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Football in Dagenham

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Football in Dagenham before 1949
Ronald Price


Dagenham Football Club was one of the four antecedent clubs of the Football League club Dagenham and Redbridge. They were formed in 1949. The other three clubs, Ilford, Leytonstone and Walthamstow Avenue heritages dating from the 19th  century.

Until 1955, when its local council (Council) acquired the freehold of Victoria Road, previously the sports ground of Briggs Sports, and offered it or Glebe Road to the club, the Daggers played at the Arena. An initial rental of £80 gave way to a five-year  lease at £130 per annum which allowed the reserve team to move from The Leys for their second season. The rule that a club using council owned pitches had to have 80% of its members resident in the borough was waived. In 1992 Dagenham with a significant  cash flow problem merged with Redbridge Forest (an amalgam of the three clubs above). Prior to their formation the borough had a mix of works teams of intermediate and senior status whose stories will be explored in this article.

The most successful works’ team were Brigg Sports. After four relatively unsuccessful post-war seasons, they reacted to the Daggers’ formation by providing jobs, to the better local footballers, which allowed them to train every afternoon.  They dominated the Spartan League (SL) in the 1950s. The company in 1950 had acquired from the Crown 24 acres of Nanny Goat Common, just outside the borough boundary, as the 5½-acre Victoria Road Ground was considered too small for their 12,000 workforce.   Earlier in 1931 11 acres there-of inside its boundary was acquired by Dagenham UDC for recreational use. It is now leased to the Crowlands Heath Golf Club. The stadium incorporated into the Briggs Rush Green complex, opened in 1955, was more than adequate  to join the Athenian League. The club marked its opening by being an FA Amateur Cup semi-finalist. With town clubs continuing to reject works clubs for their leagues Brigg Sports’ ambition was thwarted.  Town clubs’ benefactors’ integrity  not impugned by giving local jobs to the best amateur footballers throughout the United Kingdom?

Another works team Ford Sports, like Brigg Sports had been admitted to the SL in 1939, as did among others, Dagenham Cables encouraged employees’ recreation, by financing an employed secretary and providing a maintained sports ground. These sports  and social clubs were normally managed by a general committee on which each section was represented, with employees paying a subscription.

A New Town for Dagenham

White’s Directory of 1863 records Dagenham as an ancient parish, bounded by the Rivers Thames and Beam and the Ingerbury Brook. More than 6,000 acres and a population of 2,682 its local justice was administered within the Becontree Hundred while  its welfare was the responsibility of the Romford Poor Law Union. The Hundred encompassed most of today’s five ‘Essex’ Greater London boroughs. The parish extended from Hainault Forest in its north, through Marks Gate, and the Chadwell  Heath to the village which gave the parish its name. Arable farming was the primary income source.

In 1935 Parsloes Park was opened to mark the completion of 15-year programme to create a new town in the Essex Thamesside marshes. Of the 25,000+ dwellings built by the London County Council (LCC), at a cost of £14million, more than one half were within  Dagenham whose population, since 1919, had grown tenfold to exceed 90,000. Three years later Dagenham became a municipal borough, twelve years after securing urban district status.

The LCC took the name of the Hundred for its ‘town within a town’ much of it; now Valence and Heath Wards built on the Chadwell Heath. Originally envisaged as a dormitory town, the need to provide employment for war heroes reignited the  1903 plan for arterial roads through metropolitan Essex. In 1926 the Eastern Avenue [A12] was opened to supplement the new bypass on the London to Tilbury Road [A13]. Many manufacturing and chemical companies took advantage of the improved access and  available workforce to relocate their businesses. In the new millennium; as plans for the Thames Gateway take shape these provide reminders of Dagenham’s rich industrial heritage, which influenced local sport.
Before the Great War

