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Harry Dolman OBE - A Tribute

It is 40 years ago today that Harry Dolman, the club's former chairman and president, sadly passed away.

Local football writer and WellRed columnist Steve Smith has penned a tribute the late great, who was often dubbed "Mr Bristol City".

HARRY DOLMAN - A TRIBUTE

August 9th 1897 - November 9th 1977

Maybe it was destiny, but when Bristol City changed their name from Bristol South End in 1897, a boy was born in Langley Burrell, a small village near Chippenham, Wiltshire. His name was Henry James ‘Harry’ Dolman, and through his passion for the game and sheer perseverance he was to play a monumental part in the club’s post-war history; from third-tier football to the top-flight of English soccer.

It was the norm back then to have large families and the Dolmans were no different and Harry was one of seven children. Upon leaving school at 14 he served an apprenticeship in an agricultural firm, earning a shilling (5p) a week.

When Lord Kitchener pointed the finger at the young men of this land to fight in the Great War in 1914, Harry joined the Wiltshire Yeomanry serving on the Somme and at Ypres. He later transferred to the newly-formed Royal Air Force in 1918.

Harry Dolman at the age of 16, a member of the village side at Yatton Keynall

When this bitter global conflict ended in 1918 he moved to Bristol where he spent 18 months at the Merchant Venturers’ Technical College. This put him in good standing when he later joined the Bristol firm of Brecknell, Munro & Rogers as a Junior Draughtsman in 1921.

In the ever-changing world Harry realised that the introduction of certain types of machines could make daily life run a bit more smoothly and, perhaps, more efficient. Some of his early designs that came off the drawing board and into production included a ticket machine that would gave change for the London Underground, food vending machines and machinery for Bristol’s tobacco factories. Clearly his eye for innovation would bear fruit at Ashton Gate some 50 years into the future.

His rise within the company was swift. By 1928 at the age of 31, Harry was made a director of the firm and he soon took the calculated risk to take over the firm – it paid off. The company thrived and his wealth grew and soon it was trading as Brecknell, Dolman & Rogers. He never looked back.

When Harry wasn’t putting his thoughts to paper he pursued his other great passion – football. He played locally for Yatton Keynell as a striker and also for Brecknell’s work’s team, so keen was he to be part of the game. And when he wasn’t playing, he was officiating as he turned his hand to officiating in the Suburban League as a Class One referee.

Bob Wright, left, is welcomed to Bristol City by Harry Dolman in April 1949

With his first home in Bristol being close to Eastville, Harry soon took to following Bristol Rovers and at one time had two season tickets to watch the Pirates. His business in Pennywell Road was also close to the Rovers’ ground in Eastville.

With his enthusiasm still at a high regarding football, Harry had thoughts of becoming a director and with Rovers being in close proximity, it would be natural to join his local club. But after attending two Board meetings in 1938 he became a little disillusioned with the whole affair as most of the talk regarded Rovers selling Eastville to the Greyhound Company who also used it; he considered this a backward step.

After one of those meetings Harry had a long talk with former Bristol Rovers manager Captain Arthur Prince Cox (1930-36) and took his suggestion: “Take my advice, join Bristol City, not Bristol Rovers. They have more ambition,” he said. So with a telephone call to City chairman George Jenkins, explaining the situation, the trio met at the Greenbank Tavern, a public house run by Jenkins, and Harry was soon elected as a director at Ashton Gate.

However, Harry’s time as a City director had a stuttering start. Immediately after the third league match was played on September 2nd 1939 (versus Brighton Hove Albion, 3-3, at Ashton Gate) war was declared and so football was closed down for the next six years.

Harry Dolman and his next City manager, Pat Beasley

One of Harry’s first transfers in the game concerned a young centre-forward who would go on to make a name for himself at Chelsea and England; Roy Bentley. The local lad was only 18 at the time and wanted by First Division Newcastle United, who were offering £8,000. But Jenkins’ valuation was another £500 on top. Unable to agree, the pair spun a coin and Jenkins called wrong, according to United manager Stan Seymour.

In that first full league season after WWII (1946/47) City finished in third place in Division Three (South). Had it not been for the sale of Bentley, Harry was convinced City would have finished in top spot and gained promotion. But the deal had been done and dusted by the chairman and before long there was a vote of no confidence in Jenkins and he left the Board.

