Note: this article is from 2003
It was with much sadness that we learned of the recent passing of Ernie Toser, aged 89. He was highly respected, dearly loved and will be greatly missed. I met Ernie on two occasions last summer and we exchanged letters throughout the year. It was a fruitful encounter and, in the light of his death seven months later, rather a fortuitous one. I can hardly say I knew him, but I found it a great pleasure being in his company and reminiscing about the days when Dulwich Hamlet was the cream of amateur football.
I first contacted Ernie Toser in the spring of last year. I wrote asking if he’d mind if I visited him at his home in Hastings to conduct an interview. He replied very promptly but was rather reluctant to grant my wish – he had not been very well recently. Then I hit on Plan B. Plan B involved posting him a list of questions that he could answer via correspondence. He did so and we published the ‘interview’ in the next Hamlet Historian.
By a happy coincidence I had already booked a family holiday in Hastings during the summer. Whilst we were there I wrote once again to Ernie requesting a get together. This time he agreed, and chose to meet me in Mr Bean’s Coffee House in the town centre, a bus ride from his home on Friday 17th August.
An educated guess told me the elderly, gaunt, skeletal figure in the corner was Ernie, and after obtaining a beverage and some cookies I introduced myself. When he stood up I was surprised to discover how tall Ernie was. The ravages of time had shortened him by a couple of inches, yet although slightly hunched he was over six foot. His shock of white hair was in the same combed-back style as in the famous Hamlet team photographs of the thirties. He was having trouble trying to shake off the “confounded chest complaint” contracted in the new year, still suffering with a tightness which prevented him carrying out everyday tasks. It generally took him the best part of the morning before he felt well enough to do anything.
And what a gracious, good-natured gentleman Ernest Toser turned out to be. We spoke for over an hour about his life and times; about Hamlet history, about former players and officers, about Mr Edgar Kail, Mr Eddie Rengger, even Mr and Mrs Beckham and Manchester United, and surprisingly, about his beloved Tottenham Hotspur! He was actually with Spurs in his youth before joining Dulwich Hamlet. However, the north London club sent him to a nursery side, which Ernie was none too pleased about, and two friends at work persuaded him to join the Hamlet. He always looked out for the Dulwich result and seemed to be fairly knowledgeable on what was going on at Champion Hill these days.
I further informed him of the current state of affairs at the Club and the possible short move to Greendale. Ironically, Mr Bean’s Coffee House, where we were seated, was until a few years ago part of Priory Meadow, the local cricket ground. Now it was a large shopping complex with all the top names. (You can bet that caused a storm of protest!) To compensate the locals, a marvellous bronze statue “The Spirit of Cricket” was erected in the central square of the shopping centre. The bronze figure, unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen in 1997, depicts a batsman at the crease swivelling on his left leg with bat held aloft. His hooked shot has off-balanced him causing him to brush the bails from the wicket. Follow the batsman’s eye and you will find the bronze cricket ball embedded in the wall about six metres above a jewellers shop.
One particular character I was hoping to find out a bit more about was Dick Jonas. I had already decided to put together a piece on the Dulwich Hamlet supremo of the inter-war years and I just needed the odd anecdote to embellish the article. Ernie filled me in on the role that Jonas played in the affairs of the Club, and how he ensured that all the staff recognised that the Club was far more important than any individual member. The first time the teenaged Toser asked Dick Jonas for a couple of tickets for family members, Jonas sternly replied, “What do you want tickets for? They are not coming to see you are they?” But Ernie soon warmed to Jonas, and he told me that Dick Jonas was, in fact, the main reason Dulwich had such a wonderful set of players in the nineteen thirties.