The first Dagenham FC was formed in 1892, using a pitch situated between the Railway and Bull public houses, about one half-mile from what became the Victoria Road ground, rented from Samuel Gunary. The Essex Times, in 1891, mentions  Chadwell Heath FC but no ground details. In 1898 both clubs became founder members of the Romford & District League (R&DL). In 1902 as Chadwell Athletic changed their name to Chadwell Heath, moving to a new ground, north of the railway station, at Wangey  Hall Farm, Dagenham FC closed. The new Heathens soon followed. In 1905 the Ilford Recorder mentions Eagle Park playing in the Ilford & District League (I &DL).  The club’s ground, described as the High Road may have been at its  junction with Mill Lane. The present day Eagle Avenue is a possible clue. Two years later the club opted to join the amateur breakaway as its league also divided, then playing in the South Essex Amateur League between 1908 and 1911, before rejoining its  previous league; winning the Essex AFA Cup in 1914.

Dagenham St. Pauls, supported by the vicar and Varco Williams, whose family laid out the Dagenham Dock Estate, immediately succeeded the defunct village club. For their first three seasons they also used Gunary’s Field before in February 1905 the  club obtained a lease on 2½ acres of land behind the Cross Keys public house which was laid out for cricket and football. It was designated as Vicarage Field. In the April, by defeating Romford United 2-1 in the Tilbury Hospital Cup, they won their  first honour.

The Saints played in local district leagues before joining the South Essex League’s (SEL) junior section in 1909. They finished joint runner-up of the 7 clubs.  Perhaps, ambition sparked by the Essex FA restructuring its Senior Cup to allow entry  to the stronger junior clubs in 1908 was its undoing. Throughout early football history, vicars often insisted players of clubs using church owned land were regular churchgoers.  They may have wanted to play ‘outsiders’ as newspaper coverage  of a first team for the 1910/11 season is non-existent. It is possible the reserve team then merged with other junior clubs to form Dagenham United.

Could the parish have had a pre-war senior club? In 1910 the Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Company opened a deep water port within the Dagenham Dock. However a policy change for Government contracts, embittering Arnold Hills, meant the company's £80,000 investment forced it into liquidation, one year later. Thunderer Road is a reminder. A 1912 plan for a Dagenham ‘Garden Village’ for employees of the new King George V dock in Custom House also did not materialise. In 1924  the port facilities were a primary reason for the Ford Motor Company (FMC) acquiring 240 acres of the 600-acre Dock Estate. Work began in 1929 and as the company’s Golden Jubilee brochure relates many concrete blocks had to be sunk into the marshland  to stabilise it.
Sterling Athletic
Instead Dagenham’s first senior club was formed by the sports and social club of the Sterling Telephone & Electric Company. The company formed in 1911 by Guy Burney took over the Four Wantz Industrial Estate site of a defunct ammunition manufacturing  company, initially producing telephones.  In 1914 production was given over to war work with lightweight radio sets for RNAS and RFC. In 1919 the company was brought by the Marconi Telephone and Wireless Company.

In 1917 Sterling Athletic joined the year-old London Munitions League (East & South East Section) finishing 8 th of 11 teams. They continued therein for its third season. In addition  a ladies’ team, who in their two seasons won 34 and drew their two other games raising £800 for war charities. Home matches were played on Nanny Goat Common.

In 1919, county football associations, anxious that the pre-war difficulties did not re-emerge, encouraged works teams to join. They were only partially successful but the London League (LL) elected a number; Sterling Athletic included. Admitted to the  First Division (second division) they finished third. They were also semi-finalist in the London Junior Cup, losing at Harrow Weald in a replay. Hitherto a field within Wantz Farm, the company enclosed the ‘Victoria Road’ pitch with   'post and rail’ and installed banking to gain senior status. With promotion now possible they stormed to the title with eleven points to spare over the runner-up club. Losing two league matches they averaged more than 4½ goals per match. They  debuted in the FA Amateur Cup and the Essex and London Senior Cups.  Of the trio of primary goal scorers two turned professional and the other signed for Ilford.
Thus life in the Premier Division proved a struggle and in their three seasons Athletic finished bottom twice and 11th of 16 clubs in between. Further player losses and the company's finances lead to the club withdrawing from senior football in 1924. In 1925 Burney ‘retired’ from Marconi as it began to rationalise Sterling and two other loss making subsidiaries into one. He resurfaced as a director of the Gramophone  Company formed to develop patents that created 78rpm discs. His Dagenham factory, soon employing 2,000 people was utilised before a merger with Columbia Records created EMI in 1931; with production transferred to Hayes in Middlesex. There is limited evidence  that the Sterling Sports and Social Club, using Foxlands Meadow, (now the May & Baker and the former Toby sports grounds), continued for employees of companies using the Sterling Works site.

