George Hilsdon was born in Donald Street in Bromley-by-Bow on 10th August 1885. As a boy he went to Marner Street School with Billy Bridgeman. In 1897 the Hilsdon family moved to East Ham and he attended Plashet Lane School. A talented footballer, he was made captain of the school side.
Hilsdon played at centre-half for East Ham Boys in the Corinthian Shield, the inter-district competition introduced by the London Schools' Football Association. The South Essex Mail reported that: "George Hilsdon, Plashet's crack centre-half, is one of the very best lads performing in the Corinthian Competition. He had done splendid work for the East Ham team, which he leads in an admirable manner... He tackles fearlessly, and places accurately to his forwards. George has great fondness for snap shots, and has scored in every Corinthian match."
As Colm Kerrigan, the author of Gatling Gun George Hilsdon (1997) has pointed out: "Nothing is known about George Hilsdon in the three and a half years between leaving school some time during 1900 and his first known appearance in local football around the beginning of 1904." That year he joined Boleyn Castle football team. Soon afterwards he was spotted playing in a Sunday League match by Syd King. The 18 year old signed for West Ham United in November 1904.
Hilsdon scored in his first game for the club on 11th February, 1905. He joined a team that included Charlie Simmons, Herbert Bamlett, William McCartney, Jack Flynn, John Russell, Jack Fletcher, Billy Bridgeman, Christopher Carrick, George Hilsdon, Matt Kingsley, David Gardner, Len Jarvis and Tommy Allison.
Hilsdon also scored a hat-trick in a Western League game against Bristol Rovers. The East End News reported: "The match was quite a triumph for the new West Ham centre-forward, who was responsible for three of the half a dozen goals, and to beat a goalkeeper like Cartlidge thrice in one match is an achievement an older hand than Hilsdon might be proud of. With a little more experience, he will doubtless develop into a really first class player."
On 17th April 1905 Hilsdon was injured in a game against Fulham. He was unable to play for the rest of the season. However, his record of four goals in seven games, was an excellent start to his football career.
Hilsdon was not in the first-team at the beginning of the 1905-06 season. However, after three successive defeats Hilsdon got his chance against Brentford on 30th September 1905. Although he did not score, Hilsdon helped West Ham United win 2-0. He also played in the next game against Norwich City, but a reoccurrence of the previous season's injury meant that he was out of the team for the next six weeks.
Hilsdon returned to the first team in the game against Fulham on 25th November. He kept his place and scored in the next two games against Queen's Park Rangers and Bristol Rovers. However, after only one more game he was replaced by new signing Harry Stapley. He also faced strong competition from Billy Bridgeman and Billy Grassam. Hilsdon was brought back into the first team on 14th April 1906 and again he scored a goal and by the end of the season he had hit the net three times in nine games.
In June 1906, John Tait Robertson, persuaded Syd King to let Hilsdon join Chelsea on a free transfer. Colm Kerrigan, the author of Gatling Gun George Hilsdon (1997) has argued that: "It is difficult to understand why the shrewd Syd King was willing to let him go on a free transfer. Perhaps he had despaired of George ever successfully getting over his injury. Or perhaps, with Stapley doing so well as centre-forward and with competent cover available in the form of Bridgeman and the recently returned Billy Grassam, he may have seen no place for him in his future team plans."
Chelsea were at that time in the Second Division of the Football League. They also had a large following and the game against Manchester United the previous season the club had attracted more than 60,000 spectators to Stamford Bridge, the largest ever for a league match at the time. There were also plans to provide more space that season for a further 20,000 spectators.
Hilsdon played for his new club for the first time against Glossop on 1st September 1906. The Fulham Observer described it as "a sensational debut" as Hilsdon scored five goals in Chelsea's 9-2 victory. Hilsdon was now a marked man and the local newspaper reported that in a game against Fulham Hilsdon "got a terrific charge after about ten minutes, and for the rest of the game wandered about, a shade of his former self. In the dressing room at half-time he was writhing and twisting with pain."
Colm Kerrigan argues in Gatling Gun George Hilsdon that Hilsdon constantly received rough treatment that season. The Fulham Observer reported that in a game against Nottingham Forest Hilsdon "found it difficult to do anything, as directly the ball came in his direction three opponents were on his track".
In 1906 George Hilsdon married Katherine Kelly, the daughter of Irish immigrants living in Whitechapel. The couple went to live in Fulham Palace Road. A son, also named George, was born a year later. Later he had a daughter Kathleen.
Hilsdon got a reputation for fast and hard shooting. The West London Press described a goal he scored against Leicester City in the league: "Hilsdon made a bewildering side movement which just for a second or so nonplussed the two Leicester players around him, but in that brief space Hilsdon had flashed the ball past the astounding Lewis. It was a shot without the slightest element of speculation. It was a Hilsdon goal."
