This article will explain how the rivalry between two towns 17 miles apart began. It will also bust an old (stone throwing) myth and a new (1881) myth. Luton Town versus Watford F.C., a rivalry known by every football fan in the country. A long rivalry with many heroes, villains, great goals and heartbreaks. It holds its own alongside every other football rivalry in the country. But how did it begin?
Luton is in the most southerly tip of Bedfordshire and is surrounded by Hertfordshire on three sides. From the start of their publication, newspapers in Luton covered national and international news but much space was left for local and regional news. Of course, the Luton Newspapers would cover events in Harpenden, Hitchin and St. Albans if they caught the eye. The Hertfordshire newspapers followed a similar format.
Sniping at rivals became a popular pastime for many editors. Who would they aim their venom at? Luton’s main rival economically was St. Albans who in 1832 had 18 listed hat manufacturers and Luton just 13. Luton won that battle as the centre of the Hat Industry and when the town held a Plait Exhibition in 1885 it was described thus;
“Everyone knows that this clean, busy Bedfordshire town, set in the green enamelled country which is framed by wood-crowned hills and the sweeping outline of the Chiltern Range, is the centre of this ancient art and mystery.”
The rivalry that existed between the towns of St. Albans and Luton is highlighted in the January 1884 report on a Luton Excelsior game against the Hertfordshire men
“This match was played at St. Albans between the above clubs on Saturday last during splendid weather and before a large number of spectators, a great deal of feeling being shown owing to the rivalry between the two towns which the teams represented. The St. Albans played a strong team, but the Excelsior, playing in their usual form, eventually won the game by one goal to nil, being the eighth time they have beaten the St Albans club. Deacon, Hopewell and Hunt played well for Luton.”
The Saints would pull out all the stops to try to beat Luton teams by bringing in players from other parts of Hertfordshire such as the Aldenham School, Elstree and Watford. This is highlighted in the following clip from the Watford Observer of th 31st January 1885;
Rise Luton, Rise
Luton Town were formed on the 11th April 1885 and regularly played Hertfordshire clubs such as Watford Rovers, St. Albans and Hitchin. The latter club would also import players from St. Neots and elsewhere to try to beat their Bedfordshire rivals.
In the Straw Plaiters first season they met Watford Rovers twice with the Hertfordshire men winning the very first game 3 0 at Dallow Lane. The game at Watford resulted in a 1 0 win for the homesters. There are no reports of the first two games against Watford Rovers that I can locate. The following season saw a 4 1 win for the Straw Plaiters at Watford with George “Chubby” Deacon, below, scoring a hat trick. The return game was postponed due to the appalling weather that winter. The clubs avoided each other until November 1891.
An attempt at an explanation for the rivalry was published in a book on Watford F.C.’s history. The explanation is that in 1885, following their 3 0 defeat, the Luton fans stoned and chased the Watford Rovers players all the way to the station. The book claims that there “certainly was such an instance” but not a shred of evidence is produced in support which is disappointing. However, it is consistent with the claim of 1881 as their date of formation.
I have read every Luton Newspaper from 1885 to 1894 and there is no mention of such a disturbance. The Luton newspapers of the time reported such minor events as a gentleman falling over on the ice and bruising his arm. A near riot by a stone throwing mob running through the town would have made huge headlines. There would have been collateral damage from stray stones hitting buildings, vehicles and residents going about their business. There would have been an objection to the F.A. There would have been a fine and suspension which would have resulted in Luton being shunned unless the safety of teams could be assured. The stoning story fits in with the modern feelings of some of the two sets of supporters. However, it is plainly wrong to say that there “certainly was such an instance” without a shred of evidence.
Is this stone throwing claim a lazy way to explain the rivalry without doing the necessary laborious research? There is evidence of some minor trouble at two Luton home games in the 9 years before the Southern league. The first incident occurred in a game against Wolverton at Dallow Lane in November 1890.
