Arsenal in the 30s. January 1934: The death of Chapman

By Tony Attwood

Arsenal had just won four games and drawn one in December and were sitting pretty at the top of the league at the start of 1934 when disaster struck.   The league table at the start of the year looked like this…

Herbert Chapman welcomed in the New Year with his family in Hendon – quite probably a relaxed occasion since Arsenal did not have a game on 1 January – although most other clubs did.  Indeed there were some extraordinary results on that day (suggesting that some players had been doing a little too much celebrating) including Manchester City 2 WBA 7 and Newcastle 9 Liverpool 2.

Tottenham lost away to Blackburn but Derby kept up the pressure winning at Everton 0-3.   They were now just two points behind.

There were also two second division games on New Years Day including Bury 3 Notts County 1 – a game which saw Herbert Chapman in the grandstand with the directors of both clubs, although it is hard to find out who he was there to watch.

Sheffield Wednesday, Arsenal’s next opponents, alone among the first division teams, played on 2 January, getting a 2-1 win over Birmingham to lift them to 10th in the league – a major improvement in their position from two months earlier due to a run of eight games unbeaten.

Once again Chapman went to the game and was in the directors’ box.  There was nothing unusual in this sort of activity – it was what Chapman always did, watching opponents in person while leaving Tom Whittaker to train the team and put them through the routines that Chapman and Whittaker had laid down together year by year since 1925.  The two worked hand in glove and Chapman never once doubted that Tom Whittaker would always see through each training and physio regime exactly as per agreements.

Herbert Chapman then travelled to his old home town of Kiveton Park where he stayed with his younger brother Ernest, before returning to London on Thursday 4th January whereupon he consulted the team doctor Guy Pepper, complaining of a temperature and feeling generally unwell.  The doctor told him to go home and rest, but contrary to that advice, on the Thursday afternoon Chapman went to watch Arsenal’s third team (the “A” team) play away against Guildford City, a timetable that would then allow him to watch the first team train at Highbury on Friday in preparation for the game against Sheffield Wednesday on the Saturday.

The A team on this occasion included Denis Compton, aged 15, brother of Leslie.  Arsenal A team won 4-0.

The reports we have say that as a result of that trip Chapman’s condition suddenly took a turn for the worse and pneumonia set in, and Chapman quickly succumbed. With no penicillin yet available the only answer to pneumonia was to wait and see.  Herbert Chapman, a man since named as the greatest manager of all time, died at around 3am on 6 January 1934 at his home in Hendon.

It is impossible to exaggerate the shock that hit not just Arsenal but the entire footballing world at this moment, for Chapman had become not just the most famous manager in England, but a manager whose renown spread far further afield.   The order went out at once – every club lowered its flag to half mast for the matches on Saturday.

As for the Arsenal players, they discovered the news as they saw the late editions of the morning papers as they made their way to the ground.

But there was no question of a postponement, indeed I have not read of any suggestion that anyone even considered such a thing.  In these days, still close to the memories of the first world war, the notion was always that the survivors carried on regardless.

Every player at Highbury wore an armband, and the crowd, according to newspaper reports, simply clapped them onto the pitch – there was no cheering.  Trumpeters sounded the last post.  The Islington Gazette said that it was a good match, but the reporter for the occasion commented that he couldn’t remember much of what happened.  It was 1-1 at half time and that is how it remained, with 45,156 in the crowd (not 50,000 as Patrick Barclay claims).  The final result was a 1-1 draw.

The team was


Male Roberts Hapgood

Jones Hill

Coleman Bowden Dunne Bastin Beesley

Birkett was injured and Coleman had played number 7 before so his choice was reasonable; otherwise it was a classic Chapman line up.  On the day of Chapman’s death Arsenal remained firmly at the top of the league.

Herbert Chapman was buried four days later on the Wednesday in St Mary’s Churchyard, Hendon.    The coffin was carried into church on the shoulders of David Jack, Joe Hulme, Eddie Hapgood, Jack Lambert, Cliff Bastin and Alex James – the players who represented everything Chapman stood for and everything he had had achieved at Arsenal.

