Finance, wages and attendances 1908-39

Value of money then and now

First, apologies for some boring but necessary stuff. This section looks briefly at the finances of BTFC before the Second World War and will quote a lot of financial figures from the 1920s and 1930s. They don’t mean much today without taking account of inflation, changes in the cost of living and the purchasing power of money since those days[1].

It’s obvious that £1 in, say, 1921 went a lot further than it does today, but how much further?

There are several different ways of measuring this. However I’ll concentrate on the Retail Price Index which tells us, for any historical amount from a given date in the past, how much we would have to pay today to purchase what that amount would have bought then.

Thus, goods and services which would have cost £1 in 1921 would cost about £39 today.

Comparing 1931 prices on the same basis we get about £55, and for 1939, about £52.

So when we read that Bedford Town players in the 1920s and 30s earned a basic ten shillings (50p) a week, we have to remember how much they could buy for that amount-probably items that would today cost around £20.

The second key number is average wages across the country. Average earnings (in all types of job) in 1921 were £177.82 a year or £3.41 a week. In 1939 they had fallen, because of the impact of the depression, to £169.88 a year or £3.26 a week. However, real prices had also fallen since 1930, as the above figures illustrate, so people weren’t necessarily “worse off”. However, many of the supporters watching the Eagles would have worked in heavy industry such as Allen’s, Robertson’s, Britannia and Igranic-and in this sort of job, in 1930 average labouring earnings were just under one shilling (£0.05) an hour, or just £2 for a 40-hour week, though skilled men could have earned more[2].

Paying six old pence, or £0.025, to get into the Eyrie would have consumed about 1.25% of that kind of wage-not exactly an enormous amount. But chairman Ted Humphreys told the club’s 1923 AGM that some of the players the club wanted to sign were earning 35 shillings a week from their regular jobs, which is only £1.75 and much less than the overall national average. Sixpence, however, would still represent less than 2% of such earnings.

All this is clearly a million miles away from the economics of modern professional football driven by enormous amounts paid for TV rights and enormous salaries for top players. We are looking at a very different world where most footballers were “ordinary” men topping up modest regular wages with some welcome extra cash for playing football, watched by people from the same kind of background as themselves and living in the same kind of homes.

So much for the background. Let’s look at some specifics.

Attendances

Looking at the Results and Teams pages for this period it will be seen that hardly any attendance figures are quoted. It seems that for much of the period the club didn’t use turnstiles, so no accurate count of crowds was possible, and on the rare occasions when the press reported an attendance figure it was usually an obvious estimate. More often the reporter simply recorded his impression that a crowd was “good”, “small”, “disappointing”, or, on one occasion, “non-existent”.

However, the club clearly did know how much money it had taken each week and sometimes these gate figures are quoted in reports of AGMs. Here are the ones I have managed to extract-these are totals for the season:

1921/2 £860

1923/4 £516

1924/5 £531

1927/8 £702

1928/9 £947

1929/30 £737

1930/1 £859

1931/2 £929

1932/3 £1273

1933/4 £1131

1934/5 £1339

1935/6 £646

It’s likely that most of these amounts exclude stand takings (after 1922) which seem to have been recorded separately in the accounts at least for part of the period. We know that they were £81 in 1930/1, £41 in 1932/3 and £33 in 1933/4.

The slump of the early 20s when the Committee decided to stop signing relatively expensive professionals from Northants and concentrate on local players, normally amateurs, can be seen in the decline between 1921/2 and 1924/5. Then comes a gradual improvement until 1929 followed by the relative slump in 1929/30 that triggered the near-collapse of the club before Dick Spencer took over in 1930; then come five really good years-especially so given the grim state of the national economy at the time-followed by a drastic slump in 1935/6 as results went backwards and key players left. Equivalent numbers for the last few seasons before the War are not available, but the descriptions of attendances in this period, such as “very small indeed” (January 1937), “thin” (May 1936), or “wretched” (February 1939) , tell their own tale.