The game finished 2 2 after the Luton men threw away a two goal lead. Each club provided an umpire and the Wolverton man was not up to it according to the Luton press. At the end of the game he was hustled by the crowd and Wolverton accused some fans of beating his legs with sticks. Wolverton also allege that their players were mobbed and some bruised and a reporter and some supporters “faired badly” too. This incident was fairly and extensively covered by the Luton newspapers, not hidden away. The Herts Express also reported the incident and branded the behaviour “disgraceful” which it was. The Luton Newspapers resented this attack on their town but had no defence except to say that the Club committee had taken steps to prevent a reoccurrence.
The other instance of stone throwing was in a home defeat by Bedford. A Bedford newspaper reported that a few of the crowd threw some stones onto the pitch as the surprise away win upset a few bets in the crowd.
I wonder if the Wolverton affair is the answer to Watford’s stone throwing accusation. Have they confused the story over time? Or perhaps an incident did occur in a Watford Rovers game against another club. Time, alcohol, memory or whatever has changed the other club’s name to Luton Town. It fits the rivalry. It might have been a minor incident which was blown out of all proportion over the years – a small boy threw a stone and this has been exploded into a near riot to impress work mates and anyone else who would listen.
April 1891 saw Luton Montrose beat Watford St. Mary’s three nil. The “Monts’ were a strong club and were second only to the Straw Plaiters in the town. Watford St. Mary’s would fold in 1893 but re-emerge the following year and be regular opponents for clubs in Luton. They were a stronger club after their reinvention and were able to defeat West Herts many times including a 5 1 win the 1894/95 season. They would merge with West Herts in 1898 to form Watford F.C.
Know your limits Ref x 2
In the Summer of 1891 Watford Rovers appear to have been taken on as the football section of the “West Herts Club and Ground” who were a cricket and athletics club. The Herts Advertiser of 17th March 1894 gives details of their annual meeting and gives their full name of “West Herts Cricket and Football Club and ground.” Other newspaper reports show that the West Herts were formed at this time such as Chatham’s fixtures published in the Chatham News of 8th August 1891. They were called “West Herts (late Watford Rovers)” in some reports. Whatever their name, West Herts were recognised as a Watford team and the rivalry transferred.
The rivalry would be ramped up a fair few degrees by events on the pitch in the 1891/92 season by two referees. On the 28th November 1891 Luton Town played West Herts at Dallow Lane. The Luton Reporter opened its report on the game with;
“A great deal of interest was manifested in the game, and despite the fact that the weather was most uninviting a large crowd surrounded the ropes. The meeting had been looked forward to by local enthusiasts, for the clubs had not been antagonists for several years, and the fact that each side held a confident idea that they would obtain the honours lent additional interest to the match.”
The game was coming to a close with West Herts 4 3 ahead. At this time there were no goal nets and the crowd were supposed to be held back by ropes around the pitch. Luton were pressing hard and it seemed as though they must score as they laid siege to their opponents goal seeking an equaliser;
“On one occasion the ball was headed in from a “corner” and a great shout went up from the spectators who were clustering on the goal-line, but the referee over-ruled the claim for a goal. Despite their utmost endeavours the locals were unable to increase their total, though the visitors’ goal-keeper must have had an anxious time, and the result of a splendidly fought game was as stated above. The referee (Mr. F. Pitkin) was subjected to a hostile reception on leaving the ground.”
The football editors column “With bat, ball and bicycle” commented as follows;
“The speculation which has for the last two or three years being going on in this locality as to the relative strength of Luton Town and the Watford Rovers has at length to some extent been set at rest, but it can scarcely be claimed that last Saturday’s match is to be accepted as the final test. On the one side the visitors were able to urge that the absence of F. Sargent from the centre greatly weakened their forward combination, while the homesters were ready with the argument that a corresponding disadvantage was suffered by them by the fact that Paul was not occupying his accustomed place at centre half-back. Both players would undoubtedly have strengthened their respective teams, but the absence of the one seemed to me to somewhat counterbalance that to the other. Whilst there is not very much force in the contention as to the weakening of the elevens, it must be confessed that the victory of the winners was not devoid of a very pronounced element of luck.
