From Cricket to the birth of the Bluebirds

The sound of ball hitting willow in the warm summers of Victorian Cardiff around the fields of Sophia Gardens is far removed from the helter-skelter of association football.

Yet it was from those days of horse-drawn carriages scuttling around the dimly-lit streets of the rapidly growing town that the first notion of starting a local football club was born. The prime mover in trying to keep the Riverside Cricket Club together during the long winter months was Bristol-born lithographic artist, Bartley Wilson (below).

Bartley Wilson

Though unable to walk without the aid of sticks, Wilson was a keen member and organiser of the cricket club, and he set up a meeting of all interested parties at his home in the shadow of Cardiff Castle in the autumn of 1899. That meeting resulted in the formation of Riverside Football Club and Wilson was duly elected secretary of the new club. Friendlies with local teams were arranged during that first season with home games being played at Sophia Gardens, until in 1900 they were admitted to the Cardiff and District League for their debut season of competitive football.

The first known colours of Riverside FC were somewhat unusual for the shirts were chocolate and amber quarters and they were coupled with black knickers. The club improved their Sophia Gardens home by installing gas and water in their changing rooms, and the better facilities proved a healthy magnet for new membership.

An amalgamation with Riverside Albion came in 1902, but it was a further three years before the first honour, the Bevan Shield, was won by the blossoming club.  It was at this time that Cardiff was made a city, and the committee immediately put in a request to change their name to Cardiff City; however, it was refused on the grounds that the club was not playing at a sufficiently high standard. Steps were taken to join the upgraded South Wales Amateur League, and in 1908 they were at last allowed to change the name to Cardiff City.

Interest in the club was growing faster than facilities available at Sophia Gardens would allow, and the committee were forced to turn down an opportunity of joining the newly-formed Second Division of the Southern League. This was because of the lack of an enclosed pitch, turnstiles, or adequate conditions for spectators. The hard-working committee refused to be beaten and a friendly match was arranged against Crystal Palace of the Southern League in October, 1909. Such was the level of interest that the match was played at Cardiff Arms Park, was drawn 3-3, and the gate receipts amounted to the princely sum of £33. Delighted with this response, a second friendly match was arranged four weeks later against Bristol City of Division One. Gate receipts jumped to £50, but once Bristol's guarantee fee had been paid there was little left for the Cardiff coffers, and to make matters worse they were soundly defeated 7-1.

Wilson and his committee were now in determined mood and Middlesbrough, also of Division One, agreed to come to Cardiff. This match was played at the Harlequins ground, Newport Road , nowadays home to St Peter's RFC and previously the sports ground of Cardiff High School. Boro included England international Steve Bloomer and Alf Common, the first footballer to be transferred for a four figure fee; but to home supporters delight, Cardiff won 2-1 and ended up £39 in profit on the day.

Buoyant with the response from the general public, Wilson began talks with the Bute Estate, owners of much of Cardiff, with a view to finding land suitable for a football ground. An offer of waste ground between Sloper Road and the railway sidings was accepted after Cardiff Corporation agreed to assist in the preparing of the ground. This important step by the club made the move to professionalism inevitable, and Cardiff City was admitted to the Second Division of the Southern League in 1910. A Board of Directors was elected with S. H. Nicholls as the first chairman, while Wilson continued his duties as secretary.

The ground itself was part waste tip and allotments, and the assistance of voluntary helpers as well as the corporation workers was needed to level and prepare an acceptable playing area. Mounds of ash were deposited either side of the pitch to provide banking, and the whole area was enclosed by a white timber fence. The final touches were provided by a small wooden stand and changing rooms.

The Marquis of Bute's son, Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart (below), agreed to become a guarantor and in gratitude of his financial support, the new ground was called Ninian Park instead of the originally suggested Sloper Park. Once again, Bartley Wilson came to the fore by taking responsibility for improving the playing standards. His first professional signing was Jack Evans, an outside left hailing from North Wales but who was playing for Cwmparc, near Aberdare where he worked as a printer. Evans received six shillings (30p) signing-on fee to cover his travelling expenses.

Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart

It was now obvious that the quickly-growing club required a manager and so Wilson engaged the services of Davy McDougall as player-manager and captain. McDougall was a left-half with Glasgow Rangers who had also played for Bristol City. He began recruiting players he knew from Scotland and the north-east, and though signing these players and bringing them to South Wales was moderately expensive, he was fully aware that Cardiff City would make little progress without a marked improvement in standards.

Ninian Park was formally opened with a friendly match against Division One champions, Aston Villa on September 1, 1910 with kick-off scheduled for 5pm. The honour of scoring City's first goal at Ninian Park went to Welsh-speaker Evans, but Villa won 2-1 in front of a crowd of over 7,000. Cardiff were now wearing blue shirts, white shorts and blue stockings. City finished a creditable fourth in their first season in the Southern League, but the Board felt that a stronger hand was necessary at the helm.

They advertised for a full-time secretary-manager and were rewarded when Fred Stewart (below), thirty-eight-year-old manager of Stockport County, declared an interest. He was quickly appointed, and would be at the forefront of all things to do with Cardiff City for the next twenty-two years. Stewart set about changing the playing staff in a bid to win promotion and his first signing was Billy Hardy, a player who would give superb service to the club for many years. It took City two seasons to reach Division One of the Southern League, and they remained there until the outbreak of the Great War (1914-18).

Fred Stewart

Competitive football returned in 1919 and Cardiff were luckier than most clubs as only one player, full back Tom Watts, failed to survive the conflict. Stewart engaged most of the pre-war team and then began the task of recruiting new players despite money being in short supply. He was so successful in doing this that City finished in fourth position and earned enough profit to wipe out their substantial debts. They were also able to improve conditions at Ninian Park by building an all-seater Canton Stand.

The City Directors lodged an application to join an extended Football League, and they were delighted when informed on May 31, 1920 that their application had been successful. They were about to become members of a reconstructed Second Division for the 1920-21 season, just twenty-one years after their formation, and only ten years since becoming a professional club.

Wilson must go down as the prime mover in the founding of Cardiff City AFC. He was instrumental in the formation of Riverside FC out of a cricket eleven, became the first secretary of Cardiff City, and was even manager for a brief period following the retirement of Fred Stewart in 1933. He remained working in the background at Cardiff City for many years and was assistant secretary when he retired in 1954 at the age of eighty-five.