By Tony Attwood
In a previous post I published a copy of the 1930 Arsenal handbook in what I trust is an easy-to-read format. Much of the text is taken up with a history of the club, and it is a history that contains a few errors. My aim here is to clarify some of those points which are, we now know, somewhat at variance with the truth.
The misreporting of Arsenal’s history did not start with this handbook – it had been going on for a considerable amount of time – but the fact that it continued within what was in effect a celebration of Arsenal’s greatest ever achievement to date (winning the FA Cup for the first time) shows the fact that Arsenal as a club has never been willing to employ a historian (or indeed a team of historians) who might get the facts right, and present the facts in a lively and interesting manner.
In essence the writing of the history seems to have been a case of taking secondary sources (ie previous histories) and just running with them.
I’m highlighting some of the errors in the 1930 account below, but if you would like to know the story in detail then this can be achieved by reading “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football”. It is available on Kindle and also as a paperback. Paperback copies are available (post free) from myself by paypal – just email Tony@schools.co.uk. Or for credit card orders please see our books page.
Now onto the commentary.
While there are one or two details we might disagree with in the opening paragraphs of the 1930 version of history, the problems with the club’s history start with its recounting of the 1891/92 season with what it describes as the embracing of professionalism. “This action was most displeasing to their neighbours in the South, and at the outset Woolwich Arsenal – as the club was now styled suffered a serious boycott.”
Now this is untrue on two counts. First, the club did not change from Royal Arsenal to Woolwich Arsenal until 1893, and second there was no boycott. The full story is told in Royal Arsenal at the Invicta – turning professional but in essence, Royal Arsenal tendered its resignation from the London FA and the Kent FA after the Extraordinary General Meeting on 9 May but the two FAs both voted against a boycott of professional teams – although some sources have mistakenly said otherwise. But the proof of the pudding as it were comes with the fact that during 1891-92, Royal Arsenal played against eight out of the nine amateur teams that they had originally announced games against prior to the professional players decision. Many more amateur teams were added to the list as the 1890/91 season drew to a close including 35 southern clubs that Royal Arsenal played during 1891-92. They played a further 16 Southern clubs during 1892-93.
The source of this error, rather embarrassingly for Arsenal was their future manager George Allison who had started working with Arsenal in 1910 as programme writer and soon after this, programme editor.
The 1930 story (which was repeated in Arsenal handbooks for many a long year – and I will come back to this is in a further article later) was thus that Arsenal were refused permission to play local teams, and quickly ran into financial difficulties and thus “A bold policy was called for, and the committee did not hesitate. A limited liability company was formed and the Manor Field ground was bought, an enclosure which was to be their home for twenty years.”
This is wrong through the sin of wholesale omission. What actually happened was that a split occurred within the committee that ran Arsenal, with one group, who called themselves “professional men” claiming that the “working men” did not have the knowledge or experience to run a growing club. These men worked alongside the owner of the Invicta Stadium, and in order to force the issue he informed Royal Arsenal that the ground rent (already one of the highest in football) was about to be doubled. He then refused to negotiate.
Faced with this situation in 1892/3 the Committee remained solid and steadfast and applied to join the Football League (the second division of which was now established) and searched for a new ground. This ground – which became the Manor Ground – was found, but the rival camp then dreamed up the plan of waiting for Royal Arsenal to invest money in upgrading the land into something suitable for league football, only for them then to buy the land from the current owner, and immediately evict Royal Arsenal, making their committee members (who were personally financially guaranteeing the upgrade project) bankrupt at the same time.
Fortunately the landlord of the Manor Fields was honourable, and he turned the offer down. The defeated group then left Royal Arsenal and formed Royal Ordnance Factories FC which played in the Invicta, ultimately in the Southern League. The entire story of the split in the club but the battle between what we might call the “workers” and the “gentlemen” was lost from the narrative. It is retold in full however, for the first time, in “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football”.
The 1930 history is however correct with the next assertion that in the second division the club always got 50% or more of the number of points possible. An interesting measure, and one I’d never thought of before.
But now we have the assertion that “Woolwich was inadequately served in the matter of transport from the City.” It is a claim that was to be repeated in many histories of Arsenal hereafter, but it all seems to have come from a single report by one disgruntled traveller who found the tram journey to Plumstead erratic. Certainly when Arsenal moved north, being on the underground and railway system was a prime consideration, but the claim about poor transport being the cause of low crowds is not proven.
This is a particularly interesting issue I feel, and in my next article I will publish a review of Woolwich Arsenal’s average crowd year by year compared with that of other league clubs.
