The 1923-24 season was to signal the first of Bohemian Football Club’s 11 League of Ireland title wins. That maiden title was captured in the penultimate game of the season, a 2-1 victory over St. James’s Gate in Dalymount. The goals that day came from English-born centre forward Dave Roberts and Dubliner Christy Robinson at inside-left. Between them they would score 32 of the Bohs’ 56 goals that season, with Roberts finishing as the League’s top marksman with 20. But while strikers tend to get the glory this maiden victory was of course a team effort. A number of those league winning Bohs players were selected for the Irish squad that travelled to the 1924 Olympics. Men like full-back Bertie Kerr, Paddy O’Kane, Jack McCarthy, Ned Brooks and Johnny Murray would win caps for Ireland and are still remembered for their contributions for the club. However, one man who was central to those achievements but leaves less of a trace is William Henry Otto, the versatile Bohemians half-back, better known as Billy, who captained the team.
Anyone who has ever trawled through Irish newspaper archives or through any number of online census returns or genealogy sites will appreciate the difficulty in trying to track down a relative from the distant past. Particularly if that relative has a rather common surname, without having the specifics to hand working out if that John O’Sullivan or that Mary Byrne is your ancestor can be a thankless task. It is for some of these reasons that researching someone with the surname Otto in 1920’s Ireland is that bit more intriguing. However detail on the life of Billy Otto of Bohemian Football Club initially proved illusive and as his story developed it brought me on quite an unexpected journey.
What we know about Billy Otto begins with his birth in December of 1898, son of another William Henry Otto, in Robben Island just off Cape Town, South Africa. Robben Island is most famous for being the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years from the 1960’s to 1980’s. However in 1898 it was a leper colony. William Henry Otto Snr. was a pharmacist which explains his presence on the island, though it was hardly the ideal place for a new born baby as part of the growing family. Billy being the 2nd born of a large family of 10 children.
In 1915, before he had even reached his 17th birthday young Billy had volunteered to join the 1st South African Infantry Regiment and was off to fight in World War I under the command of Brigadier General Henry Lukin. The Regiment was part of the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force which was a volunteer military organisation that fought on the British side against the Central Powers during the war. Billy’s regiment was colloquially known as the “Cape Regiment” as this was the area that provided the bulk of their manpower.
Early on the regiment fought along with the British in North Africa and Billy was involved in the Action of Agagia in Egypt in February 1916 as part of what was known as the Senussi campaign. The Senussi were a religious sect based in Libya and Egypt who had been encouraged by Ottoman Turkey to attack the British. The engagement at Agagia led to the capture of one of the Senussi leaders.
But by May 1916 the 1st South African Infantry had left Africa and had been transferred to Europe and the Western Front and where they were joined into the 9th Scottish Division. They would take part in some of the many epic and bloody engagements of the Battle of the Somme at Longueval and at Delville Wood. Brigadier-General Henry Lukin and his South African troops were ordered to take and hold Delville Wood at all costs. The battle was for a tiny and ultimately insignificant sliver of land as part of the huge Somme offensive and began on 15th July of 1916. By the 18th of July Billy had been injured in a massive German counter-offensive, the Germans shelled the small section of the Wood for seven and a half hours and over the course of day, in an area less than one square mile, 20,000 shells fell. One account described the trees of the woodland being turned to matchsticks by the end of the bombardment.
The South African soldiers would continue to be shelled and sniped at from three sides until the July 20th when suffering from hunger, thirst and exhaustion they were led out of the wood. The Battle of Deville Wood would be the most costly action that the South African forces on the Western Front would endure, of the 3,153 men from the brigade who entered the wood, only 780 were present at the roll call after their relief.
The injured Billy would ultimately be sent to England to recuperate and it is likely that from here he got the idea to travel to Ireland. What prompted this we simply don’t yet know.
What we do know is that Billy appears first as a sportsman for Bohemians in 1920, and featured regularly from 1921 as Bohemians competed in the first season of the newly formed Free State League. Billy usually played in a half-back (midfield) position in the team though did he feature in a number of other roles and proved an occasional goal-getter.
In April 1923 he features in the Bohemian XI that take on touring French side CAP Gallia in Dalymount, in what was the first visit by a continental side to Ireland since the split with the IFA. In late December 1923 Otto captained the Bohs side that travelled to Belfast to take on Linfield. Bohs won the game 4-2 in one of the first matches played against northern opposition since the split. He was then part of a selection under the Shelbourne banner (a composite side made up from several clubs) that took on members of the 1924 Olympic football team in a warm up game prior to their departure for Paris. Here he featured against his regular midfield teammates John Thomas and Johnny Murray.
