By Ryan Ferguson
Organised football didn’t arrive on Wirral until 1879, when a Druids player named Robert Lythgoe formed Birkenhead FC. Previously, denizens of the borough played cricket in the summer months before switching to rugby in winter. That arrangement was deeply engrained in British culture, and the school curriculum made it second nature to youngsters of a certain generation. However, Birkenhead FC changed that concept and blazed a trail of football on this side of the Mersey.
The club was formed at the Cocoa Rooms, a teetotal establishment of some local renown. It was agreed that the club would play in Mr Heathcock’s field, adjacent to the Birkenhead News offices on Chester Street. At first, opponents typically came from Liverpool and Chester, before other teams began sprouting up around Birkenhead. There was briefly a Birkenhead Rovers, while Birkenhead Argyle quickly rose to dominate regional competition.
In 1881, a team named Tranmere Rovers was formed. However, aside from the name, that club has no direct link to the modern day club we love. Walter Edwards, a player for Birkenhead FC, introduced football to Tranmere Rovers Cricket Club, which adopted it as a form of winter recreation. This first incarnation of Tranmere Rovers played games on Mersey Park, and Edwards managed to get match reports published in local newspapers, breaking the hegemony of more genteel sports and spurring interest in football among Birkonians.
At the club’s annual meeting in 1882, held at the Bee Hive Hotel, it was decided that the word Rovers would be dropped from the football team’s name. The move may have angered some people, including James Hannay McGaul, a Vice President of the club who was in attendance. McGaul would be heard from again, in a very important capacity, but, at that point, the grand name of Tranmere Rovers looked to have died.
Fortunately, the act of cricket clubs adopting football was exceedingly popular, and the bloodline of Tranmere Rovers as we know it can be traced to a ditch off Borough Road in the autum of 1884. There, in Steele’s Field, the young members of Belmont and Lyndhurst Wanderers cricket clubs met, hoping to agree on a shared pastime to occupy the mind between seasons. With an average age of fifteen, the boys were regular attendees at a Wesleyan Chapel on Whitfield Street in Tranmere. While rivals on the cricket pitch, they shared a similar background and yearned for a shared pursuit. On that fateful meeting, they agreed to form a football team under the Belmont name, unknowingly changing the lives of thousands of people for many generations to come.
It’s worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, the founders of what would eventually become Tranmere Rovers were not necessarily working class. Though the club later became a proud symbol of Birkenhead’s rugged industry, with close links to the town’s shipping and railway communities, the original members of Belmont FC were the sons of clerks, accountants and businessmen. Indeed, Whitfield Street, the spiritual starting point of Tranmere Rovers, was a relatively affluent area in the late-19th century.
Coincidentally, the aforementioned McGaul was a senior member of the Chapel, in addition to his prominent roles within local business and politics. He would later serve as a councillor and mayor for Birkenhead, which spoke to his influence around town. In a shrewd move, the youngsters of Belmont FC invited McGaul to serve as their club president, and he gladly accepted. Without his power and foresight, the club likely would have fizzled out like a fleeting teenage fad. However, McGaul bought the first goalposts and footballs for Belmont, and insisted on a serious outlook from the very beginning. Alf Mayor was hired as a club secretary, and, in later years, friendlies with esteemed clubs such as Preston North End and Bolton Wanderers were crucial in teaching Belmont FC to walk.
The club’s first recorded match occurred on 15th November 1884 at Steele’s Field. Though newspaper coverage of early games was sparse, end of season recaps point to a fairly decent maiden campaign. Belmont was still considered a small club, but it did at least register on the local radar, with many people in Birkenhead pleasantly surprised at their positive results. McGaul and Mayor scattered the seeds of growth, and progress certainly followed.
Yet, on 16th September 1885, it was decided that Belmont FC would select a new name. Perhaps with influence from McGaul, who recalled his cricket days fondly, Tranmere Rovers was chosen as a fitting moniker. On that day, this report appeared in the Birkenhead News, explaining the change and heralding a new era for football in the town:
“The Belmont has changed its name, and will now be known to the world as the Tranmere Rovers. It sounds more consequential than the old name, and will be altogether better. As a team that is likely to place itself in the front rank of local football, it should at the very least honour the name of the club with that of a township and not a mere street.”
Even with a new name, Tranmere still languished behind Birkenhead Argyle in terms of local popularity. In the early years, there was no league system to accurately measure one club against another, and Rovers were forced to settle for friendlies, charity exhibitions and ties in the Senior Cups of Wirral and Liverpool. However, on 3rd April 1886, Tranmere finally beat Argyle for the first time, 5-3, to the astonishment of local fans. This was the moment Tranmere Rovers came of age, and the club has reigned supreme as Birkenhead’s finest team ever since.
Always keen for expansion, Rovers bought a new home ground for £5 in 1887. Ravenshaw’s Field, later known as the Borough Road Enclosure, stood right across from where the current Prenton Park is located. When average attendances reached 700, Tranmere were quick to enclose the ground and begin charging for admission. This was a first step towards professionalism for a club that would become a limited company in 1911, a year before moving to Prenton Park.
In 1891, Tranmere played their first ever FA Cup tie, losing in a qualifier to Northwich Victoria. Rovers’ first piece of silverware came on 6th April 1889, when the Wirral Senior Cup was won. The Football League was founded in 1888, but Tranmere joined the West Lancashire League. Therefore, Rovers were one of the first 150 clubs in England, from thousands playing at numerous levels, to join a formal league. Tranmere later played in the Liverpool & District League; the Combination; the Lancashire Combination; and the Central League before joining the Football League in 1921. They remained there for 94 uninterrupted years before succumbing to relegation in 2015.
So, ultimately, what can we derive from the founding fathers of Tranmere Rovers? Well, Wesleyanism is a Protestant movement, although any connections between the club and religion of any kind are tenuous and indulgent at best. However, the upper middle class standing of the first players and leaders is an intriguing subplot in the history of what became a distinctively working class club.
Tranmere Rovers has a long and distinctive history, but relatively little has ever been written about its actual formation. Yet when you delve back to the earliest dates of Superwhite genealogy, a whole new world opens up. This piece only touches the tip of a very large iceberg, but it’s a pleasure to shed some light on the lesser known aspects of this club we adore.