By Jove, what a life!

First published in Features

George Allison mingled with royalty, was the BBC's first sports commentator and managed Arsenal FC, but he never forgot his humble Hurworth roots

IN a commodious carrier bag from Mrs Margaret Chapman arrives a wonderful quartet of books, formerly owned by her late husband, George. Three of the four, perhaps coincidentally, have a Northern Echo connection.

One is the huge and lustrously illustrated The American Century, written in the late 1990s by Harold Evans, perhaps the most distinguished of all Echo editors.

"The British may have dominated the 19th century by force and the Chinese cast a long shadow over the 21st," says the dust jacket, "but the 20th century belongs to the United States."

Another is a pristine copy of Northern Goalfields - gold dust those, mind - the 1989 centenary history of the Northern League which, like its complementary volume 11 years later, I was privileged to edit.

Perhaps the most remarkable of all, however, is Allison Calling, the story of the 17/6d a week local newspaper reporter who not only became a successful manager of Arsenal FC but a familiar figure in Hollywood, a confidante of royalty, a "virile" follower of hare coursing, an in-demand after-dinner speaker and the BBC's first sports commentator.

Blow me, if there's not a Shildon connection, too.

ALLISON was born in 1883 in Hurworth, near Darlington, the village - another coincidence - where Margaret Chapman now lives.

After attending Holy Trinity school in Stockton, he'd become a clerk at the county court where his father was also an official, but had been publicly rebuked by a judge for tapping his teeth with a pencil.

"Tapping your teeth is the first sign of insanity," intoned the learned judge, a judicial review even recorded in Allison's obituary.

It may also have been considered a little eccentric to stick through the letter box of the Evening Gazette office anonymous reports of minor league football matches in which he'd played, each critical of colleagues but coruscating in its commendation of the young right back, a lad called Allison.

It worked, though, because one Saturday he was asked for a trial by the mighty Shildon, so excited that he left his boots on the train, had to beg a pair two sizes too big from a bloke in the pub - "Shildon in those days wasn't blessed with many pairs of surplus football boots," he wrote in Allison Calling - but after five minutes twisted his ankle after kicking a divot instead of the ball and was never required again.

Subsequently he was to lead the Arsenal to three Football League championships and an FA Cup final win, but those five minutes of fame remain the highest level at which George Frederick Allison ever played.

THE effusive reports had also been noticed by the Evening Gazette who offered him a job, something else to get his teeth into.

He moved to Plymouth, returned north as the Echo's man in Newcastle - "I think the editor was impressed by my morning suit" - briefly became editor of the Auckland Chronicle and then chief reporter in the Echo's Middlesbrough office.

By 21 he was assistant to the secretary/ manager of Middlesbrough FC, a squat figure - "I am not tall, neither am I thin" - in three-piece suit and band-of-hope hat.

Soon afterwards he moved to London as chief sports writer for the Hulton group and began a 41- year association with Woolwich Arsenal, as then the club was known.

He'd also become the first journalist to obtain an interview with Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, he of the beckoning forefinger, a scoop which took wing around the world and led to his appointment as London correspondent of the New York Herald, 15 guineas a week and a brief to join the socialites' party.

It was a far cry from county court and Auckland Chronicle.

In 1912 he'd returned to Middlesbrough to marry Ethel Swordy - she who teasingly suggested of his Hurworth roots that every village had its idiot - the wedding telegrams interrupted by a rather more disturbing message from head office. "Titanic sunk: return immediately."

Though the new Mrs Allison caught the southbound train with her husband, they spent their honeymoon night separated by several miles of international cable. Another close-to-home coincidence, of course, WT Stead - the first of the Echo's great editors - was among those who went down with the Titanic.

ALLISON became European manager for the American publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst's vast media empire, a frequent guest at Hearst's 240,000 acre ranch in California. "It is so vast, so fabulous, so wondrous, so bewildering," he wrote, exactly 60 years ago, in Allison Calling.

"If Snow White, the dwarfs and the rest of fairyland had appeared there, it would not have shaken me."

Simultaneously employed by the BBC, and as Arsenal's programme editor and club historian, he was the commentator on the second-ever live football broadcast - Corinthians v Newcastle United - and on the first FA Cup final, England v Scotland international, Grand National and Derby.

Usually by his side, and usually with a shared bottle of port - medicinal, naturally - was Derek McCulloch, later better known as Uncle Mac, who held the key to the pitch grid that appeared in the Radio Times.

Allison knew him as Square Two.

Though audiences grew to ten million, the radio receiver still the cat's whiskers, Allison ever-assumed that he was talking to just one person - his mother, a "sweet old lady" in Redcar. "The rest of the ten million were eavesdroppers," he said.

The Echo's report of his death told of his "rich, fruity voice" and of his habit of exclaiming "By Jove!" when things got a bit tense. He was one of the BBC's first personalities, we added - the John Motson of his day.

One listener had complained, however, that when Allison's voice reached a crescendo her parrot would wake from its slumbers and shriek "Damn you, you old bugger" before returning to its perch.

