Thursday, 11 March 2010

Gentlemen's Outfit

When it comes to 20th Century Design Classics a certain Dulwich Hamlet shirt of yesteryear sits comfortably alongside the Mini, the Routemaster bus, the telephone box, the Spitfire and the tube map. With instantly recognisable visual markings that once cried out “the most famous amateur football club in the country”, the celebrated pink and navy shirts remained virtually unchanged in five successive decades.

First sported at the start of the 1927/28 season, the design was continuously employed by the Dulwich Hamlet players for the next forty years. In this famous shirt the club experienced the dizzying heights and gaping depths of amateur football. The pinnacles of its success were the three FA Amateur Cups won in a six year period in the mid-nineteen thirties, 1932, 1934 and 1937 (below). By stark contrast the mid-nineteen sixties witnessed the embarrassment of applying for re-election to the Isthmian League (1966 and 1967) where they had been based since 1907.

The Hamlet shirt worn throughout the period consisted of one bold navy blue stripe between pink sides and navy sleeves. The pattern was repeated on the back – numberless until live television at Champion Hill eventually made this a necessity. A buttoned collar and large club crest sewn onto a black patch completed the trimmings

The Pink Link
The advancement of modern football began to take great strides during Queen Victoria’s reign. Until then, and for centuries before, there was little order: codes and rules were rather haphazard, and in some areas non-existent. The organised game began to take shape on the fields of a handful of public schools across Britain. Westminster School, for instance, in the heart of the capital, played a large part in the development of the code of football that would eventually lead to the foundation of the Football Association in 1863. By the time of the origin of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club thirty years later, ‘soccer’ was well grounded and rapidly becoming the national sport.

In all likelihood, the first formal meeting between a group of boys from Dulwich Hamlet School and Lorraine ‘Pa’ Wilson asking for his help to start a football team, took place at the end of January 1893. If that wasn’t the first occasion they met, it was without doubt the most important one. Certainly, before the First World War this date was celebrated annually as the anniversary of the foundation of the Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. Among those present at the meeting were William Porter and H. Polly, who were duly named club captain and vice captain respectively.

At that inaugural gathering in the village, it was agreed that the Club’s colours would be dark blue and red, with a “playing costume of a white sweater and dark knickers”. The colours were probably decided upon because of availability more than anything – even the most abject could cobble together an old white shirt of some description and a pair of cut down trousers. The fact that there was less than two shillings in the coffers meant matching costumes was still out of the question.

Another of the original Hamlet members, W.T. Lloyd, also happened to be a public schoolboy of the aforementioned Westminster School. He had even turned out for the Old Westminsters – ‘the Pinks’ – and apparently, it is in his honour that the Dulwich Hamlet club colours were soon changed from red and blue to pink and blue. A new kit quickly followed suit, it being quite feasible that Lloyd was able to get his hands on a second hand strip from his old school.

The earliest reference we have found to ‘the pink and blues’ is from a South London Press newspaper of January 1896. The Hamlet’s fetching colours would put Dulwich among an elite group of football clubs that wore pink. This gave Dulwich something special – instant recognition as they took the field. It could be said that it was a marketing stroke of genius.

From Riches to Rags
It is often assumed that changes of team strip every season or two is a modern phenomenon. But the earliest team photographs of the Hamlet we have in our possession prove the opposite. In the eight years between 1903 and 1910 Dulwich Hamlet sported five different first team shirts! They could afford to do so; gate receipts began to grow and grow as the club attracted a huge local following throughout the borough of Camberwell.

These monochrome images show pink and blue hoops, pink and blue stripes, pink and blue halves, and a blue fronted dress style shirt with pink sleeves that buttoned up the middle of a thin pink stripe. A closer look at our oldest photograph from 1903 reveals that one or two of the players are wearing slightly different shirts to the rest of the team. So, clearly, there was yet another earlier design!

It all leaves one to ponder why the Victorians, not ones to miss a mass marketing opportunity, and the Edwardians did not cotton-on to replica football shirts! It was not until the 1970s and 80s that every kid on the block had his or her own favourite team’s shirt.

We can safely assume that during the difficult war period of 1914-18 less of the already tight budget was spent on new kit for the players. Indeed the club appears to have had no money at all at that time, which made it all the more remarkable that following the war it did so well, completing the extraordinary feat of winning the Amateur Cup, the Isthmian League title, the Surrey Senior Cup and the London Charity Bowl in one season. And yet some of these sporting champions from that ‘victory’ season look like they are kitted out in a pre-war ragbag of assorted shades and designs. Photographs from the 1920 Amateur Cup Final at The Den [see cover of this issue] show a young Edgar Kail out of sync with the rest of the side. He is not only wearing ‘light coloured knickers’ but he also has on what appears to be odd stockings!

