The story of 1868 (Part One); the association game in Scotland

The year 1868 was an important one for the two codes of football in Scotland. For the embryonic association game, this year saw a challenge match take place in Glasgow between Queen’s Park and Thistle FC, which unquestionably provided a major boost to the morale of the former club. It also witnessed the emergence of a parallel but unconnected association football culture in Dumfriesshire. For the more developed rugby game, 1868 saw a hugely important development for the leading clubs in the creation of a uniform set of Scottish playing rules – the Green Book. This topic is split into two articles which outlines the fortunes of both codes. Part One looks primarily at developments in the association game.

One of my favourite documents in the collection of the Scottish Football Museum is a letter from 1868 organising the first known challenge match involving Queen’s Park. For many years we thought that this game was the first under the association code (or at least a variation of it) to be played in Scotland. The game against Thistle FC, who were based at Glasgow Green, took place on the Queen’s Park recreation ground on 1st August 1868 and resulted in a 2-0 win for the home side. The letter which makes the arrangements is one of three that are known to exist. Two of these sit within the Queen’s Park FC collection at Hampden Park whilst a third independently came up at auction a number of years ago. The one sitting on display in the museum is the actual letter which was sent to the secretary of Thistle FC. The other letter in the Queen’s Park FC collection and the one that was sold at auction are the original ‘committee’ copies from 1868 which would have been circulated at the time of arranging the match.

A view of the Queen’s Park recreation ground looking across to Hampden Terrace

The displayed letter is dated 29th July 1868 and was written by Robert Gardner, in his role as secretary of the Queen’s Park Club. A very influential man within the early development of association football in Scotland, Gardner captained Queen’s Park and later Clydesdale FC, playing in the inaugural Scottish Cup Final in 1874. In 1872 he was handed the captaincy of the Scotland national team with responsibility for selecting the team in the first official international match. He also served as a committee member at the inaugural meeting of the Scottish Football Association in March 1873 and in December of that year captained one of the teams in an exhibition match which introduced the association code in the rugby heartland of Edinburgh.

The content of the letter tells us some interesting details about aspects of the game as played by Queen’s Park at the time. The number of players, for example, was set at 20 a side. The club was certainly experimenting and learning during this early period. Queen’s Park would alter the number of players in subsequent games. These differing numbers will have been the outcome of negotiations with the clubs involved and may, in part, have been due to the ability of the opposing teams to get sufficient numbers onto the field of play. For example, in 1870 when the Drummond Club turned up a couple of players short for their game with Queen’s Park, two members of the neighbouring Deaf and Dumb institute had to be invited to make up the numbers.  It would be 1872 before the club began to embrace 11 a side as the preferred number although in this year a match against Airdrie FC was played at 10 aside and a reserve match against Southern FC involved 13 players on each side.

What is clear from the letter of 1868 is that a negotiation as to aspects of the game was necessary. One area which needed agreement, and which wasn’t covered in the rules, was the duration of a game. Robert Gardner states in the letter that “We consider, however that two-hours is quite long enough to play in weather such as the present, and hope this will be quite satisfactory to you.” There is also a recommendation with respect to changing ends “so that both parties may have the same chance of wind and ground.”

Letter arranging match between Queen’s Park FC and Thistle FC, 1868 (Queen’s Park FC Collection, Scottish Football Museum)

Up to 1871, the embryonic football culture that was centred around Queens Park was limited to Glasgow and the neighbouring county of Lanarkshire. The clubs which joined Thistle in playing against Queen’s Park during this period were Hamilton Gymnasium, Airdrie, (both Lanarkshire based), the Drummond Club, and Granville FC (both Glasgow). Queen’s Park did consider meeting a club from Ayr but this game would never materialise. After a year of internal practice games the first match against Thistle was hugely important, adding an impetus to the efforts of the club to continue to look beyond their own horizon. They remained committed to pursuing and promoting the association code and after a period of hard work and patience their endeavours really started to bear fruit in 1872 when the high profile FA Cup match against Wanderers and their staging of the international football match in Glasgow did much to capture the imagination of the public. The club’s ‘missionary’ work helped to bring in clubs from Dunbartonshire (an early powerhouse for the association game alongside Glasgow), Ayrshire and, by the end of 1873, the aforementioned exhibition match brought the alternative code to the attention of the Edinburgh public. This tireless work meant that Glasgow would emerge as the centre for the association game in Scotland and within a few short years its influence would reach out far beyond Scotland’s borders. Briefly, however, clubs from another region independently championed the association code in Scotland and evidence of their games, although limited, show at least two challenge matches taking place prior to the Queen’s Park v Thistle encounter of August 1868.

