Swansea Town At War – how wartime charity football at the Vetch helped to keep the club alive during the dark days of World War 1.
Project contributor Byron Cooze has brought in an unusual ticket for a match at the Vetch Field which took place on Easter Monday April 1st 1918. The game was between Swansea Town and the Royal Flying Corps, admission was 6d (six pre-decimal pence, 2 ½ p), and proceeds were to go to the Mayor’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Comfort Fund. Professional football was not immediately suspended at the outbreak of war, which led to some acrimony and accusations of unpatriotic behaviour on behalf of clubs and players. This was in contrast to Rugby Union, which had less to lose by suspending its amateur competitions. Football started the 1914-15 season as normal, and Swansea Town recorded one of their most memorable victories in this season, beating Blackburn Rovers at the Vetch in the FA Cup. Normal league service was impossible to sustain from 1915, as players enlisted, travel was restricted, audiences dwindled, conscription was introduced in 1916, and public opinion did not approve. Football clubs such as the newborn Swansea Town were left with the liabilities of maintaining the ground but no obvious source of regular income. At least the club board were able to avoid the pitch being dug up and used to grow potatoes, a fate handed out to roughly half of the pitches in the country, and were able to make some money hosting charity matches and local factory league games.
The local Swansea paper the South Wales Daily Post (ancestor of today’s Evening Post) failed completely to preview the match, while at the same time giving a lot of space to advertising an international rugby game at St. Helen’s. This game, between South Wales and New Zealand, was billed as “Easter Monday’s Great Game”, and the Daily Post laid it on with a trowel about how “Every penny taken at St. Helen’s Football Ground on Easter Monday will help to provide food for starving Welsh prisoners of war in Germany”. The fact that the particular fund to benefit was the Daily Post War Prisoners’ Fund may have had something to do with this bias of promotion in favour of the rugby. The rugby and football games had the same kick-off time at 3.30, but it cost 3d more to go into the ground than at the Vetch, with much higher rates for stand seats.
On the following day (2nd April), a column was devoted to reporting on the marvellous game at St. Helen’s, how the plucky Welsh players were behind at the end of the first half, but came storming back in the second period to win 13-6. The fact that the New Zealanders had played on the Saturday in Cardiff may have had something to do with this! The only Easter football report was a brief paragraph on a match between Cardiff and Swansea munitions’ factory workers (a lively 4-4 draw in Cardiff). Even more curiously, a long report was included on a completely different spectacle which took place at the Vetch on Easter Monday morning: the 3rd Glamorgan Volunteer Regiment held a drill competition in which the various companies strove to win a cup for demonstrating the highest competence at marching, arms drill, bayonet drill, and bomb-throwing. The misty-eyed reporter, who had been a soldier himself at some time, reported how well they performed, almost as good as regular soldiers, and how C Company carried off the cup by being best at everything, particularly bombing. No mention was made of the Swansea Town game, and we wondered in the project team whether the match had ever taken place. Perhaps the ticket was in such good condition because it had never been handed in, due to the match being cancelled? Readers of the Daily Post would certainly have been in the dark about the whole thing, assuming rugby and rifle drill to have been the only entertainment on offer.
Forced to look further afield for any information on the Swansea vs. R.F.C. game, the Western Mail of the 2nd April at last shed some light on the subject. The match had indeed gone ahead, with a surprisingly good crowd. The terse report read as follows:
“Swansea Town met the Royal Flying Corps of Farnborough at Vetch Field. About 6,000 people attended. The proceeds are to be devoted to the Mayor’s Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Comfort Fund. Swansea scored first through Ivor Brown. Half time arrived with the score Swansea 1: R.F.C. 0. In the second half the Flying Corps scored 5 goals. Final score: R.F.C. 5; Swansea Town 1”
This is the only report we could find of the game, and tells us very little, although considering the news blackout at the Daily Post, it was a miracle that 6,000 turned up. The Western Mail gave equal space to another Easter Monday football match – that between Cardiff City Ladies team and Llwyncellyn United (men’s team) at Porth. The male players were humorously handicapped by having to wear ladies’ skirts and having their hands tied. They still managed to score four times, but eventually lost 7-4. Entertainment of any sort was clearly welcome at that stage of the war, when there were basic shortages across the country – potatoes were being delivered to local bakeries as a bread additive to try and improve the quality of loaf produced from home-grown wheat. The major German spring offensive which had pushed back Allied armies on several parts of the front was still raging and the war was in the balance, although the papers continued to report, with relish, on the massive slaughter inflicted on the Hun, and maintained a relentlessly upbeat message.
So Byron’s ticket, which belonged to a friend of his named Tommy Williams, was for a real match that took place in front of 6,000 supporters on a dull Easter Monday in 1918. Byron guesses that Tommy’s father attended the game and bought the ticket. It is hard to imagine that the pitch was in a good state after the morning’s bombing and bayonetting by the Glamorgan Volunteers, but the R.F.C. clearly had the measure of the Town lads, or had something special in their half-time tea! This was, however, the last game they played as the Royal Flying Corps: on the very day of the match (1st April) the Royal Air Force was created from the R.F.C. and the Royal Naval Air Service. Swansea Town survived the war intact as a club because of games like this one, and went on to be elected to the First Division of the Southern League in 1919, and to join the Football League a year later.