‘What’s In A Name?’ – The Origins Of ‘The Grecians’

By Charles Dew & George Sadler

The legend surrounding the “Grecians” has puzzled fans of Exeter City since the club’s foundation in 1901, with the origins of the nickname having always been shrouded in mythology and folklore. Suggestions have ranged from mistaking the chant “We hate the Green Ones” with “We are the Grecians”. One suggestion found on a supporter’s forum stated that due to Exeter players struggling to get results with their brand of cultivated “gentleman farmer” football, they started packing their socks with gunpowder to blow the feet off the opposition. Hence, it was claimed that the City boys were known as the “Grey Shins” which developed into the “Grecians”. While these are unlikely explanations to say the very least, the debate that resulted from mentioning the nickname is still controversial today, over a century after the club’s founding.

When Exeter faced Newport earlier this season, we spoke to a supporter who had his own theory.  After a brief chuckle he told us that it was because Exeter played like Greek Gods, rather ironic given Newport had equalised minutes earlier… A more plausible suggestion that is linked to this idea of Exeter’s classical heritage was that the nickname derived from the derogatory term used to describe the residents of St Sidwell’s. According to Charles Dickens, writing in the 1865 edition of the magazine All Year Round:

 

There was a remote parish—that of St Sidwell’s—the claims of whose “boys” to the right of citizenship were doubtful. They were contumaciously called Grecians; but the parish being large, and its warriors numerous, the citizen lads were accustomed to combine against “the outer barbarians,” and the battles raged furiously, and black eyes and bloody noses were left to exhibit the results of the fray.”[1]

 

Moreover, the local historian Hazel Harvey in her history of Sidwell Street, refers to a 1737 publication which contains a footnote attempting to explain the nickname: “GREEKS. So we surname, I know not why, the rugged inhabitants of St Sidwell’s” and in letters to the local newspaper, residents referred to themselves as Grecians and were in commonly referred to as ‘the Grecians’.[2] Considering the proximity of St James Park to Sidwell Street, it is logical that the local residents’ nickname would become the club nickname. Indeed we know that the stadium was given a “Grecian Gate” and that the St Sidwell’s Old Boys (also known as St Sidwell’s United) merged with players from the disbanded Exeter United FC to form the current Exeter City F.C. in 1904, that were made up of alumni from St Sidwell’s school and the local church and referred to themselves as “Grecians”, which was the nickname they adopted.

Yet this of course begs the question, why were the residents of St Sidwell’s called the Grecians? One potential theory is that the area around Sidwell Street was impoverished, and the locals who played on the filthy streets were labelled “greasy ‘uns” by opponents, which understandably developed into Grecians. However, it appears more likely that the nickname emerged due the situation of the residents of Sidwell Street, as they appeared to emulate the stories of the Greek Iliad. Just like how the Greeks were separated from the Trojans when they besieged Troy, so St Sidwell locals found themselves separated from the City by the boundaries of the old city.

Yet why would these comparisons have been made? We know that Greek plays were performed on the Cathedral Green throughout the eighteenth century and that Exeter was the home of Joseph of Exeter who wrote the Latin poem Daretis Phrygii Ilias De bello Troiano in 1183 which was written about the Trojan War.[3] Indeed it has been suggested that residents inside the city walls played the Trojans while residents outside the city walls played the Greeks (in reference to the Greek siege of Troy), and that after watching Illiad plays depicting the Siege, it felt appropriate to call Sidwell residents Grecians considering that they were like the Greeks, and found themselves outside of the city walls.

One must also bear in mind the Greek Orthodox community which settled in Exeter in the nineteenth century, and how that might well have influenced the nickname. Although that being said, considering there is evidence of the residents of Sidwell Street being referred to as Greeks in the eighteenth century, we can perhaps disregard this theory as being an origin for the nickname.

Nonetheless as tantalising and as logical as it may seem to link Exeter’s classical heritage with the nickname the “Grecians”, it would still be too presumptuous to say that this was the definite origin, for we can’t be sure how far the residents of Sidwell Street were invested in the Greek atmosphere of the eighteenth century.  Indeed it would take away the magic from the myth.

[1] Charles Dickens refers to Sidwell Street,  http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_schools/st_sidwells_school.php (Last Accessed: 15/03/16)

[2] Hazel Harvey, Local Historian of Exeter City, http://www.thorntonwest.co.uk/hazel-harvey (Last Accessed: 15/03/16)

[3] Daretis Phrygii Ilias De bello Troiano, analysis of the Latin Poem, http://america.pink/bello-troiano_1207446.html (Last Accessed: 15/03/16)

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