THE DEN – AND MILLWALL’S OTHER EARLY HOMES
In 1885, tinsmiths at JT Morton’s factory decided to form a football team.
Scotsman John Thomas Morton, had initially founded his business in Aberdeen in 1849 and he established a base in London two years later making and canning preserved food products for the export and shipping markets. In 1872 Morton took over a factory in the Millwall area of the Isle of Dogs from oil company Price & Co.
C & E Morton’s
The factory employed a number of workers who had come from Scotland, mostly Aberdeen and Dundee and some of these would have been present as the new team, now formally named Millwall Rovers, held their first meetings. The location for these was The Islander pub in Tooke Street, Millwall, close to the factory and where the publican’s son, 17-year-old Jasper Sexton (the pub was more commonly known as Sexton’s) became secretary. The chosen colours of dark blue and white were perhaps indicative of the strong Scottish influence at the new club.
A scrap of waste land on nearby Glengall Road was chosen as the new club’s home ground which enabled them to use the pub as their changing room. Millwall Rovers played their first game away from home against Fillebrook, a team from Leytonstone. They lost 5-0. The first match at their home ground resulted in a 2-1 win over St Luke’s and they finished the season with 17 wins in 24 games.
Glengall Road didn’t last long and the club were to play at five different grounds in their early years before finally settling at The Den. After just one season at their first home they switched to the Lord Nelson Playing Ground, conveniently situated behind the Lord Nelson public house.
Whilst they weren’t playing in any leagues Rovers enjoyed a fine run of success whilst playing at the Lord Nelson with three consecutive victories in the East London Senior Cup.
In 1889 the woman they leased the land from sold it to someone else so the club were on the move again, not just changing grounds but changing names too. When they located to the Athletic Grounds, where they had obtained a 15-year lease from the Millwall Dock Company, they changed their name to Millwall Athletic. The final game at the Lord Nelson was against Royal Artillery and was played to raise money for the move. The club added over £113 to their coffers.
The Athletic Grounds was the club’s first purpose-built football ground and was a major upgrade over the first two locations. It had a grandstand with seating for 600 and a capacity of 10-15,000
Despite their fine new stadium, Athletic had no competition to play in aside from the F.A. Cup so their seasons consisted almost exclusively of friendly matches. This all changed in 1894-95 when the club played a leading role in the creation of the new Southern League.
The new league’s first season saw 9 clubs compete and Millwall proved far superior to their rivals finishing with a record of; played 16, won 12, drawn 4, lost 0. The club repeated that success in year two before finishing runners-up in 1896-97 and then falling back into the pack
Ground capacity increased and on January 16 1897 the club set an attendance record when 20,000 saw Athletic beat Woolwich Arsenal 4-2 in the final qualifying round of the F.A. Cup to reach the first round proper for the third year in succession. There they were knocked out by Wolverhampton Wanderers following losses the previous two years to Sheffield United and Liverpool.
In 1899-00 the club matched the attendance record in an F.A. Cup third round tie against Aston Villa. Athletic had to make the long trip to Jarrow in the first round and saw off their opponents 2-0. In the second round they had a much shorter trip, across London to play Queen’s Park Rangers but got the same result. A 1-1 home draw with Villa was followed by a second stalemate, this time goalless at Villa Park, bringing the tie back to the Athletic Grounds for a second time where Millwall pulled off an excellent 2-1 win against the Midland giants.
The win set up a semi-final clash with fellow Southern-leaguers Southampton. A goalless draw at Crystal Palace was followed by a disappointing 3-0 defeat at Elm Park to end their hopes of making the final. They would have to wait another 104 years before finally making it to the big game.
In 1901 the Millwall Dock Company, owners of the land where the Athletic Grounds was decided they needed the land for a timber yard, and the club were on the move again, closing their third home with a 4-0 Western League win over Bristol City.
The newest site was identified by Elijah Moor, who had joined the club shortly after their formation and who would remain for much longer.
Moor started out as gateman at the Lord Nelson Ground in 1887, eventually becoming Groundsman and 2nd team trainer. Having identified the new home, he enlisted the help of volunteers to have it ready for play within a few short months.
