On ‘Ripper Street’
My historical centre of gravity, so to speak, is the 1890s, and has involved research into the London Metropolitan Police; so I’ve been a keen watcher of Ripper Street on BBC2, starring Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Reid, a fictional detective in Whitechapel around then. It takes a strong stomach to watch it; but historically it’s pretty accurate, despite the occasional (unsurprising) anachronism. This week’s episode centred on the Thames Ironworks factory in the East End; and in particular its football team. Thames Ironworks FC was the original name of West Ham United, a.k.a. the Hammers or the Irons. I've followed them for decades. On Monday night, we saw them playing, convincingly (i.e. roughly but skilfully), in late-19th-century strip. The plot involves the murder of one of the star players – with a hammer. It also features the Arsenal. But I don’t want to give too much away.
The show touched tangentially on the broader social significance of football at that time: namely, its importance in forging working-class identity. At one point, the team’s trainer shows Reid around the works. It used to be run almost co-operatively, he claims, with the men having an input through their unions. (I’m not sure if that’s historically true, but it makes the writers’ contemporary point.) Now all that is coming to an end. The bosses have taken control away from the men. They’re trying to break the unions, ‘prising the men away from their fellow men’. ‘But this,’ he says, pointing to the players on the field. ‘The football. They can’t take that away from us.’
But in the long run, that's exactly what ‘they’ have done. The latest stage of the capitalist exploitation of football (or whatever you want to call it) is the recent removal of West Ham United FC from its cultural roots in Thames Ironworks country, against most of its fans’ wishes, to its huge posh new ex-Olympic stadium in Stratford. Did the writers of Ripper Street have that in mind? I haven't been to the new ground yet, but I’m told that the atmosphere there, in both the ground itself and its environs, is flat by comparison with the old Upton Park. This may have something to do with West Ham’s results so far this season, which are pretty dire.