The man who caused us to go professional

By Tony Attwood

This article was updated 17 December 2013

Robert Buist (recorded in some reports as “Bob” and elsewhere as “Bobby”) was born in Glasgow in 1870.

He initially played for Fairfield Rangers (Glasgow), Cowlairs, and Clyde before joining Woolwich Arsenal.

I have nothing on Fairfield Rangers that helps in putting the Bob Buist story together, but Cowlairs FC was formed in 1876, as an offshot of the Glasgow railway industry.  They entered the Scottish Cup in 1880/1 for the first time and built a reputation for themselves as one of the up and coming teams.

By 1886/7 they were also entering the English FA Cup and had a couple of internationals in the side, and they then became founder members of the Scottish League. but in the first year lost points for playing “ineligible players”.  They were also accused of that most dread crime, “professionalism”.  The club was then kicked out the league, which is when, I assume Bob Buist moved to Clyde before moving on to Arsenal.

At this stage Woolwich Arsenal were an amateur team playing in the FA Cup, regional cups and friendly matches.

There is a story that after the FA Cup game against Derby on 17 January 1891 when Royal Arsenal lost at home to Derby County (then of the first division) the Derby captain and manager John Goodall is reported to have tried to sign Buist for Derby (an early form of tapping up!)  We’ve since proven this to be wrong as Buist wasn’t playing.

John Humble, one of the great founding lights of Arsenal who stayed with the club until the demise of Henry Norris, was secretary at the time and at the 1891 AGM suggested that we should apply to join the Football League as a working man’s collective.  Everyone seems to have agreed – the only argument being as to whether the club should be a limited company or not (Humble was against this).

During this interregnum Bob Buist played six times in cup games as a central midfielder (the number 5).

When Arsenal joined the league in 1893 Bob Buist played every game of the 1893/4 season except one until (and including) February 10th 1894 against Crewe at home which we won 3-2 – a total of 17 league games, scoring one gal (a penalty away to Grimsby).  He also played in four of our FA Cup games that year.  Both the league and cup game he missed were in the first week of November, so we might presume an injury.

But then in February 1894 it all came to an end, and he did not play for Arsenal again.

He is then reported to have moved on to Leith Athletic.  There is a Leith Athletic in existence today but it is not the club Bob Buist played for.  The original club were formed in in 1887, and by the time Buist got there they were playing in the top division of the Scottish Football League.  They folded in 1954 and I have found no records of their playing staff.

After this Buist came back to Kent and is next reported as being with Royal Ordnance FC – another false lead.

Buist did not join ROF, and indeed to do so would have been a betrayal of all he had done in taking Arsenal into professionalism.   Royal Ordnance FC were formed as a split away from Arsenal – a home for the gentlemen who did not like the way Arsenal was going as a professional club.

Royal Ordanance Factories never really thrived.   The club left the Southern League after playing the first seven games of 1896/97.  All the games were lost and apparently the side let in 46 goals.

Bob Buist’s final move was to Gravesend United.   They joined the Southern League in 1896/7 when Royal Ordnance Factories FC were falling apart.

Bob Buist’s brother George was also on the Woolwich Arsenal books for 1896-97 – making them the first brothers ever to play for Arsenal.

Bobby Buist died in 1944.

Intro article to this series: How Arsenal got into the league

Arsenal’s team in the first ever league match…

  • 1: CA Williams: went on to manage Denmark and in Brazil
  • 2: J Powell: Our first captain who died of injuries on the pitch
  • 3: WW Jeffrey: The right back who was a keeper
  • 4: D Devine: Lost to history
  • 5: R Buist (see above)
  • 6: D Howat
  • 7: D Gemmell
  • 8: J Henderson
  • 9: W Shaw
  • 10: A Elliott
  • 11: C Rooth

Untold Arsenal Index: silly stuff, serious stuff, and stuff

Making the Arsenal: the only book about the foundation of the modern club in 1910

Arsenal Independent Supporters Association

13 Replies to “The man who caused us to go professional”

  1. Time to bring to the fore another misquoted piece of Arsenal history. Bob Buist was not instrumental in Arsenal turning professional. And I have found the source.

    The first Arsenal handbook was published in 1914. It included a history of the club written by George Allison. This history was reproduced from an article he had written for the Athletic News a few years previously. Therefore, this myth has taken about 100 years to bust (or is that buist!).

    Take a look at page 18 of that handbook:
    It states that Peter Connolly and Bob Buist were approached by John Goodall of Derby after the game on 17 January 1891.

