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Remembering The Guvnor: Harry Curtis

30 January 2016

Remembering Brentford legend Harry Curtis, who died 50 years ago this month.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of former Secretary-Manager Harry Curtis. He is arguably the most important figure in the Club’s history and Brentford's matchday programme - Bees Review -looked back at his career in football. Over the course of his 23-year tenure as Secretary-Manager, Brentford rose from the bottom reaches of the Third Division South to the top tier of English football in nine years.

He was born Henry Charles Curtis on 22 January 1890, son of Thomas William and Annie Elizabeth. His baptism records show that he was living at 101 Grove Road in Holloway and that his father’s occupation was a time keeper.

Harry had two brothers and two sisters, and was the youngest in the family. Sadly, Harry’s father died just months after he was born. The next trace of Harry’s life can be found in Walthamstow in the 1901 census. Annie had by then re-married and taken her three sons with her. Harry married Getrude Shilton in 1915, and later in the year their first son, Ronald, was born. It is said around this time Harry was playing for amateur sides Romford and latterly Walthamstow Grange.

He then was appointed secretary for the bizarrely-named amateur side Gnome Athletic. They were the works team of Peter Hooker Limited, which manufactured engines in conjunction with the French Gnôme and Le Rhône Engine Company.

Another son, Gordon, was born in 1921, as it was his picture that would adorn the cover of the Brentford programme from the mid to late 1940s. Harry then become a Football League referee after taking up the whistle during the First World War. On 11 February 1922 he then wrote himself into Brentford history before his arrival at Griffin Park, as he sent off Bees defender Alf Capper against Newport County, the first in the Club’s history to be dismissed in a league match.

Luck would play a part in Harry’s entry into football management. Due to referee a Swansea Town (as they were known) match at The Vetch in 1923, he missed the 8.45am train to Swansea from Paddington due to a broken down train on the underground. Harry subsequently headed over to Gillingham to watch a match and enquired about the vacant managerial role. He was interviewed and then offered the post. Over three years at Priestfield, Gillingham made steady progress, finishing 15th, 13th and tenth in Southern Section of the Third Division.

In the second half of the 1925/26 season, Harry went to see Brentford play Southend in a midweek game at Roots Hall and bumped into F.W. Barton, a Bees director, and joked whether or not they needed a good manager. Brentford took his proposition seriously and subsequently interviewed him in the Princess Royal public house - then the Club’s headquarters - for the Secretary-Manager’s post.

He was awarded the role on a 12 month contract, with the task of lifting a club that had struggled since its election to the Football League to find any sort of form. His first season at Griffin Park saw cup success, reaching the FA Cup Fifth Round proper for the first time in the Club’s history. A new stand was built in 1927, but an improvement in league form would elude him until 1929. 

The signing of Scottish centre-half Jimmy Bain in late 1928 laid the foundations for a successful 1929/30 season, which saw the Club win every single home league match, still an English record to this day. Poor away form meant that Brentford would not be promoted that season.

The thin moustache above his top lip, worn for most of his life, was shorn in the early 1930s due its similarity with Adolph Hitler, who by then was causing concern across Europe. By this time he had been nicknamed ‘The Guvnor’ – he was by then the heartbeat of Griffin Park.

In May 1932, he signed Jack Holliday, Bert Watson and Billy Scott for a total of £1,500, which must be considered the best transfer deal in the Club’s history. The three players gave great service to the Club over the next decade. Brentford romped home to the Third Division South title the next season and would at last be in the top two tiers of English football.

The Club would then run close for another automatic promotion the season after, but eventually finished fourth. The next season [1934/35] would see Brentford Second Division Champions, and within nine years, Curtis had led Brentford to the top flight in English football.

In February 1936 he signed a new five year contract, and three months later the Club finished fifth in Division One, a record that has never been bettered. After two seasons where Brentford finished in sixth place, the latter of which where they led the First Division for three months, they then flirted with relegation in 1938/39. 

The Second World War broke out in September 1939 and all domestic competitions were suspended. The war gave Harry his only cup success with Brentford in May 1942, with The Bees beating Portsmouth 2-0 in the London War Cup in front of 69,000 spectators at Wembley.

Retrospectively, the death of President Louis P. Simon in 1943 had a direct effect on the Club’s post-war history. The relationship between the two had ensured Brentford’s rise up the leagues and the Club’s immediate post-war history would see relegation in 1947. Curtis struggled to attract good new players to his ageing squad, and Brentford would be playing Second Division football for the first time in 12 years.

Looking at source material from the era, the decision for Curtis to retire in the summer of 1949 seems to be forced on him by the Brentford directors of the time. On February 16 1949, Brentford announced that forward Jackie Gibbons would be the new manager for the 1949/50 season onwards. Harry bowed out with a testimonial at Griffin Park in May 1949 after 23 years in charge. 

After a few months break from football, he took charge of Southern League Tonbridge Angels in February 1950, his last managerial post. On January 30, 1966, in 126 Southchurch Avenue, Southend-on-Sea, Harry died aged 76. His occupation on his death certificate was given as freelance journalist. 

His legacy is there for all to see, two Championships, a war cup win at Wembley, plus a stadium that grew into an arena to hold almost 40,000 spectators. His like will never be seen again and was posthumously inducted into the Brentford Hall of Fame in May 2015. 

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