Arsenal in 1913: The summer of moving to Highbury

Continuing the story of Arsenal’s summers through the ages.   An index to the 45 articles already published in the series is given at the foot of the page.

By Tony Attwood

The summer of 1913 is of course one of the absolute key periods in the history of Arsenal FC as it was the moment that the club moved from Plumstead to Islington.

But to understand the summer of 1913 one should recognise that this was more than just a move of a ground.  It seemed to have a specific significance because it was a move across the Thames (always a great dividing line for Londoners), a move into territory that other clubs (Clapton and Tottenham) claimed as their own, and the first move of any club for strategic reasons.   What’s more, it was the start of the re-birth of Arsenal.

To dwell just for a moment on the “strategic” point – Henry Norris chose the location of the new ground for two very specific reasons.  One was the transport – the underground from Gillespie Road (subsequently renamed Arsenal) ran into Kings Cross and the centre of the city, and the overground trains ran to the north.

The other reason was to create rivalry – Arsenal in Plumstead was a club totally outside of the mainstream.  They had a long lasting rivalry with Millwall and a lesser rivalry with Charlton, but neither club joined the Football League until the 1920s.  But to park the club near to Tottenham, who had already won the FA Cup and were in the League – that, Henry Norris knew, would be news.

Indeed it would be front and back page news in the local press day after day – not just for matches but for the endless rivalry it could bring.  In fact it was just about the first deliberate attempt ever to set up a situation in the press to benefit the club, that I have ever come across in football – and it worked a dream.

On 5 February 1913 The Islington Gazette reported that Woolwich Arsenal planned to move to Islington.  Rumours had abounded about the new location for Arsenal; this was the first correct reporting of the actual borough (they are previously been talking about Haringey).

Meanwhile on the pitch Arsenal were in dire straits, although they were always trying to find new players to help them out.  On 8 February 1913 for example we have the first match for Joseph Fidler – one of the men who played the last game in Plumstead and the first game at Highbury.

But back with the big story, on 22 February Gillespie Road was correctly named in the press for the first time as the site of the new ground.  There had been rumours for weeks that the site would be somewhere in the area but until then no one quite knew where.

Immediately the protests started and on 23 February Tottenham supported by Clapton Orient called for a meeting of the League Management Committee to prohibit Arsenal’s move north.  However the League reiterated their statement made at the 1910 AGM of the League that nothing in the rule book controlled where a club played its home games.  In short they had no rule to apply.

Thus inevitably on 1 March the Football League rejected appeals by Tottenham to prohibit Arsenal from moving to Gillespie Road, reiterating yet again and in a way that must have started to be rather boring for the officials, that the rule book gave them no control over the location of each club.

During this spell Henry Norris was unusually quiet for a man who normally loved publicity – and who had previously been a columnist in a daily paper in Fulham, but on 4 March he finally confirmed Woolwich Arsenal were moving to a ground in Gillespie Road, Islington.   

Amidst all the interest and excitement however there was tragedy as the news filtered through that on 12 March 1913 former Arsenal player Jimmy Blair had committed suicide aged 27.  One can only hope the club and those supporters who remembered him playing, paused to pay their respects.

But of course in such a terrible moment the world moved on.  On 15 March  Woolwich Arsenal 1 WBA 0  was Arsenal’s last win at Plumstead.  In the remaining eight matches Arsenal gained three draws and suffered five defeats.

Thus we had a strange combination of unsuccessful football matches being played out in south London while the politicking continued in the north.

Spurred on by Tottenham Hotspur’s objections, the Highbury Defence Committee persuaded Islington Council on 4 April to push through a vote protesting against Arsenal moving to the Gillespie Road ground (even though planning laws of the day gave the Council no powers to stop the redevelopment).    Then back in the south of the capital on 12 April Woolwich Arsenal 1 Derby 2 meant Arsenal were relegated for the only time in their entire history; in front of a crowd of 4,000.  In fact they drew their final two games (including one away to Tottenham) but by then it was too late.