Other prominent games were to follow in 1924, rather appropriately for Billy Bohemians took on the South African national team as the debut game on their European Tour. Billy once again captained Bohs as the South Africans ran out 4-2 winners. Tantalisingly the Pathé news cameras were at the ground that day and recorded some of the footage of the game and the teams posing before the match. As captain it is Billy we see receiving a piece of South African art from his opposite number. Tall, slim and dark-haired Billy would have been around 26 years of age when this footage was shot.
Billy was Bohemian captain for the 1923-24 season, a time of progress for the club as they were crowned League champions and Shield winners that year with the club also finishing as League runners-up the following year, he would also become a member of the club committee. He continued as a regular team member through to the first half of 1927 when he disappears from the match reports of the club. We know that during his time in Dublin he more than likely worked for the the revenue service as we know he lined out for them as a footballer in the Civil Service League around the same time that he was on the books of Bohemians. This wasn’t too unusual as a number of Billy’s other team-mates would have also been civil servants (i.e. Harry Willitts) at what was then still a strictly amateur club.
Billy sets sail
While Billy Otto might have been finishing up at Bohemians he was about to begin another chapter of his life. On the 24th November 1927 he boarded the steamship Bendigo (shown above) on the London docks bound for a return to Cape Town, South Africa. Billy was by this stage 29 years of age and listed his residence as the Irish Free State, more specifically at 28 Hollybank Road in Drumcondra. On the ship’s passenger list the stated country of his future residence was South Africa and his profession was recorded as bloodstock. There is a possible Bohemian connection here as one of Billy’s former teammates, Bertie Kerr was already by this stage and established bloodstock agent who would go on to purchase and sell four Aintree Grand National winners.
Billy and Bertie were known to be good friends outside of football. Is it possible that the Kerr family may have introduced Otto to the business? Perhaps, although there is strong evidence that there may have been a familial connection. Billy’s brother Johnny was a champion jockey in South Africa and later worked as a steward at the Jockey club.
In his personal life it must have been during his time living in Drumcondra that Billy was to meet his future wife Christine. Born Christina Quigley in Dalkey on 8th December 1900 to a Policeman; Thomas, and a housewife, Maryanne, by the 1911 census Christine was living on St. Patrick’s Road in Drumcondra. She is not listed as a passenger on Billy’s 1927 voyage and they did not marry in Ireland. However, we know that they did indeed get married and had three sons, tying the knot in December 1929 in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Records show that she had travelled to South Africa via Mozambique aboard the SS Grantully Castle just one month earlier. Christine Otto (nee Quigley) did make return visits to Ireland later in her life. She came back to Dublin via Southampton for a visit in 1950, the stated destination for her visit was to 25 Hollybank Road.
In March 1958 a small obituary in the Irish Times noted the passing on the 13th of that month of William H (Billy) Otto at his residence of Wingfield on the Algarkirk Road, Seapoint, Cape Town. “Beloved husband of Chriss (Quigley) late of Drumcondra, Dublin. Deeply mourned by his three sons and members of the Bohemian Football Club”. Billy’s passing occured within a week of the deaths of two other team-mates, Ned Brooks and Jack McCarthy, from that same championship winning team. Christine remained in South Africa though she is listed as returning again to Ireland in 1960, two years after Billy’s death. The address that she was to stay at for an intended 12 months was, on this occasion, in Foxrock, Dublin.
Billy had lived out his days in his native Cape Town, he and Chriss had three sons, another William Henry, Brian Barry and Terrence John. Whatever about his interest in bloodstock and horse racing Billy also had other business interests running an off-licence (locally known as “bottle stores”) up to the time of his death in 1958. In just 60 years he had led quite the life and defied the odds in many ways. Born in a leper colony, as a teenager he had survived the horrors of the Somme to go on and become one of the first prominent South African born footballers in Europe. He captained his club to a League title and faced off against the national team of his home nation in one of their earliest games. He built a life, friendships and family across two continents and I hope I’ve done a small part in restoring him to the consciousness of the Bohemian fraternity.
With thanks to Simon O’Gorman and Stephen Burke for their assistance and input and a special thank you to Maryanne and all of the Otto/Calitz family for sharing information about their late grandfather.