In December 1892 Luton Town won 3 0 in Watford against West Herts. The Herts Advertiser described the scene at the final whistle –
“You should have seen those Luton spectators at the close of the game. Talk about excitement – that’s not the word for it. People down by Oxhey must have thought that the inmates of Leavesdon asylum were abroad [everywhere]. Galbraith was surrounded and almost carried to the pavilion. One enthusiast shouted after that brilliant player; ‘That’s the way to rub it into them’”.
Luton Town were formed in 1885 yet by 1892 fans displayed such excitement about a win against a Watford team. What is even more remarkable is that the first Association Football club in the town was only formed in 1879. How did the new game of football create such fervour amongst Lutonians in 7 short years? I hope to answer that question and provide an insight into all aspects of the Victorian Luton supporter.
In 1885, the only complete day off for people was Sunday, a day of Church or Chapel, a walk and quiet rest – though with many large families some may not have experienced much quiet. Boisterous games were discouraged and banned in the parks in the town. The Factory Act of 1850 had given people Saturday afternoon off work and the question was what to do with it. Before football arrived, cricket, cycling and athletics were the main sporting pastimes. While these were enjoyable sports for the participant they lacked a certain something for many a spectator. Perhaps missing was a sense of belonging, a loyalty or just getting very excited and losing yourself in a moment of pure joy.
Cricket was the national game but only a Summer fair weather game. We know that Luton Wanderers were a cricket team from High Town that played on Bell’s Close. They met in the Cricketer’s Arms ( now Abam foods) on High Town Road in September 1880 to decide how to keep fit in the Winter months. Initially they decided to play Soccer or Rugger but quickly plumped for the former (there are only a handful of mentions of rugby being played in the town from 1880 onwards.)
The new game of football offered much for the player but what did it offer for the spectator?
I believe that the main reason is simply that explosion of emotion when a goal goes in. A friend brought his sister to the first football game when she was in her 30’s. Luton v Oxford was a top of the table clash and we were 1 0 down 3 minutes into injury time. Two quick fire goals sent the Luton fans into a frenzy – a frenzy that only football fans know exists. My friends sister joined in that frenzy and afterwards said that she did not know that emotion existed – until those goals went in. Living for those moments is why football exploded across the country and the world.
There were other benefits to being a spectator. As well as being out in the fresh air the spectator was offered a sense of belonging – you and a lot of other strangers had tied your support to a team and you went through the ups and downs together. Friendships could be formed with people you saw regularly around the ropes. Being able to expunge that horrible defeat with a chat or relive yet another J.C. Lomax goal and superb display were as important then as today.
The highly competitive nature of football might appeal to you. However, there were no Leagues in Luton until the 1890’s so competition had a small “c”. Up to 1885, Wanderers and Excelsior were the major clubs in town with Albany and Luton Rovers at the second level with many others trailing in quality. I have not come across any details of spectator rivalry in Luton before 1885. The town itself had a rivalry with St. Albans which appears to have stemmed from the two places vying for dominance in the hat trade from the 1830’s. St. Albans, Hitchin, Hemel and Bedford had “Town” teams that represented everyone and put their respective towns on the map. Luton lacked a Town club until J.C. Lomax and George Deacon masterminded the 11th April 1885 meeting at the Town Hall. Now the town had representatives on the football pitch – a team that would make the people proud.
I have to emphasise that football was new in 1885 – it was new to be able to support your town team on a Saturday afternoon with your mates and shout, cheer, boo but also learn and educate others including the referee. Perhaps meeting in the pub before the game – the Plume of Feathers advertised itself as a “Football House” It was also a bonus for lads that the fairer sex attended games too. It could be difficult to meet the opposite sex due to the separation of jobs and the lack of meeting places. Standing next to someone for 90 plus minutes could provide an opportunity. The Luton Times reported on a game at Easter 1885 –
“Clapton Pilgrims v. Luton Excelsior before 1,500 to 2,000 people, and amongst them at least 100 of the fairer sex. I also noticed the Mayor, The Rev. T. Beeward and family, Mr Joe Hawkes, Mr W.J. Cawdell, Mr Bootham, Mr Southam and the Misses Southam, and a lot of others, for the first time many of them I am told, and they were highly amused, though they could not, of course, enter into all the points of the game.”
