Tommy Shanks: the mystery of the star of Arsenal’s promotion

By Tony Attwood

Tommy Shanks is one of those Arsenal players who was incredibly important in the history of the club, but of whom we know precious little.   Such as I have found I’ve put together below, but as always, if you know any more, please do get in touch.

Here’s some of the basic dates we have got…

  • 30 March 1880   Thomas “Tommy” Shanks born in Wexford in Ireland
  • 6 January 1903: Signed for Arsenal from Brentford
  • 10 January 1903: Arsenal debut – Burslem Port Vale 1 Woolwich Arsenal 1
  • 21 March 1903:  Became the  first Arsenal player to be capped for Ireland.  In all he played three times for his country while with Arsenal.
  • 29 February 1904: Arsenal 4 Burnley 0.  Tommy Shanks scored a hat trick.  It was the second match of a five game winning run in the league.
  • 4 April 1904: Woolwich Arsenal 2 Glossop NE 1.  Shanks scored to make it 24 goals and become (with Coleman) one of the two first men to score over 20 league goals in a season for the club.  He scored 3 hat tricks and four goals in one other game.
  • 9 April 1904: Arsenal 0 Preston NE 0.  28,000 were at Tommy Shanks’ last game for Woolwich Arsenal.  As noted, he had played 30 league games in the season and scored 24 goals.

Some time in the summer of 1904 he was sold to Brentford.

He had started his career with Wexford FC, and came to England playing first for Derby West End and then in 1898 Derby County of the First Division, where he played 28 times in three seasons.

Then in October 1901 he moved out of the Football League to Brentford.   Although some sites make different claims about Brentford at the time, the club was doing poorly just then.  In 1901/2 they came one from bottom of the first division of the Southern League, and in 1902/3 bottom of that league (there was no automatic relegation at the time).

This makes the transfer from first division mid-table Derby to bottom of the Southern League Brentford rather odd, especially as he was not only such a success at Arsenal but also about to become an international, but there’s no background information I can find as to what was going on.

But the signing by Arsenal does have an explanation – although I’ve never seen it noted in other histories.   Arsenal had played Brentford in the final qualifying round of 1902/3 (known as the supplementary round) drawing on 13 December 1902 at Brentford 1-1 and then winning at the Manor Ground on 17 December in the replay 5-0.

This result was not unexpected given Brentford’s lowly position in the Southern League, but much more to the point Arsenal would have seen Tommy Shanks playing.  Indeed transfers coming about because of a chance viewing of a player in a match was not at all uncommon, as scouting was not well established until after the first world war.

Shanks didn’t play for Arsenal in the 1st round proper of the FA in 1902/3 being cup tied, but on 10 January he made his debut and went on to play 14 of the remaining 15 league games of the season scoring four times (although some sources say five).

The goals came in an opening spell of him playing at number 8, which Arsenal used at the time as an attacking inside forward, but then in March Arsenal made a tactical switch with Shanks moving to the number 10 shirt and Coleman who had been playing in that position moving across to 8.

The first cap for Ireland followed – quite remarkable when one considers that just three months before he had played for a team at the foot of the Southern League.

And then came the 1903/4 season in which Arsenal started the campaign with eight straight wins. Shanks missed the first game but then took up the number 10 shirt once more and went on his goal scoring spree with 24 goals in 30 league games – in the team in which Coleman playing still at 8, got 23 goals in 28.

For the record Shanks got to 20 first, and so technically is the first Arsenal player to have scored 20   He achieved the record on 29 February 1904 with a hat trick in Arsenal 4 Burnley 0.

But then the strangest of all things happened.   Having got promotion to the first division for the first time ever in their history, and amidst wild celebrations, Arsenal sold Shanks back to Brentford!   Brentford who had improved in climbing back off the bottom of the Southern League, but still only finished the 1903/4 season in 13th.

Some books which cover the story call Arsenal “cash strapped” at the time, but this has the sound of one writer just copying another.   Arsenal had had three crowds of over 20,000 at home in the promotion season – the first time they had ever had this number in the league.  And they’d had 30,000 attend for the cup match on 20 February against Manchester City.

In short they were in the first division for the first time, and getting the biggest gates ever, and they sold one of their two prize forwards to a down-and-out Southern League team.

Shanks had played 48 times for Woolwich Arsenal and scored 29 goals including this record breaking promotional season, and he had every chance to play in the first division – and yet he walked away back to the Southern League – and not even a good Southern League team, for Brentford finished five from bottom.

After Brentford he went to Leicester Fosse in 1906 where he stayed for three seasons and gained promotion to the first division in 1908, but in 1909 he was playing for Clapton Orient and finally York.

I would love to know what happened.  I can see how he came from a failing Brentford club to Arsenal, after two cup matches, but why he left on the eve of what would have been his greatest season ever, I have no idea.  True, the Arsenal manager changed at the end of the season, with Harry Bradshaw going and Phil Kelso coming in – and true, Kelso made some changes.  But he didn’t rip the whole team apart, and most of the men who took Arsenal up were still there on 3 September 1904 when Arsenal played its first ever first division match.

Beyond football we know nothing of Tommy Shanks’ life at all, and can’t even place the date of his passing.

So for the moment it all remains a mystery.  If you know anything more, please do tell.

The books

9 Replies to “Tommy Shanks: the mystery of the star of Arsenal’s promotion”

  1. I have only managed to locate a not very precise date for the death of Tommy Shanks which was in Ireland in 1950. It was in ‘Who’s Who of Arsenal’ by Tony Matthews published in 2007. Tried to get more information from Irish newspapers and County Wexford online but no luck.

  2. The bigger mystery about Tommy was what happened to him after he walked out on his wife Florence in the 1920s – they were running a pub in Brightlingsea, Essex at the time – and simply disappeared. His family were still attempting, via newspaper adverts in e.g. the Derby Telegraph, to get him to contact them in 1929.

  3. At the outbreak of WW2 the government compiled a census of everyone living in this country for identification and also for the issue of ration books etc. It is called the 1939 Register. Florence Shanks and her son Thomas Turner Shanks are listed on the Register as living at The Heath, Tendring, Essex. There is no mention of Tommy Shanks on the list as living with them, but Florence states her status “married”.
    Like Nigel and Paul, I would love to know what happened to Tommy Shanks. I have been researching the Shanks family tree – and Tommy is the one mystery! Tommy was my great-great granddad’s nephew. If any members of the Shanks family follow this blog – it would be great to hear from you.

  4. Just seen Charlie’s note above. My grandmother was Jane shanks , cousin of Tommy. Both born in 1880.

  5. Tommy Shanks was in my family, he was on my grandmothers side, we have recently had a family tree done

  6. Ella thank you so much for writing in. It is always really good to hear from relatives of the men whose history we try to put together on this site. I do appreciate it.

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