‘It’s in the blood’ – The East London family that released West Ham United’s official program for almost 100 years

Retiring former program editor and club historian John Helliar and his family share over 125 years of history with the club with Ken Dyer …

I still remember the press room at Upton Park.

You went up some stairs, along a narrow corridor, past the Director’s lounge, and there it was on the left, bang opposite the entrance to the Press Box.

The room itself was, let’s say, cozy – and one of the first people you met when you entered it was Jack Helliar.

Jack was a big, rosy gentleman. He edited the program, and his company, Helliar & Sons, printed it.

I got to know Jack well through the intervening years and subsequently his son John, who ended his long-standing partnership with West Ham at the end of last season.

It was John who worked for the company’s business, and eventually succeeded Jack in maintaining a connection with the club all the way back to the Thames Ironworks days in the late 19th century.

John began accompanying his father to matches just before Ted Fenton’s team won promotion to the First Division in 1958. He still remembers being at Upton Park in September 1958 to watch 17-year-old Bobby Moore make his senior debut against Manchester United.

An early Helliar program
A Helliar & Sons program from 1920

“The first season back in the top class was really memorable and it’s something of a thing to say that I saw the great Bobby Moore make his debut,” said John. “Many years earlier, when my father returned from being in the forces after World War II, he went back to the family printing business in Barking Road.

“Frank Cearns was club secretary during and after the war, and he used to write the program notes at the time.
“Helliar & Sons printed the programs at the time – my grandfather and his brother ran the business. They used to call West Ham and ask if the program notes were ready a few days before a Saturday game, and my dad used to go to the stadium to pick them up.

“Quite often he came there, and Frank said, ‘Just sit down there, Jack, and I’ll write the notes.’

“Then one day Frank said, ‘You’re a trained boy Jack; you went to high school in Stratford. Were you able to write the notes? We give you 10 / 6d once, ‘which equates to a little over 50p now, but good money back then. So my dad took over writing the notes.

“When we were then promoted to the First Division in 1958, Eddie Chapman, who had taken over as secretary at the time, told my father that the directors had decided they wanted a ‘new look’ program and asked my father if he could design anything.

“He came up with the look that collectors see now when they get programs from the 1960s, and it was generally considered one of the best there is.

“Over the years, my father became the program editor, and we continued to print it until 1984, when we lost the contract. Even then, my father continued to write articles in the program and also became a club historian.

“I started getting involved after I left school. I studied for two years at the London College of Printing at Elephant & Castle, and then I joined my father with a degree in printing.

“I had also helped him run the press room since the 1960s, and we continued to do so until he died in 1992.

“That was then, Tom Finn, who was then club secretary and a nice man, said to me, ‘John, you’ve been working with your father for many years, you know all about it, so you want to take over?’

“So that was when I started writing in the Program and being in the press room on match days.

“I kept writing right up until last season at Boleyn and also completed stadium tours.”

Jack Helliar
Jack Helliar

John has witnessed West Ham’s great and good for many years, but there is no doubt about his favorite of all time.

“It must be Billy Bonds,” he said. “Bobby More was really great, but the biggest hammer ever, the man who did the most for the club in terms of playing, training and leading, was Billy.

“Sir Trevor Brooking also wanted to be right up there, but Billy was so good to us when my mother died. He and John Lyall really helped my father through that difficult time.”

And his favorite fight?

“It’s not easy to pick a match, some of them in Europe were really memorable, but probably the match against Eintracht Frankfurt at Upton Park in April 1976,” he said. “It was a fantastic match and an unforgettable atmosphere.

“Another match I can clearly remember was a first division match at home against Stoke where we led 3-0 at the break and ended up losing 4-3!

“In terms of leaders, John Lyall was a great servant of the club – and a gentleman. I do not want to say that I was so close to any of the leaders in a certain way – I knew my place. “

John’s retirement has ironically come at the same time as West Ham’s return to European competition.

“I feel weird somehow that I’m stopped after all those years just when West Ham are back in Europe and doing so well,” he said.

“David Moyes has done wonders so far. He has moved the club so much, and even though I do not know him, I have great respect for everything he has done in a relatively short time. ”

John hopes to return to London Stadium to take on some matches in the future and has also been asked to record his reflections and recollections of his time at the club.

“When Thames Ironworks was founded in 1895, my great-grandfather was there to get things started, so four generations have been involved with the club,” he said.

“I have been asked to put together my reflections and history on family involvement so I will get on with it over the next few weeks.

“I also plan to get to a few matches when I can. It’s probably in the blood. ”

Dinamo Zagreb Club London

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