David Kennedy’s biography of John Houlding is entitled The Man Who Created Merseyside Football. For my own part I think this is an exaggeration, football would have flourished in the city irrespective of Houlding’s interventions. However, it is true to say that nobody played a greater part in ensuring that Liverpool was to be a two-club city and the creation of Liverpool F.C. was very much the outcome of Houlding’s endeavours and considerable wealth.
He was born in humble surroundings in August 1833. His parents, Thomas and Alice, hailed from West Lancashire and at the time of John’s birth lived off Scotland Road at 19 Tenterden Street L5 (now demolished). Thomas Houlding was a cow keeper, an important role in local life supplying daily dairy produce to neighbours before the advent of refrigeration. Notwithstanding their lowly status his parents ensured that he acquired a good education, securing him a place at the Liverpool College (Collegiate School) in Shaw Street. By the 1850’s disease had brought about the end of the Houlding’s dairy venture and Thomas found employment at Clarkson’s brewery, soon finding his son a position there too. The move was one which would dictate the later success and influence of John Houlding.
Houlding rose rapidly in Clarkson’s but had set his sights on being more than a paid employee. He started to purchase public houses and then to set up his own brewery, ‘Houlding’s Sparkling Ales’. The rapid success of his ventures was reflected in his capacity, in 1874, to purchase an acre of land adjacent to Stanley Park and have built the imposing ‘Stanley House’ at 73 Anfield Road L4. (His previous homes had been a house tied to Clarkson’s brewery at 111 Soho Street L3 and a terraced property at 131 Robson Street L5, both properties now demolished).
Houlding’s ambitions were much wider than the accumulation of wealth; he wanted to secure status and influence in the city and sought out any avenue which would assist him. He became very active in the Conservative Party, being at the forefront of the organisation of Working-Men’s Conservative Clubs, securing a seat on the city council and eventually the status of alderman. He also became an influential figure in the Masonic movement. Though not himself of a particularly sporting nature, he became aware of the Everton football club who played behind his garden on Stanley Park. The large crowds their games attracted and the ever-increasing interest in the game across the city was seen by Houlding as another platform which could enhance his prominence.
Though the story is more complex, in simple terms Houlding bank-rolled Everton to allow them to establish one of the country’s best football grounds on the site of present day Anfield. The club duly prospered, winning the League title and reaching F A Cup finals, and delivering Houlding the added status he craved. There had, however, always been tensions between Houlding and the majority of those who were prominent in administering the club. Much of this reflected political differences as many in the club hierarchy were active Liberals opposed to Houlding’s Conservatives. Another source of antagonism lay in the fact that many were also committed temperance campaigners to whom Houlding’s position as a brewer were anathema. Matters came to a head over the rent payable to Houlding for Anfield and in 1892 the majority in the club opted to move to Goodison Park.
Finding himself the owner of a ground without a team Houlding promptly set about creating a new club. Blocked by the Football League from using his preferred name of Everton Athletic, he opted for Liverpool F.C. and set about buying players from across the country. Playing their first season in the Lancashire League they soon found a place in the Football League Division Two and promotion to Division 1. In the 1900-01 season, just a year before Houlding’s death, they won their first league title.
John Houlding had married Jane Lowe, a farmer’s daughter on July 20th 1856.
Houlding’s political ambitions were never fully achieved as he sought a seat in parliament above all else. Despite being close to securing the Conservative hierarchy’s endorsement on a number of occasions this was not to be, the obstacle of his close association with the brewing industry looming large. However, late in his life he was honoured by being appointed, against considerable temperance opposition, Lord Mayor of Liverpool 1897-98.
Suffering poor health in his later years Houlding frequently removed himself to the warmer climes of the South of France. It was there, at Cimiez, Nice that he died aged 68 on 17th March 1902.
In November 2018 a bust of Houlding was unveiled outside Anfield as part of the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Liverpool F.C.’s founding.
Houlding's home from the mid-1870's until his death in 1902.
The bust of John Houlding outside Anfield
TBy far and away the best source on John Houlding is David Kennedy's book The Man Who Created Merseyside Football [Rowman and Littlefield 2020]. His football connections mean that there are many articles on him to be found on the internet, one I would recommend is actually on an Everton FC site, an article by Tony Onslow on the Everton FC Heritage Society site. There is a very basic Wikipedia entry.
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