West Ham United is perhaps the most London of London’s football clubs. So how was it that the chairman of the club at the time of its move to Upton Park in 1904 was a Liverpudlian called Joseph Grisdale? And what did Joseph have in common with the club’s nickname of ‘The Hammers’?

Founded on Iron

Founded on Iron

Success in families ebbs and flows. Some improve their educational and financial position. Some, through ill luck or indolence, slip down the ladder. This is the story of one man who was on the up: Joseph Grisdale. Through hard work, and quite probably with a bit of luck as well, Joseph rose from his comparatively simple origins in Liverpool’s docklands to become Chairman of West Ham Football Club in London’s East End, before being able to retire in comfort to bucolic Hampshire.

Joseph was born in Liverpool’s docklands in 1857. He was the son of mariner Matthew Grisdale and his wife Sarah Tickle. Matthew was the grandson of another Matthew, a Lake District man who had made a fortune as a corn merchant in the late eighteenth century in the then thriving Cumberland port of Whitehaven. Matthew Senior’s son Thomas became a pawnbroker, first in Dublin and later in Liverpool. He died in Liverpool 1856.

Liverpool Docks

Liverpool Docks

Because of the family’s many maritime connections in both Whitehaven and Liverpool, Matthew Junior (i.e. Thomas’s son and Joseph’s father) became a mariner (Thomas’s first Dublin-born son Joseph became a China Tea Clipper Captain and died in Shanghai in 1859). When Matthew married Sarah in 1856, he is listed as a ‘mariner’ and when Joseph was born the next year he gave his occupation as a ‘ship’s steward’. By 1861 Matthew had, at least temporarily, left the sea and was working on land as a ‘labourer’ and living in Plumb Street Court. Ten years later, in 1871, he was an ‘engine driver’. Matthew probably alternated periods at sea with periods on land, because at the time of the births of some of his later children his occupation was once again given as ‘mariner’. It would be nice to know a little more about Matthew’s life, as when his son Joseph married in early 1878 Matthew was said to be a ‘Gentleman’, and when he died later in the same year he left the tidy sum of ‘under’ £3,000 in his will.

Thames Ironworks Foundry

Thames Ironworks Foundry

Let us return to the subject of this article, namely Matthew’s son Joseph. Somehow and somewhere both Joseph and (later) his younger brother Lowther were apprenticed as coppersmiths in the shipbuilding industry – probably in Liverpool. Joseph married mariner’s daughter Annie McKenzie in Everton in January 1871 when he was already a coppersmith. His younger brother Lowther would marry Annie’s sister Mary Elizabeth McKenzie in 1888 in London. Sometime after his father’s death, Joseph moved from Liverpool to West Ham in London’s East End. Somehow he had got work as a coppersmith in the massive Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding and Engineering Company. Maybe someone from the yard had come to Liverpool looking for skilled men or perhaps Joseph had heard of the opportunities another way.

Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding

Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding

Whatever the case, by 1881 Joseph was living with his wife Annie, daughter Frances and his mother-in-law Catherine McKenzie and her daughter Mary (Lowther’s future wife) at 14 Lennox Street in London’s grim but vibrant East End. Joseph and Annie were to have seven more children in London before Annie died in 1901; Joseph married again the next year. The family had moved to nearby Newman Street by 1891, then by 1901 to Barking Road – all places near Joseph’s workplace. By 1891 Joseph’s brother Lowther and his new family had joined Joseph in London and the two brothers and two sisters lived and worked together.

The Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company had been founded in 1837 and by the later 1800s ‘it was the largest shipbuilder on the Thames, its premises described by the Mechanics Magazine in 1861 as “Leviathan Workshops”’

HMS Sans Pareil - Ready for Launch

HMS Sans Pareil – Ready for Launch

During its existence, from its start in 1837 until competition from northern English shipyards forced its eventual closure in 1912, the yard built 144 warships and numerous other vessels. We can perhaps envisage the type of work Joseph had to do as a coppersmith if we think about all the copper pieces, boilers and pipes used in ships and ships’ engines at that time. Among the many ships Joseph undoubtedly helped to build was the HMS Sans Pareil, a 10,470 ton battleship launched in 1887.

