I hope readers were cheered by the great footballing news that we heard in May. Witham Town were promoted to the Premier Division of the Isthmian League (Ryman League). I think this is only three steps below the Football League (do check in Wikipedia). They start playing in their new role soon and we wish them good fortune.
There was a team called Witham Town in about 1877, which was closed and re-founded several times. They were struggling in 1885, for instance, but at their AGM, “Mr Everard came into the room and said he would reduce the rental of the ground”.
Over the years, there were other teams too, such as Witham Athletic, the Bridge Industrial Home Lads, Crittall’s Works, Witham Wednesday (for shopworkers mostly), Witham Rovers, Witham Methodist Minors, Bramston School, Hatfield Road Rovers, Newland Rangers, Witham United, St Nicholas Albion, and C of E Old Boys.
One of the best remembered pitches in the first part of the 20th century, was the Grove Field, where the housing estate is now. The Recreation Ground in Maldon Road, now known as the Park, was also much used, and often badly worn. In the 1930s a pitch was laid at the new Rickstones Road ground, and in 1935 the Council said it “was extensively used by the lads in this part of the town” and that “proper goal posts be placed there forthwith for their use”.
But many teams just borrowed a piece of a farmer’s field. Even Witham Town did this in about 1950. Spencer Kent was the farmer at Half Hides. He said to the footballers “Well, when the cows are not on there, you can have that field to play football on.” It was just behind the cemetery.
Others managed without a field altogether. Fred Cook (born in 1908) remembered that “we used to play football in the road a lot then, well there was no cars, you see. At the bottom of Church Street, we had a lamp post which marked the goal at one end, and the church gate marked the other end. On the road, yes, never used to see a car on the road.”
Fred and his friends also played their own game, Woggle Woggle, in the same place; a bit like cricket but with a big stick for a stump and a small stick for the ball. In explanation he said “I suppose that come because we couldn’t always afford a bat and a ball. Or a football. Of course the football was only a tennis ball.” Herbert Keeble (born in 1897) made the same point: “the ordinary man, couldn’t afford to play football and he couldn’t afford to belong to the cricket club. No, the first thing that governed most people’s lives in those days was the wages.”
The poor facilities of many of the houses were another limitation. Ted Mott (born in 1908) lived in Trafalgar Square in Maldon Road. He said “I brought me clobber home and my mother’d say ‘I’m not washing that’. [laugh] You see. No bathrooms down the Square, just a shed up the garden.” So he’d heat up water in the copper in the shed with a fire, and leave his kit soaking overnight, and his mother rinsed it next day. The new Council houses built in the 1920s, mostly in Cressing Road, had hot running water.
Some of the poverty was alleviated by the arrival of Crittall’s window factory in 1919-20, trebling the wages of many people. So more people could afford to play football, though some of them played for Crittall’s own teams, which were a bit of a threat to the town ones.
Another helping hand was given to youngsters when the schools began to devote Wednesday or Thursday afternoons to football. Alf Newman (born in 1908) said “we used to have two wooden goalposts, which we used to carry down from the Church School on our shoulders, down to the Recreation ground, and put them in the ground for goal posts, and play football. Thoroughly enjoyed it.” The school was in Guithavon Street, and the ground was the Park in Maldon Road.
With the town expansion scheme of the 1960s, a new football club building was provided in Spa Road, and a number of new pitches were set out. And of course many potential footballers came to live in Witham. Since when Witham Town Football Club has thrived, and has now been promoted.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in June 2014