Originally issued in 1895-96, Famous Footballers ("and Athletes") is a collection of 224 photographs presented on 112 double-sided sheets by the News of the World newspaper with publisher Hudson & Kearns. Each large (15" tall) sheet has the portrait of an association footballer (or occasionally a team group) on one side, and a rugby footballer on the other, along with a facsimile autograph and a short biography, penned for the association players by "father of football" CW Alcock, and for the rugby players by George Rowland Hill. The collection was published in 14 weekly parts, priced 6d each, and then as a bound volume in 1897.
It really is a stunning collection. Football fans at the time were used to seeing images of players on cigarette cards, but the size and quality of this set of portraits was something else entirely. Taken in photographers' studios up and down the country, the portraits feature the biggest stars of the day in their club or country kits and caps, often standing or leaning in front of incongruous studio backgrounds or props. There is great detail in the images. We can see the knit of the jerseys, the embroidery on their crests, the belts and buckles that keep their knickerbockers up, the heft of their boots, and the laces on their footballs.
Among the association footballers included are well-known names such as GO Smith, Ernest Needham, John Goodall, Steve Bloomer and William "Fatty" Foulke (the latter pictured before his nickname became appropriate). But some of the most interesting portraits are of less well-known figures. Donald Gow of Sunderland stands pensively in front of a fancifully painted rural background, like a lost child in an illustrated fairy tale. WJ Gilroy of Maidenhead FC (now Maidenhead United) looks startled by the camera and wears a pocketed work shirt, with a scarf tied around his waist. JH Gettins of Milwall Athletic wears two belts to keep up his knickers. WJG "Lachie" Thomson of Southampton St Mary's looks uncannily like a young Joey Barton.
It's difficult to put a price on this antique collection, but bound editions sell for between £300 and £500. A good full set of weekly parts could be worth more. A modern reprinted edition published in 1997 by Yore Publications, with the association and rugby players split over two volumes, is itself relatively scarce and sought after.
Over the next couple of weeks we'll publish a handful of these marvellous portraits, along with their accompanying texts. Below are Donald Gow, WJ Gilroy and Lachie Thomson.