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Filed: Tuesday, 21st February 2006
By: Grant Hole

There is popular West Ham folklore to the effect that West Ham's claret and blue colours were taken directly from Aston Villa on formation as West Ham United in August 1900, due to the success of Villa at that time, league champions in 1899. I hope to persuade in this article that while the Villa kit might well have been obtained, the reason for this was far more likely to be attributable to in-house factors than any admiration of The Villans.

The evidence I'll produce is not conclusive, while there are many facts there is also a lot of plausible filling in around the facts. Information from the period is incomplete, and clouded by folklore. Our lineage begins shrouded by yesterhaze at a date that I haven't been able to establish any more accurately than the 1880s with the formation of a team called Old St Luke's FC. Information on Old St Luke's is very thin on the ground and I haven't been able to ascertain what their colours were. As much as is not known about Old St Luke's they become important to West Ham's history in the 1893/4 season - but probably not to the colours; remember them as we'll be returning to them later.

Detailed West Ham lineage begins in 1892 with the formation of Castle Swifts FC. Castle Swifts were the works team of the ship repair yard of The Castle Mail Packet Company, later to merge with The Union Steamship Company to become the famous Union Castle Shipping Line. The yard was sited on the west bank of Bow Creek at its junction with the River Thames, directly opposite to the present day site of The Millennium Dome.

As the works players were paid extra wages to turn out for the team, Castle Swifts were the first professional team in Essex. They played in pale blue shirts and white shorts (note the best part of West Hams colours) taking their colours from the commercial colours of The Castle Mail Packet Company.

The Castle Swifts played at a number of grounds in the 1892/3 season before merging with Old St Luke's FC in the 1893/4 season, adopting the Old from Old St Luke's and becoming known as Old Castle Swifts FC. Old Castle Swifts took over Old St Luke's Hermit Road ground in Canning Town, continuing to play in their pale blue shirts and white shorts. The colours of Old St Luke's seem to have become obsolete at this time, that is unless they were also pale blue over white.

In 1895 - and for unknown reasons - The Old Castle Swifts collapsed, drawing the attention of Arnold Hills - the philanthropist owner of The Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company - astonishingly sited from the perspective of West Ham fans directly opposite the Castle Mail Packet Company ship repair yard on the east bank of Bow Creek. The two teams fundamental to the genesis of West Ham United were works teams a hundred metres or so apart on opposite banks of Bow Creek.

Arnold Hills had been contemplating forming a works football team for The Ironworks and bought out the remains of The Old Castle Swifts, including their lease on the Hermit Road ground. Several Swifts players joined The Thames Ironworks team, and the team adopted one half of The Thames Ironworks commercial colours of claret and dark blue, playing in all dark blue.

Black and white photographs of the ironworks team show an all dark strip which is presumably the all ironworks blue one, and a light over white strip which is presumably the pale blue over white of The Swifts worn as second colours. Both the all ironworks dark blue kit and the pale blue over white kit are documented
in West Ham history

Thames Ironworks FC played at the Hermit Road ground until the end of the 1893/4 season when they were evicted, moving to The Memorial Recreation Ground Canning Town for the commencement of the 1894/5 season. The Memorial Ground had been opened by Hills in 1897 for the use of Ironworks staff, it also hosted cricket, cycling, athletics and swimming teams.

The Ironworks team were very successful playing initially in the London League, becoming champions at the second attempt in season 1897/8. They turned professional on joining the Southern League Division Two in the 1898/9 season, becoming champions in their first season. This success and the advent of professionalism prompted Hills to establish the team as a community rather than works team, and Thames Ironworks FC was wound up in June 1900 with West Ham United established as a limited company ready for the start of the 1900/1 season.

It is at this time that the decisions concerning the new team were made. It is certain that crossed ironworkers hammers were adopted in recognition of The Thames Ironworks, and it is probable that a castle was adopted too in recognition of The Old Castle Swifts, a union of the two precursor teams emblems. The matter of the castle is complicated by West Hams move to The Boleyn Ground in 1904, the site of The Boleyn Castle, meaning there are connections to two different castles in the early history of the team. The castle being from the Old Castle Swifts is probable but not definite.

The most likely reason for adopting the name West Ham is due to the proximity of The Recreation Ground to West Ham, with United being appended due to the union of The Swifts and Ironworks teams five years earlier, the sense of union in the thinking at that time is palpable.

The advent of the teams colours is steeped in folklore with a particularly popular story from many being one of a team arriving with exactly the same colours as the West Ham team, West Ham not having a change of kit and borrowing light blue and brown strip from a local grammar school. It is said West Ham won the game, decided to change strips to blue and brown, couldn't get blue and brown so adopted Aston Villa kit instead; I haven't been able to substantiate this story with anything factual beyond that there is a local grammar school that uses blue and brown therefore I believe it to be apocryphal.

However, it seems likely that West Ham did obtain Villa kit - that much is undisputed - but given the mindset of union which was so obvious at the time of the establishment of West Ham United it is plausible that the real reason for this was no more than ready availability of the desired colours, a union of the light blue shirts and white shorts inherited from The Old Castle Swifts, and claret as one half of the house colours of The Ironworks.

There are so many facts supporting claret, pale blue and white being in house colours that I am persuaded that this is the real source of West Hams colours. How about you?

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.

Your Comments

by Macca
05:33PM 14th Jun 2012
''I think you are a wee bit in denial. The fact of the matter (not "folklore", note) is that the original leading clubs of the day were used as templates and sources of inspiration by the fledgling clubs that cropped up after the formation of the Football League in 1888.

Now, there's no disputing whatsoever, that Villa were the first league club to wear claret and blue, (in fact it was Villa who actually invented league football but that story is for another day). As league football became increasingly popular and Villa became England's most famous club a number of clubs decided to follow their lead and adopt their famous "lucky" colours. Burnley in 1910, Crystal Palace in 1905 to name but two.

The famous claret body and blue arms template was actually commissioned by Villa in the late 1800s and it became a jersey that was available freely to buy in sports shops the length and breadth of England. I would make a respectful guess that West Ham availed of the "Aston Villa colours" for the simple reason that they were the most celebrated and successful colours of the time. There's no shame in that.

Rooting around for implausible stories rooted in "folklore" is entertaining but fanciful. Just like Spurs owe their colours to Preston N.E., West Ham and many others owe their colours to Villa. That's the way it was back then, the older, more successful clubs inspired the younger clubs and actually helped them develop and establish themselves.''

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