Thames AFC and the Football League’s lowest-ever attendance
The brief history of Thames AFC saw an ambitious attempt to launch a new team in London, based at the West Ham Stadium in the Custom House area of East London. Built in 1928 with a capacity of 100,000 and designed by the celebrated Scottish engineer Archibald Leitch, the stadium was primarily known as a greyhound and speedway venue. The consortium of businessmen behind the venture, led by former Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Sir Louis Dane, hatched a plan to put together a football team capable of competing with London’s giants. Confident of attracting the crowds to their impressive ground, Dane announced to the Press:
“It is a stadium in the fullest sense of the word, and we hope will provide a fine opportunity for the people of this densely populated area to enjoy healthy sports and low charges” (Report from the Stratford Express, 1st August 1928)
In conversation with the local paper, Dane outlined ‘a comprehensive programme’ of sporting events, expressed his pride in ‘a wonderful stadium – one of the finest in the Country – and hoped they would be able to live up to it.’ Unfortunately the ‘new professional team’ that was hastily formed to provide the venue with a football club, initially known as Thames Association, never caught the public’s imagination.
Thames Association played their first game at the new stadium on the 30th August 1928 against Brighton & Hove Albion’s second team in the Southern League. After two seasons and a third-place finish, the club achieved its first goal when they were elected to the Third Division (South) in 1930 by a single vote over Aldershot, replacing Merthyr Town. Upon entering the Football League, ‘Association’ was incorporated into the club’s name as Thames AFC. Despite the signings of several high-calibre players including ex-England international Jimmy Dimmock and Harry White, Thames lasted only two seasons and recorded the Football League’s lowest-ever attendance in their vast stadium. Only 469 spectators were at the home fixture against Luton Town on Saturday 6th December 1930.
Ending their first season in 20th position (of 22 teams), the venture soon ended in failure as Thames decided not to seek re-election after finishing bottom of the division in the 1931-32 season. Their place in the League was taken by Aldershot. They never attracted a five-figure crowd, the highest being around 8,000 for the visit of Exeter City in August 1931, and averaged a little under 2,500 during their short League career. Shortly after their demise, over 80,000 attended a speedway Test between England and Australia in 1933, giving a glimpse of the ground’s potential. The West Ham Stadium continued to host sporting events, primarily greyhound racing and speedway but also including baseball and the World Stock Car championships of 1961 and 1965, but never hosted League football again. The famous neighbours of West Ham United used it for training ahead of the 1964 FA Cup Final. The stadium was eventually closed in 1972 and demolished shortly after – housing now stands on the site.
The unwanted record of the League’s lowest-ever crowd is sometimes attributed to Stockport County’s Second Division game against Leicester City in May 1921, where 13 paying spectators were recorded. With County’s Edgeley Park closed due to crowd trouble at a previous match, the fixture was played at Old Trafford, and took place after Manchester United met Derby County that afternoon. With many fans staying on after the earlier game, the actual attendance was comfortably over four figures. The lowest post-War attendance in the Football League was registered at Spotland, for Rochdale v Cambridge United in February 1974; due to the power shortages caused by strikes during the ‘winter of discontent’, the Third Division fixture was played on a Tuesday afternoon. The attendance is sometimes given as 450, but the official figure was 588.
Thames had failed to heed the lessons of New Brighton Tower, an earlier doomed scheme to fill a huge stadium in a footballing hotbed, Merseyside in this instance. The scheme revolved around the development of the area as a resort at the end of the nineteenth century, with the building of a tower to eclipse the one up the coast at Blackpool. The stadium, the Tower Athletic Grounds, needed a football team, and New Brighton Tower FC was born (before the tower itself was even built). Like Thames, they signed players with hopes of climbing the Football League, which they joined in 1898. Though they performed respectably, the crowds never came in the numbers anticipated and, despite a 4th place finish in the Second Division in 1900-01, they were disbanded. The tower, completed in 1900, lasted until 1919. A later side with more modest ambitions, New Brighton FC, competed in the Football League from 1923 until 1951.
A more successful template for how to launch a club at a new football ground was Chelsea. In 1904, businessman Gus Mears and his brother Joseph bought Stamford Bridge, built in 1877 but formerly used for athletics. After extensive redevelopment by Leitch, they set about finding a team to fill the stadium. After Fulham rejected Mears’ approach, he formed Chelsea FC in March 1905 and succeeded in persuading the League to admit them to the Second Division for the following season. At the time, Woolwich Arsenal were the only League club in London, and Chelsea soon established themselves in the west of the capital. After promotion to the First Division at the end of their second season, Stamford Bridge saw the highest average attendances in the country during the 1907-08 season, and later hosted the FA Cup Final between 1920 and 1922. When Thames AFC reached the League twenty-five years after Chelsea, London had a host of successful sides; there were now twelve in total, six of them in the same division as the newcomers. Both West Ham United and Clapton Orient were near-neighbours. Faced with such competition, and a huge stadium to fill, it was always going to be an uphill struggle for Thames AFC. Forty-five years were to pass until another London club – Wimbledon – entered the Football League.