The Definitive Early History of Watford FC

The history of Watford football club and its genesis in 1881 is almost universally accepted. While it is seen as correct by the majority of football historians, one or two believe that the available records show that Watford FC was formed in 1898, when West Herts FC ‘amalgamated’ with Watford St. Mary’s FC.

With hitherto unprecedented access to club records and legal documentation not available to the public for over 100 years, Watford Gold have been able to clarify the true sequence of events. Firstly, we should acknowledge the work of the late Trefor Jones, whose shoulders we stand upon. It was Trefor that first put the clues together to find the 1881 date, although Oli Phillips, the long-time respected journalist, wasn’t far behind and was writing about Watford Rovers as far back as the 1960s.

How did this confusion come about? Most of the historical records relating to the formation and management of the club were thought either destroyed by a fire at Cassio Road in the 1960’s, or more criminally, during a clear-out of Vicarage Road in the early 1980’s (at the time the conversion of the void under the  Main Stand extension was more important to the club). Luckily, many of these documents were saved by a small number of supporters and have now, thankfully been brought back together.

As far back as the 1930’s club staff believed the club’s genesis to be in either 1891, when Watford Rovers were asked to represent the newly formed West Herts Club & Ground or 1898, the date of the ‘merger’ of West Herts and Watford St. Mary’s, coupled with the name change to ‘Watford Football Club’. We’ll look in to that later in this analysis.

There are a remarkable number of inaccurate potted histories too, some linking Watford to Hertfordshire Rangers, who were playing football in the town as early as 1865. Indeed, a number of players and, later, directors turned out for both clubs. These included the great Freddie Sargent, who was to become the most veracious protector of the Watford Rovers name throughout the West Herts years. There is, however, no direct link between the Rangers club and Watford FC.

The Beginnings

Watford FC started life as Watford Rovers in 1881. This is a fact. The earliest known accessible reference to this can be found in Hertford Library and reads;

A club was founded by Mr H. W. Grover in 1881 called Watford Rovers, which soon became the representative club of West Herts. It took part in the competition for the Football Association Cup in 1887, 1888 and 1889.

This reference is from 1902, dispelling the myth that the 1881 date is a ‘modern fairytale’. Later, in 1906 the Watford Observer newspaper congratulated Watford FC on its 25th Anniversary. It should be noted that the publication of the time was owned, edited and produced by the Peacock family, the most prominent of which, Mr CH Peacock, was a founder member, player and committee member of the football club and later director through to the early 1900s – a more impeccable source would be hard to find.

Watford Rovers circa 1882

Watford Rovers circa 1882 (Henry Grover’s estate).

Indeed, the history of the club was described in a matchday programme in 1927:

From the Rovers, the West Herts Club came into existence and in 1896-7 they joined the Southern League. Professionalism was adopted the following year and in 1898 the old Watford St. Mary’s Club and the West Herts Club amalgamated. The name of Watford Football Club was adopted, but the Club continued to run as a section of the West Herts Club and Ground until 1909, when the Club was formed into a Limited Liability Company

Later references to this version of events were regularly made by journalist Oliver Phillips in official Watford programmes of the 1960s and 1970s, Club Handbooks from the 1980’s and later in the official Centenary book.  The 1881 founding date was researched in great detail by the late football historian, Trefor Jones, who was in no doubt about the lineage of the club.

Watford Rovers played mainly friendly matches, the first reported in local press being found in the Watford Observer in January 1882. The first ‘competitive’ game was their entry to the ‘English Cup’ (later renamed the FA Cup), in October 1886. Later that same year they also entered the ‘Herts County Cup’, making it to the final where they were beaten by Hoddesdon.

The Founding of West Herts Club and Ground

The narrative believed to be true in previous publications was that in 1890 the Rovers were invited to play under the umbrella of the newly formed West Herts Club & Ground, based on a new sports ground leased by the Earl of Essex and laid out on land previously part of Harwoods Farm on Cassio Road. Part of the agreement was that Rovers continued to operate as an independent entity and indeed the Rovers committee and players moved over to West Herts ‘en-masse’, as reported in the local press and in official club documentation. This was later agreed to be lapsed and the club committee finally agreed to remove the Watford Rovers name from the club in 1894.

