Seasons on the Field-the 1920s

“We have no team signed on, because we have no money to pay them with"-Ted Humphreys, chairman, summer 1923

The 1920s were hardly a decade of success for Bedford Town. In 1919/20 they finished ninth out of eleven teams in the Northants League. Between 1919 and 1929 the best finish was third in 1921/2, and the lower half of the table was more typical territory. Progress in the FA Cup-first entered in 1910/11- was so modest that by 1928, the club had only once reached even the second qualifying round, in 1912/13 when they had lost at Raunds Town. Public interest was clearly difficult to maintain, and even when some playing success belatedly returned in 1929/30, it was accompanied by such deep financial troubles that the club nearly folded the following summer.

The military authorities didn’t release the Eyrie until December 1919, so the County School Ground in Ampthill Road was the temporary home where about 800 people saw Kettering’s first team (members of the Central Alliance) thump the Eagles out of the FA Cup 6-1 at the first hurdle in October. Despite a 2-1 win on the opening day against Brotherhoods Works (one of the many Peterborough teams played over the years) at home, supporters had seen only two other wins before Stamford were the first peacetime visitors to the restored Eyrie just before Christmas, when a 1-0 win resulted on a pitch that now ran north-south rather than east-west as it had done before the War. Several pre-war players were still available, including the two Chapman brothers, Fred Smith, Freddie Blakeman, goalkeeper Len Shadrake and Harry Brown, but new names establishing themselves included Fred and Cyril King, the eldest two of a remarkable footballing family of five brothers whose service to the club would span more than thirty years. Interest in the club was strong enough for over 200 supporters to travel to Wellingborough in September, outnumbering the home crowd, and 2,000 turned up for a friendly against Northampton Nomads on Good Friday 1920.

1921/2 saw a slight improvement to fifth in the League, although only 39 goals were scored in 24 matches. Northants-based semi-professionals started to reappear, including Herbert Toseland, a prolific scorer who seems to have lacked support, and a centre half, G “Sugar” Clarke-who Like Toseland had played for a temporary set-up known as the Northampton War XI, and Percy Elderton, a winger from Kettering. Two notable if short-lived signings were Fred and Bob Hawkes, a pair of unrelated players who had been stalwarts for Luton Town before the War; Bob had won seven full England caps despite playing for what was then still a non-league club[1]. Kettering again put the team out of the FA Cup but this time only 3-1, and it was “by no means the walkover Kettering expected”[2], perhaps thanks to the experience of the two Hawkeses.

But life was still a struggle, and the County FA slapped a fine on the club when they were unable to raise a team for a midweek County Cup replay against Luton Clarence in January and had to concede the tie, as well as paying Clarence’s costs of nearly £10.[3] Two thousand people saw the club play a Spurs XI in Bedford Park as part of the Bedford Carnival in October 1920. Perhaps more typical of the club’s fortunes was a trip to Northampton just before Christmas 1920 to play the War Team on the town’s Militia ground; the goalposts were said to have been “about two feet from the upright, yet nothing was done”. To make matters worse the home team scored a goal direct from a corner, which was illegal at the time (and until 1924), but allowed; as the reporter put it, "what with the wretched weather, the wretched ground and the wretched referee, the game was completely spoilt", and ended in a 1-5 defeat. Fred Smith decided to jump ship to Biggleswade half way through the season, though he was to return later. Although 2,000 people were said to have come through the gates for the Christmas fixture against Raunds, Kettering got 4,500 on the same day for a reserve fixture against Desborough.

Bedford (stripes) and a Tottenham Hotspur XI (white) pose before their friendly match in October 1920. Played in Bedford Park as part of the Town Carnival celebrations, the match attracted 2,000 spectators and ended in a predictable 5-0 win for the visitors, Unfortunately players were not identified.

Reproduced courtesy of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph

This team played in the first few matches of the 1921/2 season. Back row: -Crawford (Committee),Percy Elderton, C S Jakins, unknown (behind), G Wrigley, Herbert Toseland, Ray Lucas, Charlie Chester (trainer), -Sparrow, J Craig (Committee). Front row: Tommy Walters, “Sugar” Clarke, Jimmy Brandham, Sid Collins, F Bingham.

