The Iron Liddy Column

On a sunny Sunday afternoon 4 weeks ago Mr Lids and I decided to nip over to West Ham for a cup of tea with his mum and dad. As we emerged from West Ham station, instead of heading diagonally right for our usual trek up Manor Road, we decided to turn left along Memorial Avenue for a stroll through the park.

As I’m sure most of you will know, the Memorial Recreation Ground is the former site of the stadium occupied by West Ham before they moved to The Boleyn Ground in 1904.

The site was acquired by Thames Ironworks’ Chairman Arnold Hills in 1897 and he invested £20,000 of his own money to build the Memorial Grounds stadium. The new stadium was opened on Jubilee Day, 22nd June 1897, to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

The stadium was not merely a playing ground for the Thames Ironworks football team, it also contained a cycle track, a cinder running track, tennis courts and one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in England. It also incorporated all Thames Ironworks’ societies as well as offering open access for the community at large. The grounds had a capacity of 100,000 spectators and it was said at the time that the stadium was “good enough to stage an English Cup Final.” On 11th September 1897 Thames Ironworks celebrated their first game at their new home by beating Brentford FC 1-0 to win the London League.

Such was Hills’ influence that, in November 1897, he managed to secure an agreement with London, Tilbury and Southend Railway (LT&SR) to build a station at Manor Road. The LT&SR board approved this in February 1898 and the Mowlem construction company was given the contract to build a four platform station, allowing for the proposed quadrupling of the line. West Ham station was completed in May 1900 but did not open until 1st February 1901, radically improving the stadium’s transport links.

In the meantime Thames Ironworks FC had resigned from the Southern League at the end of June 1900 and had been officially wound up. On 5th July 1900 they reformed under the new name of West Ham United FC and accepted an offer of the Southern League place left vacant by Thames Ironworks. West Ham United’s first game at the grounds was against Gravesend United on 1st September 1900 and they won 7-0 in front of 2,000 spectators; with Scottish forward Billy Grassam becoming the first West Ham United player to score a hat trick as he slotted home four goals on his debut. Unfortunately the Hammers couldn’t maintain that momentum and lost 7 of their next 13 games. This included a game at Millwall that attracted a crowd of 10,000. The best attendance that season at the Memorial Grounds was the game against Tottenham Hotspur; unfortunately for the home supporters they saw West Ham defeated 4-1. After such a promising start to the season too. Sound familiar?

As a bit of an anorak I was already aware of the grounds’ history but as we walked along in the sunshine I asked Mr Lids if he had been aware of it as he was growing up a stone’s throw away in one of the adjacent roads. Both of his parents also grew up in the same road they still live in today and their families have been there since the 1920s. He said that although he hadn’t known any detail and there wasn’t anything tangible in the park to say that West Ham had played there, he grew up with the knowledge that he was kicking his football where West Ham’s forefathers had played the beautiful game before him. In fact when he briefly joined West Ham Till I Die a few years ago his user ID was ‘Keep Off The Bowling Green’ in memory of the angry park keeper who used to regularly thwart his Wembley fantasies over ‘The Memos’ as a boy.

Until last month we hadn’t been to the Memorial Grounds together since the early days of our relationship; when he had showed me his childhood haunts one Sunday morning during a run along the sewer bank (now more appealingly called The Greenway) and around the perimeter of the park. Back then, despite being the home of East London Rugby Club, the park had an air of neglect and I could see how it had earned its reputation as a place to avoid after dark. Thirteen years later I was in for a pleasant surprise. As we turned into the park from Memorial Avenue we discovered that there has been a considerable amount of investment in the green space and it is now a well-equipped and attractive facility for the local community and importantly, there is now a memorial to our beloved Hammers.

The first thing we came upon were two smart modern pavilions which house the changing rooms and equipment for the sports teams who use the park today. I later discovered that the pavilions were designed by architects Saville Jones to be sustainable and include green roofs, as well as high levels of natural light and insulation. The external walls are faced with stone-filled gabion baskets, to minimize the buildings’ attraction to the graffiti artists who plague such buildings. The contract value for the pavilions and entrance works was £1.9m and the pitch works were procured on a separate contract to a value of £550,000. The project was completed in Summer 2009.

Beyond them we found an enclosed all weather five-a-side football pitch, as well as the traditional grass floodlit football and rugby pitches, both full-size and junior. My subsequent research revealed that the football pitches on the site also include a full-size floodlit 3rd Generation Artificial Grass Pitch.

