When war broke out on 3 September, 1939, the Football League season, which was only nine days-old, was cancelled. Three days later, players’ contracts were also cancelled. Speaking in 2002, Sep Smith reflected on his memories as a Leicester City player in the first wartime season of 1939/40.
An England international who also played for the Foxes between 1929 and 1949, Smith recalled that his income of £8 per week completely dried up, he was suddenly unemployed. Even when a match fee of £1.50 was allowed when regional football began in October 1939, this was not enough to live on - he had to find a job.
This was a common problem for professional players throughout the land. At a time when mass unemployment during the Depression of the 1930s was a recent memory, being out of work left players with few options.
These included enlisting in the Army, Navy or Airforce, working in national service organisations such as the Auxiliary Fire Service, working in reserved occupations or waiting to be conscripted.
Leicester City 1932
The pre-war Leicester City squad looked very different, but Sep Smith remained, playing for the Club for 20 years.
Anticipating war, some players had already signed up for the Territorials or for the War Reserve Police Force and they were able to switch employment immediately. Also, a small minority of professional players became PT Instructors in the Armed Forces.
Many other players found themselves working in a whole range of jobs on ‘civvie street’. Any kind of temporary employment was preferable to no income at all. When the Wartime Regional Divisions began in October 1939 in place of the Football League, players earned money whenever they could, sometimes turning out for two different teams on the same day.
Smith recalled that at the start of the war, soldiers came to Filbert Street to persuade the players to join the Army. Fred Sharman, who had signed for Leicester City in 1933 and spent the time since mainly playing at centre-half (although sometimes filling in as centre-forward and at right full-back), did volunteer initially.
When he asked Smith if he would be joining up too, he left him in no doubt that he must be joking. In the end, Sharman did not join up either, but went to work in a reserved occupation at Brush Electrical Engineering Works in Loughborough. This employment enabled him to make over 50 appearances for Leicester City in wartime regional football as well as playing in over 20 wartime games for Notts County.
Goalkeeper Sandy McLaren was a mainstay in the Leicester City team during the first wartime season.
As for Smith, he was never called up because he also secured employment in a reserved occupation. This was offered to him by a new director of the Club, Alf Pallett, who joined the Board of Directors two months after the outbreak of war. He was shortly to become Chairman.
He owned a large factory on Abbey Lane called Cascelloids. Initially a factory making celluloid toys and fancy goods, following the outbreak of war it quickly switched to war production to meet national needs.
It secured government contracts for manufacturing fuel tanks, parachutes, cartridge containers and eye shields. By the end of the war, Cascelloids had manufactured several million items for the war effort.
When the wartime Regional Divisions started in October 1939, Smith played more games for Leicester City that season than anyone else. The stalwarts of the side during that first wartime season were: goalkeeper Sandy McLaren, who was working as a taxi driver before eventually joining the Navy, Willie Frame and Wales international Dai Jones in defence, Smith either at right-half or centre-half and the ex-England centre-forward Jack Bowers up front alongside George Dewis.
No player featured more times for City in 1939/40 than Sep Smith.
Due to the wartime guest player system, Smith found himself playing alongside the current England centre-forward, Everton’s Tommy Lawton, who made three appearances and scored five goals for Leicester City that season. He also played alongside Preston North End’s Scotland international and future Scotland manager Andy Beattie, who made four appearances for the Filbert Street club.
Smith remembered some other bizarre features of wartime football. If an air raid warning went off during a match, play had to stop until the ‘all clear’ sounded. Players sometimes arrived late for games because of wartime travel restrictions. The Post Office would not deliver pools coupons because they were not essential mail.
Crowds at Filbert Street varied between 850 and 5,000, generally hovering around the 2,000 mark. When the very cold winter of 1939/40 caused postponements during January and February, these could not be advertised in advance as weather forecasts was deemed to be classified information.
The weather was so cold in February that Filbert Street was opened for skating on the frozen pitch. Postponements meant that the season went on well into the summer, until as late as 8 June.
At the end of the season, Leicester City finished seventh in the eight-team Wartime Regional League Midland Division. They also were knocked out of the newly formed League War Cup in the second round by the eventual winners, West Ham United. It had been a difficult season. The following season, however, brought much greater problems.
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