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When Eton took on a team of miners at football

Durham miners meet Eton pupils in 1938, ahead of the second game between the two sides - Credit: SSPL via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY looks back at one of the most improbable games of football’s long history, when a team of Durham miners took on a side of Eton schoolboys

In the aftermath of the tawdry European Super League saga I found myself rummaging online for reassurance that football was once the game of the people. On YouTube I slipped easily into a black and white world of cheery cup-tie crowds wearing enormous rosettes and swinging wooden rattles the size of steam turbines until a short clip from December 1937 jolted me out of wistful reverie.

“Eton v Miners at Bishop Auckland” is barely 30 seconds long yet opens a gateway into a remarkable story. It shows brief scenes from a snowy football match between a team of unemployed miners from St Helen Auckland, near Bishop Auckland in County Durham, and schoolboys from renowned privilege factory Eton College. The short film catches one of the miners’ goals in a 6-2 victory – the voiceover gives the score incorrectly as 4-2 – as well as a glimpse of the frozen players gathering round a steaming pitchside tea urn.

The 1930s was a particularly tough decade for the north-east and in parts of Durham unemployment was frequently as high as one in three. The Auckland Park Colliery, for example, not far from St Helen Auckland, employed more than 1,000 people during the 1920s but by 1935 that figure had dropped to barely 100. A year before the football match the Jarrow hunger march had passed close to Bishop Auckland on its way to London to highlight the region’s struggles.

Some efforts were made to alleviate the misery, including the building of social centres in areas worst affected, places where the unemployed could gather, share experiences and learn new skills. In St Helen Auckland the new building was constructed in 1937 by unemployed men at a cost of £400, £350 of which came from the Durham Community Service Council with the £50 shortfall met by the boys of Eton College. The centre was named Eton Hall in gratitude.

How was it that one of the most privileged institutions in the country became involved in a small, poverty-stricken working class community hundreds of miles away and took a football team north to play them? The answer lay with the local MP and a member of the Eton teaching staff.

In 1937 Old Etonian Hugh Dalton was two years into a 24-year spell as the Labour MP for Bishop Auckland. Through his school connections he came to know Tom Brocklebank, a Cambridge rowing blue and member of the 1933 British Everest expedition who was teaching modern languages at Eton.

Brocklebank, another former Eton scholar, was a committed socialist – Labour MP Tam Dalyell would later credit him with helping to shape his politics when he was at Eton – and keen to show his wealthy charges first-hand what life was like for struggling communities. The football match was almost certainly Brocklebank’s idea.

When they arrived in Durham the Eton team stayed with Lord and Lady Barnard at the nearby Raby Castle, met with Dalton, visited their opponents’ homes, were taken down a mine shaft at Evenwood Colliery and took tea in the social centre that bore the name of their school. Then, with the pitch cleared of the worst of the snow, the teams trooped out for the game. It’s hard to imagine a bigger class divide between two football teams, but this was 90 minutes when privilege and deprivation were set aside and 11 played 11 on equal terms.

The locality already had an impressive football pedigree: West Auckland Town from the neighbouring village had found international fame in 1909 and 1911 by twice winning the Lipton Trophy in Turin, a competition sometimes called ‘the first World Cup’ (according to legend the organisers had meant to invite the mighty Woolwich Arsenal but a mix up saw the small Durham club with the same initials offered a place instead).

When the game kicked off nine of the miners’ team were unemployed. At the start of the day that figure had been eight but 19-year-old welder Norman Jones, the only wage earner in a family of five, was sacked after arguing with his foreman over time off to play in the game. Jones, a pacy forward, took it out on the opposition by scoring four times in the 6-2 rout.

That evening there was a dance at Eton Hall where the pupils whisked the local girls around the floor. “The boys from Eton are beautiful dancers,” said 18-year-old Greta Maughan, daughter of goalkeeper and out of work wagon driver George Maughan.

The following summer the Durham men headed south for a tour of the school, tea and buns in the tuck shop, a visit to Windsor Castle – and a rematch. This game kicked off before one of the strangest crowds in British football history: Eton boys in their top hats and tails mixed on the touchline with working class men wearing flat caps and knotted scarves.

The miners had noisy backing: the mid-1930s had seen hundreds of men from the north-east travel south with their families to help build the nearby Slough Trading Estate, the biggest complex of its kind in Europe. Many turned out to support their side.

It was a much closer game than the first encounter. After a goalless first half Eton led twice but the miners pegged them back, their second goal coming just moments before the final whistle.

“Eton has taught us to play football,” said captain Jack Akers. “It was a near thing. We nearly got beaten thinking we could be clever with them.”

It emerged that the father of an Eton half-back owned a mine from which some of the team had been made redundant, but there seemed to be little resentment among the visitors.

“They are champion, not a bit of side about any of them,” said Akers of their hosts, adding enigmatically, “what we’d been told was all wrong.”

Did this curious football double header change anything? Probably not in practical terms. The Eton boys went on to become barristers, politicians and army officers while the miners went home to the same familiar hardships. War was just around the corner; players from both teams would be thrown together on more distant battlefields.

The visitors took one thing away, though. If Napoleon really was defeated “on the playing fields of Eton”, the same could never be said of the Durham miners.

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