The ‘Orrible History of Tranmere Rovers: How Two Friends Unearthed the Truth About the Origins of Our Club

We’re back. After a brief hiatus, Planet Prentonia returns with plenty of fresh content lined up. To begin with, we have the honour of publishing a guest post by Peter Bishop, a noted historian and author on Tranmere Rovers, in addition to being the club’s most distinguished programme editor of all-time.

Peter has been a huge supporter of Planet Prentonia, providing advice and encouragement, and I’m delighted to host this story about his quest to unearth the true origins of the club we all love. So, without further adieu, enjoy your long awaited fix of exquisite Rovers writing.

Best wishes,

By Peter Bishop

It was late when the telephone rang. The voice, easily recognisable as my co-historian Gilbert Upon, was hyperventilating.

I’ve found it, I’ve found it!” he repeated excitedly.

Of course, I knew exactly what he was talking about. After all, we had been trying to unravel the mystery behind the formation of Tranmere Rovers for over two years, having started the massive project in 1986. We had even developed a loose shift pattern over several months where we would each spend two evenings a week – matches allowing – in the Reference section of Birkenhead Central Library, ploughing through the pages of the Birkenhead Advertiser and the Birkenhead News via the library’s Microfilm archive.

It was both fascinating and laborious. I confess I was easily distracted reading other stories, and let me assure you murder was a regular occurrence in those days! Bodies found in docks and North End houses and Rock Ferry. Now I know what it must be like to be a detective searching for that one clue that joins all the dots together, explains the unexplained, and leads to an arrest for one of those murders.

Finally, between us, we filled in the blanks and laid to rest a myth that had been perpetrated for over one a hundred years: that Tranmere Rovers Association Football club had been formed during the 1881-82 season.

Referring to the printout he had from the Birkenhead News, dated 16 September 1885, Gil breathlessly read:

The Belmont has changed its name and will now be known to the world as 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 least honour the name of the club with that of a township and not a mere street…”

While equally excited as Gil, who had the good fortune to land on that date via the rota, I was not surprised. I knew something was wrong. Back in 1981, I raised my concerns with club secretary Jack Butterfield about the true date, having found three different documents – including a nominal history of the club – which variously said we were formed in 1881, 1882 and 1883.

Well,” growled Jack in his brusque Lancashire accent. “We need the money from a Centenary Year celebration to keep our heads above water. I don’t give a fuck whether the date is right or not, 1982 it is from now on or this club might go under.”

Of course, he wasn’t far wrong. Throughout the 1981-82 campaign, Rovers teetered on the brink of extinction, until salvation came in the form of a £200,000 loan from Wirral Council and revenue from the sale of land for a pub, then The Clipper, next to the ground.

The issue was laid to rest for a few years. There were more important things to address, such as the Save the Rovers Fund. There was also the erroneous Centenary celebration, with commemorative t-shirts, pens, mugs and shirts on sale in the club shop. Other events, such as a river cruises and dinners, added much-needed cash to the coffers. In those days, Ray Stubbs was the commercial manager, co-ordinating the celebrations and apparently being oblivious to the uncertainty surrounding our actual formation date.

Having worked on testimonial committees for Dick Johnson, Ronnie Moore and Ray Mathias, alongside Jack Butterfield, and then Norman Wilson, during the 1984-85 season I was asked if I would take on the vacant role of programme editor. At the time, our programme was a shameful production for a League club; nothing more than a folded leaflet. I agreed on the condition we changed back to a more conventional magazine format.

Trying to fill the 16 pages with some worthwhile reading, I researched and wrote features on both current and past players, plus a historical article about a famous game. I received a letter from a ‘Gilbert Upton from Southport,’ correcting a number of errors in what I had written. Initially a bit peeved, we met up and a friendship was formed. It has lasted four decades, and led to a combined effort to research the club’s history and answer the question about our formative years.

Having decided to list Rovers’ results and teams chronologically on his new computer, Gil started his research looking at the News from 1881 onwards. That process eventually revealed the truth.

A letter from an elderly Rovers fan living in Surrey, George Wilmot, threw further timber on the log fire of uncertainty. He wrote to me with a list of players and officials he had notated from the Birkenhead News, circa 1882, but I noticed they bore no resemblance to those pioneers referred to as founding members in RET’s Birkenhead News club history of 1921. Strange. Very strange.

