When I started writing about things that have happened to Leeds United Football Club over the last century, for the book I wrote that Icon Books published this week, 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019, I knew that I knew where to look. That felt like my advantage, the start that might end in a good book.
I didn’t know what I’d find, and certainly not that I would find Mona Vivian, one of the most famous stage actresses of the 1920s, piloting aeroplanes from Sherburn Aerodrome a few years after her lover put the entire future of Leeds United at risk, almost as soon as it had started.
But I had the clues all stored up. When I was a kid, at school I was good at English, history and geography, but wanted to be good at football; my way of getting into the game, living far from Leeds with only Match of the Day and three end-of-season videos of Howard Wilkinson’s double-title team to watch, was to read and absorb everything I could.
Newspaper reports about Frank Strandli and Chris Fairclough went into a scrapbook. Old Topical Times and Shoot! annuals came home from charity shops, no matter how old they were, if they had something about Leeds inside. Through the static, I could just hear BBC Radio Leeds’ commentaries broadcast from the country’s tallest and most beautiful concrete tower, the Emley Moor transmitter; Ian Dennis, Bryn Law and Norman Hunter told me what was going on, and my imagination filled in the gaps.
That method of piecing things together to understand what was going on, of listening to Rod Wallace scoring with number eight on his back, then flicking through an old book, looking at photos of another number eight, Allan Clarke, and working out how one led to the other, served me well. It didn’t change when I became a matchgoer, then moved back to the city of my birth to become an adult, i.e., a season ticket holder. By the time Icon Books suggested I might write a book for the centenary, my mind was cluttered with trivia and details that never quite fit, or that I thought I could explain fit in different ways: unconsciously, I’d spent my life gathering my reference points. I knew where to look.
This being 2019 — or 2017, when I started working — there were new research methods, too. I remember the internet coming along in the late 1990s, and music filesharing clients like Napster and Soulseek, when I could flick through my well-worn copy of The Guinness Who’s Who of Indie and New Wave Music (published 1992, the library were chucking it out) and search for and finally hear all the bands I’d been reading about for years. The methods still apply.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]”I am quite powerless to save the club,” said Crowther[/x_pullquote]
The process with online newspaper archives is catching up. In fact, one of my biggest tips came from a silent newsreel — ‘Leeds United in Financial Difficulties’ — uploaded online by the British Film Institute, an impossibility ten years ago. It’s from 1924, a report about a game Leeds played at Elland Road against Newcastle against a backdrop of money problems. That’s something that became clear the more I wrote — nothing at Leeds ever bloody changes.
Written across the front of the old barrel-roofed Main Stand was a plea to the fans: ‘Lend Us A Fiver’. 1924’s fundraising slogan became 2017’s search terms in archives, along with names from the time: Major Albert Braithwaite, the new chairman, replacing Hilton Crowther, who bankrolled Leeds after failing to move Huddersfield Town to Elland Road in 1919. The match in the film gave me a date. And I had a brand new jigsaw to play with.
The Lend Us A Fiver campaign is first mentioned in the local press a few months earlier, as part of preparations for United’s first ever game in the First Division. With Leeds promoted, Hilton Crowther had decided to step down, his work done, and asked to be paid back £35,000 — about £2million today — of the £54,000 he’d put into the club. It wasn’t a demand as such; it had been felt for some time that the people of Leeds should be taking ownership of their soccer team. Crowther had paid for the hard part to happen, promotion, and was ready to hand over a top level club to the city. Those fivers would be £5 bonds, paying 7.5% interest, turning the debt to Crowther into a stake for supporters.
So far so simple, and Braithwaite launched the campaign. But mid-November brought new urgency. Crowther revealed that he’d used the £35,000 he was owed as collateral for a mortgage, and it had to be paid by December 31st 1924. If it wasn’t, the London-based lenders would become owners of the club, and they were already taking advice on how much they could raise by selling the players and effectively closing the club down. “I am quite powerless to save the club,” said Crowther.
Major Braithwaite, an energetic former army instructor, put his faith in the city, and in the Lend Us A Fiver campaign to save the day. Local businesses let him down; despite sending out hundreds of circulars and making personal visits, the pubs, bars and restaurants that made money from First Division football crowds wouldn’t be persuaded to help. It was down to ordinary folk to give what they could.
