In the late 1800's and early 1900's, it is difficult to imagine what satisfaction the pioneer referees acquired from their craft. Part of their reward would no doubt have been the same as the modern day referee, pleasure in helping the game develop, personal exercise in the open and of the psychological feeling of being in control. Their task would have been more difficult, as there were no Referees' Associations or local Societies to provide guidance, encouragement and education. Financial rewards were meagre, the refund of minimum travelling expenses plus a few shillings, at a rate per hour very much less than any Trade Union would tolerate. Considering that the referee was - even then - an essential factor in any match (and in view of the hardships they had to endure), they did not grumble about it - instead, rather like today, they continued to enjoy it.
Following the introduction of the first thirteen 'Rules of Association Football,' handwritten in the Freemasons' Tavern in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, by the newly formed Football Association (The FA) on 26 October 1863, referees for the first time had a standard set of Laws to apply. Initially, there were two 'club' umpires on the field and disputes were referred to a referee who was off the field. In 1891 the referee went onto the field with two linesmen assisting him, one on each touchline. This 'neutral' referee was disliked from the outset. Clubs did not like his absolute authority, preferring a mutual agreement between their umpires. Spectators disputed decisions and referees were even assaulted.
In March 1893, The FA formed the first referees' society at a meeting in Anderton's Hotel, London where 79 were in attendance. C.W. Alcock (Secretary of The FA) became President, F.J. Wall (later Chairman of The FA) as Chairman and Arthur Roston Bourke as Honorary Secretary. The London Society's prime purpose was to examine the qualification of referees orally and appoint them to matches. In 1895, William Pickford, a Vice President, was instrumental in the Society producing "The Referees' Chart, 1895-96". This contained 17 Laws (or rules) and was far more substantial than those drafted in 1863.
With the growth in popularity of football, more people became referees. They began to group together to teach each other and recruit others. They formed associations, branches, societies, and even a club - the North Staffs Referees' Club was formed in 1896. They also appointed themselves to games!
In 1899, the heavy workload of 27 societies, 773 members and the appointment of referees became too great and responsibility was transferred to The FA. The London Society ended its short but important career, having given association football a status and initiated many improvements.
The idea that all these groups form a Union was proposed by C.E. (Charles) Sutcliffe, a solicitor, "in consequence of certain unpleasant experiences of referees in many parts of the country." He had an important supporter in the media, J.A.H. Catton the Editor of the now defunct 'Athletic News'. James Catton was later to become President 1913-14.
In 1906, Catton wrote a series of articles urging referees to get together to strengthen their position. Referees were disliked, cursed and assaulted, a sound reason for banding together. Referee associations, branches, societies and clubs, mainly from the North and Midlands, gave their initial approval believing that in unity lay strength. Sutcliffe and Catton spared no effort to get things going. Meetings took place in Carlisle, Manchester, Birmingham and London.
Charles Sutcliffe convened an informal meeting on 5 March 1908 in Manchester. He and James Catton emphasised the "need of a Union and how it might serve the interests of referees and promote the good of the game". 39 Football League referees were approached; they and many others promised their support.
On 9 May 1908, over 300 referees met in Nottingham. Sutcliffe presided, and after he and Catton had spoken, T.P. Campbell (Blackburn) proposed and J.T. Ibbotson (Derby) seconded "That a Referees' Union be formed". Every hand went up. W Gilgryst (Manchester) asked for the Union to be for referees' societies only, and not for referees and referees' societies. This was defeated by 99 - 65. The following were appointed: President: C.E. Sutcliffe; Honorary Secretary: H. Pollitt; Hon. Treasurer: W. Pickford.
The country was divided into three areas: Northern (Berwick to Sheffield), Midland (Sheffield to Worcester) and Southern (south of Worcester). The meeting appointed a Vice-President and Secretary for each Division. These were, for the Northern, Midland and Southern, respectively: W Gilgryst & H Pollitt; A.G Hines & H Ward; J.C Stark & C.D Crisp. Each Division had three Committee members who were, respectively: T.P Campbell, J.T Howcroft & F.H Dennis; J.H Pearson, F Heath & J.T Ibbotson; FR Viveash, AG Neale & JT Clark.
These 18 men were the founder members of The Referees' Union. Absent through illness was J.T. Howcroft (Bolton) but he was elected onto the Northern committee. Membership was set at five shillings for seniors and two shillings for juniors; members to decide themselves their status! It was agreed to hold an Annual Conference and this has taken place every year with the exception of the years of the First and Second World Wars.
The early 1920s were turbulent years for The RA. Alan Page, keen to get influential people involved, secured the agreement of W. Claude Kirby (Chairman of Chelsea FC) to be elected President, but he did not attend the 1921 or 1922 Conferences, which were chaired by Arthur Pellowe (Oldham).
Charles Sutcliffe was no longer at the helm and he strongly criticised RA policy and charged the officers with apathy. He said that when he was President, the organisation was successful, now it was disunited and unrepresentative, he could have no further interest in it! Alan Page said the attack was unsporting, unfair, inaccurate and a wilful misrepresentation of the facts. Sutcliffe also made destructive comments and sarcastic remarks in newspapers. The founder President's parting was eventually accepted by Council with "thanks for past services".
Following many years of discussion, Conference 1999 accepted a proposal to consider restructuring the Association. A five member Management Consultancy Team was appointed to make recommendations and their report was published in September 2000. The RA Annual Conference 2001 approved a motion to form an Implementation Team to propose a restructuring based on the MCT report. Their proposal to replace the Referees' Association and the Divisional structure with a newly constituted Referees' Association and three independent National Referees' Associations for England, Wales & Northern Ireland was approved at Conference 2003 in Cheltenham. The Council of the RA was replaced by a nine-man Board of Management of the RAE, electing one of its members as its Chairman.