It’s a common complaint today that English youngsters have
to join the back of the queue at big football clubs like West Ham
and Chelsea – the imported talent is pinching all the best jobs.
You might think it’s a modern problem, but almost a century
ago London lads were having a hard time elbowing their way past foreign
players – only these boys were Scottish!
The bosses of the new London clubs like Chelsea and Thames Ironworks
(soon to become West Ham United) put together ready-made teams of
So great was the influence of the Scots that when one Londoner scored
five goals on his Chelsea debut, the club programme described him
as “living proof that to become a first-class footballer it
is not necessary to be born north of the Tweed”.
That man was Bromley-by-Bow born George Hilsdon, known forever more
as “Gatling Gun” in recognition of the way he rattled
in the goals.
George was born on August 10, 1885, in the long-since demolished Donald
Street. He went to Marner Street School and was soon playing at centre-half
for the school team.
He quickly moved to club football and at 19 was playing for Boleyn
Castle FC, near to his family’s new home in East Ham.
Meanwhile, the newly-named West Ham United were looking to expand
from their old ground in Canning Town. The Boleyn ground was ideal
and, as part of the deal, the club took on Boleyn Castle FC as their
George signed for West Ham and, in 1905, was in the side that held
Woolwich Arsenal to a draw in the FA Cup.
But it was joining Chelsea for the 1906-07 season that really kicked
off George’s career. That sensational five-goal debut has never
been equalled in English football – and it was another 50 years
before a Chelsea player again hit five in a match.
That player was Jimmy Greaves, but even Greavsie never hit six, as
Gatling Gun did a few months later against Worksop.
George scored 27 times that season and earned Chelsea promotion in
their first year of professional football – he’d really
earned his £4 a week wages.
England caps soon followed, with George scoring three times in a 6-0
rout of the Irish League before going on to score 13 times in just
eight international games.
Back at Upton Park in 1912, George found himself playing alongside
home-grown talent. The “old international” as he was known
– though he was still just 27 – was credited with bringing
on the young Syd Puddefoot, one of the greatest strikers ever to pull
on the claret-and-blue.
But the Great War was looming and though George tried to avoid active
service – being caught by the police hiding in a chicken run
on one occasion – he was called up.
In the words of his son, he “copped the mustard gas at Arras”
and would never be quite the same again. George scraped a living as
a teaboy on building sites, ran a pub and, on occasion, organised
a dodgy raffle round East End boozers – Mrs Hilsdon always won.
He died in Leicester in 1941 and only four people came to the funeral.
No stone marks his grave, neither is there a plaque to mark his achievements.
Only the record books stand testament to the power of Bromley’s
Gatling Gun George Hilsdon, by Colm Kerrigan is out now. Published
by Football Lives, 4 Earlham Grove, London E7 9AB, price £5.75.
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