On Valentine’s Day our thoughts turn to love; and what better day to say a fond valediction to a remarkable woman, West Ham’s oldest season ticket holder and best loved fan, Mabel Arnold. In fact, Saint Valentine plays a bigger part in this story than you may think; if it wasn’t for cupid’s arrow Mabel may never have begun her long love affair with West Ham United at all.
As “the war to end all wars” raged across the globe, Mabel Rose Harris was born in Camberwell in South London on Sunday 2nd April 1916. She was the ninth of Reuben and Phyllis Harris’s ten children and the family home at 47 Edmund Street was just a couple of miles west of The Den, the ground of West Ham’s arch rivals. If geography had prevailed and the course of true love hadn’t intervened we could quite feasibly have lost one of our most loyal and long-standing fans to Millwall! Thankfully for us and unbeknown to baby Mabel the two great loves of her life were waiting for her just across the water.
As Mabel came into the world the little boy who was to become her first love was still a grubby-kneed six year old busy kicking stones around Ricardo Street, the road where he was born in Poplar; while her second true love was in a state of flux.
When war was declared on 4th August 1914 it was expected that the Football Association would follow the example set by cricket and cancel all matches. However, despite opposition, matches continued to be played in the Football League throughout the 1914-1915 season and the FA Cup was held as normal. It was during this season that the formidable striking partnership of West Ham’s Syd Puddefoot and Dick Leafe produced 31 goals between them and contributed to the team’s fourth place finish in the Southern League, resulting in their election to the Football League.
Unfortunately for the Hammers their ascent into the upper echelons of professional football was immediately interrupted as the Football League programme was then suspended for the remainder of the First World War. However, clubs were still allowed to organise regional competitions and the London Combination League was inaugurated in 1915 with the following twelve founder members: Arsenal, Brentford, Chelsea, Clapton Orient, Croydon Common, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Millwall, Queens Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur, Watford and West Ham United. First team matches were played until 1919 and thereafter the reserve teams took over as the Football League was resumed. Croydon Common and Watford dropped out and were replaced with Charlton Athletic and Southend United.
West Ham finished a respectable 4th in the 1915-1916 London Combination League (LCL), although unfortunately behind Chelsea, Millwall and Arsenal. However, by the time baby Mabel had celebrated her first birthday the Hammers were riding high and they went on to win the 1916-1917 LCL with 65 points; 7 points clear of South London rivals Millwall, who had to settle for second place.
At this stage of her life Mabel was probably oblivious to the two teams of dockers slugging it out in competition for her affections and in fact she’s on record as saying that the only football match that she attended in her youth was at Charlton. I doubt that as a seven year old in 1923 she was even aware that West Ham had made it to the first FA Cup Final at Wembley; I can’t imagine that there were many people shouting that particular piece of news from the rooftops of Camberwell.
However, all that was to change, as Mabel blossomed into a beautiful young woman cupid was busy nocking an arrow bearing her name onto his bowstring.
Mabel had a tough start in life as her father and mother sadly passed away in 1930 and 1932 respectively, leaving her an orphan at the tender age of 16. By the age of 18 she was a young girl about town, living independently in the West End and supporting herself with a job just off Fleet Street.
As Mabel recalls in an interview with Iain Burns of the Barking and Dagenham Post in 2016:
“I ended up at the YWCA and in a hostel on the Tottenham Court Road while working in Fetter Lane.”
It was at this point that cupid let Mabel’s arrow fly and it pierced the heart of that little boy from Poplar who was now a dashing young man called Richard Herbert Arnold. It was 1934 and for their first date Richard invited Mabel to go to a game with him at Upton Park. As she recalled:
“I had just met my husband-to-be the week before and he said, "Would you like to go the football?
“We stood on an old chicken run watching the game. I fell in love with Richard so I had to take West Ham with it. I didn’t have a choice.
“After that, neither of us ever looked at anyone else again; as the days and years went by, I only loved him more.”
During her first season as a Hammer Mabel would have been privileged to witness the twilight of West Ham legend Vic Watson’s career with the club. Watson, a centre forward, played 505 times for West Ham between 1920 and 1935. The club paid just £50 for Vic, bringing him in from Wellingborough to provide cover for Syd Puddefoot. To this day Vic Watson remains the club’s record goal scorer with 326 goals to his name; 298 scored in the league and 28 in the FA Cup competition.
In 1935, the same year that the young couple were married, Mabel would have stood alongside Richard in the Chicken Run and applauded during the historic moment that Vic Watson said farewell to the Hammers. He went on to play for Southampton for just one season before hanging up his goal scoring boots for good.
