You might assume from the title of this talk that I am interested, even knowledgeable, about sport. I will let one of my junior school teachers put you in the picture. I came home with my school report when I was nine years old, a serious business. The last thing I expected was for my mother to read it and then laugh out loud. Under the heading of ‘sport’ Mr. Fielding had written: “Elizabeth has mastered the art of undressing slowly. She is always the last pupil to arrive on the sports field, but the first to return to the classroom”. Spot on! Nothing changed, and my interest in these sportsmen has usually come from an interest in family or local history rather than sport. There will be no mention this evening of the offside rule.
My father loved football, but it was the skill of the players that mattered to him rather than loyalty to a particular club. I think that’s why the games I remember him telling me about were the ones where he saw Tommy Lawton play for Notts. County.
I was really thrilled, then, when an article on Tommy Lawton appeared in the Evening Post in June 2007.There was a picture of his home, Richmond House, on Old Hall Drive where he lived while he was in Nottingham, and it was the very house I see out of our bedroom window, silhouetted against the sky, when I wake up in the morning. There were pictures of Tommy both inside and outside the house.
I shall be missing out great swathes of Tommy’s life, so will start with a synopsis from his biography “Get in there”:
“Tommy Lawton is England’s greatest ever goalscorer. His record of 44 goals in 43 internationals is unsurpassed and in all he scored an astonishing 635 goals in his 731 game career playing for Burnley, Everton, Chelsea, Notts. County, Brentford and Arsenal. Tall, handsome and as strong as an ox he was a national treasure and a true ‘Boy’s Own’ hero.”
Tommy Lawton was born in Bolton, Lancashire, in October 1919. His parents were comfortably off compared to many of their neighbours, as his father had a good job on the railways and his mother worked at the local textile mill. A job she gave up, of course, when Tommy was born.
When Tommy was about three-years-old his father left home, and so Tommy and his mother went to live with her parents and three brothers in their back to back house, where life was much more of a struggle. All the Riley men were miners, but as the local mines were coming to an end of their productive lives, and there was a recession, they were lucky to work one day a week. Tommy’s mother went back to work at the mill, from 6.30am to 6.30pm, in effect supporting the whole family. Grandma Riley took on the role of mother, and it was a happy home despite the poverty.
The conversation at home was dominated by talk about football, and when Tommy went out to play it was to play football with the other lads.
Tommy showed talent at an early age; he was seven years old when his teacher selected him to play in the school football team. However, the teacher had noticed that Tommy always kicked the ball with his right foot, and he told him that if he wanted to be a professional player he had to be two-footed. He told Tommy to “Report to me after school at 4.00 o’clock, and we’ll sort it out”. The teacher was waiting for him with a plimsoll for his right foot and a football boot for his left foot. The leather ball was heavy, weighing 15 ounces dry. The teacher threw it hard at Tommy telling him to kick it with his left foot. This went on for half an hour. Sometimes Tommy instinctively kicked the ball with his right foot, but it was painful, and after a few weeks, the teacher decided the problem was “sorted”, and this particular practice was then done weekly.
Every Sunday the Riley family went to church in the morning and evening; Tommy also going to Sunday School in the afternoon. Another essential part of Sunday for the local men, all miners, was the afternoon football match. Each man put sixpence in the pot, so that the winning team received a shilling each to spend. Keen to win, then, the Riley’s asked nine-year-old Tommy to play on their side. Rather than play in his usual position of centre forward, he was put on the wing to give him some protection! Time after time he would run through the burly miners and score, to the pride of the Riley family. After this experience, he was never intimidated by anyone on the field.
When Tommy was eleven, and about to move to senior school, he was terrified that there would be no interest in football at his new school. He needn’t have worried.
The headmaster of the new school had insisted on a football field on the site, and he soon spotted Tommy’s talent. One day Tommy returned from school to find a letter waiting for him. He had won a scholarship, and would shortly be attending a new school. The same worry returned: would they be keen on football at his new school. Lawton’s biography makes the rather sweeping statement that every man in Lancashire was either mad on football or raced whippets. None of Tommy’s headmasters raced whippets. Even when that headmaster retired and a new one took his place, football was high on his priorities.
