The mystery of Bohs captain William H. Otto

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 H. Otto, the versatile Bohemians half-back, better known as Billy, who captained the team. This piece is as much an appeal for information as the summary of a career.

Finding Billy

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 name and without having 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 some of his story remains untold.

What we do know is that Billy Otto was born around 1898, son of another W. H. Otto, most likely in Cape Town, South Africa. There is no mention of Billy on either the 1901 or 1911 census of Ireland. In fact the only Otto residing in Ireland is a Friedrick Otto, impressively a Professor of Literature, Geography, History, French, German. Friedrick was 33 in 1911 and was born in Hannover. Although he was married with children he was resident in Ranelagh by himself. This would seem to give us no connection to Billy and here the trail runs cold so we don’t really know for definite when he first came to Ireland.

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 thatyear with the club also finishing as League runners-up the following year. 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 new life in 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 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.

28-hollybank-road
28 Hollybank Road as it appears today. In the 1920s it was home to Bohs captain Billy Otto

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.

Billy departs

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.

One other interesting item to note was that another obituary mentioned that Billy had served with the South African infantry during World War I, its reports stated that Billy returned to Ireland in 1920.

This gives us a partial if not conclusive story on the life of the illusive Billy Otto. What remains a mystery is when exactly he first arrived in Ireland and why he ended up here, the details of his military career, and indeed some aspects of his later life or his family background. What is intriguing is that Billy may have been the first footballer born in Africa to lead a European side to a league title. Another first for Bohemians perhaps? As a former league winner and club captain I’d love to find out more about him. If you have any information on William H. Otto, or indeed on Christine Quigley or any of their three sons please get in touch.

With thanks to Simon O’Gorman and Stephen Burke for their assistance and input.