‘The Memos’ has been home to the East London Rugby Club since 1982 and their club house still stands on the far side of the park. I was interested to read that this facility is now also shared by Newham Dockers RLFC, which was established in 2012; and that like West Ham United, their club badge also reflects the area’s shipbuilding and dockland heritage.

To our right was an enclosed all weather basketball court and ahead was a tree lined avenue leading to a nicely landscaped area which incorporates the children’s playground, a wild flower meadow and a kind of mini ‘amphitheatre’ suitable for small scale events.

Further exploration revealed a cleverly concealed structure called The Grassroots Centre, which has been built into a grass bank to minimise the visual and environmental impact of the structure. The planted roof forms part of a ‘grasscrete’ path network to allow park visitors to circulate around and over the building, and is linked into the new path network for the park. A bit of research revealed that this innovative building has been designed by Eger Architects with the emphasis on creating an environmentally friendly structure using alternative building materials. The design incorporates the minimisation of in-use energy, including on-site renewable energy generation and rainwater harvesting systems.

As well as a children’s nursery and crèche the centre houses The Green Sprout Café, which is operated by the NDC Community Food Enterprise. The café serves food from 9:00am – 3:00pm and, in keeping with the ethos of the building, the menu has a healthy eating agenda; something I’m sure that Arnold Hills would have approved of as first President of the London Vegetarian Society and the Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club.

In the centre of the park we came across the commemorative sculpture which not only finally recognises the grounds as West Ham’s former home but is also a memorial to those who lost their lives in the docks during the launching of Thames Ironworks’ cruiser HMS Albion in 1898.

The inscription on the large steel plaque adjacent to the sculpture reads as follows:

HAMMERS

This site was once the recreation ground for The Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding employees and the home of their works football club. In 1900 the team turned professional and became West Ham United, moving from this site to The Boleyn Ground at Upton Park. Their emblem today still carries the image of the hammers used by the riveting gangs who built many great steel ships in one of Britain’s most important shipyards.

These eleven steel posts are laid out on the construction lines of the deck of HMS Albion, a cruiser built by the Thames Ironworks. At its launch in 1898 into Bow Creek, 38 people died as the tidal wave created by the launch caused chaos around the spectators close to the water. Many of the dead from this tragic event are buried in the cemetery next to this Recreation Ground.

This work is a memorial to those victims but also marks a once great local industry and the craft of its workers, bringing back the clang of hammer on steel. The sound of the riveting gangs of the Thames Ironworks is gone forever but the heritage is still celebrated today in the fans chant: “Come on you Irons!”

The sculpture was commissioned by West Ham and Plaistow New Deal for Communities during the regeneration of the Memorial Grounds and it was designed by Theresa Smith of Mooch, a creative practice based in East London who specialise in public realm art and design. A metalwork and design company called Fe26 was selected to fabricate the steelwork and the memorial sculpture was completed in 2008.

The eleven steel posts laid out in the shape of the hull of the ship each have a moveable riveting hammer attached to them by a chain. Inevitably we couldn’t resist banging one of the riveting hammers against the steel post with an accompanying cry of “Come on you Irons!” Although it doesn’t say so on the accompanying plaque or on the description of the sculpture on Mooch’s website I assumed that eleven posts were used to represent the players in West Ham’s football team.

Standing there in the sunshine on a peaceful summer’s afternoon with the sounds of children playing and the ringing bounce of the ball on the basketball court it was hard to imagine 2,000 West Ham fans cheering on those hardened shipbuilders as they slugged it out with a leaden football in the mud and rain 115 years ago. The ghosts of our forefathers are there though and we left the park feeling pleased that our club’s former home has such a fitting sporting legacy and that the land hasn’t been appropriated for yet more development. We were also glad that the name of West Ham United has finally been formally commemorated on the site so that future generations of Hammers will know that the Memorial Grounds are part of our rich history.

Hopefully our founding father Arnold Hills would be gratified that his vision for a sporting facility that promotes good health and a sense of community is still evident on the ground that he invested in over a century ago, even if it’s now on a much smaller scale. If you’re out there in the ether Mr Hills and you’re looking for West Ham’s impressive stadium with a running track around it you’ll find it just over a mile away these days, North-West as the spirit flies. Please come and join us, we could do with a guardian angel or two. Oh, and bring Bobby with you, there’s a good chap, you’ll probably find him hovering sadly over a pile of rubble in Green Street.

Photographs courtesy of:

Mooch Design
Saville Jones
Eger Architects