Seasons on the Field-1930-35

“…the cheers could be heard in Kimbolton Road” (press reaction to the Eagles’ winning goal v Rushden, April 1931)

The first half of the thirties saw the Eagles’ most successful seasons so far. Two key figures off the field, chairman (in effect) Dick Spencer and secretary Bob Baker, assembled attractive teams which, for the first time in the club’s history, were built around excellent local players who could hold their own at Northants League level and higher, rather than expensive imports from elsewhere.

The 1930/1 season opened in such hot weather that the referee in Bedford’s first Northants League match, at home to Westwoods of Peterborough on 30 August , took the then unthinkable step of rolling down his socks. Two goals from the former Ampthill Road schoolboy Len Potter helped the team to a 5-1 win , but it was some weeks before they settled down and again they left the FA Cup at the first hurdle, well beaten 2-5 by Peterborough and Fletton. Two weeks later the scheduled Northants League match against Biggleswade was postponed as both town and county mourned the loss of 48 mostly local men when the R101 airship, based at Cardington, crashed in France. The quiet start to the season was transformed on 8 November when the Committee decided to play Freddie Garratt, hitherto normally a full-back, at centre-forward. He responded with four of the seven goals that defeated Peterborough and Fletton Reserves at home and went on to score an extraordinary 52 goals[1] in 42 appearances over the season.

Not a great quality image unfortunately, but a scene from the vital match against Rushden at the Eyrie on 28 February 1931 when the Eagles beat their main championship rivals 3-2 in front of a crowd of perhaps 3,000. Here Len Potter (left), Dickie Gunnell and Dick Jones, in the white shirts, keep up the pressure on the visitors defence. Gunnell would score the late winner in the second home match against Rushden in April, where the cheers were said to have been audible in Kimbolton Road

This relaunched the season, and after Christmas the team embarked on a run that was to take them all the way to the Northants League title. After beating Rothwell 1-0 at home on 24 January they went unbeaten, dropping only two points in draws, until stuttering to two defeats over three days late in April. Support was now probably at its highest level since the War, with what was said to have been a “record” but unspecified crowd watching the 3-2 defeat of fellow title contenders Rushden at the end of February. However, in the last month Rushden were clear favourites and after the second of the defeats in April, at Higham on 20 April, the Eagles were two points behind Rushden who had three games in hand. Even after a £54 “gate” had seen an exciting 2-1 defeat of Rushden at the Eyrie[2] on 23 April thanks to an 88th minute winner by Gunnell, (“the cheers could be heard in Kimbolton Road”, enthused the Times reporter), runners-up seemed the best Bedford could expect.

However, Rushden now imploded. They faced a gruelling schedule to catch up with their games in hand and lost five on the trot, including three in four days. A 2-0 win at home to Biggleswade on 25 April made the title almost certain for Bedford and they made absolutely sure with a 6-2 win at Westwoods the following Monday evening, topped by a brilliant individual goal by Potter just after half time. The only disappointment came the following week when Luton won 3-0 in the County Cup final at Kenilworth Road.

The 1930/1 Northants League championship side complete with trophy. Mrs Mary Spencer, who succeeded her husband Dick as chairman when he was banned by the County FA, is in the centre and secretary Bob Baker is seated on the extreme right on the ground. Dick Spencer himself is discreetly positioned in the back row, second from the right.

The players are-(left to right): Standing-“Paddy” Watson, Len Potter (standing slightly behind Watson), Jack Wicks, Bob Latheron, Bert Rogers. Seated: Lew Stockwell, Dick Jones, Tommy Cummings, Jack Chester (whose father Charlie, the club’s long-serving trainer, is in the row behind on Rogers’ right). On ground: Dickie Gunnell and Freddie Garratt

The season had been a triumph for consistency as goalkeeper Jack Wicks, full-back Tommy Cummings, Bert Rogers, Lew Stockwell, Dickie Gunnell , “Paddy” Watson and Jack Chester as well as the high-scoring Garratt and Potter were virtually ever present. Good new prospects also emerged in the shape of Bob Latheron, who made the left back spot his own when Garratt moved up front, and Dick Jones, an inside forward or winger from Bedford Queen’s Park Rangers. The Rangers effectively became the club’s reserves this season as the regular reserve side was scrapped to save money and the Rangers played most of their home matches at the Eyrie: for many years between the wars the Eagles were helped by amateurs, often from Rangers or Kempston, who stepped up to plug gaps when needed, especially when fixtures came thick and fast at the end of the season.

