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In Review: Founded on Iron – Thames Ironworks and The Origins of West Ham United

Filed: Wednesday, 17th March 2004
By: Highbury Hammer

John Helliar (Tempus Publishing)
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This is an excellent and insightful book which traces the origins of Thames Ironworks FC, and how conflict of interest led to its eventual reforming as West Ham United.

In the 1890’s the Ironworks was one of the biggest shipbuilders in the country, and had been responsible for the Warrior, the world’s first all iron-hulled warship. The owner, Arnold Hills, had excelled at football and athletics at Harrow and Oxford, and was typical of the late Victorian entrepreneurs who understood the link between social welfare and company loyalty. He supported a campaign for the West Ham area to be included into the County of London, for example, so that the area could be subsidised by the rest of London for the benefit of the community.

The football club was formed to improve the physical well being of the workers (and were nicknamed The Tee-totallers!), but from the start the foremen and clerks who ran the club were more interested in the drive towards professionalism. Belton explains how players were recruited from Scotland, the North of England and Wales for the first season. The first skipper, Bob Stevenson, was a Glaswegian signed from Woolwich Arsenal, for example. The committee wasted no time in entering the FA Cup, and, using the engineering expertise at hand, experimented with floodlighting (though the ball had to be regularly dipped in whitewash!).

After the club was kicked out of Hermit Road for turning it into a stadium without permission, Hills built his own – the Memorial Ground, but Belton points out that this was as much for cycling and tennis as for football. Hills hated spectatorism, and saw the facility as one for participation by his workforce, rather than them paying to watch someone else play.

In 1897/98 the Irons won the London League, but they kicked off the following season in the Southern League with only three of the victorious players remaining in the squad. By this time Hills’ concerns were elsewhere – 32 members of the public had died at the launch of the Albion when a wooden bridge had collapsed, and Hills took full responsibility for the accident.

In 1899 Syd King was signed, the man who as manager would oversee the move to the Boleyn in 1904, and the eventual full professionalism of Football League status in 1919. It was also at this time, Belton tells us, that the club enlisted the services of Antonio Falco (AKA One-Eyed Falco AKA Tony Two-Hats) as a training advisor. Falco was a near mythical figure who, legend has it, had fought alongside Garibaldi for Italian unification.

Poor attendances, despite success on the field, meant that the club was still dependent on Hills’ patronage, but by this time Hills was answerable to share-holders after forming a public company of the Ironworks. The solution, which severed the club from the Ironworks, was the formation of a limited company, with Hills as the major share-holder. In July 1900, West Ham United FC was registered as a company, and Thames Ironworks FC passed into history.

At a tenner for 128 pages, the book is a little pricey, and the complete lack of illustrations is also a pity, but anyone with an interest in the formation of our club, and the social and economic circumstances that gave rise to it, should seek it out. I’m off to find Belton’s other books on West Ham…

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