Seasons on the Field 1908-14

“The Bedford players were a nice lot of fellows, and took their defeat like sportsmen”-Wellingborough Redwell correspondent in the Pink’ Un, 1909

The first match report-from the Bedfordshire Times for 11 September 1908. Early optimism proved to be misplaced when the club finished bottom of the table. Supporters had to wait until April 1909 to see a home win

The new club entered the Northamptonshire League (renamed the United Counties League in 1934), where they were to stay until 1939. The first season started brightly with a 5-3 win at Wolverton. The names of this first Bedford Town eleven have survived, as follows:

Clarke; Albon, Chapman; Barker, Ebden, Boa; Barfoot, King, Brown, Frier, Phillips.

Two of this team, right back Ralph “Ginger” Chapman and centre forward Harry Brown, were to make massive contributions in the early years. Despite such a good start the season ended with the newcomers in bottom place, four points adrift of nearest rivals Higham Ferrers YMCA. About 500 saw the first home match, on 25 September 1908 on the London Road ground, the return fixture with Wolverton which ended 2-2, but this was almost as good as it got.

There were to be only two more League wins in that first season, 3-1 at Raunds on Christmas Day and 2-1 at home to Rushden Fosse in the penultimate fixture in April. The defence shipped 101 goals, easily the worst in the competition. A cynical commentator in the Bedfordshire Mercury wrote on 30 April 1909:

“Considering the great noise that was made at the commencement of the season when the Bedford soccer team first started, from which it was at least expected that they would make a decent stand, the season has been a disappointing one”. The club had moved from London Road to Queen’s Park after the first few weeks in search of better gates (see The story of the Eyrie, 1908-39), but it’s doubtful if the public responded when faced with such dire results.

The leading clubs, such as Northampton Town Reserves and Peterborough City who finished first and second, regularly included many full-time professionals whereas Bedford are said to have employed only three, one earning £1 a week and the others 18 shillings (£0.90)[1]. The new club simply could not compete, although a Wellingborough Redwell player told the Pink ‘Un after Bedford had gone down 2-3 on 16 January 1909: “The Bedford players were a nice lot of fellows, and took their defeat like sportsmen”[2]. A 3-3 draw at Raunds St Peter’s in November –which must have been one of the better efforts-was marked by what I believe to be the first press mention of the nickname “Eagles”[3], which thereafter appears regularly.

So depressing was the scene that the Bedfordshire Times and Record lost interest in the club almost completely and failed to include reports for most of the matches after Christmas 1908, although the Mercury proved more loyal.

The 1909/10 season was no better, ending with the same League position and even more goals conceded (110), although five wins were managed this time. There seems to have been a sudden influx of players from Kempston Rovers early in the season, which left the Rovers with only four of their selected eleven for a Beds League match[4], but the side was still way behind the major Northants League clubs. Northampton Reserves, champions again this season, put eight past Bedford at the County Ground in September; Kettering, the runners-up, went one better at Rockingham Road in February, and eight more went in at Rushden Windmill’s ground the same month. When Kettering won 5-1 at Ford End Road in March, the Bedfordshire Times’ report gloomily began “It is hardly necesssary to state that the home team lost”.

The home match against the Windmill team (lost merely 2-5) saw some of the first recorded crowd trouble, after Bedford’s goalkeeper, Farr, had been booked for arguing over an offside decision; “spectators swarmed on to the field, the referee being struck”, and Percy Chapman and Rushden’s Wilson “turned the field into a prize ring” as spectators joined in; the County FA later required warning notices to be posted. On New Year’s Day 1910 the club were forced to play two important games on the same day, the first team crashing 1-7 at Irthlingborough in the Northants League while a reserve eleven lost 0-3 at home to Langford in the North Beds Charity Cup.

Ralph Chapman spent the season on Luton Town’s books in the Southern League, and the defence was held together-a thankless task-by Ernie Hughes, a veteran who may have played for the Swifts club in the 1890s. Jack Hobkirk, a young winger who joined from Bedford QPR and whose father would soon become chairman, gave promise of better things, but he was one of two players who missed his train for the trip to Wolverton in December, and the remaining nine men soon became eight when defender Cecil Stock went off injured; in the circumstances a goalless draw must have been one of the season’s better results.

