“Aye, well I wish you luck, lad, But don’t forget what I told thee. The toffs run the show. Take care what you write. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Them’s that run the place, they can hurt thee if they chose.
Frank Barson was just settling down in his favorite armchair in his comfortable home in Grimethorpe on the edge of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, when his doorbell rang. He sighed and setting down his cup of tea, walked down the hallway to the front door. He was an unusually tall, lanky man so he was forced to stoop slightly to avoid hitting his head on the low ceiling. He was not particularly handsome, but he had a striking face. His aquiline nose that he’d broken once in a football game was somewhat crooked and he had tough craggy features. His black hair was parted down the center and slicked down neatly.
An eager-looking young man in a grey raincoat was standing at his front door when he opened it.
“Are you Frank Barson, the Manchester United center-half?” asked the young man.
“Aye,” said Frank cautiously. “Who wants to know?”
“Jim Parkinson, Sheffield Gazette,” said the man, showing his press-card.
“And for what do I owe the honor of a visit from a representative of the press?” asked Barson in mocking tones. “Are you after a face to face interview with the man known in footballing circles as ‘Dirty Barson’?”
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Barson, I am,” replied the reporter nervously, “but it’s not what you think. I’m writing a story about the Fowler brothers who were just convicted of the murder of William Plommer. They were sentenced to death. I heard that you were a friend of theirs, and I wanted to ask you some questions about them….if you have the time.”
As he finished speaking, he glanced at Barson anxiously. The footballer stared at him balefully, and replied:
“Look, lad, ‘tis nowt personal, but what have the press ever done for me that I should be giving you my time? They’ve never had a good word to say about me. They’re allus harping on about me being a violent player, and about me getting in trouble with the refs. Most of what they write is lies and twaddle. So why should I help you?” he finished pugnaciously.
“You have a fair point, Mr. Barson,” the young man acknowledged, “but I’m asking you to talk to me because I’m not sure the Fowler brothers got a fair shake at their trial. There were at least six men involved in the actual incident and ten men were put on trial. Nobody’s sure who struck the fatal blow with the bayonet, so how come Wilfred and Lawrence Fowler were the only two men to receive the death penalty?”
Barson paused in the act of closing his door. He frowned, his brow furrowed as he considered the reporter’s last remarks.
“What does tha mean?” he said gruffly.
“I believe that the Fowler brothers are being made an example by the justice system,” said Parkinson. “The Sheffield police are out to break the power of the gangs, and the judges have been told to hand down some stiff sentences. I want to write a story that might help their appeal for clemency. Perhaps, as their friend, you could help me to help them.”
Barson thought for a moment. Then he said:
“You’ve a way with words, lad. Alright, you can come in…..but just for a minute!”
As he led the young reporter down the hall, Frank Barson called out in the direction of the kitchen:
“Frances, we’ve a visitor. Can tha brew up a fresh pot of tea?” A muffled reply came from his wife, indicating assent.
The two men stepped into the front room.
“Sit thee down, lad,” said Frank. “I’ll not bite thee. I only bite opposing center forwards. On their ankles!” he added with a grin.
The young reporter perched gingerly on the edge of the sofa, and drew his notebook from his coat pocket.
“Can you tell me, Mr. Barson, how you come to know the Fowler brothers,” he began hesitantly.
“I’ve known ‘em since they were bairns,” replied Barson. “They’re about ten years younger ‘n me, but we grew up in the same hard streets. You learn how to use yer fists, how to defend yerself. You have to fight just to survive. Before I tell thee how I know ‘em, I’ve a question for you. Are you from Sheffield?”
The reporter shook his head. “I’m from Huddersfield. I just got the job at the Gazette.”
“Well, lad, ‘appen I’ll give thee a short history lesson about this city. I read the other day that Mr. George Orwell, the famous writer called this ‘the ugliest town in the world’. I reckon as he’s right. It’s not a pretty place. You’ll have seen the slums, the back to back houses with the outside privies, the rabbit warrens of little streets. There’s terrible poverty here. Did tha know that the Board of Guardians that gives out the financial relief to the poor ran out of money last year! There’s 70,000 men out of work. This city depends on steel for its livelihood, and there’s a global depression in that industry. The munitions factories that employed thousands in the war have closed down. There’s nowt for folks here. It’s little wonder that they turn to crime!”
