Sir Leslie Bowker
By Morgan Phillips
Monday January 16, 2012
Sir Leslie Bowker is featured in the Christmas issue of Your Hammersmith & Fulham Magazine but his remarkable life story cannot be compressed into a brief article.
Born in Nottinghamshire on the 2nd July 1887 Leslie spent his adult life involved in London football. He supported Fulham FC after watching the first ever London League match at Craven Cottage in October 1896. The result that day was an 8-0 home defeat but Leslie was hooked. Perhaps the debacle also encouraged him to become a defender as Fulham clearly needed help.
After leaving All Saints School (Fulham High Street) where he had gained a widespread reputation for his football skills and his leadership qualities, he formed the West London Old Boys FC. This club, noted for its stylish, close-passing game, had a strangely familiar kit of white shirts and black shorts, which must have been Leslie's choice. He also organised the Arthur Thomas Memorial Trophy commemorating a Fulham FC pioneer. Craven Cottage hosted the Final of this competition. In one tie the Fulham Times reporter criticised Leslie's play as dangerous. Rather than being insulted ,the defender kept this cutting in his scrapbook (now owned by local historian Keith Whitehouse). Whether he moderated his tackling is doubtful.
In January 1911 Bowker and another Old Boy Herbert Perkins (a former schoolboy international forward) represented the London League in a match played at Stamford Bridge. Two months later they were invited to play for Fulham Reserves against Swindon and acquitted themselves well in the 7-2 victory.
The following season there were four Old Boys on Fulham's books... Perhaps it was a ploy by the directors to increase attendances at the weekly reserve match, for the amateurs were not serious candidates for the first team. Leslie did make one appearance with the seniors in October 1911 when he faced Spurs in the London Professional Charity Fund. Otherwise he was quite content in the reserves, helping them to an 11-1 victory over Bristol City, a 2-0 defeat of Arsenal and a 1-0 victory over Chelsea. The latter was particularly satisfying as Leslie scored the winner with a long-range free kick. He loved Fulham so much that he cancelled his Easter 1912 holiday in Baden-Baden to turn out for the reserves. However he remained an active member of the Old Boys, and when the two sides faced each other he played for West London.
The Daily Express (20th November 1912) reporting on the Middlesex Reserves Final between Fulham and Chelsea gives a vivid if slightly toe-curling picture of Leslie in action:
“Bowker played splendidly against the clever Chelsea left-wing Freeman and Fairgray. It was undoubtedly a big trial for the amateur but he soon proved he was no novice in the art of tackling, his duels with the Chelsea midget being extremely interesting. He found time also to help Gray his partner out of difficulties and once went to the left and stopped Read in brilliant fashion.”
In March 1913 Leslie and the Old Boys visited France to participate in a knock-out competition. They reached the Final where they faced the Paris side Red Star (founded by Jules Rimet). The game started late and was all square after 90 minutes necessitating extra time. The additional half hour failed to decide anything so the French wanted to play on for a golden goal. The Old Boys knew that any further delay would mean missing their passage home so they headed for the dressing room. Risking an international incident the referee restarted the match and to the jeers of the spectators Red Star scored in the empty goal. Initially they were declared winners but common sense prevailed and a replay was promised at some future date.
Leslie played many representative games for London and Middlesex. In January 1914, during a Norfolk v Middlesex match he broke his leg just above the ankle. This would have ended ended his footballing days but for the skill of Dr Draper and the West Norfolk & Lynn Hospital. Leslie hoped to resume playing in the 1914-15 season, but the declaration of war meant that the Old Boys were disbanded.
Bowker and Herbert Perkins enlisted in the London Scottish regiment and the young forward was killed in September 1915. Leslie served in France, Salonika and Palestine, winning the Military Cross. He also showed that he could still play football because he helped the Regiment win the Brigadier's Cup Final. His rugged features fascinated cartoonists throughout his adult life, and one battalion sketch depicts him as a chef serving up a “wild fowl”. An FA Yearbook later described his 'burly, strong-necked figure of a full-back, his long, rather stubborn-looking upper lip and deceptively innocuous blue eyes'.
After the War Leslie joined Dulwich Hamlet, who won the Isthmian League championship, and the Amateur, Surrey Senior and the London Charity Cup sin a single season. He also appeared for the reconstituted West London Old Boys, whose home games now took place at Craven Cottage – with Fulham FC's season ticket prices increased to include the extra matches !
Leslie was called to the Bar in July 1922, the first step in a prestigious career in the City of London. At the age of 35 he only participated in the occasional charity match, concentrating more on his senior administrative posts in the game including the Chair of the London Football League. A successful amateur player he was to make even more impact in the role of administrator, as I shall show in a future blog.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not necessarily those of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham.