The Hoff (Hoffmann Athletic)

The story of the Hoffman Manufacturing Company starts with Dresden born inventor Ernst Gustav Hoffman, who in 1892, aged just 28, invented the ball lathe, which allowed the rapid manufacturing of ball bearings. 

He briefly lived in Friern Barnet with his family before moving to the United States in order to patent his invention there, as well as his improved furniture castor. In 1897, Geoffrey and Charles Barrett persuaded Hoffman to return to England and go into business with them. His bearing lathe patent and other patents were sold to a new incorporation, Hoffman Manufacturing Company. The company opened a four acre plant on New Street, Chelmsford in Essex. 

The new company was hugely successful making numerous improvements to existing machines, devices and fittings as well as inventing new ones. In 1903 Hoffman resigned from the company and returned to the States where became a naturalised American two years later.

Under Geoffrey Barrett Hoffman’s boomed and the factory was extended in 1906, eventually reaching fifty acres in size. The expansion allowed the formation of Hoffman Athletic in 1907. By 1918 Hoffman’s were employing nearly 5,000 people and producing almost 250,000 ball bearings a month. Their market was in cars, aircraft and other industrial machinery. In 1938, the company opened a second factory in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire at the Bristol Road end of Oldends Lane. The second factory concentrated on micro bearings for gyroscopes, a vital component in all navigation systems. The Stonehouse site was ideal as it could use water from the Stroudwater Navigation Canal in their industrial processes. During World War II, the company’s significant involvement in the war effort made the Chelmsford plant an obvious target for the Luftwaffe. On December 19th 1944 a V2 rocket landed in nearby Henry Road, damaging the factory, destroying houses and killing 39 civilians. 

The firm rallied and were employing 7,500 people when in 1969, Hoffman’s merged with Ransome & Marles and Pollards to form RHP, Ransome, Hoffman and Pollard. The 1980’s saw Hoffman’s in decline, the factory gates closed for the final time in Chelmsford on December 23rd 1989. 

The Hoffman Athletic club fielded teams in football, cricket, tennis, badminton and athletics. The football wing had sufficient numbers to field teams in the South Essex, Mid Essex and Spartan Leagues. Reproduced here are two pages from their programme from a 1919 match with Custom House in the South Essex League, with the superb name of “The Sphericals’ Budget”. 

The club initially played on a field at Coval Lane but in 1910 were reported for “unruly scenes” during a Chelmsford League match against Manor Works (now known as Braintree Town). The club had to put up notices of censure with regard to spectators’ future conduct at matches! Coval Lane had a grandstand, and four figure attendances were a regular occurrence. For the 1912/13 season Hoffman Athletic groundshared at Chelmsford’s King Head Meadow ground, although the arrangement was short lived as the host club insisted on keeping all gate receipts.

In 1919 Hoffman’s established their sporting base at an eight acre field in Rainsford Road. The new ground had seating for 1,000 people, mainly on wooden bench seating, but there was also a modest grandstand, costing £50 to erect and housing 80 people. 

The Rainsford Road Ground (Photo: Percy McDonald)

Athletic joined the Essex & Suffolk Border League in the 1930’s finishing as Senior Division runners up in 1935/36 an 1936/37. These successful campaigns were followed by Hoffman’s enjoying their best ever run in the FA Cup of 1937/38. The Sphericals’ defeated Ford Sports (Dagenham) 3-2 at home in the Preliminary Round before being paired with Athenian League Romford. A bumper crowd of 4,100 attended the game at Brooklands, and Hoffman’s pulled off a major shock coming away with another 3-2 victory. Clapton were then defeated 2-1 at Rainsford Road, before the Third Qualifying round tie at home to Leytonstone produced a record crowd of 3,500 at Rainsford Road. The Sphericals’ run continued with another 2-1 success.

In the Fourth Qualifying round Hoffman’s were again drawn at home to the professional Southern League side, Ipswich Town. Town’s owners, the Cobbold family, had made Scott Duncan the highest paid manager in the county when he had joined them from Manchester United in November 1937. Journalists from all over the country flocked to Rainsford Road to get an interview with, and photographs of, Duncan. One journalist had a rather disparaging view of facilities condescendingly stating that the stand was no bigger than a rabbit hutch! Another huge crowd gathered but Hoffman’s were finally eliminated with a 3-0 win for the visitors, who would be elected to the Football League for the following season.

The experience served Hoffman’s well and they applied to join the Eastern Counties League. Surprisingly, their application was rejected, but it mattered little, as they swept to the Senior Division title in the Border League. By 1950 a new bowling green meant the tennis courts were relocated to the site of the stand which was demolished. Two years later the company bought the adjacent former YMCA ground in St Fabian’s Drive. The footballers moved to the new field, walking down from the existing pavilion at Rainsford Road. The team was renamed RHP (Chelmsford) Sports & Social Club following the merger and would return to the original pitch in Rainsford Road in 1980.

By the 1980’s the company was struggling financially and in 1984, the sports activities ceased. All land, bar the bowls club, was sold off and is now largely engulfed by housing. The site of the old ground can be located down a small alley at the junction of Rainsford Road and Roxwell Road.

Similarly, to their counterparts in Essex, the Stonehouse factory formed a football team during the Second World War and Hoffman Athletic joined the Western League for the 1946/47 season. They spent thirteen seasons in the Western League before dropping down to the Gloucestershire Northern Senior League. They also entered the FA Cup with their best performance coming in that initial 1946/47 season, when they reached the Third Qualifying round before losing by the odd goal in seven to Trowbridge Town. The club folded in the 1960’s. 

The Hoffman factory in Stonehouse

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