The second notable area for the association game in Scotland in 1868 was Dumfriesshire. The reason for this largely appears to be down to the efforts of an important nobleman – John Douglas, 9th Marquis of Queensberry. Douglas was an all-round sports enthusiast. He set up the Amateur Athletic Club in 1866 and the following year lent his name to the famous “Queensberry Rules” which would go on to serve as the standard set of rules for boxing worldwide. As a young man he spent two years at Cambridge University (1864-66) but left to head back north to his family estate at Kinmount in Dumfriesshire. Douglas certainly kept his interest in sport while in residence at Kinmount; an entry in John Lillywhite’s Football Annual of 1870 suggests that on arriving home in 1866 he established a club under association rules named Kinmount FC.

The Lillywhite Football Annuals actually suggest that a small cluster of clubs were playing to the Association code, covering Kinmount, Annan, Dumfries and Springkell. This cluster emerged during the period running from the late 1860s into the early 1870s. To date I have only been able to trace two games between these clubs and both involved the Kinmount Club and Annan Football Club. In the two articles Kinmount FC is referred to as the ‘Marquis of Queensberry’s Team.’ The first match between the clubs was played at Kinmount on 14th March 1868 with a return match taking place at Annan on 21st March. Both games were played at 15 a side. The influence of the Marquis on the creation of the Annan Club (which is seperately recorded as being formed in December 1867) is evident from one of the match reports which states that,

The revival of the game, which a good many years ago formed the favourite sport of the men of Annan, is chiefly due to the Marquis of Queensberry, who has lately taken a deep interest in the other pastimes of the town.

The Marquis made a notable impression in the first game, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win. This match was set for a duration of two hours. Annan gained revenge in the return match, winning by an identical score line although the serious injury to a member of the Kinmount side may have helped to tip the balance in favour of the home side.

Less is known of the two remaining teams who are listed as playing to the association code in this area. According to Lillywhite’s Football Annual of 1870 the Dumfries Club was formed in 1869, had 50 members and were based at Dock Park on the banks of the River Nith. Interestingly, the entry states that they had recently been playing rugby rules but had now changed to association. A Dumfries Rangers Football Club was formed in 1870 which perhaps leads to speculation that there was a split in the committee of the original club. Such a split may have led to the ‘rugbyites’ leaving in order to start up anew. This would, if true, mirror in part the experience of Kilmarnock Football Club during the early 1870s.

Dock Park, Dumfries, the registered playing field for Dumfries Football Club

The fourth association club is Springkell Football Club, located on the Springkell estate near Eaglesfield. It is first recorded in the Lillywhite Football Annual for 1870 but the date of origin is registered as being about ’30 years ago.’ This would mean a formation date of 1840. Very little can be found to back up this vague claim but there may be a simple explanation. Sir John Heron Maxwell, owner of the Springkell estate and, according to the 1870 entry, Patron and President of the football club, organised annual football games on New Year’s Day on the grounds of his mansion house, for his estate workers. I have found an article on one of these games dating back to 1856 and the tradition was still going strong by New Year’s Day 1873. Perhaps this tradition of hosting an annual football game at New Year explains the claim of being 30 years old (in 1870) although, as a football club playing to the association code, their existence would of course have been much more recent.

