Luton fans stoned and chased the Watford Rovers players all the way to the station – so we are told by a Watford football history book. Was that how the rivalry began? That lot up the road caused trouble in the 1880’s! It is a myth – there is no evidence to support this story. The true story is set out in this article, relying on primary sources.
Luton is at the most southerly tip of Bedfordshire surrounded by Hertfordshire on three sides. From the start, newspapers in Luton covered events across the border if they caught the eye. The Hertfordshire newspapers followed a similar format.
Sniping at rivals became a popular pastime for many editors. In 1832 Luton’s main economic rival was St. Albans who had 18 listed hat manufacturers to Luton’s 13. The rivalry that existed between the towns of St. Albans and Luton is highlighted in a 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 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.
Luton Town were formed on the 11th April 1885 and in the early years regularly played Hertfordshire clubs such as Watford Rovers, St. Albans and Hitchin. The latter club would import players from St. Neots and elsewhere to try to beat their Bedfordshire rivals. However, by the Summer of 1891, all Hertfordshire rivals had fallen away in terms of football ability, except Watford Rovers who had become the football section of the “West Herts Club and Ground.” The rivalry would be firmly established and then ramped up in the 1891/92 season by two referees and two newspapers.
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. As full time loomed, Luton were pressing hard and laid siege to their opponents goal seeking an equaliser. In the last minutes, a header appears to have hit a spectator standing in the goalmouth and bounced away. The referee, a Luton club committee member, refused to allow a goal (he later admitted he made an error).
The Luton Reporter said –
“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.”
The comments in the Watford Observer of the 5th December 1891 were those of a very poor winner with every aspect of Luton football criticised. The following extracts are typical of the tone of the report and the editorial –
“..the visitor’s were brought down to Luton’s football level by the absence of four of the first team.”
The Luton goalkeeper “seemed to shut his eyes and strike blindly at the shots.”
“..the Lutonians vented their disappointment by hooting the West Herts team off the field.”
Even the referee was heavily criticised despite refusing Luton’s late claim for a goal. Luton newspapers had not used such language no matter who the opponents were. A lucky win was turned into an opportunity to gloat with every aspect of Luton football put down.
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.”
This is a very important development in the rivalry story. A Watford newspaper, getting carried away with the victory of the amateurs over the professionals of Luton, fired up both camps. There was no turning back – ill feeling, no matter how slight, would be generated. Some of this anger would be directed towards the Watford newspaper alone, but knowing people/football fans, I am sure many directed their anger at all things Watford. Thus a town rivalry was created that endures today.
The return game took place on the 30th January 1892 and again a refereeing decision caused bad blood. This time the referee was a West Herts man, a former player and the brother of Alec and Freddy Sargent who were also West Herts players. The Luton Reporter of 6th February 1892 –
“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.”
The 100 Lutonians in the 800 crowd voiced their disapproval but saw the Straw Plaiters come back to draw the game.
The editorial of the Luton Reporter pulled no punches –
“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.”
The Watford Observer claimed the Luton goalkeeper caught the ball and pulled it back a foot over the line when throwing it out. Whether the ball was fisted out or caught, it was another incident.
The rivalry, which now had a serious edge, would be dominated by the men from Strawopolis. The next match was in October 1892 at Dallow Lane. The Straw Plaiters, who were professionals and had acquired a player coach, won 4 1. The Luton press gleefully referred to West Herts as the “Ham chewers” (a play on amateurs).
The editorial of the Luton Reporter said –
“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 and insisted on an independent referee. A large contingent from Luton saw their favourites win 3 0. The Luton men continued to dominate in the next game in January 1894 winning 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.
Luton Town entered the Southern League in the Autumn of 1894 leaving both Watford clubs far behind. The other strong Watford club, Watford St. Mary’s, had folded in 1893 and reformed the following year. They emerged stronger and beat West Herts a number of times and were runners up in the Herts Senior Cup for the 1894/95 season. 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 but “scurvy behaviour” by West Herts fuelled the rivalry. 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.
West Herts had 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 Herts Advertiser reported that they 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. In April the two clubs met, negotiated and agreed an amalgamation which the full council of the F.A. approved. A new club, Watford F.C., was formed on the 15th April 1898.
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. Although Watford F.C. were a new club, the rivalry transferred smoothly and two special trains brought nearly a thousand Watfordians to the Dunstable Road ground. It ended 2 2 with the Straw Plaiters winning 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 Wasps 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.
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.