Following further research, Watford Gold can be absolutely certain that the West Herts Club and Ground was not a separate entity, but in fact, was formed specifically as a home ground for Watford Rovers (and Watford Town Cricket Club).  The search for a ground started as early as 1888 and negotiations continued for over a year, with, ironically, Vicarage Road gravel pit being the front runner for the majority of the period. When Watford Town CC folded, members of the Rovers committee turned to Lord Essex, via his land manager Chas Humbert and the West Herts Club and Ground was formed with Watford Rovers to play as the Football Section.

To be absolutely clear on the point of Watford Rovers and West Herts being one and the same;

  • West Herts FC (or even the sports club) did not exist at the time Rovers arranged to play at Cassio Road as part of the WHC&G, so this was not a merger.
  • There was no change of ownership of the club, although there was extra funding agreed.
  • The club was a strictly amateur concern at this time, so no merger or takeover was required.
  • Of the 17 players that turned out to play at Cassio Road in the first months, 13 were Rovers regulars from previous seasons and the other 4 were all guests.
  • The Football Committee members remained the same throughout the period, other than Poulton, who left when he moved home to Aldershot.
  • Official Herts FA Records list Watford Rovers as the winners of the Herts County Cup (now the Herts Senior Cup) at the end of the 1890-91 season, the first season played at Cassio Road.

Why are the above points so important to stress? Well, this is the first disputed part of the history, some believing that West Herts FC was a ‘new club’. To say that the move to Cassio Road was the formation of a new club is completely false.

Charlie Peacock's 1892 Herts Cup Winners medal, won by...

Charlie Peacock’s 1892 Herts Cup Winners medal, won by…

...Watford Rovers, two years after the move to Cassio Road.

…Watford Rovers, two years after the move to Cassio Road.

Watford St. Mary’s: Merger or Absorption?

And so to the 1898 ‘merger’ of West Herts and Watford St. Mary’s, which to the critics, is the main point of contention.

At the time of the ‘merger’ Watford St. Mary’s were in deep crisis and could not sustain professional football, a step they’d taken just the previous season. The club had funds in the bank, but no prospect of raising enough money to employ new professionals, or even retain their existing players. With no home ground or league football it was obvious that the club was unsustainable. With West Herts offering Southern League football up the road, prospects were not good for the Saints.

To counter this, the West Herts Club and Ground had what should be considered a huge debt. On the face of it, this sounds like the club were in trouble, but in truth, they had spent enormous amounts of money on setting up the club as a base for all sporting activity in the town. The club was backed by the entire upper and middle class establishment of the town and in fact were planning further development, including a new grandstand at the time of the ‘merger’, all of which came to fruition and was fully funded by subscription.

While harder to understand today, the political dynamic of the day should be noted; St. Mary’s were the ‘working class’ club and Rovers were the ‘middle class’ one – the ‘mill owners against the mill workers’, as it were (St. Mary’s supporters referred to West Herts as ‘The Toffs’). It was obvious that Watford could only sustain one professional club and West Herts knew it could only be them. With this in mind, they would need to win over the St. Mary’s supporters. The best way, as proposed by Hon Sec. Benjamin Apps, was to convince the Saints supporters to move their allegiance. To do this, the West Herts committee decided to give the impression that the absorption of St. Mary’s was in fact a ‘merger’. This was a merger in propaganda only, which can be proved by the following verified details:

