Blyth Spartans players who served their country were honoured by the club at the town’s Cenotaph during the 2014 Centenary Remembrance of the Great War, yet the name of one former player does not appear on it.
This is the story of that player: Richard McFadden.
Richard and Cambois born William Jonas have had several books written about their lives and even a London Theatre company has created a play about their place in football history.
A childhood friendship that started in a Blyth school classroom would endure to the very end on the Somme.
Born 1889 to John and Mary in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire. Richard was aged only 3 when his father moved the family down to Blyth to look for work in the local coalfields.
As the friends grew up and started playing football it was with great surprise that neither started their careers with the Spartans, or even in the same team together. Richard started playing for Newburn while William started playing for Jarrow Croft.
Richard married Isabella Robson in 1909, a year later the 20-year-old had become a much sought after forward and joined his hometown club in the summer of 1910 at the cost of 12/6 per game. Blyth paid some of the best wages in the area and having transferred 5 players to First Division clubs in the previous 2 years they were an attractive proposition for a young footballer.
Despite being badly injured earlier in the week at work, Richard made his Spartans debut on 3rd September 1910, a 3,000 crowd witnessed the 1-2 home defeat against his old team Newburn.
After an initial flurry of goals he was soon in demand and moved to Wallsend Park Villa for a fee of £2 in November 1910.
He attracted the attentions of league clubs and after Wallsend finished their season he signed for Clapton Orient in May 1911.
His goalscoring debut against Derby County on 2nd September 1911 was a sign of things to come, he broke Orient’s goalscoring record in his first season, scoring 19 goals only to break the record again in what was to be his final season, 1914/15, with 21 goals.
When Clapton Orient looked to bolster their attacking line Richard recommended his friend William Jonas.
A miner by trade William married Mary Jane Anderson on 16th December 1911, and they lived in Elliot Street, Blyth (the street still exists to this day). While playing for Jarrow Croft his performances also attracted league clubs.
Happily married and enjoying life in his native North East he turned down an offer from Burnley and signed for Havannah Rovers who were a pit/miners team based in Washington. Now working at Washington ‘F’ pit William & Mary Jane moved into a house in Shafto Terrace, New Washington.
68 goals in his two seasons for Rovers proved enough to convince Clapton Orient that Richard’s best friend was indeed the player they needed. In June 1912 the childhood friends were reunited in the capital, they even lived together in the same house in Clapton.
Renowned at Orient’s Millfields Road ground for his goalscoring exploits, Richard was something of a reluctant hero. He received local acclaim after dragging 2 young boys to safety from the River Lea in Clapton.
His reputation soared some time later, while in Clapton Park, he stumbled across a woman screaming that her baby was trapped inside her burning house. Having already received accolades for saving a man from an inferno while living in Blyth, he came to the rescue once more. Yet he had to be persuaded to accept a specially commissioned bravery medal from the local mayor.
William on the other hand, was in the spotlight for rather different reasons. The dashing centre-forward was the darling of the young women of Clapton, so much so that at one point he received 50 love letters a week. Being happily married he even went to the extent of placing an article in the Orient programme politely asking his female admirers to cease writing — declaring he was happily married to his sweetheart Mary Jane.
On the field he could play in almost any position, even making several appearances in goal. He was normally such an unassuming person, however he was sent off during a match at Millwall in January 1915 for fighting with the home goalkeeper Joseph Orme. An incident which started a riot among the 16,900 crowd that had to be quelled by police on horseback!.
Just two months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo lit the touch paper for the First World War, the pair had celebrated thwarting mighty Arsenal at Highbury.
Richard had scored a last-gasp equaliser for Orient to earn a 2-2 draw which denied the Gunners an immediate return to England’s top division. By the close of the 1914/15 season, Richard’s goal-getting was causing a stir in England, prompting Middlesbrough to make an offer of £2,000. In November 1914, he had scored for a Southern XI side against England at Fulham’s Craven Cottage, earning the plaudits of the Football Editor at the Daily Express who was clearly unaware of his origins:
‘He is rather short for a forward, yet sturdily built, and he certainly knows how to make the best of his weight, a very tricky player who always troubled the England defence. I hope we see a lot more of him, especially in an England shirt.’
Richard was lined up to win his first Scotland cap when events in Europe put an end to the dream. Although war had raged since August 1914 English football had soldiered on. This sparked public outcry that professional footballers continued to play while young men were dying on the front line.
16 members of the Hearts team had already responded to Sir George McCrae’s call for footballers to join up. In London, news of the Scottish footballers’ major contribution to the war effort filtered through to the O’s players via team mate Robert Dalrymple (the Glaswegian inside-forward had won a Scottish Cup runners’ up medal with Hearts in 1903).
Eventually, a meeting was convened at Fulham Town Hall on 15 December 1914 to encourage footballers in England to enlist. That night 10 Orient players signed up, led by their skipper Fred Parker, Richard and William felt duty bound to serve their King & Country.
They were the inaugural recruits of the 17th Middlesex Regiment, colloquially known as the Footballers’ Battalion, and were later joined by players from across the country.
Almost 21,000 turned out to witness Orient’s last match, a 2-0 victory against Leicester Fosse on 24 April 1915. Straight after the final whistle the players changed into their uniforms conducted a military parade around the Millfields Road ground ahead of their departure.
Childhood friends, classmates, team-mates, Company Serjeant Major McFadden and Private Jonas were now comrades.
Richard’s heroism in his life before the war carried on in uniform and resulted in him being awarded the Military Medal for ‘Bravery in the Field’. It was known that he often went out into No Man’s Land to rescue wounded comrades. He was also in-line for a commission as an officer, before the tragic events of 1916.
Little more than a year after their final game of football, from a muddy hellhole one pal would bid a final farewell to another.