A few years later English football was interrupted once again by war and Mabel’s husband Richard, or Dick as he was known, joined the RAF. His role in WW2 was as an engineer servicing the Lancaster bombers which took part in the famous Dam Buster raids. Mabel’s pride in Dick’s role was palpable when she said during an interview in 2016:
“He helped stop the Germans getting the atom bomb.”
In recent years Mabel kept a small model of a Lancaster bomber in her home which she bought in Dick’s memory. She said:
“I always told him that I’d buy him a plane one day, so I bought him that last year.”
In 1940 Mabel and Dick moved into the house in Amesbury Road in Becontree that was to remain Mabel’s home for almost 80 years. As they settled into life in Dagenham and began to raise their family of four children the couple were to become even more entrenched in the West Ham community. Dick became involved in coaching local lads and his passion for football was eventually spotted by the club, who offered him an administrative role with the West Ham youth team. Mabel also became involved behind the scenes and sometimes used to stand in as tea lady at the Hammers’ training ground in Chadwell Heath. It was at this time that she first encountered the 15 year old Bobby Moore who impressed her with his manners when he politely asked her for a glass of water.
Almost a decade later Mabel enjoyed a more significant encounter with the Hammer’s famous captain following the 1964 FA Cup final, when West Ham beat Preston North End 3-2 at Wembley. She recalled:
“All the staff and their wives, right down to the toilet ladies, went to this hotel and stayed the night after the game. After the dinner Bobby asked me to dance because he knew Richard was a dancer and I was quite nifty on my feet too.
“I said "You’d better ask Richard because he has the first dance wherever we go.” Richard said yes alright, so I danced with Bobby Moore.
“All the girls wanted to dance with him but we only got down the length of the room. He didn’t dance very well our Bobby. He had football feet.”
Sadly Mabel’s husband Dick passed away in 1981 but she continued the legacy of their love affair by continuing to go to games with their son Graham, who they had been taking to Upton Park since he was 4 years old.
Even away from football Mabel had a strong sense of love for her community and she became well known locally in her role as councillor for Barking and Dagenham and during her office as mayor between 1987 and 1988.
In 2013 Mabel was back behind the scenes at West Ham when Graham contacted the club and nominated Mabel for a Christmas treat as part of the club’s ‘Just Like My Dreams’ programme.
The club were obviously impressed with 97 year old Mabel’s record as a West Ham fan because 3 years later her 8 decades of loyalty were rewarded as the club ensured that her 100th birthday was celebrated in style during our last home fixture against Crystal Palace at Upton Park.
As Mabel reflected on her 80 years of memories of The Boleyn that day she said:
“Upton Park, it’s been our life, it gives you something to grab hold of and look forward to.
“But moving is progress. I’ve worked in business and everything changes. Some of the old West Ham boys, they make me cross.
“They say they’re taking our club away from us. But if we don’t go and support them what are they going to do then?
“The boys are going somewhere else, so of course we’ll still support them, because at the end of it all, they still need us. And of course, we need them.”
Mabel clearly believed in the notion of a West Ham family and coincidentally that was probably best demonstrated in her encounter many years ago with a young lad who was to go on to become a well-loved member of our very own West Ham Till I Die community.
When he was 14 years old the member of WHTID known as Big Safe’s Buddy (BSB) went through a very difficult period in his life. I won’t go into the details here but his circumstances brought him into contact with Mabel and Dick Arnold. When they learned of his situation the couple went out of their way to show him kindness and compassion. They spent time with him talking about West Ham and they even bought him a season ticket in the old West Stand at a time when they were the only seats available.
Although he only kept the season ticket for year and then moved into the Chicken Run BSB has never forgotten the kindness and generosity that Mabel and her husband showed him at that time; and he sincerely believes that if it wasn’t for the guidance of them and their social group he could so easily have taken a wrong path in life. As he moved into adulthood BSB lost touch with the Arnolds and he doesn’t know if they would have even remembered that troubled young lad that they took under their wing all those years ago but he will certainly never forget them.
Anybody who has watched the extremely touching video of Mabel celebrating her 101st birthday with Slaven Bilic and the team at the Rush Green training ground will know that she was a beautiful soul who radiated love for her family, her football team and for her community as a whole. How fitting then that the name ‘Mabel’ derives from the Latin name Amabilis which means ‘lovable or worthy of love’.
I think that every West Ham fan took Mabel Arnold into their heart and her life truly was a West Ham love story. You were a remarkable woman Mabel and your loyalty to your club will never be forgotten. May you now rest in eternal peace with your beloved husband Richard.
In Loving Memory of Mabel Rose Arnold
2nd April 1916 – 9th February 2019
Iain Burns & Tom Allnutt