The Shambolic History of Southern United

We love having guest blogs here at The Football History Boys, and so when Roger Deason got in touch about what he described as 'the shambolic history' of early 20th century London club Southern United, we jumped at the chance to tell their story! Enjoy, as we take a dive into a football club that was very much, 'what could've been':

Surrey was a stronghold of amateur football. The first professional team in the county was the long forgotten Southern United, founded in 1904, meaning they pre-date Crystal Palace and Chelsea as professional London teams. Two of those teams are now well known. Southern United’s shambolic history is little known. 

Brown's Ground - The home of Southern United

Southern United were largely the brainchild of Baron William von Reiffenstein, a Scottish born stockbroker with a penchant for sailing close to the wind. He played football, officiated, acting as linesman in the 1899 Surrey Junior Cup Final and was a leading figure at West Norwood F.C. He used positions within London and Surrey F.A.’s to tap players up for the Bantams. Contemporary rumours suggest West Norwood were amateur in name, not reality. In 1898 West Norwood paid Anerley £5 to surrender home advantage in a Southern Suburban League match. The result was declared void and the South London Press drily noted someone needed to explain the concept of a league to the Baron. 

That summer, West Norwood’s reserves walked out to form Norwood United, stating they would play local men. West Norwood veteran H.F. Russell came out of retirement joining United, to play one last season with his friends. The Baron was involved in lodging a complaint with the F.A. that Russell was a professional, having accepted a retirement gift from West Norwood. The F.A. threw the charge out. The resultant bad blood saw the Baron voted off the West Norwood committee, a shareholder vote saw him restored. The Baron was a leading shareholder in the club. 

The Baron resigned from West Norwood in February 1904, announcing he would reform Wanderers F.C. The club were granted Middlesex F.A. membership on condition they re-named as Middlesex Wanderers. They played one known match, losing 5-1 to Dulwich St Peter’s, before being expelled by Middlesex F.A. in October. 

The Baron had jumped ship, founding Southern United alongside the West Norwood Chairman William Hooton. Also on the Board was Royal Navy officer Patrick McGuire, contractor John Diddell, builder Richard Vidler, timber merchant George Richmond, another man with links to West Norwood, and William Smith, publican at The Crown & Greyhound Dulwich. The club gained full Football Association membership in June 1904, Surrey F.A. refused to admit professional clubs. United secured admission to the South Eastern League and leased Brown’s Ground, Nunhead. The inaugural kit was mauve and black hooped shirts with black shorts and socks. The club was nicknamed the Southrons. 

Nottingham Evening Post detail Southern United's FA admission on 27 June 1904

Club captain Alf Hawley was the son of a Spurs director. An amateur, he walked off the pitch playing for Spurs Reserves in 1901, tired of abuse from his own fans. McGuire used his links to sign players from a Royal Navy background. The United squad was a mixture of professionals and amateurs. The talented Miecznikowski brothers arrived. Walter is suspected to have been declared professional after accepting a wedding gift from Clapton F.C. The South London Press warned third rate professional clubs rarely worked financially. 

On Thursday 1st September 1904 Southern United made their league debut at Brighton & Hove Albion, losing 6-0 after being reduced to nine men by injuries. Goalkeeper A.B. Crake was one of the injured. He subsequently spent time in jail for a business fraud that nearly saw an M.P. expelled from Parliament. On the Saturday, United defeated Leyton 3-2 away, with a Leyton reserve making their numbers up to eleven. On Saturday 17th, United played their first F.A. Cup match, not yet having possession of their ground they surrendered home advantage to Croydon winning 3-0. The first true home game came on October 1st v Guard’s Depot in the F.A. Cup. 

In the run up to the game United caused a stir by signing Tommy McCairs, Doncaster Rovers had offered him £3 10s a week but didn’t want to pay a £150 transfer fee. 1,000 watched a 1-1 draw, the replay was held in Nunhead and Southern progressed 6-1. Pritchard, injured at Brighton, returned to team after being taken to Clapham’s Grand Theatre to be hypnotised by Ahrensmeyer. Saturday 8th saw the first league points gained; 3-2 v Aylesbury United. The following week Woking visited in the F.A. Cup and were defeated 8-1. The following round saw Ilford visit Nunhead and depart 3-2 victors, watched by nearly 4,000. The Southron’s players employed by the Royal Navy were missing, confined to base after Admiral Rodjestvensky opened fire on British trawlers believing they were Japanese torpedo boats.  

Athletic Chat reports the 8-1 FA Cup victory (18 October 1904)

More misfortune followed in December, Southern United were reported for enticing C.W. Ryan to sign by Hitchin Town who held his registration. The two points docked proved crucial at the end of the season, leaving Southern United bottom and facing re-election. They had failed to field eleven men several times at first team level. The reserves had arrived at Thornton Heath with just four players. First team gates had settled at around 1,000, by March 1905 press references occur to financial problems. 

