How an unusual day makes its mark on an unusual football club

By Stephen Byrne

What links a thumping win away to Ajax, an electrical engineer from Staffordshire, an Oxford graduate and a window cleaner who died after falling off his ladder?

It may well only come around once every four years, but that doesn’t prevent 29th February from featuring in the Bristol Rovers story.

One Rovers player was born on this day, another baptised on this day, one made his first appearance for the club and another died.

This is the story of how an unusual day makes its mark on an unusual football club.

Down the years, Rovers have featured in two Football League matches on 29th February. First, the Pirates defeated Millwall 2-0 at Eastville in 1936, before a crowd of 5,000. Centre-forward Jack Woodman opened the scoring in the first half and left winger Stan Prout scored the second after the interval.

Twenty eight years later in 1964, a 1-0 victory away to Shrewsbury Town before a crowd of 6,061 at Gay Meadow was achieved through a solitary strike from the prolific Bobby Jones.

Programme cover from our last Leap Year’s Day game, at Shrewsbury...
Programme cover from our last Leap Year’s Day game, at Shrewsbury Town

Few spectators at today’s game will recall the name of Charles Heinemann, but this inside forward, who played three times in the League for Rovers during the 1925/26 campaign, was born in Stafford on 29th February 1904. The grandson of German immigrants, he followed his father into the electrical trade and enjoyed a brief spell at Eastville between two long stints with Stafford Rangers; an older brother, George, experienced a much more protracted career with Crystal Palace, Orient and Coventry City.

Charles may well have only played three times for Rovers, but he scored a hat trick when the reserves defeated Weymouth in December 1925 and he later won the Birmingham League title with Stafford. He married Hilda Arnold and was the father of three sons. Retiring to Essex, Charles Heinemann died in Hornchurch in May 1974.

An inter war outside left with both Bristol clubs, Billy Compton was born in April 1896 into a vast local footballing dynasty; at one time the family could claim to be able to put out an entire eleven of decent footballers.

Billy was the elder son of Tom Compton and Rosina Jacobs and, after 14 games with Bristol City between 1921 and 1924, he enjoyed four seasons of regular League action with Exeter, for whom he played in their famous 5-1 victory away to Ajax Amsterdam in March 1925. His four goals in 21 League matches for Rovers in 1928/29 included one against Coventry City in his final appearance. Married to Emily Backwell and with a son, Jack, Billy Compton died in Bournemouth on 29th February 1976.

…and Bobby Jones, who scored the only goal in that game
Bobby Jones, who scored the only goal in our last game on 29th February

This unusual date also marks the Southern League début of Rovers’ full-back Albert Scothern (1882-1970). The son of a Nottinghamshire framework knitter John Scothern and his wife Elizabeth Henshaw, Albert joined Oxford City after studying at Oxford University and represented that club in the March 1906 Amateur Cup Final, as they defeated Bishop Auckland 3-0.

They had ‘succeeded in securing the blue ribbon of amateur football’ (Jackson’s Oxford Journal) and their next home game drew a 2,000 crowd as they were played onto the pitch by a Hungarian brass band.

A teacher at Bristol Grammar School, he was to play in four Southern League matches for Rovers in all, the first coming on 29th February 1908 against Plymouth Argyle and he represented the England amateur side against Sweden in Gothenburg in September 1908. Albert Scothern married Sarah Ellen Slaney (1878-1926) and was widowed for over 40 years.

A tragic end befell Frank Handley. A wing half in 93 Southern League games with Rovers between 1907 and 1910, he became a window cleaner and, whilst working on the windows of Midland Bank in Burslem in December 1938, he fell off his ladder and died, at the age of 59.

Born in December 1879, he had been baptised in Wolstanton on 29th February 1880, the youngest of five children to a porter, Theophilus Lessey Handley (1844-1898), and his wife Martha Jones (1846-1885). Initially a potter by profession, Frank Handley married Lily Leader (1870-1953). He kept a clean sheet when an injury to Arthur Cartlidge forced him to spend the second half of a game against New Brompton in goal and he was in the Rovers side which defeated Second Division Grimsby Town 2-0 away from home in a major FA Cup shock in January 1910.


Playing Against the Gas; A Record for ‘Tugs’

By Stephen Byrne

Last Saturday, both Adebayo Akinfenwa and Matt Bloomfield scored first half goals for Wycombe Wanderers against Rovers at Adams Park.

In both cases, it was the fourteenth time they had played in the Football League against Rovers, both players having first opposed The Gas back in 2004.

That is an astonishingly high number of occasions, although both players are far from holding the record.

In Akinfenwa’s case, he has played against Rovers for five different clubs: Doncaster Rovers, Millwall, Northampton Town, Wimbledon and Wycombe. That too is no record. Jason Price, Ian Hendon and Alex Revell all played in League matches against Rovers with seven different sides.