At that moment Mrs. Barson walked into the room carrying a tray with two cups of steaming tea and a plate of biscuits. She set them down on the coffee table. She was a pleasant-looking woman in her early thirties.
“There you are, lads,” she said, smiling. “Give us a shout if tha needs a fresh cup.”
“Ta, luv,” said Frank Barson touching her affectionately on the arm.
Maybe he’s not as tough as they say, thought Parkinson as he reached out for his cup.
“I’ve done some research for the story,” he said, “and I believe there’s a number of war veterans in the gangs. They were trained to kill in the trenches of France, and some of them smuggled home guns and bayonets. When they arrived, they found unemployment lines instead of victory parades. I’m not surprised that they ended up in these gangs.”
“Aye,” agreed Barson,” and ‘tis young uns too like Wilf and Lawrie Fowler. They were too young for t’ war, but they grew up poor with no hope for a job. They see these men who run the pitch and toss like Sam Garvin who drives a Bentley and wears gold jewelry, and they want a piece of the action.”
“What’s pitch and toss, Mr. Barson?’ asked Parkinson.
“Eh, lad, you can’t have been long in this town!” exclaimed Barson in surprise. “Why it’s the main form of illegal gambling that we have here. It’s cheap to run, there’s no equipment, and it’s easy to avoid detection. You just need three ha’pennies that you put on your fingers and toss. The gamblers bet on how many’ll land ‘heads’ and how many ‘tails’. George Mooney runs the games up on Skye Edge. It’s a bit of high ground that’s perfect for the pitch and toss. They have look-outs called ‘crows’ to watch out for coppers that might be approaching, and the ‘tollers’ that run the games take four shillings from every pound on the bets that are placed! And some of the punters have been known to place fifty pounds on a single toss! That’s how Mooney and Garvin got so rich. They used to be buddies, but now they’re sworn enemies, and there’s been some blood flowing of late. In fact Mooney had to leave town in a hurry a while back when Garvin and his boys paid a visit. His wife and kids were threatened!”
“That’s fascinating!” said Parkinson, scribbling away in his notebook. “But how come you know so much about it, Mr. Barson?”
“Careful, lad!” warned the big center-half. “Don’t thee go thinking that I’m involved in a gang! Maybe it’s time I told thee how I come to be a friend of Wilf and Lawrence. Well, I’ll tell thee. As they grew up, them two lads drifted into petty crime, pick-pocketing and the like, and they joined the Junior Park Gang. It’s all kids that are imitating their elders. They carry knives and coshes, maybe a razor or two and they’ll rob people on the street, ‘bottling’ they call it! They even do some rough extortion – they’ll go into a pub, demand free drinks and cigarettes, and if the landlord refuses, they’ll smash the place up, break glasses and bottles, mirrors, chairs and so on. Pretty soon the landlords’s willing to pay a modest price to see the back of them. Well, one day the Fowler brothers come into my shop – I have business interests here in Sheffield – and they start threatening me and demanding money for protection. So I pick up this rubber cosh that I keep behind the counter, and I tell them if they ever come in my shop again, I’ll give ‘em such a hiding they’ll wish they’d never been born!”
“So what did they do?” asked Parkinson, his pencil poised expectantly over his pad.
“Lads like that,” said Barson, “I understand. I could have gone that way once if Barnsley hadn’t signed me to play football. If someone stands up to them and shows he’s not afraid, he’ll earn their respect. So a few days later, Wilf sticks his head nervously round my shop door, and asks me to come down t’ pub for a drink. They’d heard I was a player with Manchester United. They’re United fans – Sheffield United, that is! But we’ve been fast friends ever since. I’ve seen ‘em off and on for a drink or a fry-up. I was truly sorry to hear they’d got themselves into such serious trouble.”
“Trouble indeed!” agreed Parkinson. “Unless the King grants them a reprieve, they’ll be hanged for sure. Have you heard from them since the murder?”
