Cray Wanderers 1860-2020 – The Resilience of London’s Oldest Association Football Club


2020 sees the 160th year since the formation of Cray Wanderers, the oldest football club in London and the second oldest in the world. Despite the longevity it hasn’t always been plain sailing for Cray Wanderers and have had to show the toughness and grit forged by their founding players to survive through difficult times.

In 1858, the London, Chatham & Dover railway was extended to go through the village of St Mary Cray and migrant workers were brought in possibly from Ireland and helped build the large railway viaduct that goes through the village. Many of these workers settled in the village and during breaks in working the workers would kick a ball about and eventually in 1860 along with locals started a club which played at what is now a Cemetery at Star Lane in St. Mary Cray. What form of football was played is not known as the rules of the game were still fragmented across different codes across the country. It is hard to believe the football would have been silky and skilful and perhaps more rough round the edges compared to the oldest club in Sheffield which stemmed from a big school/educational background.  The viaduct coincided with an industrial boom for the area and with paper mills and companies locating there these were prosperous times.

The team played strictly local teams but by the mid-late 1880’s began to branch out from there and in their chocolate and amber Victorian coloured kit began to play more competitively and two key players responsible for the clubs elevation were Herbert Berens & Harry Hutchins. Herbert’s father, Richard was the largest landowner in the area and Herbert was Westminster school educated and played football there. Herbert came to live in the Cray’s and helped the club become more sophisticated in the way the team played and was hugely influential but tragically died at the age of 30 in 1896. Harry Hutchins was a local undertaker and was club captain and centre forward for many years before he died in a crash on a group outing going to Brighton in 1908 but was a much loved figure locally.

Cray Wanderers 1890-91 – Herbert Berens front row 2nd left – Harry Hutchins in the middle.

At the turn of the century the club moved to Fordcroft, close to the river and the club were beginning to prosper, the Kent League championship was won in 1901-02 amongst other honours and the future looked bright although tragedy struck on Easter Monday 1900 when lightning struck the grandstand during a reserve team game, killing one spectator, injuring many others including players. Despite this, the club continued to prosper but as the first decade of the 1900’s continued the club began to struggle and in 1907, seemed to be losing money and many players who had put years of service building up the club were beginning to hang up their boots and honours would be scarce for the next few decades.

Cray Wanderers – Kent League Champions 1901-02

Cray were steadily moving along before the First World War in 1914-18 curtailed football at every level until at least 1919-20 and briefly used the name Cray Old Boys until 1920 and joined the London League.

Things were starting to move smoothly for Cray Wanderers in the 1930’s and won the Kent Amateur Cup in 1930-31 but decline was setting in and in 1936 their Fordcroft ground was put up for sale by the owner to a Belgian company that produced greaseproof paper and the paper mill, linked to the ground was temporarily closed to convert to the new technology and scores of job losses affected the area and club who obviously in those days were made up of mostly local amateur players. The last game played there was in November 1936. The club moved to Twysdens Meadow in Foots Cray and briefly changed their name to Sidcup and Foots Cray FC.

Cray Wanderers in the lighter shirts at the Fordcroft ground in 1935

The Second World War started in 1939 but bringing the story forward a bit to the present day in 1938 a young goalkeeper named George Taylor played a handful of games for the club including a 10-0 defeat to Northfleet Amateurs on the opening day of the 1938-39 season, but broke his leg shortly after and instead with war not long round the corner briefly joined the RAF but was shot down into the English Channel and became more maintenance based after that. George in February turned 100 years old and the great man was guest of honour of the club at the home game with Merstham on 1st March, 2020. He is an incredible gentleman and the club signed him as registered player as this photo indicates along with club CEO Sam Wright and Chairman Gary Hillman.

The second huge world conflict had terrible repercussions for football for many years and Cray’s future already in doubt before the war seemed even more at threat now. Some elements of war-time football resumed in 1941 and a club appeared called Vegpardel, the works team of the Vegetable Parchment Mills. A key individual here was George ‘Shaver’ Harland, a former player for Cray Wanderers back in the 1910’-1930’s who was now working at the Mills. Harland helped set up the team which in all but name was Cray Wanderers, a club he loved dearly. After the 1942-43 season the team were called Vegpardel but became Cray Wanderers once again in September 1943.  Harland was a dedicated Craysman and as well as helping run the club also was a bandsman for the local brass band and after matches would entertain the locals in the boozers at the time.

