The rise of football in 19th-century Birmingham

The rise of football in 19th-century Birmingham

In her new book, Hannah Grainger Clemson takes you on a journey through the rise of football in the 19th and 20th century Birmingham, and the backdrop of industrialisation, gangs and violence

So Much More Than That journeys through the industrial revolution and wartime struggles of England and Scotland to reveal how ordinary people experienced life and the rise of football in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In this extract, the author, Hannah Grainger Clemson, describes the world of her great-grandmother, who lived in the area of Birmingham famous for its physical workers and Peaky Blinder gangs.

Back-to-back urban housing

My great-grandmother, Florence, was born in 1876 and spent her early years in the “back-to-back” houses of the south-east side of Birmingham. These were rows of terraced houses that backed onto a courtyard shared with other houses in the row and those to the sides and opposite. Typically, one family lived in the rooms facing the road, whilst another had the “back” rooms that faced into the courtyard.

"My great-grandmother, Florence, was born in 1876 and spent her early years in the “back-to-back” houses of south-east Birmingham"

Ground floor rooms facing the street sometimes became shop fronts, whilst those at the courtyard side could be multipurpose as a living room, kitchen and workshop, particular for “cottage industries,” such as jewellery-making. The two rooms above—one on top of the other, connected by a narrow staircase—would be for the families to sleep in, typically with the parents and baby in one room and other numerous children or a lodger in the other.

Rise of football in 19th-century Birmingham—Hannah Grainger Clemson's great-grandmother Florence and her family in a black and white photoFlorence with her husband and children outside their Birmingham home, with my grandfather on her knee

In the courtyard were communal “brewhouses” for laundry and “privies” for going to the toilet. Any remaining space would be for drying laundry or other activities if it was not raining, although the air would be thick with industrial smoke. For the authorities, they were seen as a place of poverty whereas to many residents, they were an important place of community.

A taste for custard and gang warfare

This area, known as Digbeth, was at the very heart of heavy industrialisation, clear from the occupations of Florence’s neighbours: brass workers, wooden crate and packing case makers, and bedstead makers. Floodgate Street was made famous by the Bird’s Custard Factory, now a popular cultural centre. The story goes that Mr Bird was experimenting with a way to create egg-less custard for his wife who was allergic. One day it was accidentally served to friends who enjoyed the taste and the celebrated yellow powder later found huge commercial success.

An old advert for Birmingham custard company Bird's Custard
Advertisement for Bird's Custard that appeared in an 1889 issue of Farmer and Stockbreeder

Digbeth was also the notorious area for gangs, notably the Allison Street, Milk Street and Barn Street Gangs, as well as the Peaky Blinders in Small Heath, although it is believed that the term was used to collectively describe a number of different gangs.

The term “peaky blinder” has different origins. Some say that the gangs hid razor blades in their peaked caps. Historians think that this is unlikely, although the gang members did hide weapons about their persons and struck or slashed the heads and faces of victims, causing a significant amount of blood to pour down their faces, which would blind them. The peaks of the gang members’ caps would have been useful in hiding their own faces.

"Digbeth was the notorious area for gangs—the Allison Street, Milk Street and Barn Street Gangs, as well as the Peaky Blinders in Small Heath"

A local slang term “blinder” was also used to describe particularly striking individuals. Gang members were known to take pride in their personal appearance, swaggering down the road in bell-bottomed trousers and hob-nailed boots, with a colourful scarf and “prison cropped” hair, except for a quiff in front which was grown long and plastered down the forehead. Some gang members’ girlfriends were known to wear pretty dresses and pearls.

Street fighting

The Allison Street gang is believed to go as far back as the Bull Ring Riot in 1839. People known as Chartists had held meetings around the country. Their petition requested Parliament to consider giving the working man the vote, and therefore more say in how the country was run. This was rejected and further meetings were banned. The people fought back against the police and damaged properties, leading to many arrests, imprisonment, and even forced transportation, such as to penal colonies in Australia.

Sketch by Richard Doyle of the 1839 Bull Ring Riot
Sketch by young boy Richard Doyle of the Bull Ring Riot in 1839, with the police attacking people. Image: Library of Congress

While newspapers played down public acts of violence by saying that they were the result of alcohol, there were clear political and religious motives behind attacks. The “Murphy Riots” followed one of several meetings where the Protestant William Murphy gave a speech attacking the Pope, nuns and the Catholic church. Milk Street, which runs parallel with Floodgate Street (where Florence lived), had their own gang with various enemies and targets, who would often be the occupants of a neighbouring street. Streets had fierce loyalties, particularly as several households would be from the same family.

A Watch Committee reported that the lack of recreation grounds made the streets the only place for youngsters to go after they had finished work, which was now legally at 6 o’clock according to the Factory Act. They threw stones for amusement and played “bandy”, like shinty in Scotland and hurling in Ireland, with a small ball and sticks—items which were also convenient weapons. Industry was eating up the yards and the roads—the playgrounds of the youth—even leading to the death of one lad who was so engrossed in a street game that he did not see the oncoming tram.


Gang members frequented boxing clubs as a place to let out their anger or congregated on wastelands away from the eyes of the law—or on street corners under their noses—to engage in illegal gambling or simple games of chance that offended churchgoers. The only betting that was legal at the time was on large horse-racing events.

A 1903 cartoon by Tom Browne showing both football teams attacking the refereeA 1903 cartoon by Tom Browne showing both football teams attacking the referee

It was 30 years later that betting on football became an official additional feature to the game when John Moores handed out his first coupons outside Old Trafford (Manchester) in 1923. It was not an instant success but, with perseverance, Moores eventually established a thriving business, more commonly referred to as “the pools”, from the way the cash invested was pooled together to give back particular sums to the winners.

Football’s early violent reputation

Unruly behaviour and vandalism by supporters happened in the early football games of the 19th century, of course, but they were not reported much by the newspapers. They were also not the problem of the referee, who was only concerned with what happened on the pitch. Nor were supporters the responsibility of the police to sort out, who were only concerned with what happened on the streets. One opinion was that violence surrounding football matches was usually the fault of the players setting a bad example.

Caesar Jenkyns, the aggressive captain of Small Heath Alliance (the football team who became Birmingham City FC)
My family supported their local team, Small Heath Alliance (later Birminham CIty), and their aggressive captain Caesar Jenkyns

Even away from the matches, in the 1880s, “football” as a word was being used publicly and in legal proceedings to mean doing something violently and also including a kicking action. A resident of Birmingham wrote in to the newspaper to describe how they had been walking home when they came across a game of street football, only to find that the players were using a small urchin (poor child, usually in rags) instead of a ball. In a village near Manchester, there were complaints about the graveyard being in a poor condition and local boys stealing bones. One resident had even found some children using a human skull to play a game of football.

"Unruly behaviour and vandalism by supporters happened in the early football games of the 19th century, of course, but they were not reported much by the newspapers"

Back in Birmingham, a public complaint about a theatre concert compared the dangerous action onstage to a “football or cricket match”. In a court case, it was heard that a violent man had threatened to rip out the entrails of his victim and “kick them about like a football.” In another case, a mob broke into a warehouse in London and reportedly used the enamel baths “as footballs” until they were completely destroyed.

So Much More Than That: A British Family Journey of Football, Industry, War and Migration by Hannah Grainger Clemson is out now.

The cover of the book So Much More Than That by Hannah Grainger Clemson

Banner photo: Aston Villa vs West Browmich Albion in the 1887 FA Cup final

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