Travelling Tales

One way or another, travelling featured in a lot of the more bizarre episodes of this part of Bedford Town’s history. Here are a few of them.

The visit of Raunds Town in the first Northants League season on 14 November 1908 saw the first of many instances of teams getting lost and arriving late: the match ended in semi-darkness, which was no doubt irritating to spectators, although it’s hard to follow the reporter’s comment that “it was partly due to this that the homesters [Bedford] lost”. Presumably it was equally dark for both sides?

Travel to away matches by supporters was obviously rather limited, especially in the pre-1914 years when motorised transport was expensive and unreliable, but plenty of Eagles supporters did go away when they could. In February 1911 “five brake loads” –horse-drawn apparently-went to Langford to create a “bumper” crowd for a North Beds Charity Cup match. Larger groups probably went to places such as Wellingborough, Kettering, Rushden and Higham that could easily be reached by train[1] . Trips to somewhere like Raunds, which would have been a very roundabout journey by train (via either Kettering or Cambridge), involved taking to the brakes again, and in November 1912 the vehicle (motorised by now) left the Midland Hotel at 1.10 pm, fare 2s 6d-a long trip to see the Eagles go out of the FA Cup by the odd goal of three. At Wellingborough in September 1919, the 300 Eagles supporters outnumbered the home fans. By now, motor buses were more common and often left from chairman Ted Humphreys’ pub, the Commercial Tavern in Commercial Road-it cost fans 1s 6d to get to Biggleswade from there in January 1920, leaving at 1.15.

Late arrivals due to breakdowns were all too common. The Eagles went by “saloon car” to Fletton, Peterborough, in March 1920 but broke down on the way, which probably incurred a fine for the late start (a similar event on the way to Desborough in December 1926 cost the club five shillings). The worst kind of breakdown risked by some travelling fans in October that year was a puncture, when “many supporters took advantage of the splendid weather and cycled over” to Rushden; it isn’t recorded how many pedalled off early for the return journey as the team went down 1-6. Two unemployed men who walked all the way to Higham in October 1921 to watch the match were not much luckier but this time the margin of defeat was only a single goal. Seven hundred Eagles supporters went to Higham by special train the following year for 2s 6d each, and three busloads also went, all to see a goalless draw in the FA Cup. Bedford supporters made up over a quarter of the gate at Vauxhall Motors, Luton, in the Beds County League in February 1924-the total attendance being 20 including six Eagles fans.

Trips to Luton for County Cup finals usually involved special trains, or extra carriages, as in May 1927 when the 2.15 from Bedford “was doubled in length and engine power” to get Eagles supporters to Kenilworth Road to join the 5,000 crowd. The entry into the East Midland League in 1927 brought the chance of a longer trip to Norwich, where 4,000 people saw the early season match, and some supporters recalled that trip with pleasure seventy years later in The Eyrie Roar (1999). In later seasons, on some journeys supporters were allowed to travel on the team bus in return for a contribution to costs (10s in the case of Norwich).

Driving was still a fairly hit-and-miss business especially in bad weather. Travelling to Peterborough to play their reserves in a Northants League match in November 1927, the players shared several cars. On a foggy day several got lost on the way there, delaying the start by half an hour, and on the way back some of them got completely lost and found themselves in Cambridge, fortunately without accidents.

With many of their players living at a distance Bedford had problems even for home games in getting all their players there on time. Evening matches almost invariably caused problems, starting as they did about 5.30 or 6pm; but when Nuneaton Reserves visited for the only time in October 1924, Bedford may have been the more embarrassed when only eight of their players were ready for the scheduled start; Nuneaton faced a 70 mile journey home and the teams changed straight round at half time. Centre-half Percy Moody, who lived in Luton, was red-faced in October 1927 when he was supposed to catch a train from Luton en route to Peterborough for an FA Cup tie, changing at Wellingborough where he would meet the others and then catch a connection on to the Northampton-Peterborough line. However, he jumped on to a train whose first stop was at Leicester and failed to arrive at all; Jack Chester had to deputise in an unfamiliar position and the tie was lost.

