It seems that I shared an ancestor with an England International footballer who scored the first goal in the Football League in 1888. That ancestor was William Davenport of Moston who was my great, great, great, great grandfather and the footballer was James Kenyon Davenport, known as “Kenny” who was born in Bolton in March 1862.
The world’s first league goal has been variously credited down the years to Jack Gordon, Preston North End’s Scottish winger, to another member of the original Invincibles, Fred Dewhurst, and particularly an own goal from Aston Villa’s full-back Gershom Cox. Not so. The history man can today be revealed as James Kenyon “Kenny” Davenport of Bolton Wanderers. It was at 3.47pm on September 8th 1888 on the opening day of the Football League that Davenport, an unassuming local lad, inside forward, England international and occasional brewery worker, struck against Derby County at Pikes Lane, a pitch now buried under cobbled streets and back-to-backs close to Bolton town centre. Totally unaware of the significance of his goal two minutes after kick-off, Davenport scored another in the 6-3 defeat, hopped into a tin bath to scrub off the mud, gulped down a couple of pints in the nearby pub and strolled home to his wife Emma and two children in Washington Street, chatting to some of the thousands of supporters on the way.
Games started late and transport travails were common. Villa lost three players in the fog while changing trains in Manchester en route to Blackburn the following January. Some teams like Accrington were notoriously tardy. The small number of turnstiles, 20 maximum, had to process up to 20,000 fans, with Everton boasting the largest away following of 2,500-3,000 in the League’s inaugural season.
Davenport’s strike was hailed as a “fine goal” by the Cricket and Football Field match report. The players would have been excited about scoring, and taking the lead in their first Football League game, but they wouldn’t have been mobbing each other, like you see these days. There would be handshakes all round and then a brisk walk back to their own half. You wouldn’t see the goalkeeper sprinting 80 yards to join in, that’s for sure. Some things have not changed. The Derby County players were angered by Davenport’s goal with the paper noting that “a protest for offside was raised in vain”.
Davenport’s feat came in a sport showing early signs of some of its later unruly traits. Such was the violence between players when Everton faced Aston Villa that they were ordered to shake hands before the next meeting. Rowdy supporters occasionally invaded pitches. Crewe Station was the scene of an hour-long running battle between fans of Northwich Victoria and Crewe before one cup game. Queen Victoria would not have been amused.
A quiet family man, Davenport deserves to be celebrated. Earning between £2-10 shillings and £3-10 shillings a week, he never considered himself special. Players like him may have earned a bit more than their neighbours, but they existed there, among ordinary people, rather than being remote from them and living in some huge mansion in the countryside. They were stars, and everyone in Bolton knew exactly who Kenny Davenport was, but they tended to be grounded individuals. Kenny was a working-class lad who was just happy to be playing football for a living and also to represent his country. He was very modest about his achievements. I don’t think he would have had any idea of how significant his goal was.
On 14 March 1885, Kenny played his first match for England, who drew 1-1 against Wales. In his next international match, on 15 March 1890, he scored two of the winning nine goals against Ireland.
Victorian professional footballers could only dream of earning the kinds of sums their counterparts receive today. Despite his unique achievements and two caps for England, by 1891, Davenport was supplementing his weekend football playing by working as a brewer's labourer. In 1901 he was living at 16 Partridge Street in Bolton and was employed as a beer seller.
Kenny Davenport died seven years later at the relatively young age of 46 and is buried in a family plot in Heaton Cemetery with his wife, Emma, daughter, Amy Aspden, son-in-law, James Edwin Stallard, daughter-in-law, Ellen, and two grandchildren.
On his burial record, England's first Football League goal-scorer is described simply as "Beer seller". It is possible that he died completely unaware of the mark he had made on footballing history.