So on 26 April 1913 Arsenal 1 Middlesbrough 1 marked the end of a disastrous season on the pitch (although the most exciting season off the pitch) as Woolwich Arsenal played their last game at the Manor Ground and were relegated.  Here’s a league table the likes of which will surely never be seen again.

Club P W D L F A Pt
1 Sunderland 38 25 4 9 86 43 54
2 Aston Villa 38 19 12 7 86 52 50
3 The Wednesday 38 21 7 10 75 55 49
4 Manchester United 38 19 8 11 69 43 46
5 Blackburn Rovers 38 16 13 9 79 43 45
6 Manchester City 38 18 8 12 53 37 44
7 Derby County 38 17 8 13 69 66 42
8 Bolton Wanderers 38 16 10 12 62 63 42
9 Oldham Athletic 38 14 14 10 50 55 42
10 West Bromwich Albion 38 13 12 13 57 50 38
11 Everton 38 15 7 16 48 54 37
12 Liverpool 38 16 5 17 61 71 37
13 Bradford City 38 12 11 15 50 60 35
14 Newcastle United 38 13 8 17 47 47 34
15 Sheffield United 38 14 6 18 56 70 34
16 Middlesbrough 38 11 10 17 55 69 32
17 Tottenham Hotspur 38 12 6 20 45 72 30
18 Chelsea 38 11 6 21 51 73 28
19 Notts County 38 7 9 22 28 56 23
20 Woolwich Arsenal 38 3 12 23 26 74 18

Interestingly all these clubs are still playing professional football, although two (Woolwich Arsenal and The Wednesday) have changed their names.  12 of the 20 are also currently (2015) in the top division.

Sunderland won the title for the 5th time while Arsenal and Notts County went down.  The average goals per match was 3.03 – a significant decline on the heady days when Arsenal first joined the league.

Aston Villa won the FA Cup for the 5th time and also had the biggest home win of the season: 10-0 against The Wednesday on 5 October 1912.

But with the season over, Tottenham had even more time to spend on the fight against Arsenal’s move.  That they were playing straight into Arsenal’s hands by generating a massive amount of publicity for Arsenal seemed completely beyond their comprehension – but it was so.  Although to be fair they were doing a lot for themselves too, because the gates of both clubs rose in the subsequent season, such was the impact of Norris’ unremitting publicity machine.

On 26 May Tottenham’s demand for an EGM of league clubs to stop Arsenal’s move from Plumstead to Highbury.  The demand was defeated at League’s AGM, which yet again rather boringly re-iterated the League’s position from the 1910 AGM that the league regulations gave them no say in where a club played.  No one had bothered to put forward a proposal to change that rule since the 1910 AGM, and so, there it was, still on the books.  Indeed if, in the aftermath of the attempt to merge Fulham and Arsenal in 1910, Tottenham had proposed that a rule be introduced such that the AGM had to give permission for a club to move grounds, things might have been different.

However there is strong indication that the rest of the league would not have voted against Arsenal’s move.  There are comments recorded from directors and managers of northern teams that they liked games in the capital, as the players enjoyed an evening out in “the smoke” (as it was known).  Quite what those players got up to on a night out in the West End is not recorded, but the West End at this time was not the tourist attraction it is now.  It was indeed, something rather different.

What northern and midland clubs didn’t like was trying to get across London and then get a tram to Plumstead.  On the other hand getting a train direct into Kings Cross and then the Underground to the ground was exactly what they wanted.

Plus there was an awareness that Arsenal were building a big stadium, and Chelsea had already shown that a large ground in the right place could attract very large crowds.  Indeed the Chelsea-Arsenal game of 1908 had attracted a crowd of 50,000.  And since part of the gate money was at that time shared with the away club, Arsenal’s move seemed a winner all round.  Tottenham’s protest was out of step with the time.

At some time in June, William Hall resigned as a director of Fulham, allowing him to focus full-time on the preparation of the Highbury ground and taking Woolwich Arsenal FC to Islington for the 1913/14 season.  Henry Norris however stayed a director of Fulham, and it was only the dispute over the Victory Cup in 1919 that led him to resign his directorship.

