Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Slatefield Boys

The Slatefield Bhoys

It’s well known that Hibernian’s Scottish Cup victory in 1887 was one of the key moments in the genesis of Celtic football club. In the early years of Scottish football, the Scottish Cup was by far the most prestigious tournament around. Even after the formation of the league, the cup was still the number one priority for any ambitious team. The victorious Hibs team brought the Cup through the crowded streets of the east end of Glasgow to the Hall of St Mary’s church amid much celebration. The Irish community of the east end were solidly behind Hibs and celebrated their victory with great enthusiasm. As the toasts were made, one Hibs official urged the Glasgow Irish community to go and do likewise and found a team of their own. The watching Brother Walfrid would have nodded in agreement. It is of course a matter of history that Hibs, so generous to the new Celtic club, were rewarded by having their best players poached and almost went out of existence.

In an age before the welfare state, the poor relied heavily on church based charity or, in the worst case scenario, the poor house. The Victorian poor house was indeed a grim place and few entered its doors without good reason. Clergymen of all stripes knew the importance of charitable work and carried out some laudable work in the slums of the great industrial cities. As the new sport of football boomed, it soon became clear that it could be used as a vehicle to raise much needed money to help the poor. Walfrid assembled his multi-talented group of associates and set them to work finding a team and building a stadium worthy of it. Within a year of Hibernian’s Cup triumph, the first Celtic Park had been built and Walfrid invited Hibs to play Cowlairs in a charity game as its inaugural fixture. The size of the crowd which showed up convinced Walfrid that football could indeed be a source of great revenue for his many charitable endeavours. The new Celtic club took their bow in May 1888 in a match against Rangers Swifts and won 5-2. The rest, as they say, is history.

Part of that first Celtic team was Tom Maley, one of Scotland’s finest athletes and brother of Celtic legend Willie Maley. Tom cared passionately about the poor and was one of the loudest voices warning Celtic that the move away from being a charity to becoming a limited company would enrich the few at the expense of the many. His was a respected voice and he stood up to the more business minded Celtic directors at AGMs and board meetings on many occasions. More pragmatic men such as John Glass saw that professionalism was coming and that if Celtic were to compete and grow then they needed to be built on a sound financial foundation. In the end Maley was voted off the board but continued to stay involved with Celtic as a shareholder, supporter and of course brother of Celtic manager, Willie Maley. He also continued to argue the case of the poor and remind the club of its founding principles.

Tom Maley was a trained school teacher as well as an excellent footballer and athlete. He took a great interest in Slatefield Industrial School for boys on the Gallowgate in Glasgow’s east end and eventually became its Superintendent. Slatefield was a refuge for street urchins, abandoned children and those deemed to be going off the rails. In Victorian Glasgow life for children in the poorer parts of town could be harsh in the extreme. Those with no family support, faced exploitation, disease and a bleak future. Schools like Slatefield offered them at least a chance of a better life. Not all the boys who attended the school went there voluntarily as the ‘Reformatory’ nature of the establishment meant discipline and hard work were the norm. The great Victorian belief in self-help and community action spurred many groups to seek to help those in the poverty stricken underclass to improve their lot. The boys at Slatefield School were given a mixture of sound education, training for work and strict discipline. For many, it helped them climb out of poverty and make a life for themselves.

The majority of boys in the school came from the large Irish-Scottish community resident in the east end and in the early days of Celtic Football Club would have known full well the importance of the club in community life. When Celtic reached the final of the Scottish Cup in 1892, they would have shared in the excitement as the big day approached. More than 40,000 fans, a huge crowd for the era, crammed into old Ibrox Stadium to see Celtic take on the establishment club of the time, Queen’s Park. The crowd was so great that they encroached onto the pitch and the game, won 1-0 by Celtic was declared a friendly. Celtic had still not claimed Scottish football’s biggest prize. The replay took place on April 9th 1892 and again a huge crowd in excess of 40,000 showed up to see if Celtic could win the Cup. This time there was no mistake as they rattled five past Queen’s Park to win their first ever Scottish cup.
The rejoicing in Glasgow’s east end took on a carnival air as bands played and thousands sporting green favours thronged the streets to see the team return to St Mary’s with the cup. Just as they had done with the Hibs team of five years earlier the whole community embraced their heroes. But this wasn’t the team from Edinburgh; this was their team; this was Celtic. Toasts were made, songs sung and a general air of celebration filled the hall of St Mary’s church till late that spring evening. No doubt the watching Brother Walfrid and his great friend Brother Dorotheus enjoyed their club’s greatest triumph as much as any fan. As darkness fell, Tom Maley slipped away taking with him the shining trophy which Celtic had won for the first time in their history that day. He travelled along the Gallowgate, no doubt passing the still celebrating supporters as he made his way to the Slatefield Industrial School. Despite the lateness of the hour, the sleepy eyed boys were delighted to see their teacher with the gleaming Scottish cup. Tom Maley said many years later…

‘Despite it being late the arrival of the cup had an effect better than any alarm bell.’

One can imagine how those young lads of so long ago gazed in amazement at the Scottish Cup as Tom Maley recounted how Celtic had beaten Queen’s Park 5-1 to win it. That connection between the club and its community has always been a vital part of Celtic’s success. Tommy Burns knew that and that is precisely why he took the Celtic team bus around the Celtic areas of the east end after the 1995 Cup Final. He wanted the fans to share the joy of victory and to know that they too had played their part. There is a link between that first cup victory in 1892 when the Slatefield boys were roused from their beds and the events of 103 years later when the fans saluted Burns, McStay and the players of that era. This was Celtic and their supporters fused as one and when they are together like that they are indeed a formidable force.

Tom Maley  (1864-1935)

Athlete, Footballer, Teacher and friend of the poor




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