I knew we moved away from the Island in 1910 as the Den (the old one) was our home from 1910 till 1993. Mind you that for a long time we were the only team in the Football League to start the home games at 3.15PM and not 3PM as normal in those days to allow the dockers to visit the game as well after their Saturday shift ended. I am still gutted that you as a true Islander do not even support the one and only proper local team but I guess this is a useless point for discussion.
– Marc Boschman, Dutchman
Subconsciously, I suspect I have been avoiding this post. Mention any football team, and it is guaranteed that the majority of readers will not support them. Mention Millwall, and that lights the blue touchpaper for West Ham fans (and vice versa). They’re still banging on about who supported the strike in nineteen hundred and frozen to death, and who didn’t.
Me, I’m neutral, I don’t support either team, but it’s impossible to have a blog about the history of the Island and avoid the subject. Inevitably, my focus is the place itself. The story of the football – the matches and the players – have all been covered far better elsewhere by other people who know what they’re talking about (see the commendable www.millwall-history.org.uk for example).
Here we go, and if nobody likes it, I don’t care! (Did you see what I did there?)
It’s worth defining where Millwall is, and where Millwall isn’t. Surprisingly few people, outside of Islanders, are aware that Millwall is only the western half of the Island. East of the East Ferry Rd is Cubitt Town. As a kid on the Island, this distinction was not even apparent to me – sometimes I gave my address as Poplar E14, sometimes Millwall E14, sometimes Isle of Dogs E14…but never Cubitt Town E14 for some reason.
Perhaps even then, more than a 100 years after Cubitt developed his land, the name Cubitt Town seemed too new, too artificial? It certainly didn’t have a good, solid ring to it like Millwall.
Or perhaps my confusion was simply due to there being only one road sign on the whole Island with the place name Millwall written on it – located on Manchester Rd opposite the fire station – a sign that sometimes faced east, and sometimes faced west, depending on which kids had recently walked past it and rotated it 180 degrees.
The distinction between Millwall and Cubitt Town is not just about names though. Until the end of the 1700s, the Island was largely empty. Serious house building and occupation started around 1800 in Millwall: rows of small houses intended for the workers of the docks and the factories, small pubs, small shops, and virtually everyone a migrant from some other part of the country, including a high proportion from Scotland whose men had come south to work for the iron and ship firms.
The Reverend Free of St Cuthbert’s, Westferry Road, was blunt in his assessment of 1890s Millwall: ‘badly lighted, astonishingly foul, inconceivably smelly, and miserably bare and lifeless.’ He found the people (though confirmed non-churchgoers) ‘extraordinarily genial and friendly’, nothing like the ‘very shady lot’ he had previously ministered to in North Kensington: ‘But down here … they are a very drunken lot. There is too a tremendous lot of gambling among the boys’. Football and allotment-tending formed the other cornerstones of Island culture: the absence of a middle-class was striking.
– British History Online
William Cubitt intended to create a more ‘middle class’ environment in the east of the Island. The houses were larger, sometimes with basements (not a good idea, as it turned out, thanks to the tenacity of the Thames), grand pubs like the Nelson, Cubitt, Pier and Queens were built, and roads were wider and lined with trees. Unfortunately for Cubitt, however, the middle classes did not come, and the 1870s financial crisis not only stopped house building, it meant that many existing areas degenerated into slums.
Still, even in the 21st century, it’s worth winding up friends from Millwall that I lived on the posher half of the Island.
John Thomas Morton was a provision merchant who went into business in Aberdeen in 1849, and built up a large business based on (the export of) canned and preserved foodstuffs. In 1872, he opened a factory in Millwall, in a former oil works close to the river at the junction of West Ferry Rd and Cuba St (then known as Robert St). Many other histories of Millwall FC (even the official club history) like to talk of Morton’s Jam Factory, but it never was named that, formally or informally.
From the late 1870s various additions, including stores, warehouses and packing rooms, were made to the works. The firm also acquired more land in the area, and by the early 1880s was one of the largest employers on the Island.
It was employees of this factory who, in 1885, set up a football club. A syndicated news article reported years later:
Honorary Secretary William Henderson was one of the first shareholders of the team (more on shareholders below), and was registered as being a mechanic, residing at 23 Strafford St. Naming Henderson as secretary might be an error, as other reports state that the first club secretary was the 17 year old Jasper Sexton, son of the landlord of the local Islanders pub.
