The oldest football trophy? The story of the 1851 football medallion

The discovery of a football medallion from 1851 has to go down as one of the greatest ‘finds’ of my museum career. There is perhaps an irony, however, that when the item was discovered it had been sitting all along in a museum collection rather than being secretly squirrelled away for decades in someone’s attic or basement. The ‘discovery’, therefore, must be put into context; it was a find for the sports heritage community but the museum in question clearly knew of its existence, they were just not as aware at that time of its significance as an exceptionally historic piece of sporting silverware. The start of this story goes back a number of years when I first picked up on a Bell’s Life in London article (via Adrian Harvey’s newly released book, Football: The First Hundred Years). The article highlighted a match played in 1851 between the Edinburgh University Football Club and the 93rd Regiment (Sutherland Highlanders). It was just the type of thing to include in the database.

The report on the match provided some fascinating information. It took place at Holyrood Park on level ground behind Holyrood Palace (in 1851 the Sutherland Highlanders were stationed in Edinburgh Castle on the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the palace). In the Bell’s Life article the park is referred to as Queen’s Park and it has also been known as King’s Park as its title traditionally depended on the gender of the reigning monarch (which happened to be Queen Victoria in 1851). The game was played at 20 a side, not an uncommon number to have for a football game around this time. In the proceeding couple of decades, 20 a side would be widely used within rugby football (north and south of the border) as well as in early games involving Sheffield FC, and in Queen’s Park’s first challenge match with Thistle FC in 1868.

A view of Holyrood Park looking across to the Salisbury Crags

The match was played to the best of five games (goals) with the regimental team winning decisively by 3 goals to 0. The article suggests that better coordination between the soldiers gave them an advantage on the field of play…

The students looked all confidence and appeared active, fine, athletic fellows. The Highlanders, with Lieutenant and Adjutant M’Donald as their chief, took their places coolly but with resolute determination, arranging themselves in a manner which displayed excellent training… The students played with courage and desperation, but they wanted that order and discipline which their more crafty opponents evinced.

Of particular interest, was the agreement struck by the two teams before the game to play ‘…for a handsome gold medal, a prize which will be presented by the losing party to the successful competitors.’ Whilst it was a fascinating account of a game, I naively assumed at the time that the medal, if it had existed, must be long lost as surely something so early and so important would be known and celebrated within the sports heritage community. The article was typed up and filed away in the database.

Roll on a few years and a meeting in the museum café at Hampden Park with John Burnett, the then Principal Curator of Scottish Modern History at National Museums Scotland and an expert in sports heritage. During our conversation John brought up the subject of the 1851 article and of course the matter of the medal. The conversation renewed sufficient interest in the game for me to look over the article once more later that day. I was still unconvinced that the object existed at all or, if it had existed, that it hadn’t survived the intervening years – the scepticism remained that we would already know about the medal if it did exist or, if it was hidden away in an attic somewhere, we would have no way of knowing where to start looking.

As the article confirmed that the regimental team had won the game it was more than reasonable to assume that if a medal did exist, then they would have received it. On doing a quick check I learned that the Sutherland Highlanders later merged with the 91st Regiment (Argyllshire Highlanders) to form the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. I was aware that the old regiment had a museum at Stirling Castle and decided to contact them directly to raise the subject of the game with them and to ask if, by any small chance, they happened to have anything connected to it. A week or so passed by and thoughts of the game once more started to drift out of my mind.

When the regimental museum did reply, shortly afterwards, it was to confirm that they did indeed have a medal from the game within their stores.  They emailed across the images that appear on this page. From memory, they were slightly taken aback by my wild excitement!

The front side of the medallion (I tend to refer to it as a medallion as it is large enough to cover the palm of my hand) has an engraving of a scene from the game which is quite exquisite in its detail. In the background the engraving shows the backdrop of the Salisbury Crags. The two teams are very distinguishable, the soldiers in their uniforms and the students in typical attire, including caps, for the period. The reverse side provides some important details, identifying both teams and adding the date of the contest – 25th January 1851.

Front side of the Medallion (Image courtesy of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders’ Museum)

The hallmarks on the medallion tell us that its year of origin is 1846. However, it must have sat in the jewellers shop for some time afterwards as it would have been ‘finished’ (engraved with the football scene and descriptive information) soon after the match in 1851. Most likely a member of the University Football Club would have picked it and paid for the engraving work to be done. We also know from the hallmarks that the medallion was made by James McKay, a jeweller based in Edinburgh.

An obvious difference between the description of the medal in the article and the medal that exists is its composition; the article suggests that the medal was going to be made of gold but the actual medal is cast in silver.

It may at first appear strange that an item in a museum collection which is of considerable interest to the sports heritage community would for years remain a secret beyond the immediate knowledge of the custodians of the regimental museum. However, having had an opportunity to visit the Argyll’s Museum and get an idea of the scope of their collection it is understandable that the object was not an obvious headline item within the overall history of the regiment. Museums can only display a small percentage of their collections and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ Museum has an awful lot to cover in a long history stretching back to 1794 (when the 93rd Regiment of Foot was raised). From the Napoleonic era and the Crimean War through to the First and Second World Wars there are many core stories for the museum to cover within its exhibition space. Since its wider discovery, the museum has very kindly loaned the medallion out for numerous external displays and I very much look forward to visiting Stirling Castle one day soon, when circumstances allow, in order to visit the revamped museum and view this wonderful item in its permanent home.

So, what is its significance? This is something that may draw different conclusions from different people although there is little doubt that anyone involved in sports heritage will appreciate and acknowledge it as an outstanding piece of early silverware for the sport of football in its generic form. In my opinion, for what its worth, the medal should be acknowledged and classified as a sporting ‘trophy’. A medal, yes, but also a trophy. In the modern era, football trophies are presented to teams and medals are presented to individuals but this medal (or medallion) was for the entire team. We also have to be careful not to rely on modern sports culture when attempting to classify items from a much earlier period. For example, it would be misleading to discount a medieval ‘football’ from being a football on the grounds that it is too small and irregularly shaped (being crudely made up of a pig’s bladder encased in leather) when compared with a modern size 5 football or rugby ball.

Reverse side of the Medallion (Image courtesy of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders’ Museum)

Importantly, it was agreed before the game that the losing side would present a medal to the winners. The wording on the medal may say that it is in ‘commemoration’ of the match, as it was presented retrospectively, but the fact remains that the two teams, from the outset, competed against each other in the knowledge that they were playing for the medal as a ‘prize.’ It certainly can’t be classified in the same light as the presentation pennant or commemorative gift of the modern era which team captains and office bearers pass over to their counterparts on the occasion of an important game.

As previously alluded to, one argument might be that a football ‘medal’ doesn’t meet the criteria of being a football ‘trophy.’ In the modern culture of football we may have a preconceived view of what a trophy should look like. Beyond the fact that it was awarded to the regimental team, rather than an individual, there are a wide variety of items which historically have been used as trophies in different sports. For example, a small (yet iconic) urn is coveted as a major trophy in cricket and a silver serving vessel (the world-famous Claret Jug) is an iconic trophy for golf. Less well known is the ‘Silver Ball of Rattray,’ a small silver ball dating from the early seventeenth century which was presented as a prize for a hand ball contest. Why not then a silver medallion for football?

If it is a trophy then, as far as I can determine, it appears to be the oldest surviving example of a trophy for football (in the generic sense of the term). It may well remain as such until a future day when an older prize is unearthed, perhaps after decades of concealment within a dusty basement or, who knows, hidden in plain sight within a museum store!

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