by Huw Bowen
During the 1920s, the spectators who stood on the rough stone and ash banks that formed three sides a Swansea Town’s ‘rubble heap’ of a Vetch Field ground often indulged in enthusiastic bouts of community singing. The songs they sang echoed the Welsh hymns and arias usually associated with the crowds that gathered in rather smaller numbers at the nation’s rugby football venues. Indeed, followers of the ‘dribbling code’ gave as good as their rugby counterparts, and observers were often moved by the strength and passion of their impromptu renditions of ‘Cwm Rhondda’, ‘Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’, ‘Sospan Fach’ and other favourites. It was reported that the volume of noise generated by the Vetch Field crowd could be heard ‘ordinarily’ as far away as Fforestfach, and the effects of massed Welsh voices on opposition players and supporters could at times be quite overwhelming. One Stoke City supporter was taken aback when he heard a section of the Swansea crowd launching wholeheartedly into ‘Yn y dyfroedd mawr a’r tonnau’, and on finding that he was listening to a funeral hymn, he was moved to suggest that the visiting contingent from the Potteries should perhaps starts humming ‘Show me the way to go home’. These choral outpourings allowed many spectators to give vocal expression to their identity and celebrate their Welshness, if only for ninety minutes on a Saturday afternoon, and visiting English teams often felt that they were playing in an unfamiliar foreign land.
The Vetch Field, however, was not an exclusively Welsh sporting theatre. The changing and expanding nature of Swansea, the ‘dirty witch’ of a town evoked by Edward Thomas, was such that many immigrant-working men of English, Irish, and Italian descent also took their place in a cosmopolitan crucible. Alongside the deep-rooted influences of Chapel and choir was also to be found a liking for choruses of a quite different type, and this enabled Swansea supporters to find a place for themselves within mainstream popular British culture. ‘I’m for ever blowing Bubbles’ was taken up with gusto during the early 1920s, and the crowd swayed vigorously, and often dangerously, from side to side in time with the chorus. Only later did ‘Bubbles’ become more exclusively associated with the followers of West Ham United. Swansea supporters, who before 1914 had sung their own ‘war song’, also adapted a favourite contemporary ditty by supplying appropriate words of their own which served to elevate one player, Jack Fowler, to the status of popular hero. To the tune of ‘Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me’, the Vetch Field crowd often sang ‘Fow, Fow, Fow, Fow, Fowler, score a little goal for me. We haven’t had a goal since the last match, and now it’s half past three.’ On the North Bank terraces of modern times it often has been loudly proclaimed that there is only one Alan Waddle, or one Alan Curtis, but during the mid-1920s there was, in both song and deed, most definitely only one Jack Fowler. He wasSwanseaTown’s first footballing hero of the professional era, a talismanic figure who became the idol of thousands.
Jack Fowler earned canonisation for the remarkable goal-scoring feats he achieved with Swansea Town between 1923 and 1930, and especially those he recorded in his most productive years between 1924 and 1927. He played in a largely successful side that contained a number of players, most notably Joe Sykes, Wilf Milne, and Billy Hole, who would find a place in any all-time Swansea XI, but it was Fowler who became the main focus for the adulation of supporters. In the League alone he scored 101 goals in 167 games, and this gave him a strike rate bettered only by Cyril Pearce, Wilf Lewis, and Frank Rawcliffe, who all played far fewer games. Only Ivor Allchurch and Herbie Williams have scored more League goals for Swansea than Fowler, but their careers were considerably longer.
John Fowler was born in 1899 in Cardiff, where he grew up in a large family with seven brothers and six sisters. Like many of his contemporaries he lied about his age and saw late service in the First World War as a member of the Royal Naval Air Service. The return of peace saw him begin to make his mark as a footballer with Maerdy, and in 1921 he followed in the footsteps of the great Welsh stalwart Moses Russell and transferred to Plymouth Argyle of Division Three (South). Many Plymouth supporters felt that Fowler was never given a fair opportunity to shine, but he managed to score 25 goals for the Pilgrims in 37 league games, including two in April 1923 against promotion rivals Swansea. The Swans manager Joe Bradshaw was impressed and in February 1924 he secured Fowler’s services for a fee of £1,280, a figure which stood as a record until 1938 when Newcastle United were paid £1,500 for Bill Imrie.
