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Forever Saints: The humble beginnings of Southampton FC

Southampton FC were not always the multi-million pound Premier League side they are today – here is a look at how the club's origins came from the heart of the community

From their formation in 1888, Southampton FC have always been a community-focused club. As Saints write a new chapter in their history with the unique link-up between the club and The Big Issue, we revisit their humble origins at the St Mary’s church.

Similar issues

Looking back on the Saints’ origins, the big issues of the early 21st century and the late 19th are remarkably similar. There are and were a worrying number of people needing a helping hand.

As the son of the club’s patron saint once observed ‘You have the poor among you always …’ (Matthew 26:11).

Good causes recently promoted by Southampton FC include Saints Foundation, doing wonderful work in the community; Mary’s Meals, feeding children worldwide; and Cancer Research UK, thanks to the Herculean ‘Big’ challenges undertaken by Francis Benali. All most fitting as the first Saints, members of the St Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association (YMA), were obliged to perform parochial duties.

In the S. Mary’s Parish Magazine of July 1887 it is stated, in an article drawing attention to their forthcoming gymnastic display, that the YMA were doing ‘large and valuable work among the young men of the town’. Efforts undertaken by the church’s societies to support the underprivileged in the late 1880s were legion.

They included the operation of three soup kitchens between December 1887 and March 1888. The one in Anderson Road dispensed 629 gallons of soup.

St Mary's class of 1888

Hosting teas for unemployed men and their families was a regular feature of parish life, particularly for the Working Men’s Club. On Christmas Day 1887, 260 families ‘were treated to a dinner and an excellent entertainment’.

Meanwhile, 118 Sunday school teachers were overseeing 1,159 scholars; there was the Fo’c’sle Club, ‘for working lads’; and the Crow’s Nest Club, a night school for ‘a rough and neglected class of lads’.

The rector of St Mary’s, Canon Albert Basil Orme Wilberforce, was a prominent campaigner for the cause of total abstinence, and teetotalism is a feature of many of the parish guilds. Members of the YMA had plenty of interests, apart from gymnastics, to keep them busy when they were not doing good works.

They had the use of the Grove Street School, across Chapel Road from the Church, and activities included a glee club, societies for choral singing and drama, and attending lectures. The football club also had the use of the Deanery (rectory) grounds for training.

Kicking off

The YMA football club was a founder member of the Hampshire FA in the summer of 1887. In its January 1888 edition the parish magazine reported: S. MARY’S Y.M.A. FOOTBALL CLUB — This club (of which Mr C.E. Bromley is the captain), which entered this season for the Hants Football Club, have proved very successful, having won 6 matches, losing 3, with 1 drawn …’.

The Saints – they had picked up the nickname by then – reappeared in the parish journal in April. ‘S. MARY’S FOOTBALL CLUB.— We are glad to record the great triumph of the above Club, which has now, by following up its many victories won the much coveted “Cup” for the year. We cordially congratulate them on their success.’

Note that ‘YMA’ has been dropped from the club’s name. For reasons unknown, the football club had parted company with the Young Men’s Association.

Links between the club and the church remained strong. Canon Wilberforce continued to hold the club’s presidency until leaving Southampton in June 1894 – by which time the Saints, already professional, were preparing for the Southern League’s inaugural season.

A service at St Mary's church in November 1935 to celebrate the club's jubilee

St Mary’s ‘great triumph’ was the defeat of Southampton Harriers in the replayed final of the Junior Cup.

They celebrated on the evening Saturday April 7 at Giddon’s Restaurant. Canon Wilberforce was not present. Hardly surprising as Giddon’s was a licensed premises, and, according to the Southampton Times’ account, the 30-odd men present got through seven toasts before the musical entertainment began.

Evidently, you could continue to fight the good fight and support a good cause, without staying sober after famous victory.

A unique partnership

The Big Issue special Southampton FC match-day edition
This special edition of The Big Issue was sold across Southampton and Hampshire, and at St Mary's Stadium on match-day

Read more in the special edition Saints match-day magazine. Created in partnership between The Big Issue and the club, the unique publication was available as the Premier League club’s official match-day programme for the season opener against Swansea City, and can be purchased online from The Big Issue Shop.