Barson rose to his feet, and crossed to a small desk in the corner. He returned with a piece of cheap paper in his hand. “Wilf wrote me this from prison,” he said, handing the paper to the reporter.
Parkinson glanced at the words scrawled on the paper. It was difficult to read, and there were numerous misspelt words, but his attention was caught by the words, “Best of luck for the game against Spurs!”
“A kid can’t be all bad as takes the time to wish his friend good luck when he’s facing the drop,” remarked Barson.
Parkinson nodded thoughtfully. “My biggest concern,” he said, “is that Sam Garvin, the gang-leader you mentioned earlier got out of the trial with a slap on the wrist, twenty months in jail for assault!”
“Aye,” said Barson, “well, he was clever. When he realized that Sommers was beaten so badly that he’d likely die, he hopped on a tram, got off a few stops later and slashed a passer-by in the face with his knife to establish an alibi that he was committing an assault in a different place at the time of the Sommers murder. The jury bought it, and convicted him of the lesser crime. Beats facing the hangman’s noose! But they’d likely never hang Garvin anyway. He knows too many important people. There’s corruption in high places. Why, there’s members of the City Health Committee that are slum landlords!”
“That’s exactly the kind of thing that I want to expose in my story!” interrupted Parkinson excitedly.
Barson stretched his lean frame in the chair and sighed heavily.
“Eh lad, I see I’ll have to teach thee the facts of life!” he declared pityingly. “There’s two kinds of people in this world – there’s the toffs as run everything, and then there’s people like you and I as know we’d better do what we’re told if we know what’s good for us!”
“That’s a cynical view of the world, Mr. Barson,” said the young reporter.
“You’re young yet, lad,” replied Frank. “When you get to my age, you’ll see the writing that’s on the wall. Take me for instance. Whenever I’ve tried to buck authority, I’ve got myself into trouble. I left Barnsley FC because the tight bastards that ran the club wouldn’t pay me a few miserable quid for expenses. I sweated blood for Aston Villa, and then one time I invited a friend into the dressing room to wait while I got changed, and some hoity-toity director tells me I’ve broken the rules. So I told him to shoove it where t’ sun don’t shine, and the club suspends me for two weeks with no pay. That were the last time I played for Villa.”
Warming to his theme, Barson leapt to his feet, pulled open a drawer in his desk and tossed a tasseled cap onto the coffee table.
“What do tha think that be, lad?” he asked pugnaciously.
“It would appear to be an England international cap, Mr. Barson,” replied Parkinson.
“Aye, tha’s reet,” said the big center-half as he sat down again. “And it’s the only one I got! A number of respected football writers have called me the best pivot since the war, the finest center-half of recent years. I’m famous for my headers. I scored a thirty-yard goal on my debut for Manchester United with my head. I tackle hard and fair, and I usually come out wi’ the ball. So how come just the one cap?”
Parkinson shrugged his shoulders.
“I tell thee why, lad,” declared Barson. “It’s cos they don’t like fellers like me. I don’t bow and touch my forelock. I don’t say ‘yes, sir, no sir, three bags full, sir’! I argue with referees, I stand up to club directors and I tell the manager he’s wrong when I think he is! That doesn’t make you popular in football, and it doesn’t make you popular in life. Someone at the Football Association black-balled me, and I’ll never get another chance to play for my country. That’s the way it is. The toffs run the show. Sod ‘em anyway!”
Taken aback at Barson’s sudden eloquent outburst, Parkinson was speechless for a moment. Then he asked:
“Are you really a dirty player, Mr. Barson. They say you’ve had to be escorted from several stadiums by the police because angry fans were waiting to exact revenge for what you’d done to their players.”
“They’re exaggerating,” replied Barson, “though it’s true they had to smuggle me out of Goodison Park once because some fans had threatened to do me after the game.” He chuckled to himself. “But if the opposing fans don’t boo me, I feel like I’m not doing my job. I’m a defender. My job is to tackle their forwards hard and fair. I’ve never butted or punched anybody. All the trouble I had on the field was from referees. They’re all little dictators who need a pair of specs to make a good decision. But there’s one I respect. That’s Jack Howcroft. He told me before the Cup Final in 1920: ‘The first wrong move you make, Barson, and off you go!” He got my respect right off, and I didn’t step over the line once. We won the game 1-0 over Huddersfield. Only trophy I’ve ever won!”
