Arsenal Football Club – a name known and respected throughout the world of football, often reverentially as 'The Arsenal'. But as with all great institutions the beginnings were far from glamorous.
Our story starts at the Woolwich Arsenal Armaments Factory in 1884. Football at this time was fast gaining popularity in the north and in Scotland, but far less so in the south. A certain Joséph Smith who worked at the factory in the Dial Square Works (so named because of a sundial in the square) tried to encourage enough interest to start a works team, but met with little success.
At this time Europe was in the middle of an arms race that would ultimately lead to World War I, and workers migrated from all over the U.K. to the thriving armaments factory to gain work. Amongst them were the men who again tried (in 1886) to form a team. The leaders of this endeavour were David Danskin (a Scot from Fife), Fred Beardsley and Morris Bates (who had both played for Nottingham Forest), Richard Pearce (ex Bolton Wanderers), Elijah Watkins (who became the clubs first secretary) and John (Jack) Humble, who came from such a poor area of Co. Durham that he had walked from there to Woolwich to find work (he was later to became Chairman and lead the club into professionalism). Subscriptions raised 5s6p, to which Danskin added 5s from his own pocket, and this was used to buy a ball.
The first match was arranged away to a team called Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs, and was played on the 11th December 1886. We won our first ever match 6-0 , and this was all the encouragement that was needed to form a proper club. A meeting was arranged for Christmas day at the Royal Oak public house, which was well attended as word had spread throughout the factory.
One of the first things to be decided was the shirt colour. Although Pearce favoured blue and black barred shirts (which were used to some extent in early years) red was chosen since the ex-Forest players still had their shirts and promised to contact Forest to beg some spare shirts (not only did Forest send some shirts, they also sent a ball as well). A decision was also made to play matches at Plumstead Common (it should be noted that pitch markings, nets and even crossbars were not deemed necessary at the time – only corner flags, and posts for the goals!). Finally, the name. As there were people wishing to be involved from areas of the factory other than Dial Square itself, it was decided to call the club Royal Arsenal Football Club.
In that first 'season' various friendlies were arranged and our fledgling club ended with a very satisfactory record which read: Played 10; Won 7; Drawn 1; Lost 2. Goals for 36; goals against 8.
After such a successful start it was decided we needed a better location to play. Plumstead Common was used for military manoeuvres which often left it unfit for football. A decision was made to rent the rather impressive sounding 'Sportsman Ground', which was actually a part of Plumstead Marshes owned by a pig breeder by the name of Mr. Walton. This ground didn't prove suitable, and when it was flooded when we were due to play against Millwall on February 11th the team quickly moved to Manor Fields (which was renamed the Manor Ground) close by. The club was now attracting attention from outside the factory and crowds approached 1000, many watching games from the 'grandstand', which consisted of borrowed military wagons.
Whilst at the Manor Ground we won our first trophies. In 1889/90, as well as entering the F.A. Cup for the first time, we won the Kent Senior Cup (beating Thanet 3-0). We also won the Kent Junior Cup and the London Charity Cup.
Flushed with success we moved again to the Invicta Ground which could boast the luxury of a stand, terracing, and changing rooms (before that various pubs had been used to change in). In our first season there we won the biggest competition in the south at the time, the London Senior Cup with a 6-0 victory over St. Bartholemew's Hospital. The reporter for the Kentish Examiner wrote, "Excitement is a mild description for the scenes in Woolwich and Plumstead on the return of the football champions on saturday night. A host of admirers met them at the dockyard station and drove them in open carriages, shouting and singing. There were celebrations everywhere, all evening, and we fear a good deal of drinking was mixed with the rejoicing and exultation."
That season also marked our debut in the F.A. Cup proper, which resulted in a narrow 2-1 defeat at home to the professionals of Derby County. Success came at a price though, as Derby and some other professional clubs tried to poach our leading players with the promise of wages, an offer that we couldn't compete with as an amateur club, despite regular crowds of up to 12,000. In the summer of 1891 we made the painful but momentous decision to become a professional club. This was a huge step to take, as unlike the northern associations, the London F.A. (to which the club belonged) found the idea of professional sport abhorrent. This not only resulted in us being expelled from the London F.A. and all its competitions, but also led to the London F.A. banning their members from even playing against us in friendly matches. It was also at this time that we decided to change our name to Woolwich Arsenal, although the Football League continued to refer to us as Royal Arsenal until 1896.
As it was not organised by the London F.A. we were still able to compete in the F.A. Cup, but other than that the only games available to us were friendlies against the 'northern' professional clubs (in fact we played the first of many friendlies against Glasgow Rangers in 1892). To try and get around this problem we wrote a circular to the other leading London clubs proposing a Southern League, but when this idea was rejected (although it was successfully proposed by the amateur Millwall just over a year later) it was decided to apply to join the Football League. The application was accepted and we became the first team south of Birmingham to be admitted. On finding this out the owner of the Invicta Ground decided to increase the rent so much (to £350 per year – about four times the norm of the time) that it led to another momentous decision. Not only did we move back to the Manor Ground but a limited company was formed (with 4000 £1 shares) to enable us to buy the ground from its owner, Mr. Cavey.
So in less than seven years we went from a proposed works team to a ground owning, professional member of the Football league.
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