Winning his schoolboy international cap for England alongside a future legend of the north east - Middlesborough’s Raich Carter – Ernie Toser joined Eton Manor FC. It was whilst playing for them that Ernie Haley, of the Hamlet’s Junior Section, spotted the youngster. Eton Manor was miles from home, and although it took him half an hour to get there Ernie made the journey almost daily. He wasn’t just in the football team either; he was into boxing, cricket and other things as well. He was such an exciting prospect that he was signed up for Tottenham Hotspur, but when they stuck him in a nursery side, he thought, “I'm not having this. They were in a lower league than Dulwich!” He also played a match for Redhill, and when asked for his expenses, he told them it was £1.00. However, he was given fifty bob in his pay packet, over twice as much. There were dodgy dealings going on even in the early 1930s, and Ernie thought, rather than get into something illegal he would play for a different club. Unlike a number of top so-called amateur sides the Dulwich Hamlet players did not receive any boot money at all. It was a principle; you were playing for the name of the Club. “We used to get quite annoyed when people in the crowd shouted out “How much are they paying you?” when in actual fact, we didn’t get a penny at Dulwich.”
In his first season at Dulwich, Ernie Toser played alongside the legendary Edgar Kail. The young man, with his whole career ahead of him, and the veteran coming to the end of his career. Kail had achieved virtually every honour the game could offer, but the two didn’t get on. Ernie disliked Kail’s constant calls to “Come here. Go over there. Move across.” and so on. All Toser wanted to do was play his own game. He did agree, however, that Edgar Kail was a wonderful footballer.
And what of Ernie Toser’s other team-mates from the Hamlet’s glory days of the 1930s. His best pal was George Goodliffe, the Hamlet’s tall centre forward (he was over 6 feet 4 inches). They kept in contact right up until Goodliffe’s death six or seven years ago. The striker came in for a lot of criticism during the 1930s – he wasted a lot of opportunities in front of goal. Edgar Kail championed his cause and urged the Hamlet rabble to give him a chance but they never really took to him. However, Goodliffe took it all in his stride, the criticism never bothered him.
Another ‘great’ was the brilliant A.H. Hamer, known to all as ‘Taffy’. One evening during a training session at Champion Hill Ernie was practising his sprinting. In fact he had just laced up a pair of spikes when a football came towards him. He instinctively controlled it and was about to kick it back when Taffy Hamer, the Hamlet captain, playfully came in to tackle him. Unfortunately the Welshman ended up with Toser’s spikes gashing all down his shin making several deep wounds. Ernie was very apologetic, but Taffy Hamer said “No. It was my own fault. The pair developed a great partnership trio with Cecil Murray. As an attacking left half, Ernie Toser could score goals as well as defend - Hamer would drop back to allow Toser to carry the ball forward. Toser had actually started life as a centre half, but on arrival at Dulwich it was soon obvious that no one was going to remove Taffy Hamer from the position he had made his own, so Ernie adapted his game to play on the left.
Towards the end of our chat Ernie introduced me to Wyn, his lady love of twenty years. She had been quietly taking in our conversation from the next table. His two earlier marriages (to sisters) had both sadly ended in widowhood. But I wasn’t really there to talk about his private life, so I didn’t pry.
I mentioned to Ernie that the DHFC Supporters Club was in the process of getting a reproduction of the classic 1937 Hamlet shirt made for fans to wear. We wanted the colours, the material and the design to match the original, but we were working from old black and white photographs. I brought with me a Crown colour chart to see if Ernie could pinpoint the exact shade of pink used in the fabric. How amazed I was when he told me that he still had his original shirt from the Amateur Cup Final. “The Club” he said, “presented them to the team at the end of the season.” “Can I see it?” I asked, and then quickly arranged another date at Mr Bean’s a few days later. I couldn’t wait.
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck when Ernie Toser produced from his bag the actual Dulwich Hamlet shirt he wore in the 1937 Amateur Cup Final. I felt very privileged to be handling this relic from a golden age. The shirt, Ernie informed me, had been worn by him throughout the season, and washed dozens of times. It looked slightly battered, its pink and navy colours fading after sixty odd years, but on inspection it was in remarkable condition. A bit tight perhaps (38” chest) but well made by Jack Hobbs, the sports goods manufacturer, set up by the famous Surrey cricketer. I was even more honoured when the artefact was kindly loaned to me by its owner, and I took the utmost care of it throughout the rest of my vacation and beyond.
