Walter Richard (Dick) Walker was born in Hackney on 22nd July 1913. The family moved to Dagenham when he was a child. At the age of 13 he was chosen to play for Dagenham Boys. His father was unemployed at the time and so the family had great difficulty raising the 3 shillings to buy a pair of football boots.
Walker was also unemployed when he left school. He did play football for Becontree Athletic and eventually found work as an electrician's mate. In 1932 Walker was spotted by a scout working for West Ham United. After an extended trial he signed for the club in 1933. He made his debut as right-half against Burnley in August, 1934. Later, Walker recalled: "The first professional football match I ever saw, I was in."
Walker made his debut as right-half against Burnley in August, 1934. He played two more games that season. Other players in the West Ham United squad at the time included Jim Barrett, Charlie Bicknell, Alfred Chalkley, Jimmy Collins, John Morton, Len Goulden, Joe Cockroft, Stan Foxall, George Foreman, James Marshall, Jimmy Ruffell and Ted Fenton.
It was not until the 1936-37 season that Walker replaced Jim Barrett at centre half and became a regular member of the West Ham United team. In the 1937-38 season Walker played in 32 of the 42 league games. The following season he played 43 league and cup games and some journalists thought that he was good enough to play for England.
Walker was idolised by the West Ham fans. As Charles Korr pointed out in his book West Ham United (1986): "Walker's effort for his team was total, and supporters responded to that. They had a special place in their affections for the sometimes self-deprecating humour that Walker demonstrated when he exchanged jokes with the crowd leaning over the "chicken run". No one ever mistook his humour for not caring about the game: any opposing players who did would have been brought down to earth abruptly. Walker personified the East Londoner's need to work hard for anything he wanted and the humour that acted as a buffer against the harshness of everyday life. He combined that with a kind of swagger that made people realize that playing football for West Ham was something special."
Walker held his place in the team up until the outbreak of the Second World War. According to Tony Hogg, the author of Who's Who of West Ham United (2005): "Had it not been for the war it is highly probable that he would have been capped for England and also challenged Jimmy Ruffell's appearance record for Hammers."
The Football League decided to start a new competition entitled the Football League War Cup during the Second World War. The entire competition of 137 games including replays was condensed into nine weeks. Walker was a member of the West Ham United team that played against Blackburn Rovers in the final at Wembley on 8th June 1940. Despite the fears that London would be bombed by the Luftwaffe, over 42,300 fans decided to take the risk of visiting London. The only goal was scored by Sam Small after a shot from George Foreman had been blocked by James Barron, the Blackburn goalkeeper. Walker later commented: "Most of the lads had an informal cup winning reception in the Boleyn pub near the ground. We got back there in time to get in a few pints before closing time. I remember my medal going round and round the public bar."
Most professional footballers were given the opportunity to become Physical Training instructors in the British Army. However, Walker decided to volunteer for active service. Promoted to the rank of sergeant he served with an infantry battalion who fought from El Alamein to Italy and was several times mentioned in dispatches. He also represented the Army at football while in the Middle East.
After the war he replaced Charlie Bicknell as captain of the club. Ken Brown lived in the same road in Dagenham as Walker: "He was a wonderful man. I lived in the same street as him. The kids would watch him walk the length of the road to where his mum lived and we would look out of the window and be amazed that this was Dick Walker!"
In August 1950 Ted Fenton took over from Charlie Paynter as manager of West Ham United. Walker clashed with Fenton. "I didn't like him and he didn't like me". Walker saw Fenton's actions as: "A matter of taking over from someone popular and wanting to show you're in charge."
Malcolm Allison claimed that: "Ted Fenton would cheat you out of anything. We played an England amateur side. There were 22,000 at the match. The FA always gave you £5 to play against an FA team. We used to get £2 as a bonus. When we went to get our money we only got the fiver. They said it was £3 for playing and £2 bonus - they tried to do us out of two quid." Just before the next game against Nottingham Forest, Allison organized a strike. He told Fenton that the team refused to play unless he gave them the £2 that he owed them. Allison added: "He went upstairs, came straight back down and gave us the money."
Ken Tucker also complained about Ted Fenton: "The Arsenal players told me that they had got ten guineas for a game with England Amateurs, that was the FA's rate for such matches. When West Ham played against them Ted only gave us £5. Apparently the cheque had gone to Ted and he paid us in cash."
Walker remained a regular member of the team until the 1951-52 season. Walker played his last game for the first-team against Plymouth Argyle on 18th February 1953. Over the next four years he continued to turn-out for the reserves and helped to coach the young players at the club.
