"War Broke Out": The Diaries of Town Player Robert 'Bob' Gordon

Lee Morris

Lee Morris

26 min read

Robert ‘Bob’ Gordon (Heritage Number 267) is one of Town’s war heroes. He died in September 1940 while serving with the RAF. Prompted by a conversation with his former teammate Graham Bailey, Lee Morris set out to find out more about Gordon, including a trip to his native Cramlington to visit his grave and speak to his surviving family.


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Graham Bailey Reminisces 

Back in June, I visited Graham Bailey in Bridlington to catch up with him and his family. Bailey is the club’s oldest living player at the age of 102. As he played for the club between 1936 and 1948, and retains an impeccable memory, he can provide a unique insight into life at Town before, during and after the Second World War. 

 

During my visit, I showed him the fantastic 100 Years On book. As soon as we got to the 1936-37 page, he was in his element, even more so when he spotted a photograph of Bob Gordon, who he pointed out straight away. Gordon had been his teammate at Leeds Road from 1936 onwards. He shared digs with him, but Gordon sadly died in September 1940. Bailey reeled off the stories about his old pal, who he hadn’t seen for 81 years. “In the close season, I used to go up with my mother to his house and he used to come down to mine,” he remembered. “I shall be dreaming about him tonight now!”, added.


A Trip to Cramlington

This conversation with Bailey led me to do some digging, and after a quick look at Roger Pashby’s magnificent website, The Huddersfield Town Collection, I found that Gordon was buried at Mayfield Cemetery, Cramlington. A quick post in a Cramlington Facebook group led the husband of his niece to get in touch within an hour of the message. Walter Nichols informed me that his wife Joan was Gordon’s niece and that she’d inherited a small amount of memorabilia relating to his Town career.

 

A month later, I travelled to Cramlington and met up with Mr. and Mrs. Nichols. We spoke about Gordon and looked at the memorabilia that he’d left behind. There were contracts, photographs, and player passes, but most intriguing of all were his diaries from 1937, 1938 and 1939. We then went to Mayfield Cemetery, where, on behalf of the HTSA Heritage Project, I laid flowers and a Town pennant as a mark of respect to Leading Aircraftman Gordon.


Early Career

Robert ‘Bob’ Henry Gordon was born in Shankhouse, Northumberland, on September 14th, 1917, and after spells with South Northumberland Boys, Shankhouse Welfare, and Blyth Spartans reserves he was signed by Town in April 1936. This came after he’d played in a Tyneside League match for Blyth Spartans reserves against Jarrow reserves and was singled out for special praise in a report in the Blyth News.


That report was sent to Town manager Clem Stephenson, who immediately fixed for Gordon to have a month’s trial at Leeds Road. After a short spell as an amateur, he signed professional forms on August 21st, 1936. His first wage was £4 per week. Having already played in a number of practice matches at Leeds Road, he made his debut in the Central League against Manchester United on August 31st Old Trafford. He spent the early part of the season in the ‘A’ team, before gaining a regular spot in the reserve side by December.



Gordon at Leeds Road.

 

Gordon’s first contract, signed under the watchful eye of assistant manager Jack Foster and club secretary Harry Beever, shows that he resided in digs at 77 Mayfield Avenue, Dalton. He later moved to 80 Rawthorpe Lane, Rawthorpe, living there with his fellow professionals Bailey and Harold Wood. Bailey said back in June: 



“He used to kick me in bed! When we were in digs together, we had to share the same bed. We were so much alike, I remember we went to Burtons, the 50-shilling tailors. He went on his own and I went on my own and we came back and we’d both bought the same coats!”


Bailey also remembered a funny incident at the dentist: “I went with him when he had trouble with his teeth. We were friendly with the dentist and the dentist said ‘Would you like to come along and see what happens?’ So, I did. And nearly fainted once I saw the blood splashing about!” A look in the diaries reveals that this was on February 7th, 1937, with Gordon writing: “Went to dentists, had teeth out because of infection. No pain”. He also paid 18/- for dentures.

