The Football League was founded in 1888 to provide regular fixtures for the new professional teams from the industrial North and Midlands. As such, teams from south of Birmingham play only a limited role in its early history. The exception to this rule was Royal Arsenal, the South's second professional team (after Luton), who first attempted to form a Southern League in 1892. Reading were among the teams elected to the proposed league, along with Arsenal, Chatham, Chiswick Park, Crouch End, Ilford, Luton Town, Marlow, Millwall Athletic, Old St Mark's, Swindon Town, and West Herts. Tottenham Hotspur did apply, but could not muster a single vote! These plans were however scuppered by the regional Football Associations who maintained a strong amateur tradition. Instead Royal Arsenal joined the Football League in 1893, changing their name to Woolwich Arsenal (they subsequently dropped the Woolwich after moving to North London in 1914).
The Southern League was eventually formed in January 1894 following an initiative by Millwall. The founder members of the First Division were Chatham, Clapton, Ilford, Luton Town, Millwall Athletic, Reading, Royal Ordnance Factories (from Woolwich), 2nd Scots Guards and Swindon Town. The Scots Guards withdrew before the competition started and were replaced by Southampton St Mary's.
A couple of months later a Second Division was formed by Bromley, Chesham, Maidenhead, New Brompton (i.e. Gillingham), Old St Stephen's, Sheppey United and Uxbridge. Initially promotion and relegation were decided by Test Matches between the top teams in Division 2 and the bottom teams in Division 1.
Initially only Chatham, Luton, Millwall, Southampton and Swindon turned professional, but the other top teams in the Southern League eventually followed suit. Reading turned professional in 1895, for example. The strength of the League can be judged by the performance of its teams in the FA Cup in the 1890s and early 1900s where they were able to hold their own with their Football League opponents. Tottenham won the competition in 1900-01, beating Reading in the quarter finals, and Southampton were twice beaten finalists. Indeed the 1899-1900 semi-final replay was competed by two Southern League sides, Southampton and Millwall, at a Southern League ground, Elm Park - the Saints running out 3-0 winners.
Southern teams slowly gained a foothold in the Football League, although often bypassing the Southern League. For example, a newly created team, Chelsea, were elected in 1905 after being rejected by the Southern League. So too were Clapton Orient, who had been competing in the Southern League Division Two with the likes of Reading Reserves the previous season. Luton (1897-1900), Bristol City (1901), Fulham (1907) and Tottenham (1908) all followed more conventional routes. There were proposals to amalgamate the two leagues in 1907 and 1909, either as a Third Division or a regional Second Division, but these were rejected. There were also disputes, particularly over transfer fees, and at one time the Southern League placed a ban on its members applying to the Football League.
The Southern League management was weakened by the First World War when the leading teams competed with the London Football League teams in the London Combination. The Football League managed to bring its teams back into the fold in 1919 due to some very underhand methods. The First Division was expanded, with Chelsea, who had been relegated in the last pre-war season of 1914-15, and Arsenal, who had only finished fifth in the Second Division, being elected into an expanded top division. Perhaps justice was done in the case of Chelsea - they had only been relegated due to a fixed match between Manchester United and Liverpool - but Arsenal's election is one of the League's darkest hours - they have never lost the place earned in such a dubious manner. As a further measure, West Ham, eighth in the Southern League in 1915 (six places below Reading), were elected to the Second Division. Thus a possible breakaway London League was averted.
This left the Southern League in an even weaker position, and when merger with the Football League eventually came in 1920 it was in the nature of a takeover. The Southern League Division One was incorporated en masse into the Football League as Division Three. This in turn became Division Three South the following season when a corresponding Division Three North was formed. The northern teams were drawn from a variety of leagues - there being no one pre-eminent northern league until the formation of the Northern Premier League in 1968.
The Southern League was left with a rump consisting of a large number of Welsh teams from the old Second Division, a handful of English teams, and the reserve elevens of its old members. It organised these into two regional divisions - English and Welsh - with the top two teams playing off for the championship. When an economic depression decimated the Welsh section in 1923, the two sections were reorganised as East and West. A unified First Division was reintroduced in 1936.
Slowly the League regained some of its prestige, with teams like Charlton (1921), Bournemouth (1923), Torquay (1927), Aldershot (1932), Ipswich (1938), Colchester (1950), Oxford (1962), Cambridge (1970), Hereford (1972) and Wimbledon (1977) using it as a stepping stone into the Football League. In 1979 the top teams again broke away, together with those from the Northern Premier League, to form the Alliance Premier League (later the Conference). The top teams from the Isthmian League only joined later.
