Billy and Bob: The Fabulous Balmer Brothers
By Rob Sawyer
William and Robert Balmer formed a fearsome, and fruitful, fraternal partnership in Everton’s back-line in the early years of the 20th Century. William’s selection for national team duty would also make him the club’s first Scouse England cap.
They were the sons of James (a carpenter and joiner) and Martha. William Atherton was born on 29 July 1875 whilst Robert followed on 28 November 1881. The pair – better known and Billy and Bob – grew-up alongside their siblings John (b. 1874) and Mary (b. 1877) at the family home at 14 Crosby Green, West Derby. The boys trained as joiners but also embarked on football careers.
For Billy the road to Goodison would not be a direct one. After playing youth football in the Aintree Church team, he would ply his footballing trade at full-back for a season, across the Ribble estuary, with South Shore (the Lancashire League outfit which went on to merge with Blackpool FC). Everton’s committee signed Billy on 20 March 1896 on wages of 20/ per week. He was joined by his elder sibling, John, who played in the forward line. The earliest record of the boys playing together was for Everton reserves at Glossop North End on 9 March 1896.
John dropped off the Everton radar fairly quickly (he preferred running to football) and concentrated on working in the family joinery business. Billy, however, was retained and debuted for the senior team on 6 Nov 1897, a 2-2 draw at West Bromwich Albion. It was reported that ‘…the work of Muir, Barker and Balmer was thoroughly sound. The last named player improved considerably as the game went on.’ In his second start he drew great praise: ‘None the less brilliant were Muir, Storrier, and Balmer, who coped with the occasional heavy rushes of the home forwards with great coolness and dexterity, and in addition their kicking was always clean and effective. In Balmer the club has an understudy of exceptional merit. For a second acquaintance with League Football, the young player came out of the ordeal with flying colours, and there should be no misgiving in future should a vacancy arise in the back division’
Within two months of the start of the following season, Billy was the first-choice at right-back – a position he held down for a decade. In time he was joined in the Everton ranks by Bob – who would work his way up from the Lancashire Combination League team. As a youth, Bob played at full-back for Shaw Street College for three years and then participated in local junior football for a further three seasons. He was an amateur terms with Everton from the 1900/01 season, progressing to professional status. An inch shorter than Billy, and a stone lighter, Bob relied slightly less on brawn, and more on timings, than his older brother. That said, as was the full-back’s remit of the era, both were adept at stopping wingers in their tracks and hoofing the ball downfield. A 1925 Liverpool Echo article described compared and contrasted them, thus:
‘There was a sturdy sureness about the defence of the Brothers Balmer, Billy and Robert, that was both taking to the eye and consoling to those famous followers of the Everton club who took their pleasures each week on the goal stands. Robert, the younger brother, was of a slimmer build than his famous brother, but as he matured and developed in his play there was a finish, and a skilled diplomacy in his style that marked him as a player of resource and enterprise. Billy, on the other hand, always impressed as one of those rugged, stonewall players, who never know fear or funk, and who could be relied on, whatever, calls were made on him to do justice to himself and to his team…Billy Balmer, at the top of his form, was an inspiring player, to watch. He resolution was quick, his methods’ generally fair, his tenacity superb. ‘
Bob would make his bow for the first team at left-back, alongside Billy, on 5 January 1903 when the Blues defeated Middlesbrough 3-0. It was almost a dream start when he went close to scoring following an early corner. The Liverpool Courier commented: ‘The Northerns next attacked, but the brothers Balmer defended strongly, both with regard to kicking and tackling.’
It would be mid-way through the 1904/05 season when Bob broke into the team on a regular basis and worked in harness with his brother to protect Leigh Richmond Roose and/or Bill Scott in the Everton goal. With Tom Booth frequently unavailable through injury, Billy captained the team for the vast majority of matches and was rewarded for his consistency with a call-up for England. It came in a 1-1 draw with Ireland staged at Ayresome Park on 5 February 1905 (he had previously represented the Football League against the Scottish League in 1901). This would be his only ‘cap’ but he had written himself into the history books as the first locally-born Everton player to receive such recognition. The domestic season would end in frustration as two away defeats in the final three matches saw Everton pipped by Newcastle to the title.
Another chance to win silverware would come a year later. Having beaten Liverpool in the 1906 FA Cup semi-final, the squad departed from Liverpool in advance of the final to be staged at the Crystal Palace stadium. The Liverpool Courier reported:
The Everton players, or rather the contingent from which the eleven will be chosen, left Liverpool on Tuesday for their training quarters at Chingford, which borders on Epping Forest. They broke their journey at Stafford to enjoy the brine baths there, and according to the latest reports, this experience was most beneficial. The contingent which, was in charge of Mr. B. Kelly, and Mr. E.A. Bainbridge (directors), consisted of: – Scott, W. Balmer, R. Balmer, Crelley, Hill, Booth, Abbott, Makepeace, Chadwick, Sharp, Bolton, Young, Settle, Hardman, and Donnachie. At the Royal Forest Hotel, Chingford, the men have found comfortable quarters. They are staying in a beautiful district, and nothing in the way of arduous training, will be undertaken.
