The Personal Memoirs Of Charlie Westwick, born 1879, The Oldest Gillingham Supporter In The World (as told to his grandson)
1887 to 1892
I waited quietly while Grandad settled back in his favourite armchair, a steaming mug of tea on the table in front of him. He got his pipe going, and gazed through the tool-shed window and across the golf course, composing his thoughts. It was a pose I’d known well for over forty years, as once a week I awaited a discourse on one of his favourite subjects – football, cricket, history and politics, or his most popular one, himself.
He gazed at the Golden Jubilee biscuit tin and he was off. “Victorian values. Who in their right mind would come up with that as a political objective? Probably the same person who painted this box. Blimey, the politically-correct brigade would have a field day with this. Pictures of Gordon at Khartoum taking on fifty of the Mahdi’s mob single-handed, assorted natives bowing down offering up presents to some Viceroy, and the stoic Queen herself, Mother of the Empire on which the sun never sets. The joke was that no-one ever saw her. She’d dressed herself in black and buried herself in Scotland for nearly twenty-five years after Prince Albert died and before that they kidded you that she’d lived a staid and puritanical Victorian life. Well, not from what we’ve heard since she didn’t. She produced nine kids, and so her and Albert were at it like rabbits in every palace you can think of. They all were. My father was one of eleven kids, my mother one of eight, and Bert was the youngest of thirteen. Most of the women died young, worn out with drudgery and child-bearing.
“My mother died a few days after I was born. She was 36, and as my parents’ four other children were all boys, there was no-one to look after me. So I was bought up by my aunt, her sister. She and my uncle didn’t have any children of their own, something they’d soon sort out on the NHS these days of course but back then it made you a pariah – not doing your bit for Queen and Country stuff – but it meant that they were able to take on the license of the Five Bells at Gillingham Green, opposite the Parish Church and at the top of Strand Hill. They had to get special permission from the brewery to take me in. Most pubs had rooms to let out, and they didn’t want them occupied by masses of the licensee’s kids.
“And for the first ten years of my life, that was pretty much my little world. Before I went to school I was allowed to play with the children from the cottages all around the Green, and wander off into the fields which were behind the church and ran down to the railway, or the other way towards New Brompton, but to turn left outside the pub and go down the hill into Gillingham Village was a strict no-no. The hill was steep and narrow in those days, with crumbling clapper-board houses either side, and the streets which ran off it were vastly overcrowded and full of poverty and squalor. All the kids from the Green were drilled not to go down the hill for fear of being seized and shipped off to the Colonies as slaves or something, but once we were enrolled in the Church School down there it suddenly became quite safe. Most of the pub’s customers came from down the hill, and my aunt never had any problems about serving them, even when some of them got roaring drunk and notoriously went home and dished out domestic violence. All examples of how snobbery, prejudice and illogical reasoning dominated every level of Victorian society I suppose, but nobody thought anything of it.
“Every Sunday we went three times to St Mary Magdalene, everybody did. Morning Prayers and Evensong as a family, and I went to mid-day Sunday School while the adults went to Parish Eucharist, featuring sermons which quite literally could go on for nearly two hours. My uncle always made sure he had a good relationship with the vicar, because he saw a church across the other side of the Green as good for business. The pub had to be closed on Sunday, of course, but there were several funerals during the week, and mourners’ thirsts to be quenched. With poor sanitation and disease epidemics widespread, in Victorian times death was everywhere. Each lunch-time I used to take a jug of beer across to the grave-diggers, and come back with details of next day’s funerals – what times, how many people were expected. Like everyone involved in the death conveyor belt, my uncle had a dry sense of humour. His response to hearing of a typhoid outbreak would be “Better get a few more barrels in.”
“Then in 1887 we had the two day celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. No national link-ups like you would have these days with everybody following it on TV, each community did their own thing at the appointed time. The Queen attended a thanksgiving service at St Pauls’ and there was a big naval review off the Isle of Wight. Our community had a big thanksgiving service in the Church, and the following day the vicar hosted a shared lunch in the vicarage garden. Afterwards, he suggested that the men should organise a cricket match. He produced all the equipment and proceeded to pick the sides, making sure that all the ‘gentlemen’, who could probably play a bit, were on his side. All the men and boys then trooped out onto the Green and the game got started. Cricket had never been allowed on the Green before. Neither me, nor any of the other boys, knew what was going on, but it began to look quite exciting when someone clouted the ball very close to one of the cottage windows. All the equipment was adult size, so we had no chance of joining in. Miss Cubitt, our Sunday School teacher, was there watching her beau. He was an officer in the Royal Engineers and scored about 30 runs before he was out to something called LBW which none of us could begin to understand. He was obviously miffed, and lost interest.
