As a teacher, and then headmaster, John Biscomb Plows was a fixture at Oulton school for 40 years. He’s probably best remembered as a football coach to generations of local schoolboys and as the scout who discovered Len Shackleton, widely regarded as one of the English game’s most entertaining players.
J. B. Plows was born in Kippax in 1907 where his father, Alexander Plows, and both his grandfathers were miners. His older brother, Walter, also started his working life as a pony driver underground, so there must have been some pride in the family when John Biscomb won a scholarship to Castleford Grammar School.
From there his first job as a teacher was at Bowers Allerton school. He then went to train as a schoolmaster at Culham College near Oxford, returning to Yorkshire to fill a post at Fryston school in 1927.
Just over two years later, in 1930, he moved to Oulton St. John’s on Calverley Road. He remained, through several reorganisations and a move to a new building, until his retirement in March 1969.
As a boy John Biscomb Plows was a keen football and cricket player, interests which he continued throughout his life.
In old age he often repeated the story of how he founded an under-16s cricket team at Kippax United Methodist Church when he was just 14 years old. He was the secretary and captain. After he cycled to Leeds to enter the team in the Red Triangle League they won a trophy in their first season.
Another feather in his sports organising cap was the visit, in 1929, of the Australian test star, Alan Kippax, who presented an autographed bat for competition by local schools
During the depression of the 1930s J.B. was also the driving force behind a popular cricket knock-out competition in Kippax which inspired many out of work miners to play the game for the first time. Later he was a batsman and wicket keeper for sides at Burmantofts, Allerton Bywater and Garforth.
Football was his main passion though and at the age of 17 he was playing professionally for Castleford Town in the Midland League. Three years later they joined the Yorkshire League and at the same time he was transferred to Wakefield City.
As a young teacher at Oulton in the 1930s Mr. Plows took the school’s footballers under his wing, marching them along Aberford Road on Friday afternoons for practise sessions on the “Welfare” ground. He would often join in and could be seen returning to school with dirty shoes, a soiled suit and a mud splattered face.
Off the pitch he was a founder member of the Woodlesford and District Schools League which included teams from Rothwell, Stourton, Mickletown, Swillington, Great Preston, Kippax and Whitwood. In November 1935, for instance, a team of the best performing boys from the district was chosen to travel to Middlesborough to play in the Yorkshire Schools Shield. The only Oulton St. John’s boy in the side was 14 year old fullback Albert Wright, the son of a painter and decorator at Bentleys brewery.
Wright was also in the team when they played a charity match at Oulton against a team of Leeds City schoolboys in May 1936 to raise funds for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The game was kicked off by Leeds United’s chairman, Alderman Alf Masser, and watching on the touchline was manager Billy Hampson, no doubt on the lookout for promising young players.
Around this time J.B. Plows also took over the coaching and management of Oulton United, a youth team which drew players from a wide area. With his inspiration, in the 1936 to 1937 season they won the championship of the Leeds and District Minor League, scoring nearly 300 goals and only conceeding 16. They also won the league’s cup competition beating Outwood Stormcocks in the final at Carlton. The trainer was Methley born Sidney Crew, a lampman at Water Haigh colliery who lived on Aberford Road in Woodlesford.
It was during this period that J. B. Plows began to scout young players for a number of the top teams in the English First Division, forerunner of today’s Premier League.
One of the first was Walter Sidebottom from Stourton who left the Oulton side to join Bolton Wanderers and signed as a professional when he turned seventeen in 1938. After establishing himself in the first team at outside left he was widely thought to be one of football’s brightest performers. Sadly, after joining the Royal Navy in 1941, he drowned when his ship was torpedoed in the English Channel two years later.
Despite their success there was apparently little support for the Oulton United team at their home games so John Biscomb Plows renamed them Kippax United, after the village where he still lived, and took the side to play on a ground at Great Preston which had better changing facilities.
There they fielded two teams and more players were given chances with professional sides. O. Naylor and Douglas Limbert went for trials at Leeds United and centre-half H. Barton played at Bolton. T. Andrews went to Wolverhampton Wanderers whilst H.Ward, Sid Jones and Albert Townend travelled to Arsenal, although Townend, according to a report in the Daily Mirror in 1938, took some persuading as he preferred to play for Kippax rather than the Gunners.
Rothwell born full-back Sid Jones, whose father was a collier originally from Woodlesford, signed as a professional with Arsenal in May 1939 but only played one senior game for them. After making guest appearances for a number of clubs during the war, including Leeds United, he signed for Walsall in 1948.
