12 May 1906: George “Gatling Gun” Hilsdon signs for Chelsea
George Hilsdon, nicknamed “Gatling Gun” after a Chelsea programme in 1906 described his shooting as “simply unstoppable and which travel like shots from a gun,” was born on 10 August 1885 in East London. He began his career at Boleyn Castle FC who West Ham took over as their reserve side when they moved into the Boleyn ground from Canning Town. This gave Hilsdon his chance to sign for West Ham, and he made a good start for his new side when he scored on his debut in February 1905. His first two seasons for the club though were to be plagued by injury and his chances to play were limited, but he still managed to scored 7 times in 16 games and attract the attention of Chelsea. He made the move across London on 12 May 1906.
Hilsdon got off to a flying start at then second division Chelsea as he scored five goals on his debut in a 9-2 win over Glossop North End. A five-goal debut has never been repeated since in English football, and it was to be over 50 years before Jimmy Greaves became the second Chelsea player to score five in a game against Wolves in 1958.
Hilsdon soon developed a reputation for having an ability to shoot fast and powerfully. One goal he scored against Leicester was described by The West London Press, “Hilsdon made a bewildering side movement which just for a second or so nonplussed the two Leicester players around him, but in that brief space Hilsdon had flashed the ball past the astounded Lewis. It was a shot without the slightest element of speculation. It was a Hilsdon goal.”
In that first season he scored 27 goals helping Chelsea get promotion to the First Division for the first time in just their second year as a professional club. Within just 3 seasons, and 99 appearances, Hilsdon had hit the net 76 times, being top scorer and scoring over 20 times in each season. His feats included scoring six goals in an FA Cup tie against Worksop Town in 1908, still a club record for the most goals scored by an individual Chelsea player in a game.
Shortly after joining Chelsea he was selected to play for a Football League XI against an Irish League XI. His hat-trick in a 6-0 win ensured that he was selected for the England side that played Ireland in February 1907, in doing so becoming the first Chelsea player to receive an England cap. For once he failed to score on a debut, as an injury picked up early in the game hindered his play. He got a second chance to impress the selectors in 1908 and he duly obliged scoring all four in a North v South trial game. He was again selected to play against Ireland this time scoring twice in a 3-1 win. He went on to play for England 8 times scoring a barely credible 14 goals, including four in a 7-0 win over Hungary on England’s first overseas tour in 1908. He scored 8 times on this tour with a further two in a 6-1 win over Austria and two in a 6-0 win over Bohemia. The Fulham Observer reported that Hilsdon was “now England’s acknowledged greatest centre-forward and had acquired an accuracy of aim probably unequalled by any great player today.”
His later years at Chelsea were blighted by injuries and a battle with alcohol. The 1909/10 season saw a poor return of goals as Chelsea were relegated. The Press began to turn against him and hinted at his drink problems. The Fulham Observer reported after one game: “Hilsdon did very little at centre-forward with the exception of the one goal he scored. Perhaps he is unable to concentrate on the game.” Another journalist claimed, “He had become too sociable, too careless with his strength and vitality.”
With Chelsea in the Second Division again he managed 19 goals in the 1910/11 season, in doing so he became the first Chelsea player to reach the 100-goal milestone. By 1912 though, he was still only 27 years of age but there was growing concern about his ability to stay fit and he was let go to return to West Ham. He left Chelsea having scored 108 times in 134 games, then a club record and a total which sees him still sitting in the top ten of Chelsea’s all-time top goalscorers.
He overcame the early doubters at West Ham and was top scorer in the 1912/13 season with 17 goals in 36 games, helping West Ham to finish third in the Southern League. Before the outbreak of World War One he scored a total of 35 goals in 92 appearances.
In 1915, despite trying to avoid being called up for the army, once being caught hiding in a chicken shed, he was sent to fight on the Western Front where he was gassed at Arras in 1917. The trauma to his lungs meant his football career was effectively over. He briefly turned out for Chatham Town after the war, scoring 14 times in six games, but eventually he was forced to call it a day.
Colm Kerrigan, author of, Hilsdon’s biography, Gatling Gun George Hilsdon, relates how after the war Hilsdon had to take a variety of jobs including work as a tea boy on a building site, and as a member of a travelling vaudeville outfit who would arrange charity football matches between the show’s cast and local outfits to raise publicity for the show. At one stage he managed to survive by organising raffles for boxes of chocolates in London’s East End pubs. There’s some doubt about the legality of this, as it appears his wife Katherine always won.
When he died on 10 September 1941, aged 56, only four people, his son, daughter, son-in law and grandson, came to his funeral and he was buried in an unmarked grave. The grave still has no headstone, but there is one monument that still exists to him and that is the weather vane at Stamford Bridge, which was modelled on him as a tribute to him in his Chelsea heyday and is still a feature of the ground.