The Impetuous Dr Whitford

Everton director and chairman Dr William Whitford was an outspoken character who often found himself in the public eye – and, on occasion, in hot water.

David Kennedy 30/07/2023 14comments  |  Jump to last

When Dr William Whitford died in June 1930, the Liverpool Daily Post reminded its readers of the prominent part he had played in the public life of Liverpool in an earlier period.(1)  In 1883 the Armagh-born Whitford first came to the public’s attention as a central figure for the prosecution in one of Liverpool’s most notorious murder trials: the Black Widow Poisonings. As a young doctor in the district of Everton, he had petitioned the city coroner to carry out a post-mortem on a Thomas Higgins of Ascot Street after Higgins’s brother told him he suspected foul play. The trial of the man’s widow and sister-in-law transfixed Liverpool society and was eagerly covered by the press.

The story of Dr Whitford’s dramatic intervention at Higgins’s wake to perform a post-mortem took the imagination of the public and handed him a prominent local profile.(2) In the following decades, he would remain in the public eye as he went on to become Liverpool’s Chief Medical Officer, city magistrate, de facto leader of the Liberal Party in the north end districts of Liverpool and, of course, a director and chairman of the city’s greatest sporting institution: Everton FC.

The Shaw Street-based Whitford – keenly interested in football from an early age(3) – was a member of the club prior to the tumultuous period of the early 1890s which culminated in the split of 1892. He became a shareholder of Everton in June 1892; a club director by 1901; and reached the position of chairman in 1910.

An active member of the club, Whitford played his part as team doctor and was known for his willingness to travel far and wide to scout for players capable of improving Everton (often in the company of fellow directors Edward Bainbridge and Arthur Wade).(4)

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As a director, he proposed a motion to the board in 1901 to hire Tom Maley as team manager – brother of the legendary Celtic manager Willie Maley – but lost the vote.(5)  Maley went on instead to manage Manchester City and is considered to be that club’s first great manager, bringing them their first major success by winning the FA Cup in 1904. During Dr Whitford’s chairmanship, the club narrowly lost out on the league title in 1911-12 – losing the title to Blackburn by three points.

Arguably, though, his biggest impact on Everton’s history came from affairs away from the club. During the period of the split, Whitford used his position as Everton Liberal Association chairman to highlight the sitting Conservative councillor John Houlding’s unpopularity at the club to reinforce what he believed to be his “iniquitous influence” on the community as a brewer.(6) 

His conflation of the two issues drew the governance of the Grand Old Club into the orbit of a wider drink trade-temperance conflict which somewhat politicised the tone of the governance struggle. In fact, it was Whitford’s implacable opposition to John Houlding at a civic level which was in large part responsible for generating the acknowledged ill-feeling between Everton and Liverpool in the years following the split.(7) 

His constant attacks on John Houlding through the local press irked the city’s Conservative leadership. Sir Arthur Bower Forwood, the Conservative leader of the council, described Whitford as “fanatical” and “warped”, and the future city council leader, Sir Archibald Salvidge, declared him to be “unfit for public life”.(8) 

Whitford was a man long associated with Everton FC who had previously presided over Everton Annual General Meetings.(9) His conduct in a very public feud with the Liverpool FC chairman was a state of affairs which could not have failed to have soured relations between the two clubs, preserving and extending the fault-lines that existed between the organisations since 1892. 

Whitford was no respecter of reputations. He was renowned as a fierce critic of people he deemed unworthy of holding public office in Liverpool. Another example of this was his outspoken views on the Liverpool Constabulary under the leadership of its chief of police, Sir William Nott-Bower. Whitford repeatedly questioned the local force’s competence and probity.

On one occasion, he accused Nott-Bower of intentionally under-counting the number of crimes committed in Liverpool. On other occasions, he accused police officers on the beat of corruption – claiming that many of them were in the habit of demanding free drinks, food and cash from publicans and grocers.(10)  These attacks on the police were denounced by his old sparring partner, John Houlding, who commented that Whitford was undermining the work of the Liverpool police by maligning them as “blackmailers”.(11) 

His relationship with the police reached its low point, however, in 1911 when he was charged with obstruction under Section Two of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871). The Everton Chairman, as he was at the time – witnessing a late-night altercation near his home at the junction of Langsdale Street and Shaw Street, Everton – was cautioned by a Constable William Burns for encouraging the recommencement of a physical assault upon him by two men named Largin and Sarsfield whom he was attempting to arrest over a public order offence.