  • West Herts FC was not dissolved and continued operating in exactly the same manner before and after the ‘merger’.
  • St. Mary’s were wound up as a business on the 7th May 1898, BEFORE the ‘amalgamation’, as seen in an announcement in the Watford Observer.
  • The ‘amalgamation’ and name change was ratified by the FA on 27th May 1898 – 20 days AFTER St. Mary’s ceased to exist, meaning that no club existed to amalgamate with West Herts. If the ‘amalgamation’ had been rejected by the FA then West Herts would have continued as such, with a name change to Watford FC (as was the case in reality).
  • The name change was not directly due to the ‘merger’ and was explained by the West Herts Club & Ground Chairman during a committee meeting; ‘Mr. (BC) Apps said they proposed to call the club “The Watford Football Club”, and as a reason he mentioned that when they were playing at Portsmouth they were asked where the “West Herts” Club came from – “from St. Albans?” This shows two things (1) That the name change was explicitly from West Herts to Watford and (2) that the Football Committee needed the approval of the West Herts Club & Ground Committee to change the name and appear to have done so without any approval or input from the St. Mary’s club*.
  • West Herts had already ‘absorbed’ other local clubs including The Grove, Watford Wanderers and Watford Swifts in the same manner, albeit on a smaller scale. The stated intention was for West Herts to become the representative club for the town.
  • The ‘new’ Watford FC Committee were made up of the entirety of the West Herts Football Committee. Three of the St. Mary’s Committee were invited to join the board, all in junior positions.
  • Official Watford FC handbooks, produced by the Watford Observer on behalf of the club referred to club records dating back back beyond the ‘merger’ to the West Herts days. No St. Mary’s records were listed. This continued up to the 1930s.
  • Whilst it can no longer be proved due to the records being destroyed, the West Herts committee meeting notes made it very clear that the ‘merger’ term was used to entice St. Mary’s supporters over to Cassio Road. This is also inferred in many committee meeting notes from the local press.
  • In 1906 CH Peacock, founding member of Watford Rovers, owner of the Watford Observer and then current Watford FC Committee member talked specifically about the 25th anniversary of Watford FC, founded by Henry Grover.
  • The newly named Watford FC took up the same Southern League position they had held the previous season as West Herts.

*This is backed up by the notes from the St. Mary’s committee meeting, where the committee was told that the new name would be Watford FC. There was no vote.

What reason did West Herts have to merge with St. Mary’s? Although the latter made a profit the year leading up to their demise, they had no ground, no prospect of increasing their number of professional players and were stuck in the minor Herts League with no opportunity of advancement. West Herts already had all of these things in place, including a solid spot in the Southern League and the Cassio Road ground, the jewel in the crown of Hertfordshire grounds. As previously mentioned, St. Mary’s were a working class church team and had no money behind them – all finances were ‘hand to mouth’. West Herts had numerous upper and middle class backers, including the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Clarendon, Fred Halsey (standing MP for Watford) and Ralph Thorpe, who singlehandedly financed a push to the Southern League First Division  from 1903. The football club were the only profitable section of the West Herts Club and Ground, with all other sports draining resources.

Of the St. Mary’s players, only three made more than 2 appearances for Watford FC during the 1898/99 season. All three of these signed for West Herts before the ‘merger’; Jack Cother, Bobbie Slaughter and Eddie Cother. The other St. Mary’s players made a total of 4 appearances between them during the season.

Supporting Documentation

There is a large body of evidence that the West Herts Club & Ground Committee and the West Herts Football Committee planned the absorption of the remains of the St. Mary’s club with the intention of retaining the St. Mary’s supporters, a plan that ultimately worked. It is also evident that the West Herts Club & Ground continued as the parent organisation of the football club, or as they were referred to, the ‘football section’.

The Watford Observer Handbook introduction in 1906 stated that ‘For 11 seasons the Watford Football Club have played in the Southern League’ and also, regarding Hon. Secretary BC Apps, that ‘he joined the football committee in 1896’

In 1899 further proof that Watford FC was still the football section of the West Herts Club and Ground was provided in a Watford FC committee meeting, as reported in the Watford Observer;

From Watford Observer 16/12/1899

From Watford Observer 16/12/1899

Another notable point of order should be raised at this juncture, that can remove any existing doubt. Within the newly rediscovered documents are several legal letters sent to and from solicitors Sedgwick Turner, as well as resolution notes from committee meetings in 1909. These conclusively state that the Watford Football Club was owned and run as the football section of the West Herts Club & Ground.

From the West Herts Club & Ground Committee meeting resolution notes, on the sale of the club to ‘Watford Association Football Club Ltd’, proving that Watford FC remained the ‘football section’ of the West Herts Club and Ground:

1909 West Herts Committee meeting notes

1909 West Herts Committee meeting notes

Copy of the Resolution passed at a Special General Meeting of the West Herts Club and Ground held at the Friendly Societies Hall, High Street, Watford on Wednesday the 7th day of July 1909. That this meeting having heard of the terms arranged by the trustees of the West Herts Club and Ground with Watford Association Football Club Limited for the purpose of enabling the latter to take over the assets and liabilities of the Watford Football Club do hereby approve of the same and authorise the Trustees to enter into the Agreement prepared for carrying the same into effect.

