Alex Birnie – The Scotsman from East London

Tony Onslow   05/03/2021 5comments  |  Jump to last

Unlike other former Scottish shipyard workers, prior to playing football for Everton, Alex Birnie did not learn his trade on Clydeside but on the banks of the River Thames in the East End of London. He had been born on 16 May 1883 in the small Aberdeenshire community of Reva and was the first child of George and Elsie.

The head of household had previously worked as a shipwright in the nearby seaport of Peterhead when he moved his family to the West Ham area of London where he found employment in the Thames ironworks. He was eventually joined at this location by his son Alex who began “serving his time” under the supervision of his father while playing amateur football with both Fairburn House and Commercial Athletic.

When his apprenticeship was complete, he signed to play professional football for Southern League side West Ham United where, playing at outside right, he made an appearance against both Brentford and Fulham respectively but was not retained at the end of the season. Birnie next joined Kent League amateur side Sittingbourne where he came to the attention of Everton.

The Goodison Park club came to London to complete what was the first Football League game against Woolwich Arsenal at Plumstead. The two sides had met previously on the 26 November 1904. The visitors had built up a 3-1 lead when, with 15 minutes left to play, the game was abandoned after a thick fog descended on the ground. The replay took place on 22 April 1905. Everton lost the game 2-1 which resulted in them being pipped for the title by Newcastle United. After the game, Daniel Kirkwood remained on a scouting mission in the Capital.

On Easter Monday, the Everton Director went to watch the Kent County FA Cup final, played on The Mall ground at Faversham, where Chatham beat Sittingbourne 3-1. He was impressed by the display given by Alex Birnie who accompanied him on his journey back to Liverpool where he took part in a Lancashire Combination match on 29 April against Bolton Wanderers at Goodison Park. After the game, Birnie was granted a bonus of £25 to sign professional forms with Everton while the Kentish club, upon request, were sent a cheque for an undisclosed fee.

On 29 July 1905, Alexander Birnie married Racheal Twitcett at the church of St Andrew at Plaistow in London and the couple were found lodgings in Liverpool. He had to wait until Boxing Day to make his Football League debut in a 3-2 home defeat against Bury and made two more appearances before his contract was terminated at the end of the season. Birnie then returned to live in the Canning Town area of London and signed for Southern League side Norwich City.

He had played eight times for the East Anglian club when a bad injury put a premature end to his season. Perhaps thinking his career was coming to an end, Birnie, returned to amateur football with Sittingbourne where his old fondness for dashing along the touchline slowly returned. This resulted in him accepting an offer to sign for Southern League side Southend United who allowed him to supplement his income by following his employment on The Isle of Dogs. Nevertheless, the Essex club were wrestling with financial problems and, reluctantly, were forced to let Birnie join Football League Division One club, Bury.

The fans were reported to be at first critical of their latest asset but the speed of his wing play soon won them over. On New Year’s Day, he was in the Bury side that drew 2-2 with Everton at Gigg Lane and took part in the return on 28 March at Goodison Park, where Everton beat The Shakers 3-0.

The 1911 census finds the Birnie family, which now contained three children, living in the Fishpool area of Bury where the head of the household declared his occupation to be professional footballer. They later returned to the West Ham area of London where Alex spent the rest of his days working as a shipwright. He was residing at 612 Barking Road when he died on 13 March 1949 at the Albert Dock Hospital in East London.

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Reader Comments (5)

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Dennis Stevens
1 Posted 05/03/2021 at 19:39:27
Aye, we finished a point behind the skunks & a point ahead of Manchester City. The match may have been difficult to re-arrange as Everton had reached the FA Cup semi-final, which went to a replay before we lost to Villa. However, it's shocking that the last three fixtures of the season where we were challenging for the title should be as follows: Friday 21st April Manchester City (away) lost 2-0 ; Saturday 22nd April Woolwich Arsenal (away, rearranged) lost 2-1 ; Monday 24th Nottingham Forest (away) won 2-0. 3 away matches in 4 days!

I'm not bitter, but WE WERE ROBBED!
Paul Birmingham
2 Posted 05/03/2021 at 19:46:55
Superb, read, thanks Tony.
John Hodgkins
4 Posted 07/03/2021 at 14:01:01
Thanks Tony, I always enjoy your articles and thank you for posting them.
Tony Onslow
5 Posted 07/03/2021 at 19:22:48
Welcome, Lads.
Bill Watson
6 Posted 24/03/2021 at 21:41:53
Thanks Tony. Only just spotted your article but a great read!

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