubs were formed as a result of locally held public meetings.  Though often these were led by single pioneers or entrepreneurs.  Of these, Port Vale is notable because rather unusually it took its name not from the town that it represented, but form the venue name of its inaugural meeting “Port Vale House”.

Screenshot 2015-06-13 14.22.15

A surprisingly large number of clubs were formed from earlier football teams.  Few can boast a number of teams in their lineage like Dagenham & Redbridge (Ilford, Leytonstone, Walthamstow Avenue, Redbridge Forest, Dagenham), though several (Luton, QPR, Walsall) were the result of mergers and amalgamations of earlier clubs.  Gillingam and Hartlepool seem to have been inspired by other neighbourhood clubs, whilst Brighton and AFC Wimbledon were directly set up by the supporters of other clubs.  Several clubs seem to have taken advantage of other teams in their district failing, including Leeds who benefitted from the FA’s winding up of Leeds City in 1919.  Perhaps the die was cast here for the Leeds-Charlton court cases of the 1980s.

Many clubs have uncertain origins, but of those where their formation is known, cricket is the next biggest source.  These range from Sheffield United and Derby County that were official spin-offs of their respective County Cricket Clubs to Aston Villa and Birmingham who were set up by cricket playing members of local church congregations.  This brings us on to another largish category; church related teams.  Not including the willow loving Brummies above, the foundations of six teams were church related.  Bolton and Everton though sunday schools, Fulham, Barnsley, Southampton and Mansfield through church parishioners.  Two clubs Accrington and Oldham really can claim to be pub sides.

Many clubs have their origins in industry.  Arsenal of course had their origins in the Woolwich Arsenal, taking on that name after a brief period as Dial Square (a place near the Royal Artillery Museum) and a further 5 years as Royal Arsenal.   West Ham were famously known as Thames Ironworks.  Coventry represented the Singer factory and were known for fifteen years as Singers F.C.  Wycombe Wanderers were founded by furniture manufactures whilst Stoke City and Man Utd. had their origins in the railways.  Millwall started life as a team representing a jam factory, which if it doesn’t explain how jammy they have been over the years, it at least tempers all that dockers nonsense they like to spout [Edit: the jam factory origins are disputed by Millwall, please see post from Lewis Moody below].

Five clubs were set up with the specific aim of forming professional teams.  Three of them, Liverpool, Chelsea and Crystal Palace, were set up by entrepreneurs looking to make money from sports grounds that they already owned.  Two of them Portsmouth and Southend didn’t have the grounds (though both were quick to acquire them) but still wanted to make money.  Looking at how much they’ve lost over the years it makes you wonder how those starting them would rate their ventures if they could look back now.

The final word on clubs foundations needs to go to Doncaster Rovers who were formed in 1879 to play a one-off match against the Yorkshire Institution for the Deaf.  136 years on and this temporary club are still going.

Screenshot 2015-06-13 14.33.14

Charlton are still a relatively new club.  They were the 72nd of the current league teams to be formed so there are only 20 that are younger.  The first clubs, Notts County, Nottingham Forest, Chesterfield, Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke were formed in the 1860s.  The heyday for club formation was the 1880s with 26 clubs founded. In one year alone, 1881, five of the current league teams were formed: Leyton Orient, Newcastle, Preston, Swindon and Watford. The 1900s was the last decade to see the formation of a lot of league clubs.  Charlton, three months younger than Chelsea and a similar time older than Palace, were formed right in the middle of that decade.  The following decade saw very few new clubs as war swept the continent.  Even in the peace time that followed there weren’t many new emergers.  For whatever clubs have been formed since then, breaking into the league has been a very difficult thing to do.  So, hats off to those lads from East Street that through their own spirit and determination, and not inconsiderable footballing skills, got our club off the ground.  If they hadn’t done it when they did, there might never have been league football in Charlton.



  1. Re Millwall.

    The jam factory thing – no one knows how that got started.

    I’ve helped with the Millwall museum & can tell you categorically that Millwall Rovers were not founded by workers at a jam factory. For the simple reason that there was no jam factory on the Isle of Dogs to found a football club.

    We have tried correcting this error every time we see it. So I apologise, this is not a Millwall v Charlton thing…just a quest for accuracy.

    Millwall Rovers, as we were, were founded by a group of people looking to fill their Saturday afternoons with another activity, once cricket season was over; most of whom happened to work as tinsmiths at the Morton & Co. Cannery factory; a factory that made cans for tinned preserves.

    The idea that something like a jam factory, seasonal and reliant on fresh harvests of hundreds of thousands of fresh strawberries etc, would exist in the heart of the Victorian Eastend is ridiculous.

    Hence our astonishment at this idea taking off, even in respected books.

    However, respected Millwall historian James Murray, author of the excellent and well researched Lions of the South says that he may be to blame…as despite saying that Millwall were formed by tinsmiths at a cannery, he also mentions preserves like jam and marmalade. Some people added 2 & 2 together and somehow came up with this idea of a jam making factory operating in the heart of the industrial Eastend.

    And if you think we are ‘jammy’ are you referring to the fact that it was Millwall, as leading light of southern football, who were invited ahead of Arsenal, to join the FA, but who remained loyal to the southern league, which we jointly started with Arsenal, but who were stabbed in the back by the Gunners…or at a time when Millwall were getting 35-45,000 gates in the second tier & on their way up when WW2 broke out? Or the fact The Den only suffered one bomb hit in WW2, but was fire damaged by a still lit cigarette soon after hostilities ceased, at a time insurance companies were no paying out for that kind of thing? Or when we missed out on promotion with a great team, in the final year of two up to the top flight by one point, when a few seasons later we’d have got up not only in third, but with the switch to 3 points for a win in second place? Or when we floated on the stock market and built a new ground off of own backs (take note Bolton, Man City & West Ham) and the economy crashed? Or when we built another good team through our youth system (Cahill, Reid, Ifill, Sadlier etc), but ITV digital collapsed & we had to sell them off? While Palace went in to admin, didn’t pay debts and then went up. Yep, very jammy us!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for your post Lewis. Apologies for taking so long to approve it, I’m not used to anyone taking any notice of what’s written here. The source for my article was Sky Sports year book. I checked back several years and the same origins are published in there going back to when the great Jack Rollin was editor. It may be worth tackling them as the source (for me at least) of the story.

      Is it fair to say that Millwall were formed by local workers, many (most?) of whom worked in a cannery. This cannery would at sometimes dealt with jam amongst other products.But there’s no real significance in the jam and it’s fairer to say that they were tinsmiths?

      As for what I meant by jammy, it was part cheap jibe and part reference to the fact that without fail, you always beat us whether you are the best team or not.


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