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1865-1911: The first Hitchin club

The birth of a club
The early days of Hitchin Town are clouded in mystery, but recent research has uncovered the actual day that the club’s formation was announced.

The Hertfordshire Express of Saturday November 25 1865 included an announcement that had been issued the previous day (November 24 1865):

“A meeting of gentlemen convened by private circular, was held in the National School Room on Friday evening for the purpose of establishing a foot-ball club. Hubert Delme Radcliffe esq. presided and about 25 gentlemen were present.

The establishment of such a club was unanimously agreed to, the subscription to be two shillings and sixpence per annum, members to be admitted by ballot.

Hubert Delme Radcliffe was chose as president and the Rev.John Pardoe Secretary, a committee of five gentlemen were also appointed, and rules agreed to.

The president announced that F.P. Delme Radcliffe would allow the club to play the games in part of the park they chose to select, and also that his name might be put down for an honorary subscription of one guinea. It was arranged that the club should commence playing at the close of the cricket season in each year and continue to its opening, and to meet for play on Saturday afternoons at half-past two o’clock, the opening game to be played that day.”

The above announcement made barely a ripple in the newspaper, but it represents the earliest mention of organised football in the town.

In all probability, the early “games” were played among the members, possibly on Butts Close.

There is evidence that the club played on Hitchin Cricket Ground in the early 1870s, wherever that may have been, and also Dog Kennel Farm in Charlton.

Francis Shillitoe was Hitchin’s first captain. He was a keen rower and there is evidence that he was a coroner and later lived in Pirton Road at Foxholes.

Some highlights from 1871:

On January 21 1871, Hitchin won 1-0 at St.Albans.

On February 4 1871, at Hitchin Cricket Ground, the club won 8-0 against Ware, who were formed just a month earlier. The Herts Express was impressed at “the pluck and good temper which they [Ware] took their licking.”
Hitchin’s goals were scored by Hill, Bailey, Austin (2), Darton (2), Baker and Mainwaring.

On February 11 1871, Hitchin won at home to St.Albans. Goalscorer: “Mr Toke”

Some highlights from 1872:

On September 5 1872, Hitchin held its AGM. The club had the grand sum of £ 1 17s 6d in the bank. Rev. John Pardoe was elected captain of the club with William Tindall Lucas the secretary.

Special thanks were passed to Mr A.Ransom for the use of his field [which begs the question - did the club play at Ransom’s Rec?].

The opening game of the season would be Mr Jackson’s XI v Mr Mainwaring’s XI. These gentlemen were both committee members.

1887-88: The Wanderers come to town
Competitive games were few and far between, but every game was a challenge and there was no more competitive fixture than a visit from the Wanderers, who won the very first FA Cup final and lifted the cup a further four times. Here is a match report for a game played on February 20 1888:

“This match was played at Hitchin yesterday, and resulted in a victory for thee Wanderers, who scored two goals to nothing. The toss was won by the Hitchin captain, who chose the upper goal with the wind. The superiority of the Wanderers soon became apparent, as the ball was flying about on all sides of the Hitchin posts which, after about half an hour’s play, surrendered to a kick by C.W Alcock. With the wind and hill, the Wanderers immediately commenced once more to pen their opponents, who shortly afterwards witnessed the second overthrow of their goal, a good side kick by H.Emmanuel achieving this second goal. For the Wanderers W.Rigden and L.Ogden were most conspicuous, and Shillitoe did good service for Hitchin.”

Hitchin’s line-up that day was: F.Shillitoe (captain), Rev. J.B. Parker, W.Hill, W.O. Atkinson, G.Lewin, E.Logsdon, T.Mainwaring, F.Lucas, G.A. Passingham, L.Thompson (only 10, not listed in positions – Wanderers had just nine men). Report taken from London Gazette.

1901-02: The first league season
The forerunner of the Hitchin Town FC we know today, Hitchin FC, did not play league fixtures until 1901-02. Prior to that, the club played friendlies and county cup competitions.

In the close season of 1901, the Hitchin committee decided that friendly games were no longer appetising to the public and the club made an application to join the London League. That league did not like the idea of a team as far north as Hitchin becoming part of their league, but the club was more successful in gaining admission to the South Eastern League, which looked a fairly attractive proposition with games against the second elevens of West Ham, Tottenham Hotspur and Millwall. Also in that summer, the club changed its colours from red and white to all white. At that time, the club’s headquarters were based at the Temperance Hotel in Bancroft, but by the end of the season, The Sun had been reinstated as the home base. As well as competing in the South Eastern League, Hitchin were also members of a new Herts League.

Hitchin found it hard going in the South Eastern League and suffered a run of defeats in the early stages of the season. Millwall won 1-0 at Top Field and Luton Town Reserves beat Hitchin 10-1. Captain W.J.Y Taylor was badly injured at Luton and as the club’s best forward, this was a considerable blow. The two senior Hitchin sides - Blue Cross Brigade were the other - met at Top Field and the game ended up a 1-1 draw. The crowd for this Herts League game was very disappointing, which led some people to ask what the club had to do to attract good attendances.

By the end of October, T.W. Barnes, a right half who had played for Luton, returned to the club as an “unpaid professional”. In the previous season, Hitchin had been admonished for fielding a footballer who was registered as a professional in the amateur game. Barnes was a fine player and one that had a keen eye for goal. His first game back with the club was a disaster, however, with Queens Park Rangers winning 9-0.

