Is a gentleman’s fencing club the real inspiration for the world’s oldest football club, Sheffield FC ?

The received wisdom regarding the foundation of Sheffield FC on October 24th 1857 (162 years ago today) is that cricketers and athletes needed a way to keep fit during the winter months, so started a foot ball club. The co founders were Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest but the research I conducted for my book ( ) pointed to the incredible influence of William Chesterman. I have discovered previously unpublished reminiscences from Chesterman about the club’s early days, that suggest a strong link to a local fencing and gymnastics club also contributing to the instigation of the world’s oldest football club. The article also has some interesting insights into how the Sheffield Rules of 1858 were drawn up.

Chesterman was the Sheffield FC delegate who attended the inaugural meetings of the London FA in 1863 and helped steer the debate towards the dribbling game and away from the handling and hacking contingent. He ensured that the Sheffield FC archive was kept safe during the great Sheffield flood of 1864. (This was sold by the club at Sotheby’s for £881,250.00 in July 2011). He was also the man who attended the meeting of the London Football Association on the 12th February 1867 ,when the Association discussed whether it should dissolve itself. He brought with him a letter of support and encouragement for the F.A from the recently founded Sheffield Association, which represented all the fourteen clubs that played regularly under the Sheffield rules, representing in excess of 1000 members. (My research in fact suggests there were sixteen clubs in 1867). Without Chesterman’s intervention Mr. Morley may have asked for a vote from the six clubs for a dissolution. Without Chesterman the FA’s current 156-year birthday celebration may have been cut short by some 152 years.

Based on Chesterman’s pedigree I was very excited to find a newspaper article for the first time, from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph dated Thursday 19th May 1904. The article reports the celebrations held by Sheffield FC when they won the FA Amateur Cup ; the guest of honour at the event is the 67 year old William Chesterman who discusses at length his early recollections. To my knowledge these have not been republished before in full. The reason for the omission I think is because the scanned newspaper page held by the British Newspaper Archive is positioned on the furthest right hand column and is unreadable due to the fold of the original bound book. Here is that article:


The banquet to the members of the Sheffield Club team, which last month brought the Amateur Cup to Sheffield, was held last night at the King’s Head Hotel, Change Alley. Colonel Sir J. E. Bingham, president of the club, was in the chair, supported by Messrs. W. Chesterman, H. B. Willey, W. E. Gray, W. Fisher Tasker, W. Aizlewood, W. Robinson, T. C. Willey, C. K. Baker, E. Bramley, A. D. Barber, and the members of the team. About 70 other members and friends of the club were present.

The toast list was short. Following “The King and Queen” Mr. Herbert Newbould proposed “The Sheffield Football Club.” He said it was a pride to belong to that organisation, with so fine a past, and so flourishing a present. The Sheffield public has taken a great interest in the club for many years, and the cup successes had been exceedingly popular. Referring to his own recollections of the club when he was in the ranks of opposing teams, he spoke very warmly of the fine work done by three players of the past, then present in T. C. Willey, W. Aizlewood, and W. Robinson. He was glad to see the keen interest taken in the club by the bigger club, Sheffield Wednesday – (cheers) – and glad such an excellent spirit existed between the two organisations. (Hear, hear.) The club had not always been successful in results, but it had always played the game in the true spirit, and had produced some of the best players Sheffield had known. (Cheers.)

The toast was heartily honoured, and in response Mr. W. Chesterman, whose rising was the signal for marked enthusiasm, referred at length to the history of the club. He said it was 40 years since he had first responded to that toast, and he felt something like a Rip van Winkle with so many sons of his contemporaries around him. (Laughter.) But he had had no connection with Sheffield Club save as a member since professionalism came in. It was not that he was wholly opposed to professionalism, for he could not see why the two classes should not work together in the right spirit, as was the case in golf, in cricket, and billiards. He congratulated the working members of the present team on so splendidly sustaining the traditions of fair play and honesty. They were ready to accept defeat, to rejoice in victory, and to fight an honest fight without unfair play or tactics. (Cheers.) The origin of the club was in obscurity, as the first entry in the books suggested that the club was formed in 1859, after sports had been held in 1858. About 1852, however, a Mr. Percy had rented a room in Orchard Lane as teacher of fencing, and, attracting many Sheffield gentlemen to his room, a gymnasium was eventually formed at the foot of College Street under Percy’s management, and one which was without doubt the finest in England. Messrs, Burberry, Prest, and Creswick were amongst the members, and when, after four or five years, the gymnasium had been given up, there came the Sheffield Football Club in 1856 or 1857 absolutely the first such club in the country. It was largely made up of public school boys, but there were no rules, and no other clubs to meet so sides were chosen at first. Then came Hallam, through the enterprise of Mr. Tom Vickers, and matches were arranged, in which “bull strength” was the principle feature. He had memories of seeing in these matches the ball lying quietly, and groups of half-a-dozen butting each other like rams yards away. (Laughter.) The idea was to charge “if you could get a shot at him, whether near the ball or not.” (Laughter.) Still, there were no rules. Bits had to be got piecemeal, bits from the rules of each public school as the boys came in, and one law, which did not last very long, was that players should carry half-a-crown in each hand to avoid pushing with the open hand. (Laughter.) Later clubs which appeared were Norton, Pitsmoor, and Broomhall, and from this point came a more general appreciation of the game. The lack of a regular system of rules caused matched to be played under the home rules in each case. It was the only way in which one set of rules could be evolved, and when London eventually took up the game it was quickly decided to form an Association.