Ken Brown has fond memories of Walker: "I was a bit of a skinny lad and Dick Walker thought I should put on weight otherwise, according to Dick, I should never last. Andy Malcolm had a car and Dick would take the two of us up to Soho every Friday night for a glass of stout and a big steak and kidney pie, full of meat and gravy." John Lyall also praised Walker's attitude towards the young players at the club. He would be given responsibility for those young players who Lyall described as "Dagenham-type lads".
At the end of the 1956-1957 season Walker's playing contract was not renewed by Ted Fenton. Instead he offered Walker a job "to attend to the players boots" at £4 a week. In other words, the former captain ended up doing the job he had done as a groundstaff boy 25 years previously. It is believed that Fenton treated Walker badly because he was so popular with the players and fans that he feared he would replace him as manager of West Ham United.
Following his testimonial match against Sparta Rotterdam Walker left the club. Walker worked as a coach for Dagenham F.C. and later became a full-time scout for Tottenham Hotspur. According to his son, Mike Walker: "He (Dick Walker) bought on many young talented players and did a great service to young players, finding accommodation for out of town lads and taking them back to his house where him and his wife, Tina, would feed them and make them feel special."
Charles Korr interviewed Dick Walker when he was writing his book, West Ham United (1986): "I have fond and vivid memories of the afternoon that I spent with Dick at the lounge at White Hart Lane when I interviewed him for the book. The setting might have been somewhat strange, but he clearly felt at home and looked like the sharp dresser and men with a zest for life that had been described to me."
Walker retired after 20 years with Tottenham Hotspur. Dick developed Alzheimer's Disease in the last couple of years of his life and became a recluse confined to his house. In 1985 he went into hospital where he stayed until he died in January in 1988.
None of the players who remained at West Ham after the post-war shake-up was more representative of the character of the club than Dick Walker. He joined West Ham just after it slipped from the first division. By the time he seized a place in the League side from "Big" Jim Barrett, the club had settled into the mediocrity that marked its time in the second division. Walker had a tough first few years; there were many fans who still called for the return of his popular predecessor. More than a decade later, Malcolm Allison would face the same kind of reaction when he took over from Walker. No one would ever have described Walker as a skilful player, least of all Walker himself: "I couldn't play, but I could stop those that-would. West Ham was a hard club." Walker's assessment does not square with the post-1958 opinion that West Ham has always tried to play skilful and elegant, if not winning, football, but it seems closer to reality. He was a great favourite with the West Ham crowd for years. For many of them, including members of the football press, he typified what made West Ham a different club, and the Boleyn Ground a unique place to play. Walker's effort for his team was total, and supporters responded to that. They had a special place in their affections for the sometimes self-deprecating humour that Walker demonstrated when he exchanged jokes with the crowd leaning over the "chicken run". No one ever mistook his humour for not caring about the game: any opposing players who did would have been brought down to earth abruptly. Walker personified the East Londoner's need to work hard for anything he wanted and the humour that acted as a buffer against the harshness of everyday life. He combined that with a kind of swagger that made people realize that playing football for West Ham was something special.
Walker's arrival at West Ham was different from that of many of his team-mates. When he signed for West Ham in 1934, he thought of it as his big chance to get paid to play. There was nothing special about who paid; he would have played for anybody. He had never seen a West Ham match and knew nothing about the club. His older brother, who had left home long before Walker became a footballer, was a Tottenham fan, so Dick thought Spurs was special. "The first [professional] football match I ever saw, I was in." Walker was brought up in the huge new council estate in Dagenham, a big lonely place. There were few football supporters, but there were people playing the game all the time. When he was chosen to play for the district boys at the age of 13, the biggest problem was buying boots. His first pair cost 3s and he wore them as ordinary shoes by taking out the studs. The family was not on the dole because his sisters were working. Not being hungry meant "scrounging a bit", and keeping warm meant being able to "nick a bit of wood from a construction site to use in the fire". Sunday football was his chance to be good at something and to play against better competition. He was noticed by West Ham. The telegram telling him to come for an 'A' team match against Arsenal was delivered to him at the labour exchange.
