The Thursday Column
The BIG feature
SUNDERLAND-born Charles W. Alcock has been dubbed the “Father of Modern Sport” – but his huge influence on today’s sporting world merits few references in the history books.
As the founder of the FA Cup, a pioneer of international cricket and a former captain of the England football team, Charles arguably deserves far greater recognition than he enjoys.
But, following a call by Sunderland Antiquarian Society, his Norfolk Street birthplace could, at least, be marked with a blue plaque commemorating his outstanding commitment to sport.
“Charles Alcock was essentially an ideas man, with both the vision and dynamism to make his ideas come to fruition,” a spokesman for the Antiquarian Society said.
“It is probable that a knockout competition, international football, professionalism and refereeing would have evolved without him, but he certainly accelerated them and made sure that nothing got in the way of ensuring sport developed as a positive force for all.”
Charles Alcock was born into an affluent shipbuilding family in 1842, the second of nine children. His childhood was one of privilege, guided by strict Victorian values, and the Alcocks were at the forefront of the newly-emerging wealthy middle class.
His father, also called Charles, was a registered shipbuilder who went on to become a shipowner and insurance broker, with offices in Sans Street and Sunniside, as well as shipbuilding interests at Ayre’s Quay.
Number 10 Norfolk Street – now the boarded-up former base of Sunderland Women’s Centre – was Charles’ first home, an end-of-terrace property in the township of Bishopwearmouth.
His Uncle Samuel, who fronted the family upholstery business and was Mayor of Sunderland three times, lived just along the street at Number 24, and the thriving community was populated by mariners, chemists, teachers, booksellers, accountants and merchants.
As the Alcocks’ business interests flourished, however, so the family climbed the social ladder, moving from Norfolk Street to Fawcett Street and then 17, John Street before young Charles was nine.
A live-in nurse, cook and general maid were employed by the Alcocks and, instead of teachers and merchants, their neighbours now included fellow ship-builders and ship-owners, as well as solicitors.
However, given the spirit of enterprise shown by the Alcock family, a move further afield seemed almost inevitable and, in the mid-1850s, the Alcocks left Sunderland for Essex.
While Charles senior set about expanding his marine insurance interests, Charles junior was sent to Harrow public school. It was here he was to learn the basics of the sports he would later pioneer internationally.
“Games were promoted at Harrow as a disciplinary and moral force that would set up their school boys for future success professionally and socially,” said the Antiquarian spokesman.
“Importantly, although games were compulsory, they were organised entirely by the boys. These duties proved to be a profitable apprenticeship for Charles.”
Sickness plagued Charles at Harrow and, due to his poor health, he did not distinguish himself in sport and was never chosen to play for the school’s first teams.
But despite his frailness, Charles emerged from Harrow an educated man and opted to join his father and elder brother, John, in establishing a London branch of the family business. His passion for sport, however, continued to grow.
The Alcock brothers were founder members of Forest Football Club in 1859, the year Charles left Harrow, and the team helped to revive the flagging fortunes of football by making it popular once again.
Within four years, the club had been re-named The Wanderers, with Charles as its captain, playing “home” games at Battersea Park to begin with, but later moving to The Oval cricket ground in 1869.
And, when the English Football Association (FA) was formed in 1863, Charles took an active role, helping to draw up official football rules and creating the FA Challenge Cup – still the Holy Grail of football today.
Appropriately, perhaps, it was Charles who captained the first team to win the cup, after The Wanderers beat Captain Marindin’s Royal Engineers by a single goal on March 16, 1872, at The Oval. He was also the first person to be ruled offside, in 1866, under the new London rules.
While combining his career in the city with club matches, Charles also turned his hand to international fixtures, captaining England against Scotland five times between 1870 and 1872.
However, on the day of the first officially recognised match between the two countries, November 30, 1872, Charles was sidelined with a sporting injury and had to umpire the game instead.
Indeed, it was not until March 6, 1875, that he made his one and only official international appearance. The result was a 2-2 draw – with one goal scored by Charles.
Not content with just playing football for his country, Charles was also an enthusiastic cricketer, playing for England against France during the 1860s.
In 1872, he became the first paid secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club and, in 1880, he played a significant role in organising the first England v Australia Test match.
When Australia beat England at The Oval in match two years later, a mock obituary to English cricket in The Sporting Times led to the creation of The Ashes.
In later years, Charles became a respected sports writer and journalist and, in 1886, he was appointed secretary of the FA – a role he held until 1895, when he was made Vice President.
When Charles died 11 years later, in 1907, he left a sporting legacy that remains as important today as it was during his lifetime.
“Sadly, Charles Alcock will probably remain anonymous to the thousands of people who compete each year for the FA Cup, the world’s most coveted domestic trophy, and to the millions who watch them,” said the Antiquarian spokesman.
“It is for this reason that we need to consider whether there is a case for a blue plaque to commemorate the birthplace of the man who invented the FA Cup – the Holy Grail of football competitions.”
SHIPYARD SITE: The River Wear, where the Alcocks had their shipyard.