1905/06 saw Southern United join the Southern League Division Two and London League, as well as two reserve team leagues, with a substantially increased budget. They were voted out of the South Eastern League, finishing behind Leyton and Chelsea in the vote. The most eye-catching signing was Fred Spiksley, ex Sheffield Wednesday and England. He received a £10 signing on fee and £4 a week, believing he would be involved in coaching. Fred was more office based. Trainer John Sayers was ex-military and clashed with both Fred and Jack Almond, ex Sheffield United. Jack left the club.

Fred Spiksley (7 Eng caps) was a big signing for Southern

On September 16th 1905, the first team drew 1-1 at Leyton, the reserves drew 2-2 at Barnet Alston with The Southrons fielding twenty-one professionals. Director John Diddell was taken to court for non-payment of a personal debt, his wife told the hearing he was too busy playing football to make money. On October 28th, Chelsea visited Nunhead in the F.A. Cup, despite speculation Southern would cash in and switch the match. Chelsea won 1-0 watched by 7,000. Three days later it was reported full England international Stanley Shute Harris had signed, no record of him playing has been found!

With gates sometimes under 500, finances were creaking. November 1905 saw a boardroom reshuffle. Money was found to sign goalkeeper Fred Mearns from Grays United, Fred played for Barnsley in the 1910 F.A. Cup Final. News of players being released arrived in December 1905. The same month saw the club turn up so late at Sittingbourne most of the crowd had gone home, earning a censure from the league. On Boxing Day Willesden turned up with nine men and no kit, the crowd largely refused to pay, the Directors issued an apology. Southern signed three Willesden players, Willesden folded.  

Financial issues saw Fred Spiksley leave, signing for Watford in February. With an average Southern League gate take of £42, the club couldn’t pay him £4 a week. John Sayers also departed. The club was on the verge of collapse. It seems the Baron, who had announced his departure, returned to save the club. As the season progressed the professionals were increasingly replaced by amateurs. The reserves turned up with just eight players at one game – including the trainer and club linesman. 

Swindon Town arrived in Nunhead on February 24th, to their surprise they found Southern United Reserves playing Barnet Alston. Swindon slapped in a complaint, asking for their travel costs back. In March Southern travelled to Crystal Palace amidst rumours it would be their last game. Percy Sprules departed at the end of the match, signing for Fulham. Percy is better remembered as Chief Constable Peter Sprules MBE. John Wood departed, joining First Division Derby County. John was killed on the Somme in 1916. 

John Wood, who left for Derby County, sadly died in the Somme in 1916

March 17th saw Southern, now wearing a striped kit, play Eltham in the Kent Senior Cup Semi Final hoping for a fund-raising final appearance. A shock 3-2 defeat ensured it wasn’t to be. In April Southern were suspended from all footballing activity over unpaid debts. The suspension was lifted, however the F.A. launched a four-man Commission to investigate Southern United. On April 30th the first team lost 10-0 at Swindon whilst the reserve team lost 8-0 at home to bottom placed Chesham Generals. The season ended with Southern sixth in the Southern League Second Division and bottom of the United League. 

The F.A. Commission reported over the summer. Club Secretary Mr. T. Grimes, an ex-West Norwood player, was banned sine die. The club were suspended until all debts were cleared and the club was ordered to appoint new directors to sort the mess out. 

Southern started the 1906/07 season a week late due to the suspension. Deptford Invicta moved in to share Brown’s Ground. September 22nd saw Dorking defeated 3-0 at Nunhead in the F.A. Cup, only around 700 showed up. October 6th saw Redhill attract a record crowd of 700 as they drew 0-0 with United in the F.A. Cup. The replay ended 2-2, a third match was held at Croydon with Redhill winning 2-1. Before the month was out the club was suspended from all footballing activities over debts owed to 1905/06 player Frank Ransom and to Dorking. The money was found; the situation was now desperate. Southend arrived in December, winning 7-0. 

On January 5th 1907, the F.A. ruled that Deptford Invicta were illegally acting as The Southron’s reserve team, leading to the Baron being censured. Later that month the F.A. commenced another investigation. The Miecznikowski brothers, loyal until now, departed for Leyton. Walter had been Southern United’s best player for a while. Saturday 9th February saw an 11-0 loss at Swindon Town Reserves. The ten-man team proved to be the last the club fielded. 

The final known league tables see the club pointless at the bottom of the Southern League Division Two and second bottom of the London League, Division One. On February 25th 1907 the F.A. Consultative Committee met, ordering the Baron and other club officials to appear before another Commission. Instead, the Baron chose to wind up Southern United. He promised not to get involved with another club, avoiding a probable sine die ban. He was subsequently of some importance within British athletics. In 1908 the Baron shared the top table at a banquet connected to the London Olympics with senior F.A. officials. 

On April 22nd 1907 Nunhead F.C. leased Brown’s Ground. A more successful and better remembered chapter in the history of football in Nunhead commenced. 

Nunhead FC would take over Brown's Ground in Southern United's place



By Roger Deason, for The Football History Boys (@TFHBs)

©The Football History Boys, 2021
(All pictures borrowed kindly and not owned in any form by TFHB, please contact if any issues)

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