All Tommy’s matches were supported by Granddad Riley and the last two headmasters; people called them the three musketeers.
Tommy left school at fifteen, and heard that Bolton Wanderers wanted to see him to sign a contract with them. It was a dream come true. Accompanied by the three musketeers, he sat in the office ready to sign the contract. He did have a problem that all lads in his position had. He had left school at fifteen, but could not play professional football until he was seventeen. It was usual for the directors to offer a job to cover the two years until the lad could play professionally. Granddad Riley asked the directors what job they had lined up for Tommy. “Butcher’s boy”. Granddad Riley walked out, followed by Tommy and the two headmasters. Tommy was so mad that he nearly went back to sign, but he thought of how Granddad had really been like a wonderful father to him, and couldn’t do it.
Not long afterwards he was called to Burnley, and this time the contract included a rented house for the family near to the football ground, a job for Granddad Riley as groundsman, and a job for Tommy in the Burnley office. What a change to the family fortunes. After 13 year of supporting the family, Mother could leave work, now that two incomes were coming in and there was no rent to pay.
Tommy was playing brilliantly, but continued to learn, too. The office was quiet in the summer, so he played cricket. In the summer of 1936 he established himself as a big–hitting batsman. All the Lancashire League sides had a top professional, and Burnley’s was the West Indies’ fast bowler Manny Martindale. For close rivals, Nelson, it was another West Indies’ star Leary Constantine. Tommy was taught how to cope with a fast bowler, and also how to deal with Leary Constantine’s famous slower ball, which had caused problems for many a Test cricketer.
The game went well for Tommy, but the experience made him think about football, too. If the speed of the ball could cause problems for a batsman, then if he could control the speed at which he headed the ball that would cause problems for the opposing side. This was something he practiced that summer at every opportunity.
Tommy was happy at Burnley and his time there was successful, but by Christmas 1936 Burnley could no longer resist the money that was being offered for their young star. The transfer fee for the seventeen-year-old was £6,500, a record for a player under twenty-one.
On New Year’s Day 1937 Tommy caught the train from Burnley to Liverpool, where he was to play for Everton. His idol, Dixie Dean, played for Everton. Dixie Dean proved to be a great mentor to Tommy; he seemed to remind him of his younger self. He taught Tommy the further skills of heading a ball, hanging a ball from the stand, and explaining to Tommy that he always had to jump above the ball to direct it accurately. Tommy spent hours perfecting this skill. Of course, it was rather boring for Dixie Dean to watch, so for a change he suggested Tommy dribble the ball round the touch line, stop, and head the ball to hit the ‘B’ for ‘Barnsley’ on the advert for Barnsley Bitter. He was then to dribble the ball round the pitch again and head the ball to hit the ‘B’ in ‘Beer’. This pattern was to be repeated until Dixie told Tommy to stop. No one was more amazed than Dixie when Tommy did exactly that.
Before Tommy was twenty he had played for England, but when war was declared he was devastated to realise his career was over. However, it was soon realised that it would be important to keep up morale, and football could help with that. Tommy was assigned to a regiment of footballers who played for teams near where they were stationed. He still played in International matches which entertained the troops on leave.
In January 1941 Tommy married Rosaleen after a whirlwind romance. Only six months later he wondered why she had lost interest in him. He did not want to give up on his marriage, and thought a change of scene might help. He was happy at Everton, and they were happy with him, so everyone was shocked when he asked for a transfer, as he kept his marital problems to himself.
Tommy was called up to play for England versus Scotland at Wembley on 17th January 1942; it would be his debut at Wembley. It was a special match as the proceeds were to go to the Aid to Russia Fund, headed by Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine. Perhaps appropriately snow fell every day during the week before the match, and the groundsmen painted blue lines on the icy snow. Normally the game would have been cancelled, but it was for such a good cause that it was decided to go ahead. England won 3-0, two goals being scored by Tommy.
You can imagine his emotions as he came off the field, elation tinged with sadness that Granddad Riley had not lived long enough to see him fulfil this long held ambition. He was asked to report to Mr. Ewbank, the Treasurer of the Football Association. Mr. Ewbank, a Dickensian figure, had a copy of Bradshaw’s Rail Guide in front of him. Without even asking Tommy to sit down, Mr Ewbank began:
“Now look here, Lawton. The train fare from Aldershot is only seven shillings and fourpence”.