George ‘Shaver’ Harland – Former player, groundsman, secretary & local bandsman

The early pre-war years though were dreadful, heavy defeats in the Kent Amateur League (now the equivalent of the Kent County League) no real ground to play at and seemed to wander including at St. Mary Cray Recreation ground and in 1949-50 it really looked like the end. The club were moments away from extinction, the committee who worked so hard to achieve was now dwindling in numbers and with just three left were prepared to pay off any debts and await the end. The players though helped and the club just about limped on.

There was to be a huge sea-change about to happen. In the summer of 1950, Cray Wanderers had had negotiated a deal to play at Northfield Farm with the Gas Sports Guild so at least had a more than presentable home than an open recreation ground. Then the club were offered a buy-out of sorts by a local businessman, new to the area, Mick Slater who did much to help disaffected youth in the Crays and set up the Cray Tigers cycle speedway club.

Mick Slater – The Saviour of Cray Wanderers

Mick brought in his dedicated team of colleagues and the club in his first season involved in 1950-51 finished 2nd in the Kent Amateur League West, their highest position in years. He moved the club to the London League Senior where they remained throughout the 1950’s and the team who were playing many clubs from the East End of London, Essex border and North London were remarkably successful and won back to back championships in 1956-57 and 1957-58. The club unearthed some remarkably loyal players, Bill Bedwell spent virtually the whole decade there and the club’s record goalscorer, the late Ken Collishaw ran riot in the 1956-57 season scoring 57 goals in 34 games. He eventually scored 268 goals for the club in a ten year spell, a record highly unlikely to be beaten.


Bill Bedwell                                                                    Ken Collishaw         


Cray Wanderers 1956-57 London League Senior Division Champions

During this time, Mr. Slater had been able to arrange for Cray Wanderers now wearing Amber and Black and later all amber to play their home games at the impressive ground at Grassmeade in the heart of industrial St Mary Cray and was on land owned by the St Philomena’s Convent.  Some of the greatest days in the club’s history were spent here and in the 1960’s the momentum continued as Cray played in the Aetolian League Division One winning the title in 1962-63, won the Kent Amateur Cup three years in a row between 1963-65 and the Greater London League Title in 1965-66. A key figure here was captain John Dorey, who is reputed to have played 441 games for the club between 1961-71.


John Dorey                                         Cray Wanderers 1965-66 Greater London League Champions     

Mick Slater really wanted Cray Wanderers to play in some of the higher non-leagues like the Southern or Isthmian League but were continually thwarted in doing so. Instead, frustrated and looking for stronger opposition the club moved to the Metropolitan League in 1966-67 and as one of the few amateur clubs in the league locked horns with ‘A’ teams of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. Naturally some hefty defeats were endured to begin with but Cray remarkably tended to finish mid-table and had some very good national cup runs in the FA Cup and FA Amateur Cup during this time.

Cray Wanderers playing at Grassmeade vs Barking in the FA Amateur Cup 3rd Round

In 1970-71, The Met London League was due to fold but St. Philomena’s announced that the Grassmeade ground would be sold for housing and Cray would have two years at least to find a new home and a new league to play in. The club went to the new Met London League and Mick Slater behind the scenes was looking for hopefully a temporary ground to play at. He was able to negotiate a deal with the Conservative Club owned ground at Oxford Road, Sidcup, perhaps a little bit out of Cray territory but a decent temporary stop off. Also Cray Wanderers brought in a new ambitious manager, Johnny Biddle and helped to build an unstoppable if uncompromising team. The last match played at Grassmeade was played on 21st April 1973, a 0-1 defeat to Willesden.  Sadly, Mick Slater died after a short illness in April 1974 but had done so much to put Cray Wanderers on the map and even before he passed away had been working hard to find a new home for the club.

Despite, the anticipation of a short stop off at Oxford Road, it would be Cray’s home ground for the next 25 years. A fire at the ground in August 1975 saw the changing rooms and pavilion burnt to the ground with many photos and artefacts lost. Also, credit has to be made to the club as a whole as over the next seven seasons, in the Metropolitan London League, London Spartan League Premier and Kent League, four championships were won, League cups and good runs in cup competitions saw Cray Wanderers as a force to be reckoned with. Astute management from Johnny Biddle, Jimmy Wakeling and Harry Richardson over those years and their knowledge of local footballers proved beneficial.