Sheffield Club provided the first provincial team to play in London, the match being played at Battersea Park, “Knocking on” was allowed, and every goal that was scored was knocked through, and every goal that was scored was knocked through, and many a fist found a nose.  (Laughter.) Still it was a pleasant match. (Loud laughter.) It was wonderful how the game had grown, and equally wonderful how difficult it had been to make people think it would come on at all. He remembered that when the Sheffield Club went to Nottingham and won, the team came back so elated that they tossed the ball up outside the old Wicker Station and kicked it all the way through the town and up Sandygate, where the last member of the team lived. (Laughter.) He thanked them very heartily for their kind reception of the toast. He was sure that such games were the backbone of England, and whatever he could do to still further the interests of football he would be very glad to do. (Loud cheers.)

The president proposed the toast of “The Winning Team,” which was given with musical honours, and in response Mr, H. A. Potts, the captain, declared that he had been very proud of his team, and that no side could have played harder or been more loyal. (Cheers.) He believed that there would not have such a thing as an Amateur Cup but for the action of their President – (cheers) – and since it had been offered the Sheffield Club had striven for it thirteen years, and now would not let it go without a struggle. (Cheers.)

Presentations to Mr. H. B. Willey followed. He received the ball used in the final tie, mounted, and with a silver shield upon it, also photographs of the team, given by Mr. Harold Greaves, and then Mr. W. Robinson rose to make the more material presentations. The effort had resulted in a sum of well over £80 being subscribed, and the money was expended in a gold watch and chain, the watch suitably inscribed, and bearing Mr. Willey’s initials, a kit bag, a cricket bag, a suit case, and an illuminated address, calling attention to his seventeen years’ work as secretary, and to his unfailing high-mindedness and good sportsmanship. In making the presentations, Mr. Robinson said that Mr. Willey stood out as the best and soundest man he had known. (Cheers.) Everyone had the highest regard for him, and none too high. The consent of the Football Association perforce had had to be obtained ere the presentation could be made but that consent was given in terms of the greatest willingness, and with the utmost pleasure. (Loud cheers.)

In response, Mr. Willey thanked the members of the club very heartily for their splendid gifts, and for their kind greeting. The secretaryship had been a labour of love to him, and a hobby, and he had been happy in the best of committees. He thanked them very heartily indeed.

The last toast was that of “The Visitors,” proposed by Mr. W. Fisher Tasker. A musical programme was gone through, adding materially to the enjoyment of those present, and this was taken part in by Messrs. Drabble, Bramley, and Dr. Curtis, whilst Mr. W. H. Parton gave a much-appreciated recitation. Mr. Linley acted as accompanist.

In my 2017 book I discussed the Gymnasium that opened in 1855 on Clarkehouse Road and speculated whether Creswick and Prest could have been members and in the above article Chesterman confirmed that fact. The following extract from my book explains more:

A History of Sheffield Football - Second Edition - by Martin Westby
A History of Sheffield Football – Second Edition – by Martin Westby

Nathaniel played cricket with William Prest at the Sheffield United Cricket Club (1854) when they were both in their mid-twenties and may well have been interested in the innovation of the same year when a gentleman’s gym opened in December 1855. It is not known if they joined (or even invested in) the Sheffield Gymnasium but due to its location, where they had probably played as boys, they would certainly have been very aware of its instigation:
“Gymnasium – A piece of ground adjoining the grounds of the Wesley College has been taken and a number of gentlemen have subscribed for shares, to erect a Gymnasium, a Rifle gallery, a Racket court, and an American bowling alley. Amid all the stimulants to mental effort which the present day affords, those take but a one-sided view of education who neglects to train the body as well as the mind. And the more the mind is tasked, the greater is the necessity for cultivating to the highest point of efficiency the physical powers, and keeping them by constant and well regulate exercise in full vigour. The design of this Gymnasium is excellent and we have no doubt it will be appreciated by the public.” (Sheffield Independent 25th March 1854)

