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Watford F.C. – formed in 1881, 1891 or 1898?

Watford F.C. – formed in 1881, 1891 or 1898?  

When researching the Luton v Watford rivalry I came across a number of newspaper articles mentioning the amalgamation in 1898 between West Herts and Watford St. Mary’s to form a new club, Watford F.C..  

Yet 1881 has appeared relatively recently as the date of formation and is recognised by the club.  Where did 1881 come from?  

To give some background, 1881 is the year that West Herts (known as Watford Rovers until 1891) were formed.  Watford St. Mary’s were formed in 1894.   

How did 1898 disappear as the formation date to be replaced by 1881?  The change arrived via a number of books and the Watford Archive website. 

1991 saw the publication of the book “The Official illustrated History, Watford Centenary 1881-1991.”  The club produced a centenary badge 1891-1991 for their shirts and celebrations went ahead.  However, new information came to light that took the club’s formation back to 1881.  The book title was therefore amended to cover 110 years instead of 100.  

When discussing the beginnings, the book concentrates on the story of Watford Rovers and West Herts with Watford St. Mary’s role downplayed.  The latter are described as “heading towards dire financial problems” without offering any evidence in support.  The book says that an amalgamation was agreed but concludes that “in practical terms, Watford St. Mary’s were absorbed not amalgamated.”  This is followed by the heading “Club takes a new name” inferring that West Herts merely altered their name.  

The Watford Archive website denies there was an amalgamation at all and says – 
“There was talk of an amalgamation with local rivals Watford St. Mary’s but nothing came of it. Watford St Mary’s became defunct in 1898, and their registered players therefore immediately became free agents. Five of them were signed by Watford FC as players. Neither those five players, nor the officials under which they had played for St Mary’s, had any administrative function in the affairs of Watford FC.” 

In addition, the Watford Archive website says in its chronology – 
“When rival club Watford St. Mary’s folds, West Herts name is changed, this time to Watford F.C.” 

In 2001 “The Golden Boys” was published which uses “absorption” i.e. West Herts absorbed Watford St. Mary’s.  


The issues

The above sources raise a number of issues –  
Were Watford St. Mary’s in financial trouble?
Was there an amalgamation or were Watford St. Mary’s absorbed by West Herts?
Why did Watford St. Mary’s fold?  



West Herts full title was West Herts Club and Ground.  The Club consisted of not only a football club but cricket, tennis and lacrosse as well.  The Annual General meeting of the Club (as reported by the Herts Advertiser of the 13th February 1897) showed that the club had reduced its debt “from £1,300 to something like £800.”

The following year (according to the Sportsman of the 3rd February 1898) the West Herts Annual meeting revealed a loss of £65 14s 1d making the total debt a colossal £844 1s 5d.  The meeting also discussed the need for a grandstand at the end of the football ground for the huge sum of £150 (to hold 250 people).  West Herts clearly could not afford a grandstand so the subject was postponed until the end of the season. 

Watford St Mary’s however, were a well run club that had made profits each year since their formation in 1894.  Their third annual dinner (reported by the Watford Observer of the  1st May 1897) reveals they carried forward a balance of £20 in their first year, £30 in their second year and the position in the Summer of 1897 was that they had “had nearly doubled the balance of last year.”  

The inference that Watford St. Mary’s were in financial trouble is wrong. 


Amalgamation or Absorption? 

The Luton News of 7th October 1897 summed up West Herts position a few weeks into the season –

“The West Herts club, finding it impossible to make amateurism pay, have adopted professionalism.  At the first match of the season 128 persons paid for admission, and at the second 134.  Seeing that they have been going from bad to worse, losing all their matches, the gate was in danger of diminishing to vanishing point.  Perhaps they will fare better now.  Properly worked, the Watford people ought to be able to support a good professional team.”

If the Luton sports writer knew that the “Watford people ought to be able to support a good professional team” (singular) so did the officials at both clubs.  

The press were not allowed at the talks between the two clubs and it was the 16th April edition of the Watford Observer that the first announcement of the amalgamation was made.  The Sporting Life of the 27th April 1898 was among many of the national press who later reported it.  

The Watford Observer confirmed in their 7th May 1898 edition – 

“When three-parts of the season was gone, there were whispers of the advantages of amalgamation of the two clubs. That the principle was right few disputed, and the question narrowed itself down to a few minor difficulties. It was ascertained that the executive on both sides regarded the suggestion favourably, and joint meetings of the officials were arranged. The proposals took a definite shape, and very soon amalgamation was a thing accomplished. It was decided, however, that each club should finish off its fixtures. Next season the Watford club will play on the Cassio-Road ground, and one of the chief ideas of the amalgamation is to have a second team of sufficient strength to be an attraction while the first string is engaged elsewhere. The details of the amalgamation scheme we have already given in these columns. Generally speaking, then, the local football season which has just closed has been a most important one. It has witnessed two steps which have marked fresh epochs – the adoption of professionalism and the amalgamation of West Herts and Watford St. Mary’s.”

The full F.A. council met in May 1898 and as reported in the Lichfield Mercury of the 28th May 1898 – 
“permission was given to Watford St. Mary’s and West Herts to take the name of Watford Football Club, the two clubs having amalgamated.” 