Second of two photos to illustrate the article playing against the gas. Adebayo Akinfenwa pictured at The Memorial Stadium earlier this season. Photo courtesy of JMP UK
Adebayo Akinfenwa pictured at The Memorial Stadium earlier this season.  [Photo courtesy of JMP UK]
Nor too is his record of scoring for three different teams against The Gas; Revell scored against Rovers with Cambridge, Wycombe, Orient and Northampton; Ralph Allen, Neil Redfearn and Jason Price have all also scored for four different clubs against Rovers.

However, even in recent years a total of 14 League games against Rovers is nothing spectacular. Jabo Ibehre, currently playing for Cambridge United in League Two has scored five goals in 16 League matches against The Gas, ten of these as a substitute.

Dean Lewington, who on Saturday reached the top ten of all time in terms of matches played for one club only, has merely played in 12 League games for MK Dons against Rovers.

Matt Bloomfield pictured scoring against Rovers last Saturday - No credit
Matt Bloomfield pictured scoring against Rovers last Saturday.

The simple reason these numbers are not higher is because of the fluctuations caused by promotions and relegations. Decades ago, with fewer spots up for grabs, there was greater consistency. 23 different opponents have faced Rovers in 18 or more League encounters, most of these coming through the 1950s or between the wars. Even a regular opponent such as Bristol City’s John Atyeo only appeared in 17 League games against his arch rivals, scoring 12 times.

Between the wars, Rovers spent 19 consecutive seasons in Division Three (South), as did a few other clubs. And so it is that five Brighton players from that era played 16 or more times against Rovers: Reg Wilkinson, Paul Mooney and Walter Little 16 times each, Bob Farrell 20 times and Ernie ‘Tug’ Wilson an astonishing 23 times. The last two named are the only players to make 20 or more appearances in the League for one specific club against Rovers, although five other players have done so at several clubs.

‘Tug’ Wilson was a loyal one club man, playing at outside left for Brighton from 1922 to 1936. Born in Yorkshire in July 1899, he scored 67 goals in 509 League matches and died in 1955. Wilson’s 23 League matches against Rovers included a six season run when Rovers lost every year at the Goldstone Ground with a combined goal difference of 0-23.

His four goals against Rovers came one apiece in both games of the 1930/31 and 1931/32 seasons; ‘He had no rival on the left wing for many years’, purred a contemporary who’s who of professional players and Wilson’s record of 23 League fixtures against The Gas is one unlikely to be broken.

“He was part of all that was best in Bristol Rovers”

By Keith Brookman

Thus were the words of Rovers’ longest serving professional era manager, Bert Tann, after the tragic early death of former Rovers defender Harry Bamford.

Harry was born 100 years ago today, 8th February 1920 and is one of the Rovers players of the 1950’s who achieved legendary status.

Supporters of that Bert Tann side, my grandfather among them, could reel off the names of all of the players without even thinking. Changes in personnel were few, and there were no substitutes back then. In any case they were a successful side, so why make unnecessary changes?

One of the first names on the team sheet would have been that of Bamford on whom manager Tann relied on so much and who, according to ‘Josser’ Watling, was one of a so called Players Committee who would often discuss tactics with the manager and even, on occasions, help him pick the team!

An excellent acton shot of Harry
An excellent action shot of Harry

Born in St Philip’s Marsh, young Henry Charles Bamford was a talented footballer and was a Woodcock Shield winner with St Silas School in 1932, 1933 and 1934. He was also in the Bristol and South Gloucestershire Schools side that were League Shield winners in 1933 and represented Bristol Boys for three consecutive seasons, from 1931/32.

Although he signed amateur forms for Ipswich, he never ventured anywhere near Portman Road and signed as an amateur with Bristol City and made appearances for their Colts team in 1938/39.

The Second World War halted his progress as a footballer, and he was enlisted in the First Battalion of the Gloucestershire regiment which was sent out to Burma and later deployed in India.

He was 25 years old when he finally returned home after the War and appeared in 19 games for Rovers in the 1945/46 campaign when the club competed in the Football League Division Three (South) and the Division Three (South) Cup.

League football, as we know it, didn’t recommence until 1946/47 and Harry made his official League debut on the opening day of that campaign, a 2-2 draw against Reading at Eastville, on 31st August.

It was the first of 486 league games for the club and he came close to winning a full England Cap though the nearest he got was to be selected for the Football Association tour to Australia in 1951 for which he was awarded an England ‘B’ cap.

The cap that Harry won for the FA Tour of Australia in 1951
The cap that Harry won for the FA Tour of Australia in 1951

He appeared in all 11 FA Cup ties during the club’s remarkable run to the quarter finals of that competition in 1950/51 and was an ever present in the side that won promotion, as Division Three (South) Champions in 1952/53.

