Photo: Duncan Palmer.
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Re-inventing Football in South London

Dulwich Hamlet F.C., certainly a different kind of football club.

 

“Extra, extra, read all about it: the Ginsters pie replaced with pulled-pork bap on South London football terrace. Class war ensues.”

No one much cared to write about Dulwich Hamlet, a relatively unremarkable non-league football club, tucked away in the suburb of Dulwich, South London, until something strange happened.

Between 2013 and 2015, matchday attendances increased by two-hundred-and-fifty percent.

The average gate at Champion Hill, Dulwich Hamlet’s home stadium, used to be around three hundred people: a modest crowd, appropriate for a club that competes within the seventh tier of English football. Today, home crowds regularly surpass two thousand, only a few hundred shy of the average crowds for teams four divisions higher.

All of a sudden, people began to notice Dulwich Hamlet.

They noticed the swelling passionate crowds rallying against social injustice, the visual messages of support for Syrian refugees, a ground-breaking match against Stonewall F.C., England’s highest-ranking LGBT-friendly football team, the terrace chants denouncing police brutality, a club-led scheme that allows supporters to contribute funds to and have an input on signing players to the team.

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Photo: Duncan Palmer.

What seemed to capture imaginations more than this new growing football community was the make up and demographic of its new fanbase. As articles were published across the spectrum of the British media, it was revealed that this insurgency came from young professionals and creatives; millenials that, in recent years, had made South London their home.

With the explosive growth of matchday attendances, you have the media’s curiosity. With the promise of writing the word “hipster,” you have their attention.

Much has been made of the attire and facial hair configurations of these new terrace stalwarts, their left-leaning politics and the serving of craft-ale and pulled pork on the terraces. In truth, the story of Dulwich Hamlet’s success comes down to a local sports club tapping into a growing dissatisfaction with the unaffordable sanitized franchise of the Premier League. It’s the result of a joint venture between the club’s chairman, Jack Payne and the Dulwich Hamlet fans trust, who wanted to create a vibrant and affordable matchday experience for their patrons; a shared vision of a sporting venue where people of all creeds, background and sexual orientation could congregate.

However, the story became about a group of young upstarts taking over the football terrace. It could be twisted to fit in with a narrative about the gentrification of South London, the descent of middle and upper class children into the areas surrounding East Dulwich: Peckham, Camberwell, Brixton, Lewisham – affordable working class districts seen as a blight by many, primed for impending demolition and subsequent “rebranding.” And so, rather than a celebration of a community initiative, a different picture could be painted and held in popular perception.

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Photo: Duncan Palmer.

The narrative of the middle classes descending upon Dulwich is actually flawed. In fact Dulwich was historically an upper and middle class area of South London. If we are to gain any insight from urban phenomena such as the one occurring on the terraces of Dulwich Hamlet, we should take care to avoid generalization.

In grouping together one large part of a city as the “North” or, in this case, “South” you immediately create a generalization over the myriad districts, all of which rise and degenerate in relation to each other according to the demands of the city. ‘Hoards of millennials running riot in Dulwich’ might sound impactful, but it fails to capture the nuances of urban growth.

Of course, an undeniable shift in the urban landscape of the general South London area has occurred over the past decade, with old council houses being demolished and replaced by new-build flats. However, if we look back long enough, before the council flats cropped up, before the smog descended, before the City of London extended its industrial tendrils Southwards, things looked a little different in Dulwich.

In 1893, the Dulwich Estate was mostly a rural suburb of London, consisting of large, historic houses belonging to the landed gentry. With much celebration, the railway arrived in the 1860s and brought an influx of new residents in need of housing. The Dulwich Estate forbade the construction of dense housing, and so the area of East Dulwich developed alongside it; an area consisting of clerical housing, not quite as lavish as its counterparts on the Estate, but certainly not working class.

1893 was the year in which Reverend Nixon, the wealthy vicar of St. Barnabas, decided to create a local community sports team, so that the local youths would have something sin-free to occupy themselves with.

And thus, Dulwich Hamlet F.C. was formed, offering local lads the healthy benefits of team sports and occasional heavy lifting (players were required to carry the set of goal frames through the grounds of the Crown Inn to set up their pitch on the adjacent sports ground).

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Photo: GettyImages.

Dulwich Hamlet competed in the amateur seventh tier of English football, the Isthmian league, over the following two decades. This stability was rocked by the First World War, with twenty-two of Dulwich’s players killed in action. Stan Peart, a Dulwich reserve team member, was assigned to be a bomber in what was known as the ‘suicide squad.’

Just two months after arriving in France, Peart was hit by an enemy bomb. Having run out of ammunition, he was last seen “standing his ground very coolly on top of a German trench using a bayonet to great effect” in a grim tableau that captures the brutal combat that so many fell victim to.

Whilst the First World War was responsible for irreversibly changing the shape of the Dulwich Hamlet team, the Second World War was to shape the very face of South London, following The Blitz.