That clip also shows that the new game of football attracted the Mayor, the reverend as well as the working class. Everyone was equal when lining the ropes of a football pitch.
What would a spectator expect to find at an 1885 Luton Town match at Dallow Lane? A field and a rope around the pitch to keep spectators back – that was it. There was not even a urinal (singular) until the start of the 1886/87 season. Duckboards, known as racks, were placed around the pitch to keep the fans out of the mud. It seems a step was added to the duckboards in 1892 to increase the capacity and the percentage of those who could see the game. Please see the article on the Dallow Lane ground HERE for the full story of the development of the ground.
Various vendors paid the Club to sell nuts, fruit, sweets, seafood and coffee at the ground. This gave the club valuable revenue but also helped the spectators experience. Those vendors were not the only ones who realised that football was not a passing fad and that there was money to be made. A November 1890 newspaper advert – “gentlemen going to Wolverton on Saturday next should take one of Beecroft and Company’s mackintoshes.” An astute advert bearing in mind the lack of cover at matches.
The replay of the Wolverton game saw the first reported trouble. On the 8th November 1890 Luton played Wolverton in the Kettering Charity Cup. The newspapers took up the story in great detail.
“Some of the Wolverton umpire’s decisions were undoubtably wrong, and his persistence roused the ire of the spectators, who manifested their disapproval in an unmistakable manner. He was hustled when leaving the field.”
In the following weeks the Luton Reporter carried two letters from Wolverton supporters about the events after the game.
“Will you kindly allow me a little space to protest against the disgraceful and cowardly conduct of a portion of the Luton spectators towards the Wolverton football team, on Saturday last. The hooting and yelling while the play was on would have done credit to a pack of Zulus. When the game was ended some of the roughs commenced knocking our men down and beating them with sticks. The umpire and several of our players are covered with bruises, while a reporter had his clothes nearly torn off his back. Hoping such rowdyism will not occur again, I am yours truly, James Randall, Wolverton, November 10 1890”
The second letter – “
May I claim a few lines in your paper to protest against the abominable and outrageous conduct of the Luton spectators on Saturday after our match with the Town Club. The facts may not be unknown to you, but in case they are, I may inform you that our umpire, a fair a man as ever stepped on a football field, on leaving the ground was brutally assaulted, the reason being attributed that he did not give decisions in accordance with the spectators views. Even now he is unable to walk without pain, and if he had not taken to his heels his injuries would undoubtedly be more serious. Not only this but several of or players were in the endeavour to protect him, were roughly handled, and received cuts with sticks, our esteemed captain, Mr Coles, getting the worst. Several of our supporters faired badly, as well, at the hands of your townsmen. We do not blame the Luton Town committee for any of the proceedings, but we did not like the action of the players, for if they had only come to our assistance I firmly believe that the crowd would have disappeared. As soon as the referee whistled time they were off, though there were signs of a row brewing, and we were left to shift as best we could. I am sure the respectable townsmen deeply deplore this incident, but for the credit of the Town Club something must be done to prevent such an event occurring in the future – I remain, sir, yours faithfully, W.H. Williams, Hon. Sec. Wolverton L. and N.W. Railway F.C., Wolverton, November 12 1890”. W.H. Williams played the game at half back for Wolverton.
The Wolverton incident occurred while the club were temporarily playing on the Bury (which would become the site of the second ground from 1897-1905). A few weeks later the upgrade of the Dallow Lane ground was complete. Besides the levelling of the pitch and new paths, a pavilion was built. It cost £50 and was paid for by the brewer J.W. Green (who would later serve as a director). The pavilion included dressing rooms and a refreshment stall on the ground floor with a covered seating area above. What refreshments did they serve in a building paid for by the brewer J.W. Green? The Luton Reporter gives us the answer – “they are engaged to-morrow in a cup-tie with the Bedford Club. Refreshments are to be supplied on the ground by Mr H. Pike of the “Hearts of Oak.”