A campaign office opened at the Corn Exchange and money poured in; £20,000 was raised by the start of December, supporters arriving with small sums saved in gold and jars of pennies. A light-hearted controversy broke out over who was the youngest fan to buy a bond; a three-month old baby from Horsforth was soon bested by a three-day newborn from Harehills. Fans of the Peacocks, or only of soccer in general given the club was so young and yet to establish itself, were digging deep, but Christmas was coming, and spare cash was drying up. The campaign was slowing to a trickle; the papers were updating the amount needed daily.
After a Christmas trip to London to beg an extra week, Braithwaite changed tack, making a bold declaration of success at a Sportsman’s Dinner at the Majestic Theatre. It might have been premature, but Leeds United were just about safe, and a while later Hilton Crowther was thanked for his work with an autographed photo album of the promotion team — and his £35,000.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]It didn’t leave much cash for buying players[/x_pullquote]
But the repercussions for Leeds were long lasting. As I sifted forward through the archives, those bondholders, receiving 7.5% on their fivers every year, remained a prominent complaint in the club’s accounts. For as long as the club was carrying that burden it was the first thing its income went towards, and it didn’t leave much cash for buying players or improving Elland Road: the Lowfields got its roof, bit by bit, thanks to the Supporters’ Club.
The debenture wasn’t paid off until 1950, 25 years later, when Major Frank Buckley’s talent for selling the right players for the highest prices finally cleared it. With John Charles in the team and Raich Carter taking over as manager, Leeds were in reasonable financial health when they were promoted to the First Division in 1956; at which point the Main Stand, hardly touched since it was built in 1904, burned to the ground. All the club’s records of those years burned with it, one of the main reasons I didn’t think there would be much new to write in this book about the years before Don Revie. But, well, I guess I knew where else to look.
And there was more. I wanted to know what became of Hilton Crowther, a huge figure in our history, and in some ways an eccentric one; United’s blue and white striped jerseys, copied from Crowther’s previous club Huddersfield, look different when you know he spent a while lobbying the FA to impose standardised football kits: blue and white stripes at home, red and white stripes away. He was full of ideas, and full of surprises.
In 1927, two years after the Fiver campaign, Crowther was still a minority shareholder at Leeds, and was back in the news. Mona Vivian, a pantomime and revue star who had been famous from the age of four, when the little Scots girl went on stage as ‘Wee Mona’, shocked society one afternoon by going to the registry office on The Strand in London and marrying a northern mill owner, eighteen years her elder: Hilton Crowther.
The only witness was Mona’s mother, and another had to be found in nearby offices to make it official. Reports say Mona was married in a grey squirrel coat, and that after a celebration lunch, she was back on stage that night in Camden, performing in a show called ‘Hello Charleston!’ She moved up to Leeds where her fame continued, racing greyhounds on the new stadium on Elland Road and flying aeroplanes, but she couldn’t resist going back on stage.
“I cannot tell you about our romance,” she told the press, “It would take a whole week to do so.” But she did reveal she’d met Crowther some years earlier when she was performing in Huddersfield, and it was possible now for me to track that down: twice nightly at the Huddersfield Palace Theatre in May 1917, when Mona was nineteen, and Hilton had been married for two years.
I followed a hunch back through the newsprint, and there they were: the reports of Crowther’s divorce from his previous wife, Maud Evelyn. She’d become suspicious of her husband, they said, in 1917, around the time Mona Vivian was on stage in their town; Maud moved out to a house in London in 1920. She finally won her divorce from Crowther in February 1924 — a few months before his money troubles caused even bigger troubles for Leeds United.
A cast of characters I couldn’t have dreamed of, a story richer and more significant than I’d ever imagined, and an answer to a question that has always bothered Leeds fans: why was the club so average before Don Revie came along and made it great? And the opportunity, in 100 Years of Leeds United, to put Hilton Crowther and Mona Vivian, and many others, back into the history of Leeds United, bound between book covers with Revie and Wilkinson, and to talk about them to a new audience.
I knew where to look, but the exciting part was not knowing what I’d find. ◉
(100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019, is published by Icon Books in association with Leeds United, to coincide with the club’s centenary celebrations. It’s a hardback book available from any decent bookshop worldwide, including Amazon, Waterstones and Booktopia; signed copies are available from thesquareball.net)
(artwork by Grady Tidy)
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