Sport – Peter McNeil

Peter McNeil – Football Pioneer. Co-founder, player, captain and vice-president of Rangers FC and Treasurer of the SFA.

Peter McNeil was born in 1854, to John and Jean McNeil in Rhu, Dunbartonshire. John McNeil was employed as a gardener for John McDonald at Belmore House, which now forms part of the Faslane Naval Base. In his mid-teens, Peter moved to 17 Cleveden Street, Glasgow with other members of his large family, Sister Elizabeth and Brothers Moses, James, Harry and William.

It was during a walk through West End Park (now known as Kelvingrove Park) Glasgow, in March 1872, that four young men, smitten with the latest sporting craze of Association Football, hit upon the idea of creating a club.

Peter McNeil and his younger brother Moses McNeil,17 and 16 years of age respectively, and Peter Campbell and William McBeath, both 15 discussed the possibility of forming a team during their constitutional walk. They were joined in their endeavours by Tom Vallance, later to become a legendary Rangers captain, but who was then barely 16 years old.

The group called their team ‘Rangers’ having seen the name of a Swindon based rugby club in an English Rugby Football Annual.

The newly formed club was to play its first match at Flesher’s Haugh in May 1872 against Callander. The result was a 0-0 draw. The venue was to become the home of Rangers for the next three years, with Peter being tasked with claiming a piece of ground on which his team could play, by turning up a good couple of hours before each kick off. Peter was to become one of the Club’s earliest captains and was a regular as left back in the side until 1876.

Historians now consider that Peter’s greatest contribution to the formulative years of the club was off the field post his playing days. As match secretary, a position he held until 1883, he was in effect the club’s first manager. His administrative skills were recognised in 1886 when he became vice-president of the club. As a greatly respected administrator, Peter also served as treasurer of the Scottish Football Association from 1879 – 1883. He was known as “Genial Peter”, and became a much-loved and respected figure within Scottish Football.

Away from Rangers and his SFA commitments, Peter concentrated on running his sports business with his brother Harry. Founded in the mid 1870’s, the business ‘H and P McNeil’, located at 21-23 Renfield Street, Glasgow, was a forerunner of the modern sports shops, with the brothers supplying equipment and clothing to teams throughout Britain, including Rangers and the Clydesdale Harriers.

In 1883, Peter withdrew from his footballing commitments to concentrate on the business, and the shop was moved to 91 Union Street, Glasgow.

In March 1885, Peter married his wife Janet, with Rangers Football Club presenting the happy couple with “a beautiful inlaid marble clock and a pair of equestrian bronzes”. Peter and Janet had two children, John Fraser and Gertrude Grace, the family moving to 37 Bentinck Street in 1891.

Despite a happy family life and the continuing success of the club that he had helped establish, the sports business was beginning to take its toll on Peter’s health. It is not clear whether there was a family feud with Harry, but by the mid 1890’s Harry had left Scotland to run the Royal Hotel in their mother Jean’s home county of Downpatrick, with Brother Moses. The sports business closed circa 1896 and it is thought that Peter was left in financial ruin. What is clear is that Peter’s mental health was to deteriorate.

In 1897, Peter and his family moved to 32 Gibson Street. His wife Janet was forced to take in lodgers in a bid to pay the £25 a year rent as Peter’s slide into mental illness was to accelerate.

In January, 1901, having been certified insane, he was sectioned and committed to the Hawkhead Asylum, near Paisley, and died two months later on March 30th 1901 aged 47 years.

Peter McNeil lies with his parents, John and Jean, and older brother William in a grave at Craigton Cemetery. Two other McNeil brothers, James and Alexander, and their families lie in plots either side of the Peter’s final resting place.

Two years after Peter’s death, Janet married again, to James Fulton. She died, aged seventy-four, in a Glasgow nursing home, in April, 1932.

In 2010, Peter McNeil was inducted into the Rangers FC Hall of Fame.

Little was known about the early days of Rangers Football Club until relatively recently. In 2009, following three years of painstaking research, writer Gary Ralston, published the book “Rangers 1872: The Gallant Pioneers”, which details the founding of the club.

As a result of the books release and the subsequent publicity surrounding Rangers founding fathers, Peter’s grand daughter was interviewed and expressed surprise at her Grand Father’s association with the club. Her mother, Gertrude Grace, was only ten years old at the time of Peter’s death, and had never mentioned his suffering to her family.

Granddaughter Heather Lang, stated: “Peter was never, ever discussed and maybe, in many ways, it was a result of the ‘shame’ they felt at his mental decline. Mother lived until the age of 93 and when asked about her father and other events of her family past, saying: ‘Och, I can’t remember.'”

“However, I’m very proud of my grandfather’s achievements, even though his life ended so sadly. Rangers Football Club is quite a legacy to leave behind.”

Further information about Rangers’ early years can be found on the Gallant Pioneers Web Site.

Image copyright & courtesy of the Scottish Football Museum

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