Returning to the 1930 summary, where it next goes wrong is in the case of 1912/13 – the year of Arsenal’s one and only relegation. The yearbook tells us that “… in 1912-13 after a disastrous playing season the club finished bottom of the division and were relegated.
“The situation now seemed to call for some special measures. After a careful review of the circumstances from every angle it was decided to move the club’s headquarters from Plumstead to Highbury.”
The implication is clear: 1912/13 was a poor season, and so Arsenal then decided to move north. This however is quite untrue, as simple logic would tell us. Arsenal opened in a newly built stadium on 6 September 1913, and would never have been able to do this if a decision had not been taken earlier. Indeed on 5 February 1913 The Islington Gazette reported that Woolwich Arsenal planned to move to Islington and rumours had abounded about the new location for Arsenal throughout the season but this was the first correct reporting.
Allison in the 1930 report also suggests that Woolwich Arsenal changed its name to Arsenal for the 1913/14 season, but in fact the programme for the start of the season not only uses the name Woolwich Arsenal, but also makes it clear that this is a continuation of the Woolwich Arsenal club. The club became The Arsenal in October 1914, and just “Arsenal” in November 1919, thus debunking passing another myth – that Chapman changed the name of the club.
There is one other minor slip – a trivial one, but if I am having a go at Mr Allison’s accuracy (as readers regularly do about mine) I might as well mention it. The account says, “The most disheartening period was that of November and December when an inexplicable series of “home” defeats in spite of high general level of play brought us seriously low in the table.”
Not really right. Arsenal played three and lost three home games in November 1929, but only played two home games in December, winning one and losing one. As late in the year as Christmas Day Arsenal were a very acceptable 9th in the league. But away defeats cost them and by the end of the year they were 13th. The lowest position came after the matches on 8 March at which point Arsenal were 19th just two points and two places above relegation. Here’s the table for that Saturday evening.
|11||West Ham United||32||13||5||14||67||63||1.06||31|
But what we can note is that Arsenal had three games in hand on Everton, and games in hand on all but three of the 18 teams above them, due to their cup matches. This was because Arsenal were scheduled to play league games on the dates of the FA Cup from the fourth round onwards. Thus three games were lost with cup games, and one possible day for making up the matches had also gone because of Arsenal’s replay of the fourth round tie with Birmingham.
I mention this in a little detail not to make fun of George Allison, who I personally find comes across in his work with the club in its difficult years at Plumstead and in his autobiography published after his retirement as Arsenal manager, as a thoroughly decent man who had a genuine affection for the club from the Woolwich Arsenal days. He was also a man who bore no grudges, and never once said a word about Chapman’s behaviour in (for example) banning radio commentaries (which Allison did) from Highbury, by persuading the board to take this decision on a day when Allison (the club secretary) was absent. Allison also provides the only clear view of life working for Henry Norris that we have, something that Leslie Knighton singularly failed to do.
Rather I think Allison was asked to write this handbook (the first Arsenal handbook for six years) at a moment’s notice, and he wrote the piece, probably at home, from such material as he had to hand. I don’t accuse him of being sloppy in his research, rather of almost certainly having no time to get details together. I can just imagine the board having a meeting over a sherry in August and one of their number suggesting that it would be a jolly good idea to have a handbook again, to commemorate the winning of the Cup, and George Allison being told to “come up with something” in a matter of days.
What Allison did note however was that “Throughout the season it was loss of points at home which was pulling us down. Away from home results were most satisfactory, only four clubs in the division having a better record on tour.” This reveals his awareness of the counter-attacking style of Chapman, and it was this approach which gave Arsenal such success in the following years. Allison, the football man, clearly saw where the management was going.
All in all it is a fascinating insight, and I am very grateful to Andy Kelly for putting a scan of the handbook on the internet for us all to see.
The history of Arsenal appeared in Arsenal handbooks, generally with the errors noted here uncorrected, but with some additions, including a very proper mention of the role of Jack Humble, all the way up to the 1964/5 edition. In the 1965/6 edition there is a note to say the history had been dropped because of the increasing cost of print, while the club also patted itself on its collective back for being one of only two clubs in the league not to accept advertisements in its programme.
Thus the club never did get round to correcting the errors in its past, and it was only the detailed work of Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews in researching the Woolwich Arsenal book, which brought them to light.
There are a number of articles on Arsenal in its first season in the league, including an individual article on each of the players who played in the 1893/4 season. The index to these articles is here.
The index to the series which covers all the games in the 1930s is here.