The Lions from the East End
Images Rob Catchpole & Andy Sinne
words by David Sullivan Millwall FC Historian
Like many clubs who have survived for over a century or more, Millwall’s formation began in very humble circumstances. Sometime during the summer of 1885 a group of employees from a firm of food produces, Morton’s who was based on the West Ferry Road, decided to form a football club. The mix of the group would consist of some local lads who along with a strong Scottish contingent made up of migrant workers from north of the border would set the ball rolling for the ensuing football season. The game of association football had been catching the imagination of virile young up and down the country for a number of years and the Isle of Dogs was no exception.
The name of Millwall derived from the seven windmills that were situated at various sites along the western wall of the island and though those mills have long since disappeared the club still survives to this today, albeit on the other side of the River Thames. Following the creation of the new enterprise the team was christened Millwall Rovers and the next item on the agenda, and no less important was the choice of colours. It would appear, and with such a strong Caledonian influence the committee would adopt the blue and white of the St Andrew’s cross, or the Saltire. All that remained now was for the newly appointed secretary, the youthful Jasper John Sexton, whose father ran “The Islanders” a beer shop and the club’s first headquarters in Tooke Street to construct a competitive list of friendly fixtures. The initial game took place on the 3 October 1885 when Rovers made the short journey to Leytonstone to oppose Fillebrook FC. Any euphoria that may have surrounded the opening game would have evaporated when the fledgling Rovers succumbed to a 5-0 defeat. However, after putting this reverse behind them they went on to lose just two more games out of twenty recorded matches, winning fourteen of them, with the five nil success over Primrose United the stand-out result.
Some of the founder members and players during the formative years were George Oliver (the club’s first goal scorer in the FA Cup) Tom Jessup, Harry Butler, James Crawford, and Duncan Hean the first captain. But the mainstay in these pioneering days was Scotsman William Henderson who worked for Morton’s was a loyal and devoted servant of the club, but there was to be no place for him when the club changed their title to Millwall Athletic, other than to become a shareholder when they became a Limited Company. During their twenty-five year tenure of being based in the East End, Millwall would not only take the path to professionalism in 1893, but in the course of time also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup twice, in 1900 and 1903. One of finest results Millwall obtained there came against Woolwich Arsenal in replayed cup-tie in February 1909 when Welsh International Dick Jones scored the only goal of the game. The attendance for this game was a marvellous 16,285 who were packed in like sardines, and such a figure was to be the watershed for Millwall FC as a going concern on the Island. The directors were now realising the need for expansion and a new ground knowing fully they had outgrown their present location. In their quarter of a century on the Isle of Dogs the club would appear on four different grounds and the problem here was that they owned none of them. The first was a spare piece of land in Glengall Road, and was used for just one season, 1885/86. The next three grounds were all based at various locations along the East Ferry Road. Millwall would for four years, from 1886 to 1890 play at a site tucked behind the Lord Nelson public house. Having vacated the Nelson Millwall would perform at the Athletic Grounds, near to where the ASDA supermarket now stands for the next eleven years. But the expansion of the Millwall Docks in 1900 threatened their very existence. However, after many meetings and deliberations a new ground was hastily found and made fit for football, and was to be known as North Greenwich. Here they would remain until their departure from their original roots. The very last game being played there on the 10 October 1910 when they ironically faced Woolwich Arsenal in the London Challenge Cup, and fittingly Millwall repeated the FA Cup
result of twenty months previously of 1-0 to bid farewell to their spiritual home on a winning note.
