Towards the end of the latest in a run of depressing seasons in 1949/50, the club had seriously considered pulling out of the Southern League. Instead, the committee members took the bold step of forming a limited company so that outside capital could be raised to put the club on a more secure footing. The company, Bedford Town Association Football Club Ltd, was registered on 9 September 1950, although it was not until January of the following year that the fund raising was complete and the company started trading.
The biggest financial issue seems to have been the position of Jack Salsbury (see Commentary season by season, 1945-50). The last chairman of the “old” unincorporated club was easily its biggest creditor, being owed over £4,000 by the end of 1950; he must have largely kept it going out of his own pocket. The original proposals for incorporation called for the Supporters’ Club to be responsible for repaying Salsbury £800 a year for five years, so that the new company could start with a clean sheet and eventually Salsbury would be paid out; but the former chairman eventually accepted £2,250 up front with the balance being satisfied by the issue of 250 shares in the new company. The share issue had raised £3,600 by the start of 1951, from some 600 shareholders. The new company’s articles prevented any shareholder holding more than 20 voting shares; so presumably, although Salisbury held 250 shares he only had 20 votes. Although this was presented as a means of preventing any individual controlling the club, the legal and practical reality was, of course, that anyone who was owed substantial sums by the club would have the power to make its life very difficult. Hence, no doubt, the wish to pay Salsbury’s debt off, but so much of the newly raised capital went straight to him that it was clear that the assistance of the Supporters’ Club would be as vital in the future as Salsbury’s deep pocket had been in the past. Between January and July alone in 1951 they contributed £2,000.
The second major issue to be resolved was the ground, still owned by Charles Wells. The exact terms of the club’s tenure before 1950/1 aren’t clear, but as part of the incorporation process the brewery company agreed to grant a 21 year lease, at a rent of £35 a year for the first seven years, rising to £60 for the next seven and then £80. The ground and fittings were valued, subject to this lease, at £2,212. Everyone doubtless breathed a sigh of relief, but the fact that they were only tenants was to haunt the club repeatedly for the rest of its life.
Meanwhile, by the time the company started its life, events on the field had given very little encouragement to those trying to secure the club’s future off it. New players in the summer of 1950 included Joe Millbank, a very experienced centre-half from Crystal Palace via Gillingham and Horace Wallbanks, a much-travelled winger from the north east. There were three league wins before the end of September, but only two more by the end of January; by the end of November the league position, second from bottom, was exactly where the club had ended the season before, but in December the club beneath them, Chingford Town, resigned with immediate effect and Bedford duly slithered into bottom place.
In the FA Cup, they had reached the fourth qualifying round, with comfortable wins against junior opposition until the third round when they had won narrowly at Hitchin thanks to a late goal described as a fluke even by the Bedford Record’s reporter; but even the earlier progress had not exactly been straightforward, because in the preliminary round against Potton in September they had been two goals down after 16 minutes before putting six goals in at the other end.
The fourth qualifying round produced a goalless draw at Guildford, a creditable effort considering that defender Vic Hayes caught an opponent’s stud early on and collapsed in pain. At half-time the trainer, Bob Thompson, borrowed a half-crown (£0.125) coin from the chairman, which was placed on the injury and firmly bandaged in position, enabling Hayes to complete the match. He was taken to hospital at the end but was still able to rejoin his team mates for tea before the homeward journey. However, at The Eyrie the following Thursday afternoon, the visitors won the replay 2-1 thanks to a late goal which was flagged offside by the linesman, who was then overruled by the referee. This caused so much crowd trouble that the club had to post warning notices, and the local paper claimed that “one hooligan (unidentified) even struck the Bedford trainer as he was leaving the field”.
In the light of these disappointments the formal launch of the new company at the end of January could perhaps have been better timed, and many may have thought that the new directors were being unrealistic in announcing a five year plan to improve the ground (see The Eyrie in Photographs) which aimed at a capacity of 12,000 and called for new dressing rooms involving showers, a gym and “proper sanitary accommodation”. The existing dressing rooms behind the small stand, which had been installed in 1930, must have been fairly primitive, and some pre-war players recalled in The Eyrie Roar (1999) that if you weren’t lucky enough to be one of the first into the bath you might as well go home and get cleaned up there, because there was never enough space or hot water to go round.
