In the week before the 1936 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Sheffield United, the appointed referee was sacked from his job for spending too little time at work. Unlike many top-flight referees, Henderson (commonly known as Harry) Nattrass didn’t work in an office, school or other middle-class profession, he worked down the pit. A coal miner since the age of 14, he worked at Seaham Colliery, near Sunderland. It was owned by Lord Londonderry, one of most aristocratic coal owners in the country. 

That an unemployed miner refereed the Cup final may surprise many. Until they professionalised recently, referees were one of the last remnant of the Victorian amateur tradition that was such a strong feature of British sport until well into the 20th century. David Elleray, Harrow schoolmaster and referee of the 1994 FA Cup Final would seem to have more in common with one of the linesmen in 1936, Dr AW Barton, a Cambridge University graduate and schoolmaster at Repton, than he does with a pitman-referee from the economically depressed North East. 

Normally, telling Harry’s story would be impossible. In contrast to the vast numbers of books about clubs and players, referees and refereeing attract little attention outside of their own circle. But Harry’s story can be told here because of a wonderful donation to the National Football Museum by his family. From an archive of newspaper cuttings, letters, telegrams and other personal mementoes kept by Harry it is possible to offer a rare and fascinating insight into his refereeing career.

And what a career it was, for Harry was a very special referee. A frail child, he apparently never kicked a football and took up refereeing after his wife suggested it as an alternative to watching games. The youngest man to referee a Cup final before the Second World War, his appointment caused controversy as more experienced referees were passed over in favour of an official who helped pioneer the diagonal system of refereeing which is still used today. Held in high esteem, he not only refereed Scotland v Germany, when the Swastika flew over Ibrox, but several times for the Irish Free State. Respected as one of Britain’s top referee’s Harry quite literally stood out from his contemporaries. Wearing a plum-coloured outfit, he earned the nickname of ‘Natty Nattrass’ for his bright and distinctive dress. This then, is the story of Harry Nattrass.

“Seaham Harbour is like no other town I have ever seen. It is a colliery town on the coast. It looks as weird as a cart-horse with scales and fins.” JB Priestly, English Journey, 1933

Harry Nattrass was born in 1897 in Seaham Harbour, a mining town in County Durham. Employment revolved around the coal mines and harbour owned by the Londonderry family. When JB Priestly visited in the middle of the depression he described a town, “almost entirely composed of miner’s cottages, laid in dreary monotonous rows. They were so small that they made the whole town look diminutive, as if it were only playing in a miserable fashion at being a town.”

In one cutting from the News of the World, Harry described the origins of his interest in football and refereeing. “As a schoolboy, attending the elementary school at New Seaham, I was lightly built and of poor physique,” he said. “Not being strong enough to play football I had to be content to follow the ‘doings’ of my own school team, from which emanated the ex-Huddersfield and English international centre half-back, Tom Wilson.

“At the age of 14 I left school and went to work in the mine at Seaham Colliery. Wages were small, and quite naturally ‘pocket money’ was in proportion. The train fare from Seaham to Sunderland was 9d. This, plus 6d I had to pay to see the game, just about brought me to the end of my resources. As I got older I attended the games at Roker Park more frequently, and took an interest not only in the players, but in referees, all the time learning the finer points of the game, and acquiring a sound knowledge of the rules of the referee’s chart. 

“It was purely out of interest in the game that I did these things. I had no idea about qualifying as a referee, until one day my wife, who had grown somewhat tired of the attention that I devoted to the game remarked: ‘As you appear to be so keen on football, why don’t you take up refereeing?’ It gave me an idea, and in July, 1921, I went to Sunderland and sat an examination under the Durham Football Association, I obtained a certificate for proficiency, and I applied to be placed on the list of Seaham and District referees the following season.”

Between 1921 and 1930 Harry worked his way up the pyramid of North Eastern football, before earning a chance to become Football League linesman in somewhat unusual circumstances. The original nominee from the Sunderland area was not Harry but his friend Michael Combes. However, in a Newcastle v Sunderland referees football match Combes broke his leg and Harry replaced him for the 1930-31 season. 

In 1933-34 he was promoted to the Supplementary List of Referees and his first game in the Football League was Blackburn Rovers v Arsenal, a game that he recalled as “the finest League match I ever controlled.” By the start of the next season he was on the Full List of Referees. Within two more he was striding out onto the Wembley turf after becoming one of the most controversial appointments to a Cup Final. 