The game was splendidly contested throughout and was productive of some excellent play, but the Rovers can scarcely lay claim to having shown their superiority in this respect, for if anything the Lutonians had the best of the exchanges. The first half of the match was fairly even, but in the second portion the home eleven pressed much more strongly than their adversaries. On several occasions they missed chances of scoring by the merest trifle, and they certainly experienced very hard luck. During the last few minutes the visitors’ goalkeeper must have passed an unenviable time, for in the gathering darkness it was next to impossible to deal with certainty with the shots which were rained in upon him.
It was at this time that the homesters met with their worst luck. The Rovers were leading by a goal, when a “corner” was kicked in to the mouth of their fortress and as well as could be judged in the gloom and amongst a confused jumble of figures the leather seemed to pass between the posts. Some hundreds of spectators were gathered in close proximity to the uprights, and a general shout of triumph went up from them, but it was very short-lived, for the referee decided against the claimants. That a goal was scored seems undoubted, and the referee’s error is all the more regrettable when it is considered that it would have made the game a draw if the point had been awarded. I fully concur in the remark which fell from a bystander that “If ever a game deserved to be a draw this did,” for there was not a pin to choose between the elevens.”
A goal denied, it appears, by hitting the crowd behind the goal and going back into play, all missed by the Luton referee.
The following week the 10th December 1891 Luton News football column said;
“A Watford contemporary gives vent to his feelings to the recent match between Luton and West Herts in a manner the reverse of creditable. Nothing can possibly be gained by indulging in ill-natured gibes and sneers, and surely it is not worth while to go out of the way to stir up bad feeling between the supporters of the different clubs. The least a critic can do is to refrain from any attempt to degrade a friendly game and a manly sport by the introduction of bad blood.”
The return game took place on the 30th January 1892. I have reproduced the entire report on the game as appeared in the Luton Reporter of 6th February 1892.
“Luton Town v West Herts. The return match at Watford on Saturday between these teams had been anticipated with an unusual amount of interest. A keen rivalry has existed for a considerable time between the clubs and the fact that both have been acquitting themselves exceedingly well during the season heightened the feeling of expectancy. Another circumstance which tended in the same direction was the result of the first encounter between the elevens at Luton when the verdict was in favour of the visitors by four goals to three. A good number went over from Luton to witness the game, the party numbering about 100. There was no nearly so large an attendance on the ground as might have been expected, only some 800 being present. The Watford authorities had requisitioned the services of their strongest players. All lovers of football were glad to see the veteran F. Sargent back in his place at centre forward, and other notable West Herts. men were found to be included in the ranks. The Lutonians were considerably weakened by the absence of Deacon, who had been more badly hurt in the cup tie with Montrose on the previous Saturday than was at first supposed. His place was filled by A. Whitby with indifferent success.
Shortly after 3 o’clock the teams ranged up in the following order:- West Herts: Goal, J. Woods; backs, E.H. Marriette and W.A. Sargent; half-backs, J. Penney, C.H. Peacock and E. Villiers; forwards, F. Sargent (centre), captain, W.S. Coles, T. Coles (left), E. Butler and J. Culverhouse (right). Luton Town: Goal, J. Burley; backs, A. Sanders and A. Hoy; half-backs, H. Paul, A.H. Taylor (captain) and J. Wright; forwards, H.W. Oclee (centre), H. Whitby, W. Cheshire (left), F.K. Whitby and A. Whitby (right). Taylor lost choice of ends and Oclee kicked off. There was little advantage in winning the toss for the ground was in excellent condition and a strong wind which was blowing swept across the field. From the start the home team showed that they meant business, and after the opening exchanges their forwards ran down capitally, the bulk of the work being done by F. Sargent, who was eventually compelled to kick over the line. They repeated this performance a few moments later, but Sanders proved thoroughly reliable. From a mistake by the same player shortly afterwards the home forwards, who were attacking in determined fashion, were afforded an opportunity and the ball found its way into Burley’s hands. The visitors’ keeper experienced little difficulty in disposing of it effectively, though he was hotly assailed by F. Sargent and his colleagues. Burley is remarkable for his coolness in face of danger, and he never gave a more admirable exhibition of this than now. The Luton forwards had not yet settled down to work; their passing had been somewhat weak and none of them had flattered their supporters. At length Cheshire put in a capital dodging run, but at the critical moment he was pulled up by A. Sargent. From a miskick by