Brother Walfrid and the East End/
In 1893, an Irish priest arrived as headmaster at St Anne’s School in Underwood Road, Whitechapel. Over the next decade and a half, he would transform the school, introducing the children to the virtues of hard work, study and — his greatest love of all — football. It was a very Victorian recipe for success, mens sana in corpore sano, and was being repeated by enlightened teachers all over London. But more than any of them, Brother Walfrid had particularly impressive form, having already set up a team in his previous posting of Glasgow.
Walfrid was a missionary, like many others of his time, but unlike the young priests and academics who had come to the East End from Oxford and Cambridge, he knew poverty at first hand. He had been born Andrew Kerins, on 18 May 1840 in the Sligo town of Ballymote, in north-west Ireland. He was lucky to survive. Between 1845 and 1852, the Potato Famine would devastate Ireland, with a million of the eight million population dying from starvation and disease, and another million emigrating. Huge numbers took the boat to New York, many more to London, where they would literally build the mushrooming city — on the roads, railways and houses — as well as working in the docks.
But many of them found poverty in London too — Whitechapel and Stepney were some of the poorest Irish quarters of the capital. There was work, but there was also drunkenness, prejudice and despair. Catholic immigrants especially found a way out through education and decent employment hard to come by. The church schools, such as St Anne’s, were a way of addressing that.
Andrew, by now an Irish Marist Brother, and rebaptised Walfrid, would take a different route before his ten years in Whitechapel, however. He first headed to another East End, that of Glasgow, where many more Irish Catholics had settled, in search of work in the docks and steelyards. He trained as a teacher and was posted to St Mary’s School in Glasgow; in 1874, he was promoted to be headmaster of Sacred Heart School.
Walfrid encountered a problem. Although his children needed help, their parents were loath to accept charity. He set up the Poor Children’s Dinner Table, also known as ‘penny dinners’ for the pupils, so that they were at least paying a token amount for their one decent meal of the day.
And there was another problem — funding the charity. The enterprising priest decided to tap in to the new craze sweeping Britain — Association Football. By arranging exhibition matches, he could bring the community together and raised much needed funds for ‘the table’.
It was good, but not enough. He looked at the example of Rangers Football Club, which was playing in front of thousands of people on Glasgow Green. Then, on 12 February 1887, Edinburgh Hibernian won the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park in Glasgow. Established purely for Irish Catholics and, influenced greatly by the temperance movement, it was a team supported by all the Irish in Scotland. After the game, Brother Walfrid and his friend John Glass invited the victorious team to St. Mary’s Hall in Calton for a celebration. The Hibernian Secretary, John McFadden, jokingly suggested to Walfrid that he should do the same for the Irish in Glasgow that Hibernian had done for their relatives in Edinburgh.
On 6 November 1887, at St Mary’s Church Hall in East Rose Street, the priest got some of the most powerful men in Glasgow together and drew up the constitution for his new club. Cannily realising that there was support to be had from the licensed trade, the Glasgow organistation decided not to wave the flag for temperance. The club also narrowly defeated a vote to be exclusively Catholic: Walfrid wanted a team for everyone, saying: “It is not his creed nor his nationality which counts – it’s the man himself.” And as for a name — suggestions included Glasgow Hibernian, but Walfrid suggested ‘Celtic’ to reflect the club’s Irish roots. The nickname ‘The Bhoys’ also reflected Gaelic Irish spellings.
What came next was more remarkable. Walfrid scraped together the £50 ground rent on a patch of farmland — and called upon his supporters to build Celtic Park by hand. An army of builders, labourers, gardeners and general enthusiasts constructed the new ground, which stood 100 yards or so north-east of the present Celtic Park. The first match was a 5-2 win over future arch-rivals Rangers, a ‘friendly’ but with 5000 watching. None among them could know they were witnessing the start of one of the world’s great football rivalries.
By the time Walfrid was sent to repeat his good work in Bethnal Green and Bow, in 1893, his project was in good shape. So good that, alas, its charitable mission had been rather forgotten. The Glasgow press were continually critical of the club refusing to play benefit matches for the Catholic poor. Instead, directors would reconstitute Celtic as a limited company, with several players and staff doing suspiciously well from the monster Walfrid had created. Ironically, given the temperance roots, many of them had purchased pubs in Glasgow, and were profiting handsomely for a second time. Celtic would go on to be the first British club to win the European Cup, in 1967, beating Manchester United to that feat by a year. Remarkably, all the team were born within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park… the priest’s dream of success for local lads was still playing out.
Walfrid worked his magic again in London, though without quite such dramatic results. Perhaps if things had gone differently the Whitechapel Boy’s Guild and Young Men’s Club could now be vying for the Champions League with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. In 1908 Walfrid retired and would die seven years later.
- only surviving photo of Walfrid
- his statue outside Celtic Park
- The first Celtic team — note the absence of hoops in those days
- The team en route to winning the 1967 European Cup