During The Blitz, which lasted from 7 October 1940 to 6 June 1941, British Intelligence enlisted double agents to release false co-ordinates of German bomb-strikes on London. The goal was to cause the Germans to miscalibrate the aim of their V2 rockets to strike further out towards the South Eastern limits of the city, away from the populated city centre. Such was the fate of Dulwich. One-thousand six-hundred and fifty one bombs and twenty parachuted mines fell upon Southwark, the borough in which Dulwich resides, an area which measures less than thirty square kilometers.

Cities, towns, neighborhoods are in constant flux, evolving and devolving upon the tectonic plates of policy, social change, industry; all the elements that shape our urban environment.

During the post-war years, the whole of South London would have to repair and rebuild. Aside from mending its wartime wounds, London would also have to grapple with the exploding population of the baby boom era.

The trend of developing lower-middle class housing that had crept into East Dulwich at the turn of the century continued and grew. On the Dulwich Estate, the majority of the larger, old houses were demolished; another example of the ebb and flow of urban decline and rejuvenation. In their place, high-density council housing or smaller, but equally dense private housing estates, the same type of estates that were cropping up in greater density in Dulwich’s neighboring communities, were built.

These communities now lie at the heart of the South London gentrification narrative. As people, we tend to perceive the transformations happening in our living environments as being located in the present, and to view them as examples of how things are changing, irreversibly from bad to good, good to bad, or, most commonly, bad to worse. We like to see things such as a non-league club, with a flourishing fanbase, at odds with the image we have of what a football crowd should be like. We take it as a sign of the times. The old ways being shipped out for the new.

Yet Dulwich was born as an upper or middle class neighborhood. Moreover, as local historian Ian McInnes points out, the supporters of Dulwich Hamlet who regularly attended matches in the previous half-century would certainly be termed ‘middle class.’

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Photo: Duncan Palmer.

On the one hand, Dulwich Hamlet’s indigenous supporters most likely come from such a background, living in the middle-class sprawl of East Dulwich. On the other, as the rise of the professional football drew crowds away from local teams, it rendered non-league football a hobbyist occupation, as opposed to entertainment for the masses. More trainspotting, the activity, than Trainspotting, the film.

Therefore, the new fanbase of Dulwich Hamlet is distinct from its historic fanbase predominantly in its age-range, rather than in class background.

Yet there was a period in Dulwich’s history when the town saw the influx of another class of people. During the seventeenth century Dulwich, which now sits comfortably in the second-most central of London’s transport zones, was a peripheral suburb of the city. Local leisure businesses took out advertisements in city papers advertising a trip to Dulwich as “a day in the country,” for the working men of the city to enjoy the pubs, lodges and hunting grounds it offered.

As a result, the small agricultural hamlet of Dulwich was descended upon in large numbers by the working class. Descended upon in the manner that only large groups of an alien and imposing class can, according to the preconceptions of the day.  Yet now, looking back, the coming of working-class day-trippers to a relatively well-off area of London’s outskirts had no dramatic effect on the area, its history or its future, aside from providing financial bedrock for local businesses.

It is not hard to envision a parallel between the way that the working class from four centuries ago must have been depicted by some factions of society and the way people see the new group of Dulwich Hamlet fans. We want the things that we see happening around us to mean something grand, to play into how we feel about our city, our neighborhoods, to lament something that we feel is being lost.

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Photo: Duncan Palmer.

But each of these urban phenomena stand alone to be examined. It is only through genuine investigation, by looking at the history and facts that we will understand them. Cities, towns, neighborhoods are in constant flux, evolving and devolving upon the tectonic plates of policy, social change, industry; all the elements that shape our urban environment.

A casual glance at the Dulwich Hamlet terraces might lead you to conclude that there is a moustache in the punchbowl, a punchbowl in which the punch has been replaced with craft ale.

However, talking to actual matchday participants will give you a somewhat more parsimonious view. Dulwich Hamlet fan, and co-creator of the fan blog ‘Forward The Hamlet’ Ben Sibley reminds us, “Football should be fun – it shouldn’t be getting angry at Sky Sports while sitting in your living room. It should be social, it should be inclusive and it should connect you to your local community.” On the surface, it’s a simple message that we can all agree with. Yet a football terrace that embraces inclusion for people of all backgrounds without fear of persecution is a rare thing, especially when British football fans still take it upon themselves to racially abuse non-white folk on public transport.

So ultimately, what does the story of Dulwich Hamlet tell us? Does it tell us that every part of every suburb of a city has a history on which its present is founded? Perhaps. Maybe it tells us about a growing number of people that are being priced out of the professional football experience, sick of watching a noble game being franchised off and sold to the highest bidder. Or it could tell us that there are a number of young people that are looking for opportunities to engage with their local communities. That’s the joy of a grey area, there is still much left to investigate, and who knows: it could just be the story of some people who grew weary of the Ginsters pie.