the same player the homesters were enabled to carry the fray to the other end, but just when he had got in a splendid position for shooting the centre man gave “hands.” During the period when the Town goal was being assailed Taylor and Paul put in some grand work, while Wright also showed himself to be in good form. Paul was jeered by a section of the Watford spectators, but it made no difference; he was ubiquitous as usual, and used both head and feet with the dexterity which he has become familiar to local onlookers. More than once he was applauded for some particularly fine heading. H. Whitby was the next Lutonian who claimed notice. He made one of his well-known runs, and, eluding Penney, took a flying shot at goal, which unfortunately was unproductive. The Watfordians retaliated, and P. Coles sent in a stinging shot, which just went outside the net – for the West Herts. executive have just adopted this latest improvement. A great shout went up from the homesters, but this rapidly changed to dead silence when it was recognised that they had been mistaken. Sanders evoked applause by brilliantly stopping one of his adversaries, and his comrades emulated him by making a fierce attack on Wood’s charge. A “corner,” the first in the game, fell to the visitors in consequence, but though the leather was kicked well into the mouth of the goal nothing resulted. “Freddy,” as Sargent is affectionately dabbed, next attacked Burley’s goal, but his attempt was easily frustrated. An appeal for a goal was disallowed. Directly after this “hands” was given against the “reds” twenty yards from their upright, but the left-wing men managed to obtain possession, and by means of some better passing than they had yet shown they got the ball well up the field, but A. Sargent prevented their further progress. Burley was kept busy for a space, and Paul headed out twice in his best style, a “corner” following the second time. H. Whitby and his companion ran up their side very well indeed, but were unable to obtain the desired notch. Butler had a grand chance with an open goal but he failed in the most unaccountable way, and immediately thereafter gave his opponents a free kick by placing himself off-side. From a throw in by Taylor about now the ball found its way in front of the Rovers’ citadel, and Paul placed it just over the bar. Luton had now settled down, and were playing in far better style than at the commencement, and they made it warm for Woods, more than one shot missing by the merest trifle. Paul, Sanders and Hoy were showing brilliant defence, while A. Sargent was similarly conspicuous on the other side. After a foul had been given against Taylor, a very unpleasant incident occurred. Culverhouse kicked into the Luton goal, but Burley, standing on the line fisted out. A goal was claimed and to the intense surprise of at least the spectators from Luton the referee (Mr E.J. Sargent) awarded the point. After vainly protesting Taylor and his companions proceeded to leave the ground in a body amid hooting from the crowd. It was pointed out to the visitors’ captain, however, that by recently adopted rule of the Association his side would be liable to suspension, and though urged by some to abandon the game better counsels prevailed and the Lutonians returned, a step which was received with general applause. It might be supposed that after such an unfortunate occurrence as this both sides would redouble their efforts, and this proved to be the case, and from this stage until half-time little fault could be found with the play. The “lads in red” gamely struggled to retrieve their position, but they missed two or three excellent opportunities. On one occasion A. Whitby failed when he had the goal at his mercy, and his brother Frank was similarly unfortunate twice running. When the interval arrived the score was: West Herts 1: Luton 0. About five minutes after the re-start W.S. Coles managed to pass the backs and finished up by scoring in magnificent style, thus putting his side two notches ahead. Play was fairly even for a time, every advantage having to be hardly won. F. Sargent displayed some of his old brilliancy and hotly assailed the Town Club’s fortress, the ball on one occasion striking the cross-bar and bounding over. At another time Burley steered it along the goal-line, but it was returned right across the goal without being touched. By means of some determined efforts Luton got through the last line of defence and Harry Whitby opened the account for his side with a capital shot. P. Coles having finished up a run by striking the post with the ball. F. Whitby made an incursion into his foemen’s territory but failed at the critical moment. His brother Harry followed this example, though his failure was not quite so noticeable. A period of well-contested play followed and at length the “reds” were enabled to add to their score. The obtained “hands” in front of goal, and Taylor gently lifter the leather through off the heads of some of his opponents. This rendered the scores level, a result which was enthusiastically cheered by the Lutonians present. From now to the finish both sides increased their exertions, but neither succeeded in altering their total and a splendidly contested struggle ended in a draw of two goals all. The linesmen were Messrs F. Scott (Luton) and C.H. Halsey (West Herts).”