Cray Wanderers at Oxford Road, 1973-74, vs BROB Barnet

Cray Wanderers Metropolitan London League Champions – 1974-75 – Pic Trevor Mulligan


London Spartan League Champions 1976-77 & 1977-78

Kent League Champions 1980-81

As the 1980’s – early part of the 1990’s neared, the team had steady if unspectacular success on the pitch, attendances were beginning to drop but the Wands had been looking to move to a home close to Oxford Road at Rectory Lane, Sidcup and it looked like planning permission had been given and work about to start but the effects of the early 90’s economic recession had repercussions for the construction industry. The team in 1990-91 was excellent and came second in the Kent League only behind Sittingbourne who were unbeaten but that team broke up with the Rectory Lane move now abandoned.

A new committee was formed to try to get out of the predicament, experienced football secretary Kerry Phillips came to the club in 1991 and with his hardy committee and considerable hard work the club soldiered on but usually at the lower end of the Kent League Division One. In 1993, Cray Wanderers stunned perhaps even themselves by winning the Kent Senior Trophy against Whitstable Town at Gillingham FC when the team had struggled all season and were threatened with relegation to Division Two. Current club CEO Sam Wright scored the winner. A major factor here was a new signing, striker Ian Jenkins a local man who would go on to have a stellar career at the club as player and player-manager up to 2013 so in a just over 20 years association.


Kerry Phillips                                          Cray Wanderers 1993 Kent Senior Trophy Winners (pic. Mike Floate)

Things were looking desperate in the 1994-95 season, attendances at Oxford Road were poor, the team had made a horrendous start to the season and in October 1994, the club chairman stepped down and the manager left and the club were in a desperate quandary. A young local businessman, Gary Hillman was approached to be a temporary chairman while other avenues were being explored, a new manager and players were brought in and relegation was at least avoided. Gary though like Mick Slater before him, was looking to make Cray Wanderers self-sustainable and stable while other local clubs like Darenth Heathside, Alma Swanley, Slade Green, Swanley and Furness all bit the dust. The temporary Chairman saw the potential of the club and went about making improvements to the Oxford Road ground and making it a bit more habitable and acceptable for Kent league rules.


Gary Hillman                                                                   An early teamgroup from the Gary Hillman era in 1995-96 

At the start of the 1997-98 season the League announced that clubs without floodlights would not be accepted into the Kent League and would be just one division. Cray would have been demoted to the backwaters of the Kent County League as the club were not given permission by the Conservative Club for floodlights. The club had to make a move quickly and Gary Hillman with his connections to local business and with those around Bromley FC, the senior club in the Borough of Bromley to negotiate a ground share at Hayes Lane where floodlights were permitted. So in May 1998 Cray Wanderers played their last game at Oxford Road, although the reserves team continued to play there for 13 years. In August 1998, Cray played their first home game at Hayes Lane, a ground they still play at to this day.

Cray Wanderers first match at Hayes Lane, Bromley FC – August 1998

Again, steady rather than spectacular progress followed until around the 2001-02 season when the club were beginning to look the part. Two players here need mention. Jamie Wood who first played for the club in 1995-96 and along with John Dorey mentioned earlier made the most appearances for Cray Wanderers with 461 appearances up to 2010-11 and scored 120 goals. Also, Joe Francis a hugely experienced non-league player who came to the club in 2001 and between then and 2013 was a key player and later Assistant Manager to Ian Jenkins and perhaps the nearest non-league football had to a Brian Clough/Peter Taylor combination. Suddenly Cray Wanderers were a force in the Kent-League, good quality non-league players were coming to the club including some who played for landlords Bromley.


Ian Jenkins & Joe Francis                                Jamie Wood

In 2002-03, Cray Wanderers won the Kent League for the first time since 1980-81 in a dramatic three way race with Maidstone United and Thamesmead Town which was decided on Points Per Game after Faversham Town briefly folded near the end of the season. Cray Wanderers also won the Kent League Cup and reached the final of the Kent Senior Trophy. The club didn’t apply for promotion to the Isthmian League but in 2003-04, arguably one of the clubs greatest ever seasons, Cray Wanderers retained the title over VCD Athletic, won the Kent Senior Trophy, the final of the League Cup and the last 8 of the FA Vase. This time Cray Wanderers were able to take their place in the Isthmian League, a status that eluded the efforts of Mick Slater back in the 1960’s.