Saying that the club first played close to North Greenwich Station is definitely incorrect – this imaginatively-named station was on the site of the present day rowing club, close to the pitch behind the Nelson or the pitch in Millwall Park, but nowhere near the first pitch on Glengall Rd. Perhaps the writer is confusing the event with Millwall’s first match as a professional team?
Whether or not young Mr Sexton was the secretary (and most likely, he was), there is no doubt that the team met at the Islanders pub, using it as a club house and dressing rooms in their first season.
The Islanders, opened in approximately 1850 at 3-5 Tooke St, was more usually named by locals as Sextons, after the landlord Maurice John Sexton. It retained the nickname long after he had gone.
These unique photos, courtesy of Arthur Ayres, show a glimpse of the pub during a 6th May 1935 street party to celebrate King George V’s Jubilee.
It was at a meeting held in the pub that it was decided to call the new team Millwall Rovers. (The Islanders was destroyed during the blitz, in Sept 1940. Tooke Street was cleared of housing in the 1960’s and the street no longer exists.)
According to reports at the time of their inauguration, Millwall Rovers played their first matches (during the 1885/86 season) on waste ground at the west end of Glengall Rd (now Tiller Rd), about 5 minutes walk from the pub. This 1885 Ordnance Survey map shows the waste ground south of the west end of Glengall Rd (which extended beyond this map extract, across Millwall Docks to Manchester Rd in the east).
This area of land was approximately 70 m x 100 m, so the pitch had to have been oriented on an approximate east-west axis. Here is a possible position of the pitch (with 1890s markings) superimposed on a satellite photo. It might have been further east, but further west was not possible, due to the factories and houses already built there long before the club was formed.
In June 1984, the Island History Trust newsletter included a brief history of Millwall FC on the Island. Shortly afterwards, the newsletter published this:
The accompanying list showed the name, address and occupation of every one of the first shareholders, and the number of shares they owned. This remarkable piece of research by Jim Creasey, as published in an Island History Newsletter, is reproduced here – most of these men were in business on the Island around 1885.
Top of the list, local GP Dr. William Murray-Leslie, was the first chairman of the club, and also an Irish international football player (who never played for Millwall, strangely).
William Henderson was also a shareholder. As mentioned above in this post, he is sometimes reported as first honorary secretary of the club
1886-1890: The Lord Nelson
Millwall Rovers did not remain too long at their Glengall Rd ground: after just one season they moved to a new ground behind the Nelson, on the site of the current Manchester Grove estate.
(If, like me, you are a geographic pedant, you will of course be fully aware that this is not in Millwall…it is about 10 meters inside Cubitt Town. In fact, Millwall Rovers played for only one year in Millwall and never played there again!)
The Nelson – like other pubs of the period – actively sought the patronage of sports clubs, not just because of the steady and reliable fees and custom from club members, but also because of the large crowds on home match days. There were many large pubs in Cubitt Town, and the small pubs in Millwall – like the Islanders – could not compete with them when it came to large team and spectator sports. Almost certainly, Millwall Rovers was attracted by the better facilities, and perhaps also better financial terms, offered by landlady Elizabeth Brown at the Lord Nelson. Another reason to move may also have been the proximity of the ferry to Greenwich and North Greenwich train station. Both ferry and train were less than 5 minutes walk from the ground.
In 1890, the team moved again, to The George Hotel on the corner of East Ferry Rd and Glengall Rd (now Grove). Some stories have it that Nelson landlady Elizabeth Brown had become fed up with all that football palaver, and had sent the club packing. Almost certainly, however, the move was due to overtures from the ambitious landlord of the George, William Clark.
1890-1901: The George
The George Hotel is at the corner of Glengall Grove (formerly Glengall Rd) and East Ferry Rd. The current pub is a rebuild of the original, much grander pub, built in 1865.
Close to the George was (and is) a very large open space: the mudchute. It got this name because it was the dumping ground for mud dredged from the docks – which had to be regularly dredged, or they would silt up. A novel pneumatic device was employed which pumped the liquefied mud through a pipe over East Ferry Rd (close to the pub), dumping it on the other side. The mud stank terribly, and Poplar Borough Council continually complained to the dock company that it was causing disease (including diphtheria) among locals, attempting unsuccessfully to have the mud dumping stopped.
The dock company had not yet dumped mud on the northern edge of its land east of East Ferry Rd, which meant the ground was flat and solid. Landlord of the George, William Clark, leased a 400ft by 420ft plot on the flat land, planning to develop an athletics stadium for football, cricket and tennis, with running and cycling tracks. The stadium was opened in June 1890.
