Part 1: Under The Lime Tree

The Personal Memoirs Of Charlie Westwick, born 1879, The Oldest Gillingham Supporter In The World (as told to his grandson)

12th to 14th August 1994

The sun was slowly setting behind the pavilion as I strolled round the boundary at the St Lawrence Ground. It was my turn to drive him home. It had been a beautiful sunny day, and the cricket had been good. Kent had racked up nearly 400 runs, and Durham were struggling in reply. He was in his usual place, lounging back in his deck-chair under the famous lime tree at the boundary edge, probably the only thing in the ground that was older than him. From here he’d seen them all – dazzling hitters like Frank Woolley, the sublime batting skills of Colin Cowdrey, bowlers like Derek Underwood, and the incomparable Colin Blythe, the finest bowler in England who, like so many of Grandad’s generation, had been slaughtered on the Western Front in hell-holes like Ypres, the Somme or Passchendaele.

A cheer went up as I reached him. Another Durham wicket was down, and they closed for the day on 81 for 3. He looked up at me from under his battered panama hat, a sly grin spreading across his face. “Got ’em on the run, SunBoy.” As I helped him pack away into his hamper all the paraphernalia people take to cricket matches, another ancient called out “You coming tomorrow Charlie?” “No mate, first game of the season. Home to Hartlepools.” “Don’t know why you still waste your time watching Gillingham, Charlie. They’re rubbish. Never going anywhere.” He tensed – oh no here we go – but he kept his cool. “Don’t you believe it mate. This is our season. We’re going up!”

As we wandered towards the car, he was philosophical. “He’s right you know, SunBoy. Things really are getting bad up there. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother. Still, I wasn’t going to tell him that. Flippin’ Charlton fan – this place is full of ’em.” I tried to cheer him up a bit. “Come on Grandad, you’ve been watching them since it started. There must have been some bleak times before. One day you should write it all down.” “No” he said “YOU write it all down. I’m too old for scribing these days. Bring a notebook and that tape recorder thingy round on Sunday afternoon and we’ll make a start.”

It was too good an opportunity to miss. A chance to connect up all the historical snippets that I had seen and heard about over the years into one coherent narrative, and to assess how good or bad we’d really been. So it was with considerable excitement that I made my regular Sunday afternoon visit to him that weekend. The housekeeper showed me through to the garden, which he’d laid out himself when he moved to First Avenue from Barnsole Road in 1925. Well stocked with vegetables which had kept the family provided for during wartime shortages, it ran down to the golf course right by the spot where a Messerschmitt had crash-landed during the Battle Of Britain. The plane had taken out the hedge and one side of his tool-shed, which he’d rebuilt into the grandiose affair it was now.

He was stinging up some runner beans. “Go in and put the kettle on” he said. “God, wasn’t it awful yesterday.” He wasn’t kidding, a drab 0-0 draw at home to Hartlepools in front of less than 3,000 people. The tool-shed was probably about fifteen foot square, and extremely well-appointed. Down one side was a lavish work-bench, with every tool imaginable stacked and racked, just as you would expect from a Dockyard shipwright. On the other side were his gardening tables, with pots and seeds of every description. By the window which looked out onto the golf course were two armchairs and a low table, and in the corner his wind-up gramophone and a cabinet containing his collection of 78 rpm records – a full set of Bizet’s Carmen and Gounod’s Faust, operatic recordings by Caruso and Mario Lanza, and songs by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. His wartime stuff by Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields and Flanagan and Allen, which he played almost continuously on Battle Of Britain Sunday, was there too, but it was the beautifully polished wooden chest, which he had made in the 1890’s when he was an apprentice, which drew me like a magnet.

The lid was open, and I knew that inside he kept all his Gills treasures, carefully labelled and boxed. I started to look through what he’d got. There were special programmes that he’d kept – memorable cup games against Bury, Arsenal, West Bromwich Albion, Spurs and Everton, games against clubs who had gone like Gateshead, Accrington Stanley, Barrow, Workington, Bradford Park Avenue and Southport, and his most treasured programme – Newport, signed by the players who had been crowned Fourth Division Champions that night. There was a box full of ticket stubs from important games, many matched the programmes he had kept, but there were some oddities, train warrants to Caversham and Liverpool Lime Street, and an Easter excursion ticket for the Medway Queen. What could be the significance of those?

Then there were some magnificent scrapbooks. I turned the pages fascinated by the headlines – “Gillingham The Great Unbeaten” “Gills Defy First Division Leaders” “Sad Exit Of The Nearly Man” “Did Gills Players Take Bribes?” – but here too there were some oddities. On the pages for 1934 for instance, he had pasted Shankly’s famous quote about football being more important than life and death, and had written “Idiot!!” in beautiful copperplate. I must remember to ask him about that. Pasted on other pages were letters he’d written to the local papers – castigating the Council for rejecting ground development plans, lambasting the directors for letting Freddie Cox go, and “Gills Can’t Pay The Players” the cutting relating to the notorious crisis meeting of the Supporters’ Association when Grandad’s questions had snared Doctor Grossmark such that the Gills Chairman had completely lost his temper in public.

And there, cleaned and pressed, in a shirt box and wrapped in tissue paper, was his ultimate football treasure – the black and white stripes and lace-up collar of a New Brompton shirt. I had seen him wearing it once or twice, for a really big game, or when Gills were in the deepest trouble. He claimed that the shirt had been worn by the legendary Charlie McGibbon, which I always laughed at, but now I wasn’t so sure. In the box was a photograph of about seven or eight blokes wearing bowler hats or baggy caps, carrying shoulder high a burly New Brompton player. One of the blokes was unmistakably Grandad, and another was his lifelong friend Bert, so could the player be McGibbon? On the back was written the word “Sunderland.”

“Yes, every one of those things has got a story attached to it” he said. I had been so engrossed that I hadn’t heard him come in. “Where do you want me to start?” “Well” I said “how about the first match you ever saw?” He picked up the tin of ticket stubs. I had been so interested in the contents that I hadn’t noticed that the box itself was a biscuit tin commemorating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, decorated all over with Union Jacks and pictures of Empire. “The first football match I ever saw, and the first cricket match as well for that matter, was long before New Brompton or the Gills were ever heard of. It was in 1887, and I was eight years old.”

(Next week – Victoriana)

Danny Westwick

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