In the 2014 article, Millwall, the Millwall Year(s), I said a little about the history of Millwall FC in the place where the club started, on the Isle of Dogs. The club had grounds at a few places on the Island, never staying too long, but I’ve always been fascinated that one of those grounds was in what would later become Millwall Park, where the team played from 1901 to 1910.
I think that my fascination is largely because the site of the ground was just a couple of hundred yards from my childhood home – I’ve walked over and close to its site a thousand times without even knowing its history (like most kids, I was not that conscious of – or particularly interested in – the history of the area around me). And, despite having become an Island history nerd a few years ago, its only recently that I’ve realized that there were reminders of the ground even as late as 2010.
Before 1901, the team played on ground at the north end of the Mudchute belonging to the Millwall Dock Company (ASDA is on the site these days). They’d only been playing there for a year or so when the company decided that it wanted to use the land for timber sheds. And so, the club had to move to a new location. Groundsman and trainer, Elijah Moor, of 557 Manchester Road was instrumental in finding a location and preparing the ground.
The area proposed by Elijah was close by, wedged between the Globe Rope Works and the railway arches.
This land, along with land to the east, reaching as far as Stebondale Street, also belonged to the dock company. It was mostly wasteland and in 1905, George R. Sims described it in “Off the track in London” as follows:
In the centre of the island lies Desolation-Land, a vast expanse of dismal waste ground and grey rubbish heaps. All round the open space is a black fringe of grim wharves and of towering chimneys, belching volumes of smoke into a lowering sky that seems to have absorbed a good deal of the industrial atmosphere.
This waste land is spanned by the soot-dripping arches of the railway, which is the one note of hope in the depressing picture, for occasionally a train dashes shrieking by towards a brighter bourne.
Across the waste, as we gaze wearily around it, borne down by our environment, comes a lonely little lad, who wheels his baby sister in a perambulator roughly constructed out of a sugar box. They are the only human beings in sight.
Years ago this desolate spot was farm land. It might yet be secured and made into a green play ground for the children, who at present have only the roads and the miniature mountains of rubbish that have gradually risen at the end of side streets closed in by factory walls. If this central desert could be secured and ‘humanised’ and turned into a healthy playground, it would be a grand thing for the Millwall that is – a grander still for the Millwall that is to be.
This was written a few years after Millwall FC had moved to the area, but Sims makes no mention of the ground. (Actually, the club was known as Millwall Athletic at the time of moving, but kept changing name around this time – I’ll stick to Millwall FC for the purposes of this article). Sims’ article was accompanied by a drawing by Thomas Heath Robinson:
The ground had embankments on the east and west sides, a (probably wooden) terrace on the north side with its back to the rope shed and the Mudchute, and a club house and changing rooms on the south side. It was quite an achievement for Elijah Moor and ‘the volunteer labour’ to be able to build something so substantial in the few months between the notice to quit the previous ground and the opening of the new one in September 1901.
Also very clearly shown on the map is the ground’s entrance in East Ferry Road, opposite Chapel House Street and next to the Welcome Institute. This organization, established by philanthropist Miss Jean Price, provided hot meals at affordable prices to factory girls (serving anything between 70 and 170 girls a day), evening classes in dressmaking and needlework, Bible classes for boys, and club-rooms for local football teams. Previously located at 333 Westferry Road, it moved to purpose-built premises at 197 East Ferry Road in 1905.
Many Islanders will immediately recognize their building in the following photograph, as it was later occupied by the Dockland Settlement. The wooden gate to the left of the building is the entrance to Millwall FC’s ground – spectators reached the pitch by passing under the railway arch in the background.
This lovely old photo, taken outside the Lord Nelson pub, also shows the arches in the background. Millwall’s first ‘proper’ ground (the one before that being not much than a bit of wasteground off Glengall Road) was just behind the pub, from 1886 to 1890. There is more information about this and other Millwall grounds via the link at the top of this article.
In 1903, newspapers reported a match between Millwall and Everton in the later park (Millwall won 1-0, making it to the semi finals of the FA Cup), complete with photos.
In the following photograph, Elijah Moor is second from right in the back row (in flat cap):
The 1909-1910 team, a photo taken in the season before Millwall moved ‘over the water’:
The East Ferry Road entrance to the ground remained visible for many decades after the club had moved to New Cross.
Around 2010, most of the former Welcome Institute and Dockland Settlement buildings were demolished (the chapel at the back was spared) to make room for a new Canary Wharf College. The new building covers the former entrance to Millwall’s ground.
Back to the early 20th Century, in 1919, the London County Council bought the land owned by the dock company (by this time part of the Port of London Authority) and created a playground and public open space. They named it Millwall Recreation Ground, but many Islanders called it the New Park, a name which stuck, and which I still hear used on occasion by older Islanders.
The section of land occupied by Millwall’s recently-vacated ground became the sports ground of George Green’s School.
The 1950 map shows that one of the ground’s former viewing embankments was still present. It can also be seen in this aerial photo.
I remember the embankment very well, for it was still in place in the 1970s, when I was a kid living close by. It was thickly covered in thorny blackberry bushes, and every autumn kids would descend on the place with plastic buckets and basins to collect blackberries. I think we had a vague notion that we’d take the blackberries home so that our mums could make jam with them, or something like that. But after eating most of the hoard on the way back, and throwing the rest at each other in a blackberry war – ruining our clothes in the process – there wasn’t much left over. Besides that, I couldn’t imagine my mum or my mates’ mums making jam in a million years – certainly not while you could just buy a pot at the Wavy Line greengrocers.
The embankment was also interesting for another reason: the raised ground at its southern end made it not too difficult to climb up on to the arches. But, that wasn’t such an interesting place; you could walk the hundred yards or so from one end to the other, but then you’d just have to walk back again. The only light entertainment was picking up pieces of clinker that used to provide the bed for the railway lines, and fling them at other kids in the park.
In the 1980s, the Docklands Light Railway was created, and it ran across the old railway arches, over Manchester Rd, terminating at Island Gardens DLR station next to Saunder’s Ness Rd.
The construction process led to the loss of the use of the arches by the Council and George Green’s School. The former park café and the changing rooms were relocated into temporary buildings, which in the end lasted some 15 years. The fencing that enclosed the school’s land was removed and their land managed as one open space by Tower Hamlets. George Green’s Secondary School still owns part of the land but the whole site is managed as one open space and the school is given preferential pitch bookings in exchange for public use of their land.
– London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Despite the relandscaping, the embankment remained in place. This photo was taken from the DLR, looking over the embankment towards the park.
In the late 1990s, however, the DLR was redirected underground (and under the river), from Mudchute Station. This meant a further extensive relandscaping of the park – after the digging and other DLR works were complete – which included the removal of the embankment, almost one century after it was created by Elijan Moor and his volunteer labour.
If you stand on the site of the former ground these days, and look west, you can see all the way to East Ferry Road. All trace of the old ground has gone (come to that, nearly all trace of the old Island has gone). However, a photo editor lets me show on a satellite photo where it was :
Postscript: In 1992, a new ‘One O’Clock Club’ for kids was built in Millwall Park. It was opened in 1992 by former Millwall player, Trevor Brooking.
Nobody likes my jokes, but I don’t care 🙂