Five slightly bewildered children on a railway track, cast in bronze. For present day visitors to the Liverpool Street Station in London this sculpture is likely to be one of the attractions of the station. Created by Frank Meisler, this 2003 work of art commemorates the arrival thousands of Jewish children to the station as part of the “Kindertransport” rescue operations during 1938 and 1939. Two years before the arrival of Jewish children became a common sight, a more frequent visitor to Liverpool Street Station were football teams, given the multitude of professional and amateur clubs based in the area. It is likely that very few paid attention when an enthusiastic group of 18 amateur footballers gathered for a team photograph in the station on 4th October, 1937. In the middle of the team photograph sat their manager with a serene smile cradling a stuffed toy lion, their mascot. Those who did take notice had just witnessed a historic moment. For this was an ordinary team with extraordinary intents. The journey they were about to embark upon was of a scale that had never been seen before or since. The tour that started on that day would take the football team across the globe, literally, playing 95 games in over a dozen countries and four continents.
The Islington Corinthians FC was founded in 1932 in the district of Islington in Greater London by Thomas Smith, a former chairman of Tufnell Park FC and an eminent London-based Rotarian. Composed largely with amateur players from Greater London area they participated in charity matches and mid-week football, becoming a regular fixture in Metropolitan Midweek League. They would play games against the reserve teams of Arsenal, Chelsea and Fulham, often upsetting them, like a 3-2 victory over Chelsea Reserves in the 1934/35 season.
They were rapidly making a name for themselves in the amateur football scene but the event that would make IC really stand out in the quagmire of non-league football was developing half-way across the globe. Playing their first major football tournament the 1936 Olympics, China conducted an elaborate selection process to compile a team with best ethnic Chinese players from different parts of China as well as South Eastern Asia. This team embarked on a long preparatory tour of Asia before finally arriving in Berlin. Their preparation bore fruit till half time as China held Great Britain to a goal-less score line before eventually succumbing to a 2-0 loss.
After their exit the Chinese Olympic team continued the tour, making stops at Paris, Vienna, Geneva and Amsterdam before finally arriving in London. There the team would meet Arsenal icons Ted Drake and Alex James but more importantly, play a match against Islington Corinthians at Highbury on 31st August, 1936. The Corinthians won 3-2. After the final whistle the Chinese extended a casual invitation to visit their country for a re-match – this hatched the idea of a full blown world tour. It was not an idea born of a momentary whim as they already had some experience of foreign tours, playing Ajax and Sparta Rotterdam in '35 and '36.
A team was assembled with young amateurs, a number of them unmarried. The Islington Rotary Club provided financial support for the tour, contributing £8000. Smith accompanied the team as tour manager while former Tottenham Hotspur centre-half Horace “Harry” Lowe took over as coach. Lowe had an impressive CV having tutored Real Sociedad for five years and was coaching Espanyol when the outbreak of the Spanish civil war saw him return to England. Before leaving Spain, he set a unique record which stands till date. In the 1934/35 season when one of the Sociedad players fell ill before a game against Valencia, Lowe slipped his boots on, becoming the La Liga’s oldest ever footballer at 48 years and 226 days. Two ladies Mrs. Searle (a journalist) and Ms. Starr (secretary) also accompanied the team.
Starting the tour on 4th October Islington Corinthians crossed the English Channel and landed in The Hague, The Netherlands. On 5th October IC opened their tour with a 0-0 draw with VUC in The Hague. A day later they eased to a 2-0 win in Amsterdam against Haarlem FC with Johnny Sherwood scoring the first goal of the tour. Playing their third consecutive game in three days, they rounded off their Dutch stay with a 1-1 draw against DWV.
Next stop – Switzerland. On 10th October IC tasted their first defeat against FC Winterthur in Zurich. They overcame some of their disappointment the next day, picking up a handsome win over FC Berne.
On conclusion of the European leg of the world tour the Islington Corinthians made their way across the Suez Canal to Egypt. As they landed in Alexandria IC members would first experience the enthusiasm of crowd and local officials which would continue for rest of the tour. On 22nd October IC played their first match in Cairo, a 1-1 draw against Cairo XI. King Farouk I was present in attendance in the second match two days later as IC picked up a battling victory.
After a few days rest Al-Zalamek were Islington Corinthians’ next opponent. Zamalek had Mohamed Latif in their ranks – a former Glasgow Rangers player who had played in both the 1934 World Cup and 1936 Olympics. Despite the quality of their opponents IC had no problems chalking up yet another win. Reeling with a spate of injuries they faced a heavy 4-1 in defeat in the last match in Port Said.
On 11th November 1937 Islington Corinthians landed in Bombay (present Mumbai) to start the Indian leg which was to become the busiest of the world tour. Upon reaching Bombay IC were invited to a lavish luncheon in the posh Taj Mahal Hotel. After a brief stop IC travelled to the Eastern city of Calcutta (present Kolkata) where they would play out the most vital matches of the Indian tour.
