FROM FOSSILS TO FOXES
THE HISTORY OF LEICESTER CITY
BY Vince Cooper
PART ONE 1884-1939
Leicester City weren’t always Leicester City. They started life as Leicester Fosse and still were when they moved to Filbert Street in 1891. The Fosse part of the name came from the nearby Fosse Way, a road that had been in existence since Roman times and the word means ‘Ditch’.
Filbert Street served as the club’s home for 101 years before they finally moved out in 2002 and into the KingPower stadium.
Prior to Filbert Street, Fosse, who would not become Leicester City until 1919, had led a nomadic existence for their first seven years.
The club was formed in 1884 with a number of the original players being students at the local Wyggeston Schhol.
The the name came about because most of the players lived on the west side through which the famous Roman road, Fosse Way, which traversed the country from the south-west to the north-east, ran.
At the inaugural meeting the new club’s first secretary Frank Gardner said after the name was adopted; “ As the Fosse is known throughout the land, so the new club shall be known in the future”.
The new club’s first-ever match took place on 1 November 1884 on a private field. A small crowd watched Leicester Fosse, most of whose team were 16-year-old students, record a 5-0 win over Syston Fosse. It was six years before the club picked up their first trophy when beating Coalville in the Leicestershire County Cup final.
Initially, home was at ‘The Racecourse’ but they quickly moved on to Victoria Park, a ground they shared with the Leicester Tigers rugby club. After spending a year at Belgrave Road Cycle Track, where they had to use changing facilities at the White Hart Hotel a mile from the ground, they moved back to Victoria Park, swapping with the Tigers who offered a higher rent to the owners of the cycle track. Coming almost full circle, thousands would pack the same Park in 2016 to celebrates City’s shock title win.
The club turned professional in 1889 and laid out their own ground at Mill Lane. This was necessary partly because Victoria Park was not enclosed and it was therefore impossible to charge the admission prices now needed to pay the players. However they were soon forced to look for yet another venue as after the 1890-91 season the council claimed the Mill Lane land for development.
Miss Westland Finds a New Home
Miss Westland, the niece of one of the club’s founders Joseph Johnson, was walking with her uncle when she spotted a patch of land and suggested it as a possible venue. Having purchased what was to become Filbert Street in 1890 they played for a short time at Aylestone Road Cricket Ground while their new home was being readied for action.
The first use of the new stadium was for a reserve match against Melton Swifts on 17 October 1891. It was initially called Walnut Street with the name soon changed to Filbert Street. The original ground, with banking for spectators on three sides and a small West Stand, remained pretty much unchanged for 30 years until 1921 when a new and much larger main stand was built.
Fosse in the chocolate brown and light blue shirts they wore until changing to blue in 1904
The club’s first league was the Midland before being elected to Division Two of the Football League in 1894. Their first season in the League gave great encouragement as they finished 4th level on points with Newton Heath (later to become Manchester United) and missing out on a place in the promotion ‘test match’ on goal average.
In fact it would take them 14 years to make it into the First Division, when they finished runners-up to Bradford City in 1907-08 only to be immediately relegated at the end of the following season beginning what has often proved a yo-yo existence.
The 1914-15 season was played to a conclusion despite war having been declared and Fosse finished in a lowly 19th place in the Second Division meaning they were forced to apply for re-election.
However, with football now suspended, thoughts turned to the conflict. Like all clubs a number of Fosse men went off to fight for the country. Sadly, again like many, some never returned.
A total of 13 Fosse players lost their live during the war whilst a 14th, Thomas Alsopp, survived only to succumb four months after the armistice to the Spanish Flu epidemic that swept across Europe
By the time football resumed after the conflict Leicester Fosse had ceased to exist due to the financial woes affecting all of football and indeed the country. They were taken over by a new club, titled ‘Leicester City Football Club’, the ‘City’ suffix having been added as Leicester had recently been granted city status.