The choir sang Chapman’s favourite hymn, “Nearer my God to Thee”, and there were, according to the press, “lorry loads” of wreaths, but only his widow’s wreath went into the church.  The press, inevitably, behaved appallingly, with photographers running around in the graveyard to get pictures.  Exactly the behaviour Herbert Chapman deplored.

The card from the players is something that should be represented somewhere at the Emirates Stadium today…

To The Boss from the Players.  

Our hearts are sad and hopes well nigh shattered, but your inspiration, memory and affection remain ours forever.

Chapman left behind a widow, Annie, two sons, Ken (born 1908) and Bruce (born 1911), and two daughters, Molly (born 1915) and Joyce (born 1919). Ken was a rugby union player for Harlequins, and later president of the Rugby Football Union.

So sudden was the passing of Herbert Chapman that nothing was in place to deal with the situation at Highbury, as the directors gathered for an emergency meeting after the game.  They agree three men needed to be considered in helping the club cope with this situation.

First, Tom Whittaker.  He was the man closest to the players, Chapman’s eyes and ears in the dressing room.  Tom was also on his way to becoming well known as a healer, a man well versed in all the latest techniques for getting players back playing after an injury – an interest he had developed following his own injury playing for England.  His surgeon showed him what was possible, and Tom brought this to Arsenal, later to England, and later still to the rich and famous as his fame grew.

Next Joe Shaw who had been with the club since 1922, had played 309 league matches (326 all told including the FA Cup games), was captain when Arsenal moved to Highbury, was an ever-present in the final second division season, had been a coach and was now very successful and very popular as the reserve team manager.   Joe knew his football, but was not an educated man used to dealing with the board, handling a cheque book and greeting royalty when they happened to turn up.

And finally there was George Allison, who had been associated with the club since 1910, was incredibly famous as a journalist both in the US and in the UK, and was equally famous as a football broadcaster.  Only an amateur player and with no experience as a manager however, he was the club’s first Secretary and the club’s first Managing Director, and thus very competent at dealing with the board, handling negotiations and dealing with the press.

Because we have no access to the club’s minutes of board meetings (oh, if only we did!) we have no idea quite how the decision making process worked in the board meeting that must have happened before and/or after the Sheffield Wednesday game – and quite possibly on the next couple of days as well.

But a decision was made, because before the next game – an FA Cup match with Luton Town.   Joe Shaw was made manager.

Whether he wanted the role, I rather doubt.  But in terms of having a man whom all the players knew, and who had absolute credibility as a long term player (Whittaker had only played 64 league games for Arsenal, and all those in the chaotic days of Leslie Knighton) and who could be spared from his duties with the reserves, he was an obvious choice.  Besides, the reserves had done very well under him, and all the players would respond to him.

Whittaker, I think it was felt, could not take on both his trainer/physio role and be manager.   But neither Whittaker nor Shaw were seen as the men to liaise with the media or with the Board.

So the idea emerged of using Allison as the go-between.  Allison was under contract to the BBC to do radio broadcasts (although not from Highbury – Chapman had already told the BBC they were not welcome) so his time was limited, but he had enough time to be the manager’s representative in the boardroom.

Chapman’s death at this moment meant that the record books would show that his last FA Cup match was the club’s most notorious – the third round defeat to Walsall.  And by a strange twist of coincidence, Joe Shaw’s first as manager was a third round FA Cup game against Luton Town of the Third Division (south).

Leading up to this game Luton had had two draws across the Christmas holiday, followed by two wins against Northampton and Torquay.  This left them 8th in the league, and although undoubtedly respectful of the death of the most famous man in football, they were still thinking that they, like Walsall, might be able to claim a famous victory.

Their league position at the time showed that home form was their forte – they had won seven, drawn three lost two.  Their away form was less exciting, winning 3, drawing 3.  So with a home game they thought they had a chance.

