Damon ThreadgoldComment

THE FOUNDING FATHER OF FA CUP GIANT KILLING

Damon ThreadgoldComment

Blyth Spartans are one of the great names in FA Cup giant-killing history but their founder Fred Stoker remains an enigma. Damon Threadgold of The Real FA Cup turns historian to investigate

The Greek Spartan army were quite a hardy bunch, hard as nails, athletic, clever, philosophical (obviously, they're Greek) and defiant. Their physical "training" was an exercise in masochism, or sadism, depending on which side of the trainer/trainee axis you happened to be on.

Blyth's football team share the 'Spartan' name thanks to the whim of their founder and first secretary and, that whim aside, there appears to be no genuine historical reason why the club have acquired this association.  They aren't the only ones to invoke, or evoke, the spirit of Spartanism, there are literally dozens, possibly hundreds, of sporting clubs and associations across the world who've followed suit.

Having said that, the North East's footballing Spartans relationship with the FA Cup does have more than a hint of Spartanism about it; their record of giant killing is second to few. Their Cup successes have been many and have been documented in detail elsewhere, indeed previously on The Real FA Cup after Blyth clashed with this weekend's opponents, Gateshead, in the FA Trophy last season, so we'll leave that for now.

But, like the team's association with Sparta, there seems very little historical reason why their founder came to be associated with Blyth or their football club. Fred Stoker is a bit of an enigma.  Less than two years after founding Blyth Spartans, in 1899, he appears to have entirely ditched football, left the area and moved to London to become a Harley Street physician.

And then he disappears.  Or does he?  Spartan's history records Fred as leaving for London in 1901 and, thereafter, his name appears notably absent.  But another Fred Stoker turns up in Essex in 1920 with a history in Northumberland, specifically Wallsend, and a spell at Durham University's College of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1904. From there, this Fred Stoker actually left for Edinburgh, not London, and a fellowship at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Is there an error in Blyth's spartan records? Were they not documented in 1899 and later attempts to do so proved slightly inaccurate with the dates, or maybe they just omitted the University and Edinburgh bits as mere flim flam? Or did Fred simply forget about his early life, burying himself in medicine?

The alternate possibility is that these are not the same Stokers, it's not an uncommon name. Records suggest a Fred was born in late 1878 in Tynemouth, a Frederick John Stoker was born in Stockton around the same time and two Frederick Stokers near Durham, in January and July 1879 respectively. Fred never seems to have used the full 'Frederick' in his name and records don't seem to suggest that this southern-exiled Fred had the middle name of John.

That being the case, geographical proximity to Wallsend being perhaps a hint, the Tynemouth Fred could be our man, especially as Blyth is just up the coast, on the way to Edinburgh, and, of four Fred Stokers, surely only one would become a physician or surgeon?

But, even so, Dr Fred Stoker, surgeon, pops up in Loughton, on the North East London/Essex borders.  This Dr Stoker was not only a surgeon but also a serious gardener. Serious is perhaps an understatement.  Stoker's gardens were documented in 2008 by Chris Pond and Richard Morris in Loughton Historical Society's book 'Dr Fred Stoker & The Lost Garden Of Loughton' and, beyond noting Stoker was from Northumberland, little was mentioned of his previous life.

As well as Loughton Fred's story being sparsely populated with early facts, he seems not to have told anyone where he came from. 'The north' seems to be as much as anyone could get out of him, maybe it was no longer important to him, Blyth were not a big club even back then. On the basis of the few facts Pond & Morris do have, Northumberland is assumed as Stoker's birthplace. I'm awaiting the full book but, as of now, we have little more on his Northern history: 1906 - living in Wallsend, married to Marie Wilkie Smith, the aformentioned attendance at Durham University and Edinburgh RCS; 1909 - arrival in London, not 1901 as suggested by Blyth Spartans' history.

Fred's move south was as a GP and keen gardener, he moved to a series of three houses in Ealing and Acton, the gardens of which appear to be aggregated to become the house at 'Ackling', upon which his first book was based. The book 'A Gardener's Progress' seems to have been as successful as Stoker's GP career, during which he produced several books and papers on a variety of medical topics.

