Just down-river of St. Marys stadium, on the other side of the Itchen bridge, is the area of Woolston in which, alongside the river, where currently towers rise from the ground, lies the site of the Vosper Thornycroft shipyard. The yard, which until a decade ago dominated the area, now remains only in memory and a continuing legacy of white-van men who originally learnt their trade as yard apprentices in the 1970s and 80s.
It was in the latter part of the 19th century, when Southampton was in the throes of a transition from spa-town to industrial port, that the site became occupied by the ship-builder Thomas Ridley Oswald, arriving in the 1870s along with a large part of his workforce from the Wearside yard where he had previously based his operations.
According to the local Historian A.G.K. Leonard The yard’s first ship the Aberfoyle, weighing 953 tons was launched in 1876 and in 1877 Oswald partnered with John Murray Mordaunt, with the company becoming known as Oswald Mordaunt & Company. The scale of the operation on the banks of the Itchen was significant; Leonard states that White’s Hampshire Directory reported that by 1878 the yard had 1,000 employees over a 20 acre site (for comparison Southampton’s total population at the time of the 1881 census was 78,278).
Oswald’s interests however, seem to have extended beyond mere business, as Juson & Bull observe in Full-Time at The Dell Oswald “appeared to have a predilection for hiring artisans whose skills were not confined to shipbuilding and repair.” With workers drawn from the ship-building and footballing heartlands of Glasgow and the North East the effect on the local football scene was transformative as Juson & Bull illustrate with a 1936 quote by Willliam Pickford, a stalwart of local football who would go on to be chairman of the FA:
The effect of this galaxy of Scotsmen on the game in Hampshire was electrifying. Up to then few local people knew anything about the fine points of the game, and the public troubled little about it as a spectacle. The opening of the Woolston Shipyard… turned Southampton into an Association hot-bed and it woke up with a start
In their book Saints A Complete Record of Southampton Football Club 1885-1987 Gary Chalk and Duncan Holley report that in the late 1870s workers from the yard had formed a team, Southampton Rangers, who regularly played games on Southampton Common. Due to the itinerant nature of the workforce however, the team was rarely stable in terms of its make-up.
By the late 1880s though, a team made up primarily of workers from the yard, Woolston Works had come to dominate the local football scene. In the 1886-87 season Works, noted for a robust style of play, had played 16 games, with only two defeats and had scored 72 goals to a mere six conceded (Gannaway 1996). They had also claimed the Hants and Dorset Senior cup with a 1-0 win over Wimbourne and had reached the final of the Portsmouth & District Association Cup, where they lost 2-0 to a Portsmouth AFC side featuring none other than Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle in the Pompey goal. Works went on the next season to claim more silverware claiming both the Hampshire Football Association six-a-side tournament and the inaugural Hampshire Senior Cup the following season with another 1-0 win, this time over Winchester.
The fortunes of the Works however, were at this point in time still intractably linked to the fortunes of the yard. Unfortunately for the football team Oswald, Mordaunt & Co did indeed run into financial difficulties leading to the closure of the yard in April 1889 and the ultimate dissolution of the company. Having again reached the final of the Hampshire Senior Cup an exodus of players left the side offering only a weak defence of their Hampshire Senior Cup title, losing to the Royal Engineers of Aldershot. It was a sad end for a team which at the very peak of their powers the team had been undone by events off the field.
This was not however, the end of either shipbuilding on the site, or the yards association with football. The yard would reopen soon after in 1890 under new owners, passing through several hands before being acquired by J I Thornycroft & Co in 1904 – the Thornycroft’s name remaining associated with the yard until its final closure in 2004. There would be several sides which emerged from the yard with one Thornycroft’s (Woolston) side reaching the first round of the FA cup in 1920, where they would face first-division Burnley in 1919-20. Securing a 0-0 draw at Fratton Park (the game had at one point been due to be played at the Veracity Ground) the northerners won the replay 5-0. Finally Sholing (previously known as Vosper Thornycroft FC) became the last side to emerge from the yard in 1960 and currently play in the Southern League. None of these sides would however, ever dominate local football to the extent that the Works had done in their all too brief hey-day.
But, what if the company Oswald, Mordaunt & Co had not collapsed when it did? It is reasonable to suppose that St. Marys would have faced a major obstacle in their struggle to become the pre-eminent side in the area.
On the field Works could consider themselves the superior team. In a game between the two in 1888 Juson & Bull report that Works, winners of the Hampshire Senior Cup beat St. Mary’s, winners of the Junior Cup, 3-0. Perhaps most importantly the Works were also ensconced in one of the few enclosed venues in the town available for football, the Antelope Cricket ground.
Although the sale of the land which it occupied (modern day St. Mary’s Street) for development in 1896 meant that the Saints tenure at the Antelope would be relatively short its importance in the clubs development cannot be understated; As Dave Juson states on the website Deftly Hallowed the Antelope played a key role in St. Mary’s rise
It was at the Antelope St Mary’s firmly established themselves as Hampshire’s pre-eminent football club. Not just in terms of trophies – they won the Junior Cup outright after three consecutive wins, and lifted the Senior Cup in 1891 and ’92 – but by far the best supported. It was at the Antelope they first entered the FA Cup; adopted open professionalism; changed their name to Southampton St Mary’s and became one of the nine original Southern League clubs.
Had the Works survived, even for just a few more years, St. Mary’s would be denied the use of the Antelope at this crucial juncture in their history. Although this may not have been immediately catastrophic it would make it particularity difficult for the club to take its next steps it is not difficult to suppose that St. Marys would have withered on the vine to become, not unlike the Works themselves, a footnote in the City’s footballing history.
In other cities it was a works team which went on to achieve prominence: Coventry City began life as Singers FC the works team of the Singer cycle manufacturer, whilst Manchester United’s origin lie among a group workers from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Had Oswald, Mordaunt & Co survived it is likely that the football team would have followed a similar path to these clubs; As football developed and professionalised the side would have outgrown the yard which had supplied players and would have gone it alone, taking on the name of Southampton FC.
This may have resulted in a few differences, some small enough to be imperceptible. In all likelihood the team name would still be Southampton Football Club and the side would, like almost all others at the time, have adopted Southampton’s civic coat-of-arms as a team crest (of which today’s club crest is a variation). Other differences would be more visible; the team today would not be nicknamed ‘the Saints’ – this being derived from St. Marys. They could well be known as ‘the Boatmen’ as Sholing, the last remaining team from the yard, are. The team may also play in different colours as red and white were adopted early on by St. Marys while the Dell may have remained an empty patch of land until developed for housing and today be several streets of Victorian terraces.
As it stands however, fans crossing the Itchen bridge on match day, the site on the left remains, forever, an alternative future, rather than the clubs past, but it is worth perhaps pausing for a moment to consider the role played by the Works both in their rise – doing much for the development of football in the area and subsequently their fall – paving the way for St. Mary’s to become the Southampton FC of today.
Chalk, G. & Holley, D. (1987) Saints A Complete Record of Southampton Football Club 1885-1987 Breedon Books
Gannaway, N. (1996) ‘Association Football in Hampshire Until 1914’ Hampshire Papers No.9 Hampshire County Council
Juson, D. & Bull, D. (2001) Full Time at The Dell Hagiology Publishing
Juson, D. ‘The Antelope Cricket Ground’ Deftly Hallowed [online] http://www.deftlyhallowed.co.uk/antelope%20ground.html
Leonard A.G.K (2010) ‘The speculatively-built ships of Oswald, Mordaunt and Company, 1879-84: Woolston, Bitterne, Test, Itchen and Netley’ Journal of Southampton Local History Forum No. 16 Winter 2010