How World War One ravaged Haverhill’s football teams

Haverhill Rovers in 1912 ANL-150422-162705001
Haverhill Rovers in 1912 ANL-150422-162705001

Before 1914, football was such a popular pastime in the town that there was an abundance of teams, with names such as Camps Road United, Crowland Swifts, Haverhill Villa, Haverhill Athletic, Mr Thake’s XI and Buckskins.

These were in addition to Haverhill Rovers, whose two teams played their matches on Seven Acres field behind Haverhill’s Railway Station, just off Wratting Road.

Percy Ager ANL-150423-095354001

Percy Ager ANL-150423-095354001

Matches were played on Saturdays and on Wednesday afternoons, which was half-day closing. Many players were so keen that they turned out for more than one team each week.

Teams were well supported, too. For an away match against Halstead on February 22, 1913, more than 200 Rovers supporters travelled on the Colne Valley Railway to cheer on the first team in what was described as a “gruelling” match. The Echo reported that “the game had not been started long when roughness developed. Halstead players were early aggressors and not the slightest attempt was made to check it by the referee.

“So frequent were the deliberate fouls that their opponents felt obliged to retaliate. During the proceedings fists were raised by players on both sides.”

The Great War had a devastating effect on football teams. On September 26, 1914, the Echo listed the names of 192 Haverhill men who had volunteered within the first month of Great Britain entering the war.

The same trains that took the players and supporters to matches were now taking men to war. How different their feelings must have been on these journeys.

With so many men serving away from home, the leagues and many teams, including the Rovers, were suspended until the ‘Great War was resolved’.

The photo of the 1912-13 South Suffolk League Winners, taken in the garden of Walter Mason, Haverhill’s master builder, demonstrates the effect of the war extremely well.

The Haverhill Rovers Reserves had won the South Suffolk League for the second successive season (the last to be played at Seven Acres) and were also runners-up in the East Anglian League.

In total, nine of those appearing in the photograph of the successful Rovers Reserve team (top right) answered the call for Kitchener’s Army, volunteering during the first few months of the war. Of them, Harry Orbell, Percy Ager, Frank Arber and also Percy Amey (not in the picture but a member of the successful team) paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Alfred Frank Arber, known as Frank, was the son of James Arber, a contractor, brickmaker and builder with premises in the High Street.

His mother, Ann Allen Cave, was born in Somerset, but came to Haverhill to take up the position of headmistress of the Girls’ Board School in 1877. A year later she married James and they made homes at 3 Station Road and later at 3 The Pightle with their six children.

By 1911 Ann was widowed and, along with her five unmarried children, had moved into the Girls’ School House.

Frank and his brother James (also in the team photo) were employed as carpenters but Frank was to become local attendance officer for the West Suffolk Education Committee.

Sister Nellie was an assistant mistress at the school, one brother William was a blacksmith and the other, Frederick, was a journalist at the South West Suffolk Echo.

Frank and his brother James were keen footballers. A report of a match between Cambridge Town and Haverhill Rovers describes how there was trouble all afternoon culminating in a row between James Arber and a Cambridge player who had fouled him.

He “cuffed” him and they were quickly surrounded by excited players. The referee managed to calm them down with a stern lecture.

Frank played for Haverhill Rovers’ first team, the Reserves and for Haverhill Stour FC.

Frank enlisted in November, 1915, joining the Suffolk Regiment, as his older brother James had done in September, 1914

From January, 1917, to May, 1918, Frank was with the 15th Battalion Suffolk Yeomanry in Egypt. While there he was able to meet up with his brother.

At the end of August the 15th battalion, who had come to France in May from Palestine, were moved to Maricourt, in the Somme region of France.

From September 5 to 7 the battalion took part in an attack on the Templeux-la-Fosse and Gurlu Wood system of trenches, suffering around 100 casualties, of whom Frank was one. Frank died on September 5, 1918, and was buried in Peronne Communal Cemetery.

The Echo of September 28, reported that among the burial party was a local man, Pte Amey from Camps.

The Echo of October 19 reported that Frank’s brother Fred had received a glowing report from the platoon commander, saying that had Frank survived he would almost certainly have been commended for bravery. Frank was awarded the Victory and British Medals.

