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James M. Maxwell: the Arsenal player who “went missing” after a game in the north

This article updated at 11.20 on 13th December, clarifying the issue date of birth and death, after the original article showed inconsistencies in reports from other sites.  The details we give below are, we firmly believe, the right ones

James M Maxwell

By Andrew Beattie and Tony Attwood

James Morton Maxwell was born at Kilmarnock 26 July 1887 and was signed by Arsenal in May 1908 from Sheffield Wednesday, who had in turn got him from Kilmarnock in March 1907.  Before proceeding we should add that this information contradicts that on other sites – but we have the benefit of the birth certificate, and other details, as will become clear.

There is mention of Maxwell and on Sheffield Wednesday site, which sadly does get some of the details that we can check wrong, but the general commentary may be correct…

“The nifty winger went straight into the fist team and scored his first goal for the club against Sheffield United a month after his debut.  (Spartacus, another site that gets the basic information on the player wrong, adds that in that first season “he scored 6 goals in 27 games.”)

The Wednesday site continues…

“Competing with the great Harry Chapman for the right wing spot was always going to prove a tricky obstacle, and young Maxwell moved to Arsenal 14 months after arriving at Owlerton.”

We do know that Maxwell lived at 9, Chesnut Road, Plumstead – later to be renamed Chesnut Rise in the wholesale London street name changes of 1938 – the address recorded on his marriage licence of September, 1908 – at which time he may well have thought he was set fair as a Woolwich Arsenal man.

Maxwell however had one thing going against him from the start.  He was probably the last signing of Phil Kelso, who left after the end of the previous season, and so he played under a manager who never signed him.   George Morrell put him in the team for his first match at the start of the 1908/9 season, against Everton.   Arsenal lost 0-4 at home on 2 September 1908.

Morrell’s response was that he immediately dropped Maxwell, and one other player (Satterthwaite – who had himself only just emerged into the first team at the end of the previous season).

Sattherthwaite got another chance the following month, but Maxwell had to wait until March 27 1909 for his second, and final, appearance.  That was against Sunderland – a game which we lost 0-1 away.

Now we might well imagine that James Maxwell was pretty miffed at his treatment at Arsenal by this time, and, it appears, after the Sunderland match he upped and left back to Ayrshire. Done a moonlight flit, so to speak.

The story that has passed through the family is that this was a pre-arranged event, rather than a spur of the moment thought after the match.  The lady wife joined the player, with Maxwell himself saving a few shillings in train fare on the way north.

Next we find that on 12 January, 1912 the The Derby Daily Telegraph, and then on 16 January 1912 The Manchester Courier, carried notes about meetings of the English and Scottish League regarding claims of unpaid player transfer fees.

Specifically there is the comment that, “The transfer fee of James M. Maxwell of Woolwich Arsenal was fixed at £200.”    The Players’ Union were to take legal action on behalf of members (James Maxwell among them) and take the case to court.  Ultimately, the settlement was reduced to £50. Whether this, or any sum, was actually paid is not known.

So what was going on?

We don’t have details of the case but an important element within any such discussion or dispute between clubs and players would be the Retain and Transfer system which underpinned the whole way in which players were tied to clubs at the time.  In essence once a player had signed for a club he could only play for that club until released.   The club did not have to play him or even pay him, but he could go nowhere without release.   James Maxwell had no right under the regulations to get up and leave, and whichever club he went to play for they had no right to play him until they had reached an agreement with the club that retained his services.

Initially the Southern League was a way out for players caught by the retain and transfer system, but they were preparing to accept Retain and Transfer at the time of Maxwell’s disaffection, which meant that the obvious outlet for players who could not get release was Scotland – English clubs only holding the rights to a player in England and Wales – or smaller non-league clubs that were in a league that did not recognise Retain and Transfer.

The reason clubs did release players when they didn’t have to was that not releasing players gave clubs a negative reputation, and it made players less likely to sign for a club that had a reputation of exploiting the clause.

The mention of the Players’ Union in the story is interesting, as this shows that the Union was fighting the iniquitous position players were in as a result of Retain and Transfer.

The Union itself was banned in the early part of the century, and even when it was recognised, the relationship with the authorities was difficult.  In 1909 the FA withdrew recognition of the union and later banned players affiliated to the union – making the whole situation very fraught – and also explaining why Maxwell, and indeed many others, felt it reasonable to jump ship.

The union itself survived and by 1915 had 300 members.  That might not sound many but by that time there were only around 700 players playing regular first team football in the Football League, so in such fraught situations, it is not a bad percentage of players to have gained.

The Sheffield site that we have used to garner further information tells us that Maxwell later moved back into Scottish football but again gets the details of his death wrong confusing Maxwell the footballer with another soldier – one who died at Loos.

Or James M Maxwell was indeed killed in The Great War but not at Loos.  He signed up at Kilmarnock but he was in the Seaforth’s (the army just put recruits where there were holes in regiments and numbers to be made up) Highlanders, a lance-corporal.  He survived Loos and went to Mesopotamia, December of 1915.

James M Maxwell was killed in action against the Turks (fighting with Indian troops/Black Watch in 51 Division) in the Samarrah Offensive on 21st. April, 1917. The Battle of Istabulat took place that day. His body was not recovered and no gave is known.  He is commemorated on the bruised and now battered Basra Memorial which yet stands near Nasiriya, Iraq.

He is also commemorated on Kilmarnock War Memorial which It bears the names of three Maxwell’s. There is only one James Maxwell – he is noted as “Seaforth’s”.  Thus we know that the James Maxwell killed at Loos did not come from Kilmarnock. There was a Thomas Maxwell died serving with the R.S.F. but not a James.

So this is “our” James M Maxwell, born 26 July 1887 died 21 April 1917.  He left a wife and two children.

We would love to have more information on James Maxwell, who appears to have been a colourful character, and most certainly a man who served his country with honour and who should not be forgotten.  If you have any information please do write in.   And if by any chance you can find a picture of him, please do let us know.

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1 comment to James M. Maxwell: the Arsenal player who “went missing” after a game in the north

  • Andrew Beattie

    Discovered yesterday that the “L/Cpl James Maxwell” named on the village War Memorial in Dundonald, Ayrshire, is also referring to our man. Maxwell’s wife and children moved to Dundonald when he enlisted to be near her relations.
    That’s him listed on three memorials altogether – Basra, Kilmarnock, Dundonald.

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