Part 4: The Wandering Tribes of East End

Though the Lion’s Den is now situated in Bermondsey, south of the Thames, for the first 25 years of their existence Millwall had played at four different sites on the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London. Also, where the formation of their rivals - West Ham - was very much centred on the teetotalism of Arnold Hills and his wish to save the working man from drink related ruin; the public houses of the Isle of Dogs and their patrons played a central role in Millwall’s formation and early sustenance. Their first pitch had been an unenclosed patch of land near Tiller Road – quite possibly the very same one in which Arsenal were claimed to have played their first ever game. The Islander Pub at Tooke Street, known locally as ‘Sextons’ after its landlord, acted as the club’s first HQ, as well as their changing rooms, for their time at Glengall Road. Jesper Sexton, the seventeen year old son of the Islander’s landlord Maurice Sexton, had also acted as the club’s first secretary.

The Islander pub now no longer exists, having been destroyed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz in September 1940 and never rebuilt, however the Public House to which Millwall had later relocated to the rear of by the start of their second season - the Lord Nelson Pub (below) at East Ferry Road - still exists to this very day. The club had remained there for four years until they were evicted by the pub’s landlady in 1890. Their final game at the Lord Nelson had been a benefit game against the Royal Arsenal, the proceeds of which paid for their new home – the Athletic Ground – which had been Millwall’s first purpose build stadium, holding up to 20,000 people. The ground had been situated near to the George Public house – another pub still which still stands on the Isle of Dogs today. The club benefitted from the Athletic Grounds’ close proximity to Millwall Dock Station, on the Millwall extension line of the London and Blackwall Railway Company line – a line which fell into disuse by the early twentieth century but later revived in the 1980s as the Docklands Light Railway, with Crossharbour station now standing where Millwall Docks previously had done.

The land on which the Athletic Ground stood however had belonged to the Millwall Docks Company, who in 1901 had wanted to commandeer it to build a timber yard. Millwall therefore were required to move again, this time to an area which at this point was referred to as ‘North Greenwich’ – a name which now refers to the tube station nearest to the 02 Arena, however at this point referred to the area between where now stands between the Mudchute and Island Gardens DLR stations. Their attendances at North Greenwich however had dwindled to around an average of 6,000, mainly because unlike the Athletic ground the area was ill served by public transport. The club therefore looked to south of the river for the solution, believing that the density of population in the Bermondsey and New Cross areas in comparison to the Isle of Dogs would be fertile breeding ground for larger gate receipts.

Also, transport links between the East End and South East London had greatly improved with the opening of the Greenwich Foot tunnel in 1902, which was built with the intention of enabling workers living on the south side of the Thames to reach their workplaces in the docks on the North Side of the river. This was followed by the opening of the Rotherhithe tunnel in 1908 which connected Limehouse to Rotherhithe by road. Both of these had complimented the existing rail link between Wapping and New Cross via Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel. Millwall therefore took the decision in 1910 to relocate to Cold Blow Lane in New Cross, though obviously hoped to retain their existing fan base north of the river by keeping the name which referred to their original stomping ground and a prominent Lions contingent had remained in the E14 and E1 postcodes throughout the twentieth century.

Millwall’s arrival south of the river that year however had no doubt set alarm bells ringing further along the southern bank of the Thames at Woolwich. The Arsenal were under severe financial pressure and no doubt would not have relished another side narrowing their patch for a potential fan base. At that time Bermondsey had been 40 minutes nearer to Central London than Arsenal’s base at Plumstead. In Woolwich itself, the Royal Arsenal had considerably downsized its workforce which hence, had a large impact on the club’s attendances that had dwindled to as low as 3,000 by the end of their time in Plumstead in the 1912/13 season.

The club was in such a financial predicament that the original limited company set up when the club turned professional in 1893 was dissolved and a new company was brought into existence. The club was bought up by Sir Henry Norris in 1910, who had initially wanted to merge the club with Fulham, but the Football League refused to sanction the plan. Norris had promised to keep the club in Plumstead for two years, however after this time had elapsed had moved the club to the Highbury area of North London, with the added benefit of being close to the Piccadilly Line station of Gillespie Road and its links with the West End of London.

Arsenal’s move brought staunch opposition from Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, who had accused the Woolwich ‘interlopers’ of stealing their patch. The move also had an effect on the eastern half of the metropolis, due to the Highbury’s close proximity to parts of the east end which lay close to the North of London, such as Hackney and Clapton or bordered on the City of London, such as Bethnal Green. One such club affected by the move had been London’s second oldest Football club, Clapton Orient. The club were founded by the Glyn Cricket Club who were based near Homerton in 1881, as a way of keeping fit during the winter months. By 1901 they had moved to Millfields Stadium, where they would stay for another three decades.

The chairman of the Orient supporters club, Steve Jenkins, claimed that “Orient were on a par with Arsenal and Tottenham before the war…But with Arsenal moving north of the river from Woolwich the population couldn't sustain three clubs of that size”. Jenkins’s point however is a little overstated, as Pre-1913 Orient were firmly rooted in the lower of the two divisions that existed at the time, where Arsenal prior to their only ever relegation in 1913 had spent nine consecutive seasons in the top division. Tottenham also had spent four consecutive seasons in the old Division One by 1913.

