On 21st June, 1898, a 6,000 ton warship Albion became the first ship to be launched by a member of the royal family at the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company. The Duke of York, the future George V, and his wife, arrived for the launching ceremony in the early afternoon. Around 30,000 local people also competed to get a good view of this historic event. Over 200 people stood on a workmen's slipway alongside the uncompleted warship. At 2.50 pm the Duchess of York broke a bottle of champagne over the hull of the Albion. The ship entered the water faster than intended. This caused a massive backlash of water like a tidal wave that knocked people standing on the workmen's slipway into Bow Creek.
A total of 38 people died in the accident. This included a brother and sister, Ernest and Kittie Hopkins. Probably the saddest case was of Isabel White. When her body was recovered, her children, Lottie 5, and Queenie 2, were still clinging to her frock.
Arnold Hills was devastated by the accident and arranged to pay all the bereaved families' funeral expenses and personality visited the homes of the victims. Although the coroner criticized the organization of the launch (he recommended that in future accommodation should be provided by specially erected stands) Hills that he "met with no shadow of bitterness, no tone of complaint".
Soon afterwards two other terrible accidents had an impact on the people who lived in the area. An explosion onboard the Manitoba moored in the Albert Dock killed five workmen. This was followed by the loss of the 7,000 ton liner Mohegan on the Cornish coast. An amazing 34 members of the crew who died in the accident lived in West Ham.
It was hoped that the new 1898-1899 season would help take the workers' minds off these terrible events. That season Hills reluctantly accepted the proposal of Francis Payne that the club should recruit some professional players. Although a strong supporter of amateur football he argued it was "necessary to introduce a little ferment of professional experience to leaven the heavy lump". Payne's main argument was that better players would attract larger crowds. With attendances averaging 2,000, the club was being run at a loss and Hills was constantly being asked to subsidize the venture.
In the 1890s professional players received about £3 a week during the season, £2 during the close season. However, star players could earn over £10 a week. Clubs owned by industrialists like Arnold Hills might also provide players with a high-paying job with the company.
Others joined the club on the understanding they would be paid a generous signing on fee. This was the case with David Lloyd of the 3rd Battalion Guards. As he was a soldier he could work for Thames Iron Works. The disadvantage of this scheme was that players rarely stayed long with the club. For example, in a four year period, 1896-1900 he played for four different clubs. This only came to an end when he was sent to South Africa to fight in the Boer War.
People like Arnold Hills reluctantly accepted the professionalism of football. Dave Russell attempted to explain why the upper-classes disliked this development in his book Football and the English: A Social History of Association Football in England (1997): "Professionalism, it was believed, would encourage gambling, partisanship and the will to win at all costs; turn what should be a source of pleasure and moral virtue into a mere job of work and, by leaving the professional sportsman with too much time on his hands, render him a highly unsuitable role model for the young working classes."
Francis Payne replaced Tom Robinson with Jack Ratcliffe. Robinson had been the trainer of the Thames Iron Works since 1895. He had previously worked with other local clubs, St Luke's and Castle Swifts.
The first league game of the season was against Brentford. Irons scored their first goal when George Gresham bundled the Brentford goalkeeper into the net whilst he had the ball in his hands. This was within the rules and this is why keepers tended to punch the ball rather than catching it in the 19th century. The Irons won the game 3-1.
Francis Payne, the club secretary, had recruited David Lloyd from the 3rd Battalion Guards. This six foot four inches defender played his first two games at full-back. He was switched to centre forward for his third game and he rewarded the club by scoring a hat-trick.
The Irons won four of their first seven games. Their eighth game was against Fulham, who they beat 2-1. The Chelsea Mail reported that: "on the play the Irons were a much cleverer and smarter team. The forwards excelled in tricky work but against a determined defence like the Reds (Fulham) I think it was overdone... There was a vast difference in the styles of the two lines of forwards, the Reds adopting the kick and rush plan and the Irons the quick, short passing method."
In a match against Maidenhead on 31st December 1898. Charlie Dove achieved the difficult task of playing in every position for the team when he deputized for regular goalkeeper Tommy Moore, who missed the train and was unable to get to the ground in time. Dove kept a clean-sheet as the Irons won 4-0.
Tommy Moore was a fine goalkeeper but he had the reputation for taking unnecessary risks. Until 1912 goalkeepers were allowed to handle, but not carry, the ball anywhere in their own half of the field. Moore developed the strategy of moving upfield and starting an attack by punching the ball into the opposition half. In a game against Chesham, the game was so one-sided that Moore spent most of the game on the offensive. Moore helped the Irons score 8 goals in the game. However, he was caught upfield when the Chesham winger broke away to put the ball into an empty net.
The Irons were known for playing good football. After a game against Eastbourne, the local paper reported that "the visitors made a most honourably impression on the crowd... by their play, which, apart from its cleverness, was of such a strictly fair and gentlemanly character as to put many an amateur team to the blush. Their footwork was a treat to watch and their accurate heading was a feature of the game."
However, the fans of the Irons were sometimes criticized for their behaviour. After the Hammers lost 4-1 against Wycombe, the local paper reported that "a certain section of the crowd, happily very small, made some very objectionable remarks to the Wycombe players. It is to be hoped that these enthusiast's behaviour will not be repeated."
Thames Iron Works won 13 out of their first 16 games. Over 4,000 people turned up to see their next game against Southall, which they won 2-0. This was followed by victories against St. Albans, Wolverton, Southall and Fulham. By this stage they were already league champions. In their last game they beat Maidenhead 10-1 with David Lloyd scoring another hat-trick. Jimmy Reid got two and this gave him a total of 9 in only 13 games.
Thames Iron Works easily won the Southern League Division 2 in the 1898-1899 season. They obtained 9 points more than their nearest rivals Wolverton and Watford, who tied for second place. Outstanding performers that season included Charlie Dove, Tommy Dunn, Tommy Moore, Henry Hird, George Gresham, Walter Tranter, Jimmy Reid and Roderick McEachrane. The main star was David Lloyd who scored 12 goals in only 11 league appearances.
Arnold Hills, raised doubts about the wisdom of employing highly paid professionals. At the end of the season he wrote: "The committees of several of our clubs, eager for immediate success, are inclined to reinforce their ranks with mercenaries. In our bands and in our football clubs, I find an increasing number of professionals who do not belong to our community but are paid to represent us in their several capacities... Now this is a very simple and effective method of producing popular triumphs. It is only a matter of how we are willing to pay and the weight of our purses can be made the measure of our glory. I have however, not the smallest intention of entering upon a competition of this kind: I desire that our clubs should be spontaneous and cultivated expressions of our internal activity."