The F.A. would clearly have been asked to make this decision and would have wanted the requisite evidence and approval from both clubs officials before putting the matter before the full council. 

Absorption is mentioned in later newspapers but used incorrectly as a quick explanation as to how Watford F.C. was formed. West Herts appear to have seen themselves as the senior club so their supporters may have used “absorption” as a nod to their past. 

However, primary sources confirm the amalgamation in April 1898 and trump any later comments and certainly trumps any West Herts supporters views.  It was an amalgamation NOT an absorption.  


Watford St. Mary’s wound up

It is important to remind ourselves of the status of the two clubs.  West Herts Club and Ground was a sports club. Besides Association Football, the club also played other sports including cricket, tennis and lacrosse. When the amalgamation came, the West Herts Club and Ground continued to exist to support the other sports. Watford St. Mary’s however, were solely a football club. Therefore, after the amalgamation with West Herts and the formation of Watford F.C., Watford St. Mary’s had to be wound up. 


Watford St. Mary’s – the true situation

As already mentioned, Watford St. Mary’s were a well run club and financially stable.  They were also very well supported.  According to the Watford Observer of 16th October 1897 – at the game between St. Mary’s and West Herts, Saints supporters were the majority in the 2,500 crowd.  

The Annual General Meeting of the West Herts Club and Ground had to approve the amalgamation and produces a revelation.  The following extract has been missed by the aforesaid books and website.  I will quote the Club Secretary’s address to that meeting, taken from page 7 of the Herts Advertiser of the 13th August 1898 –

“Now as to the future. You will doubtless all agree that a very judicious step was taken in arranging an amalgamation with the Watford St. Mary’s Club. It was felt that Watford was not large enough to support two professional teams, and the St. Mary’s committee were of the opinion that the West Herts ground should be the centre of Watford football, and a very fair and amicable arrangement was made. When it is considered that even when a good gate was obtained on the West Herts ground there were 400 or 500 spectators on the Watford St. Mary’s ground, it is apparent to what extent we may look for an increased gate. In addition to this, we are glad to say that the St. Mary’s players have loyally come to our assistance and we shall be able to form two teams of almost equal strength, and having arranged strong home fixtures for every Saturday during the season, we shall be able to command a good gate when our League team is away.”

What stands out of this report is that – “the St. Mary’s committee were of the opinion that the West Herts ground should be the centre of Watford football”. It seems clear that it was the Watford St. Mary’s committee who saw that the town could not support two professional clubs and had the foresight to put Watford football first.  In addition, their players did not become free agents as claimed by the Watford Archive but “loyally” rallied to the cause of football in Watford. 



The sources I have quoted, such as the Watford Observer, are primary sources written in May 1898 by the Sports Editor of the paper.  Victorian Sports Editors were usually players or ex players who were heavily involved in sports in the town where they worked and some were on football club committees. The editor would have known many of the major figures involved at the West Herts Club and Ground and Watford St. Mary’s. 

There are numerous mentions of the amalgamation in the newspapers of April and May 1898 and indeed later.  It is therefore difficult to imagine how it was missed by the books and website on some occasions and replaced by “absorption” on others.  The answer may well be that the use of the word “absorption” is deliberate thereby opening the door to the 1881 foundation claim. 



Watford F.C. were formed in 1898.  

A kind summing up would be to say that there has been some very poor research.  At the other end of the scale a cynic might say that the change of “amalgamation” to “absorption” and the discrediting of Watford St. Mary’s opened the door to 1881. The latter option seems bizarre bearing in mind the ease of access to online newspapers.  However, ten years or more ago only hard copies or micro-fiche copies were available at a Library.  

On a wider note, a club should have one date attached to it, call it what you will – formation, foundation or date established.  

However, there are no set standards which means “historians” are allowed to present, largely without challenge, their own research.  Research which will meet a football public receptive to “new information”, especially if their club is suddenly made years older than they thought.   

Clubs themselves can only make decisions based on what they are told and we see some bizarre dates in the football world. 1863 on the Stoke City badge is another case in point.   1863 is the first mention in newspapers of football being played in Stoke – it was a Shrove Tuesday game.  There is no evidence it was an Association Football game, indeed a Shrove Tuesday game brings visions of a Rugby Football melee.  This climate opens the door to those “historians” who seek fame above everything else.  

If these dubious standards were applied to Luton Town the choices of formation date would be –
1830 – the date football was first mentioned being played in the town or 
1860 – the first mention in a newspaper of football in Luton or
1879 – the date that Excelsior and Rovers were formed who both contributed players to Luton Town or
1885 – the proper formation date and always will be.  

To return to the point, whether by poor research or otherwise, the above mentioned books and website are mistaken.  

  • Watford St. Mary’s had a healthy balance and were not in financial trouble.  West Herts were in deep financial trouble saddled with a huge debt.  
  • Watford St. Mary’s did not fold for financial reasons and were not absorbed by West Herts. 
  • There was an amalgamation between West Herts and Watford St. Mary’s.  

1881 may still be celebrated as the formation of one of the two grass roots clubs, but celebrated alongside the players, staff and officials of Watford St. Mary’s who were formed in 1894. 

The proper formation date of Watford F.C. is 1898.