“So why have you claimed twelve shillings and sixpence?”
“Well there’s five bob for food – or aren’t I supposed to eat?”
“That’s still only twelve and four pence.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“What about the other twopence?”
(Bear in mind that Tommy had heard that the match had raised £26,500 for Mrs. Churchill’s fund).
“I’ll tell you what happened to the twopence,” he told Mr. Ewbank, “I was taken short twice on my way here. You can take my expenses and my match fee and put it all in the fund for Mrs. Churchill. And don’t ever talk to me like that again.” And off went Tommy, slamming the door behind him.
On the 7th November 1945 Tommy was transferred to Chelsea for £14,000. A centre forward as talented as Tommy was always targeted by the opposing team, so visits to Arthur Stollery, the masseur at Chelsea, were frequent and they became firm friends. When Stollery was sacked from Chelsea he saw it as an opportunity to move on and manage a club. He asked Tommy if he was ever thinking of leaving Chelsea to sign for him. Tommy promised he would, and they shook hands on that promise.
That’s how Tommy Lawton came to play for Notts. County, who were in the Third Division. The £20,000 transfer fee was a British record, and very controversial. The football world was stunned, but a trip to Nottingham confirmed Tommy’s resolve to join County. He was to be well treated and was promised a good job when his playing days were over. The newspapers were full of the news, and Notts. County fans were jubilant.
A national newspaper wrote:
“He [Tommy] and his wife and baby have also been provided with a modern detached house in Mapperley, on the outskirts of Nottingham. Lawton’s grey sports car will become familiar in the neighbourhood.”
It was the match against Forest at the City Ground on 3rd December 1949 that has stayed in the memory of both sets of supporters, thanks to a goal of such breathtaking power and beauty that it became part of Nottingham’s football folklore.
“Tommy, having a great game, was well outside the penalty area when Frank Broome hit a high outswinging corner from the right. Lawton, running in at speed, soared in a majestic leap to meet Broome’s cross, outjumping the red-shirted defenders by at least two feet. “Get in there,” he shouted as he met the ball plumb in the middle of his forehead and smashed a header into the back of the net with such force and pace that it bulged as if from a ferocious shot. The Forest supporters, at first instantly stunned and silenced, then sportingly joined their rapturous rivals in sustained applause to acclaim a truly fantastic goal.”
The 37,903 spectators were still talking about that goal 50 years later.
It would be lovely to think of Tommy, Rosaleen and their daughter living happily at Richmond House, but the marriage was no happier at Nottingham than it had been at Everton. Tommy would return home to find that Rosaleen had left a note to say she had “gone shopping”. These “shopping expeditions” led to Tommy divorcing Rosaleen for adultery with a company director, Adrian Van Giffen, on 14th March 1951, a scandal at the time.
He was driving his grey sports car down Mapperley Hall Drive when he saw a pretty young woman with a pushchair. He said afterwards it was love at first sight. Gay, who was to be Tommy’s second wife, lived at number 18 Mapperley Hall Drive. She was married to Rex Rose, so there was a second divorce scandal.
Tommy’s football career continued at Brentford and then Arsenal, before he went into management. This was not successful. He returned to Notts. County, but was sacked. Unprepared for life beyond football, some dark years followed, before the Editor of the Evening Post involved Tommy in football again.
Tommy and Gay were happily married, and returned to Mapperley Park to live in a flat here. Their two children went to Wyvil School, and their son, Tom went on to the High School.
Tommy and Gay became good friends with Rex Rose, Gay’s ex husband who lived at no 18 Mapperley Hall Drive, which brings me very nicely to number 15, almost opposite, and the home of my second sportsman,
The Gunn family produced four famous cricketers: William, William’s nephews, John and George, and George’s son George Vernon.
William Gunn was born at St. Anne’s in 1858. He played internationally in both cricket and football. In first class cricket he played professionally for Nottinghamshire from 1880 to 1904, and represented England in eleven Test matches. In football, he played for both Notts County and Nottingham Forest as an amateur and played twice for England, scoring one goal in the inaugural 1884 British Home Championship.
