Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The history of West Ham United colours.

On 29th June, 1895, Arnold Hills, the managing director of the Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Company, announced in his newspaper, the Thames Ironworks Gazette, that he intended to establish a football club. The information appeared under the headline: "The importance of co-operation between workers and management". He referred to the industrial dispute that had just taken place and insisted he wanted to "wipe away the bitterness left by the recent strike". Hills added: "Thank God this midsummer madness is passed and gone; inequities and anomalies have been done away with and now, under the Good Fellowship system and Profit Sharing Scheme, every worker knows that his individual and social rights are absolutely secured."

The first match was a friendly against Royal Ordnance on 7th September, 1895. The result was a 1-1 draw. This was followed by victories against Dartford, Manor Park, Streatham and Old St Stephens. Members of the team included Charlie Dove (apprentice riveter), Thomas Freeman (ship's fireman), Johnny Stewart (boilermaker), Walter Parks (clerk), Walter Tranter (boilermaker) James Lindsay (boilermaker), William Chapman (mechanical engineer), George Sage, (boilermaker), George Gresham (ship's plater) and William Chamberlain (foreman blacksmith).

I have been unable to discover any written documents that reveal the colours that the team played in. However, there is a photograph taken in 1895 that shows the team wearing dark shirts and trousers. If we assume that Arnold Hills selected the colours, I would think that they played in dark blue. The reason for this was that these were the colours of Oxford University, the team Hills represented in the varsity match and in the 1877 F.A. Cup Final.

In 1896 Thames Ironworks won the West Ham Charity Cup. A photograph of the team shows that they are still playing in dark shirts. The first detailed description of the kit appeared at the beginning of the 1897-98 season. The strip consisted of Royal Cambridge blue shirts, white shorts, red cap, belt and stockings. According to research by Grant Hole, these kits were probably inherited from Castle Swifts FC, the works side of the Castle Mail Packet Company.

We do know that Castle Swifts, the first football club to be formed in Essex, had gone bankrupt in March 1895, when the chairman of Castle Mail, Donald Currie, decided he was no longer willing to bankroll the club. They did play in light blue shirts, white shorts and red socks. Arnold Hills took over the tenancy of the Swifts’ Hermit Road ground and he also recruited Tom Robinson, Swifts’ former trainer, to work with the Thames Ironworks team.

The Thames Ironworks Gazette commented that the new colours were very impressive: "The contrast supplied by the delightful green turf is very pleasing." One newspaper reporter commented: "A prettier and more distinctive costume than theirs I have never yet seen on a football ground. Light blue shirts, white knickers and scarlet stockings were their colours." However, when the club played a game during a thunder storm in November, 1897, a local newspaper commented that the "Ironworks appeared on the field with brand new white spotless clean knickers and light blue shirts, but before they had been playing long they were like blackamoors".

There are photographs of the Thames Iron Works taken in 1897 and 1899. Although in black and white, they lend support to the idea that the team continued to play in light blue shirts, white shorts and scarlet socks.

Thames Iron Works was renamed West Ham United in September 1900. A team photograph taken that year suggested that the club had retained the light blue colours. According to club historian, John Helliar, on 14th September, 1901, West Ham “took to the field wearing their new colours of light blue jerseys, with a claret band, and white knickers with a red stripe.”

The earliest photograph I have been able to find showing West Ham wearing the current claret and light blue strip was taken on 16th January 1904. The game against Plymouth Argyle took place at the Memorial Grounds.

The team photograph taken at the beginning of the 1904-05 season clearly shows the team wearing claret shirts with light blue sleeves and hoop around the neck. However, it is recorded that on some occasions West Ham did resort to wearing their old “Cambridge blue shirts”.

According to the Historical Kits website, West Ham first began wearing claret and blue shirts in 1899: “There is a story that in the summer of 1899 Bill Dove, a sprinter of national repute who was involved in coaching the Ironworks team, was challenged to a race with four Aston Villa players at a fair in Birmingham. Dove won but the Villa men could not pay the wager so one of them pinched a set of claret and blue shirts from his club (he was responsible for doing the laundry) to settle the bet.”

This seems very unlikely and the author of the article admits that he got this information from Wikipedia. This story also appears in Brian Belton’s “West Ham United Miscellany” (2006). However, I do not find the story convincing. Nor is there any primary evidence of the club wearing these colours until the 1903-04 season.
It has been pointed out that Aston Villa was the most successful club side during this period having won the league title five times in seven years. It has been argued that the Hammers might have adopted Villa’s colours partly to be associated with the success of the club.

What we do know is that the directors of West Ham were seriously concerned about the financial situation of the club at the beginning of the 1903-04 season. It had lost £900 in the past two seasons and had an overdraft of £770 and assets of less than £200. The main problem was a full in season ticket sales. The club was forced to sell to sell their best players. This included Charlie Satterthwaite, who had scored 18 of West Ham's 38 goals that season. Given their perilous situation, did the wealthiest club in England, take pity on the club and donate them a set of claret and blue shirts?

You can see these early photographs on my website on the early history of West Ham United.

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