Despite his cheery insistence that his profession wasn’t a problem, Dick Spencer had been forced to resign as chairman in December 1930 when the County FA insisted that as a bookie he could not be involved in management. The Committee promptly elected his wife, Mary, in his place. Many years later, secretary Bob Baker wrote[3] that her role was confined to “putting up with a bunch of committee men in her front room every week”, but she did get to present captain Rogers with the Championship trophy at the club’s AGM in June. For her own efforts Mrs Spencer, who remained nominally chairman until 1937, was presented with a box of chocolates!

The 1931/2 season was almost as successful as 1930/1, with the club in the running for the Northants League title almost to the end, although finally Rushden made it by two points. The previously settled defence was disrupted at the start when Cummings went down with appendicitis and, as was normal after such an operation at the time, became an invalid who was unable to play until January. This time it was Len Potter who created extraordinary stats with 50 goals in 40 matches, Garratt hitting a mere 26 as he had to drop back to replace Cummings. Still the FA Cup disappointed, with a surprising 1-3 exit against Hitchin of the Spartan League. Potter was still an amateur and had been signed as such by Luton, so he was sometimes whisked away to play for their reserves, making his goal tally all the more remarkable. A reserve team had been revived, in the South Midlands League. When Jack Wicks cracked a rib in November the club signed Percy Bowles from Biggleswade, who was eventually to become as much a fixture between the posts as Wicks. The County FA forced the club to play their County Cup tie with Luton at Kenilworth Road on 28 December, in dreadful weather before a poor crowd, and a seven goal thrashing would not have made them any happier.

This time Rushden won their many games in hand at the end of the season and although the Eagles won their last nine Northants League matches by the extraordinary aggregate of 45-12, the gap was just too large to make up. In the East Midlands League the club finished bottom with only four points, and as early as December 1931 the local reporter was saying “For some curious reason, [EML] matches do not seem to be taken as seriously as they ought to be”[4], and it was in these matches that the local amateurs were often asked to help out. Despite another largely successful season, the economic climate was getting grimmer and the club only avoided a financial loss thanks to money made at a fete on Whit Monday, another of (effective) chairman Spencer’s initiatives.

The following season, 1932/3, was dominated by the goals of Maurice Carr, a Flitwick product signed from Biggleswade, along with his team mate Jack Bidgood, a Cornishman who taught at the village school in Elstow and could play anywhere in the half-back or forward lines. In the playing sense it was the best season yet, with another Northants League title but also the best run yet in the FA Cup.

A move from the Northants to the Beds and Herts section of the qualifying rounds brought somewhat easier opponents and wins against Vauxhall Motors, Biggleswade (after a replay), Sandy and Letchworth took the Eagles into the fourth qualifying round for the first time where they drew a 4,000 crowd at Romford of the Athenian League, who included several amateur internationals. A Romford reporter had mistaken the Eagles for their reserves and told his readers that Romford would easily overcome a South Midlands League club. But he may have realised his error as Bidgood gave Bedford an early lead and just before the interval Carr went on a run from deep in his own half and hit the bar with the Romford goalkeeper helpless. It was a critical miss because soon after the break Wicks badly injured his hand trying to prevent Romford’s equaliser: Watson went in goal but the ten men eventually went down 1-3, and Wicks was never to appear again.

The Eagles' fourth goal against Letchworth in the third qualifying round of the FA Cup at the Eyrie on 29 October 1932,watched by nearly 3,000. Jack Bidgood, the scorer, follows the ball into the net watched by Maurice Carr (centre) and Cyril Foster, who supplied the pass. Bidgood was a talented Cornish teacher whose departure when appointed to a headship in his native county was a big blow to the club in 1936.

