The Personal Memoirs Of Charlie Westwick, born 1879, The Oldest Gillingham Supporter In The World. (As told to his grandson)
October to November 1899
The fans of New Brompton were starting to settle into the routines familiar to football followers down the years. In between shouting the team on every Saturday afternoon came the usual topics of conversation during the week – injuries, team selections, rumours about transfers in and out, and money problems. I asked Grandad what he remembered about football in Victorian times.
“I think the thing that was really different from the modern game, SunBoy, was the influence of the captain. Some of them these days don’t do much more than toss the coin and play at being the biggest mouth in rows with the referee, but in the early days the captain was very much the pivotal figure of the club. He usually decided the tactics, and on the field his word was law as far as the players were concerned. It was a similar role to the one you see these days as captain of a cricket team or a rugby union side.
“The captain was also the bridge between the Directors and the players. You can see that arrangement working in the discussions about turning professional. Once David Hutcheson had decided that the best financial deal was on offer, he signed and the rest all followed. If one of the players had a complaint about anything, it had to be presented to the Directors through the captain. No-one barging into the Chairman’s office with their agent in those days. It worked the other way though. The captain had total authority over who was allowed in the dressing room, and in New Brompton’s case it was the Chairman and Directors only, and they had to clear out half an hour before the match.
“Managers, as we understand them today, didn’t really exist. We had a trainer from 1894 when we started having two practices a week, but what they did wasn’t much more than military keep-fit type stuff. From about 1895 the blackboard outside the pavilion started to have the team marked up in the classic 2-3-5 formation and that started to reflect how they lined up and played on the field. In April 1896 one of our giants joined us – William Ironside Groombridge. He was probably convinced that it was New Brompton for him by the home game the previous week. We hammered Ilford 9-1, with Hutcheson, Strachan and Buckland all getting hat-tricks – the only time in club history that three of our players have got a hat-trick in the same match.
“Groombridge was initially appointed as Financial Secretary, but up until the First World War, and he stayed with the club until 1923 when he tendered his resignation, he played a sort of Secretary/Manager role. At the end of the day whether or not we could afford players, how much we paid them, playing expenses and so on, were all financial matters, so it was more or less down to him. He and the captain picked the team, and there was as much an eye for the financial implications of expense claims as there was for tactical necessities. Groombridge organised all the travel arrangements and any stop-overs, and was the main day to day face of the Directors as well. Apart from making sure the players kept fit (Trainer), tactics on the field (Captain), Mr William Ironside Groombridge had his fingers in everything – the first Mr New Brompton FC in fact.
“The regular headache for him was of course getting enough money in to keep the club going. Despite some pretty fanatical supporters, and even with local derbies against Chatham, Sheppey and Millwall Athletic, our Southern League gates only averaged about 2,500. One of the first things Groombridge did was to increase prices, and my season ticket for 1896/97 set me back ten shillings (50p). There were the usual moans of course, but the crafty old bugger knew we were all hooked. The money spinners were the Cup Ties. We won the Chatham Charity Cup again in 1896 and were beaten finalists in 1897, but it was the FA Cup where the excitement lay.
“Being a small club, we had to fight our way through from the First Qualifying Round. The early rounds were regionalised to increase interest and save travelling, and it meant that you could often get drawn against the same sides season after season. In 1895/96 we drew Millwall Athletic again and they beat us 1-0 at home. The following season we got to the Third Qualifying Round thumping Faversham 6-1 at home and winning 4-1 at Gravesend before we lost 3-1 at Northfleet. In 1897/98 we avenged that defeat when we beat Northfleet at their place 3-1 in the First Qualifying Round, then 2-0 home to Eastbourne Swifts, 6-2 home to Grays, and 1-0 home to Chatham. We were getting a bit of cup fever at that point as 7,500 turned up to see that game, but in the Fifth Qualifying Round we had to go to Plumstead to play Woolwich Arsenal, and we lost 4-2.
“Our ambition was to get to the First Round Proper – Still in the Cup at Christmas! – and in 1898/1899 we were. Southern League clubs got a bye into the Third Qualifying Round and we beat Grays United 3-0, Sheppey United 2-1 and Gravesend 1-0 all at home (Gravesend after a 1-1 draw) and then we were home to Southampton. They were top of the Southern League and had pretty much the same team that got to the Final in 1900 and in 1902. It was a bitterly cold day in January 1899, but a crowd of 9,000 turned up, a new ground record. It was a tense struggle, but we lost 1-0 to a late goal. Still we’d got as far as we had ever gone, and had no idea that in our next tie we would set an FA Cup record.
“In season 1899/1900 we started off in the Third Qualifying Round again, and we were drawn away at Woolwich Arsenal. They were now an established side in the Second Division of the Football League, so it was expected to be an easy win for them. The first game was played on Saturday 28th October. Me, Bert and the gang were all on the train up to Plumstead, although the talk was more about the situation in South Africa than whether we were going to win. The Boer War had started a couple of weeks previously, and Slogger and Alf were debating whether they should volunteer. I told ’em to make a decision when New Brompton were out the Cup, which we thought would be by half-time! They always beat us.
“Not on this occasion though. We gave a good account of ourselves in the first half, and just after the hour a low shot from left winger Andrew Swan put us ahead. The Arsenal equalised late on, so it was back to Priestfield for a replay on Wednesday afternoon. A dour struggle, which finished 0-0 after extra time. Then the following Monday afternoon every dodge was pulled to get to Millwall for the second replay. That was probably the most entertaining game. Bags of chances but 0-0 at half time, then it see-sawed both ways in the second half and extra time to finish 2-2. Centre forward Tom Pangbourne got both our goals. Two days later it was a Wednesday afternoon visit to Spurs’ newly-opened White Hart Lane ground. Early goals from both sides, inside forward John MacDonald got ours with a blistering drive, saw another dour struggle through the second half and extra time. By this time both sides were completely familiar with their opponents, and neither wanted to make the costly mistake.
“The Fourth Replay, the fifth match, was played on Tuesday afternoon 14th November, at Gravesend’s Overcliffe ground. Plenty of people went missing from work again to make the short trip up there. The national press had taken an interest by now, and of course they still expected the mighty Woolwich Arsenal to turn over little old New Brompton. We might have been underdogs, but we’d given a good account of ourselves so far, and we had a good defence. Early on centre half James Atherton surged forward to drive a shot under their goalkeeper, and then marshalled our defence superbly to keep the Arsenal out and hand on to win 1-0. No-one could believe it was finally over, and after five games and nine hours football we’d seen them off. It established an FA Cup record which stood until 1924 when some club called Gillingham, playing Barrow, equalled it!
“The following Saturday we finally played the Fourth Qualifying Round, at home to Thames Ironworks. We drew 0-0, and lost the replay the following Wednesday afternoon 2-0. Seven tough Cup Ties and two league games in twenty-seven days, our lads were pretty much exhausted!”
That was a reminder for me to brew up a cup of tea. As I waited for the kettle to boil, I reflected that for New Brompton the nineteenth century had ended on an upbeat note. They were an established professional club, with a bit of Cup pedigree, but their continual financial problems and small gates meant that they had reached a glass ceiling. The next step was to break through into the Football League, but to be able to do that they needed to consistently finish in the Southern League’s top two or three, have a large ground and draw the crowds. But if they continued the progress they had made in their first decade, it was possible.
In the meantime, there was always the FA Cup to provide glamour, excitement and a bit of giant-killing. New Brompton had shown their capabilities for that by beating a Football League club in Woolwich Arsenal. Was it possible for them to go on and topple one of the real Titans of Edwardian Football?