Manchester United Heroes and Legends – John Henry Davies, The Early Years.

ohn Henry Davies: center with the bowler hat, and the 1910 League Champions Manchester United. Credit: Image: The Republik of Mancunia

John Henry Davies: Our Savior is Born

Would you believe me if I told you that there was once a time when Manchester United was on the precipice of extinction? It’s hard to believe, given the acclaimed history it has created, but it is true. If not for John Henry Davies, Manchester City might be the only team in town.

The story of Davies and Manchester United, might be the most important in the whole of United’s history. His journey with United, would take them from nonexistence to one of the most feared teams in Europe.

Strap in while I take you back to the year 1864.

The World was Changing

Paiting of a group of grown men pushing a large cannon up a cliff. It is winter as there is snow on the ground and it's snowing
An image of the Second Schleswig War. Credit: Image: Aarhus University

The Civil War, New Zealand War, Danish-Prussian War, Uruguayan War, American Indian Wars, and Second Schleswig War were all raging.

President Abraham Lincoln had been reelected for a second term. Congress also approved the formation of the Montana Territory and granted Nevada statehood.

The Heineken Brewery was formed.

And it was discovered that light was an electromagnetic wave by James Clerk Maxwell.

John Henry Davies: The Birth of the Man

1864 was also the year that John Henry Davies was born. The fifth of ten children, Davies was born in Staffordshire, England into a poor working-class family.

He initially showed little potential as a young boy at school. However, his teachers eventually discovered that Davies had a penchant for math. A skill that would lead him to his eventual success as a businessman and entrepreneur.

After finishing school, John Henry decided against going to university and instead became a cashier. At the time this was nothing to be stilted about. In fact, being a cashier or teller was considered an exceptionally well-respected job.

There were no calculators or computers at the time, so all transactions had to be calculated by hand. Or in Davies’ case, in his head.

John Henry Davies: The Birth of the Mogul

John Henry Davies-Chairman and owner Manchester United 190… | Flickr
John Henry Davies with wife Amy and two children testing out a brand new 1920’s Apperson. Credit: Image: Flickr

By the 1880’s John Henry had emerged as a successful estate agent, landlord and innkeeper. Soon he decided to take the next step. He began creating his empire by saving up and buying all kinds of local businesses.

He used his insider knowledge as an estate agent to target specific industries that were the most profitable. Most of his efforts were focused on attaining pubs, inns, restaurants, and even a few minor investments in local sports teams.

John and Amy, a Love Story

In 1886 he met the love of his life, Amy Cattrall. Two years later they were married, with children shortly on the way.

Amy was the niece of the extremely wealthy and powerful sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate. Tate had always adored his niece. So much so he had bequeathed a substantial trust and inheritance to her. Something he always thought Davies was taking advantage of.

Not much is known as to why Tate had such a prejudice against John Henry. The most accepted version of the story is rooted to Tate’s philanthropy. Throughout his life he had donated substantial amounts of his wealth to charitable causes. His generosity had led to past suiters attempting to con their way into Henry and Amy’s lives.

John and Amy, A Story of Perseverance

SIR HENRY TATE sugar manufacturer who very sweetly (Photos Prints,  Framed,...) #4333196
Rendering of Sir Henry Tate Credit: Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

Having no daughters, Tate saw Amy as one of his own and treated her suiters as such. Tate was like a second father to Amy, and he wasn’t afraid to wield his substantial influence on her life. Davies wasn’t fazed.

It took almost two years for Davies to endear himself enough to Tate to gain his blessing for his marriage to Amy.

According to rumor, after Amy and John Henry wed, Tate felt duty bound into writing Davies into his will. However, by the time he passed away, his disdain for John Henry was inexorable. So much so that he had Davies precipitously removed from his will not days from before his death.

Again, this did little to effect John Henry.

A Stroke of Genius Marred by Disaster

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Newspaper clipping of Manchester Arsenic Poisoning Credit: Image: Ancoats

Eventually, by the late 1890’s, just before Tate’s passing, Davies began buying shares in local Mancunian breweries.

His next grand plan was to invest in the beer market in Manchester. He had identified the fact that Manchester and the whole of Britain was a beer society. His intention was to tap into this growing market and control it.

His plan was working…for a while…Unfortunately in 1900 more than six thousand people unexpectedly fell sick with arsenic poisoning. More than 70 people died from the nationwide incident. After an extensive government inquiry into the origin of the poisoning it was determined that beer was the source.

Brewers use sugar to help feed the yeast that ferments the grains used to make beer. A substantial majority of the sugar that was distributed to brewers at the end of 1899 in Britain was tainted with arsenic through a faulty purification process. This poisoned the beer and caused thousands to fall ill.