The sale of alcohol on the ground produced a conflict as highlighted in a letter to the Luton Reporter of the 28th February 1891 –
“One of the oldest Subscribers” [a subscriber was a season ticket holder] complaining about the conduct of the supporters warning that support would be lost if it was allowed to continue. The second correspondent pointed the finger at “ a small section in and about the drinking bar, above which unfortunately is the pavilion for ladies and those who desire to watch the game in what was promised should be peace and comfort. I should like to ask, why is the drinking bar licensed? If it is impossible for Lutonians to watch the game for an hour and a half without drinking, then put up a bar for their dry souls right away from the pavilion, which I understand was erected principally for ladies; but my contention is that drink is not required. Those who go for the sport certainly can do without it, and the presence of those who apparently do not could with advantage be dispensed with. I, for one, when I go to see the game, don’t want to get mixed up in a quarrel, and if you have a lady with you it is impossible to escape one, unless you are a coward. Luton people of all sorts and conditions are beginning to take a great interest in the game; we are in fair way of getting a good team; we have a ground second to none in the county. Is it all to be spoilt by this entree? No, a thousand times no. It must be stopped. You will find that the respectable part of the community will not go to see many more matches if they are subjected to the annoyances of the last two Saturdays, and I think unless the grievance is stopped at once it is the duty of everyone calling himself a man, and who objects to his wife or sister hearing such vile talk, to make up his mind that he will appear at Court each time the license for this ground is applied for and oppose it. I should like to ask, Who is responsible for granting these licenses! Surely not our Bench of Magistrates, who have among their numbers some of the most prominent men in the Temperance in the town. If the committee want to see ladies at the matches they must take such steps that will not only provide them with accommodation but freedom from insults and this disgusting language. I won’t encroach any further upon your space, but trust that steps will be taken by the committee for the credit of football, and by our Magistrates for the credit of Luton, that shall put an immediate stop to this drunken rowdiness.”
The uneasy marriage between football fans and alcohol was sealed and is still going strong today. A few weeks after the Wolverton trouble the clubs met again. The fans were better behaved and prompted the editorial of the Luton Reporter to comment –
“Not the least satisfactory feature of the game was the excellent behaviour of that section of the crowd who generally render themselves conspicuous. Recollections of what happened on the occasion of a former visit of the Wolvertonians were in the minds of many who visited the field, and it was feared that something of the kind would happen again. Fortunately for the credit of the Luton spectators no disturbance took place; indeed I did not hear a murmur either of dissatisfaction or of the blackguardly language which I referred to a week or two ago. The strictures which have been placed upon the malcontents seem to have had some effect, and the fervent hope of all who attend the matches is that the improvement will be a lasting one.”
However, problems continued sporadically whether through drink, opposing players actions or refereeing decisions. None resulted in actual fights that I can find. There is zero evidence to support the fable told by our friends down the road that Lutonians chased the West Herts players all the way to the station stoning them as they went.
Clashes between the authorities and vociferous Luton supporters were far less menacing. The committee meeting of the 30th November 1891 discussed the West Herts game when Committee member and Luton fan Frank Pitkin was referee. Everyone, including West Herts players agreed Luton had equalised – the ball hit the fans behind the goal (no nets) and came back out. Pitkin refused to allow the “goal.” The Luton fans waited for him at the gate. The committee notes at their next meeting named names.
“Mr Pitkin called the attention of the committee to the most ungentlemanly behaviour of the spectators on Sat Nov 28th naming Mr A. Payne and Mr W. Warren as ring leaders. He thought it was time the club set to work to put down this sort of thing for in the near future if allowed to continue, it would without doubt bring the club into disrepute”. The Committee throughly discussed the matter and it was thought that a public apology to Mr Pitkin might meet the case, failing this to be expelled from the club. This course was agreed to by Mr Pitkin. It was therefore unanimously resolved that Hon Sec write to Messrs Alfred Payne of 87 Stuart Street and Wm Warren of New Town Street requesting them to make a public apology to Mr Pitkin for their ungentlemanly conduct on Nov 28th failing this to be expelled from the club”. There followed a unanimous vote of confidence in Mr Pitkin.”
