London football history

A history of London football

From ‘hustling over large balls’ to the Champions League

action and reaction at Craven Cottage

Apologies – this page has not been updated since the end of the 2015–16 season

Football has been played in London for centuries, although in its early form it consisted of little more than gangs of youths running wild through the streets, kicking one or more balls as they went and tackling each other rugby-style.

A royal procla­ma­tion of 1314 decreed: “Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arise, which God forbid, we command and forbid on behalf of the King, on pain of impris­on­ment, such game to be used in the city in future.”

This had little effect and Elizabeth I vainly tried again in 1572: “No foteball player be used or suffered within the City of London and the liberties thereof upon pain of impris­on­ment.” James I adopted a much more supportive attitude towards the game, at least when it wasn’t being played on the public highway, and various versions flour­ished over the following two hundred years.

By the early 19th century numerous amateur clubs were in existence in London (and elsewhere), each consisting of several teams that played each other under their own rules. At that time the discrep­an­cies between different clubs’ rules prevented the formation of a wider league.

Harrow School was influ­en­tial in pioneering a more gentle­manly form of football that limited physical harrass­ment of opponents and forbade the use of the hands, except by the goal­keeper. To enforce the ‘feet only’ rule, it is said that the school provided opposing players with a pair of white gloves and two silver crowns, which were to be gripped tightly in each hand throughout the game.

Present-day asso­ci­a­tion football took recog­nis­able shape with the estab­lish­ment of the Football Asso­ci­a­tion at a series of meetings held in 1863 at the Freemason’s Tavern in Covent Garden, where, after the with­drawal of dissenting rugby advocates (notably from Black­heath), the basic laws of the game were agreed. The first match under these rules, a goalless draw, was played between Barnes and Richmond at Mortlake on 19 December 1863.

The Football Association was based at Lancaster Gate for over 70 years; it relocated to Soho Square in 2000 and then to Wembley Stadium in 2009.


The FA Cup

The FA Cup was intro­duced in the 1871–2 season. Two amateur London clubs won the compe­ti­tion in its early years: Wanderers (who played mainly at Kennington Oval) on six occasions and Clapham Rovers once.

Since then, Arsenal have won the trophy a record-breaking twelve times (equalled by Manchester United in 2016), Spurs eight, Chelsea seven, West Ham three and Charlton and Wimbledon once each.

London’s oldest professional football club is Fulham FC, which is usually considered to have been founded (in amateur form) in 1879. Leyton Orient, Tottenham Hotspur, Queens Park Rangers, Arsenal, Millwall, Barnet, Brentford and Wimbledon began playing in the 1880s – mostly under differing identities from their present ones.

West Ham United began as Thames Ironworks FC in 1895. Charlton Athletic, Chelsea and Crystal Palace are relative newcomers, all established in 1905.

Dagenham & Redbridge and AFC Wimbledon have been London’s most recent new entrants to the Football League (if AFC Wimbledon is considered separately from its predecessor). The pair had contrasting fortunes in 2015–16: Dagenham & Redbridge were relegated back down to the National League, while Wimbledon won promotion to League One.


Football League First Division

The Football League was founded in March 1888 at a meeting at Anderton’s Hotel, Fleet Street. In 1904 Woolwich Arsenal became the first club from anywhere in southern England to climb into the league’s First Division (as it was sensibly called those days), followed by Chelsea in 1907 and Tottenham Hotspur in 1909.

In the years before the Great War the best perfor­mance by any London club was Woolwich Arsenal’s sixth place finish in 1909. The club contro­ver­sially relocated from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913.

After a wartime hiatus, the league resumed in 1919–20, when Chelsea ended the season in third place, which was the club’s strongest showing in the first half of the 20th century – and the best London perfor­mance until Spurs took the runners up spot in 1922. Arsenal were runners up in 1926.

Between the wars Chelsea flirted with rele­ga­tion more often than they contended for the title, while the 1930s were a famously fabulous decade for Arsenal. The club won the league five times, finished second on one occasion and third on another. Arsenal were also sitting in third place after the opening three games of the 1939–40 season, when the league was abandoned owing to the outbreak of war. By this time West Ham United, Charlton Athletic and Brentford had joined Chelsea and Arsenal as First Division regulars, while Spurs were an incon­sis­tent presence, finishing third in 1934 but spending most of that decade out of the top flight. Charlton had a magnif­i­cent (and never to be repeated) start to their time in the First Division, finishing second, fourth and third in 1937, 1938 and 1939.

Brentford were relegated imme­di­ately after the war and never returned. Arsenal topped the First Division again in 1948. Tottenham Hotspur returned to the First Division in 1950–51 and finished the season as champions. Arsenal won the league again in 1953 – and then went almost two decades without adding to their collec­tion of silver­ware. Sometimes it seems as though Arsenal are down when Spurs are up, and vice versa.

Arsenal Stadium sign at old Highbury
Arsenal were by far London’s most successful football club in the 20th century

Chelsea were champions in 1955. Subse­quently, they often languished in the bottom half of the table or were not in the First Division at all, though they put in some strong perfor­mances in the mid- to late-1960s. Chelsea’s defi­cien­cies were nothing compared with local rivals Fulham, who achieved only one top-half finish (tenth in 1960) in their dozen First Division seasons.

Spurs won the title again in 1961. Leyton Orient made just one appear­ance in the top flight – in 1962–3, when they finished bottom. From their debut in the 1968–9 season, Queens Park Rangers featured inter­mit­tently in the First Division for the remainder of its existence. 

Arsenal even­tu­ally returned to the top of the league in 1971. QPR’s acme was second place in 1976. In the entire existence of the First Division, West Ham’s strongest finish was in third place in 1986.

Wimbledon FC broke into the First Division in the 1986–7 season, when they achieved their best ever placing: sixth. Millwall spent just two seasons in the top flight, finishing tenth in 1989 and bottom the following year.

Arsenal were champions again in 1989 and in 1991, the penul­ti­mate year of the old First Division’s existence.

Premier League

The Premier League was founded in 1992 and is head­quar­tered at 30 Gloucester Place in Marylebone.

In the Premier­ship era Arsenal were London’s early leaders, winning the title in 1998, 2002 and 2004. Since then Chelsea have been the capital’s only champions – in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2015.

Arsenal, Chelsea, and Spurs have competed in the Premier League for every one of the 25 seasons since its inception (up to and including the 2016–17 season). West Ham have played in the Premier­ship for 21 seasons, Fulham for 13, Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace and Wimbledon (as was) eight each, and QPR seven.

For a list of London’s present partic­i­pants in the Premier­ship and the next five tiers of English football, please see the page on the geography of London football.

All-time best performances in the top flight

Club Best perfor­mance Occasion(s)
Arsenal Champions 13 times
Chelsea Champions Five times
Tottenham Hotspur Champions 1950–51 and 60–61
Charlton Athletic Runners up 1936–7
Queens Park Rangers Runners up 1975–6
West Ham United Third 1985–6
Crystal Palace Third 1989–90
Brentford Fifth 1935–6
Wimbledon Sixth 1986–7 and 92–3
Fulham Seventh 2008–9
Millwall Tenth 1988–9
Leyton Orient 22nd (bottom) 1962–3