West Ham United’s iron works roots in Canning Town revisited

East Thames Iron Works FC sqaud in 1896

East Thames Iron Works FC sqaud in 1896 - Credit: Archant

As West Ham United prepare to kick off a new era at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford it is 116 years this week since the club’s formation when a rag tag group of workers from the docks decided to set up a football team.

Arnold Hills owned the iron works in Canning Town

Arnold Hills owned the iron works in Canning Town - Credit: Archant

On June 29, 1895, writing in the Thames Iron Works Gazette, Arnold Hills announced the creation of a football club for the workers of the Thames Iron Works Limited.

The shipbuilding company, in Canning Town, was owned by Arnold and employed 6,000 men in 1860 but that figure had halved by 1895 as London’s last surviving shipbuilder struggled to compete with the industries of the north-east.

To counter this slide a company wide initiative to create leisure institutions for workers was established, and Arnold gave his financial backing to Dave Taylor, who was a local referee and became the first manager of the company’s football team.

James Walvin, writing in The People’s Game, said these leisure activities were designed to improve the managments relationship with the workers.

The iron works was one of the last major ship builders in London

The iron works was one of the last major ship builders in London - Credit: Archant

“The football club was founded in 1895 as part of Hills’s belief in the importance of cooperation between workers and management. The game would, he believed, be useful for the workers and beneficial for the company,” wrote James.

“Mr. Taylor, who is working in the shipbuilding department, has undertaken to get up a football club for next winter and I learn that quoits and bowls will also be added to the attractions,” Arnold wrote in the Thames Iron Works Gazette.

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Fifty hopeful footballers paid half a crown to sign up and the newly formed club moved into the recently vacated Hermit Road ground in Canning Town with expectations high for the 1895-96 season.

The side went on to win a credible 30 games out of 46 in their maiden year, although they lost to what would become there fiercest rivals, Millwall, 6-0 in a friendly.

One former East Thames player and future West Ham manager, Syd King, said that becoming a professional outfit was never the intended plan.

“In the summer of 1895, when the clanging of hammers was heard on the banks of Father Thames and the great warships were rearing their heads above the Victoria Dock Road, a few enthusiasts, with the love of football within them, were talking about the grand old game and the formation of a club for the workers of the Thames Iron Works Limited.

“There were platers and riveters in the Limited who had chased the big ball in the north country. There were men among them who had learned to give the subtle pass and to urge the leather goalwards.

“No thought of professionalism, I may say, was ever contemplated by the founders. They meant to run their club on amateur lines and their first principal was to choose their team from men in the works,” Syd said.

By 1900 Arnold decided to expand his business ventures and, in order to raise new finances, made the Iron Works into a public company, preventing him from directly injecting money into the club.

In June that year East Thames Iron Works FC were wound up, with West Ham United forming the following month with a new badge displaying two crossed hammers.