The first Dagenham Athletic founded in 1920 was by 1922 using Vicarage Field and Home Farm.  Like St. Pauls, they may have fallen foul of the church authorities withdrawing, mid-season, from the First Division of the SEL in 1922/23. For 1925/26 the works' team of Union Cables were its lessees playing in the SEL; the following year rejoining the Dagenham & District League (D&DL).  From 1931, the Post Office encouraged a rationalisation of the cable industry, with Dagenham emerging as its southern centre.  An extended Vicarage Field become known as the Station Road ground (later Exeter Road). Sunday and Good Friday use prevented by their lease to its end in the late 1980s. Dagenham Cables joined the SL in 1935 for a three-season stay. In their other seasons  it is likely they were members of the London Business Houses League (LBHL).

The first Dagenham club to play in the SL adopted the name of Chadwell Heath. This was Eagle Park, who after a season in the R&DL joined the SEL in 1920, with Warren Farm, off Whalebone Lane North, their home ground. In 1922 they defeated Hythe Bridge  Ironworks 3-2 to win the Essex FA Junior Cup. In 1927/28 they secured their first top-half finish since 1922/23, also losing 2-4 to London Caledonian Reserves in the London FA Intermediate Cup final. For the following season with Warren Farm no longer  available the renamed Park used a ground in Selinas Lane. The SL had divided its First Division into two area sections with Heath elected to its Eastern one. They failed to win on their travels securing 13 points from their 24 games to finish 12 th of 13 clubs.

In the early months of 1929 London senior amateur football was in a state of flux as the newly formed Romford, much like Dagenham were to be in 1949, were frustrated in joining a league that matched their ambition. The SL created a Premier Division with  two vacancies, with Heath allocated to the First Division. The LL likewise, succeeding in recruiting Romford and Dagenham Town. At Heath’s AGM worries about their ground’s accessibility and whether the area could support both them and Romford;  a vote to resign and run a first team in the SEL was passed; but the club closed. In 1937, Selinas Lane was used by the Prince of Wales FC in the newly established Essex Senior Sunday League. It is conjecture that it is the Berger Sports Ground.

Dagenham Town
At their 1929 AGM, a midweek club, Lombardians, whose origin is unknown, changed their name to Dagenham Town. They relocated from Leytonstone FC’s High Road ground with a seven-year lease of a ground in Glebe Road, near the village. The cost of  a stand and banking, more than £1,000 was donated by Coninsby Hammett, the club’s president.  His family owned a sports goods and jewellery shop in Plaistow. Probably his father; was president of the newly formed Boleyn Castle in 1902 funding  the ground improvements which in 1904 were taken over by West Ham United, on their move from the Memorial Ground. Cups were also donated to local leagues.

In 1906, the FA, in the interests of fair play, restricted sanctioned early closing league clubs from fielding no more than three players registered for a Saturday club, causing interest to wane. After 1919 legislation gave shop workers a statutory half  day holiday per week interest recovered and strong midweek clubs began to emerge. Sometimes referred to as Eastern Lombardians or Old Lombardians, the club were in the West Ham & District Thursday League by 1922.  At Town’s 1930 AGM, the Treasurer  retired after 20 years, which dates the club to at least 1910.

