Club Historian John Helliar relates the origins of West Ham United's popular theme song...
Supporters of most clubs have adopted over the generations an anthem, song, catchphrase or tribal chant that they believe captures some aspect of their favourites' character or signifies a bond with which a closeness to their heroes can be identified or associated.
Many of these are just simply a part of the team's actual name so that the term "United" or "City" when chanted can relate to any number of clubs who just happen to have that particular word in their title as with Manchester United or Manchester City for example.
Other clubs can have a more personalised and individualistic characteristic which bonds the team and its fans. Such as "You'll Never Walk Alone", made famous in the 1960s by the Merseybeat sound of Gerry and the Pacemakers, and which was adopted by Liverpool supporters and fills Anfield on match days. Likewise, "The Blaydon Races" has been the theme tune for a much longer period for the fans of Newcastle United and features much of the local heritage and history of that part of the North-East of England which is the homeland of that particular club.
West Ham United have long been famous, like many clubs, for the chants of the fans which help to spur on their team on match days. For the Hammers, two particular chants have been regularly heard for over a century both at the Boleyn Ground, together with its predecessors, and on the team's travels to numerous stadiums both at home and abroad.
The origins of "Up the Hammers" and "Come on you Irons" can, of course, be traced back to the foundations of the Victorian predecessors of West Ham United FC. Thames Iron Works FC was named after the Company whose employees were its first players, and its links with the daily involvement in the shipbuilding industry, foundries and associated trades on which they relied for their wages. So, the symbolism of a pair of shipbuilder's crossed hammers, which once was the very simple motif that became the crest, that decorated the players shirts through many decades was born in those early years.
In addition to those two particular chants Hammers fans also have a theme tune that is unique to the Club. The feelings and sentiments expressed in "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" has for most supporters over the decades captured their feelings and aspirations in its words.
Although those two chants which still are regularly heard around the ground are much older, the actual date of their origin can be established quite easily. This is not the case, however, in respect of when the Club's famous theme tune was first sung, or subsequently adopted by the supporters. Its origins remain shrouded for the most part in mystery and conjecture.
During the 1970s, the then Programme Editor and Club Historian, Jack Helliar, endeavoured to discover how the song had first become associated with the Hammers. Jack's research led him to believe that it had been composed by a certain James Brockman. However, during 1996 at an antiques and programme fair, Alan Jacobs, a keen collector of West Ham United memorabilia, as well as being a lifelong Hammers fan, purchased a copy of the original song sheet music of the tune which proved that Brockman although not the composer nevertheless was linked closely with the song in another way.
The song itself was originally written and composed around 1919 in America by Jaan Kenbrovin and John William Kellette. A hit tune in the United States, before crossing the Atlantic to these shores, the song likewise also became a hit with the British public in the music halls and theatres that were the popular places of entertainment during the 1920s. One particular artist, a Miss Dorothy Ward, was especially known for making it a popular song at the time with her appearances on the stages around the country.
According to the small print at the foot of the English publication, belonging to Alan Jacobs, the copyright of 1919 was originally owned by the Kendis-Brockman Music Co. Inc., but was transferred later that year to Jerome H. Rernick & Co. of New York and Detroit. It appears therefore that James Brockman was not the composer but one of the original publishers of the song,, being a partner in the Kendis-Brockman Music Company who doubtless purchased the rights to the title of the tune from Kenbrovin and Kellette, the joint composers. Incidentally, James Brockman died in Santa Monica, California in May 1967 at 80- years-of- age.
Contrary to popular belief, "Bubbles" was not sung by the Club's supporters in 1923 when the Hammers met Bolton Wanderers in the first Wembley FA Cup Final. Indeed, a souvenir leaflet issued on the occasion of that event has words printed to be sung by the Hammers fans to the refrain of "Till We Meet Again".
It was not until around the mid-1920s that the tune was probably adopted by West Ham United supporters, but doubtless it had been heard at the Boleyn Ground in one form or another since the beginning of that decade. The circumstances of it being sung by the fans for the first time were somewhat unusual to say the least.
At the time, schoolboy soccer was extremely popular and there were often 1,000 or more fans around the touchlines of pitches in the West Ham area when matches took place on Saturday mornings between teams of 14-year-olds (the school leaving age at the time). During that era the County Borough of West Ham, as it was known before its amalgamation with the County Borough of East Ham some four decades later into the London Borough of Newham, had many more schools than it has at present. The West Ham Schools' League was divided into sections with Championship play-offs at the end of the season. One of the West Ham Champions was Park School - situated in Ham Park Road - near West Ham Park in the Upton area of the Borough. Park School was so successful that it was able to field seven or eight teams each week at different age levels. Its headmaster was a Mr. Cornelius Beal who was a great football enthusiast, and a friend of the then West Ham United trainer and subsequent Manager - Charlie Paynter.
"Corney" Beal also had a talent for music and rhymes and wrote special words to the tune of "Bubbles" and when any player of the Park School was having a good game the spectators would mention him by name in a parody of the tune. These ditties were a form of predecessor to the terrace chants that became popular many years later.
