Early history of Woolwich Arsenal Football Club

Last updated: December 2007


BEFORE WE BEGIN - a short note on revenues.In 1910 6d would get a football fan into Woolwich Arsenalís ground to stand and be rained on; 1 shilling would get him (usually, though women did go too) a seat in the grandstand.



Iím not going to belabour the early history of Arsenal FC as I think it is quite well known; but I do want put more emphasis on issues not normally covered in great detail.


Woolwich Arsenal FC were founded in late 1886 at the royal ordnance factory.John Wilkinson Humble was an important figure at the club from the start, although he did not actually play for very long.He found the site that became known as the Manor Ground, on Plumstead Common (about 1891) and in 1893 he helped set up the limited company whose shares financed the clubís purchase and development of the site.The club went professional in 1891 at his suggestion and became for a short time the only professional club in the capital.In 1893 the Football League had five vacancies; Woolwich Arsenal FC were one of the successful applicants for those places, being elected with Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Newcastle United.Like all new members, Woolwich Arsenal FC started in the FLís Division Two, where they made steady but unspectacular progress until gaining promotion in season 1903/04.Until 1905 they were the only Football League member south of Birmingham.


In many ways, Woolwich Arsenal FC was more like its northern fellows in the Football League than its neighbour clubs in London: it was an ex factory team, playing in a district where employment was mostly in industry.And therein lay one of the clubís problems.Its crowds ebbed and flowed with the state of the ordnance factory.During the Boer War (1899 to May 1902) gates at the Manor Ground were hit by the need for royal arsenal employees to work Saturday afternoons.However, peace didnít bring the crowds back.Instead, Conservative and then Liberal governments embarked on a policy of greater efficiency at the royal arsenal and we all know what that means - numbers employed there dropped from a wartime high of 20015 to 13929 in 1905, when a lot of machinery in the engineering works was lying idle, and working-class housing was becoming very hard to let.A series of government reports acknowledge the effect these cuts were having on the local economy but the Liberals (elected in 1906) still instituted a policy of dividing contracts for military hardware between the royal ordnance factories and privately-owned contractors like Vickers.The decline of the ordnance factory therefore continued and Woolwich was like any district dominated by one employer: when that employer caught a bad cold, absolutely everyone started sneezing.


Even after the team had ended a comfortable tenth in season 1904/05 (its first season in Football League Division One) Woolwich Arsenal FCís financial situation was causing its shareholders concern, and (according to the Athletic News) the 1905 AGM was noisy and boisterous even by its own standards.John Humble, as chairman, rode out the criticism on that occasion but by the end of season 1906/07 the club was £800 in debt and facing the unprecedented anxiety of no longer being the only Football League Division One club in London.Long before the AGM of 1907 the directors had been split on how to deal with these twin crises and at that meeting Humble, who had found himself in the minority, resigned from the board.The majority went ahead with plans that Humble had said would prove a disaster.They abandoned the building of a new grandstand even though Archibald Leitch had already started work as its designer; and they started selling players - £3000-worth in one season.By these means the deficit of 1907 became a profit of £880 in June 1908 although results had suffered badly in season 1907/08 - Woolwich Arsenal FC were fourteenth.The team seemed to rally in season 1908/09 when the club was sixth, its highest position so far, but the chickens had come home to roost - the Annual Report of June 1909 showed a loss of £1850.Woolwich Arsenal FC was in a crisis exacerbated by the other problems of the area - the economic decline Iíve already outlined, the local transport system, and the number of other football clubs in London.


Iíve described Woolwich Arsenal as being a club in London, but Woolwich was always very isolated from the city as a whole - that was one of the reasons for building an ordnance factory there in the first place.The area looked as much to Kent as to London and local transport links tended to reflect this.A poor service operated from London by the South Eastern and Chatham Railway was not increased on match days despite pleadings from many Woolwich Arsenal FC directors (including Henry Norris) over the years and in the days before the car there were few other ways of getting there.You could go by rail along the north side of the Thames and take a ferry across the Thames from North Woolwich; but there was still a bus journey required before you ended up at even more isolated Plumstead Common where the Manor Ground was situated.The pedestrian tunnel which now links the two Woolwichís wasnít built until Henry Norris was in charge at Woolwich Arsenal and by then it was too late for it to make much of a difference.Itís no wonder that when football reporter George Allison, writing as The Mate, volunteered in 1906 to cover Woolwich Arsenalís matches on a regular basis, his colleagues at Hultonís newspapers were glad to let him get on with it while they took easier journeys to their work.


In these days where you have to have a season ticket or book six weeks in advance to get into the Emirates Stadium and itís sold out for almost every game, itís hard to remember that even in the 1980s the floating voter football fan could still pick and choose his or her matches and turn up on spec.And that was much more true in the 1900s; clubs did sell season tickets but they didnít guarantee you entry so much as a seat out of the rain.If you didnít mind standing and getting wet you could see whatever club you fancied; you could even turn up to a big FA Cup tie and hope to get in.From Woolwich Arsenalís point of view, the problem was that there were SO MANY clubs around London.Iíll take season 1905/06 as an example.The Southern League had Millwall, Brentford, New Brompton (now defunct) and Fulham, West Ham, Spurs; and Watford and Luton Town which might have been further away than Woolwich but whose rail links to London were much more frequent.There were plenty of reserve games to see, in the South Eastern League where Croydon Common and Crystal Palace also played; at least by season 1909/10 if not before, Leyton and Crystal Palace were also in the SEL.In Football League Division Two in season 1905/06 there were Chelsea and Clapton Orient.And there were several very good amateur clubs too, the best being London Caledonians, Tufnell Park FC and Clapton.In April 1907 Chelsea FC added to Woolwich Arsenalís problems by being promoted to Football League Division One; in May 1909 Spurs joined them there.So after 1907 you didnít even have to go to Woolwich Arsenal to see the Big clubs - you only had to go to Fulham Broadway (known then as Walham Grove) or (from 1909) White Hart Lane; no contest, really.When news of the financial mess Woolwich Arsenal FC were in began to leak out in the early months of 1910, newspaper commentators all agreed that having three clubs in Football League Division One had done for the one furthest from town.


In fact, Chelsea were relegated at the end of season 1909/10 when Woolwich Arsenal just escaped; but Spurs stayed up.


During the close season 1909, shareholder George Leavey paid the playersí wages out of his own pocket several times.Just before season 1909/10 began, several other directors had to put there own money into Woolwich Arsenal to keep the club afloat.†† As the autumn of 1909 wore on there was an atmosphere of increasing depression in Woolwich, both economic and psychological: the football club playing badly, gates dropping even further, and worrying rumours about yet more pruning at the royal arsenal.Events at Woolwich Arsenal FC in early 1910 took place against the backdrop of the confirmation of the worst of the rumours - the relocation of the torpedo factory, lock, stock and 2000 people, to Glasgow.






Copyright Sally Davis September 2007