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The Strange Case of George Hilsdon

John Simkin

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On another thread I have written about how West Ham have always sold their best young players in order to make a profit for the club owners. However, in June 1906, Syd King, gave away one of West Ham's best ever prospects, George Hilsdon, to Chelsea. It is difficult to explain this action unless King received a backhander.

Hilsdon, who was 18 years old at the time, signed for West Ham United in November 1904. Hilsdon scored in his first game for the club on 11th February, 1905. Hilsdon also scored a hat-trick in a Western League game against Bristol Rovers. The East End News reported: "The match was quite a triumph for the new West Ham centre-forward, who was responsible for three of the half a dozen goals, and to beat a goalkeeper like Cartlidge thrice in one match is an achievement an older hand than Hilsdon might be proud of. With a little more experience, he will doubtless develop into a really first class player."

On 17th April 1905 Hilsdon was injured in a game against Fulham. He was unable to play for the rest of the season. However, his record of four goals in seven games, was an excellent start to his football career. In June 1906, John Tait Robertson, persuaded Syd King to let Hilsdon join Chelsea on a free transfer. Colm Kerrigan, the author of Gatling Gun George Hilsdon (1997) has argued that: "It is difficult to understand why the shrewd Syd King was willing to let him go on a free transfer." Indeed. At the same time, King gave away another extremely promising player, Billy Bridgeman, to Chelsea. As it happens, both Hilsdon and Bridgeman played football for Marner Street School. Bridgeman went on to play 160 games for Chelsea.

Hilsdon played for his new club for the first time against Glossop on 1st September 1906. The Fulham Observer described it as "a sensational debut" as Hilsdon scored five goals in Chelsea's 9-2 victory. Hilsdon was now a marked man and the local newspaper reported that in a game against Fulham Hilsdon "got a terrific charge after about ten minutes, and for the rest of the game wandered about, a shade of his former self. In the dressing room at half-time he was writhing and twisting with pain."

Colm Kerrigan argues in Gatling Gun George Hilsdon that Hilsdon constantly received rough treatment that season. The Fulham Observer reported that in a game against Nottingham Forest, Hilsdon "found it difficult to do anything, as directly the ball came in his direction three opponents were on his track".

Hilsdon got a reputation for fast and hard shooting. The West London Press described a goal he scored against Leicester City in the league: "Hilsdon made a bewildering side movement which just for a second or so nonplussed the two Leicester players around him, but in that brief space Hilsdon had flashed the ball past the astounding Lewis. It was a shot without the slightest element of speculation. It was a Hilsdon goal."

In November 1906 the club programme included a cartoon portrait of Hilsdon entitled "Gatling-Gun George". The accompanying article pointed out that the nickname derived from his shooting "that are simply unstoppable and which travel like shots from a gun."

George Hilsdon scored his 27 goal of the season in Chelsea's 4-1 win over Gainsborough Trinity at Stamford Bridge. This win guaranteed Chelsea promotion to the First Division. S. B. Ashworth, writing in the Daily Mail, predicted that Hilsdon would soon be selected for the England team: "He commands the ball wonderfully, has a fine conception of a centre's duties, and above all, is a deadly shot."

Hilsdon remained in good form the following season. He created another record for the club when he scored six goals in a FA Cup tie against Worksop Town. Hilsdon's 25 league goals that season placed him equal second with Sandy Turnbull of Manchester United and Enoch West of Nottingham Forest.

Hilsdon won his first international cap for England against Ireland on 15th February 1907. Hilsdon failed to score in the 1-0 victory and was dropped from the team. Colm Kerrigan argues that "George had a poor game, handicapped by a foot injury. It was rumoured that it was sustained through a deliberate attempt by the Irish to put him out of the game." However, Hilsdon later claimed that he had jarred the muscles of his foot shooting for goal.

Hilsdon was selected for the trial for the England team in March 1908. The Athletic News was impressed with the way that Hilsdon and Vivian Woodward played together in the South team that drew 4-4 with the North. The newspaper commented that this "superb combination enabled George Hilsdon to shoot all the four goals." He was selected to play against Ireland and scored two goals in England's 3-1 victory. This was followed by a 7-1 hammering of Wales. Once again Hilsdon scored two goals.