Kent League Champions 2002-03                                     Kent League Champions 2003-04

The team took to the Isthmian Division One like a duck to water and an exciting team was put together including current first team manager Tony Russell, future Brentford and Wycombe Wanderers player Sam Wood, two of the clubs top scorers, Michael Power and Leigh Bremner as well as members of the Kent League title winning teams took the division by storm, famously beat landlords Bromley 5-2 (in the home game) and ended AFC Wimbledon’s 78 game unbeaten league run. The side finished 6th and were beaten in the playoff semi-final by Horsham. Ironically, Bromley would be promoted that season.  The side reached the 4th Qualifying Round of the FA Cup the following season.

Cray Wanderers 2004-05 – Current Manager Tony Russell fifth from left in the back row

In 2007-08, Cray had another extraordinary season and went 28 games unbeaten in the Division One South to finish 3rd and after beating Metropolitan Police in the semi-final were beaten by a late goal at Tooting & Mitcham in the final. Cray also reached the final of the Kent Senior Cup for the first time.  Their greatest triumph was to follow in 2008-09 where Cray finished 2nd in the Isthmian Division One South and helped by experienced players like Colin Luckett and ex-football league players Danny Chapman and Simon Osborn and inspirational skipper Mark Willy were a great side. After beating Worthing in the Semi-Final, a tense final against Met Police at Hayes Lane was won by a stunning Osborn free kick and Cray Wanderers would now take their place in the Isthmian Premier for the first time.

Cray Wanderers survived their first season and in 2010-11 the club celebrated their 150th Anniversary sporting a very retro Victorian Chocolate & Amber kit and in pre-season won the Heritage Tournament up at Sheffield FC who along with Hallam FC made up a triangular tournament played between the three oldest clubs. Cray won the tournament in a penalty completion and the club went on to have their best ever confirmed league placing of 9th a feat they repeated in 2011-12.

Heritage Trophy Winners – Sheffield, 31st July 2010 

During this time, Gary Hillman seeing the club needed to return back to their homeland sought planning permission for a new stadium at Sandy Lane in St Paul’s Cray, St, Mary Cray’s twin sister village. Despite a solid proposal which seemed to tick the right boxes, the proposed stadium was rejected by Bromley Council due to Green Belt concerns and was a setback for the club as the team which had been competitive for three seasons in the Isthmian Premier was starting to lose its way and after a narrow escape from relegation in 2012-13, the 2013-14 season was one of the hardest in the club’s recent history. The Ian Jenkins/Joe Taylor partnership broke up as did the team and the new management team of Keith Bird and ex-Cray player Michael Paye tried their hardest with a group of very young players to succeed but relegation was inevitable and a few bruising defeats along the way meant it was something of a dispiriting experience.  The club though were injecting some new blood to the development committee in finding a new ground including ex-player David Francis and the club were now focusing their attention on a stadium at Flamingo Park in Sidcup, which used to stage football on Saturday’s and Sunday’s in the past as the National Dock Labour Board ground.


The new management team – Keith Bird & Michael Paye – October 2013      David Francis – Cray Wanderers Vice-Chairman

Cray Wanderers were placed in the Isthmian North Division thereby missing the chance of a number of Kent derbies and Cray despite a good run in the FA Trophy never settled in the unfamiliar experience of travelling to Ware, Tilbury and Heybridge Swifts for league games and were lying second bottom by Christmas and had seen Keith Bird, then Michael Paye and then Gary Abbott leave their posts as manager. Relegation to the Kent League looked ominously close but a new manager on a short term basis, Tommy Warrilow another ex-player who had done wonders at Tonbridge Angels as Manager was brought in to stave off the drop. If ever the resilience of a football club was needed it was now. Cray were 14 points adrift of relegation with 10 matches of the season to go. With a team that now played every game like a cup final, Cray reeled off 10 wins on the spin, the club finished 16th and Cray stayed up but it was a mightily narrow escape.


Tommy Warrilow (right) with assistant Alex O’Brien       The team which staved off relegation against the odds

To the more present day, in 2014-15 another ex-Cray Wanderers player Tony Russell who had been successful at VCD Athletic taking the Crayford based club to the Isthmian Premier via the Kent League and Isthmian North, had managed a great escape of their own to stave off relegation from the Premier. Tony and many of those players and coaching staff came to Cray Wanderers with the strong incentive of a new ground at Flamingo Park in mind helped build the club to being contenders again after three successive relegation battles.  The team topped the Isthmian North at Christmas but finished 4th and were beaten in the playoff semi-final by Harlow Town.  A few days earlier though there was very good news when the planning permission for the Flamingo Park ground was approved by Bromley Council and things now looked very rosy.

