Club historian David Bull remembers Arthur House, the oldest surviving Saint, who has died aged 99...
The official records will not confirm that, because they are limited to men who played in peace-time matches, whereas Arthur’s Southampton career consisted of half a dozen games in 1940/41 and a crazy day-trip to Cardiff in January 1942, by which time he was in the Fleet Air Arm, based at Worthy Down, near Winchester.
Along with my fellow official historians, Duncan Holley and Gary Chalk, and with Barry Webb contributing, I plead guilty to having made Arthur our hero of the past few seasons, as we featured him in commemorative events, notably the 2018 exhibition at the SeaCity Museum, in which an entire panel was devoted to Arthur’s historical contribution to the club’s history.
The 20-year-old Arthur was summoned to his Saints debut by postcard – sent by manager Tom Parker to a Shirley address that he had left.
The card was promptly forwarded and Arthur duly reported for the opening match of the 1940/41 season, at home to Brighton. He was one of 10 local youngsters in a side captained by John Harris, a centre-half guesting from Wolves, a comparative veteran at the age of 23.
The match was interrupted for half-an-hour by an air-raid warning, but the 90 minutes were completed in a 3-2 home win. The next game at Aldershot was likewise halted after 67 minutes and not resumed. The score of 4-1 to Aldershot stood as the result. Then back to The Dell for a 6-1 home win vs Bournemouth & Boscombe, in which the sides managed to complete 35 minutes each way.
It got worse. The players arrived in Brighton during a warning and managed to play for three minutes before the next siren sounded. The abandoned match would have to be replayed.
It was only in his fifth match – a 5-2 home defeat by Watford – that Arthur played for an uninterrupted 90 minutes. He then shared the jersey for five matches with Charles White, but then lost it to him for the rest of the season.
On 30th November, after Arthur had kept goal for the Reserves vs Cunliffe Owen in the Hampshire League, a German bomb left The Dell so badly flooded that the Saints played the remainder of that season’s games away.
Called up in 1941, Arthur was drafted into the Fleet Air Arm’s 890 Squadron, newly formed at Eastleigh. As an Air Frames Mechanic, his job was to look after the plane’s wings and attend to his designated pilot on take-off and landing.
Duly posted to Worthy Down, he would have one more game for the Saints. On 3rd January 1942, he was summoned from the airfield to be chauffeured to Cardiff for the second leg of a War Cup fixture.
If it wasn’t bad enough that the Saints lost 9-1 (or 14-3 on aggregate), he missed the camp’s 11pm curfew and spent the night in a bus-shelter. That adventure constitutes the opening story in Duncan Holley’s 2017 compilation, Days Like These.
Arthur would serve in two major operations: in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. The former involved the vital convoys from Gibraltar to Malta.
Arthur’s task on the Illustrious was to keep the planes flying to protect the merchant ships against attacks from the Italians who were, as he put it, “almost within walking distance”.
Returning from those duties to the service’s Lee-on-Solent HQ, Arthur was rewarded with a 10-shilling [50p] note by his father.
There would be no time to spend it – the note remained forever in his wallet – as he was promptly ordered to sail to Ceylon (nowadays Sri Lanka).
The first requirement, there, was to build a runway in the jungle at Puttalam – with the help of an elephant to do the heaviest of the tree-clearance (and later to move and position the planes).
The squadron’s main role was to attack the Japanese airfields and oil refineries in the Pacific, principally on Sumatra. With the heat and the dust, the repair-and-maintenance work at the airfield kept Arthur busy – so much so that he went on only one of those raids.
Returning to civilian life, Arthur ran an old coaching inn, near Swindon, for 18 years and spent 27 years on Canada’s Vancouver Island.
In his eighties, he moved into council-owned assisted housing just up the road from Victor Street, where he had lived in his teens, next door to Mary Smith, before she married Ted Bates.
We historians had the pleasure of visiting Arthur often. We took Charles White – who succeeded Arthur in goal in 1940 – to see him and we set him up to participate in an educational film, answering questions from two scholars from the Saints Academy.
1st March 1920 – 28th July 2019
Arthur House's funeral is at Southampton Crematorium West Chapel at 4pm on Monday 12th August. All welcome.