It’s sad that the name Frank Pettit will probably mean little to most Cambridge United fans. Frank was Treasurer of Abbey United from 1930 until 1950, served as Chairman during the war years and held numerous other roles at the club. He even turned out for the reserves now and again. But that doesn’t tell half of Frank’s story, and all he did for the club.
Frank worked at Watson’s Timber Yard in Newmarket Road which, crucially, was a war time ‘reserved occupation’ and meant that he didn’t have to join the armed forces at the outbreak of war. During this time Frank kept the football club going pretty much single handed. Without Frank the club would almost certainly have folded and the ground would have been lost.
The story is a fascinating one:
The land for what is now the Abbey Stadium was bought by the club’s then President, Henry C Francis, in 1931. He fenced off the ground and even built a small stand, accommodating around 400 spectators. When Francis died, in 1939, Frank Pettit and other officers of the club were summoned to meet his solicitor. They were told that Francis had left the ground in trust to the Mayor of Cambridge, the Vicar of Fen Ditton and the District Nursing Association, to be used for football … and grazing. That’s how the grass was cut in those days!
However, the lease stipulated that if the land was ever to no longer be used for football, then it should be sold and the proceeds given to the Evelyn Nursing Home. During the war, if the ground had been unused there was also a good chance it would have been requisitioned for military use.
It was crucial, therefore, if the club was to survive the war, that football should continue to be played on Newmarket Road. The club was, essentially, in Frank’s hands. With most of United’s players and staff having been called up, Frank invited all and sundry to the ground for trials. He set about arranging friendly matches, with the United sides comprised of local youths, players and ex-players home on leave, and locally-posted servicemen. The opposition were, in the main, local army and RAF sides. Frank wrote match reports for the local press, but he was forbidden to name the opponents so as not to alert the Germans that so many armed forces personnel were based around Cambridge! Other sides were also allowed to play on the ground, with Frank sometimes refereeing.
Thanks to Frank’s tireless work the club and the ground survived the war and, come 1945, was able to rejoin the Cambs League and begin its inexorable rise up the English football ladder.
In a wonderful interview for Radio Coconuts Frank tells the story of his part in Abbey United joining the United Counties League in 1948. A lorry driver at Watson’s Yard mentioned to Frank that the UCL was looking for new members and asked him if United would be interesting in joining. Frank raised it with the Committee, United duly applied and were accepted, stepping up into a semi-professional league for the first time.
He also tells of the role he played in United’s election to the Football League in 1970. The United chairman at the time, Jack Wooley, never used to wear a tie, so he would always borrow Frank’s on his visits to League clubs as he toured the country to state United’s case. As we know, those visits played a huge role in persuading League chairmen that the U’s were a highly professional club and ready for League football.
Thanks to Paul Daw’s research it's now widely accepted that Abbey United was formed in 1912, but Frank had a key role in establishing this. Frank was able to authenticate for Paul a receipt made out on Abbey United headed paper that states ‘Founded 1912’. Frank recognised, and confirmed the names of, the club officials named on the document. Once again, United fans owed a huge debt of thanks to Frank Pettit.
Frank passed away in 1993. Hopefully now many more U’s fans will be aware of Frank Pettit and appreciate all he did for Cambridge United FC.
Listen to Frank’s interview with Radio coconuts here: https://www.100yearsofcoconuts.co.uk/radio-coconuts.html
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