Monday, 22 December 2014

Arise, Sir Les.

Sir Leslie Bowker KCVO OBE MC

Among the dramatis personae that has graced the Champion Hill stage, surely the most honoured Hamlet character must be the little remembered Leslie Cecil Blackmore Bowker.

Once described as “a vigorous full back of the Corinthian type, using his broad shoulders to knock opponents off the ball.” Leslie Bowker played for Dulwich Hamlet for but a single season, appearing in thirty three matches including some thrilling cup ties. One of those was against the mighty Bishop Auckland, in which Bowker proved he was more than just ‘brute force’ by stepping up and converting a penalty.

He could not have chosen a better time to grace the pink and blue; starring in the 1919/20 ‘Victory’ side, where Dulwich proved to be the best Amateur team, not only in the south, but in the whole country, by winning the Isthmian League, the Surrey Senior Cup, the London Charity Bowl and the FA Amateur Cup. In the final, versus Tufnell Park at Millwall’s The Den, Bowker, playing at left back, drove the ball into the net directly from a freekick. However, after a deal of hand shaking and hearty congratulations the Hamlet players returned to their own half for the restart only to find that the referee had awarded a goal kick. Someone had forgotten to tell poor Les that it was an indirect freekick and no one else had touched the ball on its way into the net!

If Bowker had remained at Champion Hill to see out his career (he was still only 32) he could have become a household name locally, instead he decided to restart his old club West London Old Boys FC, which he was the founder of before the Great War. This was clearly where his first love lay, and he was hoping to rekindle efforts there. It was quite noble if you think about it: shunning one club now commencing on a path that would turn them into, arguably, the greatest amateur club side between the wars, for a lesser outfit that required his much-needed assistance.

Before he left East Dulwich for West London Bowker made sure he was present for the 1920 Dulwich Hamlet club photograph. He is standing to the right of the goalkeepers (see centre page). Around this time, Bowker, who possessed a profound legal knowledge, joined the administrative staff of the London Football Association. Originally elected onto Division 1 of the LFA Council, he was elected onto the Senior Teams Committee the following year. Bowker’s association with the London FA went back to his youth, when in 1906 he played for Division 1 in the inter-Divisional matches. In November 1911 he represented the London team in a senior match against Surrey County.

In those early days, West London Old Boys had the privilege of playing some of their home matches at Craven Cottage, and occasionally the young Leslie turned out for Fulham. He also toured the continent with the English Wanderers, a side composed mainly of internationals, and had the honour of captaining the London League team that defeated the Paris League in France in February 1912. During the First World War, Bowker held the rank of Captain in the London Scottish Regiment, and for his troubles was awarded a Military Cross (MC).

On his return to West London, the Old Boys joined the Athenian League for the 1920/21 season, but things did not work out according to plan and ended rather disappointingly. A wretched season was completed with the team finishing bottom with just one win out of twenty two games. They did not seek re-election the following year. What happened to them after that I’m not entirely sure, but their ‘sketchy’ history shows they had previously finished bottom out of seven in the London League Division 2 in 1911/12. They finished fifth the following year (1912/13) and became champions of Division 2 in 1913/14. They were on the rise, but like so many clubs of that era the war knocked the stuffing out of them and so what might have been never was.

But it was outside the field of play where Leslie Bowker really made his mark, rising to great heights in the game’s governing bodies. Aside from the LFA, he was also involved with the Middlesex FA at top level. At the outbreak of the Second World War he formed the Special War Emergency Committee in the capital with HJ Huband, AT Ralston and other worthies. He eventually became President(s) of the London Football League, the London FA and the London Minor FA. Furthermore, he was made President of the Fulham Football Club in the 1950s and became Vice Chairman and Vice President of the Football Association. Quite some curriculum vitae.

Apart from bringing his wise judgement to the table in countless appeal cases and decades of committee work, it also appears that he was ahead of his time regarding the rules of play: At one FA meeting he voiced his opinion, “that when the ball is passed back by a member of the defending side from outside the penalty area, the goalkeeper shall not be allowed to use his hands. If he does so, the decision is to be an indirect free kick.”

Although Bowker passed away over forty years ago, just recently a number of his most treasured possessions turned up on an online auction house and were up for grabs. Items included invitations and letters addressed to him regarding State funerals, Coronations, Royal weddings and other affairs of State. Also included were an appointment to receive a Knighthood and other honours. (In some instances these were actually signed by British kings and queens!)

I stumbled upon this ‘Royal’ collection on Ebay purely by accident whilst I was searching for something totally unrelated. I saw the name Leslie Bowker and alarm bells began to ring in my memory and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Was this the Dulwich player of the same name? It was. Within a couple of days I was on the telephone to the seller in Scotland to see if he had obtained any of Bowker’s football related artefacts. Unfortunately for us he had offloaded the box of football memorabilia back in October 2006. The only items that remained were three or four Corporation of London team photographs mounted in a photograph album. The seller, David McFarlane of Ashbank Collectables kindly made copies of the pictures for me. The very nice portrait of LCB Bowker in woollen jersey that adorns the cover of this issue of the Hamlet Historian is one of them.

The entire lot was obtained from an elderly lady (now in her eighties) who, with her husband, cared for Sir Leslie Bowker in his old age and got to know him very well. Sir Leslie remained unmarried and apparently had no family, but he spent his days as a bit of a socialite mingling with the rich and famous. His diaries, I was told, contained a daily record of all the money he spent on entertaining, which included thirty pounds a week on ‘booze’ – and this was the early 1960s!