In 1927, they club helped to form the Metropolitan Midweek Senior League, replacing a Challenge Shield, in which they had completed a hat-trick of wins; in that season also winning the London FA Midweek Senior Cup. The principal officers remained in position  with the landlord of the Cross Keys joining Town’s committee. A Supporters Club was formed. The midweek team initially continued, and although Lombardians’ maroon and amber colours were retained to 1936, the committee gradually became more  local.

After trials, players, some with experience in the Isthmian League and Athenian League, were signed but few anticipated the splash the club were to make in the opening months of its first season in the borough. Their involvement in national competitions  and senior cups meant that it was Christmas Day before they played their second LL fixture.  A run of ten cup wins came to an end as Town, finishing with seven men, four injured, lost 1-3 at Tilbury in the Third Qualifying Round of the FA Amateur Cup.  Tilbury having fielded an ineligible player lost the replay.

In the FA Challenge Cup three Isthmian League clubs had been beaten including Clapton who were torn apart on their Spotted Dog ground; conceding seven without reply. In the four competitions Town played 22 matches. The highlights were the First Round  Proper of the FA Cup and a semi-final in the Essex Senior Cup, in which Leyton triumphed 9-1 at Barking Town’s Vicarage Field. In the former Town went to south Wales to hold Southern League Barry goalless. Despite doing most of the pressing in  the replay, staged at Upton Park, Town lost to a scrappy second half goal. As April began Town had built a run of five league wins with 17 points from their 12 games, despite losing their first two fixtures. Committed to a schedule of a game every two  days they finished fifth (of 14) with 28 points. Matching or bettering this first season proved difficult; in 1932/33 the South Essex Charity Cup was won as was the London League Cup the following season. In 1933 the club ignored an invitation from the  Southern League to join its proposed London Division.

Gates, perhaps because of a lack of affinity with Town’s origin, or possibly incoming East Enders retaining their birth loyalties were never sufficient to create stability. Donations from the Supporters Club became increasingly important. The reserve  team was discontinued in 1936 and in 1937 the club opted for the newly established Essex County League. Unfortunately the other metropolitan Essex clubs declined to take part leaving Town to play against five North Essex clubs with the season filled out  by friendly matches. Town were readmitted to the Premier Division of the LL for 1938/39.

At its conclusion two points separated the top four clubs. Leavesden Mental Hospital due to their progress in cup competitions had a back-log of fixtures. Converting these to wins, they overtook Finchley in the table to challenge long-time leaders Town.  After Easter, Town were three points to the good. Leavesden arrived at Glebe Road knowing wins at Town and Epsom Town two days later would put them in the driving seat. Daggers, sparkling on a wet surface, won 6-1. With a superior goal average and one  point advantage Town scored their final game’s only goal to become champions. Town lost £23 for the season and were overdrawn £94 at the bank with club officials underwriting their debts. A public appeal to clear the overdraft realised £25.  With war being declared Town played in the South Essex Combination, which in September 1940 was suspended as clubs had to install on-ground air raid shelters to continue.

In 1933 a new club Becontree Town was intimated. They applied to the SL but withdrew their application before its AGM and then had their acceptance for the national competitions withdrawn. It is believed the promoter of the year-old Dagenham Speedway  planned to play within their track in Pooles Lane.

In 1930 the world’s largest manufacturer of car bodies considered European expansion; circumstances dictating the establishing plants in England.  Briggs Motor Bodies (BMB) was formed using part of the Sterling Estate also building a riverside  plant in Chequers Lane. In 1931 FMC decided to concentrate its production at Dagenham closing Trafford Park in Manchester with its 2,000 employees relocating.

In 1933 FMC and BMB formed employee sports and social clubs. In BMB’s first season they reached the last eight of the Essex FA Junior Cup losing to at Walthamstow Athletic 23. They played in the Becontree Heath area but with the SEL seeking to  recreate its senior section, which had last operated in 1921, took a 21-year lease of the Victoria Road Ground.  Ford Sports were based adjacent to the works at a ground described as Kent Avenue joining the R&DL. Both grounds had small pavilions erected.