After an arduous train journey IC reached Calcutta on 13th November and by the afternoon of the same day, they lined up against Mohammedan Sporting Club, the strongest football team in India and winner of an unprecedented five consecutive league titles between 1934 and 1938. IC struggled, scraping a goal-less draw.
On 16th November, 1937 Islington Corinthians played local favourites Mohun Bagan. Bagan were one of the best known clubs in India and they created history in 1911 by becoming the first Indian club to win a major trophy – the IFA Shield. Mohun Bagan had played a number of India based British teams by that time but the Islington Corinthians is till date remembered as the first foreign side to play the club in their 126 year old history. The well contested match ended in a 1-0 win for the visitors.
In midst of the Calcutta leg IC were invited to a luncheon in the Great Eastern Hotel where they sampled the famous Indian mutton korma curry and met two of the most important early pioneers of football in India – the Maharajah of Santosh and Pankaj Gupta. IC won their remaining matches in Calcutta, defeating IFA XI and All Indian XI, the second match being attended by over 55,000.
IC’s tour of India was extremely successful. They won most of their matches, losing only once to Dhaka XI thanks to a goal from Pakhi Sen. They travelled across the country to places like Jamshedpur, Varanasi as well as frontier cities. A comment from PB Clark regarding bare feet players has since become a part of local football folklore –“Indians alone play real football, what they call football in Europe, is after all only bootball”.
After their Indian exploits IC played a few matches in Myanmar before starting another major leg of the Asian tour in the Malayan peninsula. They were to play matches scattered across Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Penang, Alor Star, Ipoh Seremban and Malacca. They arrived in Penang on 9th January, playing their first match against Penang Asiatics two days later. This was followed by a 3-1 victory over Penang FA XI. One of IC’s biggest wins in the tour was a 6-0 defeat of Malacca XI thanks to a hat-trick from Tarrant. Things were not so easy against local treble winners Kelab Sukan TPCA as that match ended in a 1-1 draw. The most thrilling game of this leg came against Singapore when IC clawed their way back from a 2-0 deficit to eke out a 3-2 win thanks to a late long ranger from Sherwood. They were hosted by the Sultan of Johore in a luncheon before ending their tour with a 7-1 thrashing of Johore. In the Malayan leg IC won 14 of their 16 matches and scored 51 times
The Corinthians were enjoying life on the tour in the Malayan leg and were playing their best football, as Smith recounts in an interview in January, 1938, “The boys are playing better football now than ever on the tour. They're so good in positional play that they waste the minimum effort in passing”.
The 28th November, 1937 edition of Straits Times, Malaysia’s most circulated newspaper carried an elaborate account about a number of players of Islington Corinthians. It is evident that despite being amateurs Islington had some highly competent players in their ranks.
Captain PB Clark was a full-back who had represented Hiberinan and had a Scottish national team cap. Goalkeeper Ted Wingfield represented Romford FC, who would win the Athenian League consecutive times between 1935 and 1937. Cyril Longman another goalkeeper, also didn’t lack success having played for Isthmian League winners Kingstonian FC.
Left-back Alec Buchanan had turned out for Chelsea in 1933, centre-half Bill Whittaker earned acclaim for his performances for Blackpool during the war years while right-half Albert Martin had a stint with French side Football Club d'Antibes. Moors Green FC contributed a number of players to Islington Corinthians, like right half George Dance and “very intellectual” inside forward Leonard Bradbury. A year after the world tour Bradbury went on to play for Manchester United, making his debut against Chelsea and scoring the match-winning goal.
Centre-forward Richard Tarrant was one of the first star attractions of Sutton United. In the 1933/34 season Tarrant scored 31 times, helping Sutton win Surrey Senior Charity Cup. On 17th April, 1935 he made his debut for Ireland Amateur national team, scoring once.
A number of Islington Corinthians players had solid amateur careers but in terms of sheer theatre no-one could match that of star striker Johnny Sherwood. Sherwood had notched up appearances for Reading FC and according to some, was an outside bet for the English national team. For Islington Corinthians he had an extremely successful tour – finishing as the top scorer with over 70 goals. Months after the tour Sherwood instead of entering the peak years of his career, was drafted into the army and found himself in the Eastern theatre of Second World War.
After the British surrender at Singapore Sherwood was captured by Japanese troops and imprisoned in nightmarish Japanese PoW camps. Suffering from lack of food, water and constant torture from Japanese soldiers he had to endure hours of forced labour working on Burma Siam Railways also known as “Death Railways” which by some estimates, caused 90,000 deaths. Sherwood survived the camp and a severe bout of malaria, only to be herded into a freight “hell ship” on its way to Japan with 900 prisoners in its hold. As luck would have it, the freight ship was sunk by an American submarine. Sherwood survived by clinging on to a piece of driftwood but was again captured by Japanese. He was imprisoned and put to work in Nagasaki where he witnessed the dropping of the atomic bomb. Johnny Sherwood survived the war and returned to England. He played a few more games for Reading FC but was never able to match his pre-war exploits due to irreparable physical damage. Decades later he would recount his experience in notes which would eventually get published as “Lucky Johnny: The footballer who survived River Kwai death camps”.