“With Bat, Ball and Bicycle” commented as follows;
“There has been a very strong feeling of dissatisfaction expressed with regard to the result of the match between the Town Club and West Herts on Saturday, and for once the complaints are not without a very good show of reason. It is particularly unfortunate that there should have been any element of uncertainty about the score, for this will very readily call to mind the extremely unsatisfactory conclusion of the first match at Luton, when the Rovers were enabled to claim a win by the narrow majority of four goals to three. The cause of complaint on this occasion was even more pronounced, and the partisans of the local team who journeyed to Watford did not fail to express their ideas in very outspoken fashion. In reply to a question as to who was the best man on the home side a Lutonian cynically replies “The referee,” a sally which called forth approving laughter from his companions.
There did not seem much uncertainty amongst the onlookers as to the wrongfulness of the decision, it being apparent to all but the most jaundiced of judgments that a distinct mistake had been made. The ball was met by Burley with his arms extended at their full length while he was standing on the goal-line, and how it was possible for it to have gone between the posts under these conditions passes my comprehension to understand. It is evident that “Some one had blundered,” and it was equally certain that when the referee had made a mistake he was prepared to abide by his decision in spite of all that could be urged.
The Lutonians were. I think, wise in resolving to play on, though at one time their resentment was so great that there seemed little prospect of inducing them to resume. A hint as to the danger of suspension was, however, sufficient for Captain Taylor, who readily perceived that his team’s chances in the forthcoming cup contest would be jeopardised by rash and inconsiderate action. It is but fair to the spectators that when the “reds” again took up their positions the applause was general, and it may be stated that the referee appeared desirous afterwards of avoiding anything which would lead to a renewal of unpleasantness.”
The Luton News of 6th February 1892 contained the following letter –
“To the Editor of the Luton News
Sir.- As a spectator of the above match at Watford on Saturday, I should like to enter my protest against the partiality of the referee. The match had not been in progress more than ten minutes before anybody with the least knowledge of football could see that he was utterly incompetent to deal with so good a game. The way in which he leisurely walked up and down the field without the least observance of the rules, led me to think that this must have been his first lesson in football, and when he awarded a goal from a long shot, which the Luton goal-keeper cleared with ease, my surprise and imagination knew no bounds. It was in my judgment a most palpable error. I can hardly believe that the gentleman in question is a brother of the two well-known West Herts players of the name of Sergent, and who were both taking part in the match, and if I may be allowed to offer them a suggestion, I would suggest that they advise their brother to be an innocent spectator from the pavilion until he can follow the game with that close precision which is expected from all competent referees. Yours etc Jas. Squires, Grove House, Cardiff Grove, Luton.”
The rivalry now had a serious edge to it. The Luton newspapers picked out any news from the West Herts area such as the following clip from September 1892;
“Considerable interest is taken in this neighbourhood in the doings of the West Herts. Club, who have this season a grand list of fixtures. In the English Cup contest they are drawn against Crusaders, while amongst the ordinary fixtures are : Chatham, Casuals, Millwall Athletic, London Caledonians, Vampires, Uxbridge, Chesham, St. Bart’s and Guy’s Hospitals, London Welsh etc.”
The slump of the Ham Chewers
The next match was took place on the 1st October 1892 at Dallow Lane. The Straw Plaiters had gone up a few notches with the introduction of professionalism and the signing of Hugh Galbraith and J.W. Julian who also acted as coach. The Town won 4 1. The Luton press referred to West Herts as the “Ham chewers” – a play on amateurs – the Luton men being professionals.