In the Park School team there was a fair-haired lad named W. (Billy) J. "Bubbles" Murray, so called because of his distinct and almost uncanny resemblance to the boy in the famous painting by Millais entitled "Bubbles".
The painting had become well-known to the public as it was used to advertise Pears Soap which was popular at the time and for many years afterwards. Bubbles Murray was such a good footballer that he managed to hold his place in the senior team although being some two years younger than the average age of his team-mates.
A famous former pupil of Park School had been Syd Puddefoot, who became a Hammers legend between 1913 and 1922, before his transfer to Falkirk. Then, after the end of the First World War (1914-18) another pupil was "Big Jim" Barrett who likewise became a similar hero at Upton Park between 1925 to 1939. Indeed, Barrett, at inside-right, and "Bubbles" Murray, at right-half, and Hughes in goal were not only team-mates at Park School but were in the West Ham Boys side of 1920-21 that played Liverpool Boys at Upton Park in the English Shield Championship Final which the visitors won 3-2. Jim Barrett scored the second goal for his team with a shot from 20 yards out to put them back in front after Liverpool had equalised. A great Liverpool rally saw them score twice in two minutes to end worthy winners. Amongst the crowd of 30,000, that broke the existing attendance record at the Boleyn Ground that day, was the then Duke of York, later HM King George VI.
So Mr. Beal's ditties were often heard at Upton Park whenever "Bubbles" and his team-mates were playing there either for the Park School side or the District team. Although the two friends, Corney Beal and Charlie Paynter, were instrumental in Jim Barrett signing for the Hammers as a professional at the age of 16 in 1923, after he was capped as a schoolboy international two years earlier, Billy Murray did not join him in the ranks at the Boleyn Ground. So, although the association of the "Bubbles" song with schools' football gradually faded away, the words and music doubtless still lingered in the minds of Hammers fans.
The memories were also enhanced as was stated in a letter to the local Beckton Gas Works "Pensioners' Bulletin" magazine during 1983 by a former employer who recalled that for a period of time (around the 1920s to 1930s presumably) the Company Band "were engaged by the West Ham United Football Club to play for 20 minutes before the kick-off and 10 minutes at the interval." He added: "We played "Bubbles" and it very quickly became a favourite with the crowd. If we did not play "Bubbles" the crowd would sing it - so we always played it just before the kick-off."
In later years (during the 1950s, 60s and 70s) the tradition was carried on by the "K" Division Metropolitan Police Band, the Leyton Silver Band and finally the British Legion Band.
In 2002 there was speculation that "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" was sung at the Boleyn Ground by visiting Swansea Town supporters during an FA Cup-tie in 1921-22. After a goalless draw away at Vetch Field the two teams met at Upton Park only to share two goals in the replay which resulted in a further replay at Ashton Gate, Bristol, which the Welshmen won by a solitary goal. After such a marathon it is perhaps not surprising that a number of Hammers fans remembered the distinctive refrains and took the words as their own, if indeed the song had been sung by the opposing supporters.
To perhaps add some substance to that theory, David Farmer in his history of Swansea Town FC does state, when recounting the period between 1920 to 1926, that in match reports "Bubbles" was sung at all home games. In one particular newspaper report of a match versus Bury on 8th January 1921 the comment is made : "At 2.20 pm came the ever popular singing of "Bubbles" from the main bank with one tremendous sway."
The song since the 1920s became popular all around the Boleyn Ground, but there was a particular affinity with it and those fans who stood in what was originally known as the "Chicken Run", the terraced area which occupied the side of the pitch where the East Stand is now situated. They soon adopted it as a "theme song" to encourage the team, and many older fans may recall seeing the 4,000 or so fans who occupied that standing area swaying from side to side as the strains of "Bubbles" drifted across the stadium.
The tradition was firmly established before the outbreak of World War Two and the song was heard at Wembley in June 1940 when the Hammers played there in the League War Cup Final. It reached the peak of the Wembley hit parade during the FA Cup final against Preston North End in 1964 and then went Continental during the following season with the Hammers European Cup Winners' Cup excursions before finally returning to the "Twin Towers" for the Final of that competition in May 1965.
Twelve months later, it was heard once again at the famous stadium during England's campaign in the World Cup as three Hammers heroes in Captain Bobby Moore, hat-trick scorer Geoff Hurst and goalscorer Martin Peters helped England win the Jules Rimet Trophy. Subsequent visits by the Hammers in 1975, 1980 and 1981 confirmed to all those who might not have known previously the importance of "Bubbles" to all Hammers fans.
Now decades and decades after its adoption, the song is still traditionally associated with West Ham United and nothing is more passion-rousing than hearing those famous strains reverberating around the Boleyn Ground as the fans get behind their team and urge them on. Not only is it heard on football grounds around the country but wherever and whenever Hammers fans gather together at dances, parties, family gatherings, etc., they demand that their tune is played at sometime during the evening.
It has been said that the words of the song are too sentimental for the 21st Century, but tradition dies hard and especially so with Hammers supporters who would agree that the Club would not be West Ham United without its very own distinctive and individualistic theme tune.