As a term in sport, Wanderers is a variation on the phrase “traveling team” which refers to the existence of clubs operating predominantly on the road.  An American phenomenon, the traveling team is seen in American football and baseball but also refers to sports such as rugby and cricket which still operate on a structure of touring test matches.

Early adopters

It is for this reason that Forest Football Club changed their name to Wanderers in 1865 (after an initial period around this time when technically the club operated two teams under each name).  Formed in 1859 by a group of public school graduates, most notably Charles W. Alcock who arranged the first international football match, played between England and Scotland in 1870.  He also created the FA Cup, to which the Wanderers were the first winners against Royal Engineers in 1872.  The Wanderers name was adopted in order to reflect the club’s status as a traveling team, though ultimately the Kennington Oval became a bonafide home from 1869.

The club that eventually became Bolton Wanderers were formed as Christ Church Football Club in 1874 by Reverend Thomas Ogden, schoolmaster at the aforementioned church. A potentially uncharacteristic disagreement between the man of God and the football club over its use of church premises lead to Christ Church effectively becoming a traveling team or, in this case, a wandering one.  In 1877, the club changed its name and, after a brief spell of homelessness, found permanence at Pike’s Lane before eventually settling at the purpose built Burnden Park.

Not afraid to stand up to his fellow man of the cloth on matters football related

Followers of fashion

In the same year Bolton changed their name, Wolverhampton Wanderers were also formed and also out of a church school, in this case St Lukes in Blakenhall.  While the clubs have similar origins, St Luke’s changed their name two years later to Wolverhampton Wanderers after a merger with a local cricket and football club who happened to share a name with The Wanderers of Middlesex.  While the cricket club may well have acquired their name due to their peripatetic nature, the football club were static – the subsequent merger and prevalence of the football club we know now as Wolves appear to have taken on a title which has no literal relation to their initial history.

Wycombe Wanderers are also adopters of the traveling title in spite of their relatively static existence, currently totaling two grounds, both located in the greater Wycombe area.  Initially formed from North Town Wanderers, the club used and subsequently retained the suffix as a form of deference to the original Wanderers side, probably due to their winning the first FA Cup in 1872.  From now on, the name had taken on a broader meaning and significance than when it was first used, perhaps going some way to demonstrate how future decisions would be informed in the christening of football clubs.

Wycombe Wanderers 1898

The simplest explanation is usually the correct one

As is occasionally the case in etymology, there is an element of Occum’s razor when it comes to a term’s derivation; Forest FC and Christ Church FC changed their names to better reflect their changing circumstances. 

However, the success those clubs achieved influenced emerging clubs to change their names according to the prestige now attached to the name, rather than its literal meaning.  As such, the Wanderer title was a product of its time and, while its meaning has long since become redundant in our current era of Meccano-on-steroids stadia, it still carries an emotional significance that reflects on the journeys many clubs and their fans take every week.

NB: Currently there are eight football clubs in the English league system named Wanderers, with the three league clubs being Bolton, Wolverhampton and Wycombe respectively.  The remaining non-league Wanderers are Burton Park Wanderers (United Counties League Division One, 10th tier), Cray Wanderers (Isthmian League Division One North, 8th tier – nicknamed the Wands), Dorking Wanderers (Isthmian League Division One South, 8th tier), Ipswich Wanderers (Eastern Counties League Premier Division, 9th tier), Langney Wanderers (Southern Combination League Division One, 10th tier).

NB:  Bolton’s official nickname of Trotters is likely a local slang variation on Wanderers, while the other two league clubs take nicknames not associated with the Wanderers suffix (Wolves being an abbreviated form of Wovlerhampton, Chairboys being a reference to the historic industry of Wycombe).

NB: Wanderers first match was against the paradoxically named No Names Club from Kilburn.