Davies Drives the Recovery of the Beer Industry

Fear spread and the share prices of breweries fell across the nation. Many breweries went out of business as people began to fall out of love with beer. But, where others only saw disaster, Joh Henry saw opportunity.

The market for beer was crashing hard. But Davies knew that people’s love for the sweet dark nectar would return as enough time passed. Beer is a thousands year old pastime and Davies knew its popularity would return. His idea was to be the man there to pick up the pieces.

He began buying up more shares of local breweries and pubs, practically doubling down on his investment. It was a stroke of genius. The beer market quickly recovered, and Davies was the only brewer left in town. Needless to say, he profited immensely.

Davies was on a Roll

Walker & Homfrays Ltd | The Labologist's Society
Bottle label from one of JHD’s Brewery’s. Credit: Image: Labologist Society

By 1904 John Henry Davies was either Chairman or Director of the Manchester Brewery, John Henry Lees Brewery and the Walker and Homfray Brewery.

He had also amassed a collection of more than 50 pubs and dozens of inns and hotels. John Henry Davies even went on to eventually form his own bottling company in 1920.

But now I am getting ahead of myself. At this point John Henry Davies and Manchester United weren’t even a notion.

So how does a wealthy beer plutocrat end up taking over a football team?

A Club in Turmoil

Let’s rewind to February 1901, so I can catch you up on the Manchester United side of this story.

First, United was then known as Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club. Newton Heath for short.

Second, in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s the club was in a serious amount of debt. £2,000 abouts, that’s about £140,000 in today’s money. This was massive sum during this period. Akin to the hundreds of millions in debt that United and many other top clubs have accumulated in the modern era.

The club’s creditors were putting pressure on the chairman and board to produce substantial funds immediately or consequences would be faced.

THE Grand Bazaar

Newton Heath Bazaar flyer. Credit: Image: Harry Stafford Facebook

In a moment of desperation, the club decided to host a grand bazaar. The goal was to attempt to raise money through new investors. The event actually ended up costing the club £200 and was considered a total failure in the media.

Only the benefit of hindsight will show how important this bazaar truly was to our clubs’ history. What happened next lives on in Manchester United folklore and philosophy.

The Goose, the Dog, and the Man on the Bicycle

Here we pick up with the story of the Christmas goose, a St. Bernard and man on a bicycle. Otherwise known as the “meet cute” of John Henry Davies and Newton Heath.

By the Christmas of 1901, after the failed bazaar, the Newton Heath board decided to attempt a new marketing campaign by introducing a new team mascot. It was dubbed the Bank Street Canary. Bank Street for the name of their stadium while the canary represented the canary yellow in their uniforms.

Up until this point the club only had an unofficial mascot named Major.

The Story of the Goose

Major the Dog. Credit: Image: Stretty News

Club captain Harry Stafford had a St. Bernard named Major that was a former mountain rescue dog. Stafford would outfit him with a collar equipped with a collection box. Then, the enormous dog would walk through the crowd during games, stopping as supporters placed donations in the box.

Unfortunately, the fans that came to see the Bank Street Canary were all duped. As it turned out, the club chairman had replaced the beloved Major with his Christmas goose. The bird was brought to the grounds to be fed on the sidelines during the game to fatten him up for the holidays.

The fans felt fooled and the already decreasing fan support for the club dwindled even further. This ruse combined with the embarrassment of the failed bazaar sent Newton Heath into a spiral. The club was forced to sell its best ever player, Joe Cassidy to crosstown rival Manchester City for only £250.

Newton Heath was Circling the Drain.

The team did little to endear fans. They were known for their brutality and foul play. The team’s performances could barely muster a game day attendance of six thousand.

Adding insult to injury, typical Mancunian weather rained out a long stretch of matches. Poor pitch conditions forced the club to forfeit several matches. The lack of gate receipts from these games killed the club’s revenue and sent them further down the road to collapse.

Coming to a head in early 1902 Newton Heath would be faced with an astronomical amount of debt. They were threatened with liquidation from the banks if they couldn’t pay down their liabilities immediately.

One of the club’s executives had even filed a lawsuit against the board for money he leant the club that was never paid back.

Newton Heath on the Brink

Banks Street Stadium clouded in smoke from the heating furnaces. Credit: Image: Stretty News

Newton Heath was forced to shut down and the gaits to the stadium were chained. Fortunately, the team were allowed to play their next match since it was away to Bristol. Almost 170 miles away from Manchester.

Having no money or club support for the trip the players and coaches were forced to travel to and from the game in one day. They also had to find a way to get there on their own dime. They didn’t even have the money for hotel rooms or food.

Exhausted form the journey Newton Heath were badly beaten.

By the start of their next home game the FA had reversed the shutdown order. They benevolently declared that the team should be allowed to finish out their remaining games in the season…Sense my sarcasm.

