Ending the story about Alex Mackie – the man who didn’t demand a monkey for signing on.

Here are the key dates for Alex Mackie’s footballing career

  • 23 February 1903: John Mackie born in Co Antrim
  • 10 February 1922: John Mackie signed from Forth River Belfast and the infamous monkey incident
  • 9 December 1922: First league game for John Mackie
  • 14 April 1923: Mackie plays his first international for Ireland against Wales
  • 26 April 1926: Arsenal 5 Hibernian 0. Last game for John Mackie
  • 28 June 1928: John Mackie transferred to Portsmouth
  • 9 June 1984: John Mackie died

John Alexander Mackie, often known as Alex, was born in Monkstown, County Antrim, and started out at Monkstown and Forth River in Belfast, before being spotted (along with Andy Kennedy and Joe Toner) by Toby Mercer who ran Belfast United, in 1922.

He is a man who has become best known for the notion that upon signing for Arsenal he demanded a signing on fee of a monkey.  That not only seems bizarre in itself, but also unlikely because signing on fees were virtually unknown at the time.  So, in writing up his story, this is a good chance to find out the truth about the monkey.

According to Bernard Joy in “Forward, Arsenal!”, who is our only source for the events surrounding Mackie’s signing, Toby Mercer (who had played for Derby, and who acted as a scout for Arsenal) had already paid for Andrew Kennedy and Joe Toner, to go to Arsenal for a trial.   We can’t verify if this is true for Kennedy for he didn’t sign for Arsenal, at first, but went to Crystal Palace moving the Arsenal in 1922.  But Joe Toner did play for Mercer at Belfast United, and moved directly from there to Arsenal in 1919.

Alex Mackie’s transfer however is reported differently by Joy, and in this case (according to Joy;s telling), Leslie Knighton, the Arsenal manager, went personally to Belfast to sign Mackie.   Now Knighton makes no mention of any of this in his autobiography, perhaps because it does not fit with his tales of how Sir Henry Norris treated him, restricting the purchase of players and winding up the scouring network.  Clearly, we can see from Joy’s recounting of the situation this was not the case here, when Toby Mercer was acting as a decent scout for Arsenal in Ireland, at a time of social disruption and upheaval.

So, according to Joy, Knighton went to Ireland.  But (still according to Joy) this was in 1923 “during the time of the Black and Tan troubles”.   This is not quite right as the Black and Tans (the violent gangs of “temporary constables” created by Winston Churchill) were disbanded in 1922).  However this was the end period of the Irish Revolutionary Period and so Joy’s statement that Mercer could not immediately introduce Knighton to Mackie because Mackie lived in the Catholic quarter, along with his description of a dead body lying in the road as they walked the city streets, could be truthful.

After this Joy says that Mackie was signed on £5 a week, which he describes as a huge amount of money to a young Irishman, and Mackie used a part of his first week’s salary to buy himself a pet monkey.

This is the only historical reference to what has become the monkey incident, and somehow it has been transformed into Henry Norris using foreign contacts to get Mackie a monkey as a signing on fee.

The bizarre transference of the story into the demand for a monkey as a signing on fee is weird enough, but the fact that it is subsequently suggested in some sources that Sir Henry Norris arranged for the monkey for the player is even more unlikely.   Sir Henry was a London man who made his fortune in property, particularly in Fulham, not in international trade.  Yes he travelled, but mostly to the south of France.  Indeed at this time he as not only chairman of Arsenal at the time of the signing, he was also an MP who was having real problems with his local Conservative Party.  He was in short a little distracted!

If we want even more reason as to why Norris would not be involved, it is the fact that this was the era in which Sir Henry twice (1922 and 1924) put forward the proposal at the AGM of the Football League that transfers should be much more strictly controlled, with maximum transfer fees and careful arrangements for transfers of two or more players at once to ensure that clubs did not try to get around the new restrictions by throwing in “makeweight” players.

It is not particularly likely that right in the middle of this that Lt Col Sir Henry Norris would get involved in bringing a monkey into the country as a signing on fee of a player.