Delving into the newspaper’s archive, the mystery deepened. According to minutes of the Tranmere Rovers Football Club AGM held on 17th January 1882, as published in the News, the club secretary and treasurer was a William Routledge, the great grandfather of actress Patricia. Amongst the listed committee and vice presidents was a man who was to become pivotal to our very existence, Mr James Hannay McGaul JP.

Gil also later found several match reports from the 1881-82 season. Both William Routledge and his brother, Isaac, were players in the first eleven, alongside top player Walter Edwards, who wrote all the early match reports for the News. However, when reading a contemporary history of the club published across three programmes in 1914, the founding members were listed and said to have been drawn from two cricket local clubs, Belmont and Lyndhust Wanderers, who “sat in ditch alongside Steele’s Field, in Borough Road,” and formed the Belmont Association football club. But not a single name of the two teams of cricketers corresponded with those listed in match reports Gil found in the 1881-82 newspapers.

George Wilmot’s inkling was correct.

Surely there were not two clubs operating under the name Tranmere Rovers? Had there been a mass departure of players and committee? Painstaking research in the sports pages of newspapers, game by game, eventually revealed a muddled tale of the club’s formation.

It seems that Tranmere Rovers Association football club, an offshoot of a cricket club of the same name, played only one season, 1881-82, before dropping the secondary title to become simply Tranmere. As a football team, they continued to play until 1888, when they disbanded.

Meanwhile, in 1884, a cricket team called Belmont emerged from a summit with another cricket club, Lyndhurst Wanderers, whose members all wanted to extend their sporting year to include the new game of Association football. They played one season under the Belmont banner, before strangely deciding to resurrect the name of “Tranmere Rovers” instead.

From Gil’s research in particular, it’s clear that most of the team were actually only 15 or 16 years of age, including Secretary John Morgan, and they all attended the Wesleyan Chapel in Whitfield Street, Higher Tranmere.

Gil and I think it was at that chapel where they came across their eventual patron and benefactor, bachelor James “Pa” McGaul JP, and persuaded him to buy their first football and goalposts.

Seemingly, his patronage and financial support as club President came upon the condition that they change the clubs name to that which McGaul was involved with previously: Tranmere Rovers. That change duly took place during the few days preceding the announcement in the News on 16th September 1885, and it is they, not the 1882 team, that are the forerunners of the current club.

So we did celebrate our centenary three years early! Just a bit embarrassing.

So why the mystery and confusion about the club’s origins? The ‘orrible history, so to speak? Did McGaul, as one of few survivors of the two clubs called Tranmere Rovers, deliberately muddy the waters when penning the club history in the programme? Or was it the ramblings of an old man confused by dates and personalities and misinterpreted by others?

My money is on the former. For reasons no one will ever know, I think Mr. J.H.McGaul JP did not want anyone to know of his involvement with the original, collapsed Tranmere Rovers and so concocted a story that simply ignored it, clouding the issue even more by stating Tranmere Rovers was formed in the 1882-83 season.

The club’s largely fictitious early history was further embellished with a myth that the current club was formed at a meeting in “Sainty’s Cocoa Rooms in Chester Street.” Gil proved no such establishment, under that name, ever existed. Equally, confusion reigned over the location of Tranmere Rovers’ early grounds, with the same patch of turf given various names, indicating a move had taken place when in fact there was really only one site bounding Borough Road and Temple Road.

There is a theory that McGaul may have been put out when Tranmere Rovers elected to become a Limited company in 1911. He lost his power and control of a sporting commodity he regarded as his own – his raison d’etre – and the club did owe him a huge debt for propping them up during many a crisis.

Thus, the woolly history and dates contained in that 1914 programme series were replicated in the Birkenhead News in 1921, and became the accepted gospel truth until we were able to set the record straight.

There is an old maxim that history is always the victor’s version of events and that certainly seems to be case with ‘Pa’ Mc Gaul’s recollections.

The outcome of all this research, and the storage of records on a massive database, of course became Tranmere Rovers: The Complete Record, a massive tome of 576 pages by Gil, Steve Wilson and myself, published by the soon to go defunct Breedon Books in 2009.0

All 2,000 copies of the initial run sold out in weeks, but we never saw a penny in royalties.

Just as well we never did it for the money. Giving this club its rightful history more than suffices.

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