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George Thomas – The man who built The Dell

On the afternoon of Saturday 19 October 1907, from the comfort of a bath-chair placed near the touchline of the football ground he built and owned George Thomas, former director of Southampton and Chelsea football clubs, watched Saints defeat Brentford 3-0 in a Southern League game at The Dell. Two days later, aged 54, he was dead.

Thomas was among the creators of Southampton Football & Athletic Company Limited in 1897. He is named as a ‘provisional director’ in the first entry in the new company’s minute book, which records a ‘promoters meeting’ at The Bedford Hotel on the evening of July 8.

The club began as St Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association FC in 1885 and, as St Mary’s FC, quickly became the major force in Hampshire football. They had begun recruiting professionals by 1892 and joined the newly created Southern League in 1894. Now called Southampton St Mary’s, they were forced to relocate from the Antelope Cricket Ground to the County Cricket Ground in 1896. It was during their first season as guests of Hampshire County Cricket Club that Saints won their first Southern League title. They repeated the feat and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1897-98, by which time moves were afoot to acquire a more fitting venue for professional football; and that would require money. The company aspired to raise £5,000 in £1 shares.

At a shareholders meeting in November Dr Ernest Stancomb, chairman of the new company, told those assembled, ‘that all being well by next season the company would be in possession of its own ground which was at the present time in the hands of George Thomas Esq.’

Thomas, by all accounts, directed every aspect of the project; including the purchase of the land and materials, and hiring and paying the contractors. In an era when the average Football League ground was four banks of packed cinder with a grandstand plonked on the halfway line facing east, he produced a venue that, although modest in size (the capacity was reputedly 24,500), was impressive in terms of facilities.

Covered stands on both sides of the pitch seated over 4,000 (only Villa Park in Birmingham) could squeeze more bums on seats) and there was terracing with ample crush barriers behind both goals and alongside the stands. The dressing rooms had heated showers; plunge baths and ordinary baths; and the pitch was drained by 13,000 feet of agricultural piping.
The new arena nestled in a natural dell created by Rollsbrook, a stream that rises on the Common and flowed into West Bay at the bottom of Four Post Hill (a conduit now carries in under the Marine Directorate Building in Commercial Road, beneath Central Station and into the general drainage system of the Western Docks). The dell had originally been excavated to accommodate goods sidings for the aborted stretch of the Didcott, Newbury & Southampton railway line intended to link Winchester with Southampton via Chilworth and Shirley.

‘The Dell’, as it became known, was an expensive undertaking. Thomas was a successful businessman. Negotiations were protracted. Thomas wanted £9,000 and ended up taking a rent of £250 per annum. Neither party was happy. Football Echo correspondent ‘Recorder’ recalled: ‘Stern business demanded a price that could not be afforded, but rather than cast the club out [Thomas] agreed to accept an amount considerably lower than what he asked.’

According to his Southern Echo obituary Thomas was born in London ‘of Welsh descent’ and had come to Southampton as a gunnery instructor on a ‘drill ship’. Assuming this to be a school for boy sailors we might reasonably deduce that he had served in the Royal Navy.

By 1880 Thomas was the proprietor of a fishmongers shop in Market Lane; a narrow thoroughfare which connected the High Street and French Street. By 1895 he had acquired a partner, Robert Mowat, and their combined interests, scattered between Stornoway and Guernsey, were valued at £50,000.

The secret of his success? According to his obituary, ‘energy, perseverance and business acumen’, combined with ‘thrift and tireless effort’. Add to that intuition. When the Western Counties & South Wales Telephone Company opened Southampton’s first telephone exchange in 1886 Thomas had two lines installed – there were three other subscribers.

Thomas’s frustrations with the Saints’ board lead to his resignation in May 1899; which did not end the disagreements. However, he continued to support the best interests of the club even after investing in Chelsea. The only indication as to his standing at Stamford Bridge is that the Chelsea directors sent a ‘floral tribute’ to the funeral. The Saints’ board, along with many other local dignitaries, were in attendance, as was Frederick Wall, secretary of the Football Association.

The last words go to Recorder: ‘As a friend I found Mr Thomas warm-hearted and steadfast, and a man whose rugged exterior contained the many traits of a kindly, sympathetic and generous character. And now he is but a memory. The Great Referee in the game of life has summoned him from earthly fields, to those who have reached their goal of earthly existence.’

This article is an extended version of one that appeared in the Southampton FC matchday magazine for the visit of Chelsea, 30 March 2013

Many thanks to Dave Juson from Deftly Hallowed for this extensive text on George Thomas and the history of ‘The Dell’.

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