Hopefully the days of ground closures are a distant memory, but The (old) Den has suffered this fate on no less than five occasions. The first time it occurred was in 1920 following trouble in the game against Newport County. It was the Welsh club’s over zealous play that infuriated sections of the crowd who then targeted the County goalkeeper Jack Cooper with a selection of objects. Cooper, who survived the carnage of the Great War, was a bit of a loose cannon himself. He then took matters into his own hands by leaping into the crowd to sort out some of the miscreants. His reward for such bravado was to receive well aimed right-hander before he was unceremoniously thrown back over the surrounding fence from whence he came. For this outburst, the ground was shut for two weeks. Millwall’s only consolation from this sorry episode was the 1-0 victory given to them by Billy Keen’s solitary goal. Disturbances were virtually non-existence for nearly a decade-and-a-half before the next misdemeanour arose in 1934. Millwall were struggling to maintain their Division Two status in a season where a catalogue of misfortune endured. Bad luck, injuries and the lack of a decent goal scorer all played a part that added to the fans frustration. Bradford’s 1-0 victory only fuelled further discontent as the Lions slithered to another loss. Missiles were hurled on to the pitch which included whole and half-eaten oranges. There were no positives to glean from the game or the unsavoury scenes, but one participant would have cause to remember the day was Billy Snaith who was making his Millwall debut. Matters from then and up to and including the Second World War, remained serene and this was generally down to Millwall bouncing back to become the first Third Division club to reach the FA Cup semi-final in 1937, before gaining promotion a year later. Hitler’s War, though set the club back in no uncertain terms and would put Millwall back in the doldrums. So ten years after achieving one of their greatest feats in their history, it would see Millwall once again make the headlines for all the wrong reasons in October 1947. A third closure beckoned following a game against another Yorkshire opponent, Barnsley. Millwall were once more engulfed in a relegation battle and was edging towards two welcome points when leading the visitors 3-2. It was when the Tykes were awarded a contentious penalty late in the game that things turned nasty. Amid a chorus of boos and catcalls the resulting spot-kick was duly converted to deny Millwall a much needed victory as the game finished in a 3-3 draw. Some irate spectators entered the field of play to confront the referee, but were stopped in their tracks before any harm was inflicted. The encroachment by the fans may have seen Millwall get a slap on the wrist or be given a small fine. However, on departing the ground the official foolishly identified himself to a supporter and was immediately set upon for his trouble. For this incident the club were fined £100 and The Den closed for seven days. The closure forced Millwall to play their next home against Newcastle United at Selhurst Park the home of Crystal Palace. Little over two years later, Millwall, now back in the Third Division saw them entertain divisional rivals Exeter City in the FA Cup. The makings of an enthralling match were marred by some erratic refereeing decisions, with three of the Grecian’s being hotly disputed. Feelings of resentment were running high of being treated unfairly and plus the sight of seeing their battered and bruised team limp off the pitch with just nine men in a 5-3 defeat left many of the fans fuming. The prevailing circumstances was too much for a minority to stomach and it lead to a very agitated group numbering around 150 to 200 to lay in wait to confront and then attack the referee and his two linesmen on their route to the station. The outcome of this assault saw Millwall hauled up before the FA yet again, to be followed by the inevitable ban by the governing body, which exacted a punishment of a seven day stadium closure and another £100 fine finding its way into the FA coffers. The FA Cup was to be the backdrop once more when the match against Ipswich Town in 1978 ended in chaos as later recriminations and accusations were bandied back and forth on how and why the dreadful events unfolded. The mindless violence exceeded anything seen at Cold Blow Lane previously, as the horrific scenes unravelled in front of the disbelieving eyes of those who just went to see a football match. Triggered in no small way by alcohol consumption the tie was held up for the best part of 20 minutes before order was restored. The visitors went on to record a seemingly easy looking 6-1 victory and would go on to lift the trophy later that season. The fallout from the wreckage necessitated the authorities in shutting the ground for 14 days. It also gave the media the ammunition to insist that further punishment should be meted out in their attempt to make Millwall the outcasts of football. Some observers later suggested that The Den should be ‘twinned’ with Beirut.
IT’S WHAT WE DO – MILLWALL’S COMMITMENT TO OUR COMMUNITY
Centred in an area of extreme urban deprivation, Millwall Football Club tackles social issues on a day-to-day basis, supported by its Community Trust.