The earliest known team group, for 1910/11, shows players and officials with the North Beds Charity Cup and the Biggleswade Senior League trophy. Left to right are: (back row) E T Phillips (secretary), J Underwood, A B Morton, John T Hobkirk (chairman), J Manning, D Dillingham, W Taylor, G White, H Harvey. (second row): Charlie Chester (trainer), S Reid, P Perry, C Fenton, H Jones, Jimmy Malpass, Billy Broadway, Ted Humphreys (later chairman), Fred Adams (reserve trainer). Third row (seated): J Hillyer, Fred C Smith, F Juggins, Arthur Mercier, Harry Brown (captain), Fred Smith (no 2), Joe Ginger, Ernie Hughes, J Turner. (front row on ground): Ben Parris, Jack Hobkirk, Jack Chapman, Harry Mardle.

The 1910/11 season must have given the depressed supporters and club officials some hope, since the club finished seventh out of 13 in the Northants League and won its first silverware: a 2-0 victory over Kempston secured the North Beds Charity Cup. The reserves finished runners-up to Luton Clarence in the Bedford and District League but a mixed eleven also competed in the Biggleswade League, which they won, beating Biggleswade and District before a “very big” crowd in April.

A much better defence let in only 52 goals and was well marshalled by Ernie Hughes and full back Fred C Smith[5], famed for his enormous kicking power. Other key men were centre-forward Harry Mardle and goalkeeper C Fenton, who came from Suffolk but like many others of the period never acquired more than an initial in reports. Percy Chapman, for reasons unknowable now always known as “Napper”, had joined his brother at Luton, but to add to the problems of historians the club signed an unrelated Chapman called Jack who would appear up front for several seasons. Joe Chamberlain, a heavily scoring forward from the Sandy/Potton area, also began to contribute-in 1911/12 he set a record probably destined to remain in perpetuity when he scored nine of the team’s 12 goals against Rushden Fosse.

The team also reached the final of the County Cup for the first time, but were well beaten at home by Luton Clarence after being only one down at half time: the Bedfordshire Times columnist wondered if they had been “worked too hard over the season”. The gate totalled £56 paid by people “from all quarters of the county”.

In the summer of 1911John Travers Hobkirk, a foundryman employed at the time by WH Allen’s but later to set up very successfully on his own, became chairman and put the club on a sounder financial footing. The calmer state of affairs off the field paid dividends on it, as the club surged into second place in the Northants League. The two Chapman brothers returned from Luton Town to join Jack of the same name and confuse the statistics considerably, and another big contributor was Harry Brown, who had played briefly in 1908/9 but now appeared regularly in the forwards and took over the captaincy. Only 30 League goals were conceded in 20 matches, partly thanks to Bob Abbott, an amateur goalkeeper who joined in December from Luton Albion.

For the first time the club entered the Northants Senior Cup, and reached the semi-final after a three-match marathon against Rushden Windmill, including a 0-2 defeat in the first replay that was declared void because Windmill played an ineligible player: Bedford went through when Chamberlain scored with the last kick of extra time in the third match. In the semi-final they were outclassed by Northampton Reserves but won praise as they went down 2-4 at home-“the ropes were lined with eager humanity”, wrote the Times reporter. Again they reached the final of the Beds County Cup, but lost 1-4, again to Luton Clarence, at Kenilworth Road; the same team beat them in the final of the North Beds Charity Cup at Fairfield, Biggleswade, but this required a replay. Things might have been even better if they had not, once again, been forced to play two games on the same day-while one team were losing to Clarence the other beat Rushden Windmill at home in the final league match, to finish two points behind champions Stamford.

This team group is from 1912/13, the club's fifth season, in which they won the Northants Senior Cup. Back row, left to right: F. Brightman, W.E.Taylor, W.H.Chinn, John Hobkirk (chairman), T.Woods, M.Evans, T. Read. Middle row: T. Humphreys, Charlie Chester (trainer), F.Bird, Ben Parris, Mick Wise, Fred Smith, Ralph Chapman, Charlie Leadbeater (Committee), F.Watts. Front row: H.Osborn (secretary), F.J.Taylor, M.Lemmon, Harry Mardle, Harry Brown (captain), Joe Chamberlain, Ernie Hughes, Percy Chapman, Ted Humphreys (committee). On ground: Harry Perkins, Jack Chapman.