1921/2, therefore, came as a pleasant surprise with the team finishing third. An experienced goalkeeper, G Wrigley, one of many whose Christian name has eluded discovery, with a forward colleague called Sparrow who lacked even an initial, arrived from the Northampton War Team, joined by Ray Lucas, an inside forward, a defender, F Bingham, and Sid Collins, a centre half. With Toseland, Clarke and Elderton still on the books this now meant that at least three-quarters of the strongest eleven now lived across the Northants boundary and could not train with their colleagues in midweek; presumably they were also claiming travelling expenses on top of their wages. In the circumstances these players did well to develop a good understanding with their more local colleagues such as Jimmy Brandham, a former Luton wing half who was now captain. Ralph Chapman had moved to Fletton United, another Peterborough club who are supposed to have spent so much money that they attracted the nickname “Posh Boys”, which has stuck to their indirect successors, Peterborough United, to this day, though like Fred Smith he would later return.

There might have been some belated progress in the FA Cup but for a fracas against Fletton-including Chapman-in the preliminary round at home in September. Collins was sent off late in the first half for arguing with the referee, play being held up for five minutes while he protested; a 1-1 draw was the best the ten men could do and they lost the replay even though Fletton started it with only nine men (a common occurrence in midweek games when players had to come straight from work). Christmas brought the first of many pairs of local derbies against new entrants Biggleswade, with 2,000 turning up for both matches and “huge queues” at Fairfield for the second match where the Eagles completed a festive double.

The best effort of all must have been a 5-1 defeat of Higham, the eventual champions, at home in October, a match also notable for producing what appears to be the earliest action photograph of an Eagles match, reproduced below. It gives a brief glimpse of the real people behind the statistics, both players and spectators, on and around what looks like a very uneven and heavy pitch in the shadow of the ever-present gasholders. When Higham had won 1-0 on their own ground a few weeks before, the crowd of 900 had included about 300 Eagles’ supporters, among them two unemployed men who had cycled all the way: at home matches those out of work now got in for twopence (£0.008) instead of the normal sixpence (£0.025).

Apart from the glimpse of Harry Mardle in action before 1914 (see First Years, 1884-1939), these are the earliest identifiable action photographs I have so far found of an Eagles' match. They show a Northants League encounter on 29 October 1921 at The Eyrie in which Higham [Ferrers] Town, the eventual champions, were beaten 5-1, one of the best results of a promising season in which the Eagles finished third. The Eagles are in the striped shirts. The only player I can positively identify at present is their goalkeeper, G Wrigley, seen in action in the two lower images. All three were taken looking towards the Gasworks side and the gasholders and chimneys can be picked out. At that stage there was no covered accommodation, but a good sized crowd seems to be behind the ropes.

With many men who had returned from the War unable to get work-Freddie King was given a collection the previous season which had raised £11 for this reason-finances were still very tight. A friendly against a Chelsea XI in January 1922 attracted only 1,800, fewer than had been hoped for and less than the guarantee Bedford had given, which had to be made good by better-off committee men and well-wishers.

In 1922/3 Ralph Chapman returned from Fletton and Charlie Sparrow, brother of the first-nameless player of the year before, arrived for what would prove four decent years. Collins and Elderton had returned northwards to Northants clubs but a good acquisition was Herbert Jephson, a wing-half from Luton who would also stay for a decent run of six seasons. Halfway was the result in League terms. Over 700 supporters travelled to Higham in the FA Cup-they saw a goalless draw and the team went out after two replays-but by December only 500 turned up at home to see Kettering Reserves. The season had started with the opening of a seated grandstand accommodating about 200-later expanded to 400-on the western touchline, at last providing some cover on wet days and making attendances in theory less dependent on the weather.

