When I was younger, I always looked out for the “Welcome to X, Please Drive Slowly” signs. I found them mesmerising; not because I enjoyed knowing where I was as we crossed town borders and city lines in my parents’ car, but rather for where we were not.
Often under the message to watch your speed, as well as notifying you of what council you were entering, you were also presented with what to my child eyes seemed like completely made up places. Twinned towns, they called them, or sister cities. It was a captivating concept for an eight-year-old; that somewhere else in the world was another town that was somehow related to the one I was in.
The first “Welcome to” sign that caught my eye didn’t even allude to a twinning. It was Hamble-le-Rice, to the east of Southampton. The hyphens and the ‘le’ made it look very foreign to me, and as we drove through the surrounding towns, I began noticing the names of other places alongside little flags, under the actual place name. Botley is twinned with Saint-Jean-Brévelay, France, Eastleigh with Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, France, and Hedge End, where I played my football as a kid, has a sister city in Belgium called Comines-Warneton.
Supposedly based on legal or social agreements between towns or cities to promote cultural and commercial ties, who knows what half of these places actually offer each other. Comines-Warneton stood out by simply not being in France – even Southampton as a whole has a French fraternity with Le Havre.
Comines-Warneton is a Belgian city in the French community of the country and although at the last census it had a population of just under 17,500, it has managed to bag itself another two sister cities alongside Hedge End: Argenton-les-Vallées in France and Wolverton in the United Kingdom – or to be more precise, in Milton Keynes.
The trend for twinned status began towards the end of World War Two and was started by Coventry, who partnered with Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in an act of solidarity from one war-town city to another. We’ve come a long way since then, and Coventry’s rather impressive and infidelity-ridden list of 26 partners – a record – makes Comines-Warneton’s foursome seem tame.
In 2006, Wolverton twinned with Comines-Warneton – later the village of Ploegsteert – thanks to a growing bond the two shared over a First World War soldier from the English town, who was buried at Hyde Park Corner Cemetery in the Belgian city.
Albert French was born on 22 June 1899 in New Bradwell, Buckinghamshire (now part of Milton Keynes) and grew up at 60 Young Street, Wolverton, with his father Edward, his aunt Jane, his sister May, and his two brothers, William and George. Albert’s mother, Mary Mortlock, had passed away sometime between 1905 and 1911, and thus it was his aunty who acted as the housekeeper.
Albert’s father was listed in the 1911 census as a drilling machinist at the Railway Works; certainly the Wolverton Railway Works, which at the time was the largest carriage works in the UK, developed by Robert Stephenson, and today the home of the British Royal Train. It is, therefore, no surprise that in 1913 Albert was working as an apprentice fitter at the works and a year later he was working in their fitting shop.
As you’d expect from the once-largest carriage works in the country, Wolverton’s railway sheds were – and still are – massive and backed onto the London North & Western Railway Sports Ground, which was built in 1885. On the site was Wolverton Park, a football ground built in the year of Albert’s birth – 1899 – whose occupants were the railway works side, Wolverton London & North Western Railway, founded in 1887.
By the time Albert joined the works as an apprentice, the football club had shortened its name to Wolverton Town and that season won the United Counties League to secure a return to the Southern Football League (today known as the Evo-Stik League), 18 years on from winning it. In these surroundings, it is hard to imagine that Albert wasn’t in some way involved with the football, be it as either a junior player or a fan.
His brother George remembered him as “tall and dark-haired, looking older than he really was” in a 1980 Radio 4 interview. “He was a chap who had to shave pretty quick, so when he went to join the army, of course there were no questions about his age, he said he was 18 and that was it.”
A youth spent in the Church Lads’ Brigade corroborated George’s physical description of his brother, with the group taking the motto ‘Fight the Good Fight’ and their regular activities including drill, camp, and sport.
In the summer of 1914, with the First World War just a month old, the railway works’ staff was decimated with young men in their droves enlisting in the army. It was the fittest first, so it is likely the sports clubs and their teams were the first to be gutted, and on Albert’s employment card, it reads: “Date of Leaving: 16.10.15. Reason: Left without notice”
Albert was just 16-years old and his method of joining may have indicated he didn’t leave with his family’s explicit blessing. Instead of enlisting in his hometown, he made his way to St. Pancras, Middlesex and entered the recruiting offices of the King’s Royal Rifle Regiment, most likely influenced by his Lads’ Brigade close relationship with the King’s Royal Rifles.
His Attestation Form shows he joined two days after leaving the works, listing his age as 19 and giving his occupation as labourer. His medical examination, taken the same day, references a “distinctive mark” – a scar on his left thumb – likely the injury he picked up at work four months earlier, which was recorded on Accident Report 7/229, stating that Albert suffered a “cut Hand”.
His medical also contradicts his brother’s description quite considerably, giving his height as just under five foot four inches, his weight as 105 pounds, and a chest measurement of 32 inches. When he wrote home at some point between Christmas 1915 and May 1916, he said: “My mate said I looked about 14, and not much like a soldier.”
When he penned his next letter, on 15 May 1916, Albert was in the trenches in Ploegsteert, Comines-Warneton, asking if Wolverton was “still as quiet as usual” and already informing his family that he “shan’t stop in the army after the war”, stating it is “not good enough”. “We shall be popping away at the Germans pretty shortly,” closes his letter, “and as long as I don’t get popped it will be alright, I guess.”
