The Comedian and the Major: Sammy Shields, Major Buckley and the ball of the Footballers’ Battalion
27/06/2020 - 11.43
Footballers’ Battalion team, Elm Park, Reading, 4 September, 1915. Captain Frank Buckley sits on the far left of the middle-row. Also in the photo are:
Back: Pte Pat Gallacher (formerly Tottenham Hotspur), Pte Ben Butler (Queens Park Rangers), Sgt Joe Mercer (Nottingham Forrest), Pte Tommy Lonsdale (Southend United), Sgt Tommy Gibson (Nottingham Forrest), unknown.
Middle: Pte Jack Sheldon (Liverpool), Sgt Norman Wood (Stockport County), Sgt Percy Barnfather (Croydon Common), Captain Edward Bell (formerly Southampton and Portsmouth)
Front: Pte Jack Borthwick (Millwall Athletic), Cpl Jack Cock (Huddersfield Town), Pte Frank Martin (Grimsby Town)
(Courtesy of the Gallacher Family Archive and Andrew Riddoch)
On the 3 July 1916, the Devenport Hippodrome provided its usual fare of comedy and entertainment to distract its 1,500 patrons from the war outside. Although news of the Battle of the Somme was only just beginning to come through, there was still much for the audience to forget for an hour or two as they settled down to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. There were singers in the shape of The Four Kids, a quartet of American sisters, Torino the juggler who could spin a coin on an umbrella, comedy acrobats and female gymnasts. But heading the bill and dominating the Western Morning News review was the Scottish comedian Sammy Shields, who had made his name with his comedic football songs and patter. On this occasion though, he brought with him an unusual prop, one that had a direct connection to the front lines. The review described how:
"He sings funnily about a football he produces with an exquisite touch of pathos, recounting how the ball was given to him by Buckley (now Major Buckley), of Bradford, and how it was used in the great contest in Flanders between a team of the Footballers’ Battalion (17th Middlesex) and the R.F.A., in which Sergeant McCormick and Corporal Baker played. The football bears the signatures of 43 famous footballers serving on the Western Front. The Allied and enemy nations, as the components unite of a football match, are comprised in a very pleasing monologue which Sammy Shield gives as an encore. (Western Morning News, 4 July, 1916)"
The presence of such a ball in a music-hall might seem incongruous to some, but in many ways it was the natural place for it to be displayed and discussed. Throughout the war entertainer adapted their performances to wartime tastes and trends and Sammy Shields was no different.
Sammy Shields was the stage name of Alexander Young, born in Glasgow in 1871. Shields belonged to the first generations who grew up with access to both the existing entertainment industry of the music-hall and the emerging one of commercialised spectator football. Although he started his working life as a stockbroker’s clerk at the Glasgow Stock Exchange, he became a music-hall comedian specialising in football songs and comedic patter. There were many such cross-overs in the Edwardian period, the most famous being Stiffy the goalkeeper, the comic creation of Evertonian Harry Wheldon. The sketch was hugely popular, utilising past and present professional stars and was also the scene of Charlie Chaplin’s debut in music-hall comedy. Football and music-hall also overlapped in charity games for their respective trade unions and celebrity football matches. Shields was not quite as popular as Harry Wheldon but he was still popular enough to take part in a Music-Hall artistes v Jockey’s charity football match at Stamford Bridge in 1913, officiated by players from Arsenal, Chelsea and Fulham. By 1914, Shields was at the apex of two of Britain’s most popular entertainments.
When the war started Shields was over the age for military service. Throughout the war he continued to perform, a reminder about the limits of the anti-football campaign of 1914 and 1915. Clearly Shield’s pre-war sketches and patter remained popular amongst wartime audiences but with the addition of the ball, he added a new level of topicality and appeal to his act.