Islington Corinthians traveled to Vietnam and Philippines from the Malay Peninsula before finally reaching the country which first gave rise to the idea of the world tour – China. But by that time, a lot had changed and the men from Islington found themselves in the middle of one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history. Japan had launched a full scale war on China in mid of 1937. When IC had landed in China some of the most gruesome battles had already taken place in Manchuria and Shanghai along with the infamous and much debated “Rape of Nanking”. It was a miracle that in this tense and pot boiling situation that IC were able to play any football at all.
A 1938 news report at the end of IC’s tour reflects the dangers they faced –“On the way from Hong Kong to Macao, surrounded by Chinese junks, Japanese seaplanes swooped down on the steamers – but the pilots saw the big Union Jack painted on the bridge and no bombs were dropped”.
The results unsurprisingly, were mixed. In Hong Kong IC won 4-2 against Combined Police and Club XI but the game in Macao against a selected Macao XI ended in a one all draw. In Shanghai they were on the verge of being arrested by Japanese soldiers for violating curfew but were let off only after informing that they were scheduled to play in Japan as well! The largest crowd for a football match to that point in Shanghai turned up to watch IC as they took on Shanghai XI. Tired and struggling on a slippery pitch, IC slumped to a tame 3-0 loss.
In early April, 1938 Islington Corinthians became the first English team to play in Japan. With 50,000 in attendance in the Meiji Shrine Stadium, IC failed to contain the pace of diminutive Japanese players of All-Kanto XI. The home team took a 1-0 lead in first half and buoyed by the home crowd pumped in three more goals in second half to inflict the heaviest loss the English amateurs faced in the world tour. Years later Sherwood would once again see one of the players from the Japanese team – this time as a PoW camp guard!
Sailing away from the pressure cooker situation in Japan and China, IC made their way across the Pacific Ocean to a calmer atmosphere in USA and Canada. In USA IC defeated San Francisco All Stars 3-2, Los Angeles All Stars 4-1 and eked out a goal-less draw with Douglas Aircraft SC. The Canadian leg started on 7th May and ended on 27th of the same month with IC playing a dozen games in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. The free-scoring football which made IC popular on the tour was evident as they picked up handsome victories over Victoria (6-3), Calgary (3-0), Lethbridge (4-2) and Fort William (6-2). They ended their stay in Canada with a thumping 7-2 victory over Montreal in Quebec with Johnny Sherwood scoring five times.
During the North American leg of the tour IC visited Hollywood sets, hobnobbed with movie celebrities like Heather Angel, David Niven and were hosted by Victor McLaglen in his nightclub.
The world tour also ended with their matches in Canada. They had played 95 games in total, winning 65 times, losing just 8 matches and scored an impressive 237 goals. What makes this record remarkable is the fact that they travelled incessantly and had very little prep time to get accustomed to the constantly varying nature of pitch and opponents.
In England it was expected that their tour would barely last a month. When they did make their way back the Islington Corinthians received a hero’s welcome. Present among the welcoming party was William Pickford, president of the Football Association. Pickford praised the IC’s incredible achievement saying, “You have kicked the football round the world, and put British sport on the map throughout the world”. ”We have not left a single enemy behind us”, appraised Tom Smith. A team photograph at end of the tour shows a group of jaded players with trunks remarkably plastered with a multitude of stamps from different countries.
When he returned after covering the world in 80 days Phileas Fogg had a booty of £20,000 waiting for him. For Islington Corinthian members the situation was completely different. The tour was a financial disaster - the club lost a chunk of money and many players lost their jobs (news reports described them as "flat broke" and “penniless”). Tom Smith steadfastly argued that any financial downside was trumped by the goodwill generated by IC during the tour.
In 1939 Islington Corinthians made a short tour of Iceland and played five matches. Smith's later plans to tour South Africa were scrapped due to an escalating WWII. Sadly, the club didn't survive the war and was wound up by 1940.
The story of Islington Corinthians was largely forgotten in mainstream media until Rob Cavallini published his "Around the World in 95 Games: The Amazing Story of the Islington Corinthians 1937/38 World Tour" in 2008. A large number of items from their tour, including a dazzling collection of souvenirs can be found on auction sites.
The greatest feature of Islington Corinthians world tour was not the length of it or their performance but the fact that instead of financial reasons it was motivated by the pure philanthropic intention of spreading the game where no English teams had set their foot before. For this, Smith and his team deserve to be lauded.
Somnath is @baggiholic.