Regular readers will know that in recent years, I have drifted into the world of following non-league football and have found myself supporting my local team, Dulwich Hamlet FC. Non-league football has a way of getting under one's skin and it is very easy to get involved as a volunteer performing all manner of duties. Supporting the Hamlet has allowed me to meet some fantastic people and make many new friends and this aspect has really rekindled my love of the sport.
Last week, I was asked to speak at Wolverhampton University as part of their Football and War initiative, both about the casualties who are honoured in the booklet and about the club's wider history, both in peace and wartime. For those readers who are based "down south" or based overseas, I appreciate that Wolverhampton isn't the easiest place to reach and although we hope to repeat the seminar in the autumn at a London venue, I thought it a good idea to repeat the talk here for anyone interested.
|Lorraine "Pa" Wilson (Hamlet Historian)
|Champion Hill Stadium in the 1930s (Hamlet Historian)
The Club first played at Champion Hill in 1912, playing initially on the Greendale pitch, which visitors to Champion Hill will know as being the pitch at the top end of the current ground. The stadium was moved to the site of the current stadium in 1931 to become one of the largest and best appointed stadiums in non-league football and was also used during the 1948 London Olympics when it staged South Korea v Mexico on 2 August, which the Korean side won 5-3 in front of a crowd of 6,000 people. The stadium often attracted five-figure crowds for league matches, amateur internationals and representative matches – the stadium record being 20,744 for the Amateur Cup final between Kingstonian and Stockton in 1933. With the abolition of amateur status in the early 1970s and the subsequent decline in the club’s fortunes, the stadium fell into disrepair and was redeveloped into its present form in 1992. It remains to be seen when we will be allowed to return home.
|The War Memorial is rededicated in 1949 (Hamlet Historian)
This involvement in the local community began with the formation of the club itself and was cemented after the Great War, during which over 100 members served, of whom a staggering 22 perished, with others suffering life-changing injuries. During the war, Wilson had allowed the ground to be used to entertain the troops on leave and had published a magazine named “News of the Pink and Blue Brigade” for the men serving overseas in order for them to keep up with news from home and also keeping them updated as to news of their friends serving elsewhere. After the war, he ensured that a fitting memorial was established to preserve the memory of those who had died and from May 1921, began to sponsor a bed at nearby Kings College Hospital – “The Pink and Blue Bed” which remained in situ until 1947, long after Wilson’s own death in 1924.
|When Shall Their Glory Fade (author's photo)
My friend and fellow Hamlet fan Roger Deason has written about the club’s Great War casualties and hopefully will contribute a future seminar concerning these men but until recently, the casualties from 1939-45 have been somewhat overlooked – even though two of them were relatively high-profile England Amateur Internationals – and it is for that reason that we will concentrate on these men tonight. In November of last year, we released “For Freedom” which tells the story of the four players on the Second World War Roll of Honour.
|DHFC Juniors - September 1940 (Hamlet Historian)
|A wartime friendly programme against the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (Hamlet Historian)
By January 1945, some 80 Dulwich players had been called up, of whom about half served with the RAF, of the remainder, the split was roughly 50:50 between the Royal Navy and the Army and at least one who served as a Bevin Boy in the coal mines.
Sadly, the new war ensured that further members of the club's playing staff were to lose their lives and we now look at those who feature on the club's Roll of Honour.
|Eric Pierce (Gavin Heaton)
The first of our 1939-45 casualties was Eric Pierce, whose senior Dulwich Hamlet career would be over almost as soon as it started. Eric was born in Camberwell on 15 June 1921 and had played all of his football prior to the outbreak of war for the club’s junior teams. He was also a keen cricketer who played for Dulwich Hamlet Cricket Club whenever possible. It seems an alien concept for footballers nowadays but it was by no means uncommon at the end of the football season to simply swap one set of playing kit for another and continue to play another sport for the same club.