Then another transfer of note occurred: On 19 June 1913 Wally Hardinge joined from Sheffield United.  He was a first class cricketer, scoring 33519 runs and playing in one test match.  He played the two pre-war seasons at Highbury and the first post-war season and retired in 1921.

Despite the huffing and puffing from the locals 28 June saw Arsenal gain possession of the Gillespie Road site for the first time thus leaving them just 10 weeks before the first match of the season to make the ground ready.  There is no record of the club making any arrangements to have matches played elsewhere in the event of the ground not being ready.  Maybe they asked Tottenham – if so I wonder what they might have said.

The next transfer was on 28 June 1913 Joseph Lievesley signed from Sheffield Utd who had bought him after having been beaten by Southern League Swindon, for whom he played.  Swindon’s victory in 1908 was one of the great cup shocks of the era; Lievesley went on to play in the FA’s tour of South Africa in 1910.

Work on the site continued at a pace and meanwhile on 20 August  Henry Norris used his influence as a director of both clubs to arrange for Arsenal to play a behind closed doors practice match at Fulham, prior to the start of the new season.

On 27 August 1913   Arsenal played a second practice match at The Den as the development work continued at Highbury ready for the first home game on September 6.

Then on 30 August 1913 the first ever match was played at the Gillespie Road ground, once again, behind closed doors, and was probably between the first team and the reserves although no exact details are available.

And so the club made it, and the ground unbelievably opened on time.  On 6 September 1913 the First league match at Highbury was played as Arsenal beat Leicester Fosse 2-1 in what was the first opening day victory since 1906.  20,000 were present.  George Jobey scored the first Arsenal goal at the ground but was later taken off injured.  (See George Jobey,  The Day it Began and Season Ticket Prices, for more information).   It was also the club’s first home victory since 15 January 1913.  

But that was not all.  For on 20 September there was the first ever use of “Victoria Concordia Crescit” – Victory through Harmony – in the club’s programme.  It was used in an article by Henry Norris (although may have been suggested by George Allison – Norris certainly was not versed in Latin) to symbolise the hard work and dedication that had taken Arsenal to Highbury.  It was only later taken on as the club’s motto.

But what of the Plumstead ground?  There is mention that it was handed over to a local amateur team to play on, but we have no definite records of this.  Certainly no one was looking after the place and there was no redevelopment.  Indeed on 30 September 1913  The Woolwich Gazette reported that the whole North Stand grandstand was gutted by fire which started at the refreshment bar, at the junction with the western end of the stand. It was apparently witnessed by more people than had seen the team play for much of the previous season!

In Islington however, the new season progressed well, with Arsenal eventually coming third in the league.  But it was not all glory, and inevitably the first defeat at the Gillespie Road ground came along.  It was on 4 October 1913: Arsenal 0 Bury 1.

The transfer activity continued as well (there being no transfer window at the time of course), showing that not every penny of Henry Norris’ money was spent on the new ground.  Most notably on 27 October 1913 Jock Rutherford signed from Newcastle for £800.  He played his first match on  1 November.

And thus the new era began, although life at the new ground was interrupted after two seasons by the first world war, which closed the football league for four years.  And speaking of the war perhaps I may add that I refer in this article to the owner of Arsenal as “Henry Norris”.  Henry Norris did not gain his knighthood, nor become a Lt Colonel in the army, until 1917, and so he was indeed at this time, just Mr Norris.

From the Pre-season files


One Reply to “Arsenal in 1913: The summer of moving to Highbury”

  1. So there was a fire at the Manor ground within weeks of Arsenal’s debut at Highbury. As an Arsenal fan, who knows that Henry Norris did some underhanded things in addition to saving Woolwich Arsenal and making the later Arsenal successes possible, I’m thinking it; but a Tottenham fan, looking for any excuse to take a swipe at Arsenal, would come right out and say it: Insurance fraud?

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