Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Born in 1900

Bet you don't know why West Ham are called the Hammers
by Hunter Davies

I've gone through life thinking West Ham were called the Hammers after the Ham part of their name. Seemed obvious. Now I know the truth. And a great deal other truths, many of them pretty trivial, about West Ham, thanks to the chance of their date of birth.

I was researching a book about people and things born in 1900, a millennially angled book, looking for likely topics. After a great number of letters and phone calls, I had 26 people lined up to be interviewed, all born in 1900, and a good selection of things, institutions and inventions, also born in 1900. They included the Labour Party, the hamburger, Mercedes cars, the Daily Express and Birmingham University.

I also wanted a book and a football team born in 1900, two things I like to think I know about, to follow their progress and development over the century. The possible books included Conrad's Lord Jim and H G Wells's Love and Mr Lewisham, two fairly interesting novels, still being read, but neither with much of a history or progression to follow.

The Wizard of Oz first appeared in 1900 as a story, so that might have been interesting, as did Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman. But both felt a bit thin. I also found three plays by George Bernard Shaw first put on that year, but I don't like the theatre. Then there was the opera, Tosca. That might have produced a good chapter, except I don't know anything about opera.

In the end I chose as my book Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. He finished it the previous year, but held it back, so its birth would be in 1900. And significant, so he hoped. It gave me the excuse to look at the history of psychoanalysis over the century, a topic which definitely has had a progression. It's now part of all our lives, and our language, even if many of Freud's theories are currently being rubbished.

I then spent three happy hours looking through Rothman's, fingers crossed that I would turn up a half-decent club born in 1900. Rochdale was the first I found. Formed as Rochdale Town in 1900, it went bust in 1907, then was reborn as Rochdale. Could be interesting, if I'm stuck, following the progress of a third-rate club, but of no more national interest or even football interest than Carlisle United.

Then I noticed that West Ham Utd had been officially formed in 1900. Until then they had been an amateur team, under a different name. It seemed legitimate to include them as a Born 1900'er. I can make up my own rules. It is my book. And I struck lucky. Not a mega club, like Man Utd or Arsenal, about which we all know, but a big club with an interesting history. They were in the first Wembley Cup Final of 1923, the famous one with the white horse, and provided three players for England's World Cup-winning team of 1966. So more to write about than Rochdale. Or Carlisle.

West Ham's beginnings were interesting, reflecting the beginnings of many clubs. They began in 1895 as a works team, Thames Ironworks, from a shipyard on the Thames. The owner was Arnold Hills, educated at Harrow and Oxford, one of the poshos who helped create football, who had played for England against Scotland in 1879.

He spent £20,000 on a sports complex for his workers, with a cycle track and football pitch, and Thames Ironworks even played the odd game under floodlight. This consisted of electric light bulbs strung from poles. The ball was whitewashed to make it more visible. It was noted that when Ironworks were about to shoot, the lights always seemed to dim, making it jolly hard for the goalkeeper to spot the ball.

They got promoted to the Southern League, then were fined £25 by the FA for hiring an agent to tempt players away from the Football League. Ah, little really changes in football.

In 1900 Mr Hills decided he could no longer finance the team out of his own pocket - so a new company was formed, West Ham United, named after the local borough. The team's colours, claret and blue, were kept. The club's badges, which showed crossed hammers, representing riveting hammers, were also retained. Hence the Hammers. In the early years of the century, some supporters were still shouting, "Come on you irons."

The other thing I didn't know about West Ham was where their club song came from - "I'm for ever blowing bubbles". Its origin is a bit hazy, but the legend that it was sung by West Ham fans at the 1923 Cup Final is cobblers. The song, written by an American called James Brockman, was not heard in England till 1926. It appears to have been first sung at the end of the 1920s when West Ham had a young player called Murray with curly, bubbly hair. Someone in the crowd thought he looked like the Millais painting, as used in the famous advert of the time for Pears soap, and starting singing the song. Others followed. And it's still being sung.

I did a tour of the club today, to bring its history up to date. They are still at Upton Park, on the site they have had since 1904. In many ways, the game itself has hardly changed - still 11 players a side, even if they are now millionaires, same sized pitch, basically the same rules, same coloured strip, same nickname. Only the environment has drastically changed - new spanking stands, giant TV screens, real and enormous floodlights, enormous advertising hoardings.

I noted one advert which would have puzzled anyone from the era of Thames Ironworks. It was for Jiffy condoms. What would they have made of that in 1900?

from The New Statesman, Born 1900, 1998

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