Wearside Echoes: From SAFC football star to workhouse inmate

BAD OLD DAYS: Highfield Hospital - also known as Sunderland Workhouse.
BAD OLD DAYS: Highfield Hospital - also known as Sunderland Workhouse.
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CHRISTMAS Day in the workhouse may sound like the theme of a Charles Dickens tale – but it proved a harsh reality for one of the stars of Sunderland AFC.

Arnie Davison made over 100 appearances for his beloved club during a footballing career spanning two decades, even scoring the winning goal in the prestigious Durham Challenge Cup.

But, although top players can today command multi-million pound salaries, Arnie fell on hard times after losing his place on the team – eventually dying at the age of just 46 in the workhouse.

“A footballer’s career can end in the blink of an eye with a mistimed tackle, or by being struck down by illness,” said local historian Alan Brett, author of new book Sunderland At Work And Play.

“Today there are safeguards in place to ensure they are comfortably well off for the rest of their lives but, a century ago, this was not the case with Sunderland favourite Arnie Davison.”

Wearside-born Arnie signed up for SAFC in the mid-1880s. His enduring passion for the game, as well as his acclaimed skill on the ball, made him a great favourite with the fans.

The year 1887 saw Arnie help Sunderland clinch victory over Darlington in the Durham Challenge Cup and, the following season, he scored in a 4-2 win over FA Cup winners Blackburn Rovers.

One commentator at the time recalled: “His bright and cheery ways made him very popular.”

Arnie’s name was still near the top of the team sheet when SAFC started its 1888-89 season push for entry to the Football League – indeed, he scored in a 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers.

And he was also hailed as “outstanding” in a 4-1 win over the mighty Preston North End – a team dubbed The Invincibles after claiming the League and FA Cup Double without losing a game.

But the appointment of Tom Watson to the role of SAFC secretary manager at the start of the 1888-89 season was to leave local lad Arnie facing up to a bleak future.

“Watson continued the club’s policy of bringing in men from Scottish clubs. No fewer than eight were brought in during the close season,” said Alan.

“Despite these signings, Arnie was still in the team for the first game of the 1889-90 season against Blackburn Rovers, but was played at inside forward and not his favoured right wing.

“Although Sunderland went on to beat the League side, Arnie was then dropped from the team.”

The decision to sideline Arnie brought a flood of protests from supporters, with several even writing to The Echo to express their dissatisfaction over the move.

But there were those who took the opposite view, including local solicitor Lionel Wolfe, who later summed up the early weeks of the 1889-90 season:

“It was apparent to a close observer that a weakness was developing at outside left, the position occupied by that old warrior Arnie Davison,” he wrote.

“That age was beginning to tell could be seen by his diminishing speed and his failure to get the ball across in the double-quick time that had been so characteristic of his play.

“Besides, poor Arnie was not enjoying the best of health.”

Arnie was still in his mid-twenties when he was dropped from the team. Although age appears not to have been a factor in the decision, his health almost certainly was.

Determined, as ever, to try his best, Arnie returned to the side for a couple more games later in the season. His first team days, however, were soon over.

“When no longer a Sunderland regular, Arnie continued to work as a clerk in the shipyards, while living at Howick Street North,” said Alan.

“He had been ill for a long time with a progressively debilitating disease, which attacked the former footballer’s nervous system.”

When the end came for Arnie, on August 31, 1910, he passed away in a bed in the Sunderland Workhouse Infirmary Ward. His daughter, Elise, was by his side.

“Decades after his death, those following football as a profession could still find themselves in the workhouse,” said Alan.

“Indeed, in June 1933 Durham Area Guardians Committee revealed they had received applications for out-relief from three professional footballers.

“During the football season the men earned up to £4 per week, but had no wages in the summer months. Out-relief was refused, but places in the workhouse offered. The offer was declined.”

* Information taken from Sunderland At Work And Play, by Alan Brett. Published by Black Cat Publications and available priced £9.99.

Sidebar: Stan the Handy Man

FOOTBALLERS in post-war Britain were expected dedicate their lives to sport – but needed to find outside work to fund this devotion.

“Even rich clubs like Sunderland not only allowed their playing staff to have jobs, but actively encouraged them to seek alternative careers,” said Alan.

Indeed, when Stan Anderson – hailed as one of Sunderland’s finest players of the post-war era – signed up as a teenager in 1949, the club found him an apprenticeship as a plasterer.

“He soon found plastering monotonous, but was able to switch to plumbing – which he really enjoyed. While serving his time he helped install new players’ baths at Roker Park,” said Alan.

Other players who combined football with real-world jobs included Ken Oliver, an apprentice toolmaker at Birtley Ordinance Factory, and trainee teacher Alan Spence.

Len Ashurst had already embarked on an apprenticeship as a printer when he signed for SAFC, while Colin Nelson qualified as a pharmacist at the same time as playing in the first team.

“An occupation outside the game certainly came in useful for Charlie Thomson, part of the 1937 FA Cup winning side, who went on to work as a painter and decorator,” said Alan.

“Having finished the game when still in his twenties, he faced another 35 years of working life ahead of him.”

Sidebar: Sunderland workhouses

* Sunderland’s first parish workhouse was built by public subscription in 1740 in Church Walk. At one time it was reputed to be home to over 600 inmates.

* In the early 1800s a workhouse was in operation at Monkwearmouth on Cage Hill. Another workhouse was based nearby on Portobello Lane.

* A building at the junction of Durham Road and Low Row was converted into a workhouse in the late 18th century. A larger workhouse was built in Harley Street in the 1820s.

* In 1853-5, a new workhouse was built near Hylton Road at cost £15,300. Designed by architect was JE Oates, it housed 500 inmates - including Arnie in later years.