Penistone’s forgotten founding fathers of football

Sheffield lays its claim as the home of football. But the outer lying town of Penistone can be credited with nurturing the beautiful game in its infancy thanks to the plights of three local men.

On the field surrounding Penistone Grammar School, the fledgling game of football began to take shape.

Over 160 years before Manchester City’s John Stones would grace the school grounds, two Victorian schoolboys and their headmaster were kicking the ball about on Fair Fields, unaware of how this school game would evolve. Samuel Sunderland, John Charles Shaw and John Marsh went on to become instrumental in shaping the beautiful game we know today.

Former Penistone Grammar School PE teacher, Kevin Neill, has spent years researching and writing about their lives. The world of football and Sheffield in particular owe these Penistone men a huge debt of gratitude.

Rev Samuel Sunderland

Sunderland was the man who, in some ways, started it all.

Rev Samuel Sunderland – illustration by Lucy Pimpernel Wood

He was the headmaster of Penistone Grammar School between 1836 and 1855, during which time he introduced many boarders and day students to the game of football that he’d initially learnt at Cambridge.

The son of a greengrocer, born in Wakefield in 1806, Samuel won a poor boys’ scholarship to study at Clare Hall, Cambridge. He went in 1825 for a nine-year study programme but returned up north four years later at the call of his former headmaster, Rev Martin Naylor.

As well as being headmaster of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Kirkgate, Rev Naylor was also the rector of Penistone. However, he struggled to juggle his time between the two and knew that Penistone deserved a full-time rector.

Samuel was his first point of call. He was ordained at Durham in 1929 and became Curate at Penistone. The sport-loving minister was instantly popular with parishioners.

Seven years after moving to Penistone, Samuel was appointed head of Penistone Grammar School. He was responsible for a small number of boarders and would occupy them by introducing them to the football he experienced at Cambridge.

The old Penistone Grammar School

Football in Penistone was impacted by the surrounding environment of the grammar school. Kickabouts were played on the sloping Fair Fields, its rough grass cut with scythes causing the ball to bobble and bounce. Players knew they were better to dribble the ball with minimal handling.

The fields sloped down towards the River Don, with cottages and outhouses easily damaged by flyaway balls. This led to Sunderland insisting that the ball was kicked below a certain height to avoid any breakages or the chance of the ball ending up in the Don.

When boarders returned to their respective villages, they took Sunderland’s football with them. This included agreed rules, time limits and number of players which became embedded in Yorkshire football during the 1840s and ‘50s.

Two of the boys influenced by Sunderland were day students John Charles Shaw and John Marsh. Though 12 years apart in school age, they both took the football they learned at Penistone and went onto have a huge impact on the future of football.

Sunderland eventually became the vicar at Penistone in 1841 and remained in his dual role until his tragic death in 1855 aged 48. While returning from a Sunday School visit to Chatsworth, the carriage he was travelling in overturned outside the Peacock Inn at Rowsley. Rev Sunderland fell from the top of the carriage and died from head injuries. He’s buried at St John the Baptist Church in Penistone and there is a memorial tablet in the chancel paid for by parishioners at the time.

John Charles Shaw

John Charles Shaw was the modern epithet of a mover and shaker. It is his name that emerges as the most prominent in the early development of football in Sheffield.

John Charles Shaw – illustration by Lucy Pimpernel Wood

He was the founder and first captain of Hallam FC, the world’s second oldest football club. He later became president of Sheffield Football Association, being pivotal in developing the first universal set of rules for association football.

John Shaw was a pupil at the free Penistone Grammar School during the 1840s under the leadership of Samuel Sunderland.

Born in the town in 1830, he was baptised by Sunderland at Penistone Church and then educated by him some years later. Shaw became very adept at the football Sunderland had introduced at the school. But it was after leaving school that he began to show sporting prowess.

While his father was a cordwainer or shoemaker, John was articled to his uncle who was a surgeon at Attercliffe. However, he didn’t enjoy it and so moved into law, first for John Dixon’s solicitors in Sheffield before moving back to Penistone to work for John Dransfield.

Dransfield had a young son called John Ness who, many years later while writing history books about Penistone, recalled watching John Shaw playing football on the field opposite his father’s office.