“You take my breath away! Is it really true?” 

Northern Echo, April 1936

Harry was not just being modest when he asked the reporter from the Northern Echo to repeat the news of his appointment to referee the 1936 FA Cup Final: he was probably genuinely surprised. For at the age of 38, Harry became the youngest man to take charge of the Cup final. 

Usually, the honour was given to a referee of considerable experience and this departure from protocol was not well received by all. One critic of the FA’s decision was the former referee JT Howcroft. Arguably Britain’s leading referee of the early twentieth century, he refereed in the Football League between 1899 and 1925, overseeing the 1920 FA Cup Final and 18 international matches. Later a regular contributor to the press, he criticised the decision in the Sheffield Green’Un on the eve of the Cup final in an article entitled “The Cup Final Referee: Plain Words to the FA — A good man chosen, but why are long-service experts passed over?”

Calling the decision a “bombshell”, Howcroft argued that the FA’s abandonment of protocol threatened to undermine the wider importance of the appointment. Appealing “for a broader view”, he argued that the “obvious inference in the FA’s action is that nowadays, if a man can have some luck and enjoy a good time for a season or so, he is as likely to get the first prize open to referees as a man who has given the very best service to the game for tens of years... I still consider that injustice has been done in passing over so many men who were eligible to the Wembley prize.”

While Howcroft may seem uncharitable, he did have a point. Of those Cup final referees appointed between 1919 and 1935, only one other referee had been appointed so early in their career; J Davies in 1921 — he was on the Football League list for only two years. Otherwise, no other referee was appointed to the final without at least four years on the Full List. Indeed, several referees waited for a decade or more before getting the final. Among the letters that Harry kept was one from another referee called Bert Bowie, who had spent 10 years at the top. It wished Harry well but also expressed Bert’s disappointment at missing out. Why, then, did Harry get the game? 

In part, Harry indeed had had a very good couple of years. At the end of the 1934-35 season he ran the line at Hamden Park before a crowd of 130,000 for Scotland v England. The following season he was selected to referee the English League v the Irish League, Scotland v Ireland and Ireland v Wales.

Of the Inter-League match Harry wrote, “I have little doubt that this match proved a big step on my way to Wembley. I believe I had a good match, and as a result I was chosen to referee the international Scotland v Ireland, at Edinburgh. After this game I was congratulated by Mr Fleming, the president of the Scottish FA, and was also complimented in the press of the following days.’ 

Harry had earned an unusually rich series of top-level appointments. The praise bestowed on him would not have been lost on Stanley Rous, a former referee and the newly appointed secretary of the FA in 1934. And here, perhaps, lies the key to Harry’s surprise appointment.

A former grammar-school teacher, Rous was a genial but determined moderniser, seeking consensus rather than confrontation. While he helped oversee a raft of changes in his time at the FA, one of his most enduring was one of his earliest projects; the diagonal refereeing system. This was a response to the difficulties faced by referees after the change in the off-side law in 1926 made the game faster and faster. Used across the world, it still remains the standard way of organising the responsibilities of the three officials for maximum efficiency. 

Although who exactly invented it is uncertain, Rous certainly played a key part in establishing it, having both used it during his refereeing days and then pushed for its adoption as an administrator. Publishing an FA memorandum on how to apply it in January 1935, Rous oversaw its eventual incorporation into the Referee’s Chart in 1938-39.

However, Rous faced some opposition from Charles Sutclifffe, secretary of the Football League and a former referee himself, who favoured an alternative scheme of two referees, one in each half. Although now consigned to the realms of amusing what-ifs, Sutcliffe’s proposal was, in its own way, an intelligent, if different response to the problems faced by referees. The idea of two referees may now seem surreal, but in the mid-1930s it was genuinely considered as a possibility. Sutcliffe had lobbied for it for nearly a decade and in 1935 had managed to get the FA to arrange two trial matches. Although Sutcliffe’s scheme received mixed reviews, it was still alive and kicking in 1936.

What Rous probably wanted at this time was a referee who could show off the diagonal system to best effect. One cutting revealingly notes that “the FA people are keen to have the busy referee on their side: the man who doesn’t loll through a game, the man who has the pace to chase up and down and keep in direct touch with the incidents of play. Nattrass is a lean kind: he can run and he can command.”