On 6th June 1908 Hilsdon scored another two goals in England's 6-1 victory over Austria. This was followed by four goals against Hungary (7-1) and two against Bohemia (4-0). He had now scored 12 goals in 7 internationals. The Fulham Observer reported that Hilsdon was "now England's acknowledged greatest centre-forward and had acquired an accuracy of aim probably unequalled by any great player today."

Hilsdon played against Ireland on 13th April 1909. Despite scoring two goals he was criticised by the Athletic News for being "very deficient in deadliness near the goal". Hilsdon who had scored an amazing 14 goals in 8 international games, was never to play for his country again.

Football journalists began to turn on Hilsdon. The Fulham Observer reported after one game: "Hilsdon did very little at centre-forward with the exception of the one goal he scored. Perhaps he is unable to concentrate on the game." Reg Groves claimed: "He had become too sociable, too careless with his strength and vitality". It was rumoured that Hilsdon had a serious drink problem and he was dropped from the first-team.

After scoring 107 goals in 164 games for Chelsea he was allowed to return to West Ham United in June 1912. The Fulham Observer reported: "Under normal circumstances, they (Chelsea) would probably want nearly four figures before consenting to the international going elsewhere, but strange as it may seem, Chelsea acquired Hilsdon from West Ham without any fee at all, the stipulation being that if he were transferred to another club a proportion of the transfer fee should go to West Ham... During the last two seasons he has declined in form... he will probably be happier at West Ham."

The East Ham Echo reported that during his first home game Hilsdon "had to run the gauntlet of some very uncomplimentary remarks from part of the stand". Hilsdon played at inside-left, with Fred Harrison at centre-forward and Danny Shea at inside-right. The combination played well together. As the East Ham Echo pointed out: "Good as Shea has always been, he is 20 per cent better since the introduction of Hilsdon."

On 15th February 1913 West Ham United played Southampton. The East Ham Echo reported that: "Hilsdon was once more the master-mind of the attack, and it would be difficult to estimate his share in placing the Hammers fifth in the Southern League table this season as against twelfth at the same period last year."

West Ham finished the 1912-13 season in 3rd place in the Southern League. George Hilsdon ended up top scorer with 17 goals in 36 cup and league games. However, the following season he began hitting the bottle and he lost his form and his place in the team.

In October 1914, the Secretary of State, Lord Kitchener, issued a call for volunteers to both replace those killed in the early battles of the war. On 12th December William Joynson Hicks established the 17th Service (Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. This became known as the Football Battalion.

The Football Association called for all professional footballers who were not married, to join the armed forces. Some newspapers suggested that those who did not join up were "contributing to a German victory." The Athletic News responded angrily: "The whole agitation is nothing less than an attempt by the ruling classes to stop the recreation on one day in the week of the masses ... What do they care for the poor man's sport? The poor are giving their lives for this country in thousands. In many cases they have nothing else... These should, according to a small clique of virulent snobs, be deprived of the one distraction that they have had for over thirty years."

Frederick Charrington, the son of the wealthy brewer who had established the Tower Hamlets Mission, attacked the West Ham players for being effeminate and cowardly for getting paid for playing football while others were fighting on the Western Front.

It was decided that the Football League would not operate in the 1915-16 season. As football players only had contracts to play for one season at a time, they were now out of work. It has been estimated that around 2,000 of Britain's 5,000 professional footballers now joined the armed forces. This included George Hilsdon who joined the East Surrey Regiment. He served on the Western Front, had to endure a mustard gas attack at Arras in 1917. This badly damaged his lungs and although he played briefly for Chatham Town after the war. He scored 14 goals in six games in 1919 but he was eventually forced to retire from the game.

In 1924 Hilsdon joined Fred Karno's Troup, a popular vaudeville act. One method of publicizing the company as it travelled round the country was to arrange a charity football match between the cast of the show and some local organization.

According to Colm Kerrigan, the author of Gatling Gun George Hilsdon (1997) argued: "Years of success had not dampened his East End spirit of survival, and he scraped a living in various ways, all of them, insofar as is known, on the right side of the law - but sometimes only just. One of his escapades, during a bleak period, was to go around several East End pubs, raffling boxes of chocolates, but arranging for the prize to be won on every occasion by his wife."

George Hilsdon died in Leicester on 10th September, 1941. Only four people attended his funeral (son, daughter, son-in-law and grandson). The funeral was paid for by the Football Association.


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