The first clause in Fowler’sSwanseacontract stated that the player agreed to ‘play in an efficient manner and to the best of his ability’. There can be no doubt that he more than fulfilled his obligations on both counts. During his first full season, in 1924/5, he was the leading marksman in the Division, scoring 28 goals in 42 games as Swansea were promoted as Champions. In the next campaign, in Division Two, he took advantage of the change in the offside law to record a further 28 goals in only 32 appearances. The following year he returned figures of 18 goals in 38 games, and even though his powers then declined somewhat, he still managed to score, on average, once every two games during his remaining time with the Swans. Impressive by any standard, these outline statistics only conceal the concentrated bouts of scoring that became Fowler’s trademark. He scored nine League hat-tricks between April 1924 and September 1927, setting a still unbroken club league record when he netted five goals in 6-1 thrashing of Charlton Athletic in September 1924. He also set an individual club scoring record in the F.A. Cup when he scored four times in the 6-3 defeat of Stoke City in 1926; a feat that has only been equalled by David Gwyther, againstOxfordCityin 1969.
At 5ft 10ins and 12 stone Fowler was powerfully built, and his portrait carries more than a hint of aggression, determination, and menace. He certainly relished the physical aspects of the game and he was regarded as a player who ‘put himself about’. Yet it would be quite wrong to suggest that he was merely a bludgeoning or barnstorming type of forward. On the contrary, observers commented on his speed, constructive play, quickness of thought, and ‘weaving’ skills. He was regarded as a ‘clever’ player who made use of all his attributes, most notably when, with his characteristic bursts of speed and physical strength, he carried the ball between defenders into goal-threatening positions. He developed the ability to unleash ferocious shots when in full flight, and the adoption a shoot-on-sight policy meant that he peppered the goal from all angles and distances. Those who saw him play recall a player who would explode into action, and ‘always have a crack’, and it is little wonder that an adoring crowd took him to their hearts. The Welsh selectors adopted a somewhat different view, however, and Fowler won only six caps, failing, along with other aspirants, permanently to dislodge Len Davies of Cardiff City who occupied the centre forward position for much of the 1920s. Nevertheless, Fowler managed to score three international goals, including two in a rare Welsh away victory over England at Selhurst Park in March 1926 when he was at the very height of his powers.
The bulk of Jack Fowler’sSwanseacareer was spent in Division Two of the English League, and this might suggest that, as with Ivor Allchurch thirty years later, he never performed at the very highest level. This cannot be denied, but several Swansea cup runs during the mid-1920s enabled Fowler to demonstrate that he was able to continue his high goal scoring record against some of the best sides in the country. More generally,Swansea’s success, sandwiched betweenCardiffCity’s Wembley appearances in 1925 and 1927, represented a sustained Welsh challenge on the English FA Cup. This captured the imagination of the nation, and offered association football the prospect a permanent place in the sun alongside a rugby game that was experiencing dismal times at both national and club level in Wales. Indeed, Fowler played a leading part in effecting a near-total eclipse of the ‘national’ game, not least in 1926 when the eight goals he scored in five successive ties carried Swansea through to the semi-finals of the F.A. Cup.
