Manchester City’s birth as City in April 1894 was a major landmark moment and is rightly celebrated today on the club’s badge. But, this came after over 14 years of development as a community club representing districts in east Manchester. For this subscriber piece I’ve decided to focus on the earliest years of the club that became City, focusing on the period before 1884. I explain some of the myths that have developed and highlight the facts.
Manchester City’s birth as City in April 1894 was a major landmark moment and is rightly celebrated today on the club’s badge. But, this came after over 14 years of development as a community club representing districts in east Manchester. For this website piece today I’ve decided to focus on the earliest years of the club that became City, focusing on the period before 1884.
In the beginning
St Mark’s Church opened in West Gorton – a separate township to Gorton and outside the city’s boundaries at the time – in 1865. In the years that followed the rector Arthur Connell (pictured above) and his wife Anna worked tirelessly for the parish and as his family grew (he had a son and two daughters) they became involved in parish activities, especially his daughter Georgina. She established a number of initiatives while her siblings pursued careers elsewhere. Big sister Anna worked as a Governess, near Preston, returning by 1879 when she established a Working Men’s Club at St Mark’s.
Over the years many myths have developed and so it is important to spell out the facts as we know them based on the latest research. One of the myths is that Anna Connell established the football club. There is no evidence whatsoever that she actually did this. Prior to 1983 no publication ever credited the club’s formation to Anna and no contemporary reports mention her in connection with the football club at all. The story of how her name became linked is a long complicated one which I’ve spelt out in several publications, including Manchester: A Football History (2nd edition, 2010), Manchester The City Years (2012). My Manchester City Folklore book provides the latest research. Paul Toovey, author of several City books, has also analysed this period in great detail.
What is known
Within a couple of years of St Mark’s Church opening a cricket club was established. This played in the late 1860s and by the late 1870s had grown, comprising of at least two teams. Church Warden William Beastow was involved with the cricket team, as were his sons, and at some point in either 1879 or 1880 the younger men and boys decided to add other sporting activities. They established a rugby team and an association football team with both their earliest known games occurring in November 1880. Both the rugby and cricket teams eventually faded but the football team developed and grew. Beastow retained involvement with the sports clubs.
By 1883 the football club dropped references to the church from its name and later that year it merged with another team called Belle Vue Rangers.
The desire to find names attached to the formation of any club is often fruitless. Historians search for firsts, founders and the like but the truth is that the birth of any organisation is rarely the idea of one person. With St Mark’s people have incorrectly linked the formation of the Working Men’s Club by Anna Connell with the founding of the St Mark’s Cricket Club and ultimately the formation of the football club by cricketers was seen by some as having a direct link to Anna (I fell for this myself for a while!). However, the cricket club predates the Working Men’s Club and, if match reports are anything to go by, it came to prominence at a time in the late 1860s/1870s when Anna was living near Preston.
There’s no doubt that the community ethos espoused by the Rev Arthur Connell and some members of his family contributed to the well-being of St Mark’s parishioners and may have inspired some to establish clubs and activities, but none of the Connell family could be said to be founders of the football club. That was the boys and young men who played cricket.
One of the boys, Walter Chew, became a major figure in both our club’s history and in Manchester football. In later year he spoke on the BBC and to newspapers on several occasions of the birth of the club. To him it was perfectly clear who founded it and that was his older brother William and some of his friends. One of the older boys, William Sumner, is believed to have been the club’s first captain and his arrival in West Gorton around 1879 coincides with St. Mark’s move into both forms of football. He was an engineering student lodging in Gorton and was also a member of the St. Mark’s cricket club, though Walter did not name Sumner in his interviews.
Walter Chew did play his part in City’s formative seasons though. As well as appearing in some games (many of William’s appearances have previously been credited to Walter but both men did appear for the club in the early 1880s) he was the founder, alongside his cousin, of Belle Vue Rangers. He contributed to the purchase of the club’s first ball and in 1883 he was with the Rangers when they merged with West Gorton.
There’s much more to be said and written about these formative years but after the merger between West Gorton and Belle Vue Rangers many of the players from the merged club established Gorton AFC in 1884 and, wearing their newly adopted black shirts with white cross pattee, they posed for their first team photo – the earliest known image of our club.
So, here we are around 140 years later. A club created by the boys and young men who played cricket within a supportive community environment encouraged by the church of St Mark’s. The formation of the club was never about an individual, it was about building a team and community spirit.