Oulton’s Albert Wright was also thought to have promise as a professional and in March 1937 caught the eye of a scout from one of the Manchester teams in a game at Rothwell. However, shortly before the Second World War, he joined the R.A.F. and afterwards became a teacher. Wing forward Eddie Joyce, another locally born player, had his footballing career cut short when he lost all the fingers on his right hand in an accident at Armitage’s brick works.
It was Len Shackleton who is best remembered as the most famous of the players nurtured by John Biscomb Plows. Born in Bradford in 1922 he was a schoolboy international for England in 1934. He then found his way into the Oulton United team where he played at inside right in the successful 1936/37 season.
On Mr. Plows recommendation “Shack” moved to Arsenal in the summer of 1938 where he was employed on the ground staff and played for their nursery club at Enfield. He made one appearance for the Arsenal A team but was let go shortly after the start of the war, returning to Yorkshire where he signed as a professional for Bradford Park Avenue.
After working as a Bevin boy he was transferred to Newcastle United and then Sunderland where he stayed for the rest of his career. His nickname, also the title of his autobiography, was the Clown Prince of Soccer and as one journalist put it, he thrilled the crowds on the terraces with his “adhesive ball control and breath taking body swerve.”
Back at Oulton, on the retirement of John William Daft in 1940, J.B. Plows was appointed acting headmaster at St. John’s and confirmed in the post from 1 May the following year.
Bringing new energy to the job, after the difficult years during the depression of the 1930s, he introduced an annual sports day, brought back school concerts and started a parent-teacher association. Although he continued to live at Kippax he was also secretary of the local war savings movement. Another role was as treasurer of the Rothwell – Stanley head teachers’ association. On the football front he scouted for Huddersfield Town and towards the end of his career for Derby County.
A period of uncertainty came in 1943 when Hugh Salvin Calverley, who had recently inherited the family estate, gave notice that he wanted to sell the school premises. As a Church of England school it was governed by a group of local managers, usually chaired by the incumbent priest at Oulton, although the teachers were paid by the West Riding Education Authority.
At that time there was supposed to be room for 227 junior children and 109 infants but everybody agreed that the building was too small and cramped. One official wrote: “The premises would not be regarded by the West Riding Authority as suitable for school use any longer than is absolutely necessary, and therefore the Authority would not be prepared to purchase them. As regards ventilation, lighting, general arrangement and services, the premises fall far short of what a school ought to be. The playground is small and badly shaped.”
One suggestion was that a pre-fabricated school should be erected but in the end it was decided that the church would hand full control to the education authority and it was renamed Oulton County Junior School. The Calverley estate agreed to continue the lease until a new school could be built. In the end it took 20 years!
Despite the difficult conditions the annual inspection in 1944 by L.F. Gibbon gave J.B. Plows and his five teachers a glowing report. It recorded that there were actually 149 children in the junior department but they were “housed in ancient premises which are cramped and inconvenient and almost completely lacking in the kind of facilities normally associated with contemporary educational practice.” The absence of a hall and of rooms for practical work were “particularly serious handicaps.”
It went on: “The staff have not allowed these unsatisfactory conditions to daunt them. Without exception they have faced up to their varying problems with determination and equanimity, with the headmaster himself setting a good example of thoughtful industry and methodical experiment.”
The children’s attendance record, work and enthusiasm were praised as well: “They behave politely, and, on the whole, are responsive. Much is done to improve their powers of speech and the methods employed to this end will be even more effective and lasting as they become less formal. In most classes some successful work is being done in recitation.”
The inspector said the 3r’s – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic – were soundly and patiently taught but he was particularly impressed by other non-academic activities: “Attention should be drawn to the good work carried on in gardening and artcraft, while the keeping of livestock on a co-operative basis is a feature which, in its earliest stages, is already affording both pleasure and profit,” he wrote.
Mr. Gibbon was less impressed by the music teaching but in conclusion he continued his positive theme: “It should be stated that the school is clearly an efficient and progressive unit which displays much promise for the future.”
Just after the war, in 1946, John Biscomb Plows married Eleanor Pullan, the daughter of a farmer and butcher from Sherburn-in-Elmet. They lived at Garforth and a daughter, also called Eleanor, was born in 1948. Mrs. Plows passed away in 1950.
Eventually, after 20 years of waiting, J. B. Plows led the move from Calverley Road to a new school which was built off Green Lea in Oulton. It opened in 1965.
After formally retiring in 1969 he continued to be actively involved in sports administration. He was president and secretary of the Barkston Ash Football Association for many years and their representative to the West Riding Football Association for ten years.
When he finally gave up the reins in 1991 at the age of 83 a colleague said: “We feel that no-one has done more for sport.”