The Personal Memoirs Of Charlie Westwick, born 1879, The Oldest Gillingham Supporter In The World. (As told to his grandson).
January to August 1894
The issue of “professionalism” dominated organised team sports in the last years of the nineteenth century. The main games of football, rugby and cricket were originally played by teams of “gentlemen” who it was assumed would automatically apply the principles of honour, sportsmanship and fair play to the proceedings as intended. For many, it was unthinkable that anyone should receive payment for participating. But as the popularity of the games spread from the Public Schools and Army Corps to the general populace, the strains of keeping the pure “amateur” concept reached breaking point. Many working class people who were good at these team sports wanted to earn money by playing them, and hopefully escape a life consigned to dark satanic mills or underground in coal mines.
Each of the games had to face up to what became more or less both a class struggle and a regional struggle between North and South. Each game resolved the issue of professionalism differently. In rugby, the division was the deepest and most bitter, leading to the formation of a professional rugby league in the North, playing to different rules. Rugby Union, played mainly in the South, became to be dominated by snobbery and a belief that it was “the pure form”, and any player who “turned and took the silver” was treated as a pariah for life. Only in the past few years have these divisions started to heal.
Cricket was less sanguinary, with professional “players” being absorbed into teams, but it was still expected that “gentlemen” would hold the key positions. The captains of Test and County sides were always “gentlemen” and even as late as 1952 the snobs were out in force to resist the appointment of Len Hutton as the first professional player to captain England. It was only after the Second World War that the whole of a cricket team changed in the same dressing room, before that the “gentlemen” changed in one part of the pavilion, “players” in another, and they met up as they went out on the field. Scorecard snobbery was laughable – “Mr C P Westwick” was a gentleman amateur cricketer, and deemed superior to “Westwick C P”, a professional one. There was panic if someone got it wrong. Incredibly, that sort of thing lasted into the 1960’s.
Football had probably the easiest ride. After the FA recognised professional players in 1885, an established Football League of professional clubs took root very quickly in the North and Midlands. All the clubs in the South remained amateur ones playing friendlies, but there was a sea change in 1893. It was triggered when Millwall Athletic started to play two Scottish players who were under contract to Everton. Everton, as a Football League club, demanded a £100 transfer fee, which Millwall, as an amateur club, refused to pay. Many amateur clubs used players who had links to the professional game, and when they found that the Football League clubs all backed Everton’s stance and started withdrawing players and canceling agreements, the amateur teams were weakened and their fixture lists disrupted. The stronger amateur teams countered by deciding that they must turn professional themselves, and they formed the Southern League in January 1894.
So within a few months of being formed, New Brompton faced a significant cross-roads. I asked Grandad what happened.
“Well SunBoy, fortunately at that time we had a Board of Directors and influential supporters who had a vision for the club and wanted to drive it forward. If we wanted to progress, it was obvious that we had to turn professional and apply to join the Southern League. The alternative was a fixture list becoming less attractive, and losing our better quality players to clubs who would pay them. Nonetheless, for a club who had only been in existence for a few months it was a brave decision by Croneen and his Board. If they’d come up with the usual stuff we’ve heard from later Boards, you know ‘too early for us’, ‘climate not yet ripe’, ‘haven’t got the money’ etc, football would have passed us by and we’d be playing in front of a handful of people up the back-end of nowhere.
“To prove that, look at how some of the stick-in-the-muds who came later ducked the big decisions. Take developing Priestfield for instance. The Gordon Road Stand is still exactly as it was 100 years ago despite plenty of talk about it being replaced, we were about the only league club still playing on a sloping pitch up to the 1950’s, we were practically the last league club to install floodlights, and six years after Hillsborough we’ve still got the monstrosity of fences round half the ground when everyone else has torn them down. Most clubs are dipping into the Government fund to build new stands. We’re doing nothing, and when we finally have to, there’ll be no money left. If the spirit of our Victorian pioneers had been preserved, our subsequent history would have been so different and we really might have been something.”
I asked him how they went about creating a professional football club once the Board had made what was arguably the biggest decision in our history. “There was a big meeting with the players at the Napier Arms on 11th May 1894, where it was all sorted.” He pointed to a press cutting in his scrap-book.
“The Directors put forward two schemes for the consideration of the players, but after a lively and long discussion they were rejected. Afterwards, the players were requested to suggest a plan, which would be agreeable to themselves, which they did, and the Directors, taking into full consideration, decided to accept it. Then came the important business of getting the players to promise to sign professional forms, but as matters turned out, this part of the proceedings was easily manipulated, and amongst those who consented were Hutcheson (Captain), who gave his name first, Auld, Jenner, Ashdown, Buckland, whilst the Directors are sure of James and Liddle affixing their signatures when the time for so doing arrives. The Directors do not mean to pay exorbitant sums to players, but by the method laid down, the expenses incurred would amount to about £1 per man per match. Dickinson the ex Bolton Wanderer, would play for Brompton next season as an amateur, whilst one or two other prominent players might be seen in the ranks”
Grandad continued “So there you are, all done and dusted in a night, and not an agent in sight! Mind you, it was really going to stretch the club financially. Because we’d only been playing for a year and there were longer-established teams applying, we were elected to the Second Division of the Southern League rather than the First. There were only six other teams, which meant a lot fewer home games and a drop in gate money. We countered by putting the prices up, and we expected bigger crowds anyway as the standard was going to be better and more people were getting interested, but it would be a struggle none the less. We used the ground as much as we could in the summer for fund raising events – athletics, fetes, cricket matches and the like. Anything to help.
“But I have to say that it was probably one of the most exciting times I’ve experienced supporting the Club. With me helping Aunt Eleanor in the Napier Arms, and Bert getting snippets from Station Master Partridge, we reckoned we had tabs on all the inside gen about who we were trying to sign, who wasn’t signing, and so on. Both of us were key sources in the New Brompton rumour mill. So by the time the new season kicked off, we were gagging for it!”