London is a very old city, founded not long after the death of Jesus Christ by the Romans. What did they ever do for us indeed? Human settlement in the area may have begun much earlier too, perhaps going back almost 7,000 years. A Chinese relation of football dates back to perhaps the third century BC, so even the most optimistic of historians will be unsurprised to learn that none of the oldest football clubs in the world, let alone London, go back quite as far 5,000 BC. But just how old are the capital’s oldest clubs?
There are many football teams in London. In fact, at the time of writing there are seven just in the Premier League alone. If we broaden that to teams that are, at least loosely, professional, we then have 19 teams in the top six tiers of English football. That includes the Premier League, three tiers of the Football League, plus the National League and National League South. We will use those as a starting point, before looking at clubs that may no longer exist, as well as smaller amateur clubs. Let the history lesson commence!
Oldest London Club in the Premier League
If you only paid attention to the media narrative it would be distinctly possible to believe that football only began with the Premier League era in 1992. It would certainly be conceivable that only the EPL really mattered and so in keeping with that version of events, here are when the seven current (2023/24) Premier League sides based in London were founded.
|Rank||Club||Year Founded||Previous Names|
|1||Fulham||1879||Fulham St Andrew’s Church Sunday School FC|
|2||Tottenham Hotspur||1882||Hotspur Football Club|
|3||Arsenal||1886||Dial Square Football Club, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal|
|5||West Ham United||1895||Thames Ironworks FC|
So as we can see, Fulham are the oldest London side in the Premier League. Some Crystal Palace fans might argue that their club actually dates back as far as 1861, with the club themselves stating that they are “staking a claim to be recognised as the world’s oldest league club in existence still playing professional football”. Most sources accept 1905 as the founding date of the club, but there was an earlier side that did go by the name of Crystal Palace.
However, two football historians dispute the claim that there is any real link between the two clubs. For the side founded in the 20th century to be viewed as a continuation of the one formed in the 19th century we would have to ignore a 30-year period from 1875 to 1905 when neither existed. For this reason, for now at least, 1905 seems a more realistic date for the formation of Palace.
Oldest Professional London Sides
If we now consider life beyond the rarefied air of the Premier League, but still sticking with professional clubs that are still in existence, we can see that Fulham remain the historical kings of the capital. The first non-PL club we get to is Leyton Orient, based in Leyton, which lies within Greater London. They were founded in 1881 and currently play in League One, although some argue that the club was initially a cricket club and only started playing football later, in 1888.
A club with a clearer timeline, QPR, in the Championship for the 2023/24 campaign, were formed in 1882, that year even featuring on their crest. Millwall came along in 1885, with Barnet being founded in 1888 but are now playing in the fifth-tier National League. Sutton United, in League Two, were created in 1898, with Wealdstone, of the National League, forming a year later. Charlton are one of London’s newer professional clubs, being formed in 1905, a few months after Chelsea.
There are other London clubs, including Dagenham & Redbridge, AFC Wimbledon, Welling United, Bromley, and Hampton & Richmond Borough, who were generally formed more recently. Several of these clubs may have longer histories but these involve mergers or reformations – or both – and generally the formation date of the club in its current guise is the one used by the teams themselves and the authorities.
As well as disputes about when clubs were officially founded, whether a cricket team that becomes a football team was really a football team from the start and whether a club with the same name is the same club, even when it isn’t, there is of course the small matter of geography. Watford, for example, were founded in 1881, and are considered by some to be a London club, although there is no real basis for that, other than proximity. But almost London isn’t London in our book! Likewise Luton is classed as a “London airport”, but Luton is certainly not in London.
But What Is The Oldest Team in London?
If we disregard Crystal Palace’s claim to have been founded in 1861, then the oldest team in London that plays within the 11 tiers of the English football pyramid and is still in existence is… drum roll, please… Cray Wanderers. Their garish yellow and black badge proudly displays the year 1860 as their date of formation, making the Sidcup outfit the oldest team in London!
Currently in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League, Cray are currently groundsharing with Bromley. However, they are building their own new stadium in Sidcup, which is in Bexley, a London borough that was in Kent prior to the creation of Greater London.
There may be older clubs than Cray Wanderers but they certainly do not exist anymore. One club with a possible claim to pre-date The Wands (don’t pretend you aren’t familiar with Cray’s nickname) is the similarly named Wanderers. Wanderers are historically significant, not least for being the first winners of the FA Cup in 1871/72, defending the cup the following season.
Founded by former pupils of top English private schools, they were initially formed as Forest Football Club. This was in 1859, with their home being in Leytonstone, in east London. They changed their name to Wanderers in 1864 but this was certainly a continuation of the same club. However, they didn’t survive through to the 20th century, let alone today. As such, the oldest football club still active in London is Cray Wanderers, while the oldest professional team from the capital is Fulham.