The Scottish roots of Spain’s oldest football club

Football is as synonymous with Spanish culture as paella and bullfighting, but Spain’s oldest club has its roots in British-run mines in southern Spain. We dig into the history of Recreativo de Huelva, Spain's oldest football club.

The Scottish roots of Spain's oldest football club
Recreativo de Huelva players pose for a team photo in 1917. Photo: Public Domain

Real Madrid. Barça. El clásico. La Copa Del Rey. The dominance of Spain’s national team in recent years. Football is woven deep into the sociocultural fabric of Spanish society, taking on an almost religious level of fanaticism that dictates people’s lives, schedules, moods and relationships.

Spanish clubs are some of Europe’s biggest, its players some of the world’s best, but Spanish football history has a curious tale of Scottish influence. 

Recreativo de Huelva is a fourth division club based in the Andalusian town of Huelva in south-western Spain.

Although the small club has had some stints in Spain’s top league, the majority of its history has been spent in the lower leagues living a largely nondescript and unsuccessful footballing existence.

But it is the club’s history, and how it came to be, that is the most interesting thing about it.

Recreativo de Huelva is Spain’s oldest football club, founded 132 years ago by two Scots on 23rd December 1889 as Huelva Recreation Club. 

Recreativo de Huelva in 1906. Photo: Public Domain

Scottish doctors Alexander Mackay and Robert Russell Ross, were working at the mine near the Río Tinto (Tinto river) that stretches across southern Spain, and founded the club as a way of keeping themselves and their colleagues fit as they lay train lines on the outskirts of the city.

Technically speaking, the Rio Tinto Foot-Ball Club was the first football club to be established in Spain in 1878 (also in Huelva province), but the team ceased to exist after a few years, meaning Recreativo is the oldest still existing club in Spain.

Charles Adam, the club’s first president, was also a Scot, and director of the Huelva Gas Company.

Recre’s first organised match came a few days later, reportedly against a group of British sailors docked at the town’s port, and then the first official match against Andalusian rivals Sevilla FC (formed in January 1890 by another Scot, Edward F. Johnston) in March of that same year.

Ríotinto Company Limited was founded in 1873 when of a group of British investors purchased a mine complex on the Tinto river in Huelva from the Spanish government. Photo: Public Domain

Among the names in the starting XI that day were Alcock, Smith, Yates, Wakelin, Kirk, Daniels, Curtis, and Gibbon.

Recreativo continued playing invitational games over the next few years, facing groups of Britons working or docked in Spain, but also new Spanish clubs being formed as football mania swept over the country.

Eventually local tournaments were formed in the Andalusian area, and Recre won several cups before the turn of the century.

Unfortunately for Recreativo fans, aside from short stints in the first and second divisions over the years, the last in primera coming in the 2008/9 season, those early triumphs were the highlight.

Built in 1892 , Recreativo’s Velódromo was the club’s first official stadium until it was replaced in the 1950s by the Colombino Stadium, then upgraded to the Nuevo Colombino. Photo: Public Domain

By no means world beaters, Recreativo de Huelva are no Barcelona or Madrid but they are older than both, started a Spanish love affair with football that remains to this day, and will always have a footprint in the history of Spanish football.

But Recreativo isn’t the only British connection to Spanish football.

Scots and Englishmen founded several smaller clubs around the Madrid area before the birth of Real, and the Witty family helped to found Barcelona.

FC Barcelona’s first football squad pose for a team photo in 1903, including Arthur Witty, seen here holding the football. Photo: Public Domain

Many Scots who introduced football to the Catalonia region founded small clubs, and some even went onto to play for Barcelona.

Scot George Pattullo was one of Barça’s first greats, scoring an incredible 43 goals in 23 games between 1910 and 1912 and even coming out of retirement to play against local rivals Espanyol in the 1912 cup semi-final.

In the 1890’s British shipyard workers working in the Basque Country founded Bilbao Football Club.

The Athletic Club (Athletic de Bilbao) team of 1903, winners of Spain’s first Copa del Rey , also winning the Copa de la Coronación that year. Photo: Public Domain

Basque students who had been studying in England founded Athletic Club on their return home- naming it not ‘Atlético’ but Athletic in homage to the English game, and many early Spanish clubs were named in the English tradition and remained so until the rule of Franco.

Athletic Club de Bilbao even reportedly got their kit from Blackburn Rovers and then Southampton.

One curious linguistic quirk is that the word ‘fútbol’ even exists as a Spanish anglicism of the word football, and that very few clubs go by the more traditional ‘balompié’ like Real Betis de Balompié do.

Another example of the influence the creators of the beautiful game had over late 19th century Spaniards is seen in the iconic kits of Real Madrid, who in their early days adopted the all-white look to pay homage to the London-team Corinthian, an amateur team credited with having popularised football around the world and having promoted sportsmanship and fair play.

