ON Sunday November 11, 2018, exactly 147 years after the club’s ancestors kicked-off the first FA Cup , Hitchin Town will play Solihull Moors in the first round of football’s oldest knockout competition.
Hitchin Football Club, which dabbled with Rugby as well as Association, had been in existence since 1865 when the competition was inaugurated. A group of local worthies decided to form a football club. In the days when local events, from informal gatherings and discussion groups would be well recorded, the announcement was deemed important enough to warrant mention in the local press:
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 Redcliff 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 chosen as president and the Reverend 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 game in any 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 year and continue to its opening and to meet for play on Saturday afternoon at half-past two o’clock, the opening game to be played that day.”
In all probability, the members of the newly formed club played among themselves in those early days. Certainly, there were not leagues around in those days and the FA Cup was still five years off. Apart from county and other cup games and FA Cup ties, from 1865 to 1901, Hitchin only played friendlies.
Those friendlies undoubtedly started with kick-abouts between teams formed from within the club’s members. There is evidence of a Mr Jackson’s XI versus Mr Mainwaring’s XI and a team known as “Mr Elphinstone’s XI”.
The first club captain was one Francis Shillitoe, a keen rower and, by profession, a coroner. He lived at Foxholes on the edge of town.
The club had a somewhat nomadic existence, playing on Butts Close, local recreation grounds, the local cricket ground and Dog Kennel Farm in Charlton. Eventually, the club moved to the site in which became known as Top Field, probably in the 1890s, although even in the early 20thcentury it was known as “The Bedford Road Ground”. In the club’s first few years, Hitchin struggled to compete with teams like Wanderers and Clapham Rovers.
Given the FA was in its nascent stages, Hitchin’s involvement in the first Football Association Challenge Cup, the brainchild of C.W.Alcock, is not surprising. But only 15 of the 50 member clubs expressed an interest in Alcock’s idea of a national knockout competition. It was to be based on the public school “sudden death” inter-house tournaments. In addition to Hitchin, the participants were: Barnes, Civil Services, Crystal Palace, Clapham Rovers, Maidenhead, Marlow, Queens Park Glasgow, Donington Grammar School of Spalding, Hampstead Heathens, Harrow Chequers, Reigate Priory, Royal Engineers, Upton Park and Wanderers.
On November 11, 1871, Hitchin hosted a Crystal Palace team that was not the forerunner of the club that now plays at Selhurst Park in South London. This was a team that comprised workers involved with the huge glass building that was the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The aim of the club was to give members of the cricket club something to do in winter. Formed in 1861, this short-lived club played in blue and white hooped jerseys. This Crystal Palace club disbanded in 1876.
It was the first day of the FA Cup and a fairly low-key affair. As the rain poured in Hitchin, the tie failed to live up to expectations, despite attracting around 500 people. The game ended goalless amid the mud and puddles, with plenty of goalmouth scrimmages, and under the rules of the competition, both teams went through to the next round.
Hitchin then played Royal Engineers and could only muster up eight players on a midweek afternoon. The Army side was ruthless and took full advantage, winning 5-0. Given Hitchin were short-handed, the game was reduced to just 60 minutes. So ended Hitchin’s first FA Cup run. Royal Engineers reached the final to play Wanderers, with the latter winning the cup by 1-0 at Kennington Oval.
The first Hitchin club didn’t make much of an impact in the competition, but in 1904-05, “the town” beat Clapton Orient 2-1 in the fourth qualifying round (November 12, 1904), an achievement that has been overlooked down the decades. Orient would join the Football League at the end of that season. It would not be until 1953-54 that a Hitchin club would reach the first round proper, a tie with Peterborough United of the Midland League. The first Football League opposition came in 1958-59 in the form of Millwall and in 1994-95, the club at last became “giant-killers”, beating Hereford United in a memorable night at Top Field.
Back in 1871, the FA Cup made its bow in Hitchin, one of four games that took place on November 11. Since then, the competition has always meant something to the people of the Hertfordshire market town. Another chapter in that long story is about to be written.