Derbies against Biggleswade usually saw good crowds. The ropes look well packed here on 7 January 1933 for the Waders’ visit, even though it was third time the teams had met inside a fortnight. However, constant repetition of fixtures was a factor in dwindling gates and prompted the club to consider joining the Southern League for 1933/4, only to find that the vastly increased costs could not be justified. Here Waders’ keeper Claude Banes punches clear with Dickie Gunnell (nearest camera) and Len Potter ready for any mistake.

Trying to estimate actual crowds from financial takings is very difficult because there are hardly any instances where a reasonably precise attendance figure is accompanied by a precise gate money figure for the same match. The table below summarises these few occasions and works out an average amount paid per person; clearly not everyone would have paid the basic admission money, which was 6d throughout the 20s and early 30s, going up to 7d when entertainment tax was introduced in November 1931, since some people will have paid 6d extra to sit in the stand, boys were admitted for 4d and in some years unemployed people only paid 2d on production of their benefit cards (there is no mention of concessions for OAPs, strangely).

Date Opponents Attendance Gate £ Average paid per person

(in old pence)

27/10/28 Wellingborough (FAC) 2478 66 6.4

27/3/29 Rushden 3000 60 4.8

25/12/31 Biggleswade 2500 73 7.0

25/8/34 Kettering Reserves 1500 42 6.7

10/11/34 Heanor (FAC) 4374 109 6.0

Some of these results look odd-eg the 1929 one where the average calculated is much less than the basic admission price of 6d, suggesting that the crowd was smaller than 3,000[3]. Also the two 1934 results are less than the actual basic admission price which was 7d by then. But when looking at the gate money quoted in the match statistics on this site, as good a way as any of estimating the actual crowd is probably simply to divide the gate money by 6d, or 7d after November 1931.

That would mean, for instance, that approximate attendances for matches where financial gates but no attendance figures were reported were as follows-selecting some matches from the successful years of the early 30s and others from the more dismal years that followed:

Date Opponents Gate £ Approx crowd? Notes

29/11/30 Higham 24 960 Bad weather

3/4/31 Kettering (EML) 48 1920 Good Friday

8/4/31 Peterborough Res 24 960 5.30 kick off

22/4/31 Rushden 54 2160 Virtual title decider

29/8/31 Wellingborough 50 2000 First match of season

5/9/31 Peterborough Res 35 1400 Wet day

17/10/31 Rushden 46 1840

29/10/32 Letchworth (FAC) 81 2793

1/5/33 Rushden 63 2172 Virtual title decider

29/8/36 Newmarket 20 690 First match of season

31/10/36 Spalding 9 310

21/11/36 Kettering (EML) 17 586 "Not nearly enough"

5/11/38 Luton "A" 37 1276

2/5/39 Kettering 27 931

(KO Cup Final)

Another factor must be weather conditions. Even after the stand and two shelters had been built, the Eyrie was a largely open ground and if the weather around Saturday lunchtime was very wet or cold crowds clearly stayed away in large numbers, however attractive the match looked on paper. Possibly the smallest first team crowd of all may have assembled in January 1937 for Desborough’s visit on a day when “freezing fog turned to rain” and a gate of £4 was collected, which probably equates to about 140 people; they must have felt even more miserable as they watched a 1-5 defeat.

Everyone looked forward to big paydays like this FA Cup tie against Heanor Town on 10 November 1934 when 4,374 attended and produced a “gate” of £94. Here Eric Harrison (dark shirt) seems to have misplaced a header when well placed

Summing up, crowds must have fluctuated quite widely, depending on playing form, quality of opposition, the state of the economy and the weather on the day, from a few hundred to the high 2,000s. While the team was doing well, people were prepared to pay modest admission prices even though they might personally be hard up, but as results slumped in the later 30s, it seems that many decided they could use their scanty cash better elsewhere[4].

Players’ wages

Information on wages is hard to come by before the Great War, although we know that Harry Mardle, for example, claimed that he earned five shillings (£0.25) a week playing for Bedford in 1908/9 but was lured away to Luton, in the Southern League, by an offer of 30 shillings (£1.50)-it isn’t clear if this was part-time or full-time. He returned to Bedford before 1914 for a mere £1 a week, part-time[5].