Predictably, the story of a magistrate facing prosecution received a lot of press coverage.(12)  In his own defence, Whitford claimed that he did no more than query the arrest of one of the men, whom he said was standing away from the scuffle, and that PC Burns was at fault for not making plain his reason for arresting both men. Backed by the testimony of two other onlookers to the affray, however, Mr Kennedy, counsel for the police, was having none of it.

“You instructed [the two men] in a blustering manner…to renew their violence against the police officer, only in a more serious way”.

An unimpressed Whitford countered that PC Burns’s account was confused and stood out as another example of the “loose methods” blighting the city constabulary. Whitford was also admonished by counsel for ignoring a previous summons to attend court – a summons written to him personally by the chief of police – and that his performance in the witness box that day had been of a too “vigorous manner”, to which Whitford replied: “With all respect, I don’t want a lecture from you, Mr Kennedy”.

Prior to fining him for forty shillings plus four guineas costs (a fine and costs he initially refused to pay), Whitford’s fellow magistrate, Stuart Deacon, commented that he had known his colleague for many years and that “if he will allow me to say so, he has somewhat of an impetuous nature”.(13)

‘Impetuous’ seems a reasonable description of Whitford. More fairly and accurately, though, Whitford was a man of principle whose instinct was not to back down but to fight it out. This propensity to jump in and engage was again on display some years later when he came to the rescue of FA Vice President, Charles Crump, onboard a boat returning to Liverpool from Ireland. 

The Liverpool Echo football reporter ‘Bee’ recalled being in the company of a party of people including Whitford, Crump and Everton goalkeeper, Billy Scott. On the journey home, a ‘race gang’ (young men involved in criminality – especially acts of violence – at horse race meetings, who were considered to be the scourge of law and order during the period) had been intent on “trying all their known tricks” and intimidating other passengers. They had, in particular, targeted the unfortunate Crump. The gang grabbed hold of the FA man and had him “nearly sunk at Holyhead, pitched into the sea”.  It was an ugly situation until Whitford “brought out his Irish brogue and his massive frame to stop the bother”.(14)

Lest we run away with the notion of a man exclusively intense and serious, there was also another side to Whitford. The man with a passion for fine china and water-colour paintings – of which he was apparently something of a collector(15) – was remarked on by those who knew him as being a popular figure.

A pen portrait of him in the Liverpool society journal, Porcupine – while acknowledging his many “atrabilious attacks” on his foes in the public realm – described Whitford as “good-natured”, “amiable and kind-hearted”.(16)  Indeed, he bequeathed £12,000 to charity (the equivalent of over one million pounds today).(17) 

Others concurred with this theme of a tough but popular man. The Liverpool Daily Post described him as “having the breezy manner of the typical Irishman coupled with marked strength of character”.(18)  Bee, his good friend at the Liverpool Echo, wrote that he possessed “the voice of a lion” but found him to be a “jovial soul”, a “gentle man and warm-hearted friend”. Bee recalled that, as chairman of Everton, his ‘Irishisms’ made attendees at the club’s Annual General Meetings laugh – on one occasion, instructing stewards to “close that door and let the people in”.(19)

Whitford had a strong Irish identity. An “ardent Home Ruler”,(20)  he campaigned all of his political life for Irish self-governance and, though a Liberal in politics, made common cause with the city’s Irish Nationalist Party hierarchy, becoming a close personal friend of Alderman John Clancy.(21) 

The exiled Dr Whitford explained his pull toward Irish affairs: “I am a Protestant Irishman and have been able, from my frequent intercourse with professional and other friends in the work of Ireland, to feel the pulse of the people there”.(22)   In an act that went contrary to all usual protocols prevailing in sectarian-ridden Liverpool – as it was at that time – Whitford sent his son Herbert to the city’s premier Catholic college, St Francis Xavier’s, in nearby Salisbury Street, when the norm would have been to send him to the equally near and prestigious Collegiate on Shaw Steet.(23) Perhaps this was another act of defiance by the unconventional Everton man.