Maurice Carr's goalscoring was a major factor behind the successes of the early 30s. Here he watches as Kettering's Barritt punches his effort over the bar in the East Midlands League match at the Eyrie on 3 December 1932 (won 1-0) watched by Jack Bidgood and Dickie Gunnell.

Percy Bowles was a ready-made replacement for Wicks, however, and gave some vital performances as Bedford regained the Northants League title, finishing two points clear of Kettering and eight ahead of perennial rivals Rushden. Vital results must have included a 4-1 win at Rushden in October despite having Stockwell as a passenger for most of the game, and a 5-3 home win against Kettering in March thanks to a Carr hat-trick. That formed part of his tally of 46 goals in 38 appearances, assisted by 32 from Potter. Stockwell, a mainstay of the last few seasons, had been dropped in the autumn but was crucially recalled for the run-in and his goal virtually clinched the title in a 1-0 win at home to Rushden on 1 May, watched by a £63 “gate”; the team made mathematically sure by demolishing Wolverton 17-2 the following Saturday (a goal tally never to be beaten in the club’s history). The reports describe the crowd’s “repeated hilarity” as the players tried to “give” Dickie Gunnell a goal-he eventually got two, with Carr and Potter hitting five apiece.

Wolverton had conceded 14 at Kettering a few days earlier: the more serious aspect of their defeats was that they were about to drop out of the Northants League because of financial calamities, a fate that had earlier befallen Peterborough and Fletton Reserves, who had resigned earlier in the season shortly before the club itself folded with insurmountable debts. The Eagles had just beaten the Posh first team twice in a few days by an aggregate of 21-4 in the East Midlands League. The four points which were thus expunged meant the difference between finishing fourth and bottom again.

Even at their most successful in the early 1930s, Bedford were unable to defeat Luton Town Reserves in the Beds Premier Cup. Here on 4 March 1933 at Kenilworth Road, Luton keeper David Imrie gathers under an imminent challenge from Bedford’s Freddie Garratt (white shirt). Luton won this match 4-0, watched by about 4,000. Hayhurst (left) and Coote are the other home defenders while Len Potter watches in the background.

During 1932/3 the idea of the club stepping up to the Southern League, then a mixture of non-league club sides and reserve teams of Football League clubs, was seriously considered. At that stage the League consisted of eastern and western sections, but there was a move to create a new “London section” which might attract some of the leading London clubs to enter their reserves. Nowadays this might not seem a great attraction, but Bedford supporters were already tired of multiple matches every season against local opponents in the Northants and East Midland Leagues, and Dick Spencer and Bob Baker felt justified in seeking membership of the proposed new section. It was a measure of the recent success of the club that on 17 January 1933 the Bedford Record felt able to assure its readers that Bedford would be playing in the Southern League in 1933/4: the club officials had been assured by the Southern League’s secretary that “if your decision is to join us, we will give you a hearty welcome”. A meeting of supporters at the Town Hall on 13 January unanimously decided to back the idea. However, the following month it was reported that not enough new clubs had indicated agreement for a London section to be viable: although Bedford were invited to join the existing eastern section, the Committee decided that the financial costs would be unjustifiable and nothing more was heard of the idea.

The clubs that actually formed the eastern section in 1933/4 ranged, in terms of distance from Bedford, from Norwich in the east to Bournemouth in the south (reserve teams in each case). Their nearest opponents would have been Millwall or Clapton Orient Reserves. Only nine clubs took part and to fill up their fixtures five of them also participated in a separate “central” section that included teams as far away as Plymouth Reserves, Yeovil and Llanelly. Unless, perhaps, Kettering and/or Rushden had also agreed to join it is hard to see how Bedford could have made such a league viable: it would also probably have been necessary to sign more professionals to remain competitive.