Hitchin made progress in the Hinchinbrooke Cup, beating Arlesey 3-0, but in the South Eastern League, they struggled against superior opposition. It was not until just after Christmas that they recorded their first win, a 3-1 success against St.Albans Amateurs. In the next round of the Hinchinbrooke Cup, Biggleswade were beaten after a replay, earning Hitchin a semi-final tie with Irthlingborough. At the start of December, Clapton Orient, a team that included future England centre forward George Hilsdon, were beaten 1-0, but a week later, a trip to Essex was not appreciated by the Hitchin players. The team arrived at Grays United with three players suffering from nausea after a bad train journey from London to Thurrock. The Hitchin officials were none too happy, claiming that they had not enjoyed “the uninviting home of the Essex club”. 

The Hinchinbrooke Cup run ended for Hitchin at the semi-final stage, with Irthlingborough taking a two-goal lead before Taylor netted a later consolation. Hitchin were not to be denied some glory in 1901-02, however. After beating Stevenage in the semi-final of the Herts Charity Cup, they were due to meet St.Albans in the final at Welwyn. Taylor and W.Anderson gave Hitchin a 2-0 lead early on, and Hailey and Cannon scored the other goals in a 4-2 win against St.Albans Amateurs. There was a hint of crowd trouble at Welwyn as some irate St.Albans fans invaded the pitch. Hitchin, though, were easily the better team and few could complain at their victory.

On March 28, Hitchin played two games on the same day, one in the South Eastern League against Clapton Orient and another at Stevenage in the Herts League. Hitchin lost at Orient, 1-3 and beat their neighbours 5-0. In an intensive finale to the season, Tottenham visited Top Field the next day, winning 5-1. The Spurs went on to win the South Eastern League. Hitchin’s last win of the season in that competition was an 11-0 trouncing of Chesham Generals, with Taylor and Gurney scoring four apiece. Hitchin ended the campaign in eighth position in the 11-team league.

Back in the Herts League, Hitchin remained unbeaten and won the Northern Section. They had to meet Watford Melrose, champions of the Southern Section in a title play-off. The game ended 1-1. The season’s top scorer was Taylor with 27 goals, with Anderson netting 22. At the end of the season, George Smith, one of the successes of the campaign, moved to Biggleswade.

1905-06: Victory at Stamford Bridge
Hitchin Town were the first away team to win at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground.
This forgotten landmark has been swept away from history, but it is true- the first Hitchin club, who by 1905 were known as Hitchin Town, won 3-2 at Chelsea in the South Eastern League on October 14 1905. It was Chelsea’s second eleven, but it was nevertheless a strong Chelsea side, with former Tottenham FA Cup winner Davie Copeland in the line-up. Hitchin’s team was a little makeshift, however, making the result even more impressive. Hitchin took the lead through Barker after 20 minutes but Copeland equalised for Chelsea and Harris gave the home side the lead. Barker’s long-range shot made it 2-2, and the winner came from Cannon after a “scrimmage” - the Edwardian term for a goalmouth scramble. Hitchin’s team on that memorable day was: Woodger, Smith, Allen, Stimpson, Cox, Ebden, Cannon, Grimes, Barker, Williams and Furr. A week later, Hitchin beat Chelsea at home, by the same score.

Hitchin FC FA Cup record
We all know that Hitchin played in the very first season of the FA Cup, meeting Crystal Palace (no relation to the current Palace side) on November 18 1871. The game was played in Hitchin in pouring rain and ended 0-0. Both sides went through to the next round.
1871-72 R1 Crystal Palace  Home  D 0-0; R2 Royal Engineers Home L 0-5
1872-73 R1 Clapham R  Away L 1-3
1874-75 R1 Maidenhead Home L 0-1
1875-76 R1 Clapham R  Away Scratched
1887-88 R1 Old Wykehamists Home L 2-5
1888-89 R1 Casuals  Away Scratched
1898-99 PR Uxbridge  Away W 2-0; R1 Aylesbury Utd Away L 1-5
1899-00 R1 Watford  Away L 1-7
1900-01 Q2 Leighton Springs Away Scratched
1903-04 Q1 Leighton Springs Home W 5-0; Q2 Luton Amateurs Home W3-1; Q3 Luton Town Away L1-2
1904-05 Q3 Clapton Orient Home W 2-1; Q4 Lowestoft Town Away W 3-0; Q5 Watford Away L 0-3
1905-06 Q1 Irthlingborough Home W 6-1; Q2 Kettering  Away D 2-2; Rep Kettering   Home L 1-4
1906-07 Q1 Biggleswade Away D 0-0; Q2 Kettering  Home W 5-0; Q3 Irthlingborough  Home D 2-2; Rep Irthlingborough Away L 2-5
1907-08 PR Peterborough City Home L 1-3

Spartan League years
Hitchin’s first stint in the Spartan Lague lasted just two seasons, but was seen as a way of salvaging a club that had found semi-professionalism too much. The club turned amateur in 1908 but played just one game, a 6-0 defeat at Walthamstow Grange. If they had continued, they would have met Luton Clarence, Chelmsford, South Weald and St.Albans City.

In 1909-10, Hitchin managed to complete the season in Division B. They also fielded a team in the Northern Section of the Herts County League. But it was a tough campaign for the club, the first after a major reorganisation. Hitchin won only three of their 10 league games in the Spartan, including only one away, a 4-0 success at Newportonians. Hitchin finished fifth in the six-team division.

1910-11 proved to be Hitchin’s last before folding. The season started well, with a 4-0 win at Knebworth in the County league, but the Spartan League was much more challenging, with some early defeats at the hands of 2nd Coldstream Guards (0-7), St.Albans (0-7) and Aylesbury (2-3). In fact, Hitchin won just once in the Spartan League, a 1-0 victory against Newportonians thanks to a wonder goal by Tom King. They lost all their away games, including a 0-13 reverse at Tufnell Park.

By the end of the season, Hitchin were in a sorry state and during the summer of 1911, the club’s parlous finances pushed the club into bankruptcy. It would take 17 years to bring senior football back to the town.

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