After retiring from the board of Everton FC, Dr William Whitford remained involved as a member of the club he had served with distinction in one capacity or another for the best part of half a century. A complex character, the farmer’s son from Armagh certainly left his mark on Everton Football Club and on his adopted city.  He is buried at Anfield Cemetery.    

(Acknowledgements: permission for use of image of Dr William Whitford image from Everton Collection, Liverpool Record Office.)


1 Liverpool Daily Post, 16 June 1930, p 10. ‘Death of Dr Whitford’.

2 Liverpool Daily Post, 15 February 1884, p 7. ‘The Liverpool Poisoning Case’.

3 The Belfast Telegraph, 8 June 1930, p 5. ‘Dr Whitford Dead’. 

4 Liverpool Daily Post, 2 April 1914, p 7. ‘An Everton Critic’; letter to the Liverpool Echo, 29 May 1920, p 2. 

5 The 19 November 1901 entry of the club minutes has it that Whitford proposed a motion to appoint ‘J.E. Maley’ as manager, later to be corrected in the 26 November 1901 minutes as ‘T.E. Maley’ – Thomas Edward Maley. Perhaps, though, the board approached Maley again months later as the minutes for 7 January 1902 note that the board invited him to the club to view a cup tie with Liverpool. 

6 Liverpool Courier, 24 October 1891; Liverpool Daily Post, 13 April 1892. See D. Kennedy, The Social and Political History of Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs (2017), pp 40-53.

7 Everton chairman Whitford and Liverpool Chairman John McKenna both acknowledged the strained relations in an earlier period in a local newspaper article. Liverpool Echo, 21 February 1914. ‘Everton Presentation’.

8 This intervention on Houlding’s part came during debates about his fitness to be lord mayor in 1897. See D. Kennedy, The Man Who Created Merseyside Football (2020), pp 100-101

9 Liverpool Echo, 2 July 1895, p 3. ‘Everton Football Club: The Election of Directors’. Whitford took the chair of the meeting.

10 Liverpool Daily Post, 14 April 1896, ‘The Liverpool Police and Drunkenness’; Liverpool Mercury, 3 December 1896, p 6. ‘Dr Whitford and the Licensing Question’; Liverpool Evening Express, 29 September 1897, p 4. ‘City Magistrates and Free Drinks for the Police’.

11 Liverpool Evening Express, 29 September 1897, p 4. ‘City Magistrates and Free Drinks for the Police’.

12 As well as the local press such as Liverpool Daily Post, Liverpool Echo, Liverpool Courier and Liverpool Evening Express, newspapers further afield also carried coverage of the incident. See Preston Herald, 9 September 1911, p 9. ‘Magistrate charged’; Derry Times, 8 September 1911, p 7.

13 Liverpool Daily Post, 7 September 1911. ‘Magistrate and Police: Dr Whitford JP Obstructs Constable’. Liverpool Evening Express, 6 September 1911, p 4. ‘JP’s Fine for Interfering with Policeman’. 

14  Liverpool Echo, 17 October 1928, p 14. ‘Bee’s Notes on Sports of the Day’. 

15 Liverpool Echo, 16 June 1930, p 10. Whitford was said to own a “choice collection of fine China”. On his death, Whitford’s personal possessions also included paintings from well-known watercolour painters like fellow Irishman, David Woodlock and Sam Prout. Liverpool Daily Post, 28 June 1930, p 16. Auction notice from Thomas Whitehead and Sons. 

16 Porcupine, 26 December 1896. ‘William Whitford J.P.’ 

17 Liverpool Echo, 8 September 1930, p 5. ‘Bequests to Charity’. 

18 Liverpool Daily Post, 17 June 1930, p 7. ‘The Late Dr Whitford’. 

19 Liverpool Echo, 16 June 1930, p 10. ‘Ex-Everton Chairman’s Death’.

20 Porcupine, 26 December 1896. ‘William Whitford J.P.’

21 Belfast Telegraph, 17 June 1930, p 6. ‘Dr Whitford Dead’.

22 Liverpool Daily Post, 15 May 1889, p 5. ‘Everton Liberals and the Federal Council’. 

23 Liverpool Echo, 4 November 1918, p 2. ‘A D.C.M Winner’.

Reader Comments (14)

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Andrew McLawrence
1 Posted 31/07/2023 at 11:59:37
Many thanks, David, a wonderful read.
Stephen Davies
2 Posted 31/07/2023 at 12:15:42
Enjoyed that.

