The Rise & Fall of Prescot FC (1884-1902)

An undated early team picture, thought to date from around 1900

It was in the Autumn of 1884 that a group of players from Prescot Cricket Club decided to maintain the sporting momentum by forming a football club and playing matches on a sloping field next door to the cricket ground on Warrington Road – the area now bounded by the railway line to the northwest, Warrington Road to the northeast, Ash Grove to the east and Heyes Avenue to the southwest (see the map, below). At the time the ground was owned by Lord Derby but is now given over to smart, redbrick modern housing.

A plan of Prescot's first ground at Warrington Road

The footballers of 1884 were not alone in their enthusiasm for the new game. Clubs were proliferating across the country and there was talk of supplementing the FA Cup competition with organised leagues. In some of the industrial towns there was also talk of professionalism. Just four years later in 1888 twelve clubs from the northwest and midlands formed the Football League. It was followed in quick succession by a myriad of similar leagues across the country.

But for the time being the fledgling Prescot Football Club had to content itself with friendly matches against like-minded local teams. Its first match took place at home on Saturday, 29 November 1884 against St Thomas’s Second Team, St Helens. For over a hundred years Prescot’s matches were to be covered by the Prescot Reporter, and this opening game was no exception. I include only the opening section as quoted in Neville Walker’s book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street. Note the original writer’s apparent unfamiliarity with football terms like ‘corner’, ‘shot’, ‘heading’ and ‘offside’. His frequent reference to the ball as the ‘leather’ betrays the influence of cricket – hence the old expression ‘leather on willow’ meaning ball on bat.

The play was watched with much interest by a good sprinkling of spectators. The home captain [Wilkinson], having won the toss, chose to play uphill with the wind. The ball was set in motion by [Prescot’s centre-half] Twist and in about five minutes from the start the leather was taken down the right wing and nicely passed towards the goal when the centre, Twist, put it between the uprights.

It was an own goal, by the way, and the goals themselves comprised two upright posts, a rope for a crossbar and no nets.

This caused the spectators to show their appreciation by cheering. Leadbetter [Prescot’s centre-forward] kicked off, and again the ball was quickly in the home team’s territory from which a ‘corner’ was obtained, but nothing was registered from this. Cookson [Prescot’s goalkeeper] kicked out and for a few minutes the leather travelled quickly from one end of the field to the other but eventually Ellison [of St Thomas’s] secured the ball and, after taking it some distance down the ground, made a ‘shot’ for goal but it hit one of the backs and rebounded into the field again, when Cousins [of St Thomas’s] managed to evade the home custodian by ‘heading’ the leather past him, thus scoring a second goal. Again, Leadbetter set the sphere rolling, and after some desultory play, one of the home backs sent the ball well up the field and Prescot put the ball between the uprights. Before the leather had reached the goal, however, the whistles were blown for ‘offside’, so nothing resulted.

Prescot lost 3-0. The Reporter lists Prescot’s team as W. Cookson, goalkeeper; Charles Wilkinson (captain) and J.H. Sephton, full-backs; Pearson Gill Twist, Joseph Case and N. Mercer, half-backs; and J.A. Baxter, J. Hunter, J. Leadbetter, J. Welsby and R. Woods, forwards. Of these, Charles Wilkinson later served as Prescot FC’s secretary, treasurer and vice-president, P.G. Twist as president, Joseph Case ‘had a lengthy off-the-field association with the club’ (Walker), and Cookson was known for playing football in his cricket trousers.

Nicknamed the ‘Watchmakers’ and playing in blue-and-white stripes, the new club spent its first four seasons appearing in friendly matches and cup competitions. In September 1889 it played its first match in the Liverpool and District League, where in the ensuing years its opponents included, among others, Aigburth Vale, Aintree Church, Bootle Athletic, Bootle White Star Wanderers, Bromborough Pool, Earlestown, Kirkdale, Liverpool Stanley, Liverpool Reserves and local rivals Whiston. Its first trophy came in 1890 when it won the Liverpool Junior Cup after eliminating Bootle Victoria, Liverpool St Peter’s, Newton, Garston Copperworks and Saltney Borderers in a semi-final played at Aintree. It was a second replay and Prescot won 5-2. ‘A huge crowd assembled at [Prescot] railway station to greet the 10 o’clock train carrying the returning team and their supporters,’ Neville Walker recalls. ‘As the locomotive steamed in, fog signals placed on the track by stationmaster Mr Prescott exploded “to add greatly to the enthusiasm”.’ The victory was further celebrated at the nearby Eagle and Child Hotel with music provided by the Band of the 2nd Volunteer Battalion (South Lancashire Regiment). The final, played in May 1890 presumably, must have been a great disappointment by comparison, the team defeating its own reserve side 7-2 in a match played at the Prescot Bible Class Ground at Moss Meadow. The team competed in the FA Cup for the first time in 1891, losing 7-1 at home to Crewe Alexandra. The match attracted 3,000 spectators. 1891-92 saw them finish the season in third place in the Liverpool and District League after ‘almost always hovering around the top four’ (Walker). A year later Prescot FC got through the FA Cup 1st qualifying stage with a win at Rhosllanerchrugog (near Wrexham), after which defender Jack Woodward thought it best to escape to Ruabon Station in full kit rather than change and face a hoard of home fans accusing him of rough play. Prescot lost to Chester in the 2nd qualifier.

