It’s in the cards by Marc ap Dafydd
There are not many tangible links with our decade of membership in the Football League available to us at Merthyr Town. The holy grail of a home match programme continues to elude the museum project, there are always a few Merthyr Town issues up for auction but their rarity means that their reserve prices are always way outside our budget. We’ve got a few away game programmes in the collection in preparation for future exhibitions but a copy produced and sold at Penydarren Park escapes us.
However around 100 years ago our squad of players preparing for a season in the Football League alongside teams such as Watford, Watford and Millwall were photographed for inclusion in one of the great promotions of the age; the cigarette card.
The cards were originally included in the packaging as “stiffeners” to prevent the cigarettes from bending or breaking but very soon became collectors’ items in their own right and another way to advertise the brands in a very crowded tobacco market in the early part of the last century.
In 1920 the first set of football player cards issued by the Godfrey Phillips tobacco company was restricted to four from each of the Football League clubs at the time. Merthyr Town FC were now members of the newly formed Third Division South so were of course included in the original collection of 400 cards.
Billy Chesser, Albert Langford, Dai Nicholas and Billy Walker represented Merthyr Town although there are also cards for Nicholas annd Walker with Stoke and Bristol City respectively. It seems that when players moved clubs, the photographs remained the same with only the club title changing.
The success of the promotion for Godfrey Phillips Ltd ensured that they increased the print run to over 2,400 cards by 1924 which were already covering football and both codes of rugby.
The wider collection of cigarette cards for Merthyr Town players appeared around 1922 with the previous four players being joined by Frank Crowe, Albert Lindon, Bobby Ferrans, George Beel, Rees Williams, Bill Jennings, Alfred Lea, Bert Turner, Billy Pillinger, Evan Edwards, George Jackson, James Dempsey, T. Smith, Ernie Turner, Harry Foxhall, Aneurin Evans, George Davies, Robert Cook and Arthur Foxall.
All of the cards issued by the Godfrey Phillips company are known as “Pinnace” cards but it’s this set of cards that contains the brand name for the first time as they were packaged with the Pinnace Navy Cut cigarettes.
There’s a great framed picture of many of these precious momentoes in Webley’s Bar at the ground, it’s close to the framed Warrilow 1946 collection near the fire exit.
There’s a mystery amongst them though as I can’t find a record of T. Smith registering for Merthyr Town unless he was a reserve team player, the back of his card in my collection has Brighton written across it so maybe he went there immediately after having his photo taken.
There’s none of the modern-day corporate production for these cards though, they are nothing like Panini stickers at all, for example some of the players’ pics have been taken directly from team photographs, some players are wearing other team kits and Arthur Foxall looks like he’s off to the races with a lovely flat cap and muffler set.
James Dempsey’s photo wouldn’t be out of place on Crimewatch and he eventually served a month in prison in 1928 for false pretences whilst playing for Troedyrhiw Welfare.
Pinnace cards are probably the most collectible of the cigarette cards but there are much rarer collections which feature even earlier Merthyr players, for example Cope’s Clips Cigarettes who issued a series of cards called Noted Footballers between 1909 and 1911. There were three sets of cards and the first players featured were from Merthyr RFC and it was only after two more years that the round ball game got our players featured. There are nine cards in this collection; Draper, Craig, Lewis, White, Savage, Dodds, Lowe, Costello and Gates. Regular readers will recognize Frank Costello as one of our players who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War and is remembered each year at the club’s Remembrance service.
There’s one more beautiful cigarette card in the club’s collection at the moment and it’s once again from the pre-war era. F.&J. Smith’s Cigarettes produced a Club Record card in 1914 to celebrate the end of the 1913-14 season. It depicts Tom Burrows on the front in a lovely green with red “V” kit with the season’s results listed on the reverse. It’s a lovely piece of history.
It’s fascinating to think that some miner in the Durham coal field would open a pack of fags on his way to work in the early hours of a day and discover a Merthyr Town card, would he have heard of our small Valleys town before that moment? He was probably hoping for a Stan Seymour card.
Not all collectibles for Merthyr Town though are what they seem, some tobacco companies also issued silks with their cigarette packs. These were woven pieces of fine cloth and one of Godfrey Phillips’s companies BDV Cigarettes issued a series of these called League Colours in 1921 but these were for Rugby League clubs so a frequently seen item is actually for the rugby team who played near today’s West End Bowls Club.
The Battock Cards issued in 1923 are very basic but they are reported to be one of the first examples of a Football Trading Card targeted possibly at young football supporters. The Merthyr Town card is a very basic team kit colour of red & green halves, white shorts and blue socks.
There were only 18 cards to be collected and Merthyr were listed amongst clubs like Glasgow Rangers, Southampton, Chelsea and even Greenock Morton. It’s an eclectic mix of football clubs but if you did manage to collect them all and you sent them back to the company in London they would send you either a football or a jersey.
Hopefully the football museum project at the ground will gain some momentum as the pandemic hopefully eases and we can display more of these hidden gems of Martyrs’ history.
MARC AP DAFYDD