The Charterhouse tale

Published : Sep 05, 2009 00:00 IST

The last of the great ex-Charterhouse school footballers, G.O. Smith, long esteemed as one of the best centre-forwards ever to play for England, hung up his boots early last century after winning 20 caps and scoring a fusillade of goals.

Anybody interested in the history of the game would find ‘From Cloisters To Cup Finals’ — A History of Charterhouse Football, a superbly illustrated gold mine. Though the last of the great ex-Charterhouse school footballers, G.O. Smith, long esteemed as one of the best centre-forwards ever to play for England, hung up his boots early last century after winning 20 caps and scoring a fusillade of goals, Charterhouse has produced a much more recent sporting hero, of whom readers will surely know. P.B.H. (Peter) May, that elegant batsman, captained both England and Surrey. But if you are looking for a good quiz question, be it noted that though he captained the Cambridge University team at soccer, he never skippered it at cricket.

When, as a small, 13-year-old boy, I arrived at Charterhouse in January 1945, I’d watch with admiration a 15-year-old Peter May, towering above all others, elegant in the air, playing soccer for his house team, Saunderites. The school was divided into boarding houses.

Malcolm Bailey, author of this book, was not a Carthusian himself but he has coached the school team for many years and was a useful amateur footballer. I only wish he had been refereeing, as soccer master, the last time I was allowed to captain my little amateur Sunday club, Chelsea Casuals, on the famous big ground at Godalming against this school. Two-nil up against Charterhouse at half-time, we were undone alarmingly by the refereeing of the then soccer master, lost 3-2 amidst a storm of angry protest and were not invited back again. Previously, I remember playing at Hampstead in a Chelsea Casuals team which beat the Old Carthusians 7-0. What a far cry from the splendid Old Carthusian team which, in 1881 at The Oval, beat the Old Etonians 3-0 in the FA Cup Final and were considered to be the best team to win the trophy till then.

Bailey’s intriguing book is full of information, but I can furnish an anecdote which doesn’t appear there. Told by the late Charlie Spencer, centre-half for England and Newcastle United, later, in happier times for the club, the manager of Grimbsy Town. Protagonist: A.G. (Baiche) Bower, England’s left-back, the very last amateur to captain his country. Scene: 1925, in Cardiff, where England were playing Wales. The other full-back, Bill Ashurst of Notts County was cursing and swearing, till Bower, very much the ex-infantry officer he had been in the Great War, came up to him and said, “Now then, my man, we want none of that!” To which Ashurst scornfully replied, “Thee! Thee, effo off!” End of story.

Oddly enough, Bower never got beyond the third XI at Charterhouse. But, after the war, he would go on to play not only for the famous amateurs of the day, the Corinthians, but also in the first division for Chelsea.

A host of Old Carthusians played for the full England team in the latter years of the 19th century. Among them, the powerfully built W.N. Cobbold, nicknamed The Prince of Dribblers, the full-backs A.M. and P.M. Walters, nicknamed “Morning and Afternoon.” But none reached the heights of G.O. Smith, who would have won many more than 20 caps, had he not given up the game when his co-headmaster of a preparatory school in Surrey, Arthur Dunn, was sadly drowned. The Arthur Dunn trophy was named after him.

Smith scored a match-winning century for Oxford University, at Lords, against Cambridge, but soccer was his game. That great all-round athlete — not to mention writer — C. B. Fry, batting partner of the illustrious “Ranji” for Sussex, whom he captained, many times a Test player, an England football cap with Southampton, at full-back, holder for many years of the world long jump record, wrote of G.O. Smith:

“He was of medium height, slight and almost frail in build. He was a quick mover but not a sprinter. (As a junior at Charterhouse, Smith was even described as ‘slow’). He was uncannily prehensile of foot and almost delicately neat. What made him was his skill in elusive movement, his quickness in seeing how best to bestow his passes, his accuracy and his remarkable penetrative dribbling. He swung a marvellously heavy foot in shooting, always along the turf and terrifically swift. He was as straight and hard a shot as I ever met except perhaps Steven Bloomer (most prolific scorer of his time) of Derby County on one of Steve’s special days. G.O’s was everyday… G.O. was, you might say, the epitome of Charterhouse football. He was a product from a hotbed of skill in the game produced by a long tradition and a fast, sandy field where delay meant loss of the ball and inaccuracy a troublesome bounce.”

Fry himself was a public schoolboy from Repton, itself a major soccer school. As for Smith, one of his last appearances for England was in 1901 at Tottenham, where the German international side, first foreign team to play in England, was annihilated, 12-0. Charterhouse had gone down to Godalming in 1872, having being established, notionally at least, in the heart of the City of London, in 1611.

Long before Bower, the Old Carthusians provided England full-backs in the formidable Walters brothers. Of them, G.O. Smith himself told a diverting tale.

“A.M. and P.M. Walters gave up the game for some years, but were persuaded to play for the Old Carthusians against Sheffield Wednesday at Crystal Palace. They had been accustomed to the hardest knocks but were unaware of the tricks that had been acquired by some of the professionals during their absence. One of the Wednesday forwards had the temerity to give P.M. a nasty hack on the calf. There was a roar of fury, and P.M. rushed at the man who took to his heels and fled. The game was supposed to be going on all the time, but no one paid any attention to it. All eyes were focussed on the race.

The Wednesday forward ran far beyond the pitch, pursued by his foe, who eventually caught him up about 20 yards beyond the touchline and, with a fair but hardish charge, hurled him to the ground. After this, the two calmly returned, and the game was resumed, though we were all too convulsed with laughter to do much about it.”

In 1887, the Old Carthusians were still good enough to give a very close game to Preston North End, formidable professionals; and very rough it was, each side accusing the other of excesses. Cobbold himself, after scoring the opening goal, would be lamed. The match, a quarter cup final at The Oval, went into extra-time, when Preston won, 2-1. It was reported that “a well dressed gentleman in the crowd was heard shouting to one of the Walters who was tackling Dewhurst, ‘Play at him, jump on him, kill him, do anything with him!’” It’s doubtful whether either of the Walters brothers would have gone remotely as far as that.

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