The SEL plans stumbled and both clubs were elected to the First Division of the LL. Until the outbreak of the war both were successful Ford Sports winning the First Division once and BMB twice. Neither finished below 4 th  position in those four seasons and each secured the Park Royal League Cup once. Multi use of their grounds delayed the acquisition of senior status to 1939. In 1940, BMB, who in 1945 became Brigg Sports, won the wartime SEL adding the Essex Senior Cup.

Junior Football to 1939
Before 1921 pitches provided by the LCC and Corporation of London were free of charge. Active ratepayer groups forced the introduction of fees and made it difficult for local councils to provide new pitches.  Dagenham Council acquired Eastbrook Farm (Central  Park), Leys Farm, Blackbush Farm to extend St. Chads Park and Valence Park. The last named from the LCC, who retained ownership of Parsloes Park.  The number of pitches available is not known; but in 1939 the designation of Hainault Forest and the Beam  Valley as Green Belt raised hopes of increasing pitches in the borough.

The 80% residents’ rule prevented Dagenham clubs using Ilford Council pitches. Clubs from the Hainault Estate and Chadwell Heath may have used the London Playing Fields Society’s pitches at Fairlop Oak and Limehouse Playing Fields. Becontree  Heath Old Boys, who were Essex Junior FA finalists in 1933, used the Bell House Farm Ground, off what is now Dagenham Road (High Road). The earlier mentioned Home Farm was also in the vicinity.

Some companies operating outside the borough had sports grounds within. For example, Allenburys, the sports club of Bethnal Green chemical manufacturers Allen & Hanbury. Their Chadwell Heath sports ground was acquired by West Ham United in 1955. It is  not known when Jensen & Nicholson, a Stratford based paint company acquired what is now the Berger Sports Ground. Works teams were prevalent in the D&DL, formed in 1920 it survived for 12 seasons. It attributed its closure to the growth of Sunday football,  although the East London & Becontree Sunday League is the only one traced. In 1939 the Becontree Simister League, now the Essex Sunday Combination, originating from ‘coats for goalposts kick-abouts’ in Parsloes Park began.

The Football Association (FA), supporting temperance and opposing gambling declined involvement in football played on Sundays. Its proponents argued that Saturday workers were otherwise denied exercise. Working hours, in manufacturing industry, between  the wars were 55 to 58½ hours per week. From 1922 the LCC permitted informal recreation in its parks and open spaces but most local councils, influenced by Sunday Observance, would not allow any. In 1946, because ‘Dig for Victory’ substantially  reduced available open space, local councils began to allow Sunday use with the Becontree Simister League growing to three divisions by 1950 alongside  the newly formed Dagenham & District Sunday League. The FA recognised Sunday football in 1961.

After the departure of the motor companies only the second Dagenham Athletic represented the borough in the SEL, West Ham Mental Hospital also joined in 1937 from the R&DL, having won its two year-old the Premier Division in 1929. While the main hospital  site was on Rookery Farm a second site at Langdon Hills means their home ground remains unidentified. Whalebone, Dagenham Municipal Officers, Dagenham Dock, Kingsley Hall, the ‘A’ team of Pritchett & Gold and BMB’s ‘C' and ‘D’ teams were Dagenham-based clubs who won lower division R&DL titles before 1949

Post Second World War
In 1946 the Council, with boundaries under review decided to apply for county borough status. In April a small committee recognising a representative football club would be a valuable cog in this aim recommended the pre-war Dagenham Football & Athletic,  who had used the Arena, should be its base. The Arena, in Old Dagenham Park, had opened in 1932.  Athletic, a new club, had joined the SEL in 1937. By late July the Romford Times reported that Dagenham FC had gained admission to the  semi-professional Southern League planning to use amateur players at the Glebe Road ground of the between-the-wars Dagenham Town. The plan to restore the ground failed to obtain loan sanction and the club played six SEL games, all defeats, before withdrawing.