With Bat, ball and bicycle commented as follows;
“The greatest triumph was in so summarily disposing of their old antagonists, West Herts., last week, by the substantial majority of four to one. Some previous meetings of the two teams had ended somewhat unsatisfactorily, and the fact that this year’s result was unmistakeable was extremely gratifying to the partisans of the local players.”
The return game on 3rd December 1892 was eagerly anticipated;
“To-morrow (Saturday) the Lutonians journey to Watford to meet West Herts in their return match. I learn that the Watfordians are preparing to give our champions “What for,” but judging by the result of the game earlier in the season I think they will have their work cut out.”
The Luton Committee were taking no chances with the referee this season. At their meeting in the week before the game they;
“resolved that Messrs Deacon and Wright accompany the team to Watford also that Hon Sec write Mr C. H. Peacock of West Herts drawing their attention to the Independent referee”.
“Luton Town v West Herts.
On Saturday, Luton journeyed to Watford to play their old rivals and neighbours on their own ground, when they gained a splendid victory by 3 goals to nil after a hard and fast game. Owing to the Watford train being late, the match was not started until about seven minutes past three, and time was only left for 35 minutes’ play each way. There were about 700 spectators, including a large contingent accompanying the visiting team. The ground was heavy and slippery, and Luton, losing the toss, had the wind against them in the first half. Watford had the assistance of two Millwall men on the right wing, while Luton had the same team as the previous week against 2nd Scots Guards. The visitors at once attacked, Allen shooting over the bar and Chesher subsequently sending behind. Wheeler and Coles took the ball up and Read, fisting behind the former’s shot, conceded a corner which was fruitless. Watford quickly returned to the assault, Wheeler again troubling Read, and an exciting scrimmage ensued in front of the visitors’ citadel. Luton cleared safely and changed the scene of play, Woods having to save. After “hands” had been twice given against Luton, Chesher centred beautifully to Allen who was ready to close in goal, but the referee penalised Luton’s left-winger for “off-side,” a decision received with disfavour by the visiting spectators. Galbraith next shot over the bar and then Luton gained the due, if tardy, reward for their splendid efforts; for, from a centre by Chesher, Galbraith passed it to Watkins who scored the first goal after 13 minutes’ play, amid the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd. On re-starting, Julian passed finely to Chesher, but, the referee again checked his progress, infringing the off-side rule. Wheeler next broke away and Coles shot behind. Play was soon brought back to the Watford quarters, Allen and Galbraith kicking behind the lines, and a close scrimmage followed from a corner which fell to Luton. No advantage resulted from this, and another similar point for Luton failed in effect. Wheeler, at last, made a dashing run on the left, yet, though he became palpably “offside,” the referee neglected to check his tactics. Read satisfactorily disposed of his shot, and Julian well returned to mid-field. The Luton men now pressed hard, Galbraith being prominent in the attack; four times the ball went behind the Watford lines. The Herts men then got away as if bent on scoring. Sargent brought the ball up and passed to his left wing, who sent in a shot which Sanders could only save by steering into touch near the corner flag. From the throw-in the ball went behind, and the danger was averted. At half-time, the score was Luton 1, West Herts 0.