Though the Football League banned live radio broadcasts because of the perceived effect on smaller clubs, he continued to commentate on big matches - and to represent American newspapers - after succeeding Herbert Chapman as Arsenal's secretary/manager in 1934.

He also had a speaking part in the film "The Arsenal Stadium Mystery", the line "It's one-nil to the Arsenal" becoming obliquely immortal. Football fans will understand.

In 1938 he paid a record fee of £14,000 for Bryn Jones from Cardiff City. "It probably set a standard for the vast fees we see today," he wrote ten years later, when Sunderland had paid £20,050 for Shackleton. The book cost six shillings.

His friends included the celebrated American actress Marion Davies and Anna Neagel, an ardent Arsenal fan.

Royal box acquaintances included Dwight Eisenhower and George VI, who confessed that he'd only once scored a goal - direct from a corner - and that it was a mistake.

"The wind blew it in," said the king.

Allison stood down in 1947 and died ten years later. "He had become the prototype of the modern football manager,"

says a biography in the National Portrait Gallery, where his likeness still hangs.

It had been an awfully big leap for the lad who was too small for his boots.

Life on the water

DUNCAN Davis, entrepreneurial landlord of the Black Bull in Frosterley - next to the Weardale Railway and one of the North-East's finest pubs - is off on an improbable adventure.

Starting this week, and under close confinement, he plans an eight-week return trip from Skipton to London by narrow boat. "I've got it all worked out," he insists. "We can be back by mid-July if we maintain a steady 3mph."

Duncan and his wife also plan to tie up near the Palace of Westminster. "It's not Britain's most attractive boat, I'm expecting boarding parties from the Metropolitan Police," he says. Their family will be running the pub.

Duncan has also privately produced a book - first run ten copies, second up to 15 - of his photographs taken in the 1970s at Marley Hill colliery, near Gateshead, with text from folk singer Johnny Handle and others.

The lady of this house was particularly taken by an image of a pit-head baths miner howking on his boots, and by the text:

Ah'm puttin' me byuts on for foreshift

After aa've finished me chores

Me wife sez you've put them on the wrong feet

Aa sez "Aye, they should hev been yours."

ALL this commemoration of the Dambusters raids presently in the air, it's timely that a book called Breaking the Dams - sub-titled The Story of Dambuster David Maltby and his crew - should arrive.

Among the crew was Sergeant Vivian Nicholson, the navigator, one of eight sons of a joiner from Sherburn Village, near Durham - for whom the raid on the Mohne dam was his first operational mission. They were in the fifth Lancaster to bomb the dam, and the one which caused the final breach.

Sgt Nicholson was awarded the DFM, Flt Lt Maltby and Pilot Officer John Fort were also decorated. The citation spoke of "the extraordinarily high standard of crew co-operation.and the greatest sense of duty in the face of opposition and other difficulties".

Elizabeth Nicholson, his mother, wrote of the "boys" at the medal presentation - "so young, so happy, so beautiful".

The entire crew of eight died over the North Sea four months later, in an apparent accident when returning from an aborted mission to bomb the Dortmund Ems canal. Only David Maltby's body was recovered.

* Published by Pen and Sword (£19.99), the book is written by Charles Foster, Flt Lt Maltby's uncle.

NOW that he's passed another milestone - he's just turned 70 - Middlesbrough barrister Arthur Puckrin plans another. On July 12 he'll be entering the 42-mile Lyke Wake Race for the first time since 1973.

It's in memory of his dad, Thomas, who first tackled the North Yorkshire Moors hurdle when he was 67. "My dad didn't take me for walks, I took him,"

says Arthur.

"He trained for the race by walking two and from work, two miles each way, but I recall that he did pretty well."

The Lyke Wake Walk, from Osmotherley to Ravenscar, was devised in the 1950s by Potto farmer Bill Cowley. It became so popular that sometimes he wished he hadn't bothered.

"It's much easier now because large parts have been paved to stop erosion,"

says Arthur - from whom the distance will still be relatively short. He hopes to make the crossing in under eight hours.

FRED Thompson from Hurworth reports that the North-East Meccano Society has a railway-themed exhibition - admission free - at the National Railway Museum outpost in Shildon on Sunday and Monday this weekend.

Fred's made two models specially and is enthusiastic. "One's a real beauty,"

he says. "There'll be all sorts of things to see."

More of that joined-up thinking, with luck, in next week's column.

and finally, warm greetings to Tom Cockeram - Middleham lad, now in Leeds - whose lifelong loyalty to The Northern Echo now continues through the Talking Newspaper.

Tom, who's sent several cassettes of his own Wensleydale reminiscences, is still with his wife Betty, whom he married in the year that My Love won the Derby. "It seems," he says, "that I backed a winner."

Send us your news, pictures and videos

Most read stories

Local Info

Enter your postcode, town or place name

About cookies

We want you to enjoy your visit to our website. That's why we use cookies to enhance your experience. By staying on our website you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more about the cookies we use.

I agree