Memory Lane: Harry Dolman

Today’s guest is a little bit different from the norm. To start with, he never played for either Bristol side. In fact, he never actually played professional football.

But, it’s fair to say that he did more for ‘his club’ – Bristol City – than any goalkeeper, defender, midfield maestro or striker – and that includes City’s finest, the legendary John Atyeo.

He certainly earned the title of ‘Mr Bristol City’ and without him, it’s doubtful that the club would exist today.

Harry took the advice of an old friend and switched his attention to arch rivals Bristol City. The Pirates’ loss was to be the Robins’ gain

I am referring to former chairman Harry Dolman, whose vision, foresight, enthusiasm and financial support were key to his club ultimately delivering on his dream, promotion to the old First Division (now Premier League).

Born in 1897, the same year Bristol South End changed its name to Bristol City (coincidence or fate?), Henry ‘Harry’ Dolman would work his way up from humble beginnings to become a millionaire. A truly creative individual, some of his early designs – such as a ticket machine that could supply change; food vending and cigarette machines – were quite revolutionary and, during his lifetime, his creative genius would result in him having over 100 patents.

There is so much to tell about this fascinating, self determined and talented individual and, fortunately, it is all in a new book Harry Dolman – The Millionaire Inventor who became ‘Mr Bristol City’ that has just been published, but more on that later. For now, let me concentrate on Harry’s footballing interest.

A talented striker for his village team at Yatton Keynell as a youngster, Harry also turned his hand to refereeing. Football would always be an important part of Harry’s life.

As his company prospered, he toyed with the idea of becoming a football club director and, with his home close to Rovers’ Eastville Stadium, the Pirates seemed a natural choice for Harry.

“I was, at the time, a season ticket holder with Bristol Rovers, having had two tickets for three or four years, so my interest was in that direction,” Harry is quoted as saying. But, after being invited to a Board meeting, his interest in Rovers certainly cooled. “To my great surprise they were in the middle of negotiations to sell the ground in order to get out of debt,” he explained. “Nothing was said about me joining the Board. Time was taken up discussing the sale of the premises, lock stock and barrel.”

Allegiance switched to Bristol City

Somewhat disillusioned, Harry took the advice of an old friend and switched his attention to arch rivals Bristol City. The Pirates’ loss was to be the Robins’ gain.

Having met up with then City chairman George Jenkins, Harry was duly elected as a director. But while he continued to prosper off the field, Harry found the business dealings and financial management totally different in the world of football, with the club continually in debt.

Money was still outstanding on transfer fees; local tradesmen were demanding that their accounts be paid and it was often difficult to find the funds to pay players’ wages.

“I was continually being asked to pay or help to pay,” recalled Harry. But, the optimism of a new season always inspires hope. Unfortunately for Harry and football supporters everywhere, events elsewhere meant an end of such sporting activities as just three games into the 1939-40 season, the Football League would cease for six years due to the 1939-45 War.

At the end of hostilities, the Football League resumed, with City just missing out on promotion. Many, including Harry, believed that the sale of star striker Roy Bentley to Newcastle had cost them top spot. In the ensuing fall out, chairman Jenkins resigned and Harry agreed to take the chair for 12 months. As it turned out, he would continue in that role for 25 years.

Harry Dolman, (third left), and Alan Dicks meet with the architects as the Dolman Stand at Ashton Gate takes shape

So what did Harry achieve in that time? Well, he appointed five managers – Bob Wright, Pat Beasley, Peter Doherty, Fred Ford and Alan Dicks; he was instrumental in getting the signature of a certain John Atyeo, who would go on to become arguably Bristol’s best; he would enjoy the euphoria of twice gaining promotion to the second tier and, after the club’s relegation in 1960, he wiped out a debt of £55,000 – a great deal of money back then.

And let’s not forget that he used his creative skills to help his beloved Bristol City. He designed and manufactured the club’s turnstiles; their first floodlights and, of course, he designed and oversaw the construction of the magnificent Dolman Stand.

Boardroom Coup

Harry’s dream was, of course, to see his beloved team in the top flight (then First Division) of English football. This was achieved in 1976, but by that time, Harry had been succeeded by Robert Hobbs as chairman two years earlier, following a Boardroom coup while Harry was on holiday.

The whole business left a nasty taste in the mouths of many City supporters, who realised just how much Harry Dolman had done for Bristol City and how much the club still needed his guidance.

But Harry, with much dignity, accepted the role of life president and was the proudest man in a packed Ashton Gate for the final game of that memorable season, with promotion up to the elite already secured. And he was also deeply touched by the standing ovation he received from the crowd.

City were in their second season in the top flight when Harry passed away on November 9, 1977 at the age of 80. He would have died happy in the knowledge that his dream of getting his beloved Bristol City into the top flight of English football had, in no small part due to him, become a reality.

Harry Dolman, (left), and stand manager Alan Cox in front of the newly-built Dolman Stand at Ashton Gate

And he would have been horrified at the financial mismanagement that brought about the club’s near demise and subsequent tumble down the leagues in the early 1980s.

The legacy of Harry Dolman lives on in so many ways today and it is fitting that his widow Marina, a very active club president, continues to ensure that the Dolman commitment and dedication to Bristol City Football Club carries on. Her sincerity and dedication is such that she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, for services to football.

There is so much you can write about Harry Dolman and certainly my column here couldn’t do justice to the man himself and his so very many achievements.

Fortunately, a fascinating new book, Harry Dolman, The Millionaire Who Became ‘Mr Bristol City’, written by Martin Powell and Clive Burlton, can tell you all you need to know about the life of this incredible individual.

“I hope that this book helps to preserve Harry’s memory and show others how much one man, with determination and talent, can achieve,” said Harry’s widow Marina, when I met up with her at the official book launch last week.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.