Whatever football team you support in Spain, whether it’s Sevilla, Celta de Vigo or of course Barça or Real, there’s a high chance the club’s origins have a British connection. 

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How 22 Spanish orphans became ‘the vaccine’ to beat smallpox in the Americas

This is the unlikely story of how in 1803 one doctor, one ship and 22 Spanish orphans serving as human fridges helped the world beat smallpox by carrying out the first international vaccination campaign.

How 22 Spanish orphans became 'the vaccine' to beat smallpox in the Americas

We’re living through a time in history where the emergence and resurgence of viruses is becoming more prevalent, from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to the appearance of monkeypox, with several cases recently recorded in Spain, Portugal and the UK.

Monkeypox is a similar virus to smallpox, a devastating illness that was finally eradicated in 1980. The virus causes high fever, body aches, headaches and chills, as well as a rash of boils or sores. 

READ ALSO: Eight suspected monkeypox cases detected in Spain

While historians and scientists believe that smallpox has been around for the last 3,000 years, monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks occurred in a group of monkeys kept for research. The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The first vaccine

During the 18th century, smallpox was rife throughout the world and was killing millions. It was around this time that English doctor Edward Jenner saw that people who caught the milder bovine virus of cowpox never actually caught the deadlier smallpox.

So in 1796, he took the pus from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid’s hand and inoculated an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps, rendering him immune to smallpox and creating the world’s first vaccine.

But it was in fact Spain that played a pivotal role in getting this vaccine out to the masses and helping to bring the smallpox virus under control. 

How did they transport vaccines in the 18th and 19th century?

Even today, transporting vaccines proves to be problematic, best evidenced by the specific temperature and storage requirements of some of the Covid-19 vaccines, as well the logistical delays and other distribution obstacles.

But back in the early 19th century, doctors and scientists came up against even more problems.

Health professionals at the time invented an ingenious method of taking the puss-like fluid from the sores of those with cowpox and placing it on a piece of material to dry out.

They would then travel to the next town and mix the dried puss with water, before scratching it into people’s skin to infect them with cowpox, thus protecting them from smallpox.

This method seemed to work in Europe, where distances between towns were relatively close.

The arrival of Spain’s Conquistadores in America led to the spread of viruses such as smallpox among native populations, killing millions, including the Aztecs of present-day Mexico.

However, the vaccine wouldn’t stay fresh long enough to take it further across the seas to the Americas. It wouldn’t even work for distances from one European capital to the next, only from town to town. 

Children become the vaccine carriers

This is where Spain comes in. The colonial power was desperate to send the vaccine over to its South American territories, where the virus was running rampant throughout the population, killing around half of those it infected.

In 1803, a doctor from Alicante in eastern Spain, Francisco Javier de Balmís, came up with a plan and asked Spain’s King Carlos IV, whose own daughter had died of smallpox, to fund a new mission.

His plan was to sail to the Americas with 22 Spanish orphans on board, infecting them with cowpox along the way, a plan that wouldn’t have much chance of being approved in this day and age due to human rights laws, but this was the early 18th century.

Francisco Javier de Balmís was integral in helping the first international vaccine campaign. Source: Foundling / WikiCommons

The cowpox vaccine only survived in the body for up to 12 days, so at the beginning of the journey only two of the orphans were infected with smallpox. Then, ten days later when they were sick enough and had boils all over their skin, doctors on board would lance these sores and infect two more boys. The aim was to keep this going every ten days until they reached South America.

Miraculously, the plan of using the orphans as vessels for the virus worked, and although all the children got sick, none of them died.

By the time the ship docked in Venezuela in March 1804, one boy still had fresh sores and puss which could be used to vaccinate the local population. 

Balmís and his team set about vaccinating the locals straight away and then split up, with half the team travelling through what is today Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and the other half up to Mexico.

Amazingly, using this method of lancing boils and moving from town to town, they managed to vaccinate around 200,000 people, most of whom were children.

Locals who received news of their arrival would greet the heroes with all the flamboyance of a Spanish fiesta – complete with music, bullfights and fireworks. 

The mission was not yet complete

Balmís left the 22 original orphans with adoptive families in Mexico and then set out on a new voyage with a brand new set of children for the Spanish colony of the Philippines.

The ship arrived in April 1805 and again astonishingly the plan worked. Here, Blamís and his team were able to vaccinate a further 20,000. 

This vaccination plan was so successful again, that Balmís took the vaccine to China to keep inoculating the population there too. 

Thanks to the ingenious methods of one Spanish doctor and the bravery of 22 Spanish orphans, Jenner’s original vaccine was able to reach the far corners of the world, vaccinating hundreds of thousands and saving countless lives.