In Swansea, the F.A. Cup served fully to illustrate the powerful hold that soccer was establishing on the sporting public of South West Wales. Indeed, as Martin Johnes has argued, it was the Cup rather than international fixtures that attracted most attention and carried the Welsh nation’s hopes against English opposition. In 1915 Southern League Swansea had beaten League Champions Blackburn, and between 1920 and 1925 epic encounters were played out once more against sides from higher divisions in front of packed Vetch Field crowds of over 20,000. In 1925, however, not only did Aston Villa administer a dose of disappointment by beating Swansea for the second year in succession, but also the West Walians could only watch with envy as Cardiff City progressed as far as Wembley. It was against this background that in 1925/6 Swansea embarked upon a campaign that promised to bring them a promotion and Cup ‘double’, enabling Jack Fowler to step forward as the figure who represented the sporting hopes and ambitions of town, region, and nation alike.
There were many remarkable aspects to Swansea’s FA Cup adventure of 1925/6, but perhaps most extraordinary was the fact that the team personnel remained unaltered through seven ties. Even today, it is a line-up recalled with ease by those who saw them play: Denoon, Langford, Milne, Collins, Sykes, McPherson, Hole, Deacon, Fowler, Thompson, and Nicholas. This mainly English side, constructed by manager Joe Bradshaw over the previous two or three seasons, was noted as possessing two particular attributes. Opposing managers considered that Swansea were, in the words of Major Frank Buckley of Blackpool, a ‘tough lot’ and this equipped them for the demands of away ties which often required a robust approach. Sykes, a small man for a Centre Half, was regarded as a supreme organiser and marshal of the defence, while Wilfie Milne was widely respected for the quality of his tackling. The team was not, however, in any way negative in its outlook and it developed the ability to score plenty of goals. As centre forward, Fowler benefited from this approach, but Thompson and Deacon also contributed their fair share to an impressive goals tally in both League and Cup. London-based critics agreed that no side could visit Swansea with any degree of confidence, and it was reported that the better the quality of opposition, the better the side would play.
The 1925/6 Cup campaign began with two relatively low-key victories, 3-1 away at Exeter and 3-2 at home against Watford, with Fowler scoring one goal in the latter game. Momentum began to develop when, away from home, Blackpool were defeated 2-0 (Fowler scoring once) and then StokeCity were brushed aside 6-3 at the Vetch Field, with a rampant Fowler scoring four times. At this point Cardiff City fell by the wayside and Swansea were left alone to carry Welsh hopes. In the fifth round Millwall were defeated 1-0 in London with Fowler scoring a dramatic winner in the last few minutes, and this set up a home quarter-final tie against First Division Arsenal. Charlie Buchan’s team was unable to cope with the Swans on the day, the headline in the Times declaring ‘The Arsenal beaten for pace’. Fowler, it was reported, ‘outwitted the Arsenal backs to score’ and amid scenes of great excitement and tension Swansea clung on desperately to record a famous 2-1 victory. This earned the team a semi-final place against Bolton Wanderers at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane ground in North London.
Newspaper accounts of this enthralling Cup run reveal much about the nature of football at this time. The players’ preparation for the ties was, for example, based upon a training regime supplemented by ‘tramps around the bays’, walks at nearby Mumbles, water polo, and so many ‘brine baths’, that local wags suggested that the team was spending more time in the tub than on the training ground. The team might not reach the final, it was declared, but they would certainly be the cleanest in the competition. The players themselves became the focus for considerable press and public interest, and this manifested itself in a variety of different ways, not least in the form of ‘behind the scenes’ photo-opportunities. One such ‘humorous interlude’ at the Vetch Field revealed that, much to the amusement of Fowler and his great friend Lachlan Macpherson, Jock Denoon had joined the ranks of ‘spectacle-wearing goalkeepers’. Local entrepreneurs were swift to take advantage of this interest, and it is recalled that one enterprising confectioner in Morriston produced a range of boiled sweets, each of which, in seaside-rock fashion, had the name of a Swans hero running through it.
