Although one of the crucial influences in the creation of Everton Football Club, until recently the role of Reverend Ben Swift Chambers, a Methodist minister at St Domingo’s Church, has been overlooked. It was his intervention and form of ‘muscular Christianity’ that first bore the football club in 1878, as an offshoot of the popular parish cricket team he had founded a year earlier. After his death in 1901 he became largely forgotten until new research a century later cast fresh light on his life, times and influence.
Born in Stocksmoor, a hamlet six miles outside Huddersfield, on 30 August 1845, and brought up in nearby Shepley, as a youth Chambers taught at Sunday school. He trained as an apprentice engraver, but aged 22 entered the Methodist ministry. The Methodist circuit saw a journey around the north of England like that of an itinerant footballer: stints in Ashton-under-Lyme, Stockport, Halifax, Barrow, Gateshead and finally, in July 1877, Liverpool, where Chambers, now aged 32, was appointed circuit superintendent and minister of St Domingo Chapel, Everton.
CHAMBERS was an energetic, dedicated minister, concerned with the social welfare of his parishioners. According to one account he possessed ‘a powerful and winning personality’ and was ‘a manly, affectionate, kindly, pleasant, happy, noble being, eager to serve, anxious to do good, a never-failing friend’. He was keenly involved with the Band of Hope Union, a national anti-temperance society that preached the dangers of drink. This was a popular Victorian concern, with alcohol intrinsically linked in many eyes to violent crime, child neglect and poverty.
Another popular Victorian idea was ‘muscular Christianity’. The notion dated back to the 1830s and placed great emphasis on the redemption by physical activity. The origins of football as an organised sport are tied to this concept: public schoolmasters seeking to tire out their unruly pupils introduced medieval versions of football to their curricula. Each school had their own distinct version of the game, but when these pupils left and entered university they wanted to continue playing football. A unified set of rules was needed and thus, in 1863, they were agreed, with a new body – the Football Association – created to govern them.
Chambers, it seems certain, was committed to these ideals. Almost immediately after joining St Domingo’s he formed a parish cricket club, which began playing in Oakfield Road over the summer of 1877. The following year the cricket club really took off, and its enthusiastic members decided it would be worthwhile adopting a winter sport so as to keep fit. Thus, in the autumn of 1878, St Domingo’s Football Club began playing in a corner of Stanley Park. Scarcely could Ben Chambers have imagined the force he had just created.
HIS ROLE WITHIN this rapidly evolving sporting club is not recorded, nor what he thought about St Domingo’s FC being renamed Everton in 1880. In 1882, after five years in Everton, he left the parish to become superintendent minister of the Southport circuit. Eight years later he returned to Everton for a further four years at St Domingo’s church. By then Everton FC were a professional team, competing in the Football League. Chambers would have known many of Everton’s leading members, notably George Mahon, who combined duties as St Domingo’s organist with leading Everton from Anfield to Goodison Park, and St Domingo’s choirmaster, Will Cuff – later Everton’s illustrious secretary and chairman.
Chambers left St Domingo’s in 1894, and soon after was struck by terminal illness. He fought it for four years, but on 24 November 1901 finally succumbed. He was buried in Shepley, the Yorkshire village where he had grown up. For more than a century he was consigned to obscurity, meriting barely a footnote in histories of the Merseyside clubs, until the author Peter Lupson tracked him down. Lupson, author of Thank God For Football, a 2006 book which detailed English clubs’ origins as church teams, uncovered Chambers’ story and discovered his unkempt grave at Shepley. Lupson campaigned for the Merseyside clubs to restore Chambers’ grave and in July 2008, the two clubs’ chaplains conducted a joint service of commemoration at Shepley Methodist Church.
‘There are few things more important on Merseyside than football,’ Sir Philip Carter told the congregation. ‘Both Liverpool and Everton have a proud heritage, and the history of our clubs is a source of immense pride to our supporters. To honour a gentleman who was so pivotal to the creation of football in our city is entirely appropriate. Ben Chambers was a visionary and everyone with an interest in football in Merseyside owes him a debt of gratitude.’
LUPSON, PETER, Thank God for Football, Azure, 2006.
LUPSON, PETER, Everton FC & Liverpool FC: Across The Park, Common Ground, Trinity Sport Media, 2009.