With 2019/20 marking 120 years since Torquay United AFC’s opening campaign, over the next few weeks we will be charting the history of the club, from its formation at the end of the 19th century, through to relegation battles, promotion glory and everything in between, culminating in last season’s superb National League South title triumph.
Without doubt, football has been the nation’s favourite sport since the late 1800s, particularly following the emergence of the English FA in 1863. It took a little longer before the public of Torquay followed suit though, with the first recorded match taking place in 1888. That match, between a Torquay YMCA side and visiting side from Plymouth, proved a rare occurrence, with the majority of local residents opting for the code of rugby instead.
A year before United’s formation, a football club did surface within the town, in the form of ‘Torquay Socker (sic) Club’. Although the club’s existence was very brief, it could well explain why until relatively recently, there remained some confusion regarding the year of The Gulls’ actual founding.
It was a completely different group that would ultimately set the Torquay United ball rolling. Determined not to abandon the game they played and loved after leaving Torquay Public College, the former pupils decided to form a new club.
Sgt Major H.E. Tomney – a former member of the Yeoman of the Guard – was passionate about promoting Association Football, and his guidance was invaluable to United’s founding fathers during those early stages. A number of informal meetings and discussions took place, before on the evening of Monday 1st May 1899 at the Torre Abbey Hotel, committee members were elected to formally announce the creation of Torquay United Association Football Club.
At a meeting held on Monday evening last, the members of the last season’s Torquay Public College Association Football Club decided to form a club for next season under the name of the “Torquay United Association Football Club”. The following were elected; the committee:- Messrs S.Toms, Caroll, Winget and Weston; Captain C.Pitts, sub-Capt W.Weeks; Hon.Treas R.Read. The Hon. Sec. is Mr W. Luscombe junr, Torre Abbey Hotel, who will be pleased to make fixtures with any school team for next season.
Report from Torquay Times, dated Friday 5th May 1899
Pre-season is a notoriously busy time behind the scenes for any football club, and United’s inaugural one was no different. Starting from scratch, a ground, kit and opponents all had to be sought out – with differing levels of success!
Farmer John Wright provided the club with its first ‘home’, with a rental sim of £5 securing his field in Teignmouth Road. Although it was little more than three acres of undeveloped fields, it did at least least provide the team with a starting point – although it did come with a catch.
During that initial season, both parties agreed that all home matches would need to be completed by March, as the field would then be required for grazing purposes! Without any other suitable or affordable options, United’s eager founders duly agreed, with April consisting purely of away fixtures.
With a ground sorted, attentions switched to a kit that the new club could establish themselves in. In a move that few Gulls fans would readily accept today, the players initially donned shirts of red / white quarters, along with blue knicks and blue / white stockings. It was possibly for the best then, that after a number of downpours left the side sporting shirts that resembled salmon pink, a new colour scheme was soon sought.
Finding teams to compete against on a regular basis was another task altogether, with the game still lagging some way behind other sports in terms of popularity and participation.
To their credit, enough opponents were found to provide Torquay with a fixture list comprising of 29 friendlies for 1899/00, even if the some of the scorelines suggest there were some one-sided encounters.
Most reliable records concur that their historic first encounter took place on 16th September 1899, with Upton Cricket Club providing the first test to the fledgling club’s credentials. It was a test that they passed with flying colours, with William Clarke-Pitts claiming United’s first hat-trick in the process. Upham and Wicks provided further gloss to proceedings, to round off a 5-0 victory and complete a job well done.
Further big victories over Torquay Nomads (11-1), Torwood Rovers (7-0) and Hill House School (4-0) seemed to set the tone for an easy opening season, however sterner encounters would soon follow.
If the 2-2 draw against Montpelier School served as a wake-up call, it certainly wasn’t heeded, as the side embarked on an unexpected three-match losing spell, at the hands of HMS Britannia (0-2), Weston School (2-5) and Bovey Tracey (1-2) respectively.
Three draws in their next five matches would further stall their progress, however the festive period saw United begin to re-establish their early dominance, with earlier mishaps avenged against Montpelier School (6-0) and Bovey Tracey (2-0).
With three home wins in a row – including a 9-0 rout of Torbay College Past & Present – signalling an end to their spell at Teignmouth Road, United’s committee set about the next important chapter in their history, with competitive league football next up on their wish list.