The founding of the referees’ association, and the ref who had his own team

By Richard Bourke

Earlier this year the Society published an article in our series of headed “Joseph Cooper: the most mysterious of all the mysterious Arsenal players.”  He was a player who joined Woolwich Arsenal in 1893.  He made his  debut for Woolwich Arsenal in a friendly on 23 October 1893 against Roston Bourke’s XI.  Arsenal won 4-3 and Cooper scored a goal.

The article also noted that the Society had no information on who Roston Bourke was or why he had a team.  However it was noted that this side turned up again in 1894/95 for David Howat’s benefit match on 12 November 1894. Arsenal won 6-2 and the game was attended by 1200 people.

Arthur Roston Bourke (1866-1955), was my great great uncle.  He was a referee who also had his own football team known as the A. Roston Bourke’s XI. A local paper article in 1895 reported that “last season, Mr. Bourke officiated in 99 matches, something like a record, and could have completed his century on the last day of the season when he took his team to Luton Town, but, though asked to referee, preferred a neutral man.”

After playing as a forward and half-back for Old Holloway Collegians, he joined the joined the ranks of referees. A newspaper at the time recorded “he was not one of those clever individuals who think themselves born referees and quite capable of taking charge of most important matches straightaway. He had two years’ apprenticeship among the juniors and started at the very bottom of the ladder in 1892. In this season, however, senior clubs in the Southern League became well acquainted with the referee with a curious name.”

In this year, he joined the London Football Association Council and was asked to organise teams of London players to oppose clubs at some distance from town – hence A. Roston Bourke’s XI.

In 1893, The FA formed the first referees’ society and Arthur Roston Bourke was appointed as Honorary Secretary. Its prime purpose was to examine the qualification of referees orally and appoint them to matches. This later became the Referees’ Association and he is mentioned in the history section of their website.

As we have seen Roston Bourke’s XI played a friendly against Woolwich in the club’s first season in the league (1893/94).  In 1896 they also played against Reading at their first game at their new ground in Elm Park, Reading on 5 September.

However because A. Roston Bourke’s XI was a scratch team from Holloway College and thus not registered with the Football Association, Reading were later fined £5 and suspended for playing against an unregistered team. The match was abandoned due to torrential weather; Reading were leading 7–1 when the match ended!

In 1898, during a Cup Tie between QPR and Richmond he ordered one of the Rangers players, Sammy Brooks, off the field and was then himself subjected to a gross assault on the part of one or more of the spectators. The FA decreed that Rangers’ Club Ground should be closed for two weeks and that during that period the Rangers ‘should not play within a radius of seven miles of their own ground.’ Sammy Brooks was suspended for a month.   (You may also recall that Arsenal’s ground was closed because of a crowd incident although Arsenal’s ground was closed for six weeks, after the initial sentence of “the rest of the season” was reduced – there are more details here).

Arthur Roston Bourke was also a keen cricketer, playing at Lord’s for Middlesex Colts in 1887, and worked as a schoolmaster at Holloway College, founded by his father William Roston Bourke, close to Arsenal’s ground. He was secretary of Holloway College Cricket and Football Clubs and the Amateur Dramatic Society.

He later became a sports writer (under the name of Norseman) for the Islington Daily Gazette where he devoted a lot of energy in reporting on Arsenal, sometimes critically, but always constructively as a life-time fan. For example, reporting on a practice match on 11 August 1923 in his column in the Gazette stated that the pitch “looked splendid” but he had ten years’ experience now of Highbury’s never-ending struggles with the site’s drainage, so he added “but this is August”.

On 12 April 1924 Arsenal had a good win, 2-0 against Sunderland, and in his match report Arthur Bourke said he thought that Arsenal had played the best football he had ever seen from them.

This is just a small part of the research I am currently working on which I hope to publish in some form in 2017 and I would be delighted to hear from anyone that can provide photographs which include A. Roston Bourke’s XI!


Richard Bourke

Additional notes provided by Tony Attwood


4 Replies to “The founding of the referees’ association, and the ref who had his own team”

  1. Richard, many thanks for publishing details of your great uncle. Whilst researching the career of Jack Dickerson (captain of the original St Albans FC and later a referee in the 1911 Amateur Cup final) I came across Roston Bourke’s XI on several occasions, usually playing against Luton Town but also for a side that he got together to play a Paris XI, but had just a few details about him. I have a few scans from newspapers and a programme of his XI v Paris that I’d be happy to forward to you.
    David Tavener
    Historian, St Albans City

  2. Hi David

    I am pleased to receive your comments, which I have only just found, relating to my great uncle Arthur.

    I also have a few cuttings relating to the Paris match but would be delighted to see the programme at some stage.


    Richard Bourke

  3. Hello Richard – I have a great photo of a game in Dublin in 1899.

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