Villa Park was not the original home of Aston Villa – although the team played at the site of the current ground in the early days, it was based in Perry Barr for 21 years. The little acorn which grew into the mighty tree of Aston Villa did so on a farmer’s field in a semi rural location near to Perry Barry station despite the name– and how Villa developed in this unusual place, near to but nor actually in Aston – but then settled in Aston is quite a story.
How the club formed
the original Aston Villa – a Villa being a large house – was the name taken by a group of young men from a Weslyan (Methodist) chapel in Lozells as spelt out in the article on Villa’s Murky Early Years. They played some 15 games in Aston Park in 1875 but this was not a permanent location. The Lower Grounds, overlooked by the Upper Grounds a ridge of high land where Aston Hall stands was a sporting venue where spectators could enter at will. Villa attracted a crowd of up to 1000 (p14) showing the demand existed for a permanent ground where an entrance fee could be charged to pay for the professional players the club needed. Players were being paid even before it was made legal in 1885, and to raise the funds to pay them needed a fence creating an enclosure so that entrance had to be paid to a gatekeeper.
The crucial first step was taken by a skilful Scotsman, George Ramsey working in Birmingham who joined a game in Aston Park, was made captain and seeing the need for the team to have a home with a fence, discovered a field in Perry Barr, then a country area. This was in Wellington Road, not far from Perry Barr train station, allowing spectators to come by train. He persuaded the farmer to lease it to the team for £5 per year. This was a gamble for a largely unknown outfit, and the first gate had only 21 paying customers. That first game when fans had to pay was on September 30th 1876 against Wednesbury Town – (p15) and success was not instant.
William McGregor the famous Villa secretary who was also Scottish said later “Spectators were often few and far between in the early days at Wellington Rd, and I can recall more than one match when there were only two spectators: myself and George Ramsey’s brother”. Villa were only one of many small teams playing occasional matches in a fast growing form of entertainment in industrial towns, but success breeds success -and what made Villa successful was that they blended English and Scottish approaches to the game.
The Scots Dimension
McGregor and Ramsey were not the only Scots involved in the Villa operation. It is not accidental that the Villa lion is the Scots solo Lion Rampant rather than the three lions of the English shirt. The Scots argued that the Scots style of passing out of defence was superior to the dribbling game favoured by the English, and a conscious attempt to learn from the Scots led to the Scottish Queens Park Rangers being invited to play a friendly in 1882 – the Scots won 4-1 and the argument was over. \But there were many issues to be resolved.
After the game the players went to the local pub The Crown and Cushion (which was replaced by a modern building and finally closed in 2015) raising concerns about drinking and the teetotal McGregor got the committee to rent a room at a coffee house in 1877, then moved to larger premises until the club rented a whole house at 127 Albert Rd (p16) in 1892 with a billiard room for the players and offices for the committee. This move mirrored the success of the club, but having premises away from the field of play was not ideal. McGregor wanted a more business like approach to spending money.
Success was breeding success and the fame of the club was spreading, the first trophy being won in 1880 – six years after the start in 1874 – when Villa won the Birmingham Senior cup. The club were pressing for positive developments and helped secure payment for players in 1885 which allowed a better standard of fitness and training when time for development was available. In April 1887 Villa won the FA cup for the first time and the contrast between the success on the field and the primitive playing conditions was increasingly obvious. Until 1888 the groundsman did not even have a mower – animals were allowed grazing rights to keep the grass down- and wooden stands for a few fans could not accommodate the large numbers coming to see top matches. The record attendance at Wellington Road was said to be 26.849 in 1888. This is possible – but the accuracy of the total is odd. The club would not install turnstiles till 1895, and the committee were worried the gatekeepers could pocket cash without being caught. A more permanent ground, larger and with better facilities, was now becoming essential.