Thoughts and issues regarding the past and present of a great football club by "The Chronicler".

Thursday, 5 September 2019

To Err Is Human ... But History Is History

One of the reasons why I plunged into an 18-month full-time study of the Villa's history all those years ago (and which study has vastly increased over the years since) was because I was certain that many things had been mis-stated in the various Villa histories I had read. I wanted to find out the truth.

One significant example is a statement in Peter Morris's well known history of 1962 which states that the Villa's famous captain of the 1880s, Archie Hunter, when on his on his premature death-bed, asked his brother Andy and others to push his bed towards the window of his room so that he could see the fans on their way to a Villa home match.

Now that statement is evocative in itself, and it is easy to accept the story on face value. However, supposing the true story is even more evocative? If so, 'why not tell the story as it really was', I thought.

So, what was "the real story"? The fact (as I discovered) is that Archie's brother Andy had himself died of TB six years before, so could not have been at Archie's bedside! In fact, to try and beat his illness, Aston Villa and the FA collected funds for Andy to go to a more suitable climate (they chose Australia). That took place in 1884. However, the week before the very start of the Football League (September, 1888), Archie belatedly received news from Australia of his brother Andy's death in June that year. Archie, understandably, was shaken by that news, and so affected that he did not play in the Villa's first-ever Football League match at Wolves. 

Archie then had to be prevailed upon by the Villa committee to continue playing, which he did. However, less than 18 months later Archie himself played his last game of football when he had a seizure or heart attack in a match against Everton at Anfield, and less than 5 years after that Archie died. From this sad event came the story about Archie's wish to have his bed moved so that he could witness the fans on their way to a Villa match, which is basically a true story.

It is so easy to create a myth out of reality, and I found so many other examples of the creation of perpetuating myths. Here are two more:
1. Legend has it that in 1874, four members of the Wesleyan Chapel male adult bible class met under a gas lamp in Heathfield Road to form Aston Villa.
2. The four founding fathers of our club are believed to be Jack Hughes, William H Price, George Matthews and William H Scattergood.
Nothing of the kind. Aston Villa was not formed under a gas lamp. It was merely a place of discussion about what type of football to adopt. And the four named people were not the "founding fathers". They were merely a deputation that went to look at a football match to decide on its merits and returned to report on the same.

(The above 2 statements were, surprisingly, stated in an official Villa page which can be seen here, and has not been changed despite my pointing out the error to the club.)

The real "founding fathers" were the 15 original members of the club, whose names I have, and are all quoted in my books "The Villa Chronicles" and "The First Superclub". Jack Hughes (one of the four that met under the gaslamp) was quite adamant that the founders were all the 15 original members, not just "the four". Jack Hughes stated this on more than one occasion - and certainly stated this in 1899 and 1924, the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the club. As Hughes was himself "one of the four" under the gaslamp it is likely that his account of this aspect of the club's foundation is correct.

Again, it is commonly stated (see Wikipedia) that the Villa were formed by members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel. This is probably just lazy writing, but the fact is that the chapel was named as the Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel, which was located at what became to be known as Villa Cross (my own family lived in that area at the time and attended that chapel).

Another myth is the old story about the Villa playing their first match against St. Mary's in March, 1874 in a 15-a-side struggle. However, it is now known that this match was played in the following year (March, 1875) and seems to have been the first match that the Villa won, not the first they had played. It has been uncovered by more than one researcher that Villa started playing at least as early as November, 1874.

So the story of Villa being created in March, 1874 seems, now, to be quite spurious. However, there were several leading sports writers of the 1890s who repeatedly stated that the Villa had been founded in October, 1874, before the story was suddenly switched to March, 1874, for reasons unknown. Today, the date of November 21, 1874 is commonly stated, but that itself is not certain. I believe that we can say with reasonable certainty that no more than the process of the creation of the club occurred over the months October and November, 1874. And (who really knows?) there might have been a move towards creating a club in March, 1874 after all.

Anyhow, history is history no matter how you dress it up. And all that people like me can do is as much research as possible to uncover facts that might lead to what really happened. The reality of what happened is usually a lot more interesting than the myth!

Why not read about the main history of the Villa for yourself? Please see this webpage for more information about a magazine series.

Thank you and UTV!

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