“What about the famous ‘Barson Barge’?” asked Parkinson.
“Nothing wrong with an honest to goodness shoulder charge,” retorted Barson. “If they end up in the terraces, that’s hard lines. If the center-forward’s a bit afraid of me, it makes my job a lot easdier!”
“Well, Mr. Barson,” said Parkinson, rising to his feet. “I want to thank you for your honest and informative answers to my questions. I appreciate very much your help, and I hope I’m able to help your friends, The Fowlers, to get some clemency. It does seem harsh that two young men should have their lives snuffed out, terrible though their crime may have been. Surely a jail term such as their fellows received would give them a chance to be rehabilitated.”
“Aye, well I wish you luck, lad,” said Barson. “But don’t forget what I told thee. The toffs run the show. Take care what you write. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Them’s that run the place, they can hurt thee if they chose.”
He shook the young man’s hand, and ushered him towards the front door.
“Goodbye,” called Mrs. Barson, peering round the door.
“Goodbye, nice to have met you both,” replied the young reporter as he stepped outside.
“Do tha think he can help your young friends, Frank?” Frances Barton asked her husband.
Frank shook his head doubtfully. “He seems like a good feller, but he’s just a young ‘un. They’ll likely not listen to him. ‘Appen his editor mightn’t even publish the story. The bosses usually get their own way. ‘Ey up, lass, it’s time for bed.”
“I’ll be up in a moment, Frank,” she replied, “just as soon as I’ve made my cocoa.”
POSTSCRIPT: In spite of the valiant efforts of their defense lawyer, Mr. Fenoughty, their final appeal for clemency was rejected by King George V, and Wilfrid and Lawrence Fowler were hanged in September, 1925, at Armsley jail in Leeds.
Four days after the Sommers murder Sheffield Chief Constable Hall-Darwood formed a special flying squad of plain clothes policeman, composed of tough World War I veterans to combat the Sheffield gangs. His successor the famous Percy Sillitoe further strengthened the squad, and police, using strong-arm tactics that included suspected beatings of suspects in custody, broke the power of the Sheffield gangs.
Frank Barson enjoyed a distinguished if controversial career with Barnsley, Aston Villa, Manchester United and Watford. He was acclaimed by many sports reporters who wrote that he ‘revitalized a flagging Villa team with his fierce and uncompromising tackling and peerless heading ability. His dynamic personality brought out the best in other players’. He led Villa to the 1920 FA Cup final where they defeated a talented Huddersfield Town team. Later in his career he helped Manchester United to win promotion to the top flight of English football. Although generally acknowledged to be the best center-half of his era, he won only a single cap for England in a game lost 1-2 to Wales in which he was somewhat overshadowed by the legendary 44 year old Welsh captain, Billy Meredith. He ended a long career when he was sent off in the 83rd minute of his final professional game, playing for Wigan against Accrington Stanley on Boxing Day, 1930, just before his fortieth birthday for stamping on an opponent and swearing at the referee! He insisted on living in Sheffield throughout his playing career even when Aston Villa threatened him with suspension if he did not move to Birmingham. He served his suspension, and continued to live in Grimethorpe as he had some business enterprises in the city. Later in his life he held a coaching position with Aston Villa and finally moved to Birmingham where he died in 1968.
In 1965 he said:
“I felt I had a bad game if I was not booed, but I never punched or butted anybody. Players today are stupider, cruder. They do things openly and ask to be sent off. We did it without being seen half the time!”
In the long tradition of British hardmen from Norman Hunter to Dave Mackay, from Vinnie Jones to Billy Bremner, he was probably the hardest of them all.
The conversation in my story between Barson and the young reporter is entirely a product of my imagination, but I like to think that it might have taken place.
Copyright Michael Neat, 2016.