“Twelve months ago the West Ham United Football Club came into being. A palpable idea was attached to it, and it rang in the ears of the West Ham sport-loving public like the old ballad of “Chevy Chase” upon those of Sir Philip Sydney, stirring their hearts as with the sound of the trumpet. Much was expected of it, and when the fever heat of enthusiasm cooled down the people realized that they had been spending their energies in a pursuit that was not vain but consoling to the hearts of the most sanguine. The desire to have of their own a club capable of the highest quality of football was everywhere spoken of and demanded. The West Ham public had gradually become educated by a long experience of an inferior but improving class of football until a standard of excellence was established, which could only be satisfied by a team possessing merit equal to the best in the kingdom. The popular taste in football, as in other forms of sport, has changed. The play of years ago, somewhat like the pedlar’s razors – showy but useless – capable of cutting and wounding, but not of serving the particular purpose intended, has been forgotten and its existence at any time can only be excused on the ground that it was the seed from which has sprung the higher order apparent in teams like the West Ham United. L.B.”
When West Ham United Football Club first came into existence, Queen Victoria was still on the throne, Mafeking night was still fresh in the memory, and the horrors of two World Wars were still a long way in the future. The above paragraph appeared in the club handbook at the commencement of the 1901/02 season, when the world was a vastly different place to the one we know today. For me, one of the joys of looking at old football memorabilia is in being wafted back to a time when the Boleyn terraces were the domain of people of our fathers’, grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ generations, cheering on their favourite players of long ago.
West Ham United came into being on 5th July, 1900 and in their first season finished 6th in the First Division of the Southern League, a great improvement on the 14th place achieved by their predecessor club, Thames Ironworks, a year before.
The club handbook devoted many of its pages to photographs of those responsible for the club’s success during that first season as West Ham United. One page is given over to club officials, the most imposing figure being that of Lou Bowen, described as ‘Financial Secretary and League Delegate’, and presumably the ‘L.B.’ who wrote the paragraph quoted above. What makes Mr. Bowen stand out from his fellow officials is his high-crowned, black bowler hat and, whilst all six of the officials pictured have moustaches, Mr. Bowen’s is by far the most imposing. Mr. Bowen is also the only one, of all the officials and players shown, whose Christian name is given. Syd King, the Secretary-Manager is, for instance, ‘E. S. King’, Charles Craig (‘Left Full Back, Last Season’s Player’) was ‘C. T. Craig’ and so on.
The players of today are invariably pictured wearing the team’s latest strip, but not so the players of 1901. They are shown in their best Sunday suits, with ties on, and in some cases stiffly starched collars. The appearance of the fans of yesteryear also has little in common with that of the fans of today. Look at a photograph of the crowd at any football match in the early years of the last century and it is rare to see a spectator bare-headed; bowler hats and flat caps abound, as indeed do suits, collars and ties.
No doubt some of those hats, suits, collars and ties had been purchased from Roberts Bros, the High-Class Tailors, of 361, High Street, Stratford (next door to Borough Theatre), whose advert in the club handbook offered overcoats from 25/-, suits from 37/6 and trousers from10/6. Others who advertised in that handbook were A. W. Gamage, Ltd., in Holborn, (where you could buy footballs, shinguards, nets, inflators, goal-posts, &c., &c.) and E. Champion, coal merchant, of Barking Road, Canning Town, who offered ‘ALL DESCRIPTIONS OF HOUSE COAL, supplied for CASH or on the WEEKLY PAYMENT SYSTEM at the LOWEST POSSIBLE PRICES’.
The advertisement of S. Johnson reminded me of Oscar Wilde, whose Lady Bracknell commented that ‘three addresses always inspire confidence, even in tradesmen’. Johnson had no less than four addresses, 61, 63, 65 and 67 Leytonstone Road; his was the place to go for your cricket shirts, cricket trousers, bicycle suits, football knickers and football shirts (2/6, in all colours). J.E. Reeves (50, Hermit Road, Canning Town) was an art photographer for whom ‘Football and Cricket Clubs, Beanfeasts and Wedding parties’ were a speciality.
Despite the optimism of Mr. Bowen, and despite the team’s improved results, the ‘West Ham sport-loving public’ was not, as yet, turning up in sufficient numbers to make the club’s future secure. My mention of the Boleyn terraces earlier was somewhat premature, in that, in 1901, the club was still playing their home games at the Memorial Grounds, and would continue to do so until the move to the Boleyn three years later.