 

The 1937 diary gives us a glimpse into the life of a 20-year-old professional footballer in the 1930s. Aside from training at Leeds Road, Gordon spent much of his time out walking with Bailey and Jack Johnson, visiting the various picture houses around Huddersfield, playing golf, going on various dates, and having a bath at the ground. 



Gordon (left) in Huddersfield town centre with an unknown friend. 

 

The comments on his performances every Saturday are particularly fascinating. The diaries detail all the games he featured in throughout each season, often giving honest accounts of how he felt he’d played. It seems that at times, Gordon was critical of his performances, despite reports saying the opposite, discussing how much of a good prospect he was and how much he impressed in the few first team games he played. 



Reserve Team Regular & First Team Hopeful

As Gordon was a right-half, he found himself in competition with Ken Willingham, who had been at Leeds Road since 1930 and had barely missed a game since 1932. Willingham would later make his international debut in 1937, scoring for England in an 8-0 win over Finland, the first of 12 international appearances for his country. Because of this, Gordon, while a regular in the reserves, found his opportunities in the first team limited.

 

While he saw no first team football during the 1936-37 season, Gordon was a regular in the reserves, barely missing a game all season. He was retained for the following season and once again signed a contract of £4 a week, with a £1 bonus for playing in the Central League.

 

After spending much of the 1937-38 season in the reserves, his first opportunity in the first team came in April 1938 when Town played Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park. For the match, Town would be without Willingham as he’d been selected to play for England against Scotland at Wembley. Gordon was informed of his selection on the day before the match: “Whoopee! Selected for 1st team. My ambitions come true,” he wrote in his diary.

 

On the day, Town won the match 1-0 (England lost 1-0) and reports suggest that Gordon played well. In his diary, he wrote, “Played vs. Middlesbrough, won 1-0 and had good game. A great day for me”. On the following Monday, he was still clearly in good spirits: “Lovely day in park all afternoon. Pleasant feeling knowing you have played OK”. A report in the Bradford Observer reaffirmed this view, concluding that “Gordon, playing right-half for the first time in the Huddersfield team, worked well in a thoroughly good defence”. At the time, Town were struggling near the bottom of the table, but that victory prevented them from falling even further.


While he had proved an adequate replacement for Willingham, Gordon returned to the reserve team the following week, as the England international took his place back in the side. The right-half had clearly impressed on his debut as just a week later because Stephenson informed him that he would be retained for the following season.

 

Shortly afterwards, on April 30th, Gordon was in the reserve team that travelled to Gigg Lane to play a match against Bury reserves. This is significant because on the same day, the first team were playing at Wembley, where they were competing in the F.A. Cup final against Preston North End.

 

Bailey was also in the reserve team that day, playing at right-back:


“Gigg Lane, that’s where the reserves played when Town lost the cup. I was in the reserve team; I was 18 or 19 and we were on a Hanson’s coach and it had a radio at the top over the driver. I remember Town were playing at Wembley and they couldn’t afford to take us (the reserves), so they sent us to Gigg Lane. I can remember walking up the steps of the coach and them shouting ‘It’s a penalty!” Of course, we didn’t know which way it was.”


As we know, the penalty was for Preston and was converted by George Mutch towards the end of extra-time. The game ended 1-0 and marked the last time Town would reach the F.A. Cup Final. It was also their last Wembley appearance until the 1994 Autoglass Trophy Final. 

 

As the 1937-38 season came to a close, Town managed to steer clear from the threat of relegation, finishing 15th in Division One. Gordon remained in the reserve side but felt that he’d had a good season.  When it came to discussing new terms, he thought that he deserved a pay rise: “Refused terms offered by Clem. I’m getting nervy. Hope he gives me them.”

 

However, the following day he reveals that he was unsuccessful in getting better terms: “Forced to sign contract at bad terms after having a good season.” His contract for the 1938-39 season shows a basic wage of £5 a week during the season and an extra £2 if he played in the Central League.