Sadly this trend continued off and on for decades culminating in the famous story of the London Senior Cup Final at Highbury in 1950. Brand new socks and shorts were bought for the Dulwich players, but they were told they would have to pay out of their own pockets for any that were used. One by one the players declined the ‘offer’ and put back into the kitbag what they had just grasped for, and took to the field in their usual clobber.

Glory Days
So, after the first quarter of the twentieth century, in which the Hamlet faithful had witnessed the tremendous rise of the club, they had also seen at least nine separate changes of ‘playing costume’. And for a large number of those years Dulwich played in stripes. Then in the mid nineteen twenties the classic design came into being with its bold solid stripe. In a way this can be seen as a statement of intent: Dulwich Hamlet was here to stay – solid, stable, durable.

I don’t know how many of these original shirts (even ones from the mid sixties) survive today, but I would guess very, very few. But we do have one: the one that belonged to the late Ernie Toser, which he wore in the 1937 Amateur Cup Final at Upton Park when Dulwich defeated Leyton by two goals to nil.

Usually these old team strips would be recycled, filtering down through the reserves and to the junior side, and were looked upon as part of the club’s assets. It was quite an unusual step, therefore, at the close of the 1936/37 season, for the club to present the players with their shirts to keep. Shortly before he died we were loaned Ernie Toser’s shirt, and were able to send it to TOFFS (The Old Fashioned Football Shirt manufacturers) to have reproduced in detail. Replicas of Ernie’s shirt are being worn by Hamlet fans today and can be ordered directly from TOFFS.

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

The mid-sixties were dark days for Dulwich Hamlet and things got progressively worse as the decade went on. The club finished in the bottom three of the Isthmian League in each season from 1964 to 1967, and in the last two of those four seasons they had the ignominy of having to seek re-election. It is beyond doubt that the glorious history of Dulwich Hamlet and the enormous Champion Hill stadium played a great part in the Club being spared the drop to a lower league. It would have been very sad if Dulwich Hamlet had become a casualty in those days; days in which a new optimism was sweeping through the nation, culminating in England’s World Cup win on home soil.

Things needed to change at Dulwich, and thankfully they did. As the sixties played out, a marked improvement took place on the field and in the fortune of the club. For the first time in the history of the club a manager, instead of a committee, was appointed to deal with team affairs.

Another most innovative change was in the total revamping of the club shirt – the first new design since the twenties! This time, in what certainly was a bold step, pink took the precedence over blue – just the sleeves and collar remained blue. Geoff Robbins, whose father was the great Horace Robbins, was in the dressing room when the new shirts were unveiled. “Round-neck shirts instead of the age-old buttoned collars, but oh boy – what awful colours …a heavily overdone pink shirt body with royal blue arms and royal blue shorts! Everybody laughed.”

From that point the ‘navy’ blue disappeared altogether to be replaced by lighter hues. This trend – which actually contravened the original club rules – continued for several decades with the team arrayed in delicate blues, none of which were navy or ‘dark’, and a pink plucked from an increasingly pastel palette. When I arrived at Champion Hill in 1981 to watch my first Hamlet game, Dulwich were wearing the ‘Birmingham City’ penguin style shirt – one bold pink strip down the middle. Only it wasn’t pink. It was a sort of mid grey, the colours having run badly throughout a season or two of washing.

In 1968 the blue went from the arms as well. Just a plain pink shirt with blue collar and cuffs. However, this even more drastic move didn’t seem to have lasted too long, and there is the distinct possibility that it was player power that made the switch back to blue dominance. It cannot be all fun to have to suffer “Nancy-boy” chants week in and week out.

A Whiter Shade of Pale
Alan Smith was appointed manager in 1977, and in his first season at the helm he brought Dulwich promotion from the Isthmian League Division One (where they had dropped to the year before) back to the Premier Division. Team photographs from Smith’s time reveal something very strange. In most of the line-ups the Hamlet are wearing white shorts and socks. This could be understood if he had misgivings about the femininity of the colour pink, but the white was replacing blue!

A few years ago the Hamlet Historian acquired a small number of old Hamlet shirts from the Alan Smith period. As one would expect from any materials of the latter portion of the twentieth century, they are composed entirely of man made fibres. One or two are of the ‘Airtex’ type – a fabric that supposedly helped the body to cool more easily in high temperatures. It goes without saying that most of these antiquated items are battered and worn and faded and shrunken.

Shirt Front Revenue
The Amateur game came to an end in 1974 and the Isthmian League received a major sponsorship deal from Rothmans the cigarette giant. This was succeeded by Berger Paints, Servowarm Gas, Vauxhall Opel and the like. Non-league clubs began to get all kinds of backing, and there was nowhere better to stick a corporate logo than to have it emblazoned across a player’s shirt front. It was still several years before the top flight professional game did the same to enormous monetary gain. At Dulwich, sponsors arrived in the shape of small businesses – Brazier Metals, TN Air Conditioning, KD Chemicals, BCA Music Clubs and Gordon’s Garage, and later followed by World Books, the South London Press, Domino’s Pizza – the extra income being most useful.