We have close relationships with our local authorities, Southwark and Lewisham, local schools and youth groups, churches and community groups, the local hospital, police and other emergency services.
Millwall is a focal point for many in our local community, not only on matchdays but in terms of what it represents in the lives of many people and their families. Our Club Chaplain Fr. Owen Beament is a well known figure, performing a pastoral function amongst supporters and local people from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom rarely, if ever, set foot inside a church.
Fr. Owen provides a vital link between the club and many community organisations.
Sadly, largely by virtue of Millwall’s past reputation, we continue to attract an element who live up to the old image of the football club as a bastion of thuggery and racism.
It is a moot point as to what level, even in the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, all of football’s ills could legitimately be laid at our door.
However, mindful of our responsibilities in that regard, our Community Trust, supported by the Football Club, works with local young people to address these issues, an example of which is seen below.
The reality, however, given the current economic climate, in the area of south London in which we are centred, problems such as alcohol and drug abuse, violent crime, sexual abuse, racial tension, poverty, homelessness, family breakdown and teenage pregnancy are facts of life.
It could be argued that, were we not a football club, we could apply for central government grant funding to assist us with the work we do! (The Trust, of course is eligible for such funding).
It is an easy, and oft used riposte when football is in the dock for the behaviour of its ‘fans’ – This is a society issue, not a football issue.
In the case of Millwall Football Club, this is a clear and present reality every day of the week.
The Community Trust works not only in schools, but with those excluded from school, the unemployed, risk groups and ex-offenders, amongst others, often in partnership with other agencies.
The Trust, and the Football Club, undertakes practical group work addressing issues including drugs, violent crime, racism and poverty.
We also work with local young people in particular to enhance their skills and experience in sport and other practical areas to increase their chances of finding employment.
The Trust in particular runs certificated courses which provide youngsters, many of whom may have left school with few academic qualifications, with some concrete measure of their abilities.
Work experience, often followed by part-time or even full-time work with the Trust/Football Club is on offer to those who show the desire, commitment and aptitude to succeed.
A key factor in drawing young people in and providing positive role models is the involvement of the football management and playing staff.
Leadership naturally comes from the top, and chairman John Berylson, who hails from Boston USA, made it clear from the moment he took over at Millwall that the club must maintain and build on its community involvement.
Manager Ian Holloway understands the unique dynamic between the club and the locality in which it is situated. His support of the work undertaken by the Millwall Community Trust is proactive and the players take their lead from him.
Many players not only engage in community initiatives undertaken by the club and the Trust, but also undertake hospital visits and support charitable events themselves.
Anti-Racism and Inclusion Project
This project uses football as a medium for educating children and young people from 8 to 18 years old in anti-racism and citizenship.
This project is a nine week classroom and community sports based project covering the following elements:
- What is the definition of conflict, the risks of conflict and how to resolve conflict
- What is the definition of discrimination, racism, stereotyping – and its effects on people
- Understanding cultures and the many different cultures that make a football team
- The history of Black Millwall players
- The history of Millwall FC
- Community sports activities
- Teamwork/working with peer group
- Communication skills
- Organisational skills
All the classroom activities are followed up by the delivery of sports sessions that are designed to reinforce the earlier academic classroom lesson. This is done to ensure that all participants’ learning styles are taken into account.
- To promote a better understanding amongst young people of cultural diversity and help young people to understand the effect of their actions and attitudes towards other people.
- To enable young people to recognise and understand the consequences of racism, discrimination, bullying and stereotyping.
- To develop leadership, communication, examination, participation and enquiry skills amongst young people.
- To enable young people to positively deal with conflict, understand risks of conflict and how to resolve conflict in a constructive manner.
- Understanding cultures and the many different cultures that make up a football team and society as a whole.
- The history of Millwall FC and of Black Millwall players.