After the War the position is a lot clearer. There was clearly a divide between the clubs in the Northants shoe-manufacturing towns such as Wellingborough and Rushden, and the likes of Bedford: the Northants clubs had embraced professionalism back in the 1890s and could offer prospective players jobs in local factories[6] on a scale that Bedford found it hard to match, possibly because they lacked a corporate structure and most of their Committeemen were small traders, such as publican Ted Humphreys, rather than people with factories needing labour. Rushden especially are known to have been adept at attracting players from as far away as the north east of England with offers of steady weekday jobs in addition to what they could earn as players[7]. Other clubs may also have been able to offer jobs in closely –connected industries, such as Wolverton Town in the local railway carriage works.

The Beds FA refused for a long while to play the Beds Premier Cup final at the Eyrie on the grounds that it would attract a better crowd at Kenilworth Road. Less than 2,000 turned up to see the Eagles lose 2-3 in April 1935, probably fewer than would have been at the Eyrie, to worsen the club’s financial troubles. A direct clash with the FA Cup Final (live on radio, though not yet TV) won’t have helped. Here Luton’s George Martin (stripes, left) is watched by Bert Rogers (right) with Bert Lawson and the sparsely filled terraces in the background

At the AGM in June 1923, after the assembly had stood in silent memory of the recently deceased player Jack Hobkirk-an amateur incidentally-chairman Humphreys launched into a tirade about wages. “They [the Club] had no team signed on”, he was quoted as saying, “because they had no money to pay them with. They found that men who worked every day from 8 to 5 for 35 shillings a week wanted £2 for kicking a ball about for one and a half hours on a Saturday afternoon. Unless money came along…, they would have to have not what they wanted, but what they could get”.

Faced with what smaller clubs regarded as unfair competition, the Northants League imposed a wage limit in the summer of 1924 that lasted right up to 1939: players were limited to ten shillings a week plus a win bonus of five shillings or a draw bonus of 2s 6d[8]. That was just in the football season, and payments in the summer were banned. There were repeated allegations that some clubs made illegal extra payments, though no club seems to have been “convicted” of such an offence. Bedford must have been especially keen to limit their wage bill since in the summer of 1924 their landlords, Charles Wells, had just whacked up the rent from £40 to £50.

In fact, at several AGMs the Committee stressed that Bedford paid players ten shillings per week, not per match as some clubs allegedly did, so that they earned relatively less when fixtures piled up at the end of a season. The weakened teams put out in some of these matches may have reflected players’ reluctance to do more work for no extra cash, as much as they reflected problems getting off work in time for evening fixtures.

There isn’t a single reference I have managed to find, in all the years of this period, to the club receiving a transfer fee-the obvious occasions would have been when Len Potter and Maurice Carr moved to Northampton, but it would appear that contracts were always for a year only, leaving players as free agents at the end of a season.

Competition from Luton and the “other” code

Contemporary reports sometimes complain that in the later 30s the club lost some supporters to Luton Town, who were promoted from the old Third Division (South) in 1937, and with Kenilworth Road only a 30 minute train journey away, even people who had to work on Saturday mornings could get there easily in time for the start. It’s impossible to guess how much this may have affected the crowds.

Bedford had a particular problem with their neighbours at Goldington Road, the Blues of Bedford Rugby Union club, who occupied a much higher level in their sport than the Eagles did in theirs. Although the club tried to avoid fixture clashes, it could not always be done and gates would suffer badly if the Blues were at home to, say, Northampton or Leicester, or when the East Midlands played at Bedford in the county championship. As early as March 1909 a home gate against Peterborough City was affected by an estimated 3,000 who watched the Blues play Northampton at Goldington Road.

This County Rugby match at Goldington Road on 11 January 1936 clashed with the Eagles’ home fixture with Irchester in the East Midlands League-where the gate was said to have been “very small”

In fact, it would seem that the Blues did not necessarily do much better overall at the turnstiles than the Eagles in the early 30s: both clubs charged the same basic admission price of 6d, or 7d with tax, and comparing the reported gate receipts, we find that in 1930/1 the Rugby club took £1085 (Eagles £859), in 1931/2 £1012 (Eagles £929), in 1932/3 £1093 (Eagles £1273), in 1933/4 £1398 (Eagles £1131) and in 1934/5 £1282 (Eagles £1339[9]).