Harry’s command of games was based on a thorough, even professional approach to his craft. Clifford Webb, one of Britain’s leading sporting writers of the 1930s remarked after one game that “Last year’s Cup final referee is recognised as being one of the best at his job. Maybe that is because he treats refereeing with all the importance that it deserves. He invariably takes stock of a pitch before a match starts and ‘arms’ himself accordingly. He knows all the players’ methods of ankle strengthening, bandaging for quicker turning on the field, and things of that sort, and uses them himself.”

He was also thorough in his dealings with his linesmen, a crucial factor in using the diagonal system well. WG Gallacher of the Daily Record wrote in 1938 that Nattrass “told me that he made it a habit prior to every game, of having a conference with his linesmen to whom he explained his ideas of what their duties should be, with the request —perhaps I should say the instruction — that they operate accordingly.” 

One of Harry’s most distinctive features was his dress sense. Referees were not governed by any strict rules on what they could wear and where possible, Harry turned out in maroon jacket and shorts or a white shirt with red cuffs and collar to help him stand out. Sports writers loved it and many of the clippings that Harry kept commentated on his dress, with one writer calling him “Natty Nattrass.” One artist even based a cartoon match report around him, noting that “Positively the nicest thing in referees was on view at the Grimsby match (H Nattrass, Esq). His suit was a symphony in heliotrope. He outshone Cleopatra’s barge for colour.”

If the controversy over his appointment weren’t enough to daunt him, Harry was then sacked from his job at Seaham Colliery. On the one hand, the colliery had some cause for complaint as Harry had apparently only been able to work 11 days in 1936. The coal industry was still suffering from the depression of the 1920s and in the uproar over Harry’s dismissal not all sided with him. One writer to the Northern Mail complained that “many a man would have welcomed Mr Nattrass’s opportunity to work at the pit, with five shillings a week for rent and free coal. These seem to me matters that deserve consideration before any man takes on jobs that prevent him doing his own regular work.” The News of the World reported his sacking and, within 24 hours, presumably to avoid further bad publicity, Harry was offered his job back at the end of the season, although Harry said he would consider his options before accepting it. In the end he took a job as a Colliery Welfare Official which took him out of the pit and into the office.

Despite all the controversy and stress, it was normal pre-match nerves that kept Harry Nattrass awake all night before the final. On arrival at the stadium, though, he would no doubt have been moved by all the messages of support sent by his friends, family and colleagues. These are perhaps the most touching items in the collection as you try to imagine Harry’s reaction as they were passed to him in the build-up. Perhaps he enjoyed a smile as the Sunderland Referee’s Society told him to “take hold a Northeast grip. Best of luck.”

To referee at Wembley before a crowd of 93,384 was something new, even to Harry, and in the Newcastle Sunday Sun he described “how impressive the vast sea of faces seemed when I went out for the first time on to the Wembley turf. I had never previously even been to the Stadium to witness a match, far less officiate at one and the sight was awe-inspiring.” Endearingly honest, he wrote that “I don’t mind admitting that I was a bit ‘windy’ when I first came out but I soon found my bearings... after the first 10 minutes, however, I was quite OK. Everything went along swimmingly and I felt entirely at home. Never did I have the slightest difficulty in controlling the game.”

The game was a tight one with a single goal from Ted Drake giving Arsenal the Cup but it passed without great controversy and Nattrass publically thanked the players for their sportsmanship. In turn the Topical Times praised him in terms that would have gratified both him and Stanley Rous. “There was no argument in this game. The goal brooked no complaint. Referee Nattrass, of Seaham, signalled the goal and all through the game he showed his infinite capacity for doing his job thoroughly and well; without flourish of whistle or trumpeting; without semaphoring and with sense. It was one of the best final tie referee displays ever given, and the pace of the man with the whistle kept him right on the spot where things were happening.”

One of the first men to salute Harry after the final whistle was the Arsenal manager, George Allison, who had actually written to Harry before the game to congratulate him on his appointment — something he asked him not to mention. Sheffield United’s manager, Teddy Davison, also tried to find him after the game but on missing him wrote to thank Nattrass for the “splendid and efficient” manner in which he controlled the game and commented that “the way in which you carried out your duties must have satisfied all and sundry that you thoroughly deserved the high and proud distinction which has been conferred upon you.” As Harry put it in one newspaper, “these things — particularly a letter from the manager of the losing side — are things that any referee can appreciate.”

“Who is the Busiest Referee?”

