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THE FLOOD of 1953

14 February 1953 : Flood Relief Match in Antwerp

The unpredictability of the British weather is probably one of the reasons why we talk about it so much. Luckily for us in the UK we get relatively few weather extremes, but when we do, they usual cause major devastation. In recent times most of us would have experienced at least one or more weather phenomenon.

In 2018, ‘The Beast from the East’, brought unusually low temperatures and heavy snowfalls to large areas. The Great Storm of ’87  saw the south of England struck by the biggest storm to hit the UK in 300 years, this event was famously dismissed hours before by BBC weatherman Michal Fish. With recorded wind gusts up to 100 mph the overnight storm caused significant damage with over 15 million trees blown down, causing major travel disruption for millions of people.

 

‘The Big Snow of 1982’, brought Arctic blizzards and 36 hours of heavy snow with 20 foot snow drifts covering cars and houses and for two months our green and pleasant land looked more like the South Pole.

 

Between late December 1962 and March 1963 football was virtually put on ice as ferocious blizzards, drifting snow and regular temperatures of minus 20 degrees made it the worst winter in football history for postponements and bringing a three week extension to the Football League season. Three home fixtures at the Boleyn Ground were subsequently postponed, with the Blackburn Rovers  match day programme now one of the most sought after by collectors.

 

However, one weather phenomenon that was to cause the most devastation in terms of loss of life happened 70 years ago this month and was dubbed ‘The Flood of 1953’. In the aftermath, senior Hammers’ supporters may recall both West Ham United and Portsmouth Football Clubs played a small part in raising funds for the relief effort.

Newspaper Headlines

On the evening of 31 January 1953 and the morning of the next day a huge storm surge struck the Netherlands, Belgium, Scotland and England. Holland recorded 1,836 deaths and twenty-eight people died in Belgium. Scotland had 19 fatalities and was the most devastating storm for 500 years. In England it was the worst flood of the 20th century, sadly 307 lives were lost and over 900 miles of coastline damaged. There were also 230 recorded deaths out in the North Sea.

Closer to home, Canvey Island in Essex was inundated, with the loss of 58 lives. The floods at Canvey had their effect at Upton Park, at that time our junior sides run under two names, West Ham Juniors and Canvey Boys FC who played their matches at Benfleet and competed in the Southend Minor League.

 

Many of the team are resident on and around Canvey whilst their Secretary Mr. Hesketh lived in Seaview Road on the Island. In the confusion caused by the evacuation of the residents, it was an anxious wait until reports came through that everybody was safe.

As a result of the disaster the resumption of matches was likely to be problematical with several grounds completely flooded out. In the end it would be weeks later before the Juniors' would play again.

 

Second Division West Ham United received a late invitation from the Football Association to play in an exhibition match in Antwerp on 14 February 1953 against First Division Portsmouth in aid of the British, Dutch and Belgian Flood Disaster Fund.

 

The FA’s original idea was for Portsmouth to play either Liverpool or Sunderland. Liverpool, declined as they were due to play West Bromwich Albion on the same day, and Sunderland turned them down because they had arranged a floodlight match with Hibernian at Roker Park. However, the Black Cats match was subsequently called off because of a blizzard, by this time the Hammers had stepped into the breach.

The Hammers Party

At top of steps: (left to right)

John Bond, George Taylor, Terry Woodgate (holding hat), John Gregory, Jim Barrett Jnr,

On steps: Gerry Gazzard, George Wright, Eddie Chapman (below) Harry Hooper, Billy Moore

Front: Frank O’Farrell, Ted Fenton, Ernie Gregory, Malcolm Allison, Fred Kearns, Derek Parker

Our party consisted of the team, together with Johnny Gregory, Tommy Moroney and George Taylor as travelling reserves, plus Trainer Billy Moore and Ted Fenton and Eddie Chapman as officials.

 

The Hammers' party left Northolt Airport on Friday morning, the day before the scheduled match, their journey to Belgium would provided several of our players with their first experience of air travel. Having lunched on the plane they arrived at Antwerp about 5 p.m. (Continental time); unfortunately the players arrived in Antwerp whilst the Corporation tram workers were taking strike action over a wage demand. Having settled in at the hotel most of the party spent the evening at the cinema. The morning of the match was spent visiting the Mayor at the Town Hall where each club presented him with a souvenir plaque.

With the venue on the outskirts of the city and striking tram workers it looked as if getting to the stadium for spectators would have a serious effect on the gate attendance. However, the tram workers not wanting to see the Disaster Fund suffer, decided to operate their trams in the direction of the stadium only, with no fares being charged. Despite this good gesture only 10,000 braved the cold weather and the strike to see both English sides play some entertaining football.

Both teams line-up before the match

Teams:

West Ham United:

Ernie Gregory, Ken Wright, John Bond, Derek Parker, Malcolm Allison, Frank O'Farrell, Terry Woodgate, Jim Barrett, Fred Kearns, Jerry Gazzard, Harry Hoper.

 

Portsmouth:

Uprichard; Stephen, Ferrier; Scoular, Flewin, Dickinson; Harris, Phillips, Henderson, Reid, Gaillard.

Ernie Gregory fists the ball away from a Henderson cross

West Ham United line-up from

team book

Malcolm Allison heads away

Among the 10,000 in attendance there were many troops who were stationed in Belgium, and we were greeted by several shouts of "Up the Hammers" from Londoners. The game was very even throughout, and although both sides were all out to win this did not prevent them from playing some entertaining soccer.

 

Portsmouth went ahead in the first half when Henderson netted with an overhead kick from close in, and they added to their lead after the interval when Reid followed up a long punt by Stephen to score from 10 yards. However, the Hammers reduced the margin mid-way through the second-half with the best goal of the match. Gerry Gazzard cutting in to score from 20 yards with a grand shot.

 

Unfortunately an injury to Malcolm Allison shortly afterwards brought necessary rearrangements to our line-up, and we could not record an equaliser, Pompey gaining the spoils by two goals to one, but the money raised for devastated communities was the real winner.

Colonel Romboults presents Portsmouth captain Stephen with a

cut glass flower vase

A week later West Ham's Eastern Counties League fixture against Stowmarket was played at Cricket Meadows. After frosty weather earlier in the week the ground had thawed somewhat, leaving a slippery top surface, conditions were not conducive to good soccer. However, both sides put up a good display, but although the Hammers' repelled all the home side's attacks we could not obtain a deciding goal, despite hitting the bar three times, and the final whistle blew with the score at nil - nil.


During the match a collection was taken for the Flood Relief Fund, and a total of £16 was realised. Although not so large as the collections at Kings Lynn (£150) and Cambridge (£36) on the same day it was a fine effort from the followers of these newcomers to the Eastern Counties League, and Stowmarket also showed their generous spirit by offering to lend gear to any E.C.L, clubs suffering loss through the floods. In addition to the donations from individual clubs, the Eastern Counties League also made a donation of £2000 to the Fund. 

 

The West Ham United Supporters Club also contributed to the Fund by holding a Dance at the Harmonic Hall, Plashet Grove on the evening of 21 February 1953. 

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