However, the Blues did not have players’ wages to pay out because Rugby Union was strictly amateur: and they also collected significantly more in subscriptions. The Eagles, though legally a members’ club rather than a private limited company, received between only £28 (1932/3) and £62 (1930/1) in years for which there is a record, via subscriptions, whereas the Blues’ members subscribed between £175 (1932/3) and £260 (1933/4). These figures also included season tickets, which the Eagles didn’t offer. Clearly the Rugby club had more supporters who were well-off enough, even in hard times, to pay out lump sums for membership.

The local press had always routinely devoted more space to the Rugby club than they did to the Eagles, but a writer in the Pink ‘Un complained about those who regarded the town as a perennial rugby stronghold in terms that would not be popular today: “A word or two to those defeatists who say Rugby football is bound to oust soccer from popular favour in Bedford. Even at present there is more potential support for soccer than there is for rugby in the town. Rugby is not a working class game in Bedford-the elementary schools rightly prefer the older and more democratic code. There is no reason why both clubs should not be prosperous at the same time, for generally speaking, enthusiasts of both games come from different classes” [10]. Sadly for football fans, prosperity has hardly been equally shared between the codes down the years, and Bedford simply seems to be one of those towns, like Gloucester or Bath (both opponents for many years in the Southern League), where rugby has always attracted more attention.

As the 30s wore on crowds started to dwindle everywhere and a team that was past its best didn’t help. A hundred visiting supporters from Corby only swelled the gate to £20-probably about 700 in all- for the first visit of Stewart’s and Lloyd’s (the steelworks team) to the Eyrie on 1 February 1936. Here Corby keeper O’Hara is about to kick clear despite the attentions of Jack Bidgood (right) , Johnny Slaughter and J Darlow. Bedford won 4-2.

Feeling the pinch

As the chill economic blast of the 1930s gathered pace it was clear that several clubs were in difficulties. Even previously successful ones such as Kettering suffered-they dropped out of the Central Combination, to which Bedford were probably lucky not to have been elected, after only two seasons. Peterborough and Fletton United, whose first team were met in the East Midlands League and their reserves in the Northants League, had folded up altogether in November 1932 with debts exceeding £1,500. Higham Town, a club which had been successful in the 20s despite a small supporter base, may have seriously overreached themselves in 1929, when they were said to have been £300 in debt and were sued by their former player, Ernie Toseland, later to become a League championship and FA Cup winning medallist at Manchester City, for arrears of wages on his recent transfer to Coventry[11]: in 1935/6 they threw in the towel and withdrew from the Northants League in mid-season. Rothwell Town recorded a “gate” of only £2 for Bedford’s visit in April 1933 (“the writer is mystified how some clubs carry on”, wrote the Bedford Record’s reporter) and dropped out at the end of the season, over £200 in debt: amounts like that simply couldn’t be sustained by amateur Committeemen, and a collection at the Eyrie to help Rothwell which raised £2 3s a few weeks earlier can only have been a drop in the ocean. Each season several clubs were so unsure of their financial status for the coming year that they would submit “provisional” resignations to the Northants League some weeks in advance of the deadline; this would avoid a fine if they were forced to fold up, while allowing them to withdraw their notice if things went well.

It’s not surprising that Bedford vehemently opposed a move by some Northants League clubs in the summer of 1933 to change the rules so that visiting clubs took 10% of gate monies; they pointed out that their own gate for the home match against Desborough was £38 whereas when they visited the Waterworks Field on 29 April, the gate was a mere £2. The club also opposed the system used a few years later for the UCL Knock Out Cup, for which gate money was pooled: they complained that they were forced to play these matches, from which they made little if any money after paying into the pool, on Saturdays and thus had to re-arrange League fixtures, from which they took the whole of the “gate”, for less attractive midweek dates at the end of the season. The 1936/7 Knock Out Cup pool paid out a miserable £3 15s per club.