Luton, because of the different way in which the cup was organised in the 1930s had had a bye through to the third round so Arsenal was their first game and it turned out to be a rather dull third round.  No one scored more than four and there were no major upsets

Joe Shaw’s team also showed no surprises.  He most certainly was not going to “do a Walsall”.


Male Roberts Hapgood

Jones John

Coleman Bowden Dunne Bastin Beesley

Beyond doubt it was the team Chapman would have chosen, and Joe probably felt the great man looking down upon him as he sketched out the names.

Arsenal won 1-0, the second Walsall disaster was avoided, and now the club had to get back to maintaining its position at the top of the league.

Unfortunately the next league match showed that the death of the greatest manager the club had ever had, had left a deep mark.   Manchester City were sitting fifth, but had only won one of their last six games.   On 20 January Arsenal played them away, and lost 2-1, Beasley getting the goal.  The country held its breath.

Meanwhile Tottenham lost at home to Leicester, Derby and Huddersfield both drew, but the press were suggesting that for Arsenal, it was worrying times.

They suggested that a little less on 27 January 1934 when Arsenal played their fourth round FA Cup match – this time against Crystal Palace, who like Luton were of Division 3 (South).    The fact that Palace had not won any of their last eight league games, did suggest that Arsenal ought to win although the press took a particularly close interest.

And indeed win they did at Highbury, 7-0.  56,177 turned up – the crowd were still there supporting Joe whatever the press might be mumbling.  This was the highest Highbury crowd thus far but was soon to be exceeded on 9 March 1935.

Joe however had to make quite a decision – that concerning the keeper.  Moss had become an absolute fixture between the posts, but he was suffering a recurrent injury, and Joe took the chance to give Alex Wilson a game.  It was a gamble worth taking, because Wilson was needed subsequently for five league games that season, and 90 league games in all, before the second world war called a halt to events.

This left one game to go in the month of Chapman’s passing – at home to Tottenham Hotspur of all people.

Tottenham had won two in the last six, and were currently sitting fourth, having played a game more than the teams above them.  They couldn’t catch Arsenal by winning, but Derby certainly could if Tottenham did them a favour, since the goal averages were neck and neck.

In front of 68,828 on a Wednesday afternoon Tottenham won 1-3 at Highbury.  Arsenal’s record against Tottenham at this time was fairly awful – Arsenal had won just one of the last eight, but this defeat suggested that Joe Shaw was not going to be the man to lead Arsenal forwards.  By half time it was 0-3 and Tottenham were looking to rub salt in the wounds, but Arsenal recovered in the second half and Bastin pulled one back.

Worse in the only other first division game that afternoon, Derby beat Leeds at Elland Road 0-2.  It was their first win in three.

The result meant that since the death of Chapman, Arsenal had drawn one and lost two of their league games, and no they were no longer top of the league.  The chasing pack were licking their lips.  No one could fault the team – Joe was picking the line up exactly as Chapman would have done, but the results just would not come.

Here’s the regular summary of the month’s games – the first set of games since the sad passing of Herbert Chapman.

Date Opponent Op Pos H/A Result Pos Pts Crowd AC
06.01.34 Sheffield W 10 H D1-1 1 35 45,156  46,252
13.01.34 Luton Town A W0-1 18,641  8,685
20.01.34 Manchester City 5 A L1-2 1 35 60,401 34,824
27,01.34 Crystal Palace H W7-0 56,177 46,252
31.01.34 Tottenham H. 4 H L1-3 2 35 68,828 46,252
  • Op pos, is the league position of the opposition before the game
  • Pos is Arsenal’s position after the game
  • AC is the average crowd for the home team through the season, providing a comparison between the crowd on that day (in the previous column) and the norm expected by the home side.

As a result Arsenal were now second in the first division.

Footnote: After extensive lobbying by the Arsenal History Society a statue was erected to Herbert Chapman at the Emirates Stadium, with the great man looking up approvingly at the stadium and the clock, in 2012.

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