The ball in question had been used on the 11 April 1916, when the Footballers’ Battalion had won their Divisional Cup, beating the 34th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, 11-0. Medals were not immediately available for the winners and by the time they were distributed in autumn 1916, four of the cup-final team were dead. The first reports of Shields using the ball come from early May, so it seems the ball was sent home quite quickly. At this stage the commanding officer of the battalion was Major Frank Buckley of Bradford City and England. During his post-war managerial career Major Buckley would earn a reputation for being a savvy media operator, for example changing Blackpool’s kit to their now iconic tangerine colours. News of the final itself would not reach English newspapers till May, so it seems likely that Buckley himself contacted Shields to offer him the ball, possibly to drum up publicity for the battalion.
The ball arrived at an opportune time for Shields, as he toured the game’s heartlands in the north of England. Shields continued to use it as he toured the south-west, London and then again in the midlands. Newspaper reception to the ball was universally positive. For many, its appearance was striking with the Leeds Mercury commentating on the 16 May 1916 that, ‘his story about the football which has been “through the mill” in France is something out of the ordinary.’ The Yorkshire Evening Post was also positive but added a note of caution, ‘the way he apostrophises that ball is in the sentimental vein which appeals to many, but is dangerously near to bathos.’ (16 May, 1916) Perhaps the best description of Shield’s act can be found in a report of his visit to the Bristol Hippodrome in February 1917.
"Sammy Shields, ever welcome, is as bright and crisp as ever. He finds no use for full stops and very little for commas, and fits from story to story in a manner that leaves his audience breathless – and happy. Finally, there is a tinge of seriousness, and one admires the dead earnestness with which he relates the history of the famous football (produced) given to him by international, Major Buckley. His football alphabet song will please everyone – football enthusiast or not. (Western Daily Press, 6 February, 1916)"
The last recorded sightings of the ball come from October and November 1917. Appropriately enough these were from Derby where Major Buckley had played 92 league games and received his sole England cap. Local papers were keen to make this link with one describing how, ‘It was presented to Sammy by Major Buckley, a former very popular Derby County player.’ (Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal, 2 November, 1918). There are no more mentions of the ball in England after this which may be explained by a mention in the music-hall gossip of the Nottingham Football Post on 19 January, 1918. Mr. Harry Kettle, the manager of the Nottingham Empire had shown the paper a letter from Company Sergeant Major Tommy Gibson of Nottingham Forest and the Footballers’ Battalion, who was ‘delighted to receive the football which, presented by Sammy Shields, was sent out to him by Mr. Kettle.’ If it was the same ball, it had gone full circle back to the front.
Also appearing on the bill at the Derby Hippodrome in 1917, was the comedian Will Hay. Whereas Hay is still known today, at least amongst fans of ‘Oh Mr. Porter!’ and his other comedy films, Shields is almost totally forgotten. He still enjoyed enough fame to have his ‘A.B.C of Football’ released as a 78rpm record by Beltona in 1923 but football songs and comedy fell out of fashion as variety and revue replaced pre-war styles of music-hall entertainment. He was still enough of a draw to tour South Africa and Australia in the late 1920s and when he died in 1933, aged 62, he left an estate worth £7,282. (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 27 December, 1933)
But what of the ball? I asked the historian Andrew Riddoch, who has written several histories of the Footballers’ Battalion whether he knew anything about it. The last report he could find was from 1922, when it was mentioned as being part of Shield’s memorabilia collection, which included over 100 football shirts. If Gibson had received the ball in 1918, it seems that he had given it back to Shields after the war. But after that the trail goes cold. Perhaps it was inherited by his wife or son, although matters may have been complicated by the fact that Shields died without a legal will. Maybe, somewhere out there in a dusty attic or loft, lies the once famed ball of the Footballers’ Battalion…
Dr Alexander Jackson has been a curator at the National Football Museum since 2011. Prior to this he completed a Collaborative PhD exploring the NFM’s collections relating to football and childhood. In 2014, Alexander worked on the NFM’s First World Exhibition, ‘The Greater Game’ and assisted in the production of an accompanying exhibition booklet, published by Shire. Since then he has independently been researching a history of football on the Home Front in England. He has written several articles for the Blizzard, including one on the wartime experiences of the Bradford Park Avenue manager, Tom Maley. He has also published on the wartime history of the Portsmouth Ladies FC for Sport in History and Soccer History.