What was happening in Luton was happening all over the country. The young game of Football was trying to find its place all over the country and the F.A. were getting involved. They wanted as little controversy as possible to enable the beautiful game to flourish. At the 1892 Annual General Meeting, Isaac Smith, the club Secretary, passed on a message from the F.A. –
“THE SECRETARY said he had received a notice from the Association stating most distinctly that clubs allowing betting or low or blackguardly language on their ground would be liable to a suspension. Of course they could not stop a man swearing. He had no objection to hearing a man swear if he thought it would do him good, but there was a time when he should not, and he thought that ought to be when he was on the football field (applause).”
The club had no choice but to pursue that directive. Action was taken against three supporters for bad behaviour as the entry in the club minute book dated 12th February 1894 entry shows –
“It was asked by Mr Austin if something could not be done with regard to interfering with the referee on Sat 10th. Mr Pakes reported Mr Rodgers and Mr Wright, Mr Custance,. After considerable discussion it was resolved that Mr Rodgers be excluded from using the grand stand for the rest of the season and if occurring again he would be reported to the Association. Mr Custance be excluded from the ground for the remainder of the season”.
From the Luton Reporter of the 24th Feb 1894 –
“Some of the decisions of Mr. Wright, as has been indicated, failed to give satisfaction to the spectators, and there was undoubtedly cause for disagreeing with some of these. There is no excuse, however, for the very violent display on the part of some occupants of the grand stand, and the sooner a certain section of the spectators learn how to behave themselves the better it will be for themselves and for those whose misfortune it is to be compelled to sit in their immediate neighbourhood. Disgusting language and foul remarks are not desirable things in the grand stand, and the committee may be advised to take such steps as will lead to the detection of offenders in this direction.”
Such instances were, however, quite rare in the early years and there are many examples of sportsmanlike acts by the Luton football public. The new game of football was trying to find its place. Cricket had been the national game for many decades. It was a game played by many councillors and the elite of the town – many would follow football and appeared to want to impose the gentleman’s code on the beautiful game. They controlled the local newspapers in the early years after 1885 and took every opportunity to attack the violent game of football and highlighted broken legs, fights and even deaths around the country. The Luton football public were having none of it. By 1890 football was the premier game in Luton so the public bought Hertfordshire newspapers whose football coverage was excellent. The Luton News was formed by Herts newspaper owners as a result of this demand.
It was inevitable that the passion created by football meant there would be a clash between the gentle and the hardened. The gentleman’s cricket code would gradually disappear.
Bad behaviour in front of ladies and children was frowned upon. It was in the Club’s interests to encourage children and ladies to enjoy games. Children were the future and had been nurtured from 1885 by gaining admission to games free of charge. Typically some had to gain entry by their own efforts and there was a back door into watch the games at Dallow Lane – along the railway line from the other side of Dunstable Road. The embankment provided an excellent vantage point over the heads of the crowd around the ropes.
Turning back to the fans themselves, what Luton Town favours did they wear? The first mention in the newspapers comes from November 1891 away to Bedminster in the F.A. Cup –
“At the hour announced for the start there was a somewhat meagre attendance, and it seemed that about half the onlookers hailed from Bedfordshire, photographs of Taylor (the Luton captain), and a gold-stamped ivy leaves bearing the injunction “Play up, Luton,” being noticeable in all directions.
When J.W. Julian became club Captain in 1892 a Carte de Visite was produced with his image and the words “Play up Luton”. It was produced in the week before Luton went to West Herts. The Herts Advertiser of the 10th December 1892 –
“There was a good attendance of spectators – about twelve or fifteen hundred. The Lutonians adorned themselves with a photo of their demi-god, Julian, which they stuck in their hats. The Watfordians were content to look on and cheer their men. Watford always does adopt quiet methods” (some things never change).
Luton did “play up’ triumphing 3 0 and overpowering their opponents from start to finish. The first reported shout by Luton fans was “Play Up Luton” – it was used to help lift the players and to see the players over the line on many occasions.