Reproduced courtesy of the Northamptonshire Telegraph

Scottish inside forward Tommy Irvine was one of several Luton-based players who were embarrassed by getting on the wrong train en route to the Eyrie

The same thing happened to Tommy Irvine, another Luton resident, two years later-his train raced through Bedford, first stop Wellingborough, making him miss an excellent East Midlands League victory against Kettering’s full first team despite the Eagles being forced to field several reserves, one of them of course covering for him. Arthur Russell, a veteran striker signed from Rushden later that season, missed his train from Rushden to Bedford for his debut against Wellingborough in March but promptly jumped on his bike and arrived shortly before kick-off; in true Roy-of-the-Rovers style, he hit a hat-trick in a 7-0 victory.

Arthur Russell, seen here in his Bolton Wanderers days, pedalled from Rushden to the Eyrie in time to hit a debut hat-trick. Photograph by kind permission of his grandson, David Russell.

There were echoes of an Ealing comedy in another incident involving trains in December 1930, when Desborough were due at the Eyrie. They were supposed to have an “arrangement” with the LMS Railway that when they were travelling south on a Saturday, a particular express would stop at Desborough and Rothwell station (long closed) to pick them up. But on this occasion nobody had told the driver, and the players and officials must have watched with mounting alarm as the express roared through leaving them stranded. By the time they reached Bedford they were 45 minutes late and although the match kicked off, there was never any prospect of finishing it and it was abandoned due to bad light after an hour with Desborough losing 1-2 [2]. They had even less success when it was replayed in February, going down 2-6.

Holiday times presented problems of their own. On Boxing Day, 1935, Biggleswade could muster only eight players for the “derby” match with the Eagles at Fairfield which always attracted a big crowd; the absentees had all missed their buses or lifts, which may have been connected to over-festive celebrations, although they had been beaten 0-4 at the Eyrie on Christmas afternoon. With the kick off already delayed by 15 minutes, two members of the junior Biggleswade United club who had come to watch volunteered to help out, but the Waders had to field only ten men and lost again, 1-4. Their chairman wrote a personal apology to Bedford supporters who had made the trip.[3] At Desborough in February 1937, a home player called Chambers did eventually arrive, 35 minutes late, but changed in such a hurry that he took the field in his collar and tie to great amusement.[4]

Especially later in the 30s the expansion of the Northants League brought longer journeys, to and from places like Wisbech and Spalding, as well as Stamford, which had previously been the longest journey for the players. Bedford’s driver got lost on the way to Wisbech in April 1937, misunderstanding directions from one of the locals, and the team arrived 35 minutes late. Spalding asked for a later than normal kick off when they visited the Eyrie the same season, yet still managed to arrive 15 minutes late. Minutes of League committee meetings, which were often published in the local press, regularly contained complaints about persistent last starts.

With no mobile phones, texts or social media to get messages sent quickly, clubs had to improvise, and it was in that spirit that many clubs seem to have managed to get matches played despite all the problems fate could throw at them. Arriving for their away game with Northampton Nomads just after Christmas 1934, the Eagles found themselves in an unforeseen colour clash. The Nomads lent the Eagles their change strip of blue and white striped shirts, but could only find seven of them. Two players played, therefore, in their own white shirts but to distinguish them from the Nomads they wore what were charmingly described as “blue ribbons round the tops of their knickers", while Bert Lawson borrowed secretary Bob Baker's grey pullover. Nobody complained, least of all the young Kempston amateur Alf Caves, who marked his Eagles debut with five goals in an 11-1 victory[5].

[1] In the case of Rushden or Higham this involved changing at Wellingborough on to a branch line that closed in 1959.

[2] Bedford Record, 9 December 1930.

[3] Biggleswade Chronicle, 27 December 1935.

[4] Pink ‘Un, 13 February 1937.

[5] Bedford Record, 1 January 1935