The Art Of Hackney Marshes: Photographing The Home Of Sunday League Football

For the past few years, Simon Di Principe has been trying to capture the spirit of Hackney Marshes on camera. We spoke to him about the culture, history and personal significance of East London’s footballing paradise.

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Sep 15 2016, 12:50pm

All photos provided by Simon Di Principe

On watching the footage that accompanies Simon Di Principe's new book, 'Grass Roots', the most striking thing is how diverse the devotees of Hackney Marshes are. There are men in their eighties talking about their love for the parkland and pitches by the River Lea, alongside lads in their teens and twenties. There are amateur footballers with roots on the opposite sides of the earth, who routinely meet to have a kickabout in a leafy, windswept corner of East London. There are teams which share common cultures and heritage; African and West Indian; British and Asian; people from all four corners of the capital. They have all fallen under the spell of Hackney Marshes, and return week on week to London's paradisiacal Sunday League pilgrimage site.

The history of the Marshes is long and meandering, much like walks across the marshland itself. Football matches have been played on the flat, low fields since the late nineteenth century, though the Marshes as we know them today only came to be in the aftermath of the Second World War. In clearing up bombed out areas of East London after the Blitz, local authorities decided to dump much of the rubble on the open lands on the edge of Hackney Borough. Some of the first pitches were laid out on the foundations of this rubble and debris, and before long there were people flocking with kit bags, footballs and impromptu goalposts.

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In their glorious post-war heyday, the Marshes would host up to 120 football matches at a time. Thousands of footballers from far and wide would descend on the area, bringing with them a host of friends, family members and casual spectators. Players on different pitches would bump into each other while taking corners, so close were they packed together. If there was an inch of space to be marked with white lines, it would be marked, and incorporated into a football pitch. That's how people seem to remember it, anyway, and memories of that golden age seem overwhelmingly fond.

All images featured in 'Grass Roots' // Photo by Simon Di Principe

Today, the reality of Hackney Marshes is somewhat different. There are just over 80 pitches to play on, with slivers of land shaved off over the years. Most recently, the Olympic Park has encroached on the parkland, with several pitches lost to new developments. That said, it is still by far the biggest collection of pitches in London, and no less popular for having contracted. The Marshes are nothing short of a social and cultural phenomenon, and show little sign of ever losing their popular appeal.

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It was in an attempt to capture the spirit of this phenomenon that, in August 2014, Simon Di Principe turned up at the Marshes with his medium-format camera. He would set off on a Sunday morning and arrive in time for the 10:30am kick offs, before photographing five to ten footballers at full time, catching them in the brief window between them trudging off the pitch and trickling back to the showers and changing rooms. His aim was to chronicle the manifold names, nationalities and faces which grace the Marshes each weekend, with his collection of photographs soon becoming something akin to a Panini sticker album. He became increasingly interested in the melting pot of cultures and backgrounds amongst the footballers he photographed which, taken together, seemed to form a protean, kaleidoscopic personality for the Marshes themselves.

Richard Ofosu of the Young London Meteors // Photo by Simon Di Principe

On a personal level, Simon has a close connection to the Marshes. A committed footballer himself, he broke his ankle in a match and, with nothing to do for four months of rehabilitation time, he decided to go up to the Marshes for the first time since his early childhood. What he found there was a footballing nirvana, far vaster than he had imagined it and far more populous. It brought back inherited memories of watching his father play there, memories of which his parents had regularly reminded him over the years.

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In a sense, 'Grass Roots' is as much inspired by the experiences of Franco Di Principe as those of his son, Simon. Simon tells me that the title is a sort of play on words, in that the project reflects both grassroots football and his own, familial roots. Having left Italy in 1963 in order to avoid military service, Franco emigrated to Britain, and ended up living on the outskirts of Brighton. "He was very lonely, and he didn't speak any English," Simon tells me. "He moved up to London after a while, and was equally lonely, or even more so. Eventually, he met some fellow Italians, and they introduced him to Sunday League football. He'd played football in Italy, and ended up playing for an Italian team on Hackney Marshes."