In November 1906 the club programme included a cartoon portrait of Hilsdon entitled "Gatling-Gun George". The accompanying article pointed out that the nickname derived from his shooting "that are simply unstoppable and which travel like shots from a gun."
George Hilsdon scored his 27 goal of the season in Chelsea's 4-1 win over Gainsborough Trinity at Stamford Bridge. This win guaranteed Chelsea promotion to the First Division. S. B. Ashworth, writing in the Daily Mail, predicted that Hilsdon would soon be selected for the England team: "He commands the ball wonderfully, has a fine conception of a centre's duties, and above all, is a deadly shot."
Hilsdon remained in good form the following season. He created another record for the club when he scored six goals in a FA Cup tie against Worksop Town. Hilsdon's 25 league goals that season placed him equal second with Sandy Turnbull of Manchester United and Enoch West of Nottingham Forest. However, Chelsea struggled in the First Division and only just avoided relegation.
Hilsdon won his first international cap for England against Ireland on 15th February 1907. The team that day included Joe Bache, Tim Coleman, Bob Crompton, Sam Hardy and William Wedlock. Hilsdon failed to score in the 1-0 victory and was dropped from the team. Colm Kerrigan argues that "George had a poor game, handicapped by a foot injury. It was rumoured that it was sustained through a deliberate attempt by the Irish to put him out of the game." However, Hilsdon later claimed that he had jarred the muscles of his foot shooting for goal.
Hilsdon started the 1907-08 season in good form by scoring in the home game against Bury. The Fulham Observer reported: "It was fitting that Hilsdon should place the first goal at Stamford Bridge to the credit of Chelsea, and what a magnificent shot it was that found the top corner of the net." The following week he scored a great goal against Sheffield United. The same newspaper reported that Hilsdon treated the crowd "to one of his brilliant dashes through the defence and a consequent goal."
Hilsdon was selected for the trial for the England team in March 1908. The Athletic News was impressed with the way that Hilsdon and Vivian Woodward played together in the South team that drew 4-4 with the North. The newspaper commented that this "superb combination enabled George Hilsdon to shoot all the four goals." He was selected to play against Ireland and scored two goals in England's 3-1 victory. This was followed by a 7-1 hammering of Wales. Once again Hilsdon scored two goals.
On 6th June 1908 Hilsdon scored another two goals in England's 6-1 victory over Austria. This was followed by four goals against Hungary (7-1) and two against Bohemia (4-0). He had now scored 12 goals in 7 internationals. The Fulham Observer reported that Hilsdon was "now England's acknowledged greatest centre-forward and had acquired an accuracy of aim probably unequalled by any great player today."
Hilsdon played against Ireland on 13th April 1909. Despite scoring two goals he was criticised by the Athletic News for being "very deficient in deadliness near the goal". Some journalists claimed that Bert Freeman deserved to replace Hilsdon in the England team. The selectors agreed and he was dropped from the England team against Wales. Hilsdon who had scored an amazing 14 goals in 8 international games, was never to play for his country again.
On 20th November, 1909, Vivian Woodward, Hilsdon's former international colleague, was transferred to Chelsea. That season Hilsdon was not so prolific and Chelsea ended up being relegated from the First Division.
Football journalists began to turn on Hilsdon. The Fulham Observer reported after one game: "Hilsdon did very little at centre-forward with the exception of the one goal he scored. Perhaps he is unable to concentrate on the game." Reg Groves claimed: "He had become too sociable, too careless with his strength and vitality". It was rumoured that Hilsdon had a serious drink problem and he was dropped from the first-team.
After scoring 107 goals in 164 games for Chelsea he was allowed to return to West Ham United in June 1912. The Fulham Observer reported: "Under normal circumstances, they (Chelsea) would probably want nearly four figures before consenting to the international going elsewhere, but strange as it may seem, Chelsea acquired Hilsdon from West Ham without any fee at all, the stipulation being that if he were transferred to another club a proportion of the transfer fee should go to West Ham... During the last two seasons he has declined in form... he will probably be happier at West Ham."
The East Ham Echo reported that during his first home game Hilsdon "had to run the gauntlet of some very uncomplimentary remarks from part of the stand". Hilsdon played at inside-left, with Fred Harrison at centre-forward and Danny Shea at inside-right. The combination played well together. As the East Ham Echo pointed out: "Good as Shea has always been, he is 20 per cent better since the introduction of Hilsdon."
