Blind Hammer examines a little known Player from West Ham History.
Until recently if anybody had asked me who the first black forward to play for West Ham was, I would have instantly replied Clyde Best. However reading Mitchell’s “Colouring across the White Line” – a history of black footballers I discovered, to my surprise, that the third ever black professional footballer to emerge in the 19th Century actually played for West Ham in our inaugural season. . Let me introduce you to Fred Corbett.
Details of Corbett’s life in Mitchell’s book are scarce but I have tried to pull together some details from other sources elsewhere which make for an interesting story.
Corbett was an East Ender, born in 1881 in West Ham. He developed his footballing skills by playing for the Old St Luke’s Youth Football Team. Mitchell seems to suggest he may have been mixed race, others simply describe him as black.
Now the Old St Luke’s Team forms an important part of West Ham History. Many believe that our formation was simply due to the Thames Ironworks Works team. Many also believe that industrial works teams formed the basis for the creation of modern professional football. However, this is an over simplification.
There was another driver for the formation of Football teams in the 19th century and this was the “muscular Christianity” movement. The idea of muscular Christianity was very much that of “healthy body – healthy mind and morals”. Football was seen as a moral healthy alternative to spending Saturday afternoons in the Pub getting drunk. Tottenham Hotspur’s formation for example had nothing to do with a workplace team and came out of a “Bible Study Group”.
Old St Luke’s was in this tradition of Christian football at the time. The importance for our story of Corbett is to realise that even before the Thames Ironworks team was established as a professional side there were precursor clubs. The first was the Castle Swifts, a workplace team based on the Castle Line repair Shipyard situated by Bow Creek on the Thames. The Castle Swifts, formed in 1892, were the first professional football team in what was then Essex. The second team was Old St Luke’s, a Church based team. The Castle Swifts were merged with Old St Luke’s Football Team in 1893 to become rebranded as the “Old Castle Swifts”. There are some who claim that the lineage of our Club’s Castle emblem comes not from the association with the Boleyn Castle but this lesser known connection with the Old Castle Swifts.
As part of the merger the Castle Swifts now Old Castle Swifts moved into the Old St Luke’s Hermit Road Football ground in Canning Town. Apparently Old St Luke’s for anybody interested stopped being a Church in 1895 and as far as I can tell is now a Community Centre.
The Old Castle Swifts enjoyed brief success in their new home but folded in 1895. For our story though they crucially enjoyed the attention and friendship of Arnold Hill, then the Director of Thames Ironworks. Hill was incidentally another Victorian committed to Christian temperance and saw Football as a healthy past time for working men. Hill not only took over the tenancy of the Swift’s Hermit Road ground but recruited 8 of the Old Castle Swift’s players to form the nucleus of his new Thames Ironworks side.
Thames Ironworks were then the Phoenix arising out of the ashes of the Old Castle Swifts project. The importance for our story of Corbett is that he was, one of the Youth Players, amongst others, for Old St Luke’s who were eventually promoted into playing for Thames Ironworks. Old St Luke’s Youth team, who oddly did not formally merge with Castle Swifts, unlike their adult fellow congregationists, instead formed a famous and impressive team of 12-13 year olds. This team, including Corbett in its ranks, had an extraordinary record. After their formation in 1893 the old St Luke’s Youth team played, over 4 years, 114 matches with 104 wins, 3 draws and only seven defeats. This record was matched by the goals performance with 558 goals for and only 49 against. This seems to suggest that this extraordinary team of West Ham based Victorian teenagers were on average winning games 11-1!
Given this, it was no surprise that some of the Old St Luke’s Youth Team performances at Hermit Road came to the attention of Arnold Hill. It seems likely that Old St Luke’s were in effect an early Youth Team for the Ironworks. .
A pathway was formed for Old St Luke’s players like Corbett to aspire for a professional football career. Corbett alongside James Bigden graduated to play for the Thames Ironworks and eventually West Ham.
Corbett made his debut during the 1888-1899 season as an 18 year old right wing forward for the Ironworks. I have no records of the games Corbett played apart from the fact that he made only 3 appearances. If anybody knows how to track this it would be interesting to know.
However after the Ironworks were transformed into West Ham during the 1899-1900 season, Corbett started to make his mark.
He made his debut as a West Ham player in the 0-1 away defeat to Reading on the 16th September 1899. . He did not play automatically and he had to wait until the 6th of October 1900 to score his first goal. He provided the winner in his fifth game for the club in a 0-1 away win at Swindon Town.