On crossing over, Luton pressed momentarily, Wright heading behind. Watford retaliated at once in determined fashion, securing a corner, which was fruitless. Their Millwall wing then showed up well, Danks shooting finely just over the bar on top of the net. Julian relieved the danger, and Luton lost another chance of scoring from a splendid centre from Chesher, he being once more penalised for “offside.” A free kick was then awarded Luton for a “foul” by Penney against Chesher, Brown, however, sending behind. Sanders shortly after conceded a corner, and Coles missed a good opening. The homesters were given “hands” near the Luton goal-lines, but Sanders cleared finely. The forwards took the ball up and Chesher shot to Woods, who ran out of goal to clear, but Galbraith, receiving it, put the ball through in good style, thus registering the second point for Luton. The visitors immediately resumed pressure, Allen and Brown shooting wide while Watkins failed to utilise openings on two occasions. Read then had his powers severely tested by an excursion of the Watford forwards , headed by Coles, but came splendidly out of the ordeal of an exciting scrimmage. Taylor and Chesher relived, but Coles again shot across the mouth pf the goal. Watkins gave Woods a handful, and Luton seemed on the point of scoring, Julian feeding his forwards grandly. Watford got away for a moment, but Taylor smartly returned, and Chesher centreing accurately, Watkins scored the third goal about two minutes before time. It was already nearly dark, and when the whistle blew, Luton were left victors after a hard-fought game by 3 goals to nil. Teams:- Luton:- Goal, T. Read, backs, B. Sanders and A. Hoy; half-backs, J. Wright, J.W. Julian and A.H. Taylor; forwards, W. Brown, F. Allen (right), H. Galbraith (centre), G. Watkins, W. Chesher (left). West Herts:- Goal, J. Woods; backs, J.R. Paull and E.H. Mariette; half-backs, J. Penney, C.H. Peacock and A.J. Houghton; forwards, C. Wheeler and W.S. Coles (left), F.A. Sargent (centre), J. Danks and A. Wilson (right). Referee: Mr E.E. Stuart, of Watford. Linesmen:- Mr F. Shane (Luton; and Mr H. White (Watford).”
The following season for the game at Watford on the 20th January 1894 the Luton committee again procured an independent referee. Luton won more easily than the 3 2 scoreline suggests.
This poem, published the day before the Straw Plaiters played the return game in February 1894 sums up the mood;
Call me in the morning early,
Call me early mother dear,
For to-morrow’s to be the grandest day
In all the football year.
It was a grand day as the Straw Plaiters beat the “ham chewers” 3 1 in front of 2,000 spectators. The Luton Reporter of the 17th February 1894 says that a minor incident took place after the game but again this was directed at the referee who was from the F.A.;
“The referee on the whole gave satisfaction, but at the close he met with a hostile reception, the crowd not understanding that the time had been cut short. A disgraceful scene took place at the finish, a crowd behaving very badly towards the referee. Several men were reported to the committee in connection with the matter, and it was determined to stamp out rowdyism of the kind. To this end cautions were given, and one man has been informed that to him the field will be closed for this season. The authorities are to be commended for thus courageously grappling with a difficulty.”
Luton Town entered the Southern League in the Autumn of 1894 leaving both Watford clubs far behind. Watford St. Mary’s had folded in 1893 and reformed the following year. They emerged stronger and beat West Herts regularly and were runners up in the Herts Senior Cup for the 1894/95 season – team photo below.
West Herts had slumped and the next game in March 1895 resulted in a 8 0 home win for the Straw Plaiters. The gulf between the clubs was now immense both on and off the pitch as demonstrated by the shabby attitude of our neighbours down the road. The Luton Times of 5th April 1895;
“A Football Farce – The Town score 8 to Nil
The visit of the Watford Club to Luton on Saturday was impelled by dire necessity in the shape of a strong order from the Football Association. Last December 29 was the original date of the fixture, but in the playful amateur way West Herts found it necessary to scratch a couple of hours before the time appointed to start, the reason assigned being inability to raise a team. This off-hand repudiation of an arrangement lost Luton a Saturday’s “gate” as it was impossible to procure other opponents and the Reds were perforce idle for the day. Such scurvy behaviour on the part of the Watfordians was rightly brought before the Association, and the ruling body decreed that West Herts were to send their best team to Luton gratis on March 30 or pay £30 compensation. Our near and dear(?) neighbours preferred the first alternative and duly appeared before 1,500 spectators with full available strength.”
Luton Town and West Herts would only play each other once more, three years later. The West Herts team had improved and managed a 2 2 draw with the men from Plaitopolis in April 1898.
