Colliery companies offered many activities to their workers in an attempt to promote the health and welfare of their workers. Sports were a popular way of doing this, ranging from the more usual football and cricket, to more unusual ones such as hockey, tennis and fishing. Welfare grounds were a common feature in pit villages, including space for sports to be played not just by the employees, but also by their families.
Today, football is probably the most famous activity that miners were known to take part in, other than the brass bands that often still keep their colliery title, long after the closure of the collieries they once played for. The football played by miners paved the way to the professional leagues and teams we know today. Many miners who played football went onto have a successful career, not just for their own colliery’s non-professional teams, but for the professional teams that still exist today.
One of the best examples of a colliery footballer is William, better known as Willie, Foulke. He was a talented and popular footballer in his day, but he wasn’t the athletic build of footballer we imagine today. He was around 6 foot tall and weighed around 24 stone, giving him the nickname ‘fatty’. With stories of eating breakfasts provided for his whole team when they played away, it’s no wonder he earned this nickname. Despite his unusual sporting physique, he was actually a very able player and started off his career at Blackwell Miners’ Welfare Football Club, which was originally just known as Blackwell Football Club. He was also a miner who worked at Blackwell, so he was quite a fit man for his size.
The first reference to him, alongside another successful player who originally started at Blackwell, Willie Layton, was in December 1893, when Blackwell won a 2-0 victory over Belper. Both of these players went on to have successful professional careers. For Foulke though, these early days meant a mixture of goalkeeping and goal scoring. He was one of the goal scorers in a 4-1 win over Heanor Town in February of 1894, but this would be one of his last matches with the Blackwell team before he moved on to play as a professional for Sheffield United. He was one of many players for the Blackwell team that would eventually make it to professional level and these players all started their official career at one of the two Sheffield teams, either Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday.
Foulke was brought for £20 by Sheffield United, around £1500 in today’s money (certainly not the millions spent on players today), and soon showed to a wider group of football fans, why he shouldn’t be messed with by the opposition. One of his main tricks was to punch a ball over the half way line, often at the expense of an opposition player’s face. It was usually either that, or being put in goal standing on their heads. In all seriousness, it is thought Foulke was the first goalkeeper to adopt the tactic of punching a ball away from the goal.
His anger was also taken out on referees, not just opposition players. One story has it that in a 1902 FA Cup final match against Southampton, when a controversial equalising goal by Southampton was allowed by the referee, Foulke went on the rampage after the match. Leaving the dressing room naked, he chased the rather scared referee, probably giving more than a few choice words, until the poor man hid in a cleaning cupboard. Officials had to try and stop Willie from tearing the door off its hinges in his desperate attempt of making the referee pay. Whether this tale is true or not, it certainly helped to bolster his reputation as a somewhat scary character to opposition and fans alike.
After playing at Sheffield United for 11 seasons, including a stint in Blades XI, with his only England captain’s cap for a 4-0 win against Wales at Bramall Lane in March 1897, Willie then went on to play for the newly formed Chelsea. He was their goalkeeper during their first ever season, moving on to play a final season at Bradford before retiring from a leg injury. Unfortunately, this forced retirement was the start of a downhill struggle for this once famous goalkeeper. He moved back to Sheffield and became a shop and beer house owner instead. Neighbours from this time remembered him walking around proudly in smart suits and wearing his FA Cup medal around his neck. He died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1916 at the age of 42.
Despite his rather sad end, Foulke did leave a footballing legacy behind. His nephew, Jimmy Simmons, who also originally started his football career at Blackwell, went on to play for Sheffield United too. Funnily enough, Simmons went onto to be the first goal scorer in an FA Cup final match against Chelsea in 1915. To this day, Chelsea still celebrate Willie Foulke as their first goalkeeper and have a waxwork of him at their museum.
‘Can Footballers Large It?’, BBC Sport, 7th August 2002
‘William Foulke’, Chelsea Football Club, https://www.chelseafc.com/en/about-chelsea/history/former-players/william-foulke
Dawkes, P., ‘’Fatty’ Foulke: The legend of Sheffield United & Chelsea keeper’, BBC Sport, 30th August 2019
Photographs of football teams, including Willie Foulke (Blackwell Colliery and England goalkeeper), c1905, Chesterfield FC, 1899, and Sheepsbridge Ladies, 1916, D5693/2/1
Mining the Seams is a Wellcome Trust funded project aiming to catalogue coal mining documents, originally held by the National Coal Board, so they can eventually be viewed by the public. Alongside the Warwickshire County Record Office, the project aims to focus on the welfare and health services provided to miners.