Bill Cawdery's story
One of Cambridge United’s many tireless workers, Bill Cawdery, died in December 1998. His story had been told by Dave Brown in a matchday programme not long before.
I believe there can’t be too many residents or businesses of Cambridge, let alone United fans, who haven’t seen or met Bill Cawdery on his travels at least once in the past 37 years.
Although officially retired some four years ago, he continues to work two days a week and I just know he will be selling Golden Gamble tickets by the front gate as well as in the Supporters’ Club before today’s match. His wife Joy wishes he would give it all up and return full-time to her, but Bill has got selling on behalf of his beloved club in his blood.
Bill is easily one of the longest-serving members of United's staff. I believe his family’s commitment to the club continues to this day and was admirably illustrated just a few weeks ago, when a turnstile operator was urgently required for the WBA game (28 August 2001). His United-mad son Mark filled the gap.
Bill wasn’t born around here, but during the evacuation from his native Camden Town during the war, an amazing twist of fate occurred: he travelled to Longstowe with his future mother- and father-in-law. Bill commented to Joy on the evening of our interview, ‘It’s Hitler’s fault that I got married to you.'
His evacuation was short-lived, because he joined the Army (REME), ending up as his CO’s driver. Bill experienced competitive football matches in Germany, playing alongside many ex-pros, and it sealed his interest in the national game, which up to then had been dormant.
Following his demob, he thought there was only one club in Cambridge – City! He knew that clubs gave complimentary tickets for putting up posters and, while United didn’t bother to reply to his enquiry, City did. He started to watch football at Milton Road on a regular basis. However, in January 1949, one of his mates, ex-POW Dick Law, invited him to a United game. Bill's first trip to the Abbey made a lasting impression on him, and it wasn’t because of the splinters he received from the seats in the tiny stand; it was the enthusiasm, loyalty and commitment of the fans, as well as the manager, Bill Whittaker, he told me.
He was already a regular home and away fan when he joined British Railways as a signalman. He recounted an excellent story: while he was stationed at Lord’s Bridge, he would regularly, unofficially, shut the station at 2.10 on a Saturday so that he could catch the train to Cambridge and bike like hell to the Abbey in time for kick-off. Imagine Bill's surprise at one match, when he took his seat as usual, to find his stationmaster sitting behind him. Thankfully, the stationmaster never said a word.
By now, Bill was regularly hassling patrons of the stand to donate to the Floodlight Fund. He realised that he was successful and enjoyed it as well. So when the previous collector for the Cambridge Sportsmen’s Guild died, he applied to Len Selmes and got the job.
The lottery business was still tiny at that time, but Bill, by a peculiar stroke of luck, was already on board when it took off. Dudley Arliss, whom many recognise as the greatest promoter and organiser of the United Pools operation, wasn’t yet in the job. However, Dudley went to Joy and Bill’s
house to fit some three-piece suite covers, and noticed Bill’s United tie. The usual chatter about football ensued.
Dudley never forgot Bill, and on 15 October 1962 called him into the Pools office to offer him a full-time job. Bill was getting £12 a week on the railways, which Dudley increased to £15 with an additional £5 for using his own car. He took over Roy Kirk’s round and travelled as far afield as Saffron Walden to collect monies and promote tickets to new outlets.
In those early days Bill was just one of many agents, and he estimated he was personally collecting £3,000 a week while travelling 500 miles. East Anglian rivals like Ipswich and Norwich thought this was small fry, and so United’s net spread wider. At its peak, 600 to 700 agents were being used.
Although the players were not yet full-time, Bill felt that better players were being attracted to the club. Indeed, a secretary at the time said that all wages were being paid for by the lotteries, and that gate money was a bonus. Brian Caine was taken on around this time, and the U’s centre forward Phil Hayes was a regular guest for tea.
Bill remembers a worrying knock on the door at about this time – from the police. I am sure some older supporters remember the Hillman Minx draw, in which Bill was involved. Six cars were given away in the 15-week draw, which apparently was illegal, but the test case crumbled and Bill didn’t have to appear in court. The tickets, however, were still cancelled.
The appearance of the rub-off ticket in the mid-70s saw a doubling of sales overnight. However, the bigger clubs noticed and competition stiffened. Bill estimates that at one time United were collecting £11,000 or 12,000 a week. Impetus was maintained by John Carter, who introduced the 30p bingo card. Since then, commercial managers have made it a low priority. Bill thinks the U’s lottery wasn’t much affected by the introduction of the National scheme, but the ‘instants’ destroyed it.
Bill’s favourite manager was Alan Moore, and he loved watching Brian Moore and Wilf Mannion play for United. Having missed just five home games since 1949, he’s seen quite a few players, and of the present squad Matt Joseph has impressed him most.
I tried to put him on the spot about how much money he had personally collected over his career with the club, and after a lot of deliberation, he came up with – £3 million! Bill thinks the support of Joy, Mark, daughter-in-law Sarah and grandchildren Adam and Amy has made it all worthwhile. All I can say as an ordinary United fan is: ‘Thanks, Bill.’