In the summer of 1923 chairman Humphreys had told the AGM that the wage bill could not sustain the many Northants based professionals and the club would have to retrench and rely on local players. He was reported as saying that “they had no team signed on because they had no money to pay them with”, and although local recruits were eventually found the team slumped to third from bottom place in 1923/4. “Sonny” Alcock, a local amateur who also played cricket for the county, became the lynchpin of the defence and was ever-present in both the Northants and Beds County[4] Leagues (BCL)-the latter had been entered to provide football on otherwise blank Saturdays and the club finished third against lower standard opposition. Another local player, Jack Hobkirk, died in July 1923, aged only 31, and Jephson, now captain but out of work, benefited from a collection made at the Good Friday BCL fixture against Waterlows which raised nearly £6. Attendances in this competition were often dire: at Vauxhall Motors in February the crowd was reported as 20, including six from Bedford, and at Luton Amateurs in April it was declared non-existent.

Another early action photo shows an incident from the 3-1 defeat of Higham at The Eyrie on 15 March 1924. Here Herbert Jephson, partly hidden by the post, attempts in vain to stop a header from Higham’s Eaton going in for the visitors’ only goal, watched by goalkeeper Len Shadrake (dark jersey), who seems to have wandered a long way out of position!

Other Northants League clubs also felt the pinch to the extent that in the summer of 1924 an official wage limit of ten shillings a week (£0.50), plus bonuses of five shillings for a won and 2s 6d for a draw, was introduced[5]. The season that followed was better, with a fifth place finish in the Northants League and fourth in the BCL; some of this was due to the return of Herbert Toseland from Higham along with a consistent full-back, W T Day, and the experienced Scottish inside forward Tommy Irvine from Luton. At Christmas Bob Abbott, a regular goalkeeper before the War, also returned and dislodged the local favourite, Len Shadrake. In February a youngster from the north east, Norman Watson, who had come south looking for work, was given a trial on the left wing; he was to remain with the club for over 30 years as player and then trainer. There was something tangible to cheer at the season’s end when the County Cup was won at last with a 1-0 defeat of Leighton United at Kenilworth Road, Luton, where 4,000 saw Jephson score the only goal deep into the second half; several special trains and coaches were laid on for supporters.

Reproduced courtesy of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph

This team beat Wellingborough 1-0 in October 1924 . Back row, left to right are F Humphreys (Committee), Charlie Chester (Trainer), Bob Settles, Arthur Taylor, Ralph Chapman, Tommy Irvine, W T Day, Len Shadrake, Charlie Leadbetter (linesman and Committee). Front row: E W Taylor (secretary), Charlie Sparrow, Herbert Jephson, Herbert Toseland, Harold Alcock, Cyril Marlow, Jack Chester.

1925/6 saw a slight improvement to fourth place in the Northants League, eight points behind champions Northampton Reserves, yet another early FA Cup exit against Wellingborough after a draw at home and a 1-2 replay defeat, but some better attendances: “several thousands” saw a good 4-2 win against Kettering Reserves in November and 3,000 crammed in to see Biggleswade beaten 7-3 on Christmas afternoon.

Sidney “Lightning” Smith, an occasional first team winger in the 20s, ran a taxi business in Bedford after the Second World War and advertised in the programme in the 1940s. His nickname may have been sarcastic.

Fred Smith returned, along with another Smith, Sidney, from the Peterborough area who played on the wing and was always known, possibly sarcastically, as “Lightning” Smith; his pace didn’t often win a place in the first team thanks to the emergence of Lew Stockwell, a fast winger from Lynton Works via Kettering. Abbott captained the team from between the posts. There might have been a better challenge for the League but for a foolish 1-3 defeat at home to Rushden in March when Jephson, who was working nights, overslept and failed to arrive; the Committee hadn’t picked a twelfth man and the team played a man short throughout, sparking prolonged criticism of the management.

Reproduced courtesy of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph

This team group is from the first half of the 1925/6 season. The Eagles started the season well although they ended up fourth, eight points behind champions Northampton Reserves. Left to right are (standing) Charlie "Pop" Chester (trainer), Herbert Jephson, Fred Smith, Bob Abbott, Percy Moody, Percy Hill, Ted Humphreys (chairman); (seated) Lew Stockwell, "Paddy" Watson, Harold Alcock, Ralph Chapman, Tommy Irvine, Jack Chester.