Orient had successfully applied to join the Football League in 1905; however were required to fund considerable improvements to the stadium that were needed to comply with League requirements, such as increasing the stadium capacity from 12,000 to 20,000. Orient had finished their first league season rooted to the foot of the table, this was compounded by the fact that they were only saved from being wound up by the generosity of a supporter who donated £50. Re-election had only been granted to Orient due to the fact that their chairman, Captain Henry Wells-Holland, at the League management committee hearing had played to the club’s potential as the only Football League side in East London at this point (and only one of just three London Clubs in the Football League) as well as the potential of their seven acre-site at Millfields Road Stadium ‘as one of the largest in Southern England and can easily be made capable of holding upwards of 60,000’.

Records of attendances at the Millfields prior to 1913 are hard to come by, however there are suggestions in many quarters that the club’s far more successful Baseball side (above) had gone some way to subsidizing the Football club’s existence. In 1906 several top-level Football sides, including Woolwich Arsenal, Tottenham and Derby County, had formed the British Baseball Association as way of generating revenue during the summer months. The popularity of Baseball in Clapton had been so considerable that they were National Champions for two seasons out of three between 1907 and 1909. A rare instance of the Football side turning out huge crowds had been at the end of the 1914-15 season, when 22,000 fans turned up for the visit of Leicester Fosse as a send-off for the 41 members of staff and players who had signed up en mass to join the forces fighting the Great War.

The four year break enforced on Football between 1914-18 greatly affected Orient’s finances. There had also been post-war expansion of the Football League after 1919 which saw West Ham and Millwall both elected to the League and eroding Orient’s East End monopoly on Football League, as well as the aforementioned two sides’ proximity to the Docks which would eat up the potential attendances for Dockers seeking post-work entertainment after finishing their half-day Saturday shifts. Also, it was not so much Arsenal’s arrival in North London which affected Orient’s progress, but Herbert Chapman’s in 1925. Orient attempted to rebuild the Millfields Stadium around the same time as Arsenal had begun to flourish in the North Eastern corner of London and, as a result had restricted their potential gate receipts.

By 1927 Orient were still greatly in debt as a result of their re-development plan and could therefore not afford to purchase the expired freehold on the Millfields Stadium from the local council. The site was eventually sold to a syndicate headed by Lady Amherst, who had intended to convert the Stadium for use as a Greyhound Racing track – later to be renamed as Clapton Stadium (Below). Also, in the late 1920s Arsenal had bought into Orient with the intention of using the club as a nursery side for the development of young players, until the FA outlawed such a practice leaving Orient in some considerable financial difficulty without Arsenal’s cash injection.

Despite the intentions of the new owners of the Millfield Stadium, Clapton Orient continued to lease the ground. However the new landlords looked to coerce the tenants out, forbidding their use of the pitch for training and the extra expense that was incurred in renting a separate site elsewhere. Orient’s directors were also denied the use of the board-room on match-days. By 1930 the club moved to a stadium in Lea Bridge Road, which doubled up as a Speedway arena. Due to its dual purpose, the stadium had a wooden fence around its perimeter. The Football League had received complaints that the fencing was too near to the touchline and were ordered to extend the narrow pitch. Also, a rare large crowd of 20,000 for the visit of Millwall had also resulted in pitch invasions due to overcrowding. Orient soon became aware that the Lea Bridge Road Stadium was not fit for purpose. As a result they had used Highbury and even Wembley as a temporary solution. By 1937 they decided to ground share with cash strapped side Leyton Amateurs at Brisbane Road and have remained there ever since, changing their name to Leyton Orient in 1946.

The Orient’s historical subordination as a club to the interests of sports such as Baseball, Greyhound Racing and Speedway gives some insight into the kind of competition that professional football in East London faced in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1927 the West Ham Stadium (below) was built near Prince Regent Lane in the Custom House area and with a capacity of 120,000 was at that point the largest stadium in England. The Stadium acted as a home ground for the West Ham Speedway Side, as well as hosting Greyhound Racing. Both events took place during the week; however the Stadium owners had wanted something to generate revenue on the weekends and hence had formed Thames Association FC. It may well sound a slightly odd concept to found a side purely to fill a stadium, however this is exactly how Chelsea F.C. were formed in 1905 in order for businessmen Gus and Joe Mears, the owners of the leasehold of Stamford Bridge, to host Football games at what had been mainly an Athletics Stadium for nearly 30 years prior after Fulham had turned down their initial offer to occupy the Stadium.

The idea of Thames Association F.C. however didn’t prove to be a successful one. The side had been elected to the Football League Third Division South in 1930, however in their two seasons in the league had finished in the bottom three on both occasions. They also struggled to attract the crowds to sustain league football, averaging just 2000 fans per game and had achieved an all-time record low attendance of just 469 for their game against Luton Town in December 1930 – which is an incredibly small size crowd for a Stadium that was actually bigger than Wembley. After finishing rock bottom in 1931/32 the club had refrained from seeking re-election. They had also turned down the offer of a merger from a Clapton Orient side desperately seeking an adequate stadium and subsequently folded. The West Ham Stadium itself continued to exist for the purposes of Speedway, Greyhound Racing and later Baseball and Stock Car Racing. After the war however attendances for Sports meetings – particularly the kinds of Sports which previously filled the Stadium, had dwindled due to new forms of entertainment, such as Television. West Ham Stadium eventually became obsolete and was demolished in 1972 to make way for a housing estate – and maybe after the Olympics is a timely reminder of what can happen to a previously grandiose stadium if not filled by a reasonably large Football side, with a reasonably large existing fan base, on a regular basis.