He also appeared in nine Gloucestershire Senior Cup Finals and was on the winning side on four occasions.

Those are the facts, presented very briefly, of the playing career of one of the greats of Bristol football. We will never know what he might have achieved as coach, or manager, once he finished playing because he died, following injuries sustained in a road traffic accident, on 31st October. He was 38 years old and left a widow who was expecting the couple’s second child and a three year old daughter, Hilary.

Hilary, in collaboration with Joyce Woolridge, wrote a book about her father’s remarkable career, with the title; ‘Harry Bamford – Bristol Rovers’ First Gentleman of Football’ and so there is nothing new I can add to the story.

Cover of the book co authored by Harry’s daughter
Cover of the book co authored by Harry’s daughter

However, soon after I took on the role of programme editor at Bristol Rovers, I was privileged to speak to Hilary, her mother Violet and her uncle Alan and his wife Mavis.

Violet, who also grew up in St Philip’s Marsh, had known the Bamford family well (as well as Harry, there were two younger brothers). She had married in 1947 but was widowed in 1951 and she recalled the first time that Harry had asked her out; ‘I was going home from work one day, along Victoria Street, and Harry, who had been talking to a newspaper seller, walked me home.

‘He asked me out then, but it wasn’t until some six months later, just before the promotion dinner in 1953, that we began seeing each other.’

Alan told of his brother’s hobby as a pigeon fancier; ‘We always kept racing pigeons,’ he said and there is proof of that amongst the many newspaper articles of the time, one of which revealed that whilst in Australia in 1951 Harry’s pigeons took the first three places in the Barnt Green race hosted by the St Philip’s Flying Club.

Harry the pigeon fancier
Harry the pigeon fancier

Alan also felt that Harry might have gained further international recognition and wondered what might have happened, career wise, had he lived; ‘I think, had he played for a club in a higher division he would have won international recognition. I believe Rovers were approached by a number of clubs interested in signing him and I know that Cardiff were very keen to take him to Wales, but he was happy where he was.

‘I’m not sure what he would have done when he finished playing. He had taken his coaching badges, but he had also considered running a shop and a sub Post Office and had qualified as a bricklayer.’

Harry was heading to Clark’s Grammar School in Clifton, where he coached the boys along with his team mate Howard Radford, when the Vespa scooter he was riding was involved in a collision with a lorry as he turned into Apsley Road.

The date was 28th October, a Tuesday, and he was taken to the BRI initially before being transferred to Frenchay hospital.  Sadly, he never regained consciousness and passed away on Friday afternoon (31st October).

His manager, Bert Tann, said; ‘That he will never again don the blue and white of the Rovers through such tragic circumstances is unbearable. I cannot find words to express the tribute due to Harry Bamford. It is true to say that my personal debt to him is immeasurable.’

‘He was part of all that was best in Bristol Rovers and the club grew in stature with him. A part of Bristol Rovers has died with him.’

The league game scheduled for the day following Harry’s death, against Bristol City at Eastville went ahead as planned. The two sides formed two lines on the pitch after arriving from the dressing rooms and listened to a tribute read by Rovers’ director John Hare.

Both teams wore black armbands and crowd of 32,104 observed a minute’s silence before kick off.  City won the game 2-1 but on that particular day the result hardly mattered as fans in blue, and in red, remembered a Bristol footballing legend.

Players of Rovers and City line up prior to the match at Eastville, 24 hours after Harry had passed away
Players of Rovers and City line up prior to the match at Eastville, 24 hours after Harry had passed away

Harry’s funeral took place at St Mary Redcliffe on 6th November with a congregation of over a thousand inside the church and many more stood outside in the churchyard and lined the streets surrounding it.

A Memorial Fund was established for Harry’s dependants and when the proceeds of a memorial match against Arsenal, played at Eastville on 8th May 1959, more than £6,000 had been raised.

The biggest legacy was, perhaps, the Harry Bamford Trophy which was awarded to; ‘the outstanding Player of the Year from the point of view of good sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct both on and off the field.’

The winner was selected, each year, from nominations from within the professional and amateur ranks and the first winner was Geoff Bradford.

The Trophy seemed to disappear without trace in 1974 but resurfaced 40 years later and local sportsman and author Steve Sutor, along with Harry’s daughter Hilary, went back over those 40 years and made retrospective presentations back to 1974.

Once again, the Trophy is now presented on an annual basis and is a much treasured Award amongst Bristol footballers.

Harry Bamford might have played football in a different era, but he was a player revered by those who saw him play and whose place in the Bristol Rovers history is guaranteed.

Harry playing darts with Jackie Pitt
Harry playing darts with Jackie Pitt