This group appeared in the Bedfordshire Times on 13 November 1925-the team is exactly the one that beat Peterborough and Fletton Utd Reserves 3-1 on 31 October, which is probably when it was taken. Looking at the streetscape in the background, it may well have been taken in the backyard of the Horse and Groom, before the players trotted down to the ground.

A slump to twelfth place in 1926/7 was accompanied by the rather bizarre sight of a reserve team that played both in the Beds County League and the Bedford and District League, but when the first team had no Northants League fixture they sometimes did duty in the BCL instead. In November two BCL fixtures were played on the same day, the first team meeting Hitchin Reserves at the Eyrie while the actual reserves played at Leagrave. Yet another miserable exit from the FA Cup, 0-7 at Rothwell at the earliest stage, set the scene for a disappointing year relieved only by a single goal win in May at Luton that secured the County Cup from Biggleswade before a crowd between 5,000 and 6,000: the only goal here came from “Skinner” Mableson, another itinerant Northants-based goalscorer who passed briefly through. A ten-goal defeat in a friendly at St Albans in November by the then Isthmian League leaders emphasised the gulf in class between top amateur sides and run-of-the-mill Northants League ones.

Bedford’s keeper Hugh Bushby turns the ball over the bar in the Northants League match against Wellingborough at the Dog and Duck ground on 20 February 1926, watched by full-back “Scratch” Day on the left. Bedford won 4-3 watched by a 1,300 crowd . Bushby spent most of his career with Bedford Queen’s Park Rangers but was one of numerous amateurs who helped the club out when needed.

In the summer of 1927 the club joined the East Midlands League (EML), another competition aimed at filling in the blank dates in the Northants League calendar. This included Norwich, Coventry and Northampton’s reserve teams and at first seemed genuinely attractive. The two matches against Norwich were played back-to-back at the start of the season and a 3-3 draw at Norwich, creditable enough before a crowd of over 4,000, was surpassed by a 3-2 home win the following week; both were midweek matches with early evening kick-offs.

Later on, however, as happened some 40 years later with the various floodlit leagues, these matches started to be treated as secondary fixtures and weakened sides were often fielded, especially at the end of a season as fixtures piled up. In fact the Eagles had a say in the destination of the EML title, since the point gained by Northampton Reserves in the last fixture of the season at the Eyrie gave them the championship. Coventry Reserves had also attracted a “very good” crowd a few weeks earlier, and they had seen the Eagles win 3-2.

Reproduced courtesy of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph

This team group is from the early part of 1927/8. Back row-Charlie Chester (trainer), Frank Turnell, Herbert Jephson. G Wrigley, Jack Chester, Bob Geary, Norman Watson, Stan Maynard (secretary). Front-Tommy Robson, Tommy Rainbow, Billy Neil, Bert Rogers, Dickie Gunnell. This eleven played on 1 October 1927 at Peterborough, making an early exit from the FA Cup

Peterborough and Fletton United’s Southern League team were comfortably superior at London Road in the FA Cup in October, winning 3-1. In the Northants League a tenth place finish was unspectacular again, and bad weather hit gates severely. Goalkeeper Wrigley may have been the dressing-room scapegoat for a disastrous 2-6 exit from the County Cup at home to Waterlows-he threw his kit in the trainer’s basket, walked out and never played for the club again. Two notable recruits were Frank Turnell, a full back from Wellingborough, and Bert Rogers, an inside forward from Biggleswade who was asked to turn out at centre half in an emergency[6] in January and proceeded to occupy the position almost uninterrupted for the next eleven years. Dickie Gunnell, a left-winger who had been discarded by Northampton, began a six-year tenure in the first team and was still spoken of in the 1950s as the best winger in the club’s history. An equally notable departure was Ralph Chapman, the last link with the team that had launched the club in 1908, who finally hung up his boots, his last first team appearance being in the Waterlow’s cup-tie that also saw the exit of Wrigley.

“It is no longer a secret”, wrote the Bedfordshire Times’s reporter on 24 February 1928, “that Bedford Town, in common with many other clubs of a similar standing, are in a very bad way financially”. Even in February there was already a loss on the season to date of £132 and accumulated debts were £338. Although it was not disclosed until the following summer, the professionals had agreed to play without wages for the last few weeks of 1927/8.