The first song is mentioned in January 1894 the following clip appeared in the Luton Reporter;
“Writing with regard to the match in the Morning Leader a correspondent, who signs himself “Ghost,” gives utterance to the following grotesquely inaccurate apology for Millwall :—I found myself at Luton on Saturday, a humble unit in a crowd of the noisiest spectators it has ever been my lot to mingle with. The rain did its best to keep off, but the awful vibrations caused by the deafening shouts of the straw-plaiters left it no alternative, and it had to come down. Their “little lot,” when trotted out, is a very blood-curdling affair. Had the Luton players obeyed the injunctions of their supporters, the Millwall men could not have been brought home except in pieces.”
“Little lot” is a reference to Herbert Campbell’s “Up I came with my little lot.” Not only was the song generally popular but it directly referred to the Luton team as many were small – J.C. Lomax, George Deacon and Walter Miller in particular were short men. In the 1894/95 season, the informal team nickname team was “the midgets.” We do not know if the words were adapted to suit the Luton team. The “blood curdling” description indicates some different words were inserted for the benefit of the occasion. Hear the recording here
The first badge appears to have arrived in 1897 as set out by the Luton News of the 21st January –
“In football, of not in politics, people are not afraid to show their colours, and therefore that neat little badge brought out by Messrs Alexander and Smith will be welcomed. The idea is a flag in the form of a brooch, which can be pinned anywhere to suit the wearer’s taste. The colours of the Club – white, red and black stripes – are in enamel on a metal mount with a football. It really is a very pretty design, and as the price asked is only twopence, I anticipate there will be a great demand for it in view of the Cup-tie on Saturday week, when everyone should turn out and cheer their favourites to victory.”
I have come across other shows of support but nothing specifically Luton related. Clay pipes with a leg kicking a ball crop up now and then on auction sites. Badges and ties pins also feature. Chatham supporters turned up in Luton in 1896 wearing ribbons in club colours.
I will end this article where I came in – with some examples of the extraordinary passion Lutonians have for their team.
The following description is from January 1894 when the old rivals, Millwall were beaten 3 2 with two late goals at the Dallow Lane ground.
“After a tremendous struggle in front of the Athletic’s goal Luton equalised, Dimmock putting on the finishing touch. This result was received with an extraordinary outburst of enthusiasm by the onlookers, the occupants of the grandstand rising and shouting vociferously. The sight at this stage was the most extraordinary which has been witnessed on the ground for some considerable period. The excitement was intensified, however, a minute later when Galbraith broke through and scored again, the shouting and waving of hats and sticks being of the wildest possible description. There was a good deal of excuse for this display, for the home side had pulled out of the fire a game which had been apparently lost.”
Finally, a favourite clip from the 30th September 1893 Herts Advertiser reporting on a Luton away game at the Spotted Dog against Clapton. The match was not a league or cup game but what was known as an “ordinary” game – it would be called a friendly today.
The Town were 3 0 down at half time but came back to win 4 3 –
“There was a very fair sprinkling of Luton people among the crowd of three thousand persons who watched the game, and I was exceedingly pleased to hear the voice of one well-known follower of the Reds, ready as usual with the familiar advice to ‘Play up Luton.’ You all know the man I mean: the one who shouts out in capital letters.”
The report continued –
“The weather on the whole was not bad. Towards the end of the match a somewhat severe storm came on, but probably the Luton folks didn’t know it, as they were just then working themselves up to a pitch of excitement which even they do not often reach.”
Meanwhile many fans went to the reserve game at Dallow Lane in order to keep up with the first team game –
“When the half-time telegram arrived on the Town ground, ‘Clapton three, Luton none,’ the countenance of the spectators was a sight worth seeing, faces which are usually of a rotund nature becoming as long as a fiddle. Immediately the Reserve game was over, the spectators mournfully wended their way to the Liberal Club to hear the dreadful verdict. Members took up their abode inside, whilst non-members stopped outside.
A telegram soon arrived, and a yell was immediately set up inside the Club, and the outsiders took it up, although for a couple of minutes they did not know what they were shouting for. But when the telegram, ‘Luton 4, Clapton 3,’ was stuck on the window, there was another general shout, which reverberated through the streets, and set the people on Market-square wondering as to what could have happened.”
Thanks to Roger Wash for the Plume of Feathers Advert
Thanks to Beds Archives for the Hearts of Oak photo