‘You boys look bored’ he said ‘Would you like to learn how to play proper football?’ Knowing little about it we weren’t sure, but it turned out that Miss Cubitt was a bit of a football fan and she took us into the Sunday School room and explained the rules on the blackboard, with Lieutenant Christopher nodding agreement at the points she made. The rules had been codified in the 1860’s, and were pretty much as they are now. You could get away with a tape between the goal-posts rather than a crossbar, and goal nets weren’t obligatory until 1891. You were offside if there were less than three players between you and the goal. Fired up by her explanations and enthusiasm we went out into the vicarage garden and split into two teams, with her and the Lieutenant each encouraging their side. Her side won, thanks to an own goal by the Lieutenant. Officer gallantry, or was he hoping it would smooth his path for later?
“Anyway, that was my first experience of football, and from then on we were all hooked, playing it either on the Green or out in the fields. We had no kit or anything. Some kids didn’t have proper shoes, let alone specialist football boots, but there was a plentiful supply of old newspapers from the Five Bells to use as shinpads (and you needed them) so it was a big day when Lieutenant Christopher gave us a real leather football to replace the rag and string one we’d started with. He asked us if we would like to go and see him play for the Royal Engineers on the Great Lines. Few of us had ever been that far before, it was quite a long walk across the fields to the station, and then right across to the other side of New Brompton.
“It was a different world. There were football matches going on all over the place. Royal Engineers were the big name team. They had been in the first FA Cup Final in 1872, losing 1-0 to The Wanderers, but in 1875 they had sparked tremendous enthusiasm for the game locally when they won the Cup, beating Old Etonians 2-0 after a 1-1 draw. There was a large crowd watching the RE’s, but other teams like Victoria, St Mark’s, St Mary’s Vale and Excelsior got good support too. Conditions weren’t ideal, the wind always whipped across there, and most of the pitches had a slope, so the result usually depended on how well you used the conditions when you had the advantage. Look at this news cutting in the scrap-book describing one pitch on the Great Lines – “also the goal posts at one end of the ground are in close proximity to a manure heap, so that unless the goalkeeper wears some sort of respirator over his nose and mouth it is a certainty he will be sick.” Blimey, I wonder how much time they added on for that?
“Anyway, Royal Engineers didn’t go anywhere near that area, their pitch was in the best position, and like a billiard table. They had the best team too, and most people watched them. As another sign of Victorian snobbery, only Officers were allowed to play for them, lower ranks were barred (although they used to sneak a really good corporal in to play up front sometimes) and their opponents were always teams of what they called “official footballers” which basically meant they were from public schools, universities or officer corps. Everyone else was a “local team” player, and obviously of lesser importance. The whole thing started to crumble once the FA legalised professionalism in 1885. Professional leagues started to form, with the most significant development being in 1888 when twelve clubs from the Midlands and the North formed the Football League.”
I asked him what sort of tactics they played. “It was similar to rugby in that they attacked and defended together and play moved up and down the pitch fairly slowly. You didn’t see sweeping movements and through balls, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or anything like that. When Miss Cubitt and the Lieutenant explained it to us, I suppose it came over as 2-8, the “two” being the players identified with the goalkeeper in the offside law at that time, and that’s how they played it.
“Over time, the Royal Engineers team began to decline. Their main problem was that their officers were always being sent to various parts of the Empire, so they couldn’t keep a settled team. The Lieutenant stayed longer than most, but he was posted to South Africa in 1889 and we never saw him again. The Saturday afternoon regulars started to drift off to watch other teams – the first Glory Hunters I suppose – and by 1892 me, Bert and the rest of our mates had become big fans of Chatham Excelsior. It was a decision that changed our lives.”
(Next week’s Tale – “I’ll Second That, Mr Chairman”)