1893: the first Arsenal pre-season

by Tony Attwood

I started this series of articles about Arsenal’s pre-season campaigns simply because I couldn’t find a comprehensive record anywhere else and I kept wanted to check details.  I could see the results of friendlies, of course, and separately the transfers, but no overall view of what happened in each pre-season.

But now, having covered the pre-seasons of 1981 to 2014 (there is an index at the end of this piece), I thought I might just pause and go back and look at Arsenal’s very first pre-season before they entered the Football League for the first time in September 1893.

Prior to entry to the second division in 1893 Arsenal played cup matches (most notably FA Cup matches and games in regional cups).  And if you have read “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football” you will know that incredible upheaval preceded this event.

For this was not a club management board or committee sitting down and saying “wouldn’t it be a jolly good idea to try and get a place in this Football League thing that they have up north.”  No, this was wholesale warfare.  Royal Arsenal split in two along class lines; the group representing the working men won, and the middle class group who felt that men of rank and standing were the only group capable of running a club, went away and formed their own club – as it ultimately turned out, on the opposite side of the street.  Literally.

As you will know if you read the book, there was a lot more to it than that – a lot of dirty deeds between the owner of the club’s ground and the rebels, and the like. But for now I want to trace just a few of the events that were, by and large, the pre-season of Woolwich Arsenal 1893.

On 21 January 1893 Sunderland 6 Royal Arsenal 0 in the FA Cup had given Arsenal a real insight into what the standard of the Football League was.  Arsenal had won through to the first round proper for the first time, but would progress no further.

We don’t know for sure when the idea of entry into the League was first mooted but by 13 March 1893 Arsenal were preparing for entry to the Football League by playing friendlies against league clubs throughout this period.  On this day it was Arsenal 0 Aston Villa 1.

In April 1893 Test Matches were played as part of the process of expanding the leagues, while the bottom eight clubs of the second division had to stand for re-election.  In the voting that ensued Bootle were ejected, Accrington resigned rather than face a move into the second division and the league was expanded, allowing Woolwich Arsenal the chance to apply for a spare place.

On 28 April 1893 George Lawrence signed the contract on behalf the Woolwich Arsenal Company with W B Jackson of Royal Arsenal Football Club to transfer Royal Arsenal into The Woolwich Arsenal Football And Athletic Company Limited.   This company survived until the financial crisis of April 1910 when it was wound up and a new company set up.

The following day, five years and three months after its first game under the name, there was played the final game of Royal Arsenal.  Arsenal lost 0-1 to one of the league’s founders, Stoke.  Arsenal had certainly already plotted, but not secured, their route into the Football League by this time, but were distracted by the split within the Committee and the threat of eviction from their ground – their landlord being a member of the “men of quality” group who wanted to take over the club.

On 5 May 1893 the name Woolwich Arsenal FC Ltd was chosen.  Royal Arsenal needed to become a limited company to join the Football League but were forbidden by the rules of Companies’ House from registering a name that associated the club with the royal family.  Hence the end of “Royal Arsenal”.

Clearly the club already knew what was in the wind, for it is unlikely that it would have set up the company and abandoned its old name had it not, but it was not until 31 May 1893 that Woolwich Arsenal was elected to Division II of the Football League. 

In June, following the breakdown in negotiations with the landlord of the Invicta Ground, Woolwich Arsenal purchased the Manor Field opposite the Invicta as their new ground.  Woolwich Arsenal had looked to rent the ground at first, but were made aware of a plot through which they could have ended up renting the ground, and spending a considerable sum undertaking improvements to it, only then to find that their old landlord had secretly moved in and purchased this land as well and was now ready to quadruple the rent.

Then on 22 June the first AGM of Woolwich Arsenal was held under the chairmanship of  Jack Humble as the club’s first directors were elected ahead of entry into the Football League for the first time.

League Football begins

At this time, it was either the convention or an actual rule of the game, (I can’t find out which) that public football was not played between 1 May and 31 August, nor was it played on Sundays.  So quite how Woolwich Arsenal FC prepared for the League is not clear, but one imagines that in between helping prepare the new ground, the first XI played a number of games against the reserves behind closed doors.  We have no record of such games however so this remains speculation.

On 1 September 1893 the Kentish Mercury reported that Jack Humble had presented the new Manor Ground to the press, with an updated list of Division II fixtures and on 2 September 1893 Woolwich Arsenal played its first ever league match.  We have more details of the game via this report and the original reports in the press.

Here are the opening games of the season.

  • 2 September 1893: Arsenal 2 Newcastle Utd 2 (Shaw, Elliott)
  • 4 September 1893: Arsenal 4 Doncaster 1 (friendly) (Shaw 2, Booth, Elliot)
  • 9 September 1893:  Notts County 3 Arsenal 2 (Elliott, Shaw)
  • 11 September 1893. Arsenal 4 Walsall Town Swifts 0 (Arsenal’s first league victory), (Heath 3 Crawford)
  • 16 September 1893: Arsenal 5 Chatham 0 (friendly) (Shaw, Elliot, Heath 3)

Interestingly in this opening flurry of matches, the biggest crowd was for the friendly against local rivals Chatham, to which 12,000 turned up.  Indeed that remained the largest crowd to see Woolwich Arsenal until 25 November when 20,000 turned up for the FA Cup match against Millwall – then playing on the Isle of Dogs, and very much seen as Arsenal’s absolute local rivals.

Also we may note that of the first eight games played by Woolwich Arsenal only two were away from home – Arsenal clearly wanting to gain as much revenue as possible to pay for the move to their new ground and put money in the club’s coffers ready for the long away trips.  And the second away match was indeed a long trip – to Newcastle for the return of the opening fixture.  Arsenal lost 0-6, but whereas 10,000 had paid to see Arsenal’s first league fixture, only 2,000 went to the return match in Newcastle.

From the Pre-season files



And so, the long adventure had begun.

2 Replies to “1893: the first Arsenal pre-season”

  1. Tony, on page 66 of your excellent Woolwich Arsenal book it says that Bootle resigned from the league because of financial problems. In this post you say that they were voted out. Have you discovered some new information since your book was published? Does the book need updating?

  2. Patrick I know that Andy and Mark (my co-authors) have continued to research the area and that last week they published some new information which they have found. I believe their latest conclusion was that the club got into financial difficulty but was trying to soldier on, but the League took the view that they were not in a viable enough position to continue – so both views are right.

    The Woolwich Arsenal book was and remains ground breaking – a massive re-write of Arsenal’s early years and I know that more is being unearthed all the time. If Andy and Mark want to work on a new edition I’d love to do it with them, but currently we are each working on our own projects.

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