It was agreed that Dolman should take over as chairman for 12 months and then hand over to Arthur Sperring. Sadly, Sperring passed away and so Harry was elected chairman of the Board on March 23rd 1949, a position he would hold for the next 25 years.

His dream of securing top-flight football at Ashton Gate would require two promotions and so his first job as chairman was to recruit a new manager. Several names were suggested; Bill Dodgin at Southampton and Arthur Rowe at Chelmsford were just two, the latter going on to produce the famous “push and run” style of play at Tottenham Hotspur that would bring them the “Double” in 1960/61.

Number one on Harry’s list was Peter Doherty, a Northern Ireland international who had won a League Championship winners’ medal with Manchester City in 1936/37. As a player-manager, it was hoped that his knowledge of the game that brought 16 caps would benefit the club. He did become player-manager - of Doncaster Rovers.

City escape the clutches of third tier for the first time since the 1920s by landing the 1954/55 Third Division South title

The man chosen to lead the club out of the Southern section of Division Three was Bob Wright, the assistant manager at Charlton Athletic in Division One. With a yearly wage of £850, Bob was told he would be given a free hand in securing promotion. Long before the last ball was kicked at the end of his first season (1949/50) City were nowhere near where Dolman thought they should be, finishing in 15th place. To rub salt into a gaping wound, Doncaster won Division Three (North), where player-manager Doherty scored 26 of his side’s 66 goals.

By the summer of 1950 Dolman was looking for a new manager when Wright resigned, citing he was not given the free hand he was promised. He became a publican of the White Hart in Lower Maudlin Street and went on to help former Charlton Athletic colleague Bert Tann over at Bristol Rovers.

The search for manager number two came in the shape of Pat Beasley, in a player-manager roll. Beasley had two league titles to his name from his Arsenal days (1933/34 & 1934/35) and an FA Cup runners-up medal in 1937/38 when Huddersfield Town lost to Preston North End.

Beasley left Fulham in July 1950 and signed a five-year contract at the age of 38, retiring from playing when he reached 40. By then his wages escalated from £12 a week as a player to £1,250 a year for his final three years as a manager. Under his leadership, Beasley’s team began to show all the makings of something big. But it would take the signing of one footballer to take City to that next level Dolman dreamed of: Peter Walter John Atyeo.

Fred Ford (third right) is welcomed to Bristol City by the Board of Directors in the summer of 1960. They are, left to right: Bill Garland, Norman Jones, Harry Dolman, Syd Hawkins (Secretary) and Arthur Amor

In June 1951 Harry Dolman made a trip back to Wiltshire and dropped in at Dilton Marsh, near Warminster. There he had an appointment with Walter Atyeo, father of 19-year-old John who was about to be offered professional papers with his club Portsmouth. So desperate was Harry in securing the services of John, he had drawn up a lengthy contract with several guarantees, including a £100 donation to his amateur club Westbury United and a friendly match to be played at the end of the season.

Six days later, on June 14th, Atyeo became a Bristol City footballer on £12 per week, with £10 signing-on fee. He was also to stay living at home and attend training on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Football League however threw out the clause of not putting John on the transfer list without his father’s consent. Atyeo would stay at Ashton Gate throughout his professional career, where he became the club's all-time leading scorer and record appearance maker (until recently overtaken by Louis Carey).

With team matters very much in hand, Dolman looked towards his Ashton Gate ground with thoughts of improvements. He noticed that around the country several clubs were installing a floodlight system so that matches could be played on evenings in midweek. So it was off to the drawing board where he designed and manufactured the club’s first set of floodlights at his Pennywell Road factory. Costing £3,500 for lighting that wasn’t accepted by the Football League for their matches, they were switched on in a friendly game with floodlight mavericks Wolverhampton Wanderers on January 27th 1953.

Although City lost 4-2, the crowd of 24,008 saw Ashton Gate lit up with a superb performance from eventual champions Wolves. These series of 40-foot poles, seven on each side of the pitch, each containing a cluster of three lamps spaced out at 45ft intervals, had their light finally extinguished in 1964/65.

The 1975/76 promotion-winning squad, led by Alan Dicks

Up until the start of the 1958/59 season with the formation of Division Three and Four, the only way to escape the old regional North and South sections of Div 3 of the Football League was to finish the campaign as champions. Having seen their rivals Bristol Rovers achieve this in 1952/53, Beasley, in the last year of his initial five-year deal, finally delivered the goods of promotion to Division Two when his Robins side won the Southern section at a canter with 70 points, nine ahead of runners-up Leyton Orient and equalling Nottingham Forest’s record from the same division in 1950/51. Amongst the 101 league goals netted, the top honour went to John Atyeo with 28, followed by Jimmy Rogers on 25; Arnold Rodgers with 13 and Jack Boxley with 11.