Instead, in the summer of 1933 the club applied, for reasons which must have seemed good enough at the time but which are now hard to fathom, to join a new “Central Combination” League, most of whose members were in the East Midlands colliery towns. Kettering, who were a little closer to its heartland, were successful but Bedford weren’t; after just two seasons, Kettering were back in Bedford’s company and may have regretted their earlier decision.

Against opposition in 1933/4 that now included the Poppies’ reserves and also Irchester and Market Harborough, the Eagles won their third title in four seasons, using only 21 players in all competitions. Maurice Carr hit an astonishing 63 goals in 44 appearances, Potter scoring a mere 27 after spending more of the season than before at centre-half when Bert Rogers was injured. Even the East Midlands League side finished half way up the table. In the Northants League the defence conceded just 35 goals. Up front Cyril Foster, signed two years earlier after much varied experience at higher levels, provided guile and skill for the goalscorers as well as getting 15 goals himself, and Jack Pacey, a young winger from Luton, complemented Gunnell’s experience on the other flank. A good run in the new year put the Eagles into second place behind Rushden at the end of February and they gradually moved ahead. They could have clinched the title at Rushden on 28 April but lost by the only goal on a day of heavy rain, but made certain at home to Westwoods a week later.

The only goal that day was scored by Dickie Gunnell, but it was to be his last for the club. A few weeks later the club decided that despite success on the field the wage bill had to be cut, and Gunnell was released on grounds of age (he was now 35). Jack Chester, who was three years younger but had made his debut in 1919/20, was also released after refusing to play for expenses only, and joined Gunnell at Higham. It was a sign of more trouble to come.

(Top) Another crucial match against Rushden, at the Eyrie on 7 April 1934, saw the Eagles win 3-2 after being two down with 20 minutes left. Here Dickie Gunnell, who scored the equaliser, challenges Rushden keeper Shaw.

(Below) Northants League champions for the third time in four years-skipper Bert Rogers receives the trophy after the victory against Westwoods on 5 May 1934

Another good FA Cup run provided more entertainment in 1933/4: Arlesey, Waterlows (the Dunstable printers’ works team) and Biggleswade were beaten before a trip in the third qualifying round to Baldock of the South Midlands League. Most of the crowd were Eagles’ supporters who had to endure an afternoon of continual rain on an unsheltered field; some of them somehow found sheets of corrugated iron and used them as umbrellas. They did see a comfortable 4-0 win but the club’s share of the gate was just £3.

The fourth qualifying round took Bedford to Kettering where the then ground record was broken by a crowd of 4,600; against nominally superior Central Combination opposition the Eagles were perhaps unlucky to go out 3-4, having come back from 0-2 down to lead 3-2. The Kettering pitch in those days sloped quite steeply down towards the Rockingham Road end, and if the Poppies won the toss they would normally opt to play downhill in the second half and let their opponents struggle uphill; in this game that may have helped them to pull back two late goals, the winner coming via an unlucky deflection off Rogers that left Bowles helpless .

Before a then record crowd of 4,600 the Eagles went down 3-4 to Kettering at Rockingham Road in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup on 11 November 1933. Above, Len Potter (white shirt) fails to take advantage of a slip by Poppies’ defender Oakley, with Cyril Foster on Potter’s right

Another scene from the same tie shows Poppies's keeper Barritt under pressure from the Eagles fowards

Another near-miss in the County Cup against Luton came on 3 May 1934 at the Eyrie before about 2,500 people. After a goalless first 90 minutes, Jack Pacey gave the Eagles the lead in extra time but two late goals gave Luton the trophy. Here Luton's keeper George Harford takes a high shot watched by Maurice Carr

The FA Cup was again the centrepiece in 1934/5, a season that had started with Len Potter moving to Northampton and Cyril Foster another casualty of the need to reduce wages, although another local, Eric Harrison, returned from Rushden and a consistent amateur winger, Ken Ward, replaced Gunnell. In October they were joined by Bert Lawson, a winger or wing-half with experience at Arsenal and Brentford.