Meanwhile several former Dagenham Town officials formed Dagenham British Legion using the Merry Fiddlers ground at Becontree Heath. With only two defeats they swept to the First Division title of the London League (LL). Denied promotion the club moved  to Glebe Road whose refurbishment created difficulties between the freehold owner and the Council before it was compulsorily purchased. The senior challenge meant Dagenham British Legion’s gates were such they were unable to again to challenge  for promotion before rent difficulties forced their closure in 1954.

Dagenham Cables, a new Chadwell Heath and Wapping Sports had periods in the post-war LL. Ford Sports also had two seasons (1948-1950) before returning to the SL. Cables operated a team in the SEL before joining in 1950; the same season Wapping Sports,  using the Merry Fiddlers Ground did. It is likely they were the sports and social club of the LCC Wapping Estate in Stepney. The new Chadwell Heath emerged from Britannia when they moved to the same ground in 1947 after using Barkingside Recreation Ground  in Ilford. They survived for four seasons. They had won the SEL First Division in 1933 and 1938. Their then home ground suggests a connection to Ilford Limited whose works were so titled. Other ‘Britannia’ connections were companies manufacturing  batteries and soft drinks (later Britvic) but neither is known to have had premises in the borough. In 1951, the Council designated the Merry Fiddlers Ground as the site of Dagenham’s new indoor swimming pool. Loan sanction meant it was the late  1960s before work began. Pritchett & Gold, like Britannia Batteries, a Chloride subsidiary, based at the Dagenham Dock Ground in Chequers Lane, were admitted directly to the SEL Premier Division in 1950, probably from the LBHL.

Between the wars, the SEL, one of the county’s strongest junior leagues had completed a hat-trick in the short-lived Essex FA Inter League Cup (1924-1926);  while its clubs won the Essex FA Junior Cup seven times, After 1945, it expanded, as  leagues  such as the Eastern Suburban League did not restart. Increasing participation also played a part but Its Premier Division clubs were weakened when the senior amateur clubs, limited in playing those with first team experience in their reserve teams created  leagues with mandatory reserve sections and then an ‘A’ team league. Neither did the SEL react to the top two divisions of the R&DL forming the Southern Essex Intermediate Combination in 1950. The latter having previously accepted clubs  from the Grays area spread further east towards Basildon New Town. In 1952 the SEL lost many of its works teams to the new Essex Business Houses League which by 1956 had four divisions. Attempts in 1954 and 1956 after respectively; the SL and LL excluded  intermediate clubs from their leagues for a reformed Essex County League did not succeed. Earlier attempts in 1939 and late 1948 had also failed.

As the 1960s dawned Dagenham FC were in the Corinthian League, one of the leagues they had applied to in 1949. They had ruffled feathers by suggesting a doubling of the clubs in the FA Amateur Cup’s Competition Proper and a senior amateur league  for London with promotion and relegation, while the social and community model at its core financed loans that improved the Victoria Road Ground. The two motor companies’ sports and social clubs had just merged with Ford United joining the newly  formed Aetolian League.  It had taken six years, for negotiations with the 22 unions representing a combined workforce of 35,000, to standardise pay and conditions after FMC had acquired a controlling interest in BMB by a £2m share swop in April 1953.  FMC combining body manufacture with assembly operation used their sports ground, eventually replacing it with a new ground at Newbury Park.

The popularity of junior football continued, with Sundays prevalent, before interest declined from the late 1970s, as recreational opportunities and social habits changed. The SEL closed in 1992. Experts have identified a 20-year encouragement programme  to restore casual participation to their former levels in conjunction with the 2012 Olympic Games.

Ford United became Redbridge in 2001, relocating to Barkingside, after FMC declined to provide a ten-year lease of Rush Green to comply with the Isthmian League grading. It was sold to West Ham United in 2008 to boost their Academy programme, another  aspect of the changing world of football.

The author wishes to acknowledge the research of and help of Fred H Hawthorn in the compilation of this article.

Sources: Dagenham Post, Ilford Recorder, The Times and the web site of the RD&L.

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