He swiftly followed this initial success up by scoring the following week with a goal in a home 2-0 win against Watford.
Corbett once more scored the following month. He struck on the 17th November to earn West Ham a FA Cup home replay in the 1-1 draw with New Brompton. He was again on the mark in the return leg in the 4-1 home victory.
Corbett then demonstrated his fondness for playing against Swindon when in January 1901 he grabbed his first brace for the club in a 3-1 win. His goals home and away ensured we had completed a double over them.
Into February 1901 and Corbett again proved his value by scoring in our 2-0 home win against Luton Town on the 9th.
Corbett then again had a comparative barren spell before scoring twice in 2 games in March. He netted in our 2-0 home win against Bristol Rovers Before ensuring popularity with local supporters by grabbing the winner in our 1-0 home win against Millwall.
Corbett then had to wait for September of the new 1901 season to find the net. Tellingly this was again against Bristol Rovers. His repeated success in scoring goals against rovers, , in this case in a 0 -2 away win probably prompted Bristol Rover’s eventual interest in signing him.
His finest moment in a West Ham shirt came on the 30th September 1901 when he scored a hat trick in in the 4-2 win against Wellingborough Town. To modern eyes this does not look a big game. But the gate exceeded that for recent games against Luton, Reading and Watford so we have to place the game in context.
In probably his richest vein of form for West Ham, Corbett then grabbed a further brace of goals in our 4-1 victory on the 12th October 1901 against Luton Town in front of 6,000 supporters at the Memorial ground. This equalled the highest attendance he had so far played in front up to this time, comfortably beating the 5,500 which had turned up for the match against Tottenham Hotspur the previous season.
However Corbett was playing in a dynamic period of transition. The extent to which the game was growing was demonstrated by the explosion in attendances which started to occur.
For example, whilst the home game against Millwall in March only attracted 2,500 supporters, this gate had increased to 9,000 only 6 months later in the equivalent home fixture in October 1901.
Similarly the fixture against Tottenham In November 1901 dramatically trebled the previous season’s attendance with a startling gate, for the time, of 17,000. The interest in this game was almost certainly boosted and fuelled by the fact that Tottenham had hit the headlines by winning the FA Cup a few months earlier. They remain the last non-league side to win the FA Cup.
Despite the growth in West Ham as a club and his important role in these crucial early days the goals against Luton marked the final goals Corbett scored for West Ham. Records from different web sites are inconsistent but Corbett either ended up playing 35 games for West Ham, scoring 15 goals, or 33 times with 13 goals.
After this latest barren spell he probably saw his future elsewhere. The West Ham official page on Corbett reports that the then manager Syd King
Often played George Radcliffe and
Fergus Huntahead of Corbett.
The silver lining for the young Corbett was that the dramatic growth in Football as an industry provided alternative opportunities. He signed for Bristol Rovers, as we have seen, a team which had previously suffered at first hand his scoring talents. Corbett was obviously a popular figure at Rovers, eventually ending up playing for Rovers during 3 separate spells, in between spells playing for Bristol City Gillingham and Brentford.
Corbett success did not diminish after his departure. For example he played 97 times for Brentford between 1905 and 1908 and had an impressive strike rate, scoring 39 goals from the right. He played 49 times for Bristol City, again contributing 14 goals. I cannot but wonder if Syd King ever regretted his decision to let Corbett go.
Whilst I have never seen Corbett I cannot but reflect that his description as a right sided goal scoring forward is hauntingly reminiscent of a modern day Antonio.
Corbett died in Brentford, at a comparatively early age of 43 in 1924 and he has largely slipped away from West Ham history.
However my personal view is that we should reclaim his memory and celebrate his achievements. Mitchell’s book Colouring across the White Lines reveals the despicable levels of official, institutionalised as well as casual racism and prejudice that all these early black pioneers had to surmount. The psychological pressure exerted on black sportsman trying to succeed in front of thousands of potentially hostile supporters, in an age even more savage in attitudes than that shown in the 70s and 80s is rarely recognised.
Corbett was one of us. He was literally a son of West Ham, growing up and developed as a footballer in the heart of the East End. Despite his local heritage his ethnicity would have also made him an outcast in many “polite” and not so polite circles even in his home of the East End. He succeeded against the odds in reaching the heights of the professional game.
He is somebody we should remember and celebrate more. He is one of ours.