The truth is, the FA had realized that without ticket sales the club as an asset, and the recouperation of its debt, would be a worthless notion. This was a shot across the bow for Newton Heath.

The Story of the Dog

This is where Major the St. Bernard may have saved Manchester United from nihility. It is also where we can converge our two stories.

On the last day of the previously mentioned failed bazaar club captain Harry Stafford brought his beloved dog to the event. It was his hope that Major, with his collection box in tow, would be one last ditch effort to raise money for the club. 

Before the day was over Major had wandered out of the forum. He spent hours strolling the streets of Manchester on his own. Eventually he landed on the doorstep of a local restaurant at Albert Square. A restaurant that happened to be just down the street from one of John Henry’s offices.

The restaurant owner took the dog in and cared for him for several days. It was almost a week later before Davies would come into the restaurant for lunch.

A Moment of Chance Save Newton Heath

Photo a long, two-storeyed house with exposed wooden beams, many gables and small-paned windows. In the foreground is a lawn and trees are on the left.
Bramall Hall, Home of John Henry Davies, Still stands to this day. Credit: Image: Wikipedia

It also happened to be John Henry’s daughter’s birthday soon. The moment he saw Major he knew he had to have him as a gift for her. The restaurant owner gladly sold Major to Davies. Though endeared by the St. Bernard, the restaurant owner couldn’t afford to keep feeding the mammoth animal.

Only a few days later Davies’ wife, Amy noticed a flyer posted in town for a missing St. Bernard named Major. The Newton Heath chairman, Fred Palmer, had placed an ad on behalf of Harry Stafford in an effort to find the dog.

Amy immediately showed the flyer to John Henry. They promptly contacted Stafford and invited him over for dinner. True to both men’s character, the two stayed up all night drinking while Stafford used the opportunity to plead the club’s woes to Davies.

The Beginning of a Fateful Relationship

Add of the Pub Davies gave Harry Stafford. Credit: Image: Gottfried Fuchs Blog

Nothing more than a budding friendship was established that night. Stafford did agreed to let the Davies family keep Major as long as John Henry agreed to consider investing in the club. Newton Heath was now on John Henry Davies’ radar.

Shortly after their introduction Davies gave Stafford one of his most popular pubs to manage. Davies had seen the potential in having a local football hero managing one of his pubs and again immediately reaped the benefits. Business had jumped as locals flooded in to meet the great Harry Stafford.

Though months had passed with no investment from Davies into Newton Heath.

The Story of the Man on the Bicycle

Next in this story is where our last fateful character enters the fray. The man on the bicycle.

One day, riding his horse and carriage home from work, Davies accidentally knocked over a person on a bicycle. Ever the gentleman Davies dismounted to help the man to his feet. He immediately recognized him as an accountant that worked for him named George Lawton.

Davies initially inquired as to why Lawton was in such a rush. Before letting him answer he quickly moved on to lecturing Lawton on the dangers of charging through the streets with such disregard.

When eventually allowed to respond Lawton’s reply was that he was on his way to the Bank Street grounds to watch Newton Heath play. For the first time in his life, he was running late for a match. He never missed a match and had no intention of doing so on that day.

Davies was impressed with his colleague’s passion and drive, so he helped dust him down and wished him luck. George was immediately on his way, broken bicycle slung over one shoulder and haversack over the other.

Newton Heath Shuts it’s Gates Again

Little did he know that he would miss the game anyway. When Lawton arrived at Bank Street, he found the grounds yet again closed. Creditors had sent representatives to collect the gate receipts and cancel the game.

As luck would have it George Lawton was also a friend of Harry Stafford. Upon arriving to such a disappointment, he immediately tracked Stafford down to find out what had happened.

Stafford explained that the club’s debts had been called in. Yet again Newton Heath appeared to be on their last leg.

The two men commiserated for a moment before realizing that they had both befriended the same wealthy beer magnate. A Mister John Henry Davies. The two men left Bank Street in a huff. They were headed straight for Davies’ estate in Cheshire.

That’s the same Cheshire where current day Manchester United players purchase their sprawling private estates.

Another Chapter in Manchester United History Begins

What happened next would redirect the club’s history completely. Stay tuned for part two of this series on John Henry Davies.  Next, we discover how Davies single handedly pulled Newton Heath back from the breach and lifted them to glory.

Glory, glory Man United.

The Oldham Times:
Evolution of Manchester United Badges. Credit: Image: The Oldham Times
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About Keagan Priest McNicol 26 Articles
My Name is Keagan. I am a lifelong fan of the Red Devils and the beautiful game. My favorite things in the world are my family and friends, Manchester United, good food, the great outdoors, sarcasm and tennis. Green and gold until the club is sold.

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