Jul 24

An early football song from Sheffield

Posted by Ian Nannestad

The subject of the songs sung by fans in the pre-1939 era is both fascinating and under researched. We know that fans both sang and chanted during matches occasionally.

The evidence for the period before World War One suggests these mass vocal outputs were generally restricted to games where there was a carnival-style atmosphere, essentially important games in the English (FA) Cup or occasions when supporters travelled en masse to an away game for the season’s special trip. Many of these songs appear to derive from popular music hall songs of the time and, like the music hall, died away when recorded music and the radio became popular.

Post-1919 singing appears to be more common, certainly up until the early 1930s when the economic depression began to bite. Crowds, particularly in the immediate post-war period, were much larger and clubs began to develop their stadiums. The gates were often opened up to three hours before the match started for important fixtures, and clubs employed bands to play popular tunes to entertain the waiting fans. The introduction of covered areas of terracing was another significant factor as this helped to amplify both the roar of the crowd and the volume of singing when it took place. There were also several programmes of organised ‘community singing’ arranged for matches from the late 1920s, notably by newspapers such as the Daily Express and the Manchester-based Daily Dispatch. This, of course, survived through until the early 1970s at the FA Cup final and other big matches although by then it had clearly exceeded its sell by date.

My own observations of modern games suggest that mass singing in uncovered areas is somewhat difficult to achieve; a song might start in one part of the ground and gradually move round to the different areas by which time the originators have already stopped singing. Covered accomodation, as is the norm at most Football League grounds, produces a much louder and consistent sound and is much better for singing purposes.

Songs and chants in the pre-1939 seem generally to have been short lived and linked to particular clubs. One exception is the popular chant “Give it to ****.” I have traced this as early as 1914 when Swansea Town fans were recorded as chanting “Give it to Ballie” in homage to Billy Ball, one of the club’s first stars (Football Post, Swansea, 31 January 1914). A similar chant was also noted at Lincoln City as “Give it to Dinny” (Billy Dinsdale, who played 1926-1929 and 1930-31), Manchester United (“Give it to Joe”; Joe Spence, 1919-1933), Manchester City (“Give it to Tommy”; Tommy Johnson, 1919-1930) and Everton (“Give it to Dixie”; Dixie Dean, 1925-1937). All of these players were prolific goalscorers and the geographical spread of the chant suggests it may well have had widespread popularity with a lifespan through until at least the early 1930s.

I recently discovered an early song from Sheffield which enjoyed a relatively long life. “Play up, Wednesday Boys” appears to have been sung, probably only at big matches, during the 1890s and again in the 1920s. Its origins almost certainly lay within the music hall. When the Saturday night football special The Green ‘Un attempted to revive the song in the 1920s there was some discussion as to the origins of the song and further articles in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (22 January 1930) and Sheffield Independent (25 March 1935) added to this.

“Play up, Wednesday Boys” originated in the music hall at pantomime time and was then adopted by the fans. Three separate readers agree that the Alexandra Theatre was where it was first sung, with the earliest suggestion being that Harry Fischer sang it in the ‘Babes in the Wood’ pantomime that ran in the winter of 1889-90. Others suggest either JW Rowley or Teddy Coleman, both music hall performers, introduced it in 1896, the year Wednesday first won the FA Cup. Another opinion was that it was introduced during the game against Bolton Wanderers when the Duke of Teck was a guest. This seems unlikely as the group of high profile visitors only arrived part way through the match and then disappeared into the dressing rooms to meet the players at half time.

Contemporary sources shed very little light on the origins. Harry Fischer may certainly have introduced Wednesday related material in the 1889-90 pantomime at the Alexandra Theatre, as he was recorded as wearing Wednesday colours during his benefit night performance (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 6 March 1890) The song was certainly popular at the time of the 1896 final. The Recreation Band, when greeting the Wednesday team as they returned home with the trophy in April 1896 made “the station echo with ‘Wednesday Boys’.” (Sheffield Independent, 21 April 1896) There is, however, nothing to link either Rowley or Coleman to the Wednesday club, never mind the song.

The song was apparently sung to the tune of “I shall never let our Jane try the parachute again!” (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 22 January 1930) The lyrics seem to have varied somewhat although the different versions published in the Green ‘Un in 1924 are all broadly similar to that which appears in the sheet music above. Here is what was claimed to be the original lyrics (Green 'Un, 23 February 1924):

So Play up, old Wednesday boys,
For you'll win whene'er you can,
And we wish you all good luck,
For you'll bring us home the Cup,
So play up, old Wednesday Boys.

The tune was revived in January 1924 by the band that entertained the fans before the match and at half time but the first time it was played “the crowd did not tumble to it.” (Green ‘Un, 26 January 1924) However, the local press then took it up and the lyrics and sheet music were published in the Green ‘Un for 2 February 1924. The lyrics were reworked and so provide an accurate record of what was sung at this time. It did not, however, last for long as by 1930 the Sheffield Daily Telegraph was describing it as “The song that faded.” (22 January 1930)

A contemporary (Sheffield United fan) suggested a rewording as follows (Green ‘Un, 23 February 1924):

Play up, United boys,
For Wednesday play like toys,
When United get the ball
It’s sure to be a goal,
Play up United boys!

Whether this was actually sung or not, we do not know. Later on United had their own song “Play up, United!” This was written by Jack Chard, musical director of the Attercliffe Palace, and was popular in the late 1930s. Although a similar title to Wednesday’s anthem it seems almost certain that this was a different song altogether.

How does this add to our knowledge of singing at matches in the pre-1939 era? Perhaps the key piece of information is the suggestion that ‘Wednesday Boys’ started out as a music hall song for pantomime before being adopted by fans. Much of the singing that took place at matches did so in the carnival atmosphere that was often present at FA Cup ties. The fact that the pantomime season and the Cup first round proper (now effectively the third round proper) overlapped suggests this may have been a significant route for songs (with both original and adapted lyrics) to transfer from the music hall to the football ground.