Imagine an episode of that old TV panel show Tell The Truth. It was based on an American prototype invented by Bob Stewart and shown on ITV in the late 1950s, on Channel 4 in the mid-1980s and again on ITV a few years later. Chairmen included McDonald Hobley, David Jacobs and Shaw Taylor. A panel of celebrities was confronted by three people purporting to be a particular individual: perhaps Mavis, an air stewardess from Luton, or Bob, a car mechanic from Edinburgh. After subjecting the three ‘pretenders’ to banter and a little light-hearted interrogation, each panel member decides which of the three is the real person. Then comes the moment of truth. Cue a roll on the timpani. ‘Will the real Bob Jones or Mavis Davies please stand up,’ McDonald or David or Shaw commands. One of them rises and there are sighs of relief or surprise from the panel and studio audience. In my imaginary episode three middle-aged men pretend to be a retired footballer named Harry Topping, born in Lancashire in the early 20th century. A full-back. When the moment of truth comes, and the panel and audience edge forward on their seats in eager anticipation, all three men stand up. Yes, they are all called Harry Topping; they are all footballers born in the early 20th century; and they were all full-backs.
Harry Topping Mark 1 was born in Manchester in 1908 and played for Manchester United (1932-34), Barnsley (1935), Macclesfield (from 1936) and later Manchester North End and Wigan Athletic. He died in 1977. Harry Topping Mark 2 was born in Kearsley in 1913 and played for Manchester City (1935), Exeter City (1936), New Brighton (1938), Stockport County as a wartime guest player, and Bristol Rovers (1945). It was probably this Harry Topping who managed Feyenoord (1950-51) and PSV Eindhoven (1951-52) and later coached Norwich City and Torquay. He died in 2001. Harry Topping Mark 3 was born in Prescot in 1915 and played for Rossendale United, Stockport County (1938-45), New Brighton (1946-47 – not at the same time as Harry Mark 2) and Prescot Cables (1948-52). This is our man.
Taking his middle name from his mother, Henry Westby (‘Harry’) Topping was born in Prescot on 28 September 1915. Little is known about his family or where the Toppings lived. We don’t know if he had any brothers or sisters or where he was educated. Chances are it was the Board School on Warrington Road followed by either Prescot Grammar School or the Central School, Whiston. We know very little about what he did for a living outside football except that Bert Taylor of the Prescot and Huyton Reporter told my brother David Williams that Harry worked as a solicitor’s messenger ‘well into his eighties’. We do, however, know that in the 1930s he played in the Lancashire Combination as a full-back for Rossendale United and in 1938 was transferred to Stockport County. The club had experienced mixed fortunes during the two seasons prior to Topping’s arrival. In 1936-37 Stockport were promoted from the Third Division North to the Second Division, the clinch coming at the end of the season with a victory against Lincoln City witnessed by 27,000 spectators. They stayed in the division for just one season, suffering relegation in 1937-38. The 23-year-old Harry Topping made little impact on his arrival, appearing in just three matches before war was declared in September 1939. His war service is another area clouded by mystery. He certainly contributed to Stockport’s programme of wartime matches and even appeared alongside his namesake Harry Topping of Kearsley in at least one match, the two men monopolising Stockport’s full-back positions.
Sometime between January and March 1940 Harry married Lilian Bolton in St Helens. Information about their family comes from second cousin John Topping of Shaw Street, St Helens. As John explained to me recently, his father (yet another Harry Topping) was Harry Topping of Prescot’s cousin. He and Lilian went on to have two daughters (Mary and Alice) and three sons (Ernest, Bill and Jack). According to John Topping, Mary had two sons, Alice a son and a daughter, Ernest three sons and Bill two sons. Jack had no children. Regrettably, I have not managed to find any of Harry’s children or grandchildren.
Soon after World War Two Harry Topping found himself on the books of Third Division North stalwarts New Brighton, by then playing at the Tower Ground following the destruction of Rake Lane during the conflict. Probably still playing as a full-back, Topping stayed for little more than two seasons and made 67 appearances. According to Neville Walker (From Slacky Brow to Hope Street), Harry ‘arrived at Cables in mid-1948 and soon demonstrated his class.’ Playing at left-half, he took up a position on the field just behind our good friend Harry Boydell on the left-wing. ‘Harry Topping was tall, hard but fair and could play on either side,’ Harry told me recently. ‘He gave a lot of encouragement to young players like me.’ Having arrived a few weeks too late to feature in Cables’ Lancashire Cup victory in Lancaster at the end of April 1948, Topping settled into a regular first team slot for the 1948-49 season and helped his team win the Liverpool Challenge Cup. He is pictured alongside Fred Finney in the 1949-50 team photograph. Topping, Finney and the redoubtable Bert Jelly formed what Neville Walker describes as ‘an excellent half back line’, with Jelly in the centre, Finney to his left and Topping to the right. A typical match featuring this formidable trio was played at Wigan Athletic on Saturday, 15 April 1950: Alf Hobson in goal, Edmunds and Coen at full-backs, Topping, Jelly and Finney across the middle and, in the forward line, Mottram, Ball, Lyon and Middleham. The missing man is Harry Grisedale, playing inside-right in one of his earliest first-team appearances and scoring Cables’ goal in a 1-1 draw.
