30 January 2017

Outside Right: George Reay and The Beautiful Game

George Thompson Reay, my great grandfather, was born on February 2nd 1900 in Pit Row, East Howdon, then a village just to the east of Wallsend along the River Tyne. He was the first son and fourth child of ship caulker William Reay and his wife Mary Thompson Peel, and the grandson of Mary Thompson, who I wrote about a fortnight ago, here.

The Reay side of my family has always had a noticeable penchant for sport, particularly football. My grandfather, George's son, played football in his youth semi-professionally, as did my father, and my younger brother too. Somehow that gene has been lost on me!

George is different because he did play the game professionally. Although when he finished attending school at the age of 14, he went to work in the local pit and was involved with the local colliery football team there. Preferring the love of the game to the horrid conditions of coal mines in the early twentieth century, George sought to play the game professionally. In the early 1920's after playing for his local mining team, he was signed for Percy Main Amateurs, the local team which had only been founded a few years earlier.

I don't know how long George spent with them, but it wasn't a long stretch. By December 1923 he had already moved on to play for Blyth Spartans, South Shields and Hartlepool before moving to Reading in December of that year. Records show that the coach at Reading perhaps didn't think much to George, playing him only once in the whole season during a 2-0 defeat to Luton  on December 15th 1923.

George Thompson Reay
From Reading, George moved to Kettering for the 1924-25 season and it was here that he began to make his mark on the game. He played a total of 56 matches for the Popppies as an Outside Right and scored 3 goals for them. George's game improved during the first half of the 1925-6 season, scoring 3 goals in 23 games before Christmas. Someone must have been watching him because at this point in time, he changed clubs again, heading north to play for Scottish side Raith Rovers. Some in the family claim that George was the first Englishman to play for a Scottish league football side, but so far I have not managed to prove this, or in all honesty see hard documented evidence of it.

At Raith, George got his big break. He was signed on December 6 1925 for a transfer fee of £750, a meagre amount in comparison with today's ridiculous fees but in his day, that was a fair amount of money. He made his debut a few days later, and in February 1926, scored his first goal in a 2-0 victory for Raith over Clydebank.

In a game which no doubt would have made him a household name among Raith fans, he also scored their only goal in a 1-1 draw against their local rivals, Dunfermline.

Raith Rovers team, 1927. George Reay is on the second row, second left. 
It was also around this time that George met and married a local Fife lassie, Janet Williamson Herd, or Jenny as she was called. She was eight years his junior and the daughter of quarry contractor John Herd and his wife Ethel Violet Emmeline Fisher.

George and Janet married in Edinburgh in early 1927. His occupation is given as 'Professional Footballer' on the marriage certificate.

George played his last game for Raith Rovers in December 1927, the same month as his son George William Reay, my grandfather, was born in Kirkcaldy. He was transferred down south to Bristol Rovers, quite the move for all three of them I'd imagine. At Bristol George regularly found himself in the local papers appearing for the club and scoring goals, which totalled 9 in 67 appearances for them. After being signed in early 1930 for Coventry, he would have been disappointed with only being played for one game there, and obviously felt a need to move again that same year.

And move again he did, this time to Burton Town, where he spent three seasons. One report in the papers notes how he had to have some time out of the game due to him having a 'poisoned wrist', an injury presumably from the game. But newspapers also record that George was a man very well thought of by the club and they valued his ability to lead down the right of the field and set up goals if he couldn't score them himself.

After leaving Burton in 1934, George played one game for Gresley Town FC and played one game for them that December. This is the last record of George playing football I have been able to find, as around this time, he and Janet decided to move to Kettering, the town where he used to entertain the crowds a decade earlier.

In Kettering, George returned to his old club as a groundsman and had three more children there with Jenny. During this period, the people of Kettering honoured him for his service to the club by naming two houses after him, which to this day can be seen on Bowling Green Road.

"Reay Houses" on Bowling Green Road, Kettering.
Never being a man who in his youth certainly travelled with his job, George sought security as the Second World War came and moved to Corby, eight miles from Kettering, to work in the steel industry as an electric furnaceman. He would regularly go back up to visit his family in Howdon, including his siblings and elderly father William. He was a regular drinker in the Duke of Wellington pub which stands near the entrance to the Tyne Tunnel now, and my father recalls that he had his own personalised tankard waiting for him whenever he went back. 

George and Jenny spent the rest of their lives together in Corby at the family home in Stephenson Way.

Stories from relatives recall how George loved to bet and go to the races in his younger days and that through his love of sport and fitness, also raced as well as played football. A rather illustrious family legend is that he once somehow managed to get into a race with Eric Liddell, the famous racer on whom the film Chariots of Fire is based. Eric beat him, obviously...

George died in Rushden Hospital in 1970 aged 70. His wife Jenny died in 2001 at the age of 92.