Arsenal’s first year: the confusion deepens

This article continues our debate on the foundations of Arsenal FC.   To read part one of this review click here

What actually happened in the first year of Arsenal FC is unclear – not least because many different sources have told different stories.  Indeed even the official Arsenal story as retold over the past century in different editions of the Arsenal Handbook, has changed year by year!

Therefore trying to put it all together is tough, and we are not able to give an exact answer.  But we can give a clue as to what happened, and get rid of some of the more unlikely stories.

The report on the 1890 annual dinner mentions that the club was formed on 1 December 1886 (10 days before the supposed Dial Square v Eastern Wanderers game) but there is no mention of the club being called Dial Square at that time nor of this first fixture.   Again we might assume both would have been mentioned.

Both ourselves and the Scott Grant & Colin White book has a newspaper cutting that shows the result of the second game as Royal Arsenal 6 Erith 1 on 8 January 1887 – so we now come to the point of thinking that if Dial Square existed, it existed for one game only, and that game is highly suspicious, given the distance, lack of evidence for the game, and lack of explanation as to why Arsenal would have gone all that way when other grounds were a couple of hours journey closer.

But there’s more.

The Robert Thompson letter states that the players discussed the club’s name after the Erith game. He says that the name Dial Square was put forward but not that they had been playing under that name.

We must note here two issues.  First, ourselves and the Grant and White book has the name “Royal Arsenal” for the second game – which suggests that Thompson is mistaken in the date of the discussion.  Second, even if the discussion took place, Thompson does not suggest that the club had ever played as Dial Square.

Further, a newspaper report from 1893 that plots the financial growth of the club from 1886 again makes no mention of Dial Square. Neither does Arthur Kennedy in his article about Woolwich Arsenal in the 1905 Book of Football.

So what really did happen?  Andy has finally found what is probably the only reference in the press to the foundation of Arsenal and it gives us the answer.

It is from the Woolwich Gazette – 7 January 1887, Page 2.  Here is the full piece:

Football at Woolwich

At a meeting of the Dial Square Cricket Club members in September, it was decided to form an Association Football team, but after making arrangements for numerous matches with other clubs, the subject was considered of opening the club to the whole of the employés of the Arsenal, and at a meeting held during the last week or so, to which all persons interested in the game were invited, it was decided to alter the name to the Royal Arsenal Association Football Club, and at this meeting the following officers were elected :- Captain, Mr. Davis, Dial Square ; Vice-captain, Mr Beardsly, Gun Factory ; Committee, Messrs. Moy, Carriage Department ; Wells, Gun Factory ; G. Smith, Gun Factory ; Whitehead, Dial Square ; Gregory, Dial Square ; Secretary, E. Watkins, 48, Park-road, Plumstead, dressing-rooms, &c., Mr. Fletcher’s, Star Inn, Plumstead Common-road, of whom any information respecting it can be obtained. Fixture for next Saturday : Royal Arsenal v Erith, at Plumstead Common.


So, what shall we conclude?

The most obvious conclusion is that a side related to Arsenal did play one or more games prior to becoming Royal Arsenal, but these games were for members of the Dial Square Cricket Club – in fact the name of the side (if they used a name at all,) was just that “Dial Square Cricket Club”.

Football clubs coming out of cricket clubs was not unusual – indeed many teams record this as their origin, so in this regard Arsenal would not be any different from the norm.

But there is a further question.  Was Dial Square Cricket Club’s football team, really the same club as Royal Arsenal.  In one regard no – because it was a side restricted to members of the Cricket Club.  In another yes – that club opened its doors to the rest of the employees at the royal ordnance factories in Woolwich.  Although… this was done at a separate meeting.  Was there, perhaps, a revolution?

What this note does confirm is that Arsenal had every chance of playing local games – we not only have the Erith game confirmed, we also have the location.  And that leads us back to the question of why on earth Dial Square Cricket Club would ever actually want to go to the Isle of Dogs.

Gathering the facts it is now possible to come down to one possible approach to the start of Arsenal (but not the only one as we shall show in a moment) and it goes like this…

Dial Square Cricket Club set up a football side in September 1886 and they played one or two games.  Whether one or these games was against Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs is highly unlikely, but since we don’t have any newspaper reports of the games played under the auspices of the cricket club, we can’t be 100% sure.

But we can now say that the first real Arsenal match was played as “Royal Arsenal” and was against Erith in January 1887.  Anything before that was unheralded, unpublicised, and now, sadly, unknown.

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2 Replies to “Arsenal’s first year: the confusion deepens”

  1. I would surmise that if a game of football was played by Dial Square Cricket Club, then the cricket field would have been adapted for the game?

    In the autumn the field would be remade for rugby or football (soccer) and in the spring, revert back to the cricket field?

    Time in those days would have been of the essence, because of the 5.1/2 work days and the Sabbath. I would have thought that the factory hours of work would be the first deciding factor of the hours of play?

  2. We’ve struggled to find much on Dial Square Cricket Club – the odd fixture or result listed but no scorecards. It is likely that they would have played on Plumstead Common as there were other cricket clubs that complained about the state of the Common.

    Football matches in September would be able to kick off at 3.30pm and still have sufficient time to be completed in good light. By December, they would have had to kick off between 2.00pm and 2.15pm. This is why we doubt that the Eastern Wanderers game was played in December.

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