Springkell House and estate grounds, the home venue of Springkell Football Club

Without question the rapid growth and success of the association game in Scotland can be attributed to the efforts of Queen’s Park operating from their Glasgow base. The association game in Dumfriesshire which ran in parallel to the football culture emerging under Queen’s Park clearly doesn’t have the same legacy to boast of. Beyond Glasgow and Lanarkshire, Queen’s Park were in contact with a club as far down the west coast as Ayr during the late 1860s but there is no evidence of any contact being made with the Dumfriesshire clubs. There may, however, still be a legacy of sorts for these pioneering Dumfriesshire clubs.

Rugby football, as a game, was far more established and more widely played across Scotland. By the early 1870s it was spreading into the Scottish Borders and had a foothold in Dumfries. A club playing to the rugby code was also established in the small town of Langholm, situated on the eastern edge of Dumfriesshire, by 1871. This club was founded by people linked to the local Tweed industry who had been educated in England. Langholm enjoyed cross border matches with Carlisle and would soon be joined by rugby football clubs in the nearby communities of Hawick (1872) and Westerkirk (1873). Moving deeper into the Border region, rugby was also being played at school level in Jedburgh and Melrose. And yet the spread of the rugby game, so impressive in many parts of Scotland, does not appear to have had as much success in pushing westwards across the rest of Dumfriesshire and into Galloway. There is also no evidence to suggest that the growing football culture emanating from Queen’s Park had reached south west Scotland during this early period.

By the end of the 1870s the Scottish Football Annual could boast of clubs like Queen of the South Wanderers from Dumfries (formed in 1872) as a member club. There were other association clubs from the south west region including Wigtownshire clubs like Tarff Rovers from Kirkcowan and, of course, Stranraer FC, who list their year of formation as 1870. The question then is whether the emergence of a small but enthusiastic football culture in Dumfriesshire so early on prevented a westward expansion of the rugby code?

Whether this has any bearing or not – 1868 would be an important year for association football in Scotland. In that year there was no guarantee that the game would take off in quite the way that it subsequently did. After a year without an opponent Queen’s Park finally met another team on the playing field, which must have been a massive boost to the club’s morale at the time. It is also fascinating to know that, in the same year in another part of Scotland, two teams were also meeting under the association code. In the long history of the game in Scotland almost nothing was known about this parallel development. Hopefully, in time, the story of the Dumfriesshire clubs will also find a space in the general history of the association game in Scotland.

4 thoughts on “The story of 1868 (Part One); the association game in Scotland”

  1. Richard – I assume this is the Marquess of Queensberry – of Oscar Wilde and Lord Rosebery fame. If so, I wonder if he would have been championing an alien type of football from Cambridge? I mean – not the culture of the Scotch Professor. Is that is why the game seems to have had a false start? As one of the most thoroughly objectionable individuals of the 19th century, I doubt that he had a winning way with fellow sportspeople 🙂


    1. Hi Ged, yes the evolution of the short passing and dribbling style stems from QPFC and there is no link between QPFC and the football culture surrounding the Marquis of Queensberry who most likely would have been influenced by his time at Cambridge University. Difficult to put a finger on why these clubs dissappear so quickly. It could be down to a matter of the Marquess, who seems to have been a driving force, losing interest and moving on to other things. On checking up on him I had noticed that he was rather a controversial figure!


  2. Richard – That’s all very interesting. I visited Annan Museum on Monday to try to find out location details for Solway Star’s original ground (?), Summergate Park, and also their latter one, Mafeking Park. Staff there tipped me off about the Kinmount club who may have been playing games at the dawn of footballing time. The staff were incredibly helpful, I think I’ve tracked down the Mafeking Park site and they indicated that some of the original facilities may have survived and been re-purposed. I’m not sure how they learnt about Kinmount FC, perhaps you’ve visited the museum recently. If so, they’re spreading the word on your behalf. Keep up the good work.


    1. Hi John, thanks for the kind comments. Good luck with your own research – incredibly valuable. I visited Annan Museum a couple of times a few years ago to assist with an exhibition on women’s football. While I was there I mentioned the Kinmount team and asked about accessing the Kinmount estate as the games appear to have been played there. It’s great that they still remember the conversation. Best wishes, Richard


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