Getting to a higher level is one thing; staying there is another. With the side showing little progress up the division over the next couple of seasons, Beasley was paid off with three months' wages and sacked on January 7th 1958. The search was on again for another boss.

This is where the name of Peter Doherty pops up again, who was a personal choice of Dolman’s eight years before. After the caretaker appointments of former Charlton Athletic boss Jimmy Seed for a couple of weeks and then physiotherapist Les Bardsley, Doherty became the next man charged with getting City into the top-flight when he signed a three-year deal on January 28th 1958.

With Doherty came baggage of sorts and a rift in the dressing room could almost be seen out on the pitch on matchdays; those who wanted to play Doherty’s way, and those who didn’t.

There was a poor run of form and even a player revolt when, just prior to the start of the 1959/60 season Tommy Burden, Mike Thresher and Atyeo refused to re-sign under the old retain and transfer system unless they were paid their promised £20 in the winter, £17 in the summer wages. Dolman, being a man of his word when promotion was gained, met the player’s agreement.

Doherty was trying to run two ships at this time; he was in charge of the Northern Ireland national side, but relinquished his position there to concentrate on things at Ashton Gate. But finally on March 15th 1960, following a 5-1 defeat at Brighton, the axe fell on the flame-haired Irishman.

He left the club heading back towards the Third Division, a fate that was met at the end of the season when they finished bottom on 27 points. Dolman was now faced with the prospect of a new manager and a rebuilding process for a club that was in debt to the tune of £55,000.

Harry was recovering from an operation at St Mary’s Hospital in Clifton while a Board meeting in May 1960 was taking place. Dolman’s plan for survival was straightforward: he would release 24,424 four-shilling shares (20p) of Brecknell, Dolman and Rogers which would wipe out the club’s debt and ask for the resignations of George Jones and The Rev. Vyvyan-Jones from the Board. When the latter was done, Harry implemented the former and the club was safe.

Harry stands proudly beside his creation – The Dolman Stand, along with its manager, Alan Cox

From a shortlist of 60 potential candidates for the manager’s job at Ashton Gate, it was to the assistant manager at Bristol Rovers that Dolman turned to. That man was Fred Ford, who had initially turned down the role, only to be talked into it by Les Bardsley and coach Bill Harvey at a coaching course at the FA’s training centre at Lillishaw. Fred signed a three-year contract in mid-July on £2,000 a year and was able to bring calm back to an unsteady ship.

When Harry celebrated 25 years as chairman of Bristol City, he revealed in the Green’Un on February 8th 1964 of what he believed the next quarter-century would hold for the club:

“Bristol is a big enough place to justify top football. The potential is here. I feel that if the people of Bristol want top-class football they must be prepared to achieve this objective by supporting football now.

“If I could be sure of 30,000 ‘gates’ each week for the next five years I would be prepared to lend the club a very large amount of money tomorrow,” he said.

Those ‘gates’ never even got close to that figure, perhaps a reflection on the Bristol footballing public. Their promotion season from Division Three in 1964/65 had an average Ashton Gate crowd of 12,194, while the following campaign brought 17,297.

Under the Dolman Stand were several bowling greens that provide another source of income for the club

It was that promotion at the end of 1964/65 that brought out the sheer delight of a chairman who had ridden some choppy waters of late. So pleased was he with his club’s achievement under Fred Ford that he voiced his happiness once again in the local paper by declaring: “Our aim now is a place in the First Division."

Dolman added: “Words cannot describe my delight and joy on this momentous occasion. This is something I have been longing for since that grey day five years ago when we were relegated."

He was quick to praise his manager too, for he stated that with a free hand he had made some decisions that did not go down well with supporters, but still Dolman had complete faith in a manager who was “one of the straightest and most charming of fellows one could wish to meet".

With the return to second tier football in 1965 came the next set of floodlights to Ashton Gate. Southern League side Burton Albion paid £2,000 for City’s old lights on poles, and in their place rose four 160-foot pylons, one in each corner, at a cost of £27,000.

As before, Wolves were again under the floodlights for the first ‘switch-on’ but this time for a Division Two match on December 28th 1965 before a crowd of 36,183, winning 1-0 and so halting City’s run of 20 games unbeaten at home.