Fred and Marie lived in central London until 1919, although by that time they had bought a farm in Sussex and Fred stayed in a flat while in London on work. By that time, Fred seems to have moved into consultancy in Harley Street, which tallies up nicely with the Blyth history books. Pond & Morris suggest flat dwelling didn't go down too well with the Stokers and they quickly sold up the distant farm and bought a house in the new commuter belt in Loughton, Essex, on the fringes of Epping Forest, allowing swift access to central London and instant access to his beloved nature.

Fred appears to have quickly become a well-known Loughtonite and, after purchasing a large plot of scrubland off Goldings Hill, he spent six long years excavating, cultivating and establishing the garden. By 1927 his next project was to build a grand-ish house, 'The Summit', on the land and move in permanently.  Marie (or 'Mary' as Stoker refers to her in his books) was the driver behind the house and, contrary to the popular method, the house was designed to accommodate and reflect the garden, not the other way round.

Dr Stoker appears not to have cleared the overgrown scrub entirely, just sections, and spent a great deal of time observing and studying the indigenous species of plants. Not unsurprisingly, being a surgeon, Stoker's scientific mind had strayed further sideways into horticulturalism and he became enamoured, specifically, with lillies.

Stoker grew lillies and 'showed' them and gradually became a fount of knowledge on the species, a fact acknowledged in 1932 by the Royal Horticultural Society. Five years later he received the Society's Victoria Medal Of Honour from the RHS Lily Committe, of which he was a founding member.  Stoker wrote prolifically on the topic of gardening, including in the Times, The Gardeners Chronicle and produced a series of lectures for the BBC as well as keeping an extensive library that was left to the RHS on his death and remains in their Lindley Library.

Already a fellow of the Linnean Society, Stoker had become interested in the cultivation of difficult garden plants.  In 1934 'Shrubs for the Rock Garden' was published, in 1938 'A Gardener's Progress' followed and, if you've ever dabbled in herbacious borders, you may have come across Fred's name; he cultivated the most common species of alpine plant Phyllodoce x Intermedia (above) and his wife also has a chrysanthemum named after her.

Stoker died in 1943 and his wife continued the garden for another twenty years. Her death saw the land and gardens bequeathed to the National Trust, who bizarrely turned it down. Within a few years the land was sold to developers, who knocked down the The Summit, ripped up most of the gardens and built 41 houses. It's not all gone, though, several tree preservation orders were granted and these remain on the estate of houses.

Stoker's contribution to medicine and horticulturalism therefore goes beyond his contribution to football which, bar the name, is largely lost. But what of this footballing contribution? If these two people are indeed the same then why are Blyth's records about their polymath founder so sparse? And why does the green-fingered Fred never seem to refer to his previous life up north? Or football.

If records are correct, he was around 20 when he formed Blyth Spartans, which is the one thing that makes me doubt these two Freds are the same, although age is no barrier to setting up an institution no matter how rare. There are hints at an interest in, or at least knowledge of, football. In his book 'A Gardeners Progress' he refers to meeting a 'long-lipped Hibernian', a friend of the family. Given the lack of any obvious Irish in his family's lineage and his presence in Edinburgh in the early 1900s, you wonder if it is a football reference, the club being well established since the 1870s.

This maybe coincidence or a historical reference to someone from the Emerald Isle.  Was his time with Blyth lost thanks to the brevity of his association? Did some later historian or club official try to locate Mr Stoker and get the early details wrong? Did he come across Dr Stoker, from Northumberland, make the same connections as I and subsume their histories into one?

Thus far, no response from the club but local oracle Keith Stoker (apparently no relation) says Stokers are very common, especially in Northumberland.  Neither was Fred an unusual name. But, even so, the field of Fred Stokers is a nicely garlanded and narrow one so we can be confident. Chris Pond told us he believes it is the same Fred Stoker and that they had contact with Spartans on the topic last year.

As of now, it clearly remains unconfirmed but we are confident this Fred will, imminently, be acknowledged as the founding father of FA Cup giant killing. We still don't know what exactly is Fred's link to football and Blyth particularly but Dr Stoker created something special in North East football. Not only did he imbue the Spartans with some iconic Greek history, he went on to become an eminent physician, consultant and talented horticultural trail blazer.

Well played, Fred.

  • Quite a lot of information about Fred Stoker is gleaned from the Loughton Historical Society and a series of their newsletters, the main one being here.  The Society is also responsible for the book by Chris Pond & Richard Morris, 'Dr Fred Stoker & The Lost Garden of Loughton', from which the photo is taken, and which is available here

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