Unsurprisingly, the smell didn’t go away, as Corinthians player and England International Fred Pelly later recounted.
The original stadium included a 600-person stand on the west side, and in 1897 a second stand was built. It could accommodate up to 20,000 visitors, a number that was regularly achieved during home matches. This was a grand stadium by the standards of the day, and it is a real shame that no photos appear to exist (other than a few glimpses in team photos).
It was around this time that Millwall Rovers was renamed to Millwall Athletic, to reflect its new home in the athletic stadium.
Unfortunately for the club, the dock company decided in 1901 that it wanted its land back, in order to use it for timber storage. It had plans to install a large timber transporter, which would carry off-loaded timber from the docks to warehouses on the ground where the stadium was located, which would become known as the Transporter Yard. The club was forced to find its 4th ground on the Island.
1901-1910: Millwall Park
Millwall Park did not open until 1919, when its name was Millwall Recreation Ground (or the ‘New Park’ as some older Islanders still call it). Before then, it was not much more than fields and allotments, on land that was owned by the Millwall Dock Company, who intended to one day extend the Millwall Outer Dock across the Island to the river in the east.
Millwall Athletic leased land in this future park, nestled between the Globe Rope Works and the Millwall Extension Railway. Judging from the map, the entrance to the ground was via a path under the railway arches from East Ferry Rd.
The End of the Millwall Year(s)
From its inception, Millwall Rovers/Athletic drew much of its support from dock workers (earning the team the nickname ‘The Dockers’ in the beginning). The majority of the tens of thousands of workers in the West India and Millwall Docks on the Island, and the neighbouring Poplar and East India Docks, were not residents of the Island. A significant number also travelled to work from “over the water”, from south of the Thames.
Until 1901, the only way to cross the Thames from Greenwich to the Island was to travel by ferry. The ferry service was cheap (one way for an average of one penny in 1900) and frequent (the ferry departed every 20 mins), but bad weather would make it unreliable. Winter fogs or winds would cause ferries to be delayed or even cancelled, which meant hundreds of dock workers would be late.
Dock employers were not so concerned if general or unskilled dock workers were late. The unfair “call on” system worked in their favour and meant that there was no shortage of these types of worker. But, the late arrival of skilled or specialist workers was a very expensive problem – the docks were reliant on a fast turnaround of ships, and the lack of just a few key workers (such as crane operators) would severely slow things down.
The dock companies were thus key supporters of the LCC-built Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which opened in 1901. The tunnel was free and always open, but it destroyed the ferry business. The ferry operating between North Greenwich Pier and Greenwich Pier saw more than 16,000 passenger crossings in one week in August 1884, but it ceased to be viable after the opening of Greenwich Foot Tunnel and was closed within a year. The foot tunnel had a similar impact on the ferry service from Greenwich to Cubitt Town Pier (at the end of Pier St, which once extended to the river).
The other major means of transport to Millwall matches was the train – very convenient with Millwall Docks Station literally across the road from the entrance to the ground. But, even before the club’s move to Millwall Park, the railway companies were having their own problems, in addition to the competition from new motor omnibuses:
By then , the London and Blackwall Railway and the North London Railway had also seen a dramatic diminution in their passenger trade. The expansion of other railways north and south of the Thames, together with the opening of new dock systems downstream from Poplar, led to a drastic decline of river traffic from Brunswick Wharf during the second half of the nineteenth century. From 1883 Sunday services on the London and Blackwall were reduced, and from 1890 passenger trains on the North London ceased to run to Blackwall and terminated instead at Poplar Station. The general introduction of telephones in offices during the 1890s and early 1900s dealt another blow to the London and Blackwall, which was much used by messengers operating between the City shipping offices and ships at the docks. Then both the London and Blackwall and the North London Railway suffered from competition from the electric trams, particularly when they began to run from Aldgate to Poplar in December 1906, forcing the former to reduce its services.
– British History Online
These were severe blows for Millwall Athletic. Not only had they been forced to move in 1901 (a very expensive operation), the reduction in train services and the complete cessation of ferry services meant significantly fewer options for fans to travel to matches – not just from over the water, but also from north of the Island. Crowd numbers decreased from 1901 until the club had no option but to move again, to a location with better transport links, and with a larger potential audience.
In 1910 the club moved to The Den on Cold Blow Lane in New Cross. Just 1.5 miles away as the crow flies, but it might as well have been the other side of the world for many Islanders.