The excitement of supporters knew bounds. They gathered at newspaper offices to hear first news of cup draws; they cheered visiting teams at High Street station; they flocked to Swansea on match days to queue for hours to gain entry to the ground; they sang their hearts outs; and at the Vetch Field they let their emotions run wild. Against the Arsenal, the crowd was ‘packed’ onto the banks by a megaphone-wielding police force that would shortly be dealing with crowds of a different type during the General Strike. This ‘packing’ strategy, based on the notion that ‘The closer the crowd, the less danger there is’, was undoubtedly distressing and dangerous for those crushed at the front of the bank, but it had the effect of greatly enhancing the atmosphere as the crowd swayed, surged, and sang together. The success of the team, the drama of the occasion, and the vigour of the action all combined to create a rich brew of heady excitement that at times was translated into extraordinary scenes of rejoicing. At the Stoke match, it was reported that ‘as the clever Fowler piled up a continuous succession of goals, the enthusiasm passed all limits. The frantic fervour of the crowd was a wonderful thing. It must have left thousands of people hoarse and voiceless long before the end.’ But this was surpassed by the scenes following the victory against the Arsenal, a game that ended with Swansea pressed back and resorting, rather shamefacedly, to booting the ball as far as possible up the field. The match report in the South Wales Daily Post declared that ‘The final whistle at the Vetch Field on Saturday was the signal for the most amazing outburst of enthusiasm that Welsh soccer has ever known. It was roar of relief as well as joy. A dense mass of almost hysterical supporters – shouting, cheering, brandishing flags, rattles, sticks, and even leeks – yelled in unison for the heroes of the afternoon. Several women were in tears of joy.’ Not surprisingly, Fowler was mobbed as he left the field.
The Swans were representing the town and its industrial hinterland, and the enthusiastic celebrations of victory can be seen as expressions of local pride, but the team was also taken up and supported by large numbers of people drawn from across south, west, and mid Wales. As such, it can be said that Swansea carried the hopes of a significant part of the nation, including those in Cardiff. This much can be inferred from the elaborate transport arrangements that were put in place on match days. With a precision and timing of the type associated with military manoeuvres, the GWR and LMS provided trains to carry supporters into Swansea and out of Wales. For home ties, football excursions arrived in the town from all points near and far, with services running from Craven Arms, Gowerton, Llandovery, Llandrindod, Llanelli, Loughor, Pontardulais, and Pembroke. Trains from Cardiff and Newport brought in large numbers from the east and the Valleys. As groups of supporters from Caernarfon and ColwynBay mingled with those from Ireland and the North of England, the cosmopolitan nature of the crowds was a matter for comment.
The number of supporters travelling away was also increasingly substantial and they were carried on excursions which offered discounted prices, guaranteed match tickets, and all the steam-heating comforts of fast modern ‘corridor expresses’. On the day of the Millwall match five day-excursion trains were booked from Swansea and a half-day trip ran from Cardiff to London. With the game being for the Swans ‘an event calculated to be the biggest moment in their history’, supporters went to great lengths to get to the match. These were reported in the local press as ‘astonishing stories’, especially the tale of the ‘200 South Wales men who left their pits on Friday night without bothering to change, went straight to their reserve carriages, and arrived in London in their “Yorks”’. It was thought by some that this story was ‘scarcely credible’ but it was reported on good authority that the miners had in fact been seen driving in a specially hired charabanc to the game in New Cross. Popular folklore in Swansea still suggests that the Millwall game was marred by punch-ups with South London dockers, but reports of violence did not make their way into the local press.
