Having recently retired as a full-time journalist I decided to put some of my new-found spare time to good use by practising as a clairvoyant. As I result I am now able to bring you an exclusive interview with Arnold F Hills, the man without whom there would be no West Ham United. Mr Hills actually passed away in 1927, but it’s amazing what you can do with an upturned wine glass and a ouija board…
Brian Williams: So, Mr Hills, you are the man who formed Thames Ironworks FC, which went on to became West Ham.
Arnold F Hills: Too right, me old china plate. And a proper two-and-eight we’re in today, if you ask me.
BW: I’m sorry, I have got the right Arnold Hills here? It was my understanding you were an Oxford graduate and, not to put too fine a point on it, posh.
AH: Oh, sorry about that. I had to put on the mockney-cockney routine when I first went to heaven. It turns out the only people who ever get in there are from the East End. St Peter only let me through the pearly gates because of the West Ham connection – he’s a big fan.
BW: That’s tough for toff s. It sounds as if you were lucky not to be cast into the eternal flames of damnation.
AH: Well, I lived in Canning Town when I first left university, so the eternal flames of damnation don’t really hold any fears for me.
BW: You said you thought the club was in a state. Why is that?
AH: I don’t like the new stadium. We never should have left the Boleyn Ground.
BW: I think you’ll find that most supporters believe the time has come to forget the past and move on.
AH: Not me. Buy back the land and rebuild Upton Park sharpish. We never should have gone to Stratford in the first place.
BW: I suspect those sentiments may not go down well in some quarters.
AH: Let me remind you, I started the club in the first place. If anyone’s entitled to have their four penneth worth, it’s me.
BW: I believe you were an industrialist before you became involved in professional football.
AH: That is quite correct, young man. The Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company was my father’s firm. I joined it immediately after I graduated from Oxford and took over the business when he died.
BW: And is it true that you were quite a sportsman in your day?
AH: One doesn’t like to boast, of course. But, yes, I played football for my university and was England’s champion runner over a mile.
BW: Tell me about the newspaper you set up. I believe it was called the Thames Ironworks Gazette.
AH: And a damn fine read it was, too. Of course, if I were doing it now I wouldn’t bother with print – I’d go online and set up my own website.
BW: You obviously understand the media business, Mr Hills. Did you ever fancy becoming a journalist yourself?
AH: Journalist? Idlers and drunkards, every last one of them! I was always teetotal. And a vegetarian. Clean living and exercise, that’s the ticket. Give one of you layabouts half-a-crown and you’d be in a public house ordering strong liquor before you could say Lloyd George. That editor of yours looks like an abstemious fellow, though. I do hope he’s not paying you hacks too much – I’d hate the thought of you wasting his hard-earned money on fast women, slow horses and cheap alcohol.
BW: You need have no fear on that score Mr Hills, I can assure you of that. Now, about the Gazette…
AH: It first came out in 1895. I published it because I wanted to make the case that West Ham needed to be in the County of London. It was in Essex at the time, and I could see the way things were going even then. It was only a matter of time before the whole place was awash with pina coladas and personalised number plates.
BW: But then you used your paper to form a football team?
AH: We’d had a lot of strikes – faults on both sides, I’m sure. So, under a headline that read: “The importance of co-operation between workers and management”, I announced the idea of setting up a team to represent the factory
BW: But this wasn’t the Hammers as we know them today?
AH: No, it was a factory team – Thames Ironworks FC. The players were all employees. They paid two shillings and sixpence – that’s 12.5p to you – to join and trained on Tuesdays and Thursdays under gaslights at a church hall in the Barking Road. We were able to put out two teams in the first season.
BW: How did Thames Ironworks become West Ham?
AH: That came about in 1900. We’d moved from Hermit Road to the Memorial Grounds by then, but we weren’t getting the crowds we needed. Who’s going to support a factory team when they don’t work at the factory? So I wound it up, and formed an independent club that represented the whole area. I was the major shareholder.
BW: West Ham United FC?
BW: Tell me about the Memorial Grounds.
AH: Now that was something to behold, if I do say so myself. Financed it all out of my own pocket. The capacity was well over 100,000 – mind you, this was before Lord Justice Taylor, of course. Not only was there a football pitch, the grounds included a running track, tennis courts and a swimming pool. Men paid 10 shillings for a season ticket – ladies half that price.
BW: So why the move to the Boleyn Ground in 1904?
AH: The shareholders decided West Ham needed somewhere that was easier to get to, would attract bigger crowds and make the club a major force in the land.
BW: Sounds like the argument for moving to the Olympic Stadium.
AH: The big difference is, the Boleyn Ground was built for football. It didn’t have a stupid running track round the outside. They’ll have to get rid of that one day.
BW: You think that could happen?
AH: I know it will.
BW: You sound very certain.
AH: In death, the past, the present and the future all become one. There are no longer any uncertainties.
BW: That all sounds a bit metaphysical for a football magazine.
AH: In short my friend, the deceased can see the future just as easily as we can recall the past. It’s one of the few advantages of being brown bread.
BW: I can see how that could have its uses. You know, for example, how West Ham are going to get on this season?
AH: Mid-table obscurity. You don’t have to be psychic to predict that.
BW: I can live with that. Oh, sorry, that’s probably a bit tasteless what with you being dead and everything. No offence.
AH: None taken. BW: I think the one thing every West Ham supporter wants to know is, will we ever win the Cup again? AH: Of course.
BW: That’s fantastic! How long have we got to wait? Sorry, Mr Hills, you’ve gone very faint all of sudden. Are you still there? Mr Hills, can you hear me…
Unfortunately, we lost reception at that point. If I ever get him back, I’ll let you know about that Cup run.