So, for the famous “monkey signing on fee” incident, we have no sources at all – the story seems to have appeared much later.  We have Bernard Joy writing in 1952. 30 years after the event, with absolutely no indication that he contacted the player again to check the story, and the later transmutation of the story into the signing on fee.

Plus we have reason to doubt Joy even on the issue of the player spending the money on a monkey at all.  Joy is probably wrong in his stating that Mercer paid for Andrew Kennedy (who never played for Mercer’s Belfast United but played for their rivals Belfast Celtic) to come to London to have a trial at Arsenal (of which there is no record until he moved from Palace).

Thus our one source of the monkey story (even in its variant form of the player paying for the monkey out of his first month’s money), is dubious on various points of this story, and was indeed writing 30 years later.    Given this variance it is just as likely that given that Mackie was born in Monkstown, someone at Arsenal called him “monkey” or some other pejorative name upon arrival, and the monkey never existed at all.

Bernard Joy also says of Mackie,

“Intelligent and keen, Mackie learnt rapidly and struck up a fine partnership with Kennedy.

“Although lightly built he had a good tackle and was particularly skilful at volleying centres from the opposite wing.  An Irish cap came to him, too, during the first season with Arsenal, despite being under twenty and he was honoured again twelve years later after being transferred to Portsmouth.”

Now this is where Joy probably gets confused about Kennedy being paid to come to Arsenal by the manager of Belfast United.  Kennedy, as I have noted, went to Crystal Palace first, and then came to Arsenal.  But on 2 December 1922 Kennedy made his debut at left back and in the following game Mackie made his debut (on 9 December 1922) at right back again against Birmingham City. Save for a couple of games each missed through injury they stayed together as a pair until the end of the season.

The 1-0 win against Birmingham on 9 December was the first win in nine for Arsenal, during which period Arsenal had let in 22 goals.  Before that first game for Mackie Arsenal were 21st out of 22 in the first division having played one or two games more than all the clubs around them.   Even after just 18 games relegation was staring them in the face.

But with this new full back pairing Arsenal picked up and lost only five more games all season, to end 11th.

Mackie ended the season with 23 league games, and also played in the two FA Cup games of the season – and naturally the new pairing were the regulars in defence the following season.

However Mackie was injured at the very end of the 1923/4 season, and missed the first nine games of the 1924/5 season, and it was not until February that he was able to put anything like a proper run of matches together.

He did return as a force in 1925/6  and played 35 games (the last two as left back) before being replaced by Tom Parker for the last seven games of the season.

Mackie played for the first team for the last time on 26 April 1926 as Arsenal beat Hibernian 5-0 and after that played in the reserves until he was transferred to Portsmouth on 28 June 1928

Here is his Arsenal record


Season   League Games   League Goals
1922/3 23 0
1923/4 31 0
1924/5 19 0
1925/6 35 0
108 0


In all he made 119 appearances for Arsenal, scoring one goal (108 in the league). But he picked up his career at Portsmouth and made 257 appearances for the club over seven seasons, including playing in the FA Cup finals of 1929 and 1934.

After that he played for Northampton, and Sittingbourne before retiring from football at the outbreak of war.

Seasons Team League Games League Goals
? Monkstown
?-1922 Forth River
1922-1928 Arsenal 108 0
1928-1936 Portsmouth 257 2
1936-1938 Northampton 19 0
1938-1939 Sittingbourne

Sadly I have not been able to find any information about Alex Mackie after he stopped playing at Sittingbourne but if you do know, please write in.  However, at least we’ve been able to put to bed the monkey story.

Source note: Forward Arsenal is available from GCR Books.

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One Reply to “Ending the story about Alex Mackie – the man who didn’t demand a monkey for signing on.”

  1. Alex Mackie was my uncle. My mother was very close to him as she was sent to Portsmouth by my grandmother as a 13 year old to help her eldest sister look after my cousin Jimmy. He gave me his 1934 cup final shirt, shorts etc.

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