Thank you.
Bill Watson
3 Posted 31/07/2023 at 14:26:32
What a great read!

I thought 'I knew me 'istory' but I'd never heard of this guy.

Many thanks.

Danny O’Neill
5 Posted 31/07/2023 at 20:18:46
What a hugely well researched piece David.

Fascinating read and it seems he was most definitely a character who wouldn't accept nonsense.

When you mentioned Saint Francis Xavier's, I didn't realise there was one in Everton. I always associate it as the one in Woolton, SFX, where a lot of parents want their children to go to. Or certainly used to. And St Edwards, not to mention Blue Coats back in the day.

Paul Birmingham
6 Posted 31/07/2023 at 20:23:09
Thanks David, that’s an epic story, incredible days of by gone times in Liverpool.
David Kennedy
7 Posted 31/07/2023 at 21:52:21
Thanks for the comments. I enjoyed researching Whitford as he was obviously a pugnacious man who shot from the hip.

It strikes me that the early Everton boardrooms contained very strong-minded characters. I suppose they had to be given the membership were lively, to say the least!

Barry Rathbone
8 Posted 31/07/2023 at 23:42:44
Sounds a man who knew his own mind and didn't suffer fools - I like him. Could do with a few more at Everton giving LFC both barrels.
David France
9 Posted 01/08/2023 at 02:54:37
David, more great research from a great researcher.

Always, I've been impressed by the ages of the club's founding fathers. In 1892 at the time of our exit to Goodison, Whitford was 46, Mahon 39, Baxter 35, Cuff 24 (he became a director 2 years later) and secretary Molyneux 34.

Youth welcomes change, challenges the status quo and brings ambition, vision and vibrancy – qualities that we have lacked for some time.

Again, great research. David

John Keating
10 Posted 01/08/2023 at 05:58:15
Great read.


SFX Woolton was, I believe, actually in Everton until 1960(?) when it moved to Woolton.

You're right though when all the kids took their 11+, we had to put down where we wanted to go. Most put SFX Woolton first then St Edwards; however, most finished up in St Greg's!

I don't know anyone from around our way in Everton getting to either of the above mentioned regardless how clever they were, and believe me a bloody lot were! I may have been one of the furthest away at Cardinal Godfrey, 5 minutes!

David Kennedy
11 Posted 01/08/2023 at 10:24:03
Thanks David.

That's an interesting point about age. I don't have my data to hand right now but I think we could also add William Clayton to that list of yours.

If memory serves, he was a young bookkeeper in the early 1890s; and A R Wade was, I believe, a youngish man too. Wade was a coachbuilder by trade, and the early boardrooms were a fascinating mix of professional men and artisans.

Peter Mills
12 Posted 01/08/2023 at 21:32:24
I like the sound of this man, someone who might envisage knocking our neighbours off their perch.
Derek Thomas
13 Posted 01/08/2023 at 23:37:31
Excellent well-researched article – What a Guy! Truth yet again being stranger than fiction.

Where are these people of energy and vision today???

Dave Abrahams
14 Posted 05/08/2023 at 09:52:58
John (10)

Yes SFX college was in Shaw Street until 1960 and the doctor's residence and surgery must have been in one of the big houses facing Shaw Street Park.

Dr Whitford sounds like a man who liked to air the truth, pity the likes of him are not on today's board of directors, the present Chairman is a stranger to the truth.

Tom Hughes
15 Posted 05/08/2023 at 00:24:58
Always great to read of our club's great stalwarts who helped build the club from its humble beginnings. The club's leadership seemed to be above the sectarian divide that was prevalent in so much of the city's dealings at that time. Unlike the other lot.

John Keating, my family were from the Friary Parish, not far from SFX church and I'm a former Cardinal Godfrey inmate too. Ironically I now live near SFX college in Woolton too.

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