Is it any wonder that my mind began to wonder during the England and Scotland “encounter” at Euro 2020? Classic game it was not, despite its status as the oldest game in international football.
The first of those games, offering admission at just one shilling, also entered the record books as a thrilling “nothing - nothing result” and took place just 11 months after the Christmas-time 1871 formation of Reading Football Club.
The remarkable fact that Reading FC are older than international football led me to wonder what else was going on in the world around the time of the birth of the Biscuitmen.
Reading Football Club was founded on Christmas Day 1871. With the Huntley and Palmers’ biscuit factory still operating in Reading, the club went by the Biscuitmen at this point rather than the Royals.
This was a very different world of course. Queen Victoria was a spritely 52, just 34 years into her 64-year reign; Colorado was among 12 current US states not yet part of the union; and a man named John Strutt, third Baron Rayleigh had just worked out why the sky was blue. These then, were simpler times. With the simpler world in mind, let’s take a look back at both history and sports in 1871, to paint a picture of the world Reading FC were born into.
Royal Albert Hall
These days, the premier Opera Hall of the United Kingdom is a feature of the National identity. It’s affectionately known as “The Nation’s Village Hall” and recordings from the venue are often the cornerstone of any band’s live recordings catalogue. Back in 1871, there were already clear portents that the Hall should reach such an auspicious future.
Its creation was driven by its namesake, Prince Albert, who proposed after the Great Exhibition in the 1850s that the UK should have permanent facilities in order to be able to host events of cultural significance. (Note: the cover photo for this article displays the main venue for the 1851 Great Exhibition).
Construction on the hall was slow however, and Albert died before it could be completed. Queen Victoria was devastated, and to honor Albert, she herself gave the Concert Hall its iconic name: changed from its expected name as the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences.
The first performance at the Hall on March 29th 1871 was of a dramatic ‘cantata’ called On Shore and Sea. The piece, written specifically for the opening, was international in flavor, and told of a Late Medieval band of sailors, crusading into the Mediterranean to fight “Saracens”. More recent performances from Pink Floyd, Adele, and the Royal Philarmonic have been decidedly less Medieval in nature, but for 150 years the Hall has been an admired centre of culture and performance.
It’s often surprising to learn that nations that seem like they’ve always existed are in fact, rather young in their current forms. Italy neatly falls into this category, at less than 200 years old, as does Germany, at 150 years exactly.
After the final fall of the Holy Roman Empire during the Napoleonic Wars, many of the Germanic lands fell into something of an identity crisis. To which major political polity did German speakers feel more connected? Perhaps to the Habsburgs of Austria, the ancestral rulers of the Empire since at least the 15th century. Or otherwise to the Prussians in the North? A fast-modernizing state built on steel and blood.
Prussian superiority and military willpower won out just five years before the formation of Reading FC. Fired up by German nationalism and a desire to stretch their significant economic and military muscle, the Prussians led the Germans deep into France to start the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. By 1871, the Germans were triumphantly entering Paris to cap a decisive victory.
And so it was that in January 1871, 11 months before the formation of Reading FC, the Germans officially announced their unified state as the German Empire. To its friends: Germany. (Note: the above image depicts the scene in the Hall of Mirrors as the German Empire is declared.
First-ever bank holidays in the UK
Holidays, derived from “holy days”, have been a part of life in Europe for literally millennia. Before there was a weekend in the way we know it now, Christmas and Easter were still traditional days of rest when citizens were not expected to work. Other holidays existed, but they may have only been celebrated locally.
In 1871 though, led by the pictured Baron John Lubbock (an endlessly fascinating man), Parliament acted to codify four of these regular holidays in fully national law; and decree that banking would be closed on those days. Those first bank holidays were Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and Boxing Day. So if you’re ever enjoying a lazy afternoon on any of those days and wondering who you have to thank for your relaxed state, why just thank the handily named Bank Holidays Act of 1871 of course!
The FA Cup is invented
That’s right, we’ve had as many chances as any team in the land to win the thing and yet it’s still eluded us! The World’s premier club cup competition, now 736 teams strong, was run for the first time in November 1871: just a month too early for Reading to join and 50 years before a final at Wembley!
Football though, while early in its development, was clearly beginning to generate national interest at the time of Reading FC’s formation. At the time of the FA Cup’s formation, rules hadn’t developed yet that would end up being used in the later rounds of the inaugural tournament. The 1872 rules for instance, introduced both corner kicks and the free kick for handball to the game!
The FA Secretary at the time, the notable C.W Alcock stated “it is desirable that a Challenge Cup should be established in connection with the Association for which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete”.
While Alcock would demonstrate his desire for such a tournament by winning it that year, clearly that desire didn’t extend to the throes of Berkshire just yet. It would be the 1878/79 season before Reading would make their first appearance, making it to the second round before losing 1-0 to Berkshire rivals Old Etonians.
The first ever Major League Baseball game
Across the pond, The American sporting national pastime was also developing. The American Civil War ended in 1865, just six years before Reading’s formation. The war pulled countless souls to military camps around the country, and while men would wait for the next action, they would play an early form of baseball. By the time the men went home, interest in baseball was high enough for a number of players to begin banding together to form professional teams.
On May 4 1871, the first Major League Baseball game was played in Fort Wayne, Indiana between Cleveland and Fort Wayne. Both teams were part of the National Association of Base Ball Players: an early union of professional players and precursor to the modern MLB. It cost just $10 for the teams to join that organization at the time: a fee that had been forked over in person by each team’s representative like Sunday League dues just a few months earlier.
Cleveland ran out 2-0 winners, and the local papers from the time tell us “The Cleveland boys were well satisfied with the result”. Given that they lost their next 11 games in a row: that satisfaction would have to serve them well for the next little while!
The Chicago Fire… that the Chicago Fire are named for
Finally, a nod to our suave Serbian’s managerial CV. Prior to managing Reading, Veljko Paunovic was attempting to prove himself, with mixed results, at Chicago Fire FC in the MLS. That “franchise” may seem as though it carries a classic American “Danger” team name such as “The Heat” or “The Hornets”, but it actually harkens back to an infamous event in the history of the city of Chicago: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The fire burned for two days, left 100,000 residents homeless, and caused a modern-day equivalent of $4.7 billion of damage. Considering it was such a huge disaster, it’s still unclear how the fire began. Local newspapers desperately searched for a culprit and got creative, suggesting that a comet could have fallen and started the fire.
Eventually, the enduring legend claimed that the fire broke out in the “O’Leary Barn” where Mrs O’Leary kicked over a lantern into a pile of hay. She was distracted apparently by milking her cow. The story was eventually found to not be true, but that didn’t stop the local papers from reporting the udderly false rumors for over 20 years!
The O’Leary family was officially pardoned by the City of Chicago over 100 years later. Hopefully a pardon for Pauno’s own failings in Chicago won’t take as long to materialize!