The second leading south-based league, the Isthmian League, had been founded in 1905, but was always a strictly amateur competition. It was therefore not really in direct competition with the partially professional Southern League until 1974, when the formal distinction between professional and amateur football was abolished. As mentioned previously, the Northern Premier League was not formed until 1968.
A further downgrading of the Southern, Isthmian and Northern Premier Leagues came in 2004, with the top clubs being reorganised into the Conference (North) and Conference (South) divisions. They are now at the seventh level of English football.
The following table gives a complete list of champions and runners-up, including the play-off results when the league was divided on a regional basis: England/Wales (1920-23), East/West (1923-36 and 1939-40), North West/South East (1958-59), and South/Midlands (1979-82).
Champions Runners-up 1894-95 South 1 Millwall Athletic Luton Town 1895-96 South 1 Millwall Athletic Luton Town 1896-97 South 1 Southampton St Mary's Millwall Athletic 1897-98 South 1 Southampton* Bristol City 1898-99 South 1 Southampton Bristol City 1899-00 South 1 Tottenham Hotspur Portsmouth 1900-01 South 1 Southampton Bristol City 1901-02 South 1 Portsmouth Tottenham Hotspur 1902-03 South 1 Southampton READING 1903-04 South 1 Southampton Tottenham Hotspur 1904-05 South 1 Bristol Rovers READING 1905-06 South 1 Fulham Southampton 1906-07 South 1 Fulham Portsmouth 1907-08 South 1 Queen's Park Rangers Plymouth Argyle 1908-09 South 1 Northampton Town Swindon Town 1909-10 South 1 Brighton & Hove Alb Swindon Town 1910-11 South 1 Swindon Town Northampton Town 1911-12 South 1 Queen's Park Rangers Plymouth Argyle 1912-13 South 1 Plymouth Argyle Swindon Town 1913-14 South 1 Swindon Town Crystal Palace 1914-15 South 1 Watford READING 1915-19 South 1 no competition 1919-20 South 1 Portsmouth Watford Champions Runners-up 1920-21 South Brighton & HA Res 1/2 Barry 1/1 1921-22 South Plymouth Arg Res 3 Ebbw Vale 0 1922-23 South Ebbw Vale 2 Bristol City Res 1 1923-24 South Yeovil & PU 3 Peterborough & FU 1 1924-25 South Southampton Res 2 Swansea Town Res 1 1925-26 South Plymouth Arg Res 1 Millwall Res* 0 1926-27 South Brighton & HA Res 4 Torquay United 0 1927-28 South Kettering Town 5 Bristol City Res 0 1928-29 South Plymouth Arg Res 4 Kettering Town 2 1929-30 South Aldershot Town 3 Bath City 2 1930-31 South Dartford 7 Exeter City Res 2 1931-32 South Dartford 2 Yeovil & PU 1 1932-33 South Norwich City Res 2 Bath City 1 1933-34 South Plymouth Arg Res 2/3 Norwich City Res 2/0 1934-35 South Norwich City Res 2/7 Yeovil & PU 2/2 1935-36 South Margate 3 Plymouth Arg Res 1 1936-37 South Ipswich Town Norwich City Res 1937-38 South Guildford City Plymouth Arg Res 1938-39 South Colchester United Guildford City 1939-40 South Chelmsford City 3 Lovells' Athletic 3 (shared) 1940-45 South no competition 1945-46 South Chelmsford City Hereford United 1946-47 South Gillingham Guildford City 1947-48 South Merthyr Tydfil Gillingham 1948-49 South Gillingham Chelmsford City 1949-50 South Merthyr Tydfil Colchester United 1950-51 South Merthyr Tydfil Hereford United 1951-52 South Merthyr Tydfil Weymouth 1952-53 South Headington United Merthyr Tydfil 1953-54 South Merthyr Tydfil Headington United 1954-55 South Yeovil Town* Weymouth 1955-56 South Guildford City Cheltenham Town 1956-57 South Kettering Town Bedford Town 1957-58 South Gravesend & N'fleet Bedford Town Champions Runners-up 1958-59 South Bedford Town 2 Hereford United 1 1959-60 South Pr Bath City Headington United 1960-61 South Pr Oxford United* Chelmsford City 1961-62 South Pr Oxford United Bath City 1962-63 South Pr Cambridge City Cambridge United 1963-64 South Pr Yeovil Town Chelmsford City 1964-65 South Pr Weymouth Guildford City 1965-66 South Pr Weymouth Chelmsford City 1966-67 South Pr Romford Nuneaton Borough 1967-68 South Pr Chelmsford City Wimbledon 1968-69 