He founded the sports equipment firm Gunn and Moore in 1885, known particularly for the manufacture of cricket bats.
William died on January 29th 1921, and is buried in the Rock Cemetery.
John was born in 1876 and lived on Holme Road West Bridgford. My grandparents lived on the same road, which is how I came to find out about the family.
George was born in 1879 at Hucknall, and died in 1958 in Sussex. George and John practised cricket as boys on The Forest.
His career seems to have gone on forever. He played in fifteen tests from 1902 to 1932, in the course of which he made more runs for Nottinghamshire than anyone else, before or since, 31,592 at 35.7. He scored 164 not out on his fiftieth birthday. George and his son, George Vernon share thee record of being the only father and son to score centuries in the same innings of a championship match.
Both John and George were fine musicians, singing in the Lady Bay male voice choir. In his youth George even contemplated a career as a pianist. George and his wife, Flo, bought the house on Mapperley Hall Drive at the start of the Second World War, and it was to be their last home. His daughter Pauline recalled:
“He was a beautiful pianist, and one of my fondest memories is walking home along Mapperley Hall Drive after work, in the summer when the windows were open, and hearing him play his favourite music…he had a beautiful touch, he loved to play, you could tell just by the way he touched the keys.”
Frank Stokes, George’s close neighbour during those years, also remembers George with great affection. ‘Oh, he was a hero of mine. I’d seen him when I was a boy playing his wonderful innings, so to have him living at the back of my house was a great thrill.’ George was a great raconteur. ‘He’d come to the fence and tell me extraordinary tales of his great days.’ George coached his two small sons. ‘He’d make them play very straight, head down, nose over the ball. “Don’t look up to Jesus” he’d say if they lifted their heads.’ And he would take them down to the nearby police ground, where he acted as unpaid coach to the powerful Notts Police XI.
I first heard of my third sportsman when I was a little girl. All the time I was growing up, at Wollaton, our neighbour was a Mrs. Johnson. She was older than my parents, and her son had married about the time I was born; I don’t think I’d ever seen him. My mother said his name was Royston Johnson. Not Roy she emphasised, thousands of boys are called Roy, but Mrs Johnson and my mother only knew of one other man called Royston, a cricketer. My mother explained that a sportsman’s career was usually quite short, and so they often saved up to buy a business so that they could earn a living after retiring from their sport. She said this cricketer had bought a hotel and called it ‘The Royston Hotel’. Outside it had a sort of metal sculpture of cricket stumps, and a bat and ball, as a reminder of his cricketing career.
When we moved to Mapperley Park there was the Royston Hotel, now sadly demolished. I typed “Royston” and “cricket” into Google and only the hotel and the Royston Cricket Club came up. Last year I read in the Post that Nottinghamshire Cricket Club have a museum, so I contacted them. Peter Wynne-Thomas replied:
“I can confirm that no-one of the name Royston has ever played for Nottinghamshire.
There was a pub at 36 Mansfield Road called the Rose of England and then renamed The Yorker, but has now reverted back to its original name. The sign on one side has WG Grace and the other Fred Spofforth.”
I replied to thank him and explain exactly where the hotel was, but have not had a reply. I would love to know more.
7 February 2011
Addendum 17 June 2013
Charles Standish “Charlie” Elliott, was born in Bolsover on 24th April 1912. He played cricket for Derbyshire, and went on to become quite a famous international umpire between 1932 and 1953. In retirement he ran the guest house called the Royston Hotel on Mansfield Road, overlooking Carrington, where the sign of the cricket stumps were so familiar. He died on the 1st January 2004, just eight years short of his century. Sadly, the guest house is now demolished.
“Get in there! Tommy Lawton My friend, My father”. By Barrie Williams and Tom Lawton Junior. Published by Vision Sports Publishing in 2010.
“The Trent Bridge Battery, the story of the sporting Gunns”. By Basil Haynes and John Lucas. Published in association with Gunn & Moore. Willow Books. Collins. 8 Grafton Street, London W1. 1985.