In the event, Swansea’s Fowler-inspired cup run ended at the semi-final stage of the competition, although by that point many confident supporters were already planning their trips to Wembley and worrying about the size of ticket allocations for the finalists. Indeed, it was reported in the press that some people remained at home in Swansea over the semi-final weekend because they were saving their money for the excursion to the final. Others were no doubt offended by the fact that the price of tickets was more than double the amount they were used to paying. Those who did travel to London formed part of an ‘early morning invasion’ and a ‘human avalanche at Paddington’. Over 2,300 football supporters travelled by train from Swansea, and over 700 from Cardiff, to take their place in a 25,000 crowd. As the Swans’ followers poured onto the platforms at Paddington, they held aloft a replica of the F.A. Cup with Fowler’s picture on it. They carried daffodils, flags, leeks, miniature swans, and rosettes decked out in blue, a choice dictated by the fact that Swansea had been obliged to change their playing colours because of a clash with the white of Bolton. Rugby supporters and players from Llanelli – soccer converts for the day – carried ‘sospans’ with them. As they spilled out onto the streets of London, groups of supporters struck up the Fowler song. Local residents were taken aback by the sudden arrival of this seething mass of humanity and were baffled by the unfamiliar Welsh accents they could hear. ‘Who are the Swans?’ asked one old woman, to which a supporter in an ‘Ystalyfera muffler’ replied, ‘Wales!’ Two Londoners listened intently to the words of the Fowler song. Not surprisingly, they could not understand them, one declaring to the other ‘It is Welsh they are singing, Bill’. Logic dictated to one bystander, a ‘precocious youth’, that the many blue favours in evidence belonged to those who had come to watch the university boat race, also taking place that day. He was put firmly in his place by three ‘women ofWales’ wearing large blue hats who ‘promptly reminded him that they were members of the proletariat’.
As the crowds mingled in central London any class tension was overridden by a general sense of excitement, and it was reported that ‘The ‘varsity drawl blended with musical accent of the Welsh’. The meeting of two quite different class and athletic cultures passed off peacefully enough, but over fifty undergraduates were charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour as they celebratedCambridge’s boat race victory. Although the Swansea supporters were described as being ‘boisterous’ and ‘feverish’ only two men from South Wales found themselves detained at Marlborough Street police station. One of the men, a miner, was discharged with a caution after being arrested for pushing people off the pavement, while the other was fined £3 for being in possession of a revolver. The magistrate does not seem to have been impressed with the latter’s defence that he had brought the weapon toLondon‘for safety as he was going to the cup semi-final’. Quite what this man expected to encounter in London is not clear, although perhaps tales of violence in circulation after the Millwall tie had heightened his fears about the dangers awaiting him in the metropolis.
While two Swansea supporters spent an uncomfortable night or two in the cells, the rest of the human avalanche melted away and trickled back to Wales feeling dejected and dispirited. The Swans fell badly at the penultimate hurdle, as they put in an uncharacteristically limp performance during a one-sided defeat. The Welsh cause was not helped by an early Denoon error that gifted a goal to Bolton, and a further two goals were conceded before twenty minutes had elapsed. Observers, including the reporter from the Times, agreed that all of Bolton’s goals were ‘lucky’ but it seemed that the Swansea team was also badly affected by an attack of nerves. The players were ‘in a flustered condition’ and they watched their opponents in a ‘kind of trance’. Although the Swans rallied in the second half, Fowler, like his team mates, was unable to rise to the occasion and he failed to find the back of the net for the first time in six cup ties. After the Millwall tie, Fowler had been carried on the shoulders of supporters when the team arrived back at High Street station; on this occasion his sense of failure and humiliation was such that he chose to leave the returning train at Landore.
The side’s confidence was badly dented by the cup defeat and the promotion campaign suffered. The Swans eventually finished in a very disappointing fifth position in Division Two and a season that had promised so much in February and March ended on a decidedly flat note. Indeed, in retrospect, it can be seen that the quarter-final victory against Arsenal marked something of a watershed in the fortunes of both Swansea Town and Jack Fowler himself. Although football in Wales continued briefly to offer a serious challenge to rugby, none more so than in 1927 when Cardiff won the F.A. Cup, Swansea and Fowler performed only fitfully during the second half of the 1920s. Fowler continued to score regularly, but he recorded only one of his League hat-tricks after the end of 1926. Of great importance inSwansea’s slump was the departure of Joe Bradshaw to manage Fulham and the subsequent decision of the Board of Directors to take over responsibility for team affairs. This was a mistake to rank with the worst of many made by Vetch Field Boards over the years, and an opportunity was lost to build on the solid foundations laid down by Bradshaw. Instead, in a steadily worsening economic climate, Swansea Town marked time, selling good players and failing to entertain in the way that they had during the early 1920s. Slowly but surely, there was a resurgence in both national and local rugby fortunes, and the pendulum swung back towards the union game in the town. This movement appeared to be complete when the All Whites recorded their famous victory over the All Blacks in 1935. By that time, the Swans were engaged in a grim annual struggle to avoid relegation and there were no cup runs to offer much by way of solace.