Lawson arrived part way through the best FA Cup run so far, starting with comfortable wins over Luton Amateurs, Hitchin and Vauxhalls before the Derbyshire club Heanor Town attracted a record crowd of 4,374 to the Eyrie; at the time they were leaders of the Central Combination-the league that Bedford had tried to join a year earlier-but were comfortably beaten 3-0.

Ken Ward launches an aerial challenge on Hitchin keeper Cecil Cannon in the second qualifying round of the FA Cup at Top Field on 13 October 1934, watched by Maurice Carr and Hitchin defender Fraser. A goalless draw was watched by a crowd paying £80, probably totalling about 3,000, and Bedford won the replay 6-2.

Bedford beat Heanor Town of the Central Combination 3-0 at the Eyrie in front of 4,374 on 10 November 1934 to reach the competition proper for the first time. Here a defender tries in vain to rescue the ball as Maurice Carr (far right, dark shirt) half turns after heading Bedford’s third, watched by George Watson (left)

The team that beat Heanor and lost to Dartford in the 1934/5 cup run. Back row-Bob Baker (secretary), “Paddy” Watson, Freddie Garratt, Bert Rogers, Percy Bowles, Tommy Cummings, Jack Bidgood, Charlie Chester (trainer). Front-Bert Lawson, Eric Harrison, Maurice Carr, George Watson, Ken Ward

The Mayor was the first to congratulate the players as they left the field after the Heanor game, bound for the competition proper for the first time in the club’s history, but hopes of a really lucrative draw were disappointed when the visitors proved to be Dartford, one rung higher in the Southern League. Nine of the team they brought to the Eyrie were full time professionals[5] and 5,667 saw them succeed 3-2 but not before the Eagles had given them a scare. Carr put them ahead at half time but the Bedford Record’s correspondent accused them of overdoing close passing tactics in the second half, allowing their experienced opponents room to create more chances; they went into a 2-1 lead but Carr equalised and many thought that Dartford’s winner was offside. Spectators paid a shilling (£0.05) for admission-1s 6d for the stand-and the gate was better than five ties at Third Division grounds.

On a murky 24 November 1934, the Eagles went out of the FA Cup 2-3 at home to Southern League Dartford after taking an early lead. Here Eric Harrison (white shirt, left) and Maurice Carr chase forward with Bert Lawson in the background. The crowd of 5,667 was a record which stood until 1948.

In retrospect this cup run was the pinnacle of Bedford Town’s progress between the wars. Once again they were runners-up in the United Counties League (the name was changed from the Northants League before the start of the season) in 1934/5, with Maurice Carr again hitting 55 goals in 43 matches, and he was helped by George Watson, “Paddy’s” younger brother, who could play anywhere in the attack and scored 35 in his first season. The championship was a three-way race between the Eagles, Rushden and Biggleswade, as the Waders enjoyed the best season in their history. Bedford ended their chances on Good Friday with a 3-0 win at the Eyrie before a £100 gate. At Desborough a few days earlier Bedford were drawing 4-4, with Dick Jones just having missed a penalty, when the referee abandoned the match with just six minutes left because of bad light; when the fixture was replayed a fortnight later the home side overran a tired Bedford team 4-0 and handed the title to Rushden, who finished two points ahead.

However, there was compensation when the East Midlands League championship was won for the first and only time, thanks to two wins in successive days in the first week of May, against a weakened Rushden at home and then Northampton “A” at Wellingborough[6]. While the latter match was going on, the club’s own reserves also collected the South Midlands League title with a 4-1 win against Rushden, whose reserves included several players who had played in the EML match the previous evening. Luton, however, playing most of their first team who were without a fixture, again denied the Eagles in the County Cup with a 3-2 win at Kenilworth Road when two late goals overcame a Bedford side who had been 2-1 up with ten minutes left despite George Watson being a passenger in the second half.

Bedford crushed Higham Town 11-2 in the East Midlands League at the Eyrie on 7 September 1935, although they lost the return match the following week 2-3! Here visiting keeper Freeman gathers watched by Bedford forwards Neil Rogers, A Bell (centre) and Alf Caves.