There was much speculation as to who would occupy the two full-back berths with the Balmer brothers challenging fellow Scouser, Jack Crelley for selection. The Courier reported on the build up, which had little to do with football practice:
I have just seen Mr Cuff, the Everton secretary, and learned that the members of the team were all fit and well. They have benefited greatly by their stay at Chingford, which has been more like a rest than a period of special training. Golf on a four-mile course, walking amid beautiful country scenery and occasionally sprinting has been the programme. Not a football has been kicked. The men will take the field fresh as paint, eager for the fray, and confident of victory. The exact constitution of the team will not be decided until the morning, there being just a doubt, so Mr. Cuff informs me, as to which of the Brothers Balmer will partner Crelley at the back. The younger brother, Robert, has so greatly improved that he may possibly fill the position.
Shortly before kick-off it was confirmed that the directors had overlooked Bob in favour of Crelley and his elder brother (who occupied the left-back slot). In the tightly packed 80,000 crowd the Liverpool Echo reporter spotted a former Toffee in Leigh Richmond Roose: ‘Among the early birds was the great Roose, keen and energetic as ever, and who was attached enough to his old club to express his heartiest wish for their success and confident in their ability.’
Billy’s selection was justified as he gave an outstanding defensive performance in a 1-0 victory – Everton’s first cup triumph. The Echo praised him: ‘W. Balmer probably never played a better game than on Saturday. He tackled coolly and kept a good length with his punts. He was a trifle shaky at the close, but on the whole his performance was of a sterling character.’
In spite of being over-looked for the final there was a school of thought that Bob was become a superior player to Billy. In October of that year the Lancashire Evening Post asked: ‘Is Robert Balmer as good a back as his elder and better-known brother? On the few occasions I have seen the former he has impressed me very favourably, remarkably clean with his kicking and perhaps rather safer than William, who is inclined to be risky at times.’ Regardless, the brothers were the preferred full-back pairing in the 1906/07 season and lined up at Crystal Palace when Everton sought to retain the FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday. In the event the Yorkshiremen ran out 2-1 winners and neither Balmer enjoyed a good afternoon. Athletic News reported:
‘The Balmers were fairly serviceable, but I do not think they constituted a strong pair, and they were just about on a level with the Wednesday backs. William Balmer is not quite well, and extenuating circumstances can be urged on his behalf, as he has a knee. His brother, Robert Balmer, was possibly the better of the two.’
After a further season in tandem in the back line, the siblings played their 65th and final match together in a FA Cup defeat to Southampton on 11 March 1908. At the conclusion of the season Billy’s first team career with Everton ended on 331 competitive outings (he had scored one goal – a penalty in 1899 – but conceded eight own goals in this time). Although still registered with Everton he was able to play for Croydon Common for whom he would make 3 FA Cup, 43 Southern League appearances over two seasons. By 1911 Billy was back on home turf and working as a newsagent at 20 Mill Lane in West Derby. He subsequently signed for Chester of the Lancashire Combination in 1912 but it was an abortive comeback as, after just two matches, he was deemed to be too immobile for further selection.
Bob, meanwhile, continued to serve the Toffees with distinction. In October 1910 Athletic News commented on his selection for an inter-league match with Ireland: ‘Like his brother, William, the younger Balmer has been one of the most consistent backs that ever donned the Everton colours and in League colours has rendered excellent service.’ That same month he as reported to have kicked-off refereed a game of ‘rink football’ – played on skates at the Tournament Hall. Losing his regular starting berth in the spring of 1911, and struggling with a knee injury, he made his 187th and final, appearance for the Blues in April 1912. He remained registered with Everton as a player – but available for transfer at £300 – until the eve of the (cancelled) 1915/16 season.
In April 1913, club director Dr. Whitford proposed that Bob be offered a non-playing engagementby Everton but the proposal was voted down by fellow board members. Instead, that August, he was signed by W.J. Sawyer for South Liverpool FC. Bob’s former teammate, Alex ‘Sandy’ Young, was already on the books at Dingle Park. Early in 1914 the Liverpool Echo reported on Bob turning out at right-back for his new club, against The Central in Walkden. He was described as ‘simply unbeatable.’ In April 1915 Bob was reunited with the 1906-07 team for a wartime charity match organises by Jack Sharp against a team of boxers. The Echo journalist reported on the match which raised £300: “At full-back Bob Balmer played capitally and showed partially again for keeping the ball in play and for overhead kicks which were specialities with him before he took to running a book. No, that that kind of book but an insurance business in which I wish him all good fortune” (NB some match reports record – probably erroneously – that it was Billy, rather than Bob who played in this match).