By the end of the 1965/66 Bristol City faced up to the fact that John Atyeo would no longer be leading the attack. He announced his retirement earlier in the season having gained the necessary qualifications to become a Maths and PE teacher following a two-year course at Redland Training College in Bristol.

In the spring of 1967 Harry Dolman announced that with all probability a new stand to replace the old Number Two Stand that had been demolished the previous year.

Mr Dolman stated in the Green’Un on March 11th: “The plan at the moment is to build the stand with just 5,000 seats. The development of buildings and offices beneath the stand would have to wait until money is available.”

With plans locked away in a safe for over a decade, it was estimated the new structure, which would have no supporting pillars at the front holding the roof up, would cost £50,000. The figure when it was finally finished was £235,000 with 4,500 seats. But with an indoor bowls arena bringing in £12,000 a year, it was a good investment at a time when buying players was a necessity.

Financially it was a huge gamble for a Second Division club operating on average home gates of 15,463 (1968/69) to 16,274 (1969/70). To make ends meet Harry sold all 16 houses owned by the club and asked for pledges of £3,000 each from the FA, various companies and individuals.

The financial burden was aided a little with the sale of two players: Bobby Kellard, a £38,000 purchase from Portsmouth in 1968, who moved on to Leicester City in August 1970 for £50,000 and local boy Chris Garland was signed by Division One side Chelsea for £100,000.

“Mr. Bristol City” sits at his desk with a photograph of his wife, Marina Dolman, in the background

It wasn’t until the start of the 1970/71 season that the Dolman Stand was finally open but by then Fred Ford was no longer in charge, having been dismissed on September 19th 1968 after a poor start to the season had brought just 3 points from the first 8 League matches (equivalent of 24 points from eight matches today) besides suffering a 5-0 home defeat in the League Cup to Everton.

The sixth manager to be appointed by Harry was Alan Dicks, who was announced on October 5th 1967, with a three-year contract worth £4,000 a year. There would be an added bonus of £1,000 to halt a possible slide towards Division Three.

Like Ford and Beasley before him, Dicks was given time, which on the surface for the 33-year-old former assistant manager to Jimmy Hill at Coventry City for the last six years, was surprising to say the least. But all his experience gleaned from Highfield Road, coupled with his gaining his FA Coaching badge in his early 20s, it wasn’t surprising that not only did this Londoner take City to the promised land of the top flight, he held on to the helm at Ashton Gate for 13 seasons. But it was not without one or two close calls for his dismissal.

By the time the First Division welcomed Geoff Merrick, Tom Ritchie et al out in the glorious sunshine on August 21st 1976 at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium, Harry was no longer the club chairman.

Just prior to taking his annual winter break in Barbados, as the side lost 2-0 to Orient on New Year's Day 1974, Harry left written instructions to fellow Board members that money must be put in by them to secure the financial future of the club. He also added he was against giving Dicks more than a one-year contract. If this didn’t happen, he would resign.

By the time City beat Leeds United in the fifth round replay of the FA Cup at Elland Road through a Donnie Gillies goal, Dolman was back. But the celebrations were short-lived; the Board had accepted his resignation and lifelong Bristol City supporter Robert Hobbs, the self-made quarry owning millionaire, was now installed as the new chairman. For Harry the position of becoming the club’s first president ranked alongside his award of receiving the OBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for services to export.

Harry lived long enough to see the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal all play First Division football (now the Premier League) at Ashton Gate. His smile was as wide as the Avon Gorge on the front cover of the Evening Post special ‘Division One – Here we come’ along with manager Alan Dicks.

Just months after celebrating his 80th birthday, on Wednesday, November 9th, Harry passed away. But his legacy, from finance, floodlights and futuristic designs like the stand that bears his name lives on.

So remember the year 1897 for two reasons: The start of Bristol City and the birth of a man who changed the club forever.

WITH THANKS

Nothing has been added to this feature from any website on the internet. All the relative information and more can be found in the titles mentioned here.
Bristol City – The Complete Record by David Woods
Bristol City – The First 100 Years by David Woods
Bristol City – The Complete History of the Club by Peter Godsiff
Bristol City – The Story of 75 Years in the Football League by Bruce Perry
Atyeo – The Hero Next Door by Tom Hopegood, with John Hudson
The Football Grounds of Great Britain by Simon Inglis
The Green’Un – various copies
The Football League Review