Watford F.C. formed
West Herts entered the Southern league Division Two for the 1896/97 season. However, they had entered a dismal period and the Luton News of 7th October 1897 summed up their position;
“The West Herts club, finding it impossible to make amateurism pay, have adopted professionalism. At the first match of the season 128 persons paid for admission, and at the second 134. Seeing that they have been going from bad to worse, losing all their matches, the gate was in danger of diminishing to vanishing point. Perhaps they will fare better now. Properly worked, the Watford people ought to be able to support a good professional team.”
The Luton News was proved correct – the town of Watford could not support two teams. West Herts were losing money and turned to professionalism to remedy the deficit. It worked and they made a profit for the second half of the season. But it could have been more and they badly needed a grandstand. The Herts Advertiser reported that they had lost “a very large contingent” of their support to Watford St. Mary’s. When West Herts played at home, 400 to 500 people watched St. Mary’s at the same time. That was a huge number. The two clubs talked of an amalgamation and it finally happened on the 15th April 1898. The Watford Observer confirmed in the 7th May 1898 edition, below, that an amalgamation took place and a new club, Watford F.C. was formed.
The clip below is from the Lichfield Mercury of the 28th May 1898. It reports on the full F.A. Council meeting held on the 27th May 1898 and confirms an amalgamation took place.
The Luton Press saw Watford F.C. as a new club as the Luton News of 7th October 1898 demonstrates.
Interlude One – This article would not be complete without a mention of the 1881 date given as the date of formation of Watford F.C.. West Herts did NOT “absorb” Watford St. Mary’s as has been suggested. This was an amalgamation of two separate organisations into a new, bigger stronger organisation. I hope the records will be duly amended. By all means highlight the early history of football in Watford dating back to 1881, however, in my view it is plainly wrong to claim it as the date of formation of Watford F.C. whose first game was against Reading Amateurs on 3rd September 1898. Watford Rovers were formed in 1881 but a name change, when takeover by the West Herts Club, followed by an amalgamation with Watford St. Mary’s, has been conveniently ignored. No doubt players and officials moved from one organisation to another but that does not justify the 1881 conclusion. If Luton Town were to follow the same flawed logic then our formation date would be 1879 – that being the formation date of Excelsior and Rovers who both contributed players to the Straw Plaiters in 1885. However, our formation date of 11th April 1885 will never change.
The first game between Luton Town and Watford took place on the 29th October 1898 at the Dunstable Road ground in the F.A. Cup. Watford F.C. were a brand new club but the rivalry transferred smoothly and two special trains brought nearly a thousand Watfordians to the Dunstable Road ground. It ended 2 2 and the Luton Press were pleasantly surprised by the quality of play of the new Watford Club. The Straw Plaiters won the replay 1 0. A friendly in April at Luton ended 3 3.
The 1899/00 season saw the teams meet again in the F.A. Cup and again the Town went through, this time 3 2 at the first attempt. A friendly was won by the Hertfordshire club 4 3.
The last season of the Victorian era saw four games. The two Southern League games saw honours even, the home sides both winning 2 0. Two friendlies saw a 3 0 home win and a 3 1 away win for the men from Strawopolis.
Interlude Two – My favourite story of the rivalry between the towns occurred during the Second World War. The Government sought to raise money for the war effort through various campaigns. One such campaign was “Battleship Week” in 1942. Watford sent a knight in full armour mounted upon a suitable steed to Luton. The knight threw a gauntlet onto the steps of the Town Hall challenging the town to try to raise more money than Watford. The Town clerk came out and picked up the gauntlet, thereby accepting the challenge. In order to stimulate the Luton public the gauntlet was placed in a noose and hanged from a gallows outside the Town Hall. It worked because Luton won the challenge by raising over £200,000 more than our neighbours across the border. In friendly revenge later that year, Luton sent a group of lads dressed as pirates to the Watford Carnival to “kidnap” Miss Watford. The “pirates” were foiled and captured. However, contrary to Hertfordshire legend they were not beaten up but actually given tea and cake.
That is how the rivalry began. A county rivalry which gradually crystallised into a town and then a specific club rivalry, a rivalry the Straw Plaiters dominate.