With their Battalion under orders to clear Delville Wood of Germans, they became trapped in a trench under heavy fire. On the 27th July 1916 William turned to his friend and said: “Goodbye Mac”.
“Best of luck. Special love to my sweetheart Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient.”
He jumped out of the trench and was killed instantly!. His body was never recovered, he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
Richard had regularly written to the club throughout the war and his final emotional correspondence reached the club in November telling of the tragic events in Delville Wood.
Of that day he wrote: “Before I could reply to him, he was up and over,”
“No sooner had he jumped up out of the trench, my best friend of nearly 20 years was killed before my eyes. Words cannot express my feelings at this time.”
Tragically, by the time the letter was published, Richard had succumbed to his injuries from a shell blast.
On 22nd October 1916, he was leading troops to the line along a trench near the village of Serre when he was hit by a shell blast.
Seriously wounded, he died next day in a field hospital, he is buried at Couin British Cemetery.
One of their team mates George Scott also died on the Somme, Scott was one of Orient’s best pre war players. Born in West Stanley, Co Durham, in 1885, he played for Braeside FC and Sunderland West End before joining Orient in July 1908. He was a centre-half, famed for his bandy legs. A month into the Somme, 30-year-old Scott was wounded, taken prisoner and died at a German field hospital on August 16, 1916. He is buried at St Souplet British Cemetery.
To this day the 3 players are still remembered by the Leyton Orient fans, making several trip to the graves of their fallen heroes.
Books have been written about the fallen O’s players and they are celebrated in the play by writer Michael Head called ‘The Greater Game’.
Based on the book ‘They Took The Lead’ by Leyton Orient historian Stephen Jenkins it tells the true story of the men who swapped the football fields of London for the battle fields of the Somme in 1916.
In June 2014 over 200 Leyton Orient fans joined local dignitaries at the unveiling of a memorial to the 3 players in the French town of Flers.
Stephen Jenkins and the Leyton Orient supporters even took the descendants of Richard McFadden, William Jonas and George Scott to visit the memorial and their resting places.
Richard even has a block of flats named in his honour at the recently renovated Leyton Orient ground.
At the start of the 1914/15 season such was call to arms that local teams and leagues closed down for the duration of the ensuing conflict citing lack of players and supporters.
A Blyth training game was interrupted by Earl Grey and Lord Howick who had set up a stall in the main stand enticing the young men in the 1,000+ crowd to volunteer by making patriotic speeches.
Jock McKay, who had signed for the club from Southend United in the summer, held four First Class Admiralty certificates he was the first Spartan to sign up.
Richard McFadden aside, several other Spartans lost their lives in the Great War.
Peter Mackin, George Robertson, Dan Dunglinson, Jack Robson, Patrick McLaughlin and Jack Nichol all signed up and died serving their king & country.
Of the fallen Peter Mackin was probably the most famous Spartan largely due to scoring the club’s first goal from open play at the newly opened Croft Park and the club’s first ever goal in the FA Cup.
Starting at Sunderland, Peter transferred to Lincoln City where he scored 21 goals in 59 appearances. After leaving Lincoln City he played for Wallsend Park Villa before transferring to Blyth Spartans in 1908.
Peter worked in the Blyth Shipyard, to where he would walk from his home in nearby Maddison Street. A father of four children he was in his mid 30s when he signed up for service with the Northumberland Fusiliers (24th Tyneside Irish Battalion).
After being wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, he was killed at the Battle of Arras in France on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, aged 39.
Peter Mackin was the key figure for Spartans as they became one of the strongest non-league teams in the North East. An inspirational, forceful leader – a “generalissimo” according to reports from the time, Peter made up for an almost complete lack of pace with the ability to bewilder opponents with incredible dribbling skills and ferocious finishing power.
An instant crowd favourite, he cemented his status as a Spartans legend with the brilliant hat-trick he scored when Spartans won the Tynemouth Infirmary Cup in 1909. Peter was carried from the field shoulder-high by jubilant supporters, in those days crowds were regularly 3-4000.
His death stunned a town already used to losing its sons. A fund was created to support his family, and to this end Blyth Spartans Ladies, one of the most successful of the “Munitionettes” football teams was formed. They raised over £2,000 for service charities – a huge amount at that time.
The other former Spartans who perished were;
Jack Nichol died on the 10th August, 1915, at the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey
He was a Lance Corporal with the 8th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers. Jack’s pre-war job as an attendant at Morpeth asylum. Jack has the distinction of scoring in Spartans’ record 18-0 win.
Patrick McLaughlin was killed on 27th March 1916
Patrick aged 32, was from Hebburn and left behind a wife and three young children.
He was killed by a sniper, the Northumberland Fusilier’s name is on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.
George Robertson was killed on July 1915 in with the 6th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry.
Aged 37 George who was a bank manager from Rothbury had the unique distinction of being Blyth Spartans first ever captain and first ever goal scorer!.
Dan Dunglinson died on the 1st July 1916.
Dan was another club captain and he died in the catastrophe that was the first day of the Battle of the Somme serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers. He had signed for Newcastle United from Spartans prior to the war.
Jack Robson was killed in action in July 1917.
Before the war he was a tailor at Cambois Co-op. Like Peter Mackin he took part in the inaugural match at Croft Park.
Lest we forget…
Acknowledgements, Credits & Thankyou’s:
Steve Jenkins, Leyton Orient FC’s Great War historian.
Thanks to Steve for taking the time to help with this blog and sharing information.
Check out his website for more details on the players:
Ken Sproat‘s excellent Blyth Spartans history book, ‘We’re the Famous Blyth Spartans‘ provided vital information on the Blyth players who perished in the Great War.
Several websites have been used for research including:
Several online newspaper articles about the Great War and the Footballers Battalion have been used for research material.