On September 11, 1895, thieves broke into a shop on New Town Row in Birmingham, England and stole the FA Cup from the front window. The trophy was never recovered.
In April of 1895, Birmingham soccer club Aston Villa defeated local rivals West Bromwich Albion 1-0 behind a 1st minute goal from Bob Chatt to win England’s major knockout tournament and claim the FA Cup, a trophy awarded by the country’s governing body of soccer, The Football Association (FA).
After the triumph, Aston Villa placed the cup—affectionately nicknamed the “Little Tin Idol”—in the the club’s official safe. Later on, a local soccer boot maker, William Shillcock, requested to exhibit the trophy at his shop in August of that year. The club reportedly obliged with “no hesitation”.
For about two weeks, Shillcock displayed the cup in his shop’s window. Then, sometime between 9:30 p.m. September 11 and 7:30 a.m. the next morning, the cup disappeared.
Upon further inspection, it appeared that the robbers had climbed up a narrow alleyway by bracing themselves between Shillcock’s shop and the building next door. Once on the roof, they broke a hole in the ceiling and scampered through, leaving rubber boot marks on the roof. The “Little Tin Idol” was their clear aim—nothing else was stolen save for a few shillings out of the till. A step stool from within the shop was then used to make an escape back through the roof.
Adding to the mystery of the cup’s theft was the fact that when melted down it would’ve been worth only £5 based on the day’s silver market (about £500 today, or $625). The cup had originally cost £20 to make and Aston Villa had insured it for £200.
Aston Villa will, I am sure, make every effort to discover and regain possession of the cup. I am sanguine that it will be recovered.
Frederick Joseph Wall
The FA’s secretary from 1895 to 1934
A £10 reward towards help recovering the cup was offered by Shillcock. Unfortunately, no one came forward and the trophy was never recovered. For losing the cup while under their possession, Aston Villa was fined £25 by the FA.
With no recovery in sight, Aston Villa contracted Howard Vaughton, a former player of the club who started a silversmith business upon his retirement, to create a an identical copy of the original trophy. The version of the cup was awarded until the FA withdrew it in 1910 because its design had been pirated.
From that time, the story of the FA Cup’s disappearance quieted until February 1958, when octogenarian Henry “Harry” Burge confessed to the crime in the Sunday Pictorial (a sister tabloid to the London-based Daily Mirror). Burge claimed that he and a couple of friends broke into the shop via a back door, stole the cup and a few boots, and then melted the trophy down to make “dud” coins. They reportedly circulated the coins at a local pub owned by a former Aston Villa player and frequented by current players.
Interestingly, modern day reports indicate that forging gangs were stealing silver and casting forged half crowns during the time of the cup’s theft. Birmingham police had already had made some arrests in the New Town area around Shillock’s shop during the lead-up to the theft.
However, police refused to take Burge’s claim seriously. For starters, his story didn’t match up with the actual events that transpired that night. On top of this, Birmingham police didn’t keep written reports from the 1800s and fingerprint technology wasn’t used in the city until 1905. No charges were pressed.
Burge, who had already spent over 40 years in prison for various offenses, didn’t stop trying to get arrested; he was sentenced just three months after his confession for stealing three coats out the back of a van. He later died in a local hospital in 1964.
With Burge’s story a likely bust, there is one more possibility—although it amounts to little more than a conspiracy theory. The theory goes that Aston Villa itself was the architect of the trophy’s disappearance. Because the club insured the cup for £200 and was fined only £25 (and additionally hired a former player to make a new trophy), Aston Villa would have had a monetary motive for the cup to be stolen.
Of course, because both this theory and Burge’s confession have gone unproven, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know why it was taken or where the original FA Cup wound up.
I am an old man and I want to get this thing off my mind. It has troubled my conscience for a long time.
A Birmingham resident who “confessed” in 1958 to stealing the cup
Here’s an image of the 1895 Aston Villa squad that won the FA Cup, along with the eventually-stolen trophy:
For the article in the Sunday Pictorial, Burge posed by “mimicking” how he broke into Shillock’s shop:
And lastly, an image of the replica cup crafted in 1896 by Vaughton’s silversmith firm:
- England’s premier knockout tournament’s trophy, the FA Cup, was stolen out of a Birmingham shop window in 1895 by robbers who broke in through the roof.
- The thieves were never caught and an identical replica trophy was commissioned.
- Two possibilities on the cup’s fate been bandied about, but both amount to little more than conspiracy theories: 1) A man “confessed” to the crime in 1958, but was never proven guilty—nor even charged. 2) Aston Villa, the club that won the tournament in 1895 and was the cup holder, stole the trophy itself to collect insurance money.
- Birmingham Daily Post, September 13, 1895 via The British Newspaper Archive
- Birmingham Daily Post, February 24, 1958 via The British Newspaper Archive
- Birmingham Daily Post, May 20, 1958 via The British Newspaper Archive
- Nottingham Evening Post, September 14, 1895 via The British Newspaper Archive
- Sunday Pictorial, February 23, 1958 via Getty Images