The local man, who would also go on to help identify and develop The Den, finally retired in 1947 after serving the club for 60 years. His wife served teas to guests for many years, son Bill became Head Groundsman in 1919 and grandson Ron Chenery would eventually become head of turnstile operations.
The club’s fourth home was at North Greenwich on more land owned by the Millwall Dock Company. The first match at their latest Ground, located next to the Globe Rope Works, was on September 21 1901, with 6,000 there to see a 3-2 loss to Portsmouth.
The 1902-03 season saw another spirited but ultimately unsuccessful run in the F.A Cup. An intermediate round game against Bristol Rovers went to a second replay before Athletic saw off their West Country foes. This was followed by wins over Luton Town, Preston North End and a quarter-final victory against Everton. The semi-final this time was at Villa Park but, in front of 40,500 fans, Millwall failed to match the firepower of Derby County who saw them off 3-0.
One of the upshots of those Cup runs was the club becoming known as ‘The Lions of the South’ later, of course, abbreviated to ‘The Lions’.
The rest of the team’s time at North Greenwich was pretty nondescript with a string of mostly mid-table finishes in the Southern League and no other major cup adventures, although a crowd of 16,285 attended an FA Cup tie against Woolwich Arsenal in 1909. But perhaps the most notable occurrence was the arrival of The Lions’ first goalscoring hero – Alf Twigg.
Signed from Gainsborough Trinity in 1905, Twigg spent five years at the club, three of them as top scorer including a 30-haul in 1907. He scored 10 times against fierce local rivals West Ham United and finished his five-year-spell at Millwall having scored a total of 88 goals – good for fifth place on the team’s all-time list.
Trigg left the club in 1910, the year that, after 25 years, they finally moved south.
The club, keen to boost attendances. decided to look for a home with easier access for fans than on the Island which was often difficult to reach. Many of the dock-worker fans came from south of the river, arriving for matches by ferry or train in the same way they would arrive for work. But these services were often unreliable, sometimes delayed and often cancelled altogether.
The solution was simple. If the fans couldn’t get to the ground, the ground would move to the fans. So the search for a new home went south of the river and took them to Cold Blow Lane, New Cross.
With Elijah Moor having identified the land, Director Tom Thorne engaged famed architect Archibald Leitch and builders Humphries of Knightsbridge and, at a cost of around £10,000, The Den was built. The ‘Athletic’ was dropped from the name and they left North Greenwich (the land on which the former ground stood is now an Asda superstore) and the Isle Of Dogs for good.
The home opener for the now-South Londoners, on 22 October 1910, brought Southern League champions Brighton to the club but things didn’t start auspiciously as Millwall slipped to a disappointing 1-0 defeat.
There was a slight problem at that opener when Football Association President Lord Kinnaird, invited to conduct the opening ceremony, made his way to the wrong side of the ground and had to be pulled over the wall and rushed to the other end where the formalities were being conducted and he led the teams onto the pitch.
Next door to the new home was the New Cross Stadium which hosted greyhound racing and speedway and also served as a training ground for the team.
The new stadium had the desired effect on attendances but failed to bring about improved performances on the pitch and the team. Despite having Welsh star Wally Davies at the head of the attack and former England international Bert Lipsham as manager the Lions were a perennial mid-table team in the Southern League in the years leading up to World War One, and failed to add any more famous cup runs.
Within a few short months of opening, the new stadium was given the ultimate honour when chosen to host the international clash between England and Wales. The match, which took place on March 13 1911 resulted in a 3-0 win for England with goals from Chelsea’s Vivian Woodward (2) and George Webb of West Ham clinching the win before a crowd of 22,000 who paid total gate money of £666.
Off to War
The Lions settled into their new home and the fans started to create an atmosphere unique to football grounds around the country with the ‘Lions Roar’ willing their team to victory. But still they were mired in Southern League mediocrity and unable to get into the big time. Pretty soon though it was off to War as football was rudely interrupted by the Kaiser.
When we return for part two of our story, Millwall will be about to enter a new era, and a new league.