 

Just a month later, he had a stroke of luck: “Received word that I had won a half share in Irish sweepstake £1,161”. This is something that Bailey also recalled:


“We once bought an Irish hospital lottery ticket at half a crown each. I remember throwing my half-crown on the table and saying, ‘What am I throwing my money away for?’ And then we won a thousand quid. It set me on my way to spending. He didn’t know; I could have robbed him! The village I lived in thought I was a millionaire.”

 

Away from football, Gordon was indulging his love of golf and the pages of his diary are full of tales of golfing escapades, usually with Bailey and Harold Wood, but sometimes on his own. There was one funny incident during the season, on September 28th, “Missed (team) bus through playing golf, Clem will slaughter me tomorrow. Here’s hoping not.” The rollocking never came: “Clem never said anything.”



Gordon (right) training at Leeds Road with Town teammate and friend Harold Wood. 

 

One Last Season of Peace

Although he began the 1938-39 season in the Central League side, Gordon soon got another opportunity in the first team, starting in the Huddersfield Infirmary & Victoria Nurses Charity Cup in September. On a day where Huddersfield's new trolley bus service was transporting spectators to Leeds Road for the very first time, Town beat Partick Thistle 5-3: “Had good game v. Partick Thistle. Presented with case of cutlery. Supper at George. Won 5-3 after being licked 3-0.”

 

That same week, Town were due to face Everton in the league, but Gordon was not selected. He was back in the reserves, playing matches against the reserve sides of Everton, Chesterfield, Wolves, and Bolton, before playing in the West Riding Cup against Bradford City in October. Town won the match 3-1. Although Gordon suffered an injury in the match, it wasn’t too serious, and he was selected for the first team a week later on October 22nd. 

 

With Willingham away on England duty against Wales, Gordon was selected for the Bolton Wanderers game at home, which ended in a 2-1 victory. He had an impressive game, not only keeping the Bolton attack at bay, but also setting up each of Town’s goals.

 

Bailey remembers the game well:


“[Gordon] played against a guy called Ray Westwood, a well-known England international, and had a very good game against him. When he came home at night I said, ‘don’t get swell headed!’. He probably told me to bugger off.”

 

Gordon was also full of positivity in his diary. “Had great game vs. Bolton, my third game in 1st team, won 2-1”. The following Monday, after reading the newspapers, he wrote, “Great reports of my game in all the papers. Here’s to more”. In his collection of memorabilia, there’s a clipping of a complimentary match report from that game, despite him being referred to as “Jordan” rather than Gordon.

 

“Jordan (sic), playing his second League match, was the star of the day at right-half for Huddersfield. Two goals came from his passes and countless Bolton raids fell to his defensive work. A great game by a most promising youngster”. 


The Daily Herald went one better, with a headline of “Deputy Shines”: “Gordon, playing in his second League game, outshone all others on the field, not only in scheming for Huddersfield’s goals, but in his defensive work. He was a most capable substitute for Willingham.” Blyth News concurred: “Not only did he initiate the movements that produced Huddersfield’s goal with perfect passes, but he was a strong man in defence and completely strangled the Westwood-Rothwell wing.”

 

The following week, Gordon thought he might have been in with a chance of playing in the first team again but Stephenson selected Willingham for a 3-3 draw with Liverpool at Anfield. The same day, Gordon was lining up against Burnley in the reserves: “Beat Burnley Res 2-1. Had good match”. He would remain in the reserves until December.


On December 3rd, Town faced Stoke City at Leeds Road without Willingham and Eddie Boot, who were both unfit. Gordon came in for Willingham and Willie Mills replaced Boot. “Got licked 4-1 by Stoke City, played moderate,” wrote Gordon in his diary that night. According to the reports, Town dallied in front of goal. Gordon created at least two opportunities to score but Pat Barlow was too slow for one and was caught offside for the other. A third opportunity came just before half-time, with Gordon shooting just wide.

