The fight to save Dulwich Hamlet FC

Dulwich Hamlet FC have recently attracted considerable media attention having become caught in the crossfire between residential property developers Meadow Residential LLP and the London Borough of Southwark Council. Meadow, who bought Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill stadium in 2014, want to build housing on the site, and relocate the football club to an adjacent plot of public land known as Greendale. The proposal was rejected by Southwark as it does not meet their criteria for affordable housing. There are also concerns about building a new football stadium on Greendale, which enjoys strong protection as Metropolitan Open Land. Since the planning application was knocked back, relations between Dulwich Hamlet and their landlords have deteriorated sharply.

Dulwich Hamlet are one of the great names of the amateur era. The club was founded 125 years ago by Lorraine ‘Pa’ Wilson and joined the Isthmian League in 1907. The Isthmian League was then the country’s top amateur league.

During the interwar and early postwar periods, Dulwich Hamlet won the FA Amateur Cup on four occasions and were Isthmian League Champions on four occasions. The club’s Champion Hill stadium, opened in 1931, could hold 30,000 and was by some way the largest non-league ground in the country. Crowds in excess of 20,000 were quite normal.

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The old Champion Hill stadium, seen during a friendly against Fulham in August 1988 (photo credit: ‘Nick from Bristol’, Creative Commons ‘Attribution 2.0 Generic’ ).

Standards within the amateur game were very high at that time, not very far below those of the professional game. Two Dulwich players were capped for the full England side: Bert Coleman in 1921 and Edgar Kail in 1929. The latter, who scored 427 goals for the Hamlet in a seventeen-year career, was the last non-league player to play for England. In the 1990s, the approach road to Champion Hill was renamed Edgar Kail Way in his honour.

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Blue Plaque in honour of Edgar Kail. He was the last amateur playing for a non-league club to play for England, but Arsenal’s Bernard Joy played for England as an amateur in 1936.

Later years brought leaner times. The Hamlet were twice relegated from the top flight of the Isthmian League, although they were soon promoted back on both occasions. Following the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster, the by now dilapidated Champion Hill stadium was demolished, and a new but more modest stadium built on the same site. At the same time, the club’s training pitch was sold to make way for a large Sainsbury’s. In 2001, the club suffered a third relegation, and this time there was no quick return to the top flight.

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Main stand of the new Champion Hill stadium (photo credit: Katie Chan, Creative Commons ‘Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0’)

In recent years, the club has enjoyed an astonishing revival under the management of former player Gavin Rose. The Hamlet returned to the top flight in 2013 and have since been pushing for promotion to the National League South. At the time of writing, despite their off the pitch worries, they lead the Isthmian League Premier Division by five points. Attendances frequently exceed 2,000 –  better than those of all but a handful of non-league clubs, and indeed some League Two sides. The club is popular not only with locals but with disenchanted fans of Premier League sides, unhappy with astronomical ticket prices and kick-off times that are dictated by the needs of the TV companies and not the fans. The club’s fan base have styled themselves ‘The Rabble’ and the ‘Dultras’. They are known for embracing LBGT rights and other progressive causes.

All of this is now under threat. On 6 March, Dulwich Hamlet were evicted from Champion Hill for alleged ‘repeated breaches’ of their licence. Later that day, a partner of the law firm Blake Morgan LLP wrote to the football club informing them that a subsidiary of Meadow had registered ‘Dulwich Hamlet Football Club’, ‘The Hamlet’, and ‘DHFC’ as trademarks, and that these could no longer be used by the club.

If the attempted trademarking was an egregious attempt to force Dulwich Hamlet FC out of business, it backfired disastrously. For several days, the Twitter account of Blake Morgan was bombarded with hostile tweets from outraged football fans of many clubs. By the next day, the profile of the partner signing the letter to the football club had been removed from Blake Morgan’s website. Shortly afterwards, Meadow backtracked, claiming that the trademarks registrations would be handed over to the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters’ Trust.

Questions must in any case be asked about the absurdity of trying to trademark the name of a 125-year-old football club; ‘The Hamlet’ was the name of a ward within the former Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell and as such cannot be trademarked; and Dulwich Hamlet FC shares its initials with the Manchester club Daisy Hill FC. Why did the government intellectual property office not reject the claim? Why did Blake Morgan LLP not warn their client that the move was ill advised?

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Go on, sue!

Dulwich Hamlet has since agreed a groundshare with local rivals Tooting and Mitcham FC, and Southwark Council is taking steps to acquire the Champion Hill site for the football club and a smaller development of affordable housing. A #SaveDHFC rally on 17 March was well attended, and the club have received the backing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Meadow, for their part, previously rejected an approach from former Manchester United and England footballer Rio Ferdinand, a friend of Gavin Rose, to purchase the site for his affordable housing company, Legacy Foundation. In an ominous development fencing has been erected around the Champion Hill stadium.

 

Don’t fence me in – the fencing erected around the Champion Hill stadium also blocks access to the Greendale and to an electricity substation.

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A warning that security cameras in operation has been placed on public signage; it has been defaced and a sticker proclaiming Dulwich Hamlet and the Rabble placed alongside it.

Meadow should heed the lessons of history.

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Walls do not endure forever (Photo credit: ‘Lear 21 at English Wikipedia’ Creative Commons ‘By-SA 3.0’)

UPDATE: Despite the adversity off the pitch, Dulwich Hamlet finished runners up in the Isthmian League Premier Division, their highest placing since the 1950s. On 7 May, The Hamlet defeated Hendon 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the Isthmian League Play-off final to gain promotion to the National League Division One South. This ended 111 years continuous membership of the Isthmian League.

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