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Arnold Hills, West Ham's 19th century Eggert Magnusson

John Simkin

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Eggert Magnusson is not the first owner of West Ham who has tried to buy success. The club’s first owner was Arnold Hills, the managing director of Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding at Bow Creek. On 29th June, 1895, Hills sent out a letter inviting employees to apply for membership of the Thames Iron Works Football Club. The company had been involved in a recent industrial dispute and it has been claimed that the initiative was an attempt to improve relations with his employees. Hills had upset his workers by employing non-union labour during a strike to improve pay and conditions.

In 1896, Hills began to build what became known as the Memorial Grounds. It was considered to be one of the best stadiums in the country. It held other sporting events, including cycling and athletics. As well as a football arena, it also had a cinder running track, tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool. According to one report, the 100 feet (30.4m) long pool was the largest in England. The Memorial Grounds was opened in June, 1897. Hills made a speech where he pointed out that it had "the largest cycle track in London where they would hold such monster meetings that the attention of the Metropolis would be called to the Thames Ironworks".

Thames Iron Works formed several clubs. These were fairly successful but of course they could not compete with the professional clubs in the area. In 1898 Francis Payne the club secretary/manager of the football club went to see Hills. He argued that the club should recruit some professional players. Payne's main argument was that better players would attract larger crowds. With attendances averaging 2,000, the club was being run at a loss and Hills was constantly being asked to subsidize the venture. Although a strong supporter of amateur football Hills eventually agreed that it was "necessary to introduce a little ferment of professional experience to leaven the heavy lump".

That year Thames Iron Works easily won the Southern League Division 2. However, Hills still had doubts about the wisdom of employing highly paid professionals. He wrote: "The committees of several of our clubs, eager for immediate success, are inclined to reinforce their ranks with mercenaries. In our bands and in our football clubs, I find an increasing number of professionals who do not belong to our community but are paid to represent us in their several capacities... Now this is a very simple and effective method of producing popular triumphs. It is only a matter of how we are willing to pay and the weight of our purses can be made the measure of our glory. I have however, not the smallest intention of entering upon a competition of this kind: I desire that our clubs should be spontaneous and cultivated expressions of our internal activity."

Even so, Hills encouraged Francis Payne to find some good players for Thames Iron Works first season in the top division of the Southern League. According to one report, Hills, gave Payne £1,000 to find the best players available. Payne employed an agent and former professional footballer named Charles Bunyan to obtain a player based in Birmingham. Bunyan missed his appointment with the player targeted by Payne. He then approached another player he thought might be interested in joining the club. However, this player reported Bunyan to the Football Association. The FA held an investigation into the matter and as a result, Bunyan was suspended for two years. Payne was also suspended and the Thames Iron Works was fined £25.

That year the Irons finished second from bottom (luckily for them only one club was relegated in 1899).

Is this a case of history repeating itself?





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