From Fossils to Foxes
In their earlier incarnation as Leicester Fosse the team’s nickname was ‘The Fossils’ but now a new one was needed. Suggestions included ‘The Filberts’, ‘The Royal Knuts’ and ‘The Hunters’. The county of Leicestershire’s long-standing connection to fox-hunting led the club and its fans to settle on ‘The Foxes’.
The new club needed a new manager and Scot Peter Hodge proved the right man for the job.
Hodge had been Secretary-manager at Raith Rovers before taking over at Stoke City where, in his only season before the First World War he led the club to the Midland League Second Division title.
After again taking charge at Raith from 1916-1919 (where he managed a man he would eventually bring to Leicester in Johnny Duncan), he took over at newly-formed City. soon proving to be an excellent judge of talent he assembled a quality team.
The 1924-25 team
Hodge brought Duncan who was nicknamed ‘Tokey’, along with his brother Tommy, from Raith in 1922 and the club built a new ‘Scottish’ passing style of play which was to stand them in good stead.
The 1924-25 season ended with Leicester City as champions of the Second Division and the club enjoyed their best period until that point over the next decade.
One of the main reasons for this improvement, apart from the new tactics was that they finally had a proven goalscorer.
Arthur Chandler was born in Paddington, London and was a latecomer to professional football joining Third Division (South) Queen’s Park Rangers at the age of 24. In three seasons of no better than average play with the Londoners, the centre-forward scored just 18 times in 78 matches but Hodge clearly saw something and brought him to Filbert Street.
In the 1923-24 season, his first at the club, the then 27-year-old found the net 24 times. But he was just getting started.
During the ‘24-‘25 campaign Chandler scored a total of 38 goals, 33 in the league. He was ably backed up by Duncan who reached 30 including six in a 7-0 Christmas Day thrashing of Port Vale and City tallied 90 in league matches, finishing two points clear of Manchester United at the top of the table.
There was also a decent cup run with Newcastle United, Stoke and Hull City seen off before eventual finalists Cardiff City ended their hope at the quarter-final stage.
Back in the top flight, City didn’t find it easy but they still managed a respectable 17th with Chandler finding the net 26 times and average home gates rising by over 6,000 to 24,000+. However there was a major shock at end of the season as Manager Hodge left for recently relegated Manchester City with another Scot, former international Willie Orr, taking his place.
In 1927 more construction work was carried out with a stand built at the South End which became known as the Spion Kop and which also became known as the ‘Double Decker’. The roof which had covered that end of the Stadium was moved to the north side.
As this work was carried out off the pitch, The Foxes were rising to new heights on it. The managerial change made little difference as Leicester finished 7th in Orr’s first season before rising to third in 1927-28 and then finishing runners-up just a single point behind Sheffield Wednesday in 1928-29.
Some of the record crowd at the Spurs match
In early 1928, 47,298 attended an FA Cup 5th round tie against Tottenham Hotspur (although it was reported that over 55,000 showed up), setting an attendance record which would stand until the stadium was demolished. Others watched the match from the roof of the stand or from just about any vantage point they could gain. Sadly, the home fans saw their team beaten 3-0.
Another view of the crowd at the Spurs cup-tie
Chandler regularly topped the scoring charts during this period although surprisingly he never won a full England cap (he played in three trial matches and scored in all). Fellow forward Ernie Hine, signed from Barnsley for £3,000 by Hodge in 1926 was called up six times for his country, scoring four and these two along with Scot Arthur Lochhead, all-inspired by the mercurial Duncan put plenty of First Division defences to the sword.
Ernie Hine. Six England caps, four goals
Hine, signed after scoring 82 times in 164 for his hometown club, scored twice on his Leicester debut against Burnley. He made his England debut in 1928 and would go on to score 156 goals in 259 matches for City before being sold to Huddersfield Town in 1932
Just to confirm their goalscoring prowess at the time Leicester recorded their biggest-ever win against Portsmouth on 20th October 1928.
Chandler scored a first-half hat-trick and then did the same in the second period to equal Johnny Duncan’s record of six in a match whilst Ernie Hine got three of his own and left-winger Len Barry managed to add another as City hit double figures, and all of this without the injured Duncan.
