Winston Churchill’s direct involvement in Arsenal nearly led to the end of the club

And I don’t mean this lightly.

Nor is it a retelling of the old story about Winston’s Churchill’s driver or relative or someone wanting to be a footballer and being told that was not a suitable occupation.

No – this is a truthful story about Churchill and his involvement in the world of Woolwich Arsenal 100 years ago.  And how this involvement really did lead Arsenal to the very edge.

The whole story is re-told in MAKING THE ARSENAL – but in case you haven’t quite got round to reading the novel of Arsenal in 1910 yet, here is the summary.

In 1910 Winston Churchill (the one who did all the “fight them on the beaches” speeches) was Home Secretary – but not for the Conservative Party (then largely known as the Unionists, as they supported the union with Ireland) but with the reforming Liberals.

Although the Liberal Party was the party of peace and reform at the time, it contained a mixture of opinions and talents, and Churchill represented the war faction.  He thought war was on its way – a war with Germany.

Now in this regard he was not on his own – much of the population felt that there would be a war – and of course in this regard they were right, although four year ahead of the actual events.

But the general opinion was that this would be a naval war – in which Germany would invade across the North Sea – something that had been predicted in a novel by Erskine Childers (The Riddle of the Sands).  (Childers was eventually hanged for treason, but that’s another story, and the hanging of novelists has tended to be less frequent of late I am glad to say).

So Churchill, in line with many others, wanted to build up the navy, in order to give us a way of defeating the enemy.

But Churchill also had another game up his sleeve.  He knew that part of this war would be fought with torpedoes – and the torpedoes were built at Woolwich Arsenal armaments factory.  Indeed a sizable number of the men who attended football matches at Arsenal in 1909/10 were employees of the torpedo factory.

Building torpedoes on the Thames at Woolwich Arsenal made a lot of sense because it meant they could  be loaded straight into the ships that would sail out into the North Sea fully laden.

So you can imagine the surprise everywhere when it was announced that the torpedo factory at Woolwich Arsenal would be shut.

Why on earth do this when war with Germany was so close?   In fact the factory was not to be shut down – it was to be moved to Glasgow, and replaced with… nothing.  Overnight Woolwich Arsenal FC would lose several thousand loyal supporters.

The official record of Parliamentary proceedings – Hansard – records the decision in early 1910, but says nothing about why this happened.  Little was made of the fact when the football club went into liquidation in 1910 – no one seemed to be clear about the subject, and it was let pass.

Why did Churchill and his colleagues want to move the torpedo factory from Woolwich to the Clyde?  What game was he playing?  What was he trying to do to the armaments factory and to the football club?

Certainly Churchill knew Norris, who bought Arsenal, although they were at the time in different parties, and were working together.  But why?

The answer is complex – but there is an answer.  And it is in MAKING THE ARSENAL.  It has to do with the fact that Churchill wanted money – lots of it – to build up his navy.  But that could only come from taxation of the rich, and the Unionists were certainly not going to do that.  So Churchill came up with a cunning plan that makes Baldrick look like, well Baldrick I suppose.

I won’t give the game away here, but there is one point to remember.  When you read the story that Woolwich Arsenal was in difficulty because there were too many clubs in London, that story is nonsense.  People simply didn’t travel more than a mile or two to go to a ground.   But take away a substantial part of your work force, and things start to fall apart.

You can read more about MAKING THE ARSENAL at

You can order through that web site, or via Amazon, although they do seem to run out from time to time.  If you want a copy signed by the author order it through our site, and write the inscription you want as you place the order – there is a place for “special instructions”.

(c) Tony Attwood 2009

Tony is working on the the official Arsenal History site for Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, is a columnist for Highbury High, and an occasional contributor to the club programme

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