History

Long Read: Chelsea in the time of Spanish ‘Flu – part two

Yesterday in this two-part series, club historian Rick Glanvill told the story of the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920 and its impact on Chelsea Football Club. Today the tale focuses on one player in particular…

Part two: The story of Angus Douglas, Chelsea’s ‘young Scotsman, fleet of foot’

The pandemic of 1918-20, known as Spanish ’Flu or the Blue Death, differed drastically from the present day’s COVID-19. The current virus, as we know, is most threatening to the elderly and those with underlying health problems. In contrast, a century ago older members of the population were more likely to be spared by the infection, which preyed disproportionately on those aged 25 to 30 years of age.

Perhaps surprisingly then, only a handful of active or former footballers were recorded among the estimated 228,000 claimed by the influenza strain. Sadly, the most famous victim was a 29-year-old Scotland international who had risen to fame a decade earlier as a teenage winger at Stamford Bridge: Angus Douglas.
 

By unhappy coincidence Angus died on 14 December 1918 just two weeks after Johnnie Pattinson of Gainsborough Trinity, another of the few footballers reported to have succumbed to the epidemic, which was then at its peak.

On Christmas Eve 1910 the two wingers had opposed each other at the Bridge with the Pensioners winning 3-0 and the hosts’ ‘young Scotsman, fleet of foot’ among the goalscorers. Eight years later they would be reunited on a tragic and now forgotten roll of honour.

That goal by Angus against Gainsborough was also noteworthy – across five seasons at the Bridge from 1908 to 1913, the young Scot netted just 10 times in 103 appearances.

Born in Lochmaben, Dumfries, on New Year’s Day 1889, Angus’s reputation as a game-changer preceded his joining Chelsea from Dumfries in May 1908. He had been a teenage prodigy at his hometown club, but his performances were all about loading the bullets rather than firing them.

As well as possessing great speed, Athletic News enthusiastically reported in August 1908 that the new signing’s ‘conception of his duties is clear and well-defined, as he demonstrated last year.’

He was 19 years of age, 5ft 8½ tall, weighed 10st 10lb, and the Chelsea of ‘Gatling Gun George’ Hilsdon fame beat off competition for his signature from Everton and Bolton. He was exactly the kind of crowd-pleaser who could keep the turnstiles spinning at a stadium that had been extended to accommodate a further 10,000 spectators that summer

The ‘fast and brilliant outside-right’ made his debut alongside England stars Hilsdon, Ben Warren, and Jimmy Windridge against Preston on 1 September 1908, and afterwards contested the right-wing slot with Billy Brawn.

By 1910/11 the youngster was ascendant, wowing crowds at the Bridge and an ever-present in the FA Cup as the Londoners reached the semi-finals for the first time. It was already noted that ‘his one weakness is a marked disinclination to shoot,’ however. Instead, the flanker would dart towards the corner flag and cross or, more usually, cut the ball back for a centre-forward such as Hilsdon’s successor Bob Whittingham to spank home.

Thus armed by his wing-mate, Whittingham fired the 26 goals that powered David Calderhead’s team back to the top flight during the 1911/12 season. Angus’s fine work was rewarded with a Scotland cap, but as the following season in Division One unfolded he slipped down the pecking order. Nevertheless when he was sold to Newcastle for a shade under £2,000 in November 1913 it was described as a ‘great capture’ for the Magpies, and north-east reporters soon reckoned he was showing his best form before war intervened.
 

By the time war brought a halt to the regular Football League in May 1915, Angus had become a crowd favourite and, at 26, was barely into his prime years. It is not clear whether he continued to figure for the Geordies in the regionalised football played up to 1919. But the Great War was hungry for munitions and the winger found work as a shell machinist at the Elswick Ordnance Company (later part of Armstrong-Vickers) on the banks of the Tyne, the other side of town from his Gosforth home. The work with heavy machinery was hard, and he lost a finger, not in an accident but from blood poisoning, so his role had to be downgraded.

This was an unhappy time all round: Angus’s mother had died back home in Lochmaben in February 1914, and his father soon followed in August 1916. He found solace in the company of local girl Nancy Thompson, who was seeking refuge from a physically abusive marriage. She had had her application for a divorce struck out in 1917, but on 3 April 1918 Betty Douglas was born, and for the purpose of the baby’s birth certificate her parents, Nancy and Angus, pretended they were married.

Any family bliss was short-lived, unfortunately. In early December, disaster struck as the young couple both went down with Spanish ’flu, confining them to bed in separate rooms. Angus’s uncle James Beck answered an emergency call to come down from Scotland to help out and kept a bedside vigil. After 10 days’ sickness Nancy, just 25, died of pneumonia on 11 December and Angus, who looked like he would recover, succumbed likewise three days later – leaving infant Betty orphaned at just eight months old. Here the story thankfully takes a happier turn. Raised by a maternal aunt on the Northumberland coast, Betty married in 1935 and died in 1991 aged 73. She has generations of descendants still living in the north-east who are immensely proud of her Chelsea footballer dad.

As to Angus, quite apart from being a key figure in the Pensioners’ first ever semi-final and second promotion, perhaps his greatest legacy in football was that his move to Newcastle in 1913 oiled the wheels to allow Nils Middelboe, the ‘great Dane’, to escape his commitment to the Magpies and start his famous career in west London the same week.
 

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