Harry Topping enjoyed mixed fortunes during his four years as a player at Hope Street (1948-52). He was made captain during Bert Jelly’s brief defection to Northwich Victoria at the start of the 1950-51 season and awarded a benefit at the end of the same season. The match should have featured a welcome return to Hope Street of Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, who a couple of years earlier had helped St Helens Town win the George Mahon Cup here, but, as Bert Taylor previewed in the Reporter for 30 April 1951, Trautmann ‘will not be available … but Liverpool have kindly consented to release [Cyril] Sidlow.’ The match was kicked off by Eddie Kilshaw. That particular season had ended in Cables’ relegation to the Lancashire Combination Division Two. Topping’s contribution to 1951-52 is uncertain. Under trainer-coach Johnny McCann the team bounced back with a vengeance, not only achieving promotion to Division One but winning the Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup (for the first time) in a match against Skelmersdale United at Haigh Avenue, Southport. Harry did not play in the final and may not have enjoyed a regular position in the team during the season. Or perhaps he was functioning as an occasional player-coach by this time. The same can be said of 1952-53, when the team won the Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup for the second time and ended the season runners-up in the Lancashire Combination. But one thing we can be sure of is that he took over as Cables’ trainer-coach at the start of the 1953-54 season, heralding an unprecedented era of success for the club. Topping served as trainer-coach (‘manager’ by any other name) from 1953 to 1959, during which the team were Lancashire Combination Champions and Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup runners-up in 1957, Lancashire Combination runners-up in 1958, runners-up and Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup winners in 1959 and reached the First Round Proper of the FA Cup in 1957 and 1959. The ignominy of another relegation to Division Two of the Lancashire Combination at the end of the 1953-54 season was tempered, as in 1952, by an immediate return to the top flight. Neville Walker’s From Slacky Brow to Hope Street contains photographs of Topping as trainer-coach of the 1957 championship team and the eleven men who crushed Great Harwood 18-2 on 19 February 1955 – a club record win for the 20th century. The 1958-59 season was a close-run thing between Cables and Harry’s old club New Brighton. The championship was clinched on St George’s Day (23 April) 1959 when visitors New Brighton beat Cables 3-2. It was Prescot’s first home defeat of the season. Despite a successful cup run that took Cables to a 1st round FA Cup match at Darlington and despite ending the season Liverpool Senior Non-League cup winners again and runners-up in the Combination, Harry Topping quit as trainer-coach in June 1959. He was succeeded by Allan Hampson assisted by Liverpool’s Alan A’Court. Nothing is known about Harry’s movements during the ensuing twenty-one months, but when Hampson resigned in March 1961 the directors opted for Topping to succeed him – and this time with the job title ‘first team manager’ thrown in for good measure. It was the first time the term had been used for many a long year. The appointment was to last for just nine months, Harry being ‘removed as manager’ (Walker) in favour of Walter Hughes in December 1961. Harry was 46 but had not lost his golden touch during this short return. At the end of the 1960-61 season the team won the Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup for the second time under his tutelage in a contest played over two legs against South Liverpool (aggregate score 2-0).
Local non-league football figurehead Eric Bond played under Topping in the championship-winning team of 1956-57 and remembers his old trainer-coach as ‘a dominant figure’.
You looked up to him because he was very tall – and because he commanded great respect. He was straightforward and very knowledgeable about the game. He gave tremendous encouragement to young players like me and stood no messing from the seasoned professionals.
Apart from his work as a solicitor’s messenger, very little is known about Harry’s life after he retired from the game. Records show that he married his second wife Norah Morris in St Helens sometime between July and September 1974 – something that John Topping was unaware of. In his capacity as a Driving Theory Test Invigilator in St Helens, David Williams had the pleasure of meeting and chatting briefly to one of Harry’s grandsons. Harry Topping died aged 88, also in St Helens, on 11 July 2004. If any readers can shed light on further aspects of Harry’s family, life on and off the field and later years please contact me or my editor Paul Watkinson.
I am indebted to David Williams, Harry Boydell and Eric Bond for information on Harry Topping the man and player and to John Topping for family details.