The summer of 1935 saw Carr and Jones follow Potter to Northampton; “they accepted offers that we could not make them”, said Dick Spencer at the AGM. Harrison also decided to return to Rushden. A few weeks into the season Bob Baker resigned as secretary after a disagreement over policy. Despite collecting £153 from the Dartford cup-tie the chairman said, in January 1936: “Although we are not destitute, we are not in a very happy financial position. We cannot possibly survive on £11, £17 and £19 gates”[7].

George Watson bursts between two Northampton “A” defenders at the Eyrie on 12 October 1935. His departure to Rushden later would be a big blow to the club.

The departures of such important players had left a team unable to achieve the consistent results of the last five seasons; a good example appeared early on, when Higham were crushed 11-2 in an EML fixture at home only to beat the Eagles 3-2 in the same competition a week later[8].

The departure from the FA Cup to Hitchin was perhaps unlucky, because the Herts club snatched a draw at the Eyrie in the third qualifying round thanks to a brilliant display by their goalkeeper, Fisher, and then won the replay after Tom Kimble, Bedford’s reserve keeper deputising for the injured Bowles, had gone off injured for part of the first half.

“Bedford are only a ghost of their former selves”, wrote a reporter[9] after Kettering had beaten them 4-1 in the EML at Rockingham Road in November. Thirty five different players appeared at various times and although George Watson scored 43 goals, only two others managed double figures. The many inexperienced local players who filled the gaps had their good days-notably a 5-1 defeat of the newly formed Peterborough United, fielding eleven fulltimers, in the EML in January-but could not do better than fourth place in the UCL and second from bottom in the EML.

Johnny Slaughter, one of the younger local players who got opportunities when the likes of Carr and Potter had left, on the attack against Kettering in the 0-2 UCL defeat at the Eyrie on 23 April 1936. In the background is the small shelter built at the Ford End Road end in 1931

Against this background, the unexpected death of Dick Spencer on 28 February 1936 was a terrible blow for the club. He was only 45, and had not only refinanced the club out of his own pocket, but had shown great personal energy and enthusiasm. His wife remained chairman for another year, but problems were multiplying. The attendance against Spalding in April was described as the poorest for years, and this was after a season of crowds described as “very small” or “very disappointing”. The season dwindled away: Arlesey, who ended bottom of the UCL by a long way, collected their only win against the Eagles in April, by 5-3 on their own ground after being 1-3 down. One of the “very disappointing” crowds, in February, saw Kettering win 9-2 in the EML; seven of their goals came before half time and the reporter feebly remarked that “Bedford’s offside game didn’t pay[10].

It was the end of an era. Bob Baker, writing in the Bedfordshire Times to mark the club’s 50th anniversary in 1958, looked back with understandable pride on those successful years of high league placings. He attributed these achievements to “keeping a team together that respected their own fitness, respected each other’s playing ability, and respected the club’s reputation”[11]. Supporters now had to get used to more ordinary fare.

For details of players see Player List, 1908-39

For detailed results see Results and Teams, 1908-39

To continue the story see Seasons on the Field-1936-40

[1] Gunnell was next best, a whole 22 goals behind at 30, followed by Potter (who sometimes played as a half-back) with 23.

2 This was the third of the three Northants League meetings with Rushden: teams drew lots to decide whether the “extra” match would be home or away and Bedford were lucky in getting a home draw on this occasion.

3 Bedfordshire Times, 22 August 1958 (part of a feature to mark the club’s Golden Jubilee year)

4 Bedford Record, 8 December 1931.

5 Managed by Bill Collier, who had led Kettering to two Southern League titles in the 20s, Dartford had won the eastern section of the League in 1930/1 and 1931/2.

6 Wellingborough Town had become Northampton’s nursery club-an arrangement which was reversed a few years later.

7 From the match programme for the Irchester league match on 11 January 1936,

8 These results were expunged when Higham withdrew from the UCL and EML in February.

9 Pink ‘Un for 23 November 1935

10 Pink ‘Un for 15 February 1936

11 Bedfordshire Times for 22 August 1958.