Shaw married in 1853 and moved to Sheffield where he assumed the middle name Charles in a bid to raise his business profile as a law stationer. The 23-year-old still wanted to play football alongside his business venture, so organised impromptu kickabouts with other young professionals on East Bank Park.

This has since been regarded as the informal predecessor of Sheffield FC. Sides were chosen on an ad-hoc basis, sometimes in alphabetical order.

A more structured approach came in 1857 with the formation of the world’s first football club, Sheffield FC by Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest. John Charles Shaw became a member in 1859 and some people, including John Ness Dransfield, claim he was the first captain.

That same year, he lost his first wife and became the sole parent of their two young sons aged two and four. He sought help from a housekeeper, Thirza Moorhouse, who happened to be the twin sister of John Marsh’s mother.

Hallam FC’s Sandygate home ground still stands today

In 1860 he founded Hallam FC, with their home ground of Sandygate at Crosspool becoming the first of its kind. Shaw’s Hallam was seen as less pretentious than their rivals Sheffield FC. They played each other for the first time on Boxing Day 1860 at Sandygate, with captains Creswick and Shaw each fielding a 16-man side.

In 1867, Hallam beat Sheffield FC to claim the first ever football competition, the Youdan Trophy, again captained by Shaw.

That same year, Shaw was a member of the organising committee that led to the formation of Sheffield Football Association. In 1868 he was made vice-president, being promoted to president the following year, a position he held for 14 years. During his tenure, he reached an agreement with Charles Alcock of London FA in 1877 regarding the rules of football.

The two decades between 1857 to 1877 are the most crucial in the making of the modern game of association football, prior to the onset of professionalism and leagues.  John Charles Shaw straddled these two decades being at the forefront of this development and was a continuous presence helping to influence and shape the evolvement of the game. 

Shaw, then married for a second time and with four more children, moved to Birmingham for work. His second wife died suddenly in 1893 and her remarried for a third time in 1896, aged 56.

In his later years, Shaw got into politics, becoming organising secretary for the Conservative Party until he retired in 1912. He died six years later aged 88 and is buried in an unmarked grave in Birmingham.

John Marsh

John Marsh became a cornerstone of football in Sheffield. One of his most notable achievements is that he founded The Wednesday in 1867 and was the club’s first captain.

John Marsh – illustration by Lucy Pimpernel Wood

Born in Thurlstone in 1842, he too was baptised and taught by Rev Sunderland. After leaving Penistone Grammar School, he became an apprentice engraver at John Rogers and Sons in Sheffield. Here, he met Rogers’ son, also called John. The two 18-year-olds formed a strong bond of friendship, with sport a unifying feature. 

While John Marsh didn’t play in the Hallam vs Sheffield FC games of the early 1860s, he did compete in the Youdan Trophy in 1867 for Mackenzie FC. Though they narrowly missed out on the final, the press called Marsh the most outstanding player and he was quickly recognised as one of the city’s top footballers.

Both Marsh and John Rogers Jnr played cricket for The Wednesday Cricket Club. After a football tournament, it was decided that a football section be formed. Both Johns were part of the initial 60 members who enrolled at the Adelphi Hotel on 4th September 1867.

Marsh was selected as captain and secretary and stayed with The Wednesday for the first seven seasons. Under his captaincy, The Wednesday won the Cromwell Cup in their debut season.

In the 1870s, Marsh was selected for the Sheffield FA’s representative team and was voted as captain in recognition of his ability and organisational command. They beat a London FA team 3-1, facing off against nine FA Cup winning players.

Marsh maintained his captaincy of the Sheffield FA team throughout the next four years. He played with and against many recognised international players, but never got an England call-up himself. 

In 1874, Marsh resigned from both The Wednesday and Sheffield representative team after the death of his sister, Susannah. He moved back to Thurlstone to run the family pub, The Crystal Palace.

However, football was never far from his mind. He quickly established Thurlstone Crystal Palace FC, the first club founded in the Barnsley area. But while playing against Fir Vale in 1876, he broke his arm; the break didn’t set or heal properly.

Marsh’s inability to recover from this injury combined with a slump in the pub trade caused him to lapse into depression. His company went into liquidation and he was declared bankrupt in 1880. He died a month later aged 37 and is buried at Penistone Church.