During 1927/8 a Supporters’ Club was formed under the chairmanship of a local bookmaker and Labour councillor, Dick Spencer, but it soon ran into conflict with the football club when members tried to have a say in team selection. In the 1928/9 season they managed to get two representatives on to the club Committee, although they lobbied for two more: “those who pay the piper ought to call at least a bit of the tune”, said chairman Spencer. The Supporters’ Club donations of £42-the equivalent of an extra decent-sized match gate-helped the parent club through a slightly improved season which saw a fifth place League finish, another Beds Cup success (1-0 after extra time against Leagrave at Kenilworth Road in a game described as “almost too painful to watch”), and at last some better progress in the FA Cup: defeats of Luton Amateurs, Desborough (reigning Northants League champions) and Market Harborough took the club to the dizzy heights and unexplored territory of the third qualifying round. Wellingborough were two down at the Eyrie on 27 October well into the second half, watched by 2,478 people, only for two late goals to give them a home replay which they won comfortably 3-1. A similar scene had happened a week earlier in the League against Desborough, when a last minute equaliser was scored by Tommy Rainbow, recently transferred from the Eagles to the visitors. Three thousand are said to have attended on Good Friday to see Rushden beaten 3-0 in the EML, yet only 500 bothered to see Wellingborough in the same competition a few weeks later. Harold Crockford, a much travelled inside forward with much Football League experience, Harry Mingay, who had been Blackpool’s first choice goalkeeper immediately after the War, and Harry Hankey, another experienced player at wing half, inflated the wage bill without bringing much success: at the end of the season Crockford and Hankey were released along with the long-serving Irvine and Jephson, victims of the need to cut back-the latter pair had given the club several good seasons, yet seem to have gone without a word of thanks. Frank Turnell’s career endly very sadly when he lost an eye after an accident at work.

Reproduced courtesy of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph

This team group is from early 1930. Back row-Walter Tysoe (linesman and former player), Charlie Chester (trainer), Norman Watson, Freddie Garratt, Harry Mingay, Bob Geary, ??, Stan Maynard (secretary). Front row: C.W.Cook, W.R.Bird, Joe Edwards, Bert Rogers (captain), James Dillimore, Jack Chester, Dickie Gunnell. Cook and Bird were triallists who were not signed. This photo appeared in the Pink ‘Un for 8 February 1930 but the team is the one that beat Higham 2-0 at home on 18 January.

The decade ended with a strange season in 1929/30. It started with further financial alarms-soon to be repeated on the world stage with the Wall Street crash in October-and chairman Humphreys revealed that he had been subsidising the club’s debts from his own pocket. New Committee members were asked to put up £25 each, joined by those who had agreed to guarantee the club’s overdraft of £200. The Supporters’ Club repeated its demands for more seats on the main Committee and reminding the football club that it had donated £107 over the previous two years, asked for “a measure of control in spending cash”. When this was refused chairman Spencer and his secretary, Bob Baker, announced that the Supporters’ Club would be disbanded “owing to the attitude shown by officials”, and donated their remaining funds of £11 to local hospitals[7] . This bitter quarrel, which would repeat itself several times over the next 40 years, had a surprising sequel the following summer.

On the field, the club announced with a great fanfare that they had signed Sid Hoar, a Lutonian who had been Arsenal’s regular right winger for some years but now wished to go part-time: after playing in a single League match and a friendly Hoar had a better offer from Clapton Orient and departed as quickly as he had come.

Problems at other clubs had reduced the Northants League to just eleven members and to fill up the time it was agreed that clubs would play each other three times instead of twice. In Bedford’s case, four of the clubs were also their opponents in the EML, which meant that those clubs would be met five times. This rapidly proved a recipe for boredom among spectators and reporters-“this League business is becoming quite farcical” wrote the Times man as early as November-and attendances started to dwindle. The team in fact produced a decent season in the League, emulating the best prewar finish of second place, three points behind champions Rushden; they were genuine contenders until Rushden robbed them of a vital two points at Newton Road in the last week of April. Freddie Garratt, a stocky full-back from Wolverton, and Bob Geary, an amateur from Wilstead, were reliable defenders: Rogers was now one of the best centre halves in the area, Gunnell was an incisive winger and Jack Chester, son of the trainer Charlie, could play anywhere, while Norman “Paddy” Watson had settled down at right-half. A 17 year old inside forward, Eric Harrison, had already attracted Football League scouts and threatened to follow in the footsteps of Vic Brown, a young full back, who had moved to Leeds the previous summer. Although a 1-3 defeat at the hands of RAF Henlow –including their future manager, Tim Kelly-in the County Cup final was a disappointing end to the season, there was reason for optimism on the playing side.