After his first match in West Ham's colours, Walker was introduced to the more devious aspects of professional football. He was told to come to a shop in Shepherd's Bush whose owner ran an amateur football team, Park Royal. In order to qualify as an amateur but still get paid, Dick had a job as an electrician's mate, although "I didn't know how to change a light bulb." There was plenty of time to play football. He and his mates "trained like professionals", which was appropriate enough since they were getting paid like professionals. The Park Royal team played well enough to win everything in London and gave Walker the chance to be picked for a team that went to Paris. He got "terrific money - £4 or £5 a week in 1933 made me the richest man on our street". The next year, he was old enough to sign as a professional and he joined West Ham. After his year at Park Royal as an "electrician" it was a big jump up to a professional side. Midway through the year, the 21-year-old was dropped from the team, which meant a cut in wages from £5 to £4. Even that did not look bad when he saw the alternatives as going on the dole or becoming a barman again.
Walker knew he wanted to stay in football for more than the money: "I loved playing football... and there were other things. I moved back with my mother. I might not have been very well known yet for my football, but we were famous because we were paying the rent." Within a couple of years, when he was in the first team, the advantages of football became clearer. People in his street started to point him out and he knew what fame was when bus conductors wouldn't take a fare and people would start to talk to me in pubs. "It was like having people put out flags on the street when I walked down. I always wanted to stop and talk to them." Football gave him the chance to move out to Chadwell Heath when he got married. He lived in a place a little posher. It had curtains on the windows.
Walker was part of the Depression generation, men who came to West Ham for a job in a world where jobs were rare. He became even more than the captain of West Ham and one of its most popular players: Walker was a transitional figure in the club's history. He stayed long enough to see the arrival of players who brought promotion and a new style of football to the club. Ironically, it was one of Walker's contemporaries, a man with a background very much like his, Ted Fenton, who laid the foundation for the change at West Ham and ensured that Walker left the club.
Dick Walker was a wonderful man. I lived in the same street as him. The kids would watch him walk the length of the road to where his mum lived and we would look out of the window and be amazed that this was Dick Walker! When I started at the club he told me to be at his house at nine o'clock, I got there at five to and he sent me away, telling me to come back at the time he had told me. I did, and as we made our way to the bus stop, he told me that we would take it in turns to pay the bus fares and the tea at Cassatarri's. This seemed fair so I agreed. We got on the bus, he always insisted on sitting on the long seats, and I paid our fares. When we got to the ground, we went into the cafe and I got the teas. The next day came and I got to Dick's house dead on nine. We got to the bus stop and the bus came along, but Dick said that he didn't fancy that one, so we waited for the next. This bus had a woman conductress. Dick chatted and laughed with her, but she didn't ask him for any fares. When we got to the cafe, Phil Cassatarri gave him the teas but wouldn't accept any payment. The next day I got to Dick's house about a minute after nine. "Back to your old habits," he said. We got on the bus and he told me to pay the fares. I said: "But it's your turn." He told me: It was my turn yesterday: "But you didn't pay," I said. Dick replied: "We agreed that you would get the fares on alternate days and today it's your turn." So I had to pay. I had to pay for our teas as well, of course. But he was a good man Dick, as long as you stayed on his good side."
Most of the lads had an informal cup winning reception in the Boleyn pub near the ground. We got back there in time to get in a few pints before closing time. I remember my medal going round and round the public bar.
As Jim Barrett gradually made fewer and fewer first-team appearances from the mid-30s onwards, his ready-made replacement Dick Walker made progressively more. Like his predecessor, Walker was also a dominant figure at the heart of Hammers defence, but the similarities between the two legends didn't end there, for Walker too was a larger than life character who played his game with a swagger and played hard both on and off the field. His famous quote, "I couldn't play but I could stop those who could," provides an accurate summary and as he faded from the limelight he devoted endless hours helping the club's younger players - most notably his successor Ken Brown.
Dick Walker was known for his humour and love of a practical joke. His leave from the Parachute Regiment during wartime to play for West Ham was premised by speculation about his current rank which seemed to be on a sliding scale between private and sergeant and back to private again. He represented the Army in the Middle East and played for West Ham just 24 times in the war years up to 1945, although that figure included every game in the Hammers' triumphant War Cup season of 1939-40. In 1945-46, in the League South, he turned out on 44 occasions. After World War Two, Dick was elected captain of the side following the retirement of Charlie Bicknall.
It must have been a melancholy end to his first-team career when he made his final appearance in the Second Division. The lowest crowd ever for a League match at Upton Park watched Dick and the rest of the Irons lose 1-0, but the centre-half turned in his normal impeccable performance, earning the respect of each of the 8,000 Upton Park stalwarts who had turned up to cheer Dick Walker into the sunset of his career.