Arnold Hills

Arnold Hills

From the later 1800s the yard’s ‘workforce was very much under the control of the managing director, Arnold Hills. His approach to industrial relations was that of the enlightened patriarch. He did not always agree with his employees, however, and his support for the firm’s right to employ non-union men was deeply unpopular’. There were strikes and Hills was ‘hissed’ by his own workmen as he entered the yard. He decided that better labour relations were needed and ‘in 1892 he put forward a ‘Good Fellowship scheme’ of bonuses on top of standard wage rates. Two years later a working day of eight hours rather than nine was introduced.’ This was at a time when 10 or even 12 hour days were the norm.

As well as promoting shorter working hours and profit-sharing, Hills encouraged his workers to become involved in the company sports and social activities. He spent a lot of time and money on the formation of works clubs of every kind. These included a temperance league, cycling club, cricket club and brass band.

And so we come to football. In 1895, at the instigation of Hills and foreman and referee Dave Taylor, a works’ football team was formed. The Thames Ironworks Gazette announced: ‘Mr. Taylor, who is working in the shipbuilding department, has undertaken to get up a football club for next winter and I learn that quoits and bowls will also be added to the attractions.’

Syd King, one of the first players and later a long-serving manager of West Ham, wrote about the formation of the club:

In the summer of 1895, when the clanging of “hammers” was heard on the banks of Father Thames and the great warships were rearing their heads above the Victoria Dock Road, a few enthusiasts, with the love of football within them, were talking about the grand old game and the formation of a club for the workers of the Thames Iron Works Limited. There were platers and riveters in the Limited who had chased the big ball in the north country. There were men among them who had learned to give the subtle pass and to urge the leather goal wards. No thought of professionalism, I may say, was ever contemplated by the founders. They meant to run their club on amateur lines and their first principal was to choose their team from men in the works.

Thames Ironworks Team 1895

Thames Ironworks Team 1895

‘The team played on a strictly amateur basis for 1895 at least, with a team featuring a number of works employees including Thomas Freeman (ships fireman), Walter Parks (clerk), Tom Mundy, Walter Tranter and James Lindsay (all boilermakers), William Chapman, George Sage, and William Chamberlain and apprentice riveter Charlie Dove.’

The team initially played in full dark blue kits, as inspired by Mr. Hills, who had been an Oxford University “Blue”, but changed the following season by adopting the sky blue shirts and white shorts combination worn through 1897 to 1899. In 1899 they acquired their now traditional home kit combination of claret shirts and sky blue sleeves in a wager involving Aston Villa players, who were League Champions at the time.

In 1900 Thames Ironworks F.C. was disbanded and was re-launched as West Ham United F.C.

Because of the original “works team” roots and links (still represented upon the club badge), they are still known to this day as ‘the Irons’ or ‘the Hammers’ amongst fans and the media.

Joseph Grisdale - Chairman

Joseph Grisdale – Chairman

Joseph Grisdale was probably too old to have played in the works’ team, even if he might have been one of those who Syd King said ‘had chased the big ball in the north country’. But he was no doubt involved in some way because in 1901, when the team was still playing matches at the Memorial Ground in Plaistow, Joseph was made a Director of the club. When West Ham United moved to Upton Park in 1904, Joseph became Chairman of the club, a position he would hold until 1909.

As mentioned, West Ham United F.C. got its name The Hammers due to its origins in shipbuilding. Many of the early players were ‘metal-bashers’, as was Joseph the coppersmith.

Perhaps Joseph was better rewarded for his chairmanship of West Ham than he was for his work in the shipbuilding yard? Whatever the case, he obviously did make a little money as by 1911 he was able to move the family to the slightly leafier London suburb of Woodford Green where he became a self employed ship repairer and an ‘employer’. Perhaps he had been laid off before the demise of the Thames Ironworks yard?

Sarisbury, Hampshire

Sarisbury, Hampshire

It could be that Joseph continued to work as a coppersmith and a ship repairer during the First World War (there was certainly a demand for his skills), but what we know for certain is that sometime before 1921 he had been able to retire with his family to the pretty rural location of Holly Nook in Sarisbury in bucolic Hampshire. Certainly and literally a breath of fresh air! He died there in June 1921 leaving £7,490 in his will.

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