11 December 1886: the definitive story of the build up to the very first Arsenal game

This article updated 14 December 2013, with the cutting confirming the date of meeting to set up the Dial Square club.   The article was compiled from work by Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.


11 December 1886.  Eastern Wanderers v Dial Square.  The first Arsenal match

We’ve speculated about this day on this site from the very beginning of the existence of the Arsenal History Society.  Did Arsenal play on this day, where did they play, how did they get there, who did they play, and why did they play?

This article pulls together the latest, and I suspect final thinking on this issue.  Final because I think every piece of evidence that could be found has been found.  And just for good measure the final missing details are added with a spot of speculation (although I’ve tried to be clear where fact ends and speculation begins in what follows).

The final proof that Arsenal played its first match on that day was discovered only recently by Andy Kelly via a notice in The Referee dated 12 December 1886 where it reported the previous day’s games.

The Referee 12 December 1886

As you can see it answers the questions of the name that the club played under, the opponents, the venue and the score. The (A) confirms that it was a game of Association Football and not Rugby which would be shown by (R).

But were they Dial Square Cricket Club, Dial Square Cricket & Football Club, Dial Square FC or something else? The following cutting from The Referee on 2 January 1887 gives us the answer. Elijah Watkins placed an request for opponents in The Referee’s Football Challenges section. The club’s name at this point was Dial Square F.C.

The Referee 2 January 1887

But that left two questions: why was the Dial Square club formed, and why play Eastern Wanderers?

The best guess as to why Eastern Wanderers is that there were no local opponents for Dial Square to play against. Arsenal’s second opponents Erith were closer but their secretary has confirmed that they were not formed until after Dial Square played Eastern Wanderers.

We still don’t have a great deal of information on Eastern Wanderers. We know that they had played the previous season, that they were big enough to run two teams, that they played in Millwall and that their secretary was D.W. Galliford of 9 Marsh Street, Millwall.  If you are not familiar with the area, Millwall covers the western half of the Isle of Dogs.

But now consider this…

On 14 November 1886 The Referee published the following in the Football Challenges section:

The Referee 14 November 1886

It may be that Elijah Watkins read this and contacted David Galliford or it may be that someone connected with Dial Square already knew someone from Eastern Wanderers.

But here is another speculation.  We now know that Eastern Wanderers were advertising for teams to play them and said they had December 11 available.   So it is quite possible (or maybe more than likely) that Elijah Watkins or another member of the original team, saw the notice, and recruited friends from Dial Square to put together a team.

If that is the case we could say that “Dial Square FC, the forerunner of Royal Arsenal FC, was formed in response to a request from opponents by Eastern Wanderers”.    This is a speculation of course but it is, as far as I know, the first speculation as to why this club was formed in the depths of winter, beyond the notion that the men at the factories included some who had played football before and wanted to do so again.  The Eastern Wanderers ad could have been the trigger point.

In an earlier article on this theme I took the speculation to the ultimate point origin of the club, by working out when the necessary arrangements may have been made to create Dial Square FC.  Here’s a summary:

The game took place on 11 December, and the commitment to play Eastern Wanderers and thus secure the date must have been made at least a few days before that.

I suspect it was arranged by post, the Penny Post having been established over 40 years previously.  So my guess is Dial Square wrote to Eastern Wanderers and asked for the date, and got the letter back the next day confirming.  That means the meeting setting up the club could have taken place on the weekend of 4/5 December 1886, although I rather like to go with Wednesday 1 December 1886, so that the team could use the weekend of 4/5 to have a practice match and select their team.

We must remember this was the depths of winter, and the men worked in the factories way past the end of daylight Monday to Friday, just as we do today.  (They also worked Saturday morning, but that left Saturday afternoon free for football).  So there could have been no practice match and team selection game at any time other than 4/5 December.  Of course maybe there was no practice match and the team was just made up of volunteers each announcing their position.  That too is possible, in which case maybe the meeting was held on the weekend with the letter being posted on 6 December, and Eastern Wanderers replying on 7 December.