But then came a surprise. The home match against near neighbours Kettering (who had only that season rejoined the Southern League after many years elsewhere) on 27 January 1951 was used as an occasion to launch the new regime by inviting several guests, such as league and county football officials, but one of them was Ronnie Rooke, the former Crystal Palace, Fulham and Arsenal centre-forward, now out of work since an unsuccessful return to his old club at Selhurst Park as player-manager had ended in dismissal the previous month, and was reputed to possess the hardest shot in football. The new chairman, William Hobkirk, a foundry owner whose father, John, had been chairman before 1914, introduced Rooke to the crowd and the players before the kick-off, and afterwards confirmed that the directors had discussed a possible contract.
Charlie Bicknell, described usually as the “coach” since April 1948, was never mentioned in these reports, even when, twelve days later, Rooke was officially appointed player-manager of the club, but he was effectively replaced by the new man. Two days later Rooke made his first appearance as a player, but not for the first eleven; having not played since October he decided to give himself several reserve matches to reach full fitness, and 3,200 people turned up to see him score a hat-trick against the possibly not very demanding opposition of Woolwich Polytechnic in the London League at The Eyrie. Meanwhile the first team won their first match for over a month with a remarkable 4-0 success at Hereford. The following week over four thousand people saw Rooke’s second match, against Guildford Reserves; these extraordinary figures (larger than several first team gates earlier in the season) suggest that he was seen as a dream figure, someone who would single-handedly drag the club out of the mire.
However, things were not quite so simple. While Rooke was enjoying his reserve matches, the next two Saturdays after the win at Hereford brought defeats at Kidderminster and Llanelly, and the third, in a bizarre sequence of away fixtures, produced an horrendous defeat by ten clear goals at Penydarren Park, Merthyr Tydfil, the home of the strongest team in the league who had won two championships in the last three seasons and would win three more in the next four. The full story of this match is told in graphic detail in The Eyrie Roar, but in brief, the team’s coach broke down near Brecon, forcing the players to change en route and go straight on to the field when they arrived; their amateur goalkeeper, an otherwise unknown young soldier called Thompson, was still recovering from travel sickness, and the playing surface was ankle deep in mud, having hosted a rugby match in the morning. The referee wanted to abandon play at half-time but the Bedford players begged him to carry on because they knew that the club’s finances couldn’t support a second journey to the valleys.
Matches often seem to have gone ahead in conditions that would be unacceptable now: for the league match at Guildford in December 1950 there was a three-inch carpet of snow on the pitch, and at the home match against Weymouth, on a gloomy Saturday in November, the light was so bad that the referee insisted on an early start (annoying those who turned up on time) and made the players change straight round at half-time without a break.
Rooke realised that he couldn’t put off his own selection any longer, and now also brought in several new signings. Against Tonbridge on 3 March, in the first home match for over a month, he scored Bedford’s goal (from the regulation 25 yards) in a 1-1 draw and also introduced Frank Boulton in goal and Bill Butler and Louis Delaney at full back; by the end of the season he had added two forwards, Johnny Holland and Vivian Woodward and a wing-half, Cyril Trailor. All these players were London-based, as most of Rooke’s signings were to be, and Boulton, Delaney and Holland had all been on Arsenal’s staff at one time or another, though Boulton had left before Rooke’s time there. Such a large influx might be thought to require time to gel, but they outweighed the existing staff in experience and of the remaining sixteen league matches, ten were won and only one lost, to hoist the team up to seventeenth place. Attendances rose into the 5,000s and 6,000s several times and the team’s revival culminated in the final league match at The Eyrie on 10 May. This was an evening match, with absolutely nothing at stake for Bedford or their opponents, Merthyr, who had already secured another championship, yet 7,349, a new ground record, turned up and saw a 2-0 home win to crown Rooke’s efforts. Even more remarkably, over 15,000 watched three friendly matches over the next few days. A new era had dawned.
· In the close season Torquay United Reserves resigned to join the South Western League, and were not replaced.
· Chingford Town resigned in mid-season and their record was expunged. (They actually replaced their own Reserves in the London League)
- The League had lost two clubs in the summer of 1949 when Colchester United and Gillingham had been elected to the Football League. They were replaced by Kettering Town (from the Birmingham League) and Llanelly (Welsh League), but the withdrawal of Chingford reduced the competition to 23 clubs.