He would write home just once more, before his family received the news all dreaded, informing them that “four bullets from a machine gun hit him and he died instantaneously.” It was just a week before his 17th birthday, a fact that eluded his grave and the War Graves Commission for 64 years until his brother George told Radio 4 that when he visited the cemetery, it was the only headstone without the age of death engraved.
At home, the communities in Wolverton continued to support the war effort through fundraising events, and one successful method was the holding of football matches, with the proceeds donated to the Red Cross. In the Wolverton Express on 24 November 1916, just over a year since Albert enlisted, an advert was placed for a charity game taking place the next day. It read, “In aid of Mrs. Harvey’s Sewing Class for the RED CROSS (sp)”, and promoted Wolverton Juniors facing Northampton St. James End Stars at 14:30 at Wolverton Park the next day.
As the country supported its troops, communities rallied around its hubs, and in Wolverton that was the London North & Western Railway Sports Ground. Its centrepiece was the grandstand that lined the football pitch. Built in 1899, the wooden stand had a seated capacity of 100 and was painted a vivid green. Its structure was purpose-built to account for the sloped ground surrounding the pitch, so instead of a level profile, the stand had three bays, rising one after the other.
Devastated by the war – and more than most due to the railway works – Wolverton Town struggled in the years that followed, going until the 1938/39 season before their next honour. That year they won the South Midlands League, a competition on par with the Counties League title they had won in 1914. World War Two then forced football across the country to a halt, but on resuming for the 1945/46 season, they were once more champions of the South Midlands League.
“I’d go to Wolverton home games on a Saturday,” Jack Little told Milton Keynes Living Archive, “stand there in all weathers. There was a stand, but you could not get in it anyhow because it was packed. It was a penny extra and we couldn’t afford that. All weathers we used to stand there.”
The late 1940s proved to be zenith of Wolverton Town’s history, experiencing an array of regional cup and league success. However, Wolverton Park was “never intended as a professional or first-class venue, and its value was much more as a place of community recreation,” according to Played in Britain. It would go on to host the numerous iterations of Wolverton in the remaining years of its existence, and then in 1992 it became home to Milton Keynes City Football Club.
Wolverton Park’s importance would not be lost to history, though. When, in June 2003, tenants Milton Keynes City folded and Wimbledon FC relocated to the city two months later, Wolverton Park’s stand was the oldest in the United Kingdom, and the oldest covered football stand in the world. “The magic I could not describe,” Fred Hudson remembered of Wolverton Park. “I stood. Never in the stand of course, because you couldn’t see as well as from on the side where the railings were … and the little drop onto the track. You’d see them coming from the dressing room, the blue and white stripes, and then you were up in heaven.”
So when it was set to be demolished in September 2006 to make way for a housing estate, there was understandably unrest in the local community. Why, residents asked, does something so small, yet so historic, need to be destroyed?
The entire London North and Western Railway Sports Ground was redeveloped and in 2009 the victims and survivors were clear to see at a 12 September unveiling. The original sports ground area was retained and put to use as open space, but the football club, a model car club and the bowls club were all relocated. The old Royal Train shed that stood back-to-back with the stand survived – guaranteed by its status as a Grade II listed building – but the stand, built in 1899 and in active use for 104 years, did not. The world’s oldest covered football stand was, at least in its original state, no more.
In its place is a replica in the same painted green but without its original features borne out of necessity for the landscape. With the stripping of the football pitch it once served, it is without its purpose too. It stands as a pseudo-historical feature, the limpest of nods to the past, among an albeit well-meaning and much-needed regeneration project. An opportunity to honestly embrace the past was missed.
“There were attempts to have the stand listed back in 2001, but these failed,” Played in Britain series editor Simon Inglis said in 2009. “We also hoped that the sports ground itself would be deemed sufficiently rare and important to be entered on English Heritage’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. But again, this was turned down. As it happened, the park’s entrance lodge was then listed, and the Royal Train Shed that overlooks the ground was already listed Grade II. Both these structures appear to have been treated rather more sympathetically than the grandstand.
“Admittedly the original was in a parlous state after years of neglect. The last tenants, Milton Keynes City, who were not related to the MK Dons, went bust in 2003, and this left the structure highly vulnerable to vandals and water penetration. Even so, it was a handsome building and it is most disappointing that its future role will be a token one and that the sports ground itself is now unsuited to field sports or track cycling, presumably because the developers did not want the residents in the new flats and townhouses to be disturbed.”
In the same way that an iteration of Wolverton existed prior to the rail company development that birthed modern Wolverton in the 1840s, the present-day town has carried on just fine without it over the past decade. The site has been repurposed, as have the listed buildings, the city’s got a new club, and the written records still contain the history of the old one. It’s just a shame that among it all, a small 100-capacity wooden stand had to go with it.
As for Albert Smith’s legacy, it lives on strongly. In July 2018, the latest bi-annual visit from Wolverton to Ploegsteert took place and at the heart of the itinerary was a commemoration of the 16-year old soldier from Wolverton at his graveside. In attendance was his niece, Ann Lee-Smith. So the next time someone says to you that Milton Keynes has no football history, tell them it was home to the oldest covered football stand in the world and that its grounds served King and Country.
By Jordan Florit @thefalselibero