Troy Deering of Shakespeare FC // Photo by Simon Di Principe

For a young man lost in an unfamiliar land, the football culture of the Marshes was a way to adjust. Playing there helped him to learn English, broke down the barriers of isolation, and made him part of a community which, even in the sixties, was extraordinarily diverse. It wasn't just Italians who were coming to terms with life in England on the Marshes, but people from all parts of London's immigrant commonwealth. In that sense, the Marshes have borne witness to the ever-growing, ever-changing face of London, and acted as a microcosm for the capital itself.

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While things weren't always rosy for Franco's team – in the foreword to 'Grass Roots', the tensions between Italian sides, not to mention other London outfits, is presented as an everyday reality – the Marshes prepared them for life in the city, in all its lucidity, drama and grit. The experiences of the Mazzini Garibaldi Sports Club, or 'MG Sports' as they were then known, must have been familiar to many of their opponents. In the seventies, an all black team called 'Cosmopolitan FC' joined the Hackney and Leyton Leagues, and began to play on the Marshes. They doubtlessly faced discrimination, as their Italian counterparts had before them, but their presence on the Marshes got them used to the capital and, vice versa, the capital used to them.

Errol Gustave of the St Lucia Allstars // Photo by Simon Di Principe

Today, Hackney Marshes play host to people of all circumstances. It is impossible to imagine just how important a role the Marshes have had in forging a collective community in London, and in tying together hundreds of thousands of social and cultural threads. The Marshes are part of the shared history of the city, and the backdrop to countless individuals, each with their own personal stories and family sagas. The Di Principes are one family who can trace their history back to the Marshes, but there are people all over the world who share memories of playing football there.

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In 'Grass Roots', Simon has attempted to capture both the individual and collective spirit of the Marshes. "You often get photographers going up to the Marshes, but they tend to shoot from a distance, and it's usually action shots," he tells me. "I thought it would be really good to document it as a portrait project, and capture people's faces, as opposed to just the football itself." The book features just over 100 photographs of amateur footballers and referees, with kits varying from customised numbers to borrowed Premier League tops. They burst with colour in the foreground, with the shared background of the flat, green Marshes behind them, and the occasional high rise in the distance reaching towards the sky.

Aneel Tahir of MKA East // Photo by Simon Di Principe

Amongst the footballers he's photographed, there are lads in West Ham, Arsenal and Spurs shirts, amongst others. There are players from Ethiopia and Nigeria; Grenada and Jamaica; Britain and Ireland; Cyprus, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine; the list goes on. There is unimaginable variety, but there is a sense of togetherness. It is this paradox that makes the Marshes so interesting, and so compelling as a subject for photographic art.

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With land at such a premium in London at the moment, there are always going to be concerns for spaces like Hackney Marshes. While the people who use them understand their societal value, the people who might profit from their redevelopment do not. 'Grass Roots' shows the Marshes as they are now, and Simon hopes that the project will be a snapshot in time, as opposed to a memorial to a shrinking Sunday League promised land. "It does worry me," he says. "When the Olympics were on, they took away a big chunk of the Marshes to have a car park there. It's not invulnerable, it's really not."

Thomas McEvoy, referee // Photo by Simon Di Principe

Simon has a lot to say on the social significance of the area. "Hackney Marshes are there as a place for young men to go every Sunday, a place for them to release their tensions playing football, and feel a sense of community. I think that's really important, personally, and it would be a shame if that was not to continue for another hundred years. Somewhere like the Marshes should be kept and preserved, because for some men, the Marshes are all they've got in life. They might hate their jobs, or whatever, but once a week they get to go down there and play football, and socialise with their mates."

"Whether it will be preserved or not, I'm not sure."

While the Marshes are a protected commons, nothing can be taken for granted in London. It's a footballing heritage site, and its value to the capital is without a price. It has witnessed decades of history, and been a home for innumerable footballers in that time. For proof of just how important the area is, one needs only look to the faces, cultures and nationalities of 'Grass Roots'.

Simon Di Principe's 'Grass Roots' is available here.