 

A week later, Town faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and with Willingham still incapacitated due to dental trouble, Gordon once again got the nod in his place. A 3-0 loss followed, with Gordon seemingly having a bad game: “Got beat 3-0 by Chelsea, very disappointing. Gave match away by giving goal away. Very downhearted”. However, a report in the Halifax Evening Courier disagreed, suggesting that “Young, between Gordon and Boot, made Huddersfield’s defence reliable.”


Willingham returned from his dental trouble the following week, banishing Gordon to the reserves. However, he did travel to Preston on Christmas Day, 1938, as the first team faced Blackpool on Boxing Day. Town played them at Leeds Road the following day. Gordon thought he may have been in with a chance of a game but was ultimately disappointed: “Great disappointment, not picked in 1st team, watched game and had grand night at baths.”



The Town reserve team from the late-1930s. Gordon sits at the front right. The trainer is Tommy Wilson. 

 

Earlier in December, Stephenson had appointed Town’s first specialist coach, Ted Magner. It seems that he and Gordon didn’t get on too well, with a diary entry on December 28th stating: “New coach picked on me all morning. Had few words with Clem. Very unpleasant week.” It seems that the pair clashed, with further diary entries discussing exchanges between the two.

 

As he saw the New Year in, Gordon mentioned in his diary that his time at Town had been “very good until Xmas. Lost chances in the first team through acting injured.” Later that month he suffered a foot injury and was out of action for a number of weeks. He eventually had an operation on his foot and was back in action by mid-February, taking his place back in the reserve side.

 

Two more games in the first team would come in March following Town’s quarter-final replay in the F.A. Cup against Blackburn Rovers. Willingham was injured during the match and ruled out of the following game against Leicester City, which came just two days later. Gordon took his place at right-half in a 1-0 win at Filbert Street: “Beat Leicester 1-0 away. Oh boy am I pleased!”, he wrote in his diary. “Willingham was not missed - a high tribute to the hard work put in by his deputy, Gordon,” said the Leeds Mercury after the game. 


Then in midweek, on March 11th, Gordon featured against Liverpool at Leeds Road: “Drew 1-1 v. Liverpool, Clem played hell at losing point.” He returned to the reserves the following game as Willingham came back from injury.

 

Gordon subsequently played what would be his final match in the First Division, a home game against Chelsea. Gordon found himself in the side because Willingham was selected to play against Scotland at Hampden Park. Town won the match 3-1: “Felt shaky in the morning but played good v. Chelsea. Won 3-1. Golcar at night. Not so good,” he said in his diary. 

 

Towards the end of the season, Town competed in the West Riding Cup, and on April 26th played Halifax Town. They then played Goole Town in the final, losing 2-0. Gordon and his teammates received runners-up medals as consolation.

 

As the season ended, it seems that he refused the terms offered to him. There’s no mention in his diary of what terms he signed but his contract for the 1939-40 season shows that he was to receive £5 a week, with an extra £1 per week for playing in the Central League.



Town's reserves enjoy a respite from training at Leeds Road. Gordon is on the front row, fifth from the left. Graham Bailey is to his immediate left.

 


Away from football, Gordon had started driving lessons in 1939. His diary details his numerous lessons before he eventually passed his test on May 3rd. He initially enjoyed his new-found ability to drive. During that week, he travelled to Goole, Golcar, and Shankhouse. However, he had a spot of bad luck the following week when he was involved in an accident, knocking over a young girl outside a school. “Bad luck day, knocked over girl at school, not serious but court case pending,” he wrote in his diary. His diary makes no further mention of it, but it was revealed in Blyth News in July that he’d been fined £1 and £1 6s costs for driving without due care and attention. It was noted that the girl had run straight out in front of him and that his view had been obscured by two buses.


“War Broke Out”

Shortly afterwards, Gordon, Bailey, and Wood moved digs from Rawthorpe Lane to Imperial Road, Marsh. “New digs, very cosy,” wrote Gordon on July 31st, which was the day they began pre-season training for the 1939-40 season. Throughout August, he spoke of training being “stiff” but also acknowledged it was better than the previous year had been. 

