According to the Football Association, non-league Sheffield F.C., founded on October 24th 1857, is the world’s oldest club, and Notts County, founded in November 1862, is the oldest league club.
However, research by author Peter Manning has established that Crystal Palace - commonly believed even by its own supporters to have been founded in 1905 – can claim a link back to the Crystal Palace football team established in 1861, which played its first match in March 1862.
The Crystal Palace story begins with the founding of the Crystal Palace Company, set up in 1852 to manage the giant cast-iron and glass structure, which was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham in south London after the Great Exhibition. The Crystal Palace at Sydenham was the world’s first major theme park and was set in 200 acres of grounds.
As part of its business plan the company laid a cricket pitch in June 1857 and the Crystal Palace Club was formed. Thomas Farquhar, Chairman of the Crystal Palace Company, was its first President.
In Victorian England serious cricketers played football in the winter to keep fit and the Crystal Palace cricketers set up their own football team in 1861. Playing in blue and white, their first reported match was against Forest F.C. on March 15th, 1862.
In 1863, when the Football Association was founded, Crystal Palace cricketer Frank Day attended its inaugural meeting. Crystal Palace was one of the core clubs that pushed through the association football rules against stiff opposition from the Rugby clubs, sending more delegates to the six inaugural meetings than any other club.
Palace provided three players for the first official match to be played under the new association football rules in Battersea Park in January 1864, a 14-a-side game between the President’s team and the Secretary’s team. Palace’s first reported game under the new rules was a 2-1 defeat to Barnes on 27th February 1864.
In 1871, Crystal Palace’s captain Douglas Allport was closely involved in the inauguration of the FA Cup, proposing an FA sub-committee that drafted the rules for the cup competition; he was also one of three FA members who selected and bought the first trophy. Crystal Palace played in the first ever round of the FA Cup – the only surviving league club to have done so – reaching the semi-finals in 1872.
A Crystal Palace tankard presented in the 1873-4 season, which triggered Peter Manning’s research, is believed to be the oldest association football club trophy in existence.
Ironically, having been footballing pioneers, Crystal Palace stopped playing organised matches in 1875 for almost two decades. An analysis of the fixtures of the time suggests that it was because they were damaging the cricket ground, a plausible explanation because the FA Cup was eventually banned from Surrey’s cricket ground for the same reason.
The Crystal Palace Club did not close as the footballers carried on playing cricket in summer and the club existed until 1900, when it merged with W.G. Grace’s new London County Cricket Club. Football returned to the Palace when Henry Gillman, an enterprising entertainments manager, persuaded his board to fill in two of their great fountains in 1894 and build a new football stadium to host the Cup Final, previously played at the Oval, and 20 FA Cup Finals were staged at the Palace between 1895 and 1914.
The amateur Crystal Palace Football Club now had its own football pitch and started playing friendlies against the leading clubs of the day, starting with Cup holders Aston Villa in November 1895. But amateur games did not bring in large crowds and it became clear that the company needed to set up a professional team.
A new limited company was set up and the legendary cricketer, W.G. Grace, who had been appointed the Crystal Palace Company’s sporting director, was involved in the project. The professional club came into being in 1905 and the Crystal Palace Company bought 1,700 shares, giving it a controlling interest, which meant that the business owned the football club it had first established in 1861.
And therein lies Crystal Palace’s claim to be the oldest professional football club in the world. When the professional club published its first handbook in 1906, having joined Division 2 of the Southern League, it listed some of the internationals who had previously represented the club, including Alex Morten in 1873 and Arthur Savage and Charles Eastlake Smith in 1876, showing that they recognised themselves as a continuation of the original amateur team.
Author Peter Manning, who has carried out extensive research into the origins of the club, says:
"The Crystal Palace was the world’s first major theme park. It was owned and run by the Crystal Palace Company. Everything within the Palace and its grounds was part of the Crystal Palace’s and the Crystal Palace Company’s business, including the Crystal Palace Cricket Club, set up in 1857, the emergence of the football club in 1861, through to the setting up and the taking of a majority share stake in the professional football club in 1905.
"Without the Crystal Palace and the Crystal Palace Company there would have been no Crystal Palace Football Club. It was always one club and always part of the Crystal Palace Company’s business. As the founding of the football club dates back to 1861, it can claim to be the oldest professional league club in the world.
"It’s ironic that today the one surviving remnant of the Crystal Palace Company, Crystal Palace Football Club, is now the big crowd puller, the big money earner that the Crystal Palace Company always wanted it to be. I’m sure it would have been extremely proud of what it has now achieved as a football club."