15 Minutes… Dick Pym – Devon’s Fisherman Footballer
Devon’s ‘fisherman footballer’, Dick Pym (1893-1988), kept goal for Bolton Wanderers in the famous ‘White Horse’ FA Cup Final in 1923, the first football match ever played at Wembley.
100 years on he remains the only goalie to play in three finals without conceding a goal.
He was capped for England and enjoyed fame as a cigarette card pin-up, but he primarily thought of himself as a fisherman. As an old man looking back on his eventful life he said, ‘I could talk about boating and fishing forever.’
Brought up in Topsham on the Exe Estuary, as a young teenager he joined one of the town’s two dozen fishing crews. From February to August, salmon were caught using 220m long seine nets, deployed from rowing boats and hauled in from the riverbank by hand. Outside the salmoning season, the crews went to sea with the outgoing tide and drifted for herring.
Dick Pym’s grandson, Richard Pym, explains what fishing for salmon was like: ‘The early months of the season were cold, windy, wet and dangerous. Rowing a heavy, wooden boat, pulling ropes with bare hands and walking in deep, sticky mud wearing guernseys and oilskins was physically challenging. Teamwork was essential.’
These were tough, competitive men, who faced life with courage and determination.
Dick’s core muscles developed, and he became tough and agile. He could catch or punch a heavy leather ball weighing twice as much as a modern football. Dangers at sea made him quick thinking and unflappable, and he could avoid shoulder charging forwards who tried to shove him over the goal line with the ball.
Fishing was not only a love, but a necessity. Although Dick’s £5,000 transfer fee to Bolton made him the most expensive goalkeeper in the world at the time, he only earned £8 a week in the football season and a weekly £6 retainer in the summer.
In the early 20th century, he was one of over 100 Topsham fishermen, and on a good day 50 or more salmon could be caught in one haul. Stocks declined from the late 1980s, and in 2018 the Environment Agency placed a ten-year moratorium on seine netting, effectively ending a 2000-year-old industry.
Dick’s remarkable rags-to-pitches life story – being born into poverty, serving in World War One and then being capped three times for England – is told in a special Dick Pym, the fisherman footballer exhibition which runs at Topsham Museum from March 29th until the end of October.
Visit for yourself: Topsham Museum, 25 Strand, Topsham, Exeter, EX3 0AX. Or find out more: www.topshammuseum.org.uk
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This manageable there and back route offers easy walking and wheeling along the eastern side of the reservoir and to the dams, plus additional access to the wildlife trail in the Burrator Arboretum