 

Town began the season with a 1-0 defeat to Blackpool at Leeds Road. Gordon was in the reserve team that day and featured in a 1-1 draw with Blackburn Rovers reserves. The second game came the following week in a midweek fixture with Sunderland at Roker Park, which Town won 1-0. That same night, Gordon was involved in a thrilling 5-4 victory over Chesterfield reserves. Then finally, Town’s last match in peacetime came against Brentford at Griffin Park on September 2nd. 

 

On the day, Gordon was the reserve and travelled with the side to London, his diary reveals that he saw a balloon barrage, which were used to defend ground targets against aircraft attack. A few hours later, on September 3rd, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Quite poignantly, Gordon wrote just three words in his diary that day: “War broke out”. 

 

He soon received news that he had got a job at Brook Motors as a plastic moulder. He started on September 11th and was joined by Wood and Bailey. One of the club directors was involved at Brooks and had organised for the three of them to start work there.


Gordon poses for an official club photograph. 

 

Meanwhile, the Football League was suspended, with Town’s opening three results were expunged from the record books. The league was temporarily replaced by the Wartime Competition, though it did not begin until late October 1939. By now, Gordon was hard at work at Brook Motors to aid the war effort. On October 28th, he wrote, “Getting sick of work, good mind to go home and stay.”


As Town had no further games in September, Gordon guested for other clubs, including Spennymoor United and an unknown local Huddersfield club. He would play for Town in the Wartime Competition in November, featuring in a 4-1 loss to Doncaster Rovers and was said to have had a good game. The following week, he guested for Bradford Park Avenue in their 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough, putting in another stellar performance. 

 

He played his second Town game a week later in a 5-1 away win over Hull City. His final Town game came in early December 1939—a 0-0 draw with Leeds United. He would go on to play a solitary match for Mossley against Hurst at the end of the month, where his team-mates included Bailey, Hughie Turner, Willie McFadyen, and Albert Juliensen.


Gordon's War

The exact date of Gordon’s enlistment in the Royal Air Force (RAF) is unknown, but his record shows that he enlisted at Cardington between September 1939 and August 1940, where he was appointed as a Class F Reservist. His 1939 diary makes no mention of him signing up, so it’s quite likely that he joined up in 1940.


While he was in the forces, Gordon played for the RAF team. His collection includes a team photograph of the side. His Town teammate, the goalkeeper J. Lancaster, was also part of the same team and can be seen on the photograph.



Gordon (back, second from the right) in an RAF team sometime in 1940. 

 

In September 1940, while serving as a Leading Aircraftman of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in No 9 Sqn, RAF, Gordon died of pulmonary tuberculosis at RAF Hospital Ely. His family were informed via a rather cold telegram stating, “Regret your son 943151 Gordon R.H. died tonight 18th September. Letter follows. R.A.F. Hospital Ely.”

 

Gordon’s funeral and burial took place in Mayfield Cemetery, Cramlington. His grave, which his family insisted wouldn’t be a traditional war grave, contains a vase that was donated by the club and engraved with the message, “Token of esteem from directors, ground staff and players of Huddersfield A.F.C.,” which shows the high regard in which he was held the club.



Gordon in RAF blues. 1940. 

 

“A Player of Unusual Accomplishments”

Gordon’s diaries provide a fascinating insight into the life of a young professional footballer in the 1930s. All in all, he played just seven matches in the Football League for Town, but he made quite the impact in those appearances. Who knows where his career would have taken him had he not had his life so cruelly cut short.

 

It is perhaps fitting, then, to end on a quote from Gordon’s obituary in the Yorkshire Evening Post: “On the numerous occasions on which he appeared with the first team, he showed himself to be a player of unusual accomplishments”.


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Many thanks to Walter and Joan Nichols for the above photographs. 


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