Sid Hoar, a cup finalist with Arsenal in 1927, briefly appeared for the Eagles at the start of 1929/30 only to disappear after one League appearance

However, with the economic depression deepening, the reverse was true of the club’s finances. At the May meeting of the East Midlands League, Wellingborough’s representative said his club had just £3 in the bank; Bedford’s secretary Stan Maynard said “We’re about in the same cart”, and called the season just ended the worst financially in the club’s history[8]. At their own AGM in June it was announced that gates were down by over £200 on 1928/9, and subscriptions had reduced from £214 to £131; there was an adverse balance of £224, a whole £150 up on the year before. The rent on the Eyrie was eighteen months overdue. The bank guarantees for £250 had been called in. This looked like the end of the road, and the chairman, Ted Humphreys, asked for a vote on whether to carry on: the verdict was positive, but he offered his own resignation and was followed by secretary Maynard and the rest of the Committee. A few days later, on 5 July 1930 at the Co-Op Hall, a separate meeting was called to elect a new Committee, and the new chairman was none other than Dick Spencer, with Bob Baker as his secretary. In other words the old Supporters’ Club had achieved its wish to have a say in the running of the Football Club in no uncertain terms. Spencer challenged the sixty or so supporters who had turned up with the question “Do you want soccer in Bedford to die or not?”, and was answered by a unanimous positive vote.

Spencer was asked if his being a bookie posed any problems with the Beds FA and replied that he didn’t think so. Before the “crunch” meeting on 5 July, incorporation was briefly considered, but after a few days a sub-committee reported that there was insufficient support for the idea. For some years afterwards, the local press referred to the club as it was reconstituted that summer as a “new club”. [9]

It was a crucial moment, and very nearly ended in disaster; in all the confusion nobody had remembered to send a representative to the AGM of the Northants League, and the club was within a whisker of being expelled until Spencer and Baker were able to explain the problem and the other clubs voted to allow them to remain members. Over the next few weeks, as subsequently became clear, Spencer had assumed some of the larger debts himself and had paid off Humphreys in return for a share of the revenue from stand tickets, as well as coming to a settlement with the landlords, Charles Wells, over the rent. Effectively the club had been re-established on a completely new basis. Somehow, several new players, including goalkeeper Jack Wicks from Wolverton and a highly rated local youngster, Len Potter, had been signed as well as Lew Stockwell, who returned from spells at Wolverton and Wellingborough, and the club was ready to start what, against all the odds, was to be the most successful season in its history.

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-1930-35

[1] He would appear to have been the first full international to have played for the Eagles-the next being Terry Murray (Republic of Ireland) some 35 years later.

2 Evening Telegraph, 2 October 1920

3 They had done well to draw, because at the time the rules allowed only the selection of amateur players resident in the county and they therefore had to play a number of reserves.

4 The correct name of this competition was the Bedfordshire and District League, but this caused so much confusion with the more locally based Bedford and District League that the shorter title became common. It was a descendant of the former Biggleswade League and ancestor of the South Midlands League.

5 These limits remained officially in force until the outbreak of war in 1939.

6 The emergency arose when Percy Moody, the club captain and centre-half, and centre-forward Billy Neil, both from the Luton area, announced on a Friday that they had both signed for Hampstead Town and were leaving immediately. As they were both amateurs there was nothing the club could do about it.

7 Bedfordshire Times, 30 August 1929

8 Northampton Mercury, 23 May 1930.

9 This confusing sequence of events was covered in the Bedfordshire Times for 27 June 1930 and the following month.