On 15th February 1913 West Ham United played Southampton. The East Ham Echo reported that: "Hilsdon was once more the master-mind of the attack, and it would be difficult to estimate his share in placing the Hammers fifth in the Southern League table this season as against twelfth at the same period last year."
West Ham finished the 1912-13 season in 3rd place in the Southern League. George Hilsdon ended up top scorer with 17 goals in 36 cup and league games. Albert Denyer also did well with 12 in 33 games. However, they clearly missed the goals of Danny Shea in the second half of the season.
Hilsdon scored a goal against Millwall in the opening of the 1913-14 season. Richard Leafe was brought into the team for the next game against Swindon Town and scored both goals in the 3-2 defeat. Leafe went on to score in his next three games.
On 22nd November, 1913, Syd Puddefoot, a local lad, was brought into the team against Gillingham. West Ham won 3-1 and Puddefoot scored one of the goals. As John Northcutt and Roy Shoesmith point out in their book, West Ham United: An Illustrated History (1994): "The 19-year-old Syd Puddefoot arrived and he found the net on 13 occasions in his first 11 games." Puddefoot's form resulted in Hilsdon being dropped from the team.
Dan Bailey, was also in good form and Hilsdon found himself out of the first-team. Injuries to Richard Leafe and Syd Puddefoot brought him back into the team and he scored two goals against Millwall on 14th April 1914. The East Ham Echo reported that Hilsdon scored "with one of those terrific shots for which he is famed, but which we have seen all too few of late."
West Ham United finished in 6th place in the 1913-14 season. Richard Leafe was top scorer with 21 goals. Syd Puddefoot was second in the list with 16 in 20 cup and league games. Hilsdon only scored 6 goals in 17 games.
Despite the outbreak of the First World War the Football League decided to allow the 1914-15 season to continue. West Ham had high hopes that they could win the Southern League for the first time. In Syd Puddefoot they had the country's most promising young goalscorer.
West Ham won six of their first 12 games. Syd Puddefoot got nine goals in these 12 games. George Hilsdon and Richard Leafe were also in good form and got 7 between them. Once again West Ham were challenging for the Southern League title.
In October 1914, the Secretary of State, Lord Kitchener, issued a call for volunteers to both replace those killed in the early battles of the war. On 12th December William Joynson Hicks established the 17th Service (Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. This became known as the Football Battalion. Several top footballers joined this battalion. This included Frank Buckley, Walter Tull, Vivian Woodward and Evelyn Lintott. Buckley, a former soldier, became commander of the battalion.
The Football Association called for all professional footballers who were not married, to join the armed forces. Some newspapers suggested that those who did not join up were "contributing to a German victory." The Athletic News responded angrily: "The whole agitation is nothing less than an attempt by the ruling classes to stop the recreation on one day in the week of the masses ... What do they care for the poor man's sport? The poor are giving their lives for this country in thousands. In many cases they have nothing else... These should, according to a small clique of virulent snobs, be deprived of the one distraction that they have had for over thirty years."
Frederick Charrington, the son of the wealthy brewer who had established the Tower Hamlets Mission, attacked the West Ham players for being effeminate and cowardly for getting paid for playing football while others were fighting on the Western Front.
West Ham players responded to this call to join the armed forces. Jack Tresadern joined the Royal Garrison Artillery. Three members of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee visited Upton Park and made an appeal for volunteers during half-time. Joe Webster, the West Ham United goalkeeper, was one of those who joined the Football Battalion as a result of this appeal. Hilsdon continued playing in the team and scored 5 in 20 games in the 1914-15 season.
Attendances at league games fell dramatically during the second-half of the season because of the impact of the First World War. It was decided that the Southern League would not operate in the 1915-16 season. As football players only had contracts to play for one season at a time, they were now out of work. It has been estimated that around 2,000 of Britain's 5,000 professional footballers now joined the armed forces. This included George Hilsdon who joined the East Surrey Regiment. He served on the Western Front, had to endure a mustard gas attack at Arras in 1917. This badly damaged his lungs and although he played briefly for Chatham Town after the war. He scored 14 goals in six games in 1919 but he was eventually forced to retire from the game.
In 1924 Hilsdon joined Fred Karno's Troup, a popular vaudeville act. One method of publicizing the company as it travelled round the country was to arrange a charity football match between the cast of the show and some local organization.
According to Colm Kerrigan, the author of Gatling Gun George Hilsdon (1997) argued: "Years of success had not dampened his East End spirit of survival, and he scraped a living in various ways, all of them, insofar as is known, on the right side of the law - but sometimes only just. One of his escapades, during a bleak period, was to go around several East End pubs, raffling boxes of chocolates, but arranging for the prize to be won on every occasion by his wife."