On 25 Nov 1916, Bob married Blanche Farley; there is no record of them having children. It seems that Bob remained in the Everton hierarchy’s affections for he was given a complimentary season ticket by the club in 1926 – a gesture that was repeated for many years. At the outbreak of war, in 1939, he was living with Blanche at 12 Rosthwaite Road and working as a docker. It was at this address that he passed away in January 1959 at the age of seventy-nine.
As for Billy, he appeared to sever all ties with Everton although he remained a ‘Blue’. He lost his first wife, Alice, in 1916 and remarried Mary Thomas in 1918. By then he was living and working in Huddersfield. By the turn of the 1920s he was doing some coaching at Huddersfield Town. In 1939 Billy was recorded as living at 114 Church Street, Huddersfield. His occupation was noted as “Joiner – incapacitated” whilst Mary was a ‘woollen burler’. He passed away in February 1961 at the age of 85. At the time at he was living at 154 Lowerhouses Lane in Huddersfield. He was cremated on 15 February at All Hallow’s Church, Almondbury.
That is not the end of the Balmer story in Merseyside football circles, however. John Balmer’s son, ‘Jack’ (John) – the nephew of Billy and Bob – played football at centre-forward whilst studying at the Liverpool Collegiate. He recounted to George Harrison for his The Unforgettables series in the Liverpool Echo in 1974 that he was always destined to join Everton:
‘My uncles were Everton stalwarts…I was brought up in the Everton tradition by them and my father. When I was making the grade at 16 as centre-forward for Liverpool Collegiate Old Boys, Everton was obviously the club that came first.’
Jack duly joined the Toffees on amateur forms in 1933, aged 17, and appeared for the reserves on a number of occasions. One such outing saw him paired in attack with Bill “Dixie” Dean who was on the comeback trail after an injury. Jack was excited, but awestruck, to be lining up with his sporting idol. Dean spotted his nervousness and said, ‘Don’t worry son, I’ll lay one on for you just before half-time’ True to his word, ‘Dixie’ headed the ball into Jack’s path five minutes for the break: ‘I couldn’t miss. It made me feel great, getting a goal from my hero.’ he recalled. When Everton sought to sign Jack on professional forms, the talks broke down: ‘I was working as a joiner in my father’s building business and Everton offered me only £5 to be on full time for them. It wasn’t worth it to me…I was still on Everton’s book as an amateur so I saw out the season for them. Meantime Jack Rouse had been along to offer me £8 a week with £6 summer wages for Liverpool. So I signed, much, I should add, to the family shame. Red was not their favourite colour.’
Having joined Liverpool in September 1935, Jack made his first team debut almost immediately. Often mistaken for a veteran due to premature balding, he carved out a highly-successful career as a clever inside-forward. During the war years he served in the Kings Regiment, teaching soldiers to drive Bren gun carriers and jeeps near Formby and, towards the end of the conflict, he was posted to Germany. He earned a wartime England cap in 1939, playing alongside Everton’s Tommy Lawton. Post-war, paired with Albert Stubbins, he captained Liverpool to the 1946/47 League Championship and scored three consecutive hat-tricks in November 1946. In spite of these credentials and an impressive career strike rate, ain the late 1940s he found himself a target of some Anfield ‘boo-boys’ who took exception to his intelligent, dare I say, Corinthian, approach to the game. These malcontents craved a more harum-scarum style of forward-play with was an anathema to Jack. His game was more subtle: based on skill, creativity and nous. He explained to George Harrison: ‘They were entitled to their opinion. Maybe I didn’t go in for the crunch tackle – it seemed unnecessary to me. Even now, when I go and watch Everton or Liverpool, or see television games, I get a shudder when I see the boot going in. I was never a coward at the game, but that kind of tackling was never my idea of football.’
Jack hung up his boots in 1953 and, after a period coaching Liverpool’s youth players and scouting, he concentrated on the family building business – enjoying playing golf in his spare time. He passed away, suddenly, on Christmas Day 1984, at the age of 68 following a heart attack. After a funeral service at St Mary’s Church in West Derby, he was cremated at Anfield Crematorium. Concluding his 1974 interview with George Harrison he said: ‘I cannot forget those great years I had at Anfield, even if some of the Kop didn’t go for me all that much. And you know something? I still like Everton!’
Sources and acknowledgements
Thanks to Billy Smith for encouraging me to write this piece, several years ago.
Members of the Balmer family
Neil Caple (for photo of Billy wearing his England cap)
Brendan Connolly for the letter of 1896.
Liverpool Daily Post
Lancashire Evening Post
The Everton Encyclopedia – James Corbett
Everton: The Official Complete Record – Steve Johnson