Having found details of the game on 11 December Andy went on to ask “did Dial Square play any games before this date?” and answer that with “I searched through the football section from August (well before the start of the football season) and found no more references to Dial Square or Royal Arsenal. With what Elijah Watkins wrote and the Woolwich Herald published I think we can be certain that this was the club’s first game.”

So we can now safely say that the first game played by the team that we now know as The Arsenal was played under the name Dial Square FC at Millwall against Eastern Wanderers and they won 6-0, with the speculation that the Dial Square club was formed in response to the Eastern Wanderers advert in the press, and with an initial meeting and perhaps a practice game between 1 December and the day before the match.

Thus a journey that has taken several years, is complete.  We now finally have the contemporary evidence we craved as to the day on which Arsenal played its first game.

As to how Dial Square FC got to the match, we know that there was no free ferry in 1886, but as “visitor” rightly pointed out there was a pay ferry running from the Royal Arsenal pier to North Woolwich at that time. Additionally there was a ferry at Greenwich running to the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs.  There was no pedestrian tunnel at the time.

However, the most likely way to travel between the Royal Arsenal and Millwall was directly on the river. The “Dickens dictionary of the Thames 1887” has the timetable of the River Thames Steamboat Company steamboats going to and from Woolwich to Westminster – with stops at various locations including Greenwich, Millwall, West India Dock and Commercial Dock.  They could have got on at Woolwich pier and travelled on the steamboat all the way to the Millwall pier which was a few minutes walk to the assumed ground. From the timetable it appears the journey would have taken either way just under 40 minutes.

Once the game was finished and they changed in a pub they could have taken the boat back as the timetables would have allowed the team to get back to Woolwich by early evening.

Did we win 6-0?

The notice in The Referee seems definitive, even though there are no other reports in any other papers.   But then, it was the first game of a club only formed in the days before the match, so why should there be?

The only other record of the game is in a non-Arsenal accredited interview with Elijah Watkins in Football Chat dated 1902, and remarked upon in a 1906 Association football book by Pickford and Gibson. In no other contemporary record is the game acknowledged nor in any other reminiscence by any of the other founders, including one who played in the game.

Although we can note that Watkins was the secretary of the club during the first season and then left, never to be seen or heard from except in his 1902 interview the pairing of his commentary 16 years later, and the original Referee notice, seem as far as we will ever get.

What time was kick off?

The men worked on Saturday morning, and finished at 1pm. They may have either got the 1pm boat or the 1:30 boat depending on how benevolent their employer was. It should also be noted that no more than half the accredited players were from the Dial Square workshops.

Did the men who formed Dial Square actually meet in the Royal Oak pub, on Christmas Day 1886 formally to set the club up?

No. The contemporary information we have located providing a definitive date mentioning the meeting (and we have multiple sources) state the forming of Royal Arsenal FC was earlier in December. Watkins’ story as noted in 1906 only says a meeting was held in December, not a specific date.

The date of 25th December 1886 first appeared as the date of the meeting, in the Official History by Soar and Tyler. Unfortunately no source or reference for its veracity is given in this book.

So my guess is Dial Square wrote to Eastern Wanderers and asked for the date, and got the letter back the next day confirming.  That means the meeting setting up the club could have taken place on the weekend of 4/5 December 1886, although I rather like to go with Wednesday 1 December 1886, so that the team could use the weekend of 4/5 to have a practice match and select their team.

And indeed we have confirmed 1 December is what it was.   Our source was a report of the club’s annual dinner in May 1890 – part of which is shown below:


My final speculation is of these dates

  • 14 November – advert from Eastern Wanderers appears in “The Referee”
  • 1 December – meeting to discuss Dial Square FC in response to Eastern Wanderers request.
  • 2 December – letter to Eastern Wanderers
  • 3 December – response from Eastern Wanderers
  • 4/5 December practice match

But these initial dates are just speculation.

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