Contributed by David Garreth Toms
Long before I began my PhD in 2009, I would pick up a copy of the Waterford Soccer Monthly from time to time. My favourite part, perhaps predictably, was the old photographs of teams from the 1920s and 1930s. There is often something otherworldly about photographs of sports teams from that era. Thinking more on it, it is the formality of the occasion of having one’s photograph taken – after all, the photographic image was not then as ubiquitous as it has since become. The rigidity of the subjects (out of technical necessity) also ensures photographs from that era have an idiosyncratic strangeness to them.
This piece isn’t really about the photographs that appeared in the Waterford Soccer Monthly (WSM) though. Instead, it is about the old-fashioned digging around, the donkey-work of historical research. I remembered those photographs when it came time for me to begin research on grassroots football in Waterford city as part of my thesis. Typically, the old copies of the WSM had long been consigned to the bin in my house. So it was with hope that I e-mailed the editor of the magazine, and sure enough he kept his entire back-catalogue. What’s more, he had original scans of many of the photographs I was looking for, and much more besides.
We spent our first meeting going through all the back issues of the magazine (there are over 100!) and found the relevant issues. We then had to match these up with the discs on which the photographs had been stored. And voila, I suddenly possessed photographs of great significance to my study. The most significant of these would be those taken by Mr. Frank Phillips.
Frank Phillips, who had been a captain in WWI, is the central protagonist of this story. He lived in Dublin and was a rugby enthusiast who joined one of the “pal’s brigades” formed from rugby circles. After the war he returned to Waterford where he set up his trade in photography. He situated himself at number 8, The Mall, in the city.
Phillips would in 1924 become the first chairman of the Waterford and District Football League, set up to oversee the running of the game in the city and its hinterland.
While perusing the WSM photographs, I was surprised by how many photographs of local grassroots football teams existed from this period, until I figured out that Phillips was one of a small number of prominent photographers in the city. His equipment, therefore, was probably used to capture photographs like these:
Frank Phillips in uniform
Above: O’Connell Celtic 1926-27
These photos contain two rather distinct lessons for the historian, I believe. The first is that without these photographs and indeed without the ability to reproduce them in publications like the WSM, the teams would be lost entirely to the researcher and the public. Indeed, many of these photographs are of teams who are not only defunct but of whom contemporary accounts are often few and far between, like these two teams below:
Above: Rangers AFC 1925-26.
Below: St. John’s AFC 1925
The second lesson is this: that Phillips, his studio and their photographs do not enjoy the same public admiration or exposure that one of his contemporaries, AH Poole, does. Poole had a photography studio quite close to where Phillips set up shop. Unlike Phillips’ photographs though, Poole’s are collected and accessible in the National Library of Ireland, and online in their digital archive. Much of what remains behind for the historian is the result of chance and sheer good luck – and as my case has proven, it is no harm for the historian to do the spade work and start digging around!