In a previous article, The best football book ever published, we looked at the lavish and comprehensive four-volume Edwardian tome Association Football & The Men Who Made It by Alfred Gibson and William Pickford, published in 1905/06 by the Caxton Publishing Company, and now very rare and valuable. But there was another multi-volume football book published in 1905/06, also lavish and comprehensive, and also now very rare and valuable. In this article we look at the other best football book ever published - some say the very best - The Book of Football.
The Book of Football was originally published as 12 fortnightly partworks, each costing sixpence, between October 1905 and March 1906. It was subsequently republished as a single bound volume in 1906. The publisher was The Amalgamated Press, which had initially specialised in comic magazines such as Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips. The first issue featured a striking colour cover featuring Billy Brawn of Aston Villa, painted by noted artist EP Kinsella, and was promoted as a unique publication in large newspaper ads stating, "Nothing like it has ever been done before!"
"Both from a literary and pictorial aspect this publication is one which cannot but appeal strongly to all lovers of the game," said a newspaper review at the time. "A feature of the work is 'The Gallery of Famous Footballers' pictures, which will form an ornament to any room."
Inside each issue's large format pages are detailed articles on the history and growth of football, tutorials from top players, and profiles of big clubs, plus articles on various aspects of football, such as how balls and boots are made, and how the transfer system works. The articles are written by some of football's most respected figures, including FA vice president CW Alcock, secretary Frederick Wall, Football League president JJ Bentley, top referee John Lewis, and FA committee man and co-author of the Association Football... rival publication Alfred Davis.
But the most immediate appeal of The Book of Football was - and remains - its lavish illustrations. Every single page is illustrated with one or more photographs, sketches and diagrams. Many of the photos are unique to the book, and extremely rare. As well as team group shots of profiled clubs, there are portraits of players and officials and - perhaps most interestingly - scores of action shots taken at grounds around the country.
Many of the photos are full-page plates, which - at more than 12 inches by nine inches in size - are fantastic individual pieces of art. Unfortunately, this meant that many of the plates were removed from copies of the book to be stuck on walls. Individual plates from The Book of Football are often sold separately on eBay. Luckily, we were able to look at a complete hard-bound edition of the book - now incredibly rare - with its green cloth cover embossed with a silver image of the original FA Cup. The spine features an embossed image of the Crystal Palace, where Edwardian FA Cup Finals were held.
It's notable that The Book of Football contains no introduction, nor any credit for editors or lead authors. "Special contributions" are credited with a byline, but many articles remain anonymous. After a lengthy index, the 292 pages of content begins with a profile of FA president Lord Kinnaird, then a piece on the early history of football, and then a five-page article by Football League founder William MacGregor entitled, "The Romance of Aston Villa".
These detailed club profiles, covering the formation and rise of Britain's biggest clubs, make up the bulk of the book, and almost every top team is covered. Alongside Villa in the first issue are Woolwich Arsenal and Newcastle United. Later come profiles of Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United ("late Newton Heath"), Manchester City, Chelsea (then only recently formed), Spurs, Stoke, Sunderland, Leicester Fosse (now City), Sheffield United, Southampton, West Brom, Watford and many more. Also profiled are the less well-known likes of Burton United, the Football League club that folded in 1910, Corinthian FC, the then-famous amateur touring side, and New Brompton, which changed its name in 1912 to Gillingham FC.
The book leans heavily towards the English game, and leading Scottish club Queen's Park FC are the only non-English club to warrant a profile, although there are a couple of articles on the history and development of football in Scotland. The book also makes an occasional diversion into rugby, and also features an article on American gridiron football. Among the most interesting articles are those on various aspects of the Edwardian game, such as "Football Fiascos", about crowd trouble and interrupted or abandoned games, and "The Pounds, Shillings and Pence of Football", about football club finances.
Some of the content in The Book of Football is effectively duplicated in Association Football & The Men Who Made It - which should be no surprise, as the two share several contributors. For example, articles in each book on the art of goalkeeping by Leigh Richmond Roose are very similar. The first volume of Association Football... was published just a month after The Book of Football, in November 1905. "Unlike all books on football, in volumes or parts, this work will not be of an ephemeral nature, but will be an artistic production, and one that will be coveted by all lovers of the game," proclaimed the Association Football... publishers.
But The Book of Football is anything but ephemeral, and is at least the equal of Association Football.... While Association Football... is perhaps better on profiles of individual players and officials, The Book of Football wins with its definitive club profiles. And, although Association Football... is lavishly illustrated, The Book of Football quite possibly trumps it with more and larger images.
As an historical record, the breadth and detail of its coverage makes The Book of Football pretty much invaluable. But, if you were to buy a copy today, how much would it be worth? It's difficult to say, because they are so scarce that they rarely come up for sale. In 2009, Bonhams auctioned a couple of bound editions with guide prices of £400-500 and £500-600 respectively. In the same year, a separate lot, also a bound edition, sold for £360. At the time of writing, Abebooks has three bound copies listed, in various conditions, from £250 to £600. But if you're lucky you might get it for less than that. In May 2015, a bound copy rated as being in "exceptionally fine" condition sold on eBay for just £133.60 - what a bargain!
But what about the original separate partworks, with their beautiful colour covers? Abebooks has parts one to four listed for £100, but we cannot find any recent instance of the complete 12-part set coming up for sale. Full sets do exist, however. Goal-Post reader Jo Chant sent us photos of her set, originally purchased in 1905 and 1906 by her grandfather. With their gorgeous EP Kinsella covers, each issue is a work of art, and the full set is a football collector's dream. Is this the only full set left in existence? If you know of another, do get in touch.
Our more recently published book, The Victorian Football Miscellany, is much easier to get hold of, and cost a lot less - from all good books shops.
The Victorian Football Miscellany, packed with trivia, facts and anecdotes, available as book and ebook. More details.