Six months later the gymnasium was open and was state of the art:

“Sheffield Gymnasium and School of Arms – We understand that it is intended to open, next week, the buildings recently erected in Clarkehouse Lane, for the Gymnasium and School of Arms. The design of the promoters has been to supply a want felt by the gentlemen engaged in mercantile and professional pursuits, whose engagements render them unable to spare the time necessary to take that amount of muscular exercise which is necessary for the maintenance of health. The building comprises a gymnasium, 90 feet long and 31 feet wide; racket attic, 65 feet in length and 30 feet wide; rifle gallery, 190 feet long; two American bowling alleys, quoit ground, reading rooms, &c. The gymnasium, attached to which are suites of dressing rooms, is stated to be the most complete in its fittings of any similar institution in England. It and the racket court are lighted from the roof, and in the latter is a raised gallery, with seats for the accommodation of spectators.” (Sheffield Independent 21 October 1854)

The project was short-lived and the gym was declared insolvent in June 1856; perhaps the gym had provided a place to exercise through the winter and it was thought that playing football would fill the gap, when it closed? Whatever the catalyst, in May 1857 Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest decided to form a ‘foot ball’ club, but first there was a cricket season to play and the foot ball club did not start until October 24th 1857.

I have since found this newspaper advert from when the Sheffield Gymnasium and School of Arms opened:

Sheffield Daily Telegraph – Friday 14 December 1855

As early as July 1853 Mr William Percy was presenting a swordsmanship show at a Sheffield Music Hall:

Sheffield Independent – Saturday 09 July 1853

William Percy clearly did receive sufficient encouragement and just a year later was opening his Sheffield Gymnasium and School of Arms . With help from ‘Boginspro’ at the Sheffield History at we have found an entry from the 1854 Kelly’s handbook for a William Percy at 4 Clarkehouse Lane , which ‘Boginspro’ thinks is more likely his residential address because ‘ that row of houses are Grade II listed buildings dating from around 1845’ . We know that the Gymnasium was built on land adjoining the Wesley College, which is now King Edwards VII school but the modern location still escapes me.

I have attempted some genealogical research for William Percy but have drawn a blank as I do not have enough information to know that I have found the correct Mr Percy. If anyone can help with this search for information I would be very grateful.

The new information on the evolution of the 1858 Sheffield Rules (the world’s third oldest rules) comes from the following phrase from the 1904 Chesterman article:

Bits had to be got piecemeal, bits from the rules of each public school as the boys came in“.

I wrote about the 1858 Sheffield Rules in an earlier blog.

What follows is from a Sheffield FC club manuscript written in 1907:
“After season 1857-8 the Hon. Sec. Nathaniel Creswick and committee drew up printed rules, regulations and laws for the club, and from these is to be seen that game was half rugby and half association.”

As the author of ‘A History of Sheffield Football 1857-1889: Speed, Science and Bottom’ I became aware of the two competing groups looking to definitively put the general origins of football down to one specific cause. The original thought espoused by Geoffrey Green, Francis Peabody Magoun, Morris Marples, Montague Shearman and Percy Young was that old boys from the public-school system originated the game. This orthodox view is today argued for by the likes of Graham Curry and Eric Dunning.

Later a revisionist group came along, including John Goulstone, Adrian Harvey and Peter Swain, who argued for the importance of the early folk football game and the influence of the working classes. They argued that it was not the Football Association, but the Sheffield Football Association and other early forms of football from whom the rules of modern soccer were developed.

Having investigated early Sheffield football for my book, I have a foot in both camps; I feel that the enormous influence of the Sheffield FA should be more recognised, which puts me firmly in the ‘revisionist camp’. But whilst looking at the origins of Sheffield football I suggested that a number of influences had all had an effect on Sheffield gaining such prominence; the Collegiate School, the volunteer movement, the thriving cricket scene and to a lesser degree the folk football played in Thurlstone. However, if pushed to select one predominant influence, I would choose the Collegiate School because Nathaniel Creswick and twenty-nine others of Sheffield FC’s initial membership of fifty-seven came from the school; which also puts me into the ‘orthodox’ camp. Remember that we have also just discovered that William Percy’s Gymnasium was also located in between the fee paying Wesley College and the Collegiate School and that Creswick and Prest were members. This new finding reinforces the influence of public schools (both Wesley and Collegiate) on the evolution of the Sheffield game but it also highlights the fact that Sheffield did not just embrace a blanket endorsement of one specific school’s rules, say the Eton game, but analysed everything available and then designed a customised version that worked for them and the hilly pitches that they played their game on.

Happy 162nd Birthday to the World’s Oldest Association Football Club – Sheffield FC