Tony Russell – Ex Cray Wanderers player became manager in the summer of 2015

Like all stories there is a twist and the incoming Mayor of London who needed to ratify the proposal didn’t like it and Cray were now back to square one but were given the option with Mayoral indicators for changes to give it another go. The club did so but at first Cray Wanderers moved to the Isthmian South which was much more beneficial in terms of crowds and in 2017-18 the team were flying and scored over a century of goals in a season for the first time since 1974-75, had a good unbeaten run of 23 games and finished 3rd in the table but lost to Walton Casuals in the Playoff Semi-Final at Hayes Lane.  That though wasn’t the main story.  The revised planning application was put to Bromley Council for ratification on 12th March 2018 and this time with a more healthier vote of approval from the council and a stellar five minute speech from Gary Hillman, the move was back on and now down to the Mayor to decide once again.

Club officials celebrate Bromley Council Planning success – l-r Jason Miller, Michael Paye, Steve Owen, Gary Hillman, Tony Russell, Martin Hodson, David Francis, Sam Wright 

2018-19 was a tremendous season for the club and the culmination of all the hard work not just from the team on the pitch but also off it and a reminder just how important the work of the likes of Herbert Berens, George Harland, Mick Slater, Kerry Phillips, Dave Jackson and others had been in the past to get the club to even this stage.  On November 26th 2018, Gary Hillman had received notification from the GLA that there were no reasons to turn down the proposal for a second time and the club now with another former player, Sam Wright as CEO were able to plan for an exciting future.

Cray Wanderers out in force to march on City Hall with letters of support for the new stadium at Flamingo Park – April 2018

Cray Wanderers now playing in the Isthmian South-East were worthy League Champions winning the title at Hayes Lane on 13th April 2019 against Ashford United and exciting times ahead. Tony Russell along with (another ex-player) Joe Vines as Assistant seem to be forging a managerial partnership akin to that of Ian Jenkins and Joe Francis many years before them. Also in April 2019, Cray Wanderers officially were declared owners of the land at Flamingo Park and the club had looked to resolve an issue which had burned the club for so many decades, a ground of their own. It also coincided with Gary Hillman celebrating 25 years as Chairman originally intended to be a stop gap appointment.

Cray Wanderers 2018-19 Isthmian South-East Champions – Pic Jon Hilliger

To the present day as Cray Wanderers returning to the Isthmian Premier for the first time in 5 years after a solid start had started 2020 on a hot streak of form and unbeaten in 12 games and stood 2nd in the table, seven points off the top and the highest ever league position the club had attained at this stage of the season.  There was so much going that was positive however, the club did lose a legend in Dave Jackson, a former goalkeeper for Cray during the 1970’s and then the 80’s and helped to keep the club going during the difficult Oxford Road years and it was Dave who hinted that Gary Hillman could be the man to move Cray forward and was treasurer of the club for many years.   Sadly Dave passed away in November 2019 but his work at the club will never be forgotten.

Dave Jackson – Club stalwart sadly passed away in November 2019

Of course we all know what has happened in 2020. March 7th saw Cray Wanderers last game to date, a 1-0 home win against Brightlingsea Regent. The proposed next match at Cheshunt on 14th March was postponed by the Isthmian League due to the Coronavirus outbreak and football never resumed in the 2019-20 season. The league decided to make the season null and void, a tough call to make and with the to two tiers of the non-league game still undecided how to end their seasons, it did seem harsh to call off everything and not perhaps go for a points per game decision to end the season which was decided back in 2002-03 in the Kent League.  All of this took place in Cray Wanderers 160th year.

Cray Wanderers 2019-20

In some ways it sums up the history of the club, it takes a pounding in the bad luck stakes but keeps coming back off the ropes and hopefully once the pandemic has at least cleared away to make it safe for football to return, the next chapter of this remarkable, slightly off the radar football club will be written with more signs of resilience, good times and bad times and with the help of trusted volunteers. Off the field the club is blooming at community level. The Cray in the Community Scheme has been in operation since 2009 and goes from strength to strength and the Youth structure at the club is the envy of many around the country. Also the club has been helped with an association with Sunday league side SE Dons who play their home games on the grass pitch at the ground. Not bad considering the club hasn’t played at its own ground since 1973 and is just waiting for normality in the world to get set for the next installment of our remarkable story.


Mark Hunt

Cray Wanderers FC