The Forgotten History of Newcastle United Football Club
The origin story of one of England’s most famous soccer clubs has been lost to time.
According to Wikipedia, Newcastle United Football Club ‘was founded in 1892 by the merger of Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End.’ But Wikipedia is wrong. Newcastle United Football Club was not founded in 1892, and there was no merger between Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End. The club was formed 11 years earlier, in 1881 (and should have celebrated its 140th birthday in 2021). Popular knowledge has removed those 11 years of history from the records.
In 1881, Newcastle was enjoying a golden age as a powerhouse of industry in the glorious North East of England. The town (it would gain city status in 1882) was prospering due to its expertise in shipbuilding and other heavy industries. The river was alive with activity, packed with tall-masted sailing ships, rattling propeller boats, and billowing steamers. Its banks were lined with an unbroken chain of engineering works, coal staiths and shipyards.
Newcastle United began its life as Stanley FC, based a hundred yards north of the river on Stanley Street, a stretch of what is now Walker Road in South Byker. The club was formed by a group of young lads who played for Stanley Cricket Club. They decided to form a football club during a meeting of the cricket club at the residence of Mr Thomas Allen, a confectioner, on Shields Road, Byker, on 24 November 1881.
Stanley FC played its first match on a field across the road from Stanley Street two days later, on 26 November 1881. Captained by 19-year-old William Coulson, Stanley beat Elswick Leather Works Reservers 5–0. The rest is, literally, history. Stanley changed its name to East End, shuffled around Byker, then set up home at Heaton Junction, just off Chillingham Road. East End FC competed in the Northern League and the FA Cup, built up a loyal fan base, won some silverware, and fielded some great players.
For example, Alec White was a goalscoring midfielder regarded as the most important player in North East football at the time. White, born in Scotland and raised in Byker, once scored nine goals in a single match — an 1887 cup win over Point Pleasant that ended 19–0, making it Newcastle United’s all-time record victory. As club captain, White led the club to an impressive treble in season 1888/89, with East End winning the Northumberland and Durham County Championships, plus the Northumberland Charity Shield.
In the summer of 1892, East End moved to a city centre ground that had been vacated by their former rivals West End. There was no merger. West End had suffered a ‘heavy financial loss’, and the club was disbanded. Under the headline, ‘Goodbye to West End’, the Journal reported: ‘We are informed that the Newcastle West End Club has now ceased to exist… and the executive of the East End club will become the occupiers of St James’ Park.’
The club was still called East End and played in red shirts rather than black and white stripes. There were some bridges to build if the supporters of uprooted East End and defunct West End were to be united behind Newcastle’s only remaining professional club. At a meeting on 9 December 1892, it was proposed that the club should change its name. A report in the Journal said ‘there was a certain amount of jealousy existing among some people regarding the present title of the club, and it was considered that a more general and representative name should be chosen’.
A vote was taken, and one name was chosen ‘by a large majority’. East End became Newcastle United — although the name change wasn’t officially registered until December 1895. The decision to switch colours was made in August 1894, as the minutes from a club meeting reveal: ‘It was agreed that the club’s colours should be changed from red shirts and white knickers to black and white shirts (two-inch stripe) and dark knickers.’
Most fans are at least vaguely aware that there was life in this club before 1892, yet relatively few know much about it. So where did the ‘1892 myth’ come from? There had been confusion for years, but 1892 first really became ingrained in Newcastle legend in 1992, when the club erroneously celebrated a centenary. Cue an avalanche of merchandise branded with ‘1892’, and the creation of an 1892 members’ club at St James’ Park. ‘1892’ still appears on flags and pin badges and embroidered on black and white shirts. 1892 was an important year in the club’s history, but it was not as important as 1881.
The truth about the club’s formation is out there. The club’s official historian Paul Joannou has told the 1881 origin story in his various books and articles on the official club website and match programme. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle has written about the 1881 formation, and, to be fair to Wikipedia, a separate ‘History of Newcastle United FC’ Wiki page does tell the correct story (after some initial confusion regarding the merger).
In 2006, the club correctly celebrated its 125th anniversary and sold replica Stanley FC and East End shirts with ‘1881’ on them. Eleven years later, in 2017, the club incorrectly celebrated another 125th anniversary. Season ticket holders were sent a commemorative booklet advising that the club was formed in 1881. Then, in 2022, the club issued a 130th anniversary kit, in its 141st year. Very confusing.
So does it matter that everything pre-1892 has effectively been consigned to the waste bin? That depends on how much importance you place on the club’s history and tradition. During lean times, it sometimes felt like history and tradition was all the club has left. Now that the club has new owners, they have the opportunity to acknowledge the full history of NUFC.
At the very least, embracing the fact that it was formed in 1881 rather than 1892 brings Newcastle into line with other big clubs that were officially formed under different names. Newcastle United was formed in 1881 as Stanley FC, just as Manchester United was formed in 1878 as Newton Heath, and Arsenal in 1886 as Dial Square. Without those lost early years, we wouldn’t have our football club. That seems reason enough to remember 1881 and all that.⬧
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