Just when it appeared that City had established themselves at the pinnacle of English football, a decline set in to an ageing team. The 1929-30 campaign was respectable enough with an 8th-place finish. Chandler top-scored yet again with 32 goals but, now approaching his 35th birthday it was the seventh and final time.
In fact Chandler would stay with the club until 1935 but he became a back up option in the last few years, although he did score in the 1934-35 season by which time he was 39.
When he finally left the club for a brief spell at Notts County, Arthur Chandler left behind a fabulous record of 273 goals in 429 matches, a goals total that still sees him at the top of City’s all-time scorers, ahead of the likes of Arthur Rowley and Jamie Vardy.
Ernie Hine was still banging in the goals to help pick up the slack from Chandler’s diminished returns but the club’s bigger problem was the loss of Johnny Duncan.
In 1930 Duncan announced that he was going to take over the ‘Turks Head’ pub in the city. His contract said he couldn’t but the Scot insisted that he would and the Leicester board’s response was to sack him. Duncan decided to give up football and keep the pub and he was still mine host when passing away in 1966.
By the 1931-32 season Leicester were struggling to hold on to their First Division place and Willie Orr resigned in January 1932 after six successive defeats. The Directors picked the team for six weeks while advertising for Orr’s replacement before eventually luring Peter Hodge back to the club for a second spell by offering a five-year contract.
The Scot had enjoyed a successful spell at Manchester City who he brought up from the Second Division then guided into 3rd place in the top flight in the year Leicester finished runners-up. He is also credited as having discovered and developed Matt Busby during his time at Maine Road
Hodge managed to steer City out of danger and into 19th, a position they repeated in the following season. 1933-34 saw a minimal improvement in league form as City rose to 17th, although there was an excellent cup run. Lincoln City, Millwall (6-3 at The Den), Birmingham and Preston North End were all seen off before a 4-1 defeat to Portsmouth at St Andrew’s denied the team a Wembley place.
But tragedy befell the club in the summer of 1934. Hodge returned to Scotland for a visit but was admitted to hospital after experiencing stomach pains. He continued working on plans for the upcoming season but his condition deteriorated and he passed away on 18 August 1934.
The Leicester City flag flies at half-mast over Filbert Street after the passing of Peter Hodge
Six of Hodge’s Leicester City players acted as pallbearers at his funeral which took place in Perth and there were attendees from football’s clubs all around the country to honour the Scot wise eye for, and development of, players had made Leicester City a force in the game for the first time.
Speaking after he had passed away, former captain Johnny Duncan said of his boss; “He knew the temperaments of his players and how to get the best out of everyone”.
As after the resignation of Willie Orr, the board took on team selection responsibilities. This lasted for ten matches and then the club appointed former player Arthur Lochhead to take over. But the Scot’s inexperience showed and he could little to stop an ageing City from dropping into the Second Division.
After City finished 6th in their first season back in the second tier, Lochhead resigned shortly after the 1936-37 campaign began and the team was again chosen by the board until, in October when they captured Grimsby Town manager Frank Womack.
It was something of a surprise that Leicester were able to prise Womack, known as ‘The King of Grimsby’ away from his former club, especially given that he was taking over a City team just one place and one point off the foot of the table.
But the Foxes got their man and it proved to be an inspired capture. From 21st place with 6 points after 10 matches to a final points tally of 56 and a Second Division title was a remarkable turnaround and Womack, and some inspired signings must take the credit.
Record signing – and worth every penny
Chief among the new arrivals was former England international Jack Bowers for whom the City paid Derby County a club record £7,500 just a couple of weeks after Womack took over.
Bowers was coming off a serious knee injury but had been in the Derby first team already in the early months of the season and more than justified the hefty fee, scoring 33 times in just 27 matches and spearheading the drive up the table.
Back in the top sphere, life quickly got tough again. A 16th-placed finish in 1937-38 was followed by the bottom spot in 1938-39 after which Womack resigned.
So where football finally resumed after the Second World War, City would have a new man at the helm and would be competing in a new division. Read about that and much, much more in Part Two of From Fossils To Foxes, coming soon.