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Arsenal was born in 1886. What sort of world did this fragile child of football enter?

By Tony Attwood

In the last article I tried to upset the applecart by investigating the details of Arsenal’s birth as Dial Square, and most particularly its first match on the Isle of Dogs.

In doing that I ventured into a world that is rarely seen in football histories – a view of what the world was like at the time.  In its simplest form this involved asking questions like, “how did someone in 1886 get from Woolwich to The Island?” and questioning the line in the Official History that the players “used the famous ferry”.  Turns out the “famous ferry” wasn’t there, so the players couldn’t have used it, and even if they did, they would have been left with a four mile walk to the pitch from the ferry terminal in North Woolwich.

This question: “what was the world like at this time” also led to the question about kick off time (given that everyone had to work the morning shift, then do the journey, and finish the game before darkness fell) and even if that were possible (which I don’t think it was) they then find a way back across the river.   It was the sort of question that led me to work on “Making the Arsenal” – to find out what sort of world Norris lived in, and what made him want to buy a club in such a sorry state of affairs.

Now, I want to pursue this a little further and question the issue of life in Woolwich in 1886.

This couple of lines from the Kentish Independent written just before the formation of Dial Square FC gives a little insight:  “People are proverbially unfamiliar with the things nearest to their doors. There are hundreds of people who have lived in Woolwich all their lives and have never been inside the gates of the great Arsenal, which other people come hundreds of miles to see.”

As for London, the paper described it as  “across the water” and again noted that most of the residents of northern Kent had only seen it from the Woolwich shore, and had never been.  It was considered by many to be a dark and forbidding place where evil roamed.  (One reason for not going of course, was that there was no public ferry until 1898).

The Royal Arsenal factories were, as the Kentish Independent points out, famous, and were visited by many just to see what was there.  But they were not the only armaments factories.

By the time of the Crimean War at the end of the 19th century the Royal Arsenal was one of three  munitions factories (with the others at Enfield and Waltham Abbey.) The Royal Arsenal was still expanding at this time eastwards towards Plumstead Marshes.

In 1868 workers at the factories formed the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society to buy food and re-sell it at reasonable prices . Over the next 100 years it grew to half a million members as a classic Co-op movement, providing services from funerals and housing to libraries and insurance.

The fact that the workers in the area felt moved to do their own thing to look after their lives is perhaps reflected by the fact that the Arsenal works and its employees were completely out of keeping with the rest of the location.

The general election of November/December 1885 had seen electoral reform with more men able to vote and a fairer distribution of seats, but most working men still had no natural party to vote for.  In the 1895 general election, the Labour Party put up 28 candidates but won only 44,325 votes.  The Liberal Party won, but not with an overall majority.

However Woolwich elected the Conservative  Edwin Hughes an English solicitor to the Board of Health.  He was not a local man (born in Worcestershire he attended Birmingham Grammar School) and was chairman of Suburban Property Co.  He was founder and vice president of the Metropolitan Local Government (Officers’) Association and was also lieutenant-colonel in the 1st Volunteer Brigade, London Division of the Royal Artillery.  He was also the Mayor of Woolwich in 1901, and later received a knighthood.

In all that it is hard to find anything that would link he with the men who worked in the Royal Arsenal.  They were in fact cut off from the politics of the area, most still not having the vote through not meeting the wealth criteria that registration required.

Just to give some other context for the world in 1886, here’s a few more bits and pieces.

The 1870 Education Act had laid down the right to state education for all (1870 was also the year Dickens died so the literate population would be full of his writings).  And in 1871 The Bank Holiday Act was passed which gave most working people their only paid holidays.

There were secret ballots for elections (1872) and deep concerns about public health (the second Public Health Act was also 1872 and the third in 1875) but it was not until 1875 that there was a law banning sending small boys up chimneys to clean them.

Underground sewers and water pipes were being laid across London for the first time, although many of the poorer houses in Woolwich the working men lived in were not connected by 1886 but most houses would have had gas lamps by this time.

Concern for the well being of the old, the unemployed and the poor was growing – and in 1878 the Salvation Army is founded and it was indeed a time of reform – but there were no old age pensions, no sick benefit, no paid summer holidays… and indeed no cars (the first patent for the car engine was registered in 1886).

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1 comment to Arsenal was born in 1886. What sort of world did this fragile child of football enter?

  • Patricia Grames

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