Over the next few days I began to trawl through my own Dulwich Hamlet paraphernalia and scan internet search engines for tidbits, and make a few enquiries to find out as much as I could about Sir Leslie Bowker. In researching the history of our great club, pleasant surprises are thrown up on every avenue, and doors are opened to reveal fascinating long hidden tales. Hence our little trip through the British royal court of the twentieth century and the corridors of power at Lancaster Gate.

A few biographical notes turned up in the pages of a Dulwich Hamlet matchday programme from 24 Jan 1948: - “Leslie Bowker, OBE, MC (Military Cross) who had the honour of a knighthood conferred upon him recently. Sir Leslie was in our 1919-20 team … He is an honorary member of the club – this also for services rendered both on and off the field … Upon retirement from football he very soon became a barrister and shortly afterwards was appointed the much coveted post of Remembrancer of the City of London, which position he still retains. We take great pride in his advancements, for he is still an esteemed colleague and is ever ready to advise, and help, not only our club, but amateur football generally. He is on the Council of the FA, Chairman of the London League, and is also a member of the Surrey County Cricket Club Committee. A man of many parts – a grand speaker with a pretty wit and a real champion of the ‘lesser lights’ amongst football clubs and withal a good companion, we wish him many years of happiness to carry on the good work.”
In 1925 he was appointed Chief Clerk to the Law Officers of the Crown, and was granted the dignity of an OBE by King George the Fifth in 1928. In 1932 he was promoted to the highest office of Legal Secretary to the Crown, and for the next twenty years (until his retirement) was stationed at the Guildhall performing the role of City Remembrancer for the Corporation of London.
As well as protecting the interests of the City of London in the House of Lords, Bowker also presided over a number of important and illustrious State occasions: such as the proclamation of the King’s Coronation, the proclamation of the Kings Death, and the proclamation of the new Queen: proclamations which required his signature.
The mysterious office of City Remembrancer dated back five centuries and entitled the bearer to ancient privileges, and to engage in and oversee the dozens of customs and ceremonies that are acted out by the Lord Mayor’s office and on State occasions. Indeed, he was the City's Ceremonial Officer and Chief of Protocol. Bowker made the arrangements and ensured that all things were carried out correctly and in order according to custom and tradition. It was his job to ‘bring to remembrance’ these matters.

His Knighthood, for his role as City Remembrancer, was announced in the 1948 New Year’s Honours list. Cue an invitation to Sir Lesley to pop down in an official capacity to Champion Hill. On 29 March 1948 England Amateurs played host to Holland in an International Triangular Tournament at Dulwich. Despite the fact that there were no Hamlet men in the England line-up, among the list of FA dignitaries (that included Stanley Rous and AT Ralston) was the City Remembrancer and recently appointed Knight of the Realm, Sir Leslie Bowker himself. He was, of course, an honorary member of the club anyway; a post he had held since 1925.

1953 saw yet another decoration, this time he was appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) in recognition of his “personal services to King George VI and other members of the Royal Family.” This special honour was bestowed upon him by our present Queen in the first year of her monarchy and suggests a genuine closeness with one she could trust.

Since his birth in 1888 Sir Leslie Bowker had seen a succession of kings and queens beginning with Victoria, in whose Order he now was. What a privileged position he found himself in during the middle part of the twentieth century, seeing at first hand the fascinating inner workings of the royal family: the constitutional crisis that revolved around Edward and Mrs Simpson, the legal wranglings and the abdication that followed, never mind the couple’s leanings toward fascism with a trip to Germany to meet Hitler and to visit a concentration camp; the painfully shy George VI with his speech impediment, who was thrust onto the throne and who died of lung cancer in 1952; and the youthful Queen Elizabeth whom he had met many times at royal luncheon, garden party and ball.

Her Majesty’s Coronation took place six months later in June 1953. It turned out to be one of Sir Leslie Bowker’s final official engagements before his retirement at 65. He took his seat in Westminster Abbey amidst scarlet robed royalty, aristocracy, nobility, dignitary, clergy … and the odd television camera. The Coronation was a major television event and was watched by millions. The fact that he was designated ticket number 005 shows how far up the ladder he actually was; quite literally one of the ‘big wigs’ as our picture shows. It would be interesting to find out who the first four tickets were allocated to!

Sir Leslie Bowker died in Brighton, rather fittingly, on St George’s Day, 23 April 1965 aged 77: Knight of the Realm; City Remembrancer; Association Football President; and most important of all Amateur Cup winner with Dulwich Hamlet Football Club.

Rest in peace, Sir Leslie Bowker KCVO OBE MC DHFC.

If you visit the British Pathe website you can download at least two short clips of Sir Leslie Bowker showing both sides of his public life. In his robes and wig at the State Opening of Parliament; and presenting England captain Billy Wright with a silver salver at an FA dinner. No film exists of his playing days.

Acknowledgements: David Fowkes of the London Football Association, David McFarlane of Ashbank-Collectables, Alex White – Historian to Fulham FC.
Sources: eBay listings, various DHFC programmes and handbook notes, Fulham FC Club Handbook 1951-52, Daily Sketch December 2, 1933.

Original article from HH 18 Spring 2007. Copyright © Jack McInroy

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