Sheffield’s contribution to the origin of football debate

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 the 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 sixteen others of Sheffield FC’s initial membership of fifty-seven came from the school; which also puts me into the ‘orthodox’ camp.

Since completing my book, I have become aware of the work of Graham Curry, Eric Dunning and Kevin Neill- ‘Three men and two villages: the influence of footballers from rural South Yorkshire on the early development of the game in Sheffield’- which made me aware that there was another important public school, besides Collegiate, that influenced early Sheffield football. What I had not realised was that Thurlstone and the nearby Penistone had been home to three key men who did have an important effect of Sheffield football, namely John Shaw, John Marsh and John Ness Dransfield, all of whom attended Penistone Grammar School.

The first part of the story is that football games been arranged as early 1844 by a John Marsh (a possible relative?) in connection with the Horns Tavern in Penistone. (In 1852 the proprietor of the tavern is listed as Abel Marsh). Another match from the following year specifically stated that they wanted to play foot ball not hand ball.

The later John Marsh (who may or may not be a relation) features significantly in my book as captain of the Sheffield FA team who played the London FA in January 1874. He was born in Thurlstone in 1843 and was educated at Penistone Grammar School which was a free school to the boys of the parish, including Thurlstone.  John Marsh became an engraver in Sheffield and was apprenticed in the same company where Nathaniel Creswick was Director. He was one of the founders of the Wednesday FC in 1867 and was Hon. Sec by 1872. He moved back home in 1874 to form Thurlstone Crystal Palace FC, named after his mother’s (nee Moorhouse) public house in the village (a story that also features in my book.)

John Ness Dransfield was born in Penistone 1839, the son of John Dransfield, a Solicitor.  Like John Marsh he too was educated initially at Penistone Grammar School and became a Member of the Sheffield FC 1860-61, whilst completing articles with Smith and Burdekin of Sheffield.  Eventually he joined his father to form Dransfield and Son. In 1906 he wrote ‘A History of the Parish of Penistone’ which included the following footballing insights:


A banquet to the members of the Sheffield Football Club Team, which had the previous month brought the Amateur Cup to Sheffield, was held on the 18th of May 1904, at the King’s Head Hotel, Change Alley, Sheffield. Mr. W. Chesterman, one of the oldest members of the Club, in responding to the toast, referred at length to its history. He said it was forty years since he had first responded to that toast; that the Sheffield Football Club formed in 1856 or 1857 was absolutely the first such club in the country; they had no rules, and no other clubs to meet, so sides were chosen at first. Then Hallam started a club and matches were arranged, in which ” bull strength ” was the principal 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. The idea was to charge ” if you could get a shot at him, whether near the ball or not.”

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 many a fist found a nose. Still it was a pleasant match. (Loud laughter.) It was wonderful how the game had grown.

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 to Sandygate, where the last member of the team lived. When in Sheffield in 1860-1, I was myself a member of the Sheffield Football Club and played in matches with Hallam and the Garrison — then, I believe, consisting of the Connaught Rangers, and a very lively team the Rangers had. If not the first, Mr. John C. Shaw, a native of Penistone, and who when a boy was a clerk in my father’s office, and for many years past has been one of the oldest and best-known Conservative agents in the Kingdom, was one of the first captains of the Sheffield Football Club; and just previous to my joining Mr. John Marsh, a native of Thurlstone, had been captain. Mr. Nathaniel Creswick was captain when I was in the Club, and David Sellars, the old Sheffield huntsman, one of the players. 1 first saw and played with the large footballs now in use when at the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, in 1853-4-5, and when at Windermere College, also in 1855.

As mentioned above, John Charles Shaw, the man credited with forming Hallam FC in 1860, also came from Penistone and he too had attended Penistone Grammar School. He knew both Dransfield and Marsh; the 1861 census shows his housekeeper was Thirza Moorhouse, sister of Elizabeth, John Marsh’s aunt and the land lady of the Crystal Palace Public House.

It seems I must belatedly add Penistone Grammar School to my list of contributing factors to the origin of football in Sheffield in 1857 and thank the authors (in particular Kevin Neill) for alerting me to the role these two villages north of Sheffield brought to the Association game.

In their 2015 book ‘Association Football: a study in figurational sociology; Curry and Dunning suggest a ‘third way’ to look at the origins of football debate. This ‘third way’ accepts much of the revisionists’ argument for the centrality of Sheffield to the development of modern soccer rules but suggests that ‘Old Etonian-influenced rules’ triumphed in the FA, first over Rugby and then over Sheffield rules, due to the ‘high social status’ of FA secretary of Charles Alcock. (page 178)

I think that this ‘third way’ argument chimes with my own feelings. One wondered why the Sheffield FA bothered to keep propping up the ailing FA when their model was clearly thriving in Sheffield. When both rules and laws came together in 1877 it was described as an ‘amalgamation’ by all parties so there was no superiority on the FA’s part towards Sheffield football. Perhaps if the likes of Chesterman and Shaw had shown more self-confidence and less deference to their London counterparts the position of Sheffield in the story of Association football would be even greater.

In Sheffield we are still guilty of playing down our achievements and there is still no significant recognition in the city of the seminal part played by those early pioneers. Ironically in Europe and the rest of the world Sheffield already enjoys this status, but the job of work that needs doing is firstly in Sheffield itself and then the rest of Britain. We lack a central focus to rally around to tell the Sheffield football story but perhaps if Sheffield FC can cement their planned move back close to their old East Bank ground in the city centre then that can be the catalyst for Sheffield football and the Sheffield people to take the message to the rest of the UK.