Harry had little time to take in his Cup final achievement for within the week he was refereeing the Channel Islands Cup Final, being presented with a crimson scarf. This kind of constant travel was a feature of a referee’s career. At his peak in 1936 one paper estimated that he was refereeing two games a week in Britain and Ireland. While the Cup Final was the “blue riband” event of his refereeing career, he still enjoyed a distinguished career throughout the 1930. As well as refereeing regularly in England he was also popular at the international level in Scotland and in particular, Ireland, where he also refereed many club games. 

After the Cup final, the next big game of Harry’s career was equally controversial but for different reasons. Scotland v Germany in 1936 was the second visit of a football team representing Nazi Germany to the UK and the first between England and Germany in 1935 had attracted a storm of protest from the TUC and anti-fascist groups. Protests were planned in Scotland and a copy of the Scottish Daily Record that Harry kept records that five men were arrested for chalking anti-fascist slogans on walls while two other men were arrested at the game for shouting “Down with Hitler” and carrying a banner with anti-fascist messages. The view of the newspapers and the SFA was that football and politics should not mix and they tried to downplay the political dimensions of the game. Pathé News made similar efforts in their newsreel, with their commentator ignoring the striking opening images of a swastika fluttering over Ibrox and the German team giving the Hitler salute to all four sides of the ground. What Harry thought of it all is not recorded but he gave another good performance as Scotland won 2-0, although one paper called his disallowing of an early German goal for offside “a doubtful decision to say the least.”

To cap an outstanding year Harry was then selected to referee a game between the Irish Free State and Hungary. This marked a new high in a distinctive part of his refereeing career. From around 1936 to 1939 he became a highly popular figure in Irish football refereeing three international games (all against Hungary), several Inter-league games between the Irish League of Northern Ireland and the League of Ireland from the Republic, and a number of FAI Cup-ties, Free State Shield and Free State League games. 

As a leading English referee, his views were eagerly sought by the Irish papers, especially when his interpretation of the laws differed from those in Ireland. After his first international match he told the Irish Independent that “Ireland might have got a second penalty in the second half when your inside-left was fouled, but he was in a scoring position and I played the advantage and he failed to use his chance.” His use of the rule was questioned the next day in the same newspaper when it noted “few, if any of our referees here know of the advantage rule, or seldom employ it.” 

It wasn’t the only time that Harry caused consternation with his decisions in Ireland. In 1938 he officiated the third attempt to settle a FAI Cup quarter-final tie between Bray Unknowns and Shamrock Rovers. Bray lost 2-1 and Nattrass was involved in Rovers’ first goal when he stationed himself in the area for a corner kick. A clearance rebounded off him and in the scramble the ball was forced home. More theatrically, in a game between Cork and Shelbourne, a linesman flagged for a corner kick but Nattrass ignored him, whereupon the linesman dropped his flag and stormed off the field to be replaced by Tom Aungier, President of the League of Ireland.

Despite having achieved so much so young, Nattrass was still robbed of nearly half the top-flight career he might have enjoyed in normal circumstances. He refereed during the war, although exactly how often is unknown. He retained his natural enthusiasm for the game, which led to him being banned by the Durham FA for refereeing three games without renewing his referee’s license. Even an appeal failed, much to disgust of one newspaper reporter who called Harry “one of the best ambassadors of football we have ever had.” Despite this he returned to top-flight duties for the 1946-47 season. At the end the Football League retired him “in order to give younger referees a chance,” whereupon he quit refereeing altogether. 

Still working for the newly nationalised Coal Board, he continued to be involved in football. Almost immediately he was signed by Barnsley and later Newcastle United as a scout. His most successful recommendation was the full-back Irving Nattrass (no relation) who played for Newcastle in the 1970s.

Harry lived out his passion for football but, as his granddaughter Helen Nattrass points out, there was a social cost at home. “The household suffered significant absences as he travelled to match locations around the country and abroad,” she said. “I guess my grandmother would have had concerns about money at certain times, especially at the time Harry lost his job as a miner. As a consequence of all this, my father was never really interested in football and I can never remember him ever going to a match. However I do have clear memories, as a child, of Harry visiting our house in York when he had been on nearby scouting trips. He would arrive in the early evening on a Saturday and settle down quickly to write his reports in large angular writing. He was always wary if any of us had a cold. But he could always be tempted by the offer of one of our sweets.”

It was refereeing for which he was remembered, though, and, when he died in 1974, aged 77, Nattrass’s obituary noted that “his rise to prominence as one of Europe’s top referees was unprecedented.”