    Bob Buist didn’t join Arsenal until September 1891 – 9 months later. The team that played Derby was: Bee, Connolly, McBean, Howat, Stewart, Julian, Meggs, Christmas, Barbour, Offer, Gloak.

    Thinking back, I seem to remember reading this in many other publications. It’s amazing that no one has checked the dates beforehand.

    He was born in Glasgow on 5 October 1869 and died in 1944 in Dartford.

    Here is a picture of him in November 1892.

  2. Andy – thanks for that, and its a real bugger.

    When I was doing my little bit of research, I found the discrepancy of dates but lost track of who I had looked at and thought it was my own notational error – so “corrected” it back. What a prat! I should have taken my time, gone back, checked, and then I could have had the glory!!!

    But seriously, thanks for pointing this out. What is still interesting is that Connolly was approached to be a pro with Derby, but he was obviously not against moving to Derby but against the whole professional thing, for he was a founding father of Royal Ordnance Factories – the breakaway amateur club that Buist ended with.

    Really appreciate your help getting this sorted. Between us we are putting together a cleaner Arsenal history than ever before.

    Oh, and I won’t go back and change the article; I want to keep it clear that you resolved the error that I repeated.

  3. I think for some of the amateur players it was a big decision whether to turn professional. As I commented in the Daniel Devine article, these were tradesmen that were also good footballers. The pay of footballer was probably better than that of a skilled craftsman but not much – even as late as the 1980s this was the case. For a married man with a family it was a huge risk to become a professional footballer. A broken leg could end your career – look at Joe Powell. Connolly knew that he had a safe job as the Empire was fighting throughout most of the world and they need arms and munitions.

  4. It is true that the ordnance factories were indeed doing good business during the Boer War and this was a backup to players – work in the factories, get a job in football, go back to the factories – but it is interesting how many chose to go back to Scotland after not being able to secure a place with Woolwich Arsenal.

    The situation changed in 1910, as I’ve tried to show in Making the Arsenal – the closure of the torpedo factory and the removal of it to the Clyde certainly had an impact on employment levels.

  5. Looking through Bob Goodwin’s “The Pride Of North London” (a book that covers the history of Arsenal games against Tottenham), apparently Buist was:
    * lured down from Clyde in September 1891
    * returned to Scotland to play for Leith Athletic after 3 years at Arsenal
    * returned to Plumstead to play for Royal Ordnance
    * played 3 games for Tottenham in March 1896
    * didn’t sign pro for Tottenham but joined Gravesend

  6. I don’t know if I should admit this or not.
    My Grandfather, William Fairclough played in goal for Arsenal between 1896 and 1897. He was in the Scots Guards and was bought out for the princely sum of £18.
    He only played about 67 games in total over the two seasons, This figure includes League, FA Cup, Friendlies and Kent league . I have no idea whether or not this info is of any use to you. I am however looking for a picture of the 1896 team as I never knew my Grandfather who died at age 42. Any help you might be able to give in this regard, would be appreciated. Brian Jameson.

  7. I will do a little piece on your grandfather shortly Brian. I have some basic information – nothing that you don’t know already I am sure, but a great honour to have a relative of one of the early players on the site.


  8. Hi Tony, just a quick note.Robert(Bobby)Buist was my mothers father making him my Grandad. before my parents died they had a program of Woolwich Arsenal VS The Coldstream Gaurds in division one of the football league dated sept 1889. Unfortunately I could not find it when they passed away, but i saw it on numerous accasions. And I have always been given to understand that like you he was the reason that the Arsenal club was formed,the story has been told in my family for as long as i can remember and i am now 73years old. Its been interesting reading your article but also dissapointing after all these years to find out we were wrong.

  9. Roy – I am not sure about Woolwich Arsenal v Coldstream Guards in 1889 – but I can say it wasn’t in any league, as Arsenal didn’t join the Football League or any other league until 1893.

    It was I suspect a friendly. Either that or it wasn’t the Guards but Crusaders whom we played on Nov 16 in the third qualifying round of the FA cup on Nov 16 and won 5-2 after extra time.

  10. Hi

    Came across your website during my ohgoing research into the original Leith Athletic Fc (1887 to 1954). My research indicates that Bobby Buist joined Leith Athletic in the summer of 1894 but only ever played one game for the club, at number 5, a friendly v St Bernard’s on 4 August 1894 to mark the opening of the club’s new ground Beechwood Park. I have no record of why he didn’t stay long with Leith or who he moved onto.
    Jim Gardiner

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