Today the term the Civil Service is still one that is mocked by comedians and commentators alike as a lapdog for the latest Government. Red tape, bureaucracy and corridors full of greying plastic furniture in nameless, faceless buildings sort of sums up the stereotypes still in existence from decades gone by. But 150 years ago it was the place to work, something to aspire to as well as an employee who offered some real social and recreational benefits. Job security was what everyone craved after the two World Wars and the Civil Service offered just that. As governments came and went, the only positions that were seen a sacred were those that existed in the corridors of Whitehall. But before the monochrome nature of this story depresses us, let’s rewind to the middle of the 19th century.
In 1863 the newly formed Civil Service Club was playing football under both Association and Rugby rules in an informal way, often rotating between the two codes every week. They became one of the eleven founding members of the Football Association in that year (a great trivia question is to name the other ten) and in 1871 they were invited to be founding members of the Rugby Football Union as well. In the same year a posh invitation popped through the letterbox of a certain Mr Warne at the War Office, inviting the “Civil Service football team” to take part in the FA’s inaugural national tournament, the FA Cup. They readily accepted the challenge and in the draw they were picked to play away at Barnes FC.
On the 11 November 1871 the club walked out into a roped off area of Barn Elms in South London (which would later be used by Fulham and QPR as their home ground) in front of an estimated 1,200 spectators. Whilst the team lost 2-0 they were invited to play in the subsequent four tournaments from 1872 to 1875 although they didn’t win a single game.
Outside of the FA Cup the team played a number of friendlies against local sides in London. In what was seen as a brave move they also accepted invitations to play “exhibition” games overseas. The team went on to play a significant role in the introduction of the game in Europe early in the 1900’s undertaking their first continental tour in 1901. Subsequent trips took them into Eastern Europe and in recognition of their contributions the club is today an honorary life member of both Real Madrid and Slavia Prague. In fact the club can lay claim to the most successful record against Real Madrid, winning twice in Madrid 4-0 and 3-1 during their tours. Quite what jobs the players actually did is a mystery, but in such a regimented occupation it is hard to imagine they weren’t expected to “make their time up” later in the year.
The one rule though that they club stuck by religiously was that they would only draw players from the Civil Service itself and vowed to remain amateur. Players were paid what was seen a good wage by the government, with good long term benefits and so it was seen as an honour to be picked for the football team. This meant that with the introduction of the Football League in the later part of the 19th century the club had to look elsewhere for its fixtures. They subsequently helped form both the Isthmian and Southern Leagues between and 1905 and 1908, playing for periods in each.
The Civil Service also boasted international honours from among its ranks in 1920 when C.W Harbridge, the club captain, won four caps for England, against Wales, France, Ireland and Belgium. He was among a number of Service players who featured on cigarette cards at the time, today’s equivalent of Panini stickers.
They still remained a bit of a force in the amateur leagues, winning a number of county cups prior to the Second World War. In 1971 they were invited back to play in the FA Cup, despite playing in the Southern Amateur League as part of the 100th anniversary of the club, and the FA Cup itself. In a bizarre move they were given a free pass directly into the first qualifying round of the cup. They drew Bromley FC, initially at home but for the first time ever in the competition, on police advice, the game was switched to Hayes Lane “for safety reasons”.
In his excellent book, 32 Programmes, Dave Roberts recalls the game with fond memories.
“As the teams ran out, I couldn’t help notice that the Civil Service players all looked like civil servants. Not in the sense that they wore suits and bowler hats and carried umbrellas, but because they had about them a grey air of resignation combined with earnest endeavour, which we instantly recognised from our work colleagues and were starting to see in ourselves.”
At half time Bromley, officially classed as the “worst football team in Britain” in the previous season by Roberts in his book (and film) The Bromley Boys, were 6-0 up. If it wasn’t for the fact that most of the home team were fixated on trying to score themselves the score would have been more than the ten they eventually scored. The attending members of the Football Association looked on with resignation that they had possibly made a bit of a bad call in offering the Civil Service a place in the competition.
Since that fateful day in BR1 they have disappeared back into the Southern Amateur League Premier Division 2, which is part of the Amateur Football Alliance, a long way below even the Isthmian League structure having been relegated from the top division last season. Fixtures this season include games against Crouch End Vampires, Bank of England and NUFC Oilers. Seven games into the season they are second from bottom.
They play their home games just off the A316 on the way down to Twickenham at the Kings House Sports Ground in front of friends and family, their greatest moments consigned just to the history books, however in 2013 as the club celebrated their 150th anniversary, they hit the headlines when their home league game against Polytechnic FC played in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and officiated by Howard Webb, losing 2-1.
Whilst their position in English football today is minimal, their impact on the European game cannot ever be forgotten.