From a Sedgwick Turner (solicitors) legal letter:

Draft legal document showing that Watford FC were the football section of the West Herts C&G

Draft legal document showing that Watford FC were the football section of the West Herts C&G

Dear Sir, West Herts Club and Ground. A Limited Company is in course of formation, The Watford Association Football Club Limited for the purpose of taking over the football section of the above mentioned Club amongst other proposals (etc)

Then, from the prospectus for potential shareholders, the opening paragraph:

1909 Prospectus showing the transfer of ownership from the West Herts C&G Football Section to Watford Association Football Club Ltd

1909 Prospectus showing the transfer of ownership from the West Herts C&G Football Section to Watford Association Football Club Ltd

If any further proof is needed in regard to the continuity from Watford Rovers through West Herts to Watford FC, then one only needs to look at the Herts FA records for the Herts Senior Cup (previously the Herts Cup).  The official records show Watford FC as winning the cup 18 times, 3 times as Watford Rovers, 2 times as West Herts and 13 times as Watford FC. If the Herts FA consider Rovers/West Herts/Watford to be the same club then it appears to be an open and shut case.

One final light-hearted article shows that the Club itself regarded West Herts and Watford FC to be one and the same, at least until when this was published in 1933:

A somewhat unique record of service is possessed by Mr. J Hughes, the veteran gatekeeper at the official entrance to the ground in Occupation Road, and at every match regularly he is to be seen faithfully fulfilling his duty to the Club. He has served the Watford Football Club loyally and well over a period of nearly forty years, thirty of which he spent at Cassio Road Ground, joining the staff there in the club’s amateur days, and when the Vicarage Road Ground was opened in 1922, he continued his duties in a similar capacity. Incidentally, Mr Hughes holds another splendid record of service, having been on the staff of Messrs. CH Peacock Ltd. for over fifty years, and we congratulate him on his achievement in regular, punctual, and loyal service.

Dear old Mr Hughes was employed by the Club no later than 1893, 5 years before St. Mary’s were absorbed.

References to documentation are not shown within the article text, but can be provided on request.


Comments about this page

  • Hi Rob, Apologies, it’s not a short answer: West Herts did indeed have a huge debt, however, this is slightly misleading. It was the sports club as a whole that carried the debt, not the football section. The club were supported by almost every successful and rich person in the town and subscriptions were held by most of them. This debt came from the investment in buying the lease for land and the building of facilities at the club, something St. Mary’s had absolutely no chance of doing. As stated, Watford St. Mary’s had also made a profit for four straight years, but to say they were a well run club might be stretching the definition. Indeed the original club (known simply as ‘St. Mary’s’) had gone out of business in 1893 due to internal wrangling and re-emerged for the 1894/95 season having taken players from Bushey Melrose and the Watford Church Institute.
    Also note that, while St. Mary’s made a small profit at the end of the 1897/98 season, they avoided the biggest expense a club had back in the day; St. Mary’s played a total of 39 games that season, a whopping 29 of which were home games, as well as 3 further games at Cassio Road. If they were to try to continue then they would have had to join a league, which would have increased their away games from 7 to at least double that figure.
    In regard to West Herts’ low attendances and ‘losing all games’; this is a great example of rival propaganda. The two games in question were pre-season trial games against unattractive opposition with what were basically reserve teams. ‘Subscribers’ were not counted as paying spectators, so both attendances were likely to have been higher. In reality, West Herts went on to average over 1,460 attendees per game that season, where figures are known. As was said in the Watford Observer on 1st January 1898 regarding West Herts and St. Mary’s attendances over the Christmas period “West Herts had much the larger gates, as was only expected”.
    Average known attendances for the 1897/98 season:
    West Herts: 1,466.
    St. Mary’s: 610. (This includes a 2,500 attendance for a friendly with West Herts)

    By Neil Dunham (31/08/2022)
  • I read that West Herts had a colossal debt of £844 and Watford St.Marys were a well run club with profits every year since their formation. Surely St.Marys were in a better position and West Herts were the club that were absorbed?
    How could West Herts be the bigger club with attendances of 128 and 134 and losing all their games?

    By HemelRob (25/08/2022)

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