With Remembrance Sunday this weekend, Tom Wright profiles the life and career of Bobby Atherton, a former Hibernian player who made the supreme sacrifice during the First World War.
Almost one hundred years ago, Robert ‘Bobby’ Atherton became one of almost a dozen either current or former Hibernian players to lose their lives during the First World War. Another player would die of natural causes soon after enlisting.
Despite Atherton being born in Bethesda in Wales on 29th July 1876, only a few months after the formation of Hibernian, he would spend his early years and young adult life in Scotland. After a brief spell with Dalry Primrose, he would move on to Hearts although he does not appear to have made any league appearances for the Tynecastle side before signing for Hibernian during the 1897/98 season.
Bobby Atherton (centre)
A versatile player who was equally comfortable on either side of the forward line or at wing half, Atherton would make five league appearances during his first season as the Leith side finished third in a ten-team league. A prolific goal scorer, he would soon claim a regular first team place at Easter Road and won his first full cap when lining up at inside right for Wales in a 1-0 defeat by Ireland in Belfast in 1899. In doing so, he became the first Hibernian player to be capped for a country other than Scotland.
It would be the first of nine appearances Atherton would make for the country of his birth, appearing five times while at Hibernian. Incredibly, he would never finish on the winning side in a national team shirt, with Wales losing on six occasions and drawing the other three. He did manage to score against Scotland in a 1-1 draw at Dens Park in 1904. His only other international goal would come during a 2-2 draw with Ireland in Belfast the following year, in what would turn out to be his last appearance for Wales.
As Club Captain, Atherton would lead Hibernian to victory in the Scottish Cup Final when they defeated Celtic 1-0 at Parkhead in 1902. That same season, he would also guide the Club to success in the Glasgow Cup Final, again defeating Celtic by a more convincing 6-2 scoreline. In the Scottish Cup Final, Atherton had a prominent part to play in the winning goal after his clever ‘dummy’ from a corner had allowed Andy McGeachan to score the goal that would bring the coveted trophy to Easter Road for a second time.
A PROLIFIC GOAL SCORER, HE WOULD CLAIM A REGULAR FIRST TEAM PLACE AT EASTER ROAD AND WON HIS FIRST FULL CAP WHEN LINING UP AT INSIDE RIGHT FOR WALES IN A 1-0 DEFEAT BY IRELAND IN BELFAST IN 1899. IN DOING SO, HE BECAME THE FIRST HIBERNIAN PLAYER TO BE CAPPED FOR A COUNTRY OTHER THAN SCOTLAND.
The following season, Hibernian would become League Champions for the very first time, six points ahead of their nearest challengers Dundee. The team would only lose once in a twelve-team league to become, at the time, the most successful side in the Club’s history. Atherton again played a prominent part in the tremendous achievement.
An extract from an article written around the time of the 1902 Scottish Cup final, with the author unknown, describes Atherton as, ‘Standing 5’6” in height and weighing 10 stone four ounces, the Welsh international is also captain of Hibs and more than deserves the honour. Now in his fifth season with the Edinburgh Club, he is a versatile player capable of playing on either side, either up front or at wing half. A great Hibs captain, the disciplined Atherton is extremely fast with dynamite in both feet.’
As perhaps could be expected, Hibernian’s League Championship success had attracted the attention of several of the top English sides of the day. Bobby was one of four of the title winning side to move south at the end of the season, in his case to First Division side Middlesbrough. Hibernian had faced the Teesside club in a friendly match at Easter Road only a few weeks before and Bobby’s impressive performance in the Edinburgh sides 4-1 victory had probably convinced Middlesbrough to make a bid for the player.
While at Ayresome Park, Atherton would make a further four appearances for Wales to become the first ever Middlesbrough player to gain international honours. During his two seasons in the north of England, he would score 12 goals from 59 appearances before being transferred in 1905 to the recently formed Chelsea, who had just been accepted into the second tier of the Football League.
After retiring from the game, Atherton would spend a short period as manager of the Market Hotel on Lynn Street in West Hartlepool. In its day, Lynne Street was one of the main streets in the town but today it contains many demolished buildings. The Hibernian Historical Trust believes that The Market Hotel still stands today as a listed building.
Atherton would move back to Edinburgh, settling in Elgin terrace only a few hundred yards from the Hibernian Easter Road ground.
The now run down Market Hotel on Lynne Street in Hartlepool
Sadly, Bobby Atherton would become one of several former Easter Road players to make the supreme sacrifice during the Great War, one of almost 15,000 merchant seamen to lose their lives during the conflict. In October 1917 while serving as an assistant steward on board the 765 ton Leith registered armed merchant ship, the Britannia, travelling between Middlesbrough and San-Malo in France with a cargo of Pig Iron, the ship was reported as missing with all hands in the English Channel after either hitting a mine, or having been sunk by submarine action. The absence of survivors suggested that it had all happened very quickly, the 41-year-old Atherton was one of the 22 drowned in the incident, including the captain of the vessel.
Some years later, the ship would be discovered lying in almost 50 metres of water just off Portland Bill in the English Channel. Now the ship is believed to have been sunk by a torpedo fired from the German submarine UC75.
Atherton is one of almost 36,000 men and woman of the Merchant Navy who lost their lives in both World Wars that have no known grave, the individuals now commemorated on the Tower Hill monument in London.
Between 1897 and 1903, Bobby Atherton made 75 league appearances for Hibernian, scoring 25 goals with many more in cup fixtures and other games.
Written by Tom Wright