The loss to service of many of the club’s more senior players saw Eric break through into the First Team for some of the local wartime league matches that replaced the usual Isthmian League fixtures but on 23 January 1941, Eric enlisted into the RAF to train as a pilot. He was undergoing training at 16 Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Burnaston and had passed a major milestone for any aspiring pilot by achieving solo flight - about a quarter of any new intake of prospective pilots failed to go solo, so Eric was obviously a competent pilot. Unfortunately, on 12 October 1941 when undertaking aerobatic duties, his Miles Magister trainer aircraft suffered an engine failure whilst at low altitude and despite his attempts to make a forced landing, Eric’s aircraft crashed into a field at Broken Flats Farm in Derbyshire, which killed the young pilot instantly.
|Ron Ebsworth (Hamlet Historian)
The second to perish was 35 year old Ron Ebsworth, who had been born in Ilford in 1906 and played for his local club Ilford FC who were at that time an established amateur club who also played in the Isthmian League. He joined Dulwich in 1936 and in contrast to Eric Pierce, was perhaps coming towards the end of his playing career when he joined us. Ron was one of those people that you need at any amateur club, whether it be football, cricket, rugby or whatever sport – he was always available to play and would happily play in any team and in pretty much any position. He was a very popular figure at the club because of this willingness to play anywhere and his uncomplaining nature.
Reg’s form also attracted the attention of the selectors for the England Amateur side and he scored a hat trick on debut against Wales in an 8-2 victory at Rhyl in January 1938. Almost certainly as a result of this performance, Reg was approached by Sir Herbert Merrett, the industrialist and chairman of Cardiff City to play for them as an amateur, with the offer of a job in Wales as a sweetener. He accepted the offer and made his debut in a 1-1 draw at Notts County on Easter Saturday 1939 – he played at home against the same opposition two days later when he scored in a 4-1 win, in which he was by all accounts man of the match. The 1939-40 season was cancelled in common with all senior football but Reg nevertheless made three wartime appearances for the Bluebirds. Shortly after this time, Reg had decided to leave Cardiff and return to Dulwich – this was possibly down to a change of manager at Cardiff which wasn’t to Reg’s liking and in all subsequent representative matches, he is described as a Dulwich Hamlet player.
|Bill Parr in the RAF (John Cross)
The final name currently on the Roll of Honour is 26 year old Bill Parr, who unusually for the time was an established England Amateur International when he joined Dulwich Hamlet in early 1939, having already played seventeen matches for Blackpool in the old First Division of the Football League. Bill had played alongside Reg Anderson during the latter player’s England Amateur debut against Wales and the two men had run riot down the right hand side of the pitch, with Bill scoring four goals and Reg a hat trick, so he undoubtedly joined Dulwich in order to replicate this partnership with a player with whom he had formed an immediate rapport. The new club partnership bore immediate fruit when the Hamlet lifted the London Senior Cup but having played for Blackpool at the very highest level of English football, perhaps Bill found the Isthmian League a little too easy and in May 1939, Arsenal announced that he was to play the next season for them as an amateur. The 1939-40 season was abandoned and so there remains some doubt as to which club Bill would actually have played for, as some programmes for representative matches at this time still show him as a Dulwich Hamlet player. Like his three Hamlet team mates, Bill volunteered to serve as RAF aircrew and in his case trained as a Pilot. On completion of training, he was posted to Coastal Command to fly the Lockheed Hudson light bomber on Maritime Patrol duties covering the vital convoy routes on the Western Approaches. Bill was killed on 8 March 1942 when his aircraft suffered engine failure just after take-off on a night navigational training flight.
Unlike most professional clubs, we do not have a club statistician, neither do we have a museum with an exhaustive database of programmes to call upon – like most amateur clubs, we accepted that there was quite a high turnover of players and that it was almost impossible to keep an accurate handle on everyone who had ever appeared for the club. Neither was there in those days quite the same obsession with statistics that we have in today’s game. We had however, assumed that the Club Committee at the time had kept an accurate record of the wartime casualties and had accordingly included all of the relevant names when the memorial was updated in 1947 to include the Second World War casualties. At the end of the day, when the booklet was written, we had to take a leap of faith and go by the information that was available to us on the Roll of Honour.
Thanks are due to Alex Alexandrou at the Football and War Project for inviting me to speak at the seminar. Hopefully a London date will be arranged in the autumn, which will also include other speakers. Once this date is arranged, I will advise this via social media.