At the first opportunity I displayed the shirt at Champion Hill to some of the members of the Supporters Club. With Ernie’s permission we went through the process of having the quantity of replicas produced by TOFFS, a company in Gateshead, that manufactures old-fashioned football shirts. We now have these replicas that remind us of the rich history of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club.
Having taken the customary photo I left Ernie and Wyn at the bus stop and headed off to a deckchair to scribble down some notes. On my way I popped into a charity shop and picked up a second hand book for a few pence - Millwall: A Complete Record 1885-1991. This was incredible. There was Ernie Toser’s name just where it should be. He played a handful of games for Charlie Hewitt’s Mllwall side in their championship-winning season (Division Three South, 1937-38) before being struck by injury. He didn’t actually sign professional forms for Millwall but continued in his office job at a printing company. He was popular with the manager of the firm, and was allowed the odd afternoon off when there was a game on. He played a further twenty games for the Lions during wartime.
When war began Ernie Toser signed up for the Royal Air Force and naturally made it into one of the RAF sides. The best known player in the RAF team was Bernard Joy, the last Amateur footballer to gain an England cap. The two men were often chosen as a partnership in representative matches and struck up a relationship on and off the field. One evening whilst training at Blackpool, a brilliant winger was practising his dribbling skills. “Who’s that? I asked. Stanley Matthews, they said. Well, no wonder.” Ernie Toser introduced himself and the two men became friends.
After the war, and following a brief spell with Notts County, Ernie Toser returned to Champion Hill where he had made his name as a player. Having retired from playing when he was 33, - “Most players” he said, “were felt to be past it when they reached thirty.” - he embarked on a new role as First Team Coach and what he described as “general dogs-body”. Training sessions often took place in the dark, and consisted of some football practice, vaulting over an exercise horse and discussing tactics. Fleet-footed left winger Tommy Jover was in Hamlet teams either side of the war. Ernie recalled Jover’s “…quicksilver pace. He was not a natural ball player but he had lightning pace on the wing. His large goal tally was because he was so elusive.” The two men kept in touch up until Toser’s death.
On Good Friday this year I received news from Ernie’s son that his father had died a few days earlier on Monday 25th March. I spoke to David Toser on the phone, and he informed me that the funeral would be held on Friday 5th April. On March 30th, we remembered Ernie Toser’s contribution to Hamlet lore with a minute’s silence before the game. He was one of the last links with the great teams of the 1930s. The following week it was back to Hastings for the cremation. I arrived early and passed Mr Bean’s Coffee Shop. I stopped for a few moments and thought about Ernie Toser.
I was a bit disappointed to see so few folk at the funeral, especially representing Dulwich Hamlet. Maybe word didn’t get round quick enough; maybe the fact that the funeral was on a Friday afternoon at the coast made it difficult; maybe people couldn’t get the time off work. But one simply assumes that these former servants of our Club will get a decent send off. Especially as Ernie Toser’s time at Dulwich spanned four decades – midfield maestro in the 1930s, returning in the late 40s and 50s as coach before finally retiring in the early 1960s. He must have made many many acquaintances among the playing staff in that time, and yet only Leslie Green (and current vice chairman Brian Shears) bothered to turn up.
As part of the service, Ernie Toser’s son David gave a brief account of his father’s life. He recounted his father’s upbringing, his sporting life at school, for club and for country, and a number of personal details. It was a fitting tribute. He then read a heartfelt letter of condolence he had received from Tommy Jover, the President of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. It was another testimony to a charming gentleman.
After the service we stood around for a while and exchanged anecdotes about our departed friend. David Toser and other members of Ernie’s family were very excited about the new TOFFS replica shirts. I explained that some were even calling this Dulwich Hamlet item the ‘Ernie Toser Shirt’ in his honour. They were delighted with that. And I'm sure Ernie would have been too.
This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of the Four Goals With His 'Ead fanzine and was reproduced in issue No.10 of the Hamlet Historian.
Copyright © Jack McInroy 2003