Prescot FC was elected to the Lancashire Alliance in 1895. This was a league comprising mostly teams in the county’s southwest like Haydock, Earlestown, Skelmersdale United, Hindley, St Helens Recreation and Whiston. It lost only one home game during the ensuing season and finished fourth. The team had ended the previous season as losing finalists in the Liverpool Senior Shield. This year they clinched the trophy with wins against Whiston, Saltney Borderers, Bootle White Star Wanderers and, in the second of two finals played at the Liverpool Police Ground, Tranmere Rovers. Not surprisingly 1895-96 was also a success off the field, with the accounts showing a healthy profit of £5 15s 10d (about £5.80p – current value just over £690). After finishing runners-up in the Lancashire Alliance in 1897, Prescot FC was elected to the more prestigious Lancashire Combination, a league in which it would distinguish itself as the twentieth century unfolded. But not at this point. It finished the 1897-98 season second from bottom and returned to the Lancashire Alliance the following Autumn. Triumph came two years later in 1900 when Prescot was crowned Lancashire Alliance champions, notable wins, according to Neville Walker, including 11-1 against Peasley Cross and on the first day of the new century 6-1 against Seacombe Swifts. The success did not last for long. A year later, in 1901, the team ended up bottom of the Alliance and sent packing back to the Lancashire League.

Meanwhile plans were afoot to reorganise sport in Prescot. On 14 June 1902 a meeting was held in the Parish Rooms on Warrington Road to discuss the formation of a recreation club embracing cricket, football, cycling and athletics. Present were Lord Derby’s son and Lancashire MP the Hon. Arthur Stanley (1869-1947), the Vicar of Prescot Harry Mitchell and members representing the sports involved. The meeting boasted plenty of committee members from Prescot FC. The issue involved a proposed extension of the Warrington Road ground, and the meeting ended with a resolution to form a special subcommittee, probably chaired by Rev. Mitchell, to work out specific plans for what most people would surely have regarded as a welcome development in the town’s sporting life. Most but not all. Little is known about the reaction of Prescot’s cyclists and athletes, but the football club was no doubt in favour of the plan. Not so Prescot Cricket Club, who clearly saw the development of the site as a threat. Their main concern centred on the fact that the ground was accessible only by a single gate located close to the railway bridge on Warrington Road. This was fine for access to the cricket field, but the football pitch was located beyond the cricket field and close to what is now Heyes Avenue but a colliery spoil heap known as ‘Slacky Brow’ then. The spoil heap was no doubt linked to the colliery at Prescot Hall – at the bottom of what is now Hall Lane. For eighteen years (1884 to 1902) the cricket club had clearly been concerned about damage done to the northwest boundary, running parallel with the railway line, by football spectators making their way along the narrow path to the football pitch. (That crowd of 3,000 against Crewe Alexandra in 1891 would no doubt have unnerved members of the Cricket Club committee.) The cricketers also felt that the plan was too expensive. They turned it down.

Open hostilities broke out in August 1902 when the footballers were refused access to the ground for their first pre-season training session. The reason for the gateman’s uncooperative behaviour was that Prescot FC owed the Cricket Club £7 5 shillings (£7.25p) access fee. Just under £800 at current value, it was a considerable sum. Perhaps unreasonably, the cricketers also suggested that the Football Club should construct a twelve-feet-wide right-of-way path running along that northwest boundary. Neville Walker’s account of the 1902 dispute makes no mention of how the footballers reacted to this idea. They did, however, own up to a debt of £1 5 shillings (£1.25p – just under £139 now) ‘which they fully intended to pay’ but admitted no legal obligation to paying for access. Clearly they thought that Lord Derby’s ground was tenanted jointly by them and the Cricket Club. The Cricket Club thought otherwise. Two days after their failure to train on the ground some footballers did manage to gain access. The gateman locked them in, forcing them to climb over the fence, and they were threatened with a summons for trespass by a Cricket Club committee member stepping ‘out of the shadows’ (Walker). The opening fixtures of both the first team and reserves were postponed. ‘No … solution was found and the club did not fulfil season 1902-03 in the Lancashire League.’ Walker puts it down to Prescotian stubbornness:

Wills would have been too strong on both sides to permit any backing down…. the cricketers continued in sole occupation of the … ground for the time being, while the footballers … quietly sank into oblivion, albeit for a temporary period. The 18 year life of the original Prescot Football Club had, sadly, come to an end (Slacky, p.10).

It was to be three long and barren years before the resurrection of Prescot FC.

Glyn Williams