By the mid to late 30s Bedford were living a hand-to-mouth financial existence. On 20 November 1936 it was reported that Bedford’s professionals had not been paid the previous week, and only £12 a week was coming in to meet a wage bill of £24. Luton agreed to send a team to play a friendly in the new year without asking for any share of the gate at all (a rare gesture since League clubs normally insisted on guarantees), and the players accepted reduced wages for the rest of the year. Before the start of the following season a Committeeman, H R Gerrard, seems to have personally guaranteed payment of all arrears of wages from the previous years; it wasn’t enough to stop Maurice Carr from leaving for Kettering. This precarious existence seems to have continued right down to 1939.

Just as the Eyrie staged greyhound racing in the 70s to make ends meet, so in the 30s boxing tournaments were often arranged at the ground. This one was in September 1936. (There is also a link with the club’s later history here-Chris Lovell, one of the boxers featured, was the uncle of David Lovell, who starred in the 1963/4 FA Cup run).

The slump affected individuals as well. Bedford’s secretary, Bob Baker, was a self-employed painter and decorator and in the summer of 1934 reckoned that his duties at the club absorbed so much working time that he had lost £50 worth of business; the club agreed to pay him an undisclosed “honorarium” in future. There were several instances of players receiving collections from the crowds when they were out of work-Harry Hankey received £6 at Christmas 1928, and earlier the talented Herbert Jephson, having left the club to look for work in Kent, came back empty handed and was taken back on to the books- a collection for him raised £5 19s. The Northants League reduced referees’ fees from ten shillings a match to 7s 6d from 1932/3. Referees who were unemployed lost their benefit for any day when they accepted a fee.

Although good fortune on the field could bring the crowds for a time, much depended on a few moments of error or bad luck. For instance, if Maurice Carr had scored a second goal in the FA Cup at Romford in 1932 instead of hitting the bar, and if Jack Wicks hadn’t been injured in the same match, the Eagles might have added to the £43 they took from that gate, as much as £250 which Romford made from their first round trip to Bristol City, even though they were defeated.

People could hardly be blamed for thinking that there was little future in trying to run a club at this level. Perhaps that is why, as he made plans towards the end of the Second War, Jack Salsbury decided to gamble on re-launching the club in the much bigger world of the Southern League, and why in 1950 William Hobkirk, the third member of his family to be involved with the club, took the bolder step of forming a limited company and avoiding continued dependence on benefactors such as Salsbury. And, for a while, it worked…….

[1] I’m no economist and what follows is taken from a very helpful economic history website, http://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk/.

[2] See http://www.ehow.co.uk/info_12269131_wages-1930s.html.

[3] Or that some people got in without paying??

[4] Dave Twydell, in his otherwise excellent chapter on the club in Defunct FC, claims that the attendance v Luton in the County Cup Final in May 1934 was some 5,000. I think he may have extrapolated from the gate money figure of £121 on the basis of 7d admission, without realising that admission prices were raised to one shilling for the evening. On that basis the crowd is likely to have been about 2,500.

[5] Interview in the Bedfordshire Times for 22 August 1958.

[6] Thanks to Jeremy Biggs, historian of Stamford FC, for his help here

[7] Interestingly, Bedford had at least three major players from the north east, the Watson brothers and Tommy Cummings, but the likelihood is that they came looking for work rather than being offered jobs via the football club.

[8] Northampton Mercury, 6 June 1924. There were a few exceptions for clubs in higher leagues who entered their reserves, such as Northampton, who were allowed to play up to five players who were on Football League wages, as well as paying through the summer, and also for player-coaches who could earn up to £4 a week. The maximum wage in the Football League by the mid-20s was £9 a week.

[9] Figures from reports of the Blues’ accounts in the Bedfordshire Times for 22 May 1931, 27 May 1932, 26 May 1933, 18 May 1934 and 31 May 1935.

[10] Pink ‘Un, 7 November 1936

[11] Pink ‘Un, 16 March 1929. Ernie’s elder brother, Herbert, had played for the Eagles earlier in the decade.