Posted by: Simon Day | February 18, 2013

Part 3: American Football Comes to the Palace

In the early 20th century, the vast majority of Brits were completely oblivious to the fact that 1000’s of miles away, the gentleman’s sport of Rugby Union had morphed into an even more aggressive sport.  Rugby was thriving in public schools and was the number one winter sport among the elite classes.

American Football’s journey to the UK came courtesy of the USS Idaho and the USS Vermont.  For non sea-faring readers, USS stands, rather imaginatively, for United States Ship.   Both the Idaho and Vermont were American battleships and in November 1910, en route to Brest in France, they, along with other US battleships, docked at Northfleet, Kent.

On board both ships were members of the US Navy, specifically the Third Division of the Atlantic Fleet.  They were scheduled to spend three weeks in England and in between training exercises they decided to arrange games of American Football.  Initially, the first game was due to be between the Idaho and the USS Michigan, but for unspecified reasons the Michigan team pulled out and Vermont took their place.  And so on the 23rd November 1910 the UKs first ever American Football game took place.

The game would have been played in front a small crowd of US Navy members, but the Daily Mirror found out about the event and decided to sponsor it.  They even provided a trophy and arranged for the Duke of Manchester to present it to the winners.  The Mirror’s intervention meant that around 10,000 were present to watch Idaho triumph 19-0 and receive the Daily Mirror Silver Cup from William Angus Drogo Montagu.  The venue for this landmark game was Crystal Palace – a place that has become synonymous with American Football in the UK and one that will crop up on more than one occasion during the rest of this story.

The Mirror were clearly pleased with the event and decided to sponsor a second game 11 days later between the Idaho and the USS Connecticut.  On this occasion the game was called the American Navy Football Final and was an altogether more serious occasion than the Vermont encounter.   Idaho emerged victorious, this time by the unlikely score line of five points to nil.  Nowadays, a 5-0 score line would require the rather unlikely scenario of a team recording a shutout, whilst scoring a safety and a field goal.  Back in 1910, 5-0 meant the game was decided by a single touchdown.  Extra Points were part of the game in those days, so we can assume that Idaho missed their conversion attempt.

Further games took place over the following few days, with the final encounter being between the USS Georgia and USS Rhode Island at the Stonebridge Sports Ground on the 10th December 1910, in front of 4,000 locals.  Stonebridge Sports Ground is now the home of Ebbsfleet (formerly Gravesend & Northfleet) soccer club.  I recently had the good fortune of spending an afternoon at the ground watching Ebbsfleet strut their stuff.  The ground doesn’t appear to have changed much since that December afternoon 103 years ago.  The stands are rusty, the view isn’t the best and the facilities can kindly be described as dated.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised had the pitch markings from the Georgia-Rhode Island encounter still been visible.

Anyway, Georgia won the game 12-0.  The next day the fleet left for Brest and to all intents and purposes they took American Football with them!

The ultimate fate of the Idaho was that it was sold to Greece in 1914 and eventually sunk by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.  So, if George Lucas is struggling for a plot for a new Indiana Jones film, then he could do worse than having Indy battle the Nazi’s in his hunt for the long-lost Daily Mirror Silver Cup!  And there wouldn’t be a fridge or alien in sight!

Coming Next – World War 2: Coffee, Tea and American Football


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