Thursday, 10 May 2012

Pompey and Penury

by Peter Galliver
Image source: Daily Telegraph
I am currently preparing for publication something on the history of Portsmouth’s schools from 1750-1975.  The following passage appears in the introduction:
The social structure of a dockyard town had important repercussions for its educational provision.  The Admiralty’s policy of self-sufficiency in industrial production and the discouragement of competition for labour left the town without major private employers.  The Portsmouth middle class was largely made up of shopkeepers and professionals.  The town, therefore, was overwhelmingly working-class but, because of the dockyard, with a significant proportion of skilled men in secure employment.  As the Portsmouth Grammar School-educated Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, remarked, Portsmouth was a town in which extremes of wealth and poverty were absent.[i] 

Whilst reviewing this, it occurred to me that the presence of the Dockyard as the dominant social and economic factor in Portsmouth’s history did not just impact its schools but also sheds some light, and poses a question, about the historical experience of its professional football team. Harry Redknapp and many others have commented on Portsmouth being a working-class city with “ proper supporters.”  Had Roy Keane ever played for Pompey he would have little cause for complaint about the “ prawn sandwich brigade” spoiling the atmosphere at Fratton Park. While Pompey’s exuberant working-class based support may be a source of strength for the club, the absence of wealthy employers amongst Portsmouth’s population has been an enduring weakness.  Financial crisis has been a frequent feature of the club’s history.   

In 1912, having experienced a financial meltdown and relegation to the Second Division of the Southern League, the club was re-capitalized and refounded.[ii]  This was to be the last time that Pompey was saved by money raised within Portsmouth.  From the 1970s, and the recurring prospect of financial failure, the club found itself being owned by those whose money had been made outside of the city; John Deacon from Southampton, the Gregorys from London, Milan Mandaric from Croatia, via the USA, and the assortment of financially troubled Russians and Arabs of recent years.  The reality is that Portsmouth has not and does not produce the wealthy benefactors who can fund a major club.  There has never been a Portsmouth equivalent of Jack Walker at Blackburn or Dave Whelan at Wigan. It has been forced to rely on outsiders and has not, for the most part, been blessed with those it has managed to attract.

In this context, it is interesting to compare Pompey with clubs playing in similar socio-economic circumstances.  The other Dockyard clubs in the Football League are Plymouth and Gillingham  ( drawing on the catchment area of Chatham).  Neither of these has ever been a prosperous or successful club; Plymouth has the distinction of being the largest city never to have had a club in either the premier League or the old First Division.  The only other club whose home support was originally drawn from a town whose economy was dominated by Government employment was Arsenal.  The Arsenal, however, moved from its original home of Woolwich, after a spell in Plumstead, to the relatively wealthy environs of North London.  The interesting question with Pompey, therefore is not so much why has the club experienced so much financial trauma in its history but, given its economic base, how did it manage to become an established First Division club capable of winning League titles and FA Cups?  Although it may now be moving in that direction, what enabled Pompey for so much of its history to operate well above the level of Plymouth and Gillingham?

[i] The impact of the Admiralty’s policy of autarky is discussed in the introduction of R.C. Riley, Portsmouth, Ships, Dockyard and Town, Stroud 2002. The domination of the dockyard workforce in the 19th century is discussed in P.W. Galliver, The Portsmouth Dockyard Workforce 1880-1914, Univ. of Southampton M.Phil, 1987, pp.4-5.  Cyril Garbett was based at St Mary’s, Portsea from 1901 until 1919, its vicar from 1909.  His comment on the wealth of Portsmouth was made in C.F. Garbett, The Work of a Great Parish, London 1915, p34.
[ii] It was after the reorganisation of the club in 1912 that blue shirts with white shorts became the clubs colours; previously Pompey had worn white shirts.

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