Harry Orbell was born on October 21, 1892, and lived with his grandparents in Stoke by Clare until 1905, when his widowed mother Charlotte married a Haverhill man, Albert Sizer, a widower with two teenage sons, Frank and William.

They lived at 1 Bumpstead Road and the men were silk weavers, most likely employed at Vanner and Fennel Brothers.

Harry was a popular man and an excellent footballer.He was among the first volunteers from Haverhill to enlist, joining the 5th Suffolk Regiment.

After training, the Regiment embarked from Liverpool on July 30, 1915, bound for the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey where the Battle for the Dardanelles Straits was being fiercely fought by British, French and ANZAC troops.

The Suffolks landed at Sulva Bay on August 6, 1915. Just 15 days later, Harry Orbell, aged 23, died during the night offensive of August 21.

His name appears with 37 comrades’ on the Old Independent Church Memorial, with the inscription “Grateful Remembrance”. His name is also inscribed on the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli.

Percy “Jack” Amey was born in Haverhill in March, 1896, the ninth of the ten children of James and Alice Amey, of 12 Broad Street.

When Jack, as family and friends knew him, left school he followed his father into the offices of D Gurteen & Sons as a junior clerk where “he proved himself a very willing worker, and one who gained the esteem of the whole of his colleagues”.

Jack was a keen sportsman, becoming a prominent member of United FC, playing at either back or half-back.

In 1914, a year after being a part of the victorious 1912-13 Rovers Reserve team, Jack enlisted, joining the 1st /5th Battalion Suffolk Regiment.

On July 30, 1915, along with Rovers teammate Harry Orbell, he set sail for the Balkans, arriving at Sulva Bay, Turkey, on August 6.

Jack contracted enteric fever and pneumonia and was treated in the Naarieh Military Hospital in Cairo but died on 12 October, 1915, aged 19.

In a letter to his father, details of which were published in the Echo on October 30, an Army chaplain said: “He seemed to be pulling round splendidly, and then his heart suddenly failed him. I was with him to the last and comforted him. He was perfectly happy and died as he had lived, a true and fearless soldier. We buried him alongside his comrades in the beautiful little English cemetery.”

He is buried in the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, and remembered on memorial plaques at D Gurteen & Sons and the West End Congregational Church.

Percy Ager was the third son of William and Christina Ager who lived at 48 Eden Road.

His father was a mat weaver and later a cloth cutter, while his mother was a jacket machinist. When Percy was 11 his mother died and his sister Annie gave up her job to look after the family. After leaving school Percy became a silk weaver at Vanner and Fennell Brothers.

He was said to be quiet and undemonstrative and respected by all who knew him. Percy was also known as a good junior footballer, playing for Haverhill United before joining the Rovers. He played for the reserves and was occasionally selected for the first 11.

Percy was another of the first to enlist, at Bury St Edmunds, joining the newly- formed 7th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.

His name was on the list of volunteers printed in the Echo of September 26, 1914. By the end of the year he had been promoted to lance-corporal.

His regiment landed at Boulogne on May 30, 1915, journeying on to reach the 12th Divisional Area at Nieppe where they soon saw action. Percy was killed less than two months later, on July 24, aged 20.

His commanding officer wrote to his parents: “Your son was a very good soldier: liked by all who knew him; I shall feel his loss keenly. He met his death whilst in a working party; death was practically instantaneous. I am attending his funeral this afternoon (Sunday, July 25) at 3pm.”

Percy was buried in Gunners Farm Military Cemetery, Hainault, Belgium. He, too, is commemorated in the Old Independent Church, where he had been an active member. Percy’s father died days after receiving news of his son’s death.

Other footballers who lost their lives during the First World War include: Cecil Betts, William Claydon, Leslie Cummins, Arthur Farrant, Thomas Ford, Harry King, Peter Mead, Verner Radford, Tom Webb, Frederick G Robson, D Spencer Whiting.

If you have an ancestor from Haverhill whose name is on the war memorial, perhaps you have some family information that you could share with us. If so, do please get in touch. Contact Charmian Thompson by email at haver or call Alan Bumpstead on 01440 704157.

Thank you to Haverhill & District Local History Group for providing the photographs. Look out for the next article ‘Brothers in Arms’, due to be published on the last Thursday of May.