South Pr Cambridge United Hillingdon Borough 1969-70 South Pr Cambridge United Yeovil Town 1970-71 South Pr Yeovil Town Cambridge City 1971-72 South Pr Chelmsford City Hereford United 1972-73 South Pr Kettering Town Yeovil Town 1973-74 South Pr Dartford Grantham 1974-75 South Pr Wimbledon Nuneaton Borough 1975-76 South Pr Wimbledon Yeovil Town 1976-77 South Pr Wimbledon Minehead 1977-78 South Pr Bath City Weymouth 1978-79 South Pr Worcester City Kettering Town Champions Runners-up 1979-80 South Bridgend Town 3/2 Dorchester Town 0/1 1980-81 South Alvechurch 1/2 Dartford 0/3 (pens 4-3) 1981-82 South Wealdstone 2/0 Nuneaton Borough 1/1 (pens ?-?) 1982-83 South Pr AP Leamington Kidderminster H 1983-84 South Pr Dartford Fisher Athletic 1984-85 South Pr Cheltenham Town King's Lynn 1985-86 South Pr Welling United Chelmsford City 1986-87 South Pr Fisher Athletic Bromsgrove Rovers 1987-88 South Pr Aylesbury United Dartford 1988-89 South Pr Merthyr Tydfil Dartford 1989-90 South Pr Dover Athletic Bath City 1990-91 South Pr Farnborough Town Gloucester City 1991-92 South Pr Bromsgrove Rovers Dover Athletic 1992-93 South Pr Dover Athletic Cheltenham Town 1993-94 South Pr Farnborough Town Cheltenham Town 1994-95 South Pr Hednesford Town Cheltenham Town 1995-96 South Pr Rushden & Diamonds Halesowen Town 1996-97 South Pr Gresley Rovers Cheltenham Town 1997-98 South Pr Forest Green Rovers Merthyr Tydfil 1998-99 South Pr Nuneaton Borough Boston United 1999-00 South Pr Boston United Burton Albion 2000-01 South Pr Margate Burton Albion 2001-02 South Pr Kettering Town Tamworth 2002-03 South Pr Tamworth Stafford Rangers 2003-04 South Pr Crawley Town Weymouth Champions Runners-up 2004-05 South Pr Histon Chippenham Town 2005-06 South Pr Salisbury City Bath City 2006-07 South Pr Bath City Team Bath 2007-08 South Pr King's Lynn Team Bath 2008-09 South Pr Corby Town Farnborough Town 2009-10 South Pr Farnborough Town Nuneaton Town 2010-11 South Pr Truro City Hednesford Town 2011-12 South Pr Brackley Town Oxford City 2012-13 South Pr Leamington* Stourbridge 2013-14 South Pr Hemel Hempstead Town Chesham United 2014-15 South Pr Corby Town Poole Town 2015-16 South Pr Poole Town Redditch United 2016-17 South Pr Chippenham Town Leamington 2017-18 South Pr Hereford King's Lynn Town * Southampton previously known as Southampton St Mary's * Millwall previously known as Millwall Athletic * Yeovil Town previously known as Yeovil and Petters United * Oxford United previously known as Headington United * Leamington previously known as AP Leamington
Southampton have seven titles (including one from their reserves), Merthyr Tydfil have six, and Plymouth have five (including four from their reserves). Chelmsford, Dartford, Kettering and Yeovil have four title each (one of Chelmsford's being shared), while Bath, Brighton, Farnborough, Oxford and Wimbledon have three each (including two from Brighton's reserves). A picture of the Championship Shield is given at the top of the page. The original trophy has been extended twice (around 1945 and 1980) to allow more space for the small crests used to list the championship winners.
During the 1930s a subsidiary competition was organised to provide extra fixtures. While the League was divided into Eastern and Western sections it was known as the Central section, while after the reformation of a single section in 1936 it became known as the Midweek section. The champions and runners-up in these competitions were as follows:
Champions Runners-up 1933-34 Central Plymouth Arg Res Clapton Orient Res 1934-35 Central Folkestone Guildford City 1935-36 Central Margate Bristol Rovers Res 1936-37 Midweek Margate Bath City 1937-38 Midweek Millwall Res Colchester United 1938-39 Midweek Tunbridge Wells R Colchester United
For a summary of the Southern League Division 1 up to 1920, see here, for Division 2, see here. Also see here for the highest ranked Southern teams in the Football League (excluding London).