Fowler left Swansea Town in June 1930, his hundredth league goal for the club having been scored in a 4-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in November 1928. As with several other Swans of the period, he signed for Clapton Orient, having secured an additional 7/6 on top of the £7 a week he earned with Swansea. He started his career in East London with a characteristic bang, scoring 5 goals, including a hat-trick, during his first 3 appearances. In total, Fowler made 80 appearances for Clapton, first as Centre Forward and then as Centre Half. He was appointed Captain and scored 14 goals, including the first one to be recorded at the Lea Bridge Ground. These were unhappy times, though, and the hard-pressed club did not always pay the players’ wages. Fowler, always a generous man, found it necessary as club captain to distribute his own wages among his junior team mates.
Fowler remained popular in Swansea, where he had often organised boxing matches and performed on stage during benefit concerts. Thus, after retiring through injury in 1932, he returned to run The Rhyddings Hotel in Brynmill. Always with an eye for the main chance, but never as accurate as he had been with a football, he was an enthusiastic small-scale entrepreneur dogged by bad luck. He moved easily in theatrical and popular entertainment circles, however, and he continued to perform on stage, where, as a local favourite, he told jokes and read his own monologues. His theatrical connexions ensured that popular performers of the 1940s and 1950s such as Billy Cotton and Rob Wilton found their way to the Rhyddings, and the hotel became the watering hole of Kingsley Amis and his university circle. As a landlord of thirty-five years standing, Fowler is remembered as having ‘stood no nonsense’, but his establishment also became renowned as a venue for Saturday night singing. For a Swansea sporting hero whose own exploits had been so loudly celebrated in song, this seems peculiarly appropriate.
In his later years, Jack Fowler lost interest in football in general and the Swans in particular. While always happy enough to reminisce about his glory years or to act as a referee in charity matches, he turned his attention to other sports, notably rugby, cricket, and horse racing. Nevertheless, he must have been dismayed bySwansea’s desperate plight during the mid-1970s. The feeble performances produced by a team of anonymous players in front of tiny crowds stood in marked contrast to the thrilling exploits performed by Fowler and his team mates. The success of the Swans during the 1920s had helped to galvanize the support of town, region, and nation for the association game, and Swansea had been etched firmly onto the football map. By the time Jack Fowler approached the end of his days, however, the outlook for professional football in Swansea could not have been bleaker. When the former hero died in February 1975, the club whose playing ranks he had graced with such distinction were stuck firmly in the lower reaches of Division Four, destined shortly to suffer the indignity of having to apply for re-election to the Football League. This humiliating experience for the Swans could not have been further from the heady days of 1926 when a rampaging Jack Fowler was so often able to satisfy the vocal demands of Swansea supporters to ‘score a little goal for me’.
During the writing of this short essay I received generous assistance from a number of people, notably those who responded to my appeal for help, kindly published by the Editor of the South Wales Evening Post. My greatest debts, however, are to Jack Fowler’s daughter, Maureen, who supplied me with many anecdotes as well as the splendid photograph of her father; to historians Professor David Farmer and Dr Martin Johnes, who made available their own research to me; and to John Conibear, whose attendance at over 2,000 games at the Vetch Field has not in any way diminished his extraordinary enthusiasm for the Swans. The essay is dedicated to Bertie Miller, whose mother took him by pony and trap to watch Jack Fowler play.
This essay was first published in the book For Club and Country: Welsh Football Greats (2000) and is reproduced by permission of the author.