1912/13 was to be the best season yet, with the team again finishing runners-up, conceding just a goal a game and putting 71 in at the other end. They went one better than before by beating Northampton Reserves 2-0 at home, after a 3-3 draw at Northampton, to win the Northants Senior Cup before their best crowd to date, estimated at 3,000[6]. Their path to the final had been unusual, since they had lost 0-2 at Peterborough City in the semi-final but secured a re-run at home because Peterborough fielded an ineligible player: Peterborough played the midweek replay at Bedford under protest, fielding only six players and losing eleven-nil (see Various topics, 1908-39 under "Troubles on the Field").

From about 1910 onwards a noticeable change was coming over the playing staff; several part-time professionals were signed from Northants clubs and replaced locally based players. Jack Chapman, from Stamford, was one of the first, followed by centre half F Bird from Rushden Windmill, winger Harry Perkins from Irthlingborough and goalkeeper Mick Wise, an Olney man who returned closer to home after a career which included 22 Football League appearances for Bradford City[7]; he was chaired off by supporters after a brilliant display in the NSC final replay. For the next twenty years or more, a recurring theme at the club would be the recruitment of such players, followed by financial problems as their wages strained the budget, followed in turn by cutbacks and reliance on local players, followed by poor results on the field, calls for better class professionals to be signed, and so on, and on…..One local player who did contribute was Harry Mardle, who returned after a season at Luton and swapped a wage of 30 shillings (£1.50) a week for a mere £1.

This trend continued in 1913/14 when Mardle was joined up front by Sydney Basson, a Kettering-based forward who had previously scored heavily for Wellingborough Redwell, but he moved on again, to Kettering, in March; meanwhile Percy Chapman had a short spell at Peterborough City but soon returned. In December a goalkeeeper called Albert Charles Brown joined from Lynton Works; he was to have one of the longest careers of any club’s early players, though he soon switched to centre-forward and played for various clubs (including briefly Luton Town in the Football League) well into the 1930s. On the field the team again finished second, three points behind Wolverton, but were now excluded from the Northants Senior Cup by changes in its regulations, and had as yet made no mark in the FA Cup, first entered in 1910/11; a “woeful lack of finishing” this season saw them eliminated by Rushden Windmill at the first hurdle.

Successful friendlies were played against Northampton and Tottenham elevens, the latter, in February 1914, attracting 2,000 people, although it involved giving an unspecified financial guarantee to Tottenham, whose reserves were beaten 3-1.

In the summer of 1914 Edwin Humphreys, usually known as Ted, became chairman; he had played for the old Bedford Swifts and then the Town eleven in the 1890s, and his father, Fred, was landlord of the Horse and Groom pub in Ford End Road, where the players changed since there were no dressing rooms at the ground. Ted was now himself landlord of the Commercial Tavern in Commercial Road, which became, in the absence of offices or other buildings on the ground, the club’s effective headquarters for the next 15 years.

The former Commercial Tavern in Commercial Road, now long closed as a pub, was the club’s HQ while its landlord, Ted Humphreys, was chairman from 1914 to 1930. Bus transport to away fixtures usually started from here.

That summer the club briefly considered joining the Central Alliance, but wisely didn’t, since nearly all their opponents would have been based in the Notts and Derbyshire coalfields and travelling expenses would have been far greater than in the Northants League, where the longest journey was to Stamford, a mere 48 miles. Harry Brown was appointed captain for 1914/15, with Ralph Chapman his deputy, and the team was drawn against Desborough in the FA Cup.

However, by the time the start of the season rolled round the country was at war, and Bedford Town played no more competitive football for another five years.

For details of players see Player List, 1908-39

For detailed results see Results and Teams, 1908-39

To continue the story see The Great War Years

[1] See 1952 Handbook. They are not named but are likely to have included Ralph Chapman and his brother Percy.

[2] Pink ‘Un, 23 January 1909

[3] Bedfordshire Times, 13 November 1908

[4] See Roger Wood and Peter Burnage, The Walnut Boys, Rosette Publishing, 2011, an excellent history of the Kempston club.

[5] As the season went on it become clear that the club had two players called Fred Smith, the other a forward, who was eventually called Fred Smith No 2, though not all reports distinguish between them.

[6] According to the Bedfordshire Times, though the Pink ‘Un put it at 3,500.

[7]He is thought to be the first former Football League player to play for the club