The seventies gave rise to all sorts of new fangled ideas. Who can forget the Leeds United garters/tassels/sock-tags (whatever they were!) or the same team’s ‘smiley’ badge? Whether it was Crystal Palace ditching their historical Glaziers nickname to become the Eagles or Coventry City sporting a hysterical brown away strip, clubs across the country were re-branding themselves left right and centre. Even the Dulwich Hamlet crest disappeared for quite a few seasons to be replaced with just the club’s name or monogram. Here in small text over the heart. There writ large in an arc down the middle. And then there was the inevitable carelessness – unforgivable typographical errors when the crest made its comeback. One shirt from the late seventies put the club’s origin ten years earlier than it should with the words ‘Founded 1883’!

Ossie Bayram – one of the most popular Hamlet players of his generation.

The New Black

Over two decades quite a number of different shirt styles and designs were chosen and the pink began a loss of favour that it never really recovered from until the mid 1990s. It was always there – but not so prominent: a mere trimming of collar and cuffs, or a chevron, or a stripe from armpits to waist or shoulder to shoulder. When it finally made its comeback it did so with a vengeance. I wrote a piece at the time for the Champion Hill Street Blues about the return of the classic design and raved about the new ‘shocking pink’.

These days, pink has become a favourable colour almost everywhere. At one time you could hardly find a man with a pink shirt in his wardrobe – today it is a necessity. In sport it has turned up in the most unlikely of places. Rugby teams at home and abroad have taken up the colour, the Middlesex County Cricket team adopted pink shirts and blue bottoms that wouldn’t look out of place behind the goal at Champion Hill, and even some football sides now include it as part of their change strip. A couple of seasons ago a visiting goalkeeper at Dulwich sported a jersey with so much pink in it he almost blended in with the Hamlet forwards. Why the referee didn’t ask him to change into something different was beyond me.

So, in our day when we are told that it is quite normal to be ‘in touch with one’s feminine side’, Dulwich Hamlet’s historic colours do not appear to be as unique as they once were. Everybody wants to be seen in pink – even referees in some matches – especially when it is to promote such worthy causes as breast cancer awareness.

The last couple of Hamlet shirts could not have been more of a contrast. The previous one was predominantly pink, the pinkest in forty years, whilst the current incarnation is predominantly navy blue. But one thing we have been able to guarantee these days is that the whole team walk out onto the pitch dressed in matching costume: a marked improvement on some of the greatest of Dulwich Hamlet teams.

The ‘Ernie Toser’ Shirt

Back in 2001 the Hamlet Historian obtained a piece of club memorabilia that became a blessing in more ways than one. We were loaned (and later presented with) a wonderful piece of Hamlet history that belonged to the aging Ernie Toser, a star of the great nineteen thirties side.

At the end of the successful 1936/37 season, and in a break from tradition, the Dulwich players were presented with the shirts they had worn throughout league and cup campaign. For over sixty years the very shirt Ernie had worn in that season’s Amateur Cup Final had more or less lain folded and hidden away in a chest of drawers at his home.

By a remarkable coincidence, we had already begun the process of having replica shirts designed solely from old monochrome photographs. TOFFS (The Old Fashioned Football Shirts company), based in Gateshead, had actually produced for us a prototype – now in the possession of Paul Griffin – with a much softer pink dye and with slight variations in collar style and in the club badge.

The ‘discovery’ of Toser’s shirt enabled us to pinpoint the precise shade of pink the team played in back in those far off days. Despite the fading hues, unpicking a small area of seam revealed the deeper pink of the original, giving supporters the opportunity to have an ‘exact replica’ cotton shirt created for them.

Another pleasure was to find out from the inside collar that it bore the manufacturer’s label of the Jack Hobbs retailers. Jack Hobbs had been one of the outstanding sportsmen of his generation and a local hero playing cricket for England and for Surrey a short tram ride away at the Oval. He first set up his sports shop in Fleet Street in 1926 and moved it to Cambridge five years later just before his retirement from first class cricket.

It was rather providential that I met Ernie Toser when I did, and innocently asked him if he remembered the colour of an old piece of cloth – the Dulwich Hamlet shirt. It had not even occurred to me that he might possess such an item or that he would place it in my hands the next time we met. He died just a few months later, a matter of days before the first batch of replicas was produced. It struck me at the time that this ancient treasure would in all probability have been discarded with the rest of the dead man’s clothing. Somewhat poignantly, at the funeral, I presented Ernie’s family with a replica ‘Ernie Toser’ shirt and his original. They were thrilled to bits. A short time later they handed back the 1937 shirt with the request that we look after it.

Original article from HH22. Copyright: Jack McInroy ©