Book Review – The Early Years of Belper Town Football Club 1878-1912: From Windmill Lane to the Acorn Ground by Mike Smith

Belper Town Football Club, nicknamed The Nailers, are a club based in Derbyshire, in a town approximately 7 miles north of Derby, who in the 2020/21 football season were plying their trade in the Northern Premier League, South/East Division (level 8 of the English Football Pyramid, where the Premier League is level 1).

Their unusual nickname came about because the craft of nail making began in Belper in the Middle Ages when it was the site of a hunting lodge for John of Gaunt. The huntsmen needed nails for the shoes of their horses and the trade in nails eventually grew. It was a domestic industry with the Nailers working in family groups but, in 1861, the introduction of machinery to manufacture nails was the beginning of the end for the local trade which died out altogether at the beginning of the century to be replaced by modern industry and commerce in the town. Like the nail making industry, Belper Town FC has faded away in the past and Mike Smith’s book, The Early Years of Belper Town Football Club 1878-1912: From Windmill Lane to the Acorn Ground tells the story of the first incarnation of the football club.

The clubs current badge (see right) states 1883 as the date of formation, Smith though in the book states, looking at various precedents I would argue that Belper Town were formed in 1878 rather than 1883. Part of this conclusion from the author is the existence of Belper St Peter’s FC (who changed their name to Belper Town FC for 1883/84 season) playing games as early as 1878.

This book which is an incredible piece of research and which must have taken an inordinate amount of patience and persistence, seeks to detail the highs and lows of the club, both on and off the pitch, during The Nailers initial manifestation as a football club. In addition to a season by season description and match reports of the games played by Belper Town, there are sections, which highlight some of the important names involved with the club in the late 19th and early 20th century and also contains a number of photographs and a detailed statistical record of the club including results, scorers and league tables.

Amongst the early highlights of the club was an FA Cup First Round tie against Sheffield Wednesday on 15 October 1887 in which Belper were narrowly defeated 3-2 by the Yorkshire giants. However, to put this into context, in the 1887/88 season this was before the age of qualifying rounds. Belper had other success during its early days, with Derby & District League titles in 1899/1900 and 1900/01 as well as five Derbyshire Divisional Cup wins between 1901 and 1907.

It is all too easy to forget that the game back then was a very different one to that we watch today. As an example, goals were still able to be scored by “scrimmage” i.e. where players bunch together to force the ball over the line, as still occurs in rugby union today. Smith also details how often games were not ninety minutes, for instance, due to teams turning up late and the light not being sufficient to complete a normal game, or where the pitch conditions or weather reduced playing time. In addition, many games took place with teams not able to play with a full compliment of players and so teams scoring six plus goals was not uncommon, with many netting double-figures.

Alongside the realities of Victorian football, the author provides readers with some absolute gems of stories, such as from the November 1896 Derbyshire FA meeting. Buxton Football Club complained about injuries to several of their players, caused by a member of the Bonsall Football Club who had an artificial arm…After a long debate it was decided that players with artificial arms should take them off before taking part in any game.” Additionally, Smith details events such as the mind-boggling “Man v Elephant” football games and even drops in an outline of Belper Town’s brief flirtation with baseball in 1900. IT is easy to forget that the game was popular in England with the Baseball Ground, first used as the home of Derby Baseball Club from 1890 until 1898 and then for football as the home of Derby County from 1895 until 1997.

Whilst the game was very different back then, there are some things in the sport that don’t change and that is in relation to finance and the pull of the professional clubs. The Nailers demise, as they were unable to complete the 1911/12 season, came about through the declining gates that meant the club were running at a loss, due in part to the draw of other clubs in the area especially of Derby County who were one of the 12 founder members of the Football League in 1888. The reality though for The Nailers was that it would not be until 1951 that Belper Town got back on its feet and become the club that exists today.

Some might argue that books such as this have a very limited market, but the reality is that it will appeal to anyone interested in the early origins of the game and social history of the time, especially those in the Derbyshire region, as the background to the rivalries with the likes of Buxton, Gresley Rovers, Matlock Town and Ilkeston Town are detailed from the Victorian era.


(Michael John Kirk Smith. April 2020. Paperback 260 pages)


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