Dial Square FC did not play its first match on the Isle of Dogs. The evidence.

By Tony Attwood

Arsenal were founded in 1886 and  played their first match against Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs.

You knew that, of course.  But are you quite sure that is right?

There has already been an article about the founding fathers on this site in the series on the first managers and I don’t want to repeat that.  But I do want to challenge the standard reporting of the first Dial Square game that is given in all the Arsenal history books.

Basically I want to put forward evidence to suggest that Dial Square did not travel to the Isle of Dogs to play Eastern Wanderers.

And while doing that, I am going to look at the rest of the 1886 story, because there are some other related questions that need considering.

1.  What happened to Woolwich Union FC

According to Phil Soar & Martin Tyler, in The Official Illustrated History of Arsenal.  (Hamlyn. pp. 21–22), there was another Woolwich Arsenal club which pre-dated Dial Square, although this information only comes from a reported conversation Fred Beardsley told his grandson.   But elsewhere in the same chapter the authors say that there were a number of football teams that were associated with Woolwich Arsenal armaments factory and Woolwich Union could therefore have just been one among many.  We have no records of Woolwich Union FC, nor the others, so we tend to see Dial Square as the real forerunner of Arsenal FC.

But Woolwich Union is important, because if there was a club (or better if there were many clubs) there must have been fields on which to play.  And that, as I will explain in a moment, is an interesting point.

2.  Did Dial Square start in 1886?

Every book says, Dial Square played their first match on 11 December 1886 against Eastern Wanderers

But can we be sure?   The report is there only by hearsay, because the story is repeated and repeated in every book.   To prove that this is true, what we need is a detail – any sort of detail that adds verisimilitude to the story.   If there is nothing to prove or disprove the story, we can hold on to the notion that it happened, but because it was not considered important at the time, nothing was recorded.   But if we find part of the story to be wholly unreliable, maybe we will start questioning everything.  So I start asking more questions, such as…

3.  Did we really play on the Isle of Dogs?

And this is where it starts to get sticky.  The story given everywhere is that curiously, Dial Square FC, based in the factories on the south bank of the Thames around Woolwich didn’t actually play their first match in Woolwich or Plumstead, but on the north bank of the Thames, at the Isle of Dogs.

We might ask why?   Weren’t there any football pitches in Woolwich?

The answer to this is probably no, there were not, because Woolwich is described as a rugby playing area at the time.  Certainly it was (aside from the working men in the armaments factory) a conservative area (it regularly elected a Unionist, not a Liberal MP) rather than a working class area, and thus more likely to have a leaning to rugby.

But now we must remember Woolwich Union and the other clubs that Soar and Tyler give us.  Surely they must have played in and around Woolwich, so there must have been some pitches locally.   Besides which there was Plumstead Common – it would have been easy to put a pitch there.

And indeed after the meeting which is said to have taken place on Christmas Day 1886, the idea was to play on Plumstead Common.  So why not start as you mean to go on, instead of going across the river?

When you start to look at it, the Isle of Dogs seems odd – and it needs further investigation.

4.  What was the Isle of  Dogs like in 1886?

It’s an important question.  Originally The Island was marsh land, on which there could have been no pitch, but in 1802 the West India Docks opened, and Millwall dock followed in 1868 and the area became urbanised.  So urbanised in fact that the area became a centre for unionisation, leading to the London Dock Strike (1889).   It was a built up area.  There may have been bits of waste ground, but no municipal open spaces had been established.  So some doubt must be cast upon the notion of whether there was even a very rough pitch available.

5.  How did the players get to the Isle of Dogs?

But if we take it that the game did happen on the Island, then this is where the story really goes wrong.  Here’s what Soar and Tyler say on page 23 of the 1886-2009 edition of the book.

“Sadly, the historic first game did not take place anywhere near the Arsenal or Woolwich.  The players crossed the Thames by the famous ferry, to a piece of open ground one had found on the Isle of Dogs.”  There then follows a description of the ground (oft repeated in various books and websites) about the state of the ground, seemingly from Elijah Watkins.  There is no description of where on the Isle of Dogs this bit of waste ground was.

The trouble with this source is that Watkins is just described as a friend of the others (others who did play a significant part in what followed).  But whereas Danskin, Humble and Beardsley all have verifiable histories, Watkins is just a name, “a friend” who turns up at this point, makes this  statement about the Isle of Dogs, and is then never heard from again.

So we might question Watkins version – and in doing so we now have to unravel Soar and Taylor, because it was in fact quite impossible for the players of Dial Square to cross “the Thames by the famous ferry” because the famous ferry was not there.  There was no ferry until 1898.

In fact short of  hiring a series of rowing boats (which would have been extraordinarily unlikely for a group of non-sailors – the tide at this point is very strong) the routes across the Thames that might be considered were the Greenwich foot tunnel (not opened until 1902) and the Rotherhithe to Wapping foot tunnel which was opened  in 1843 – but quite obviously went from the wrong place to the wrong place and so was not much good.

In effect aside from hiring the boats (which seems a crazy idea given the lack of finance) the only way to get to the chosen site was to travel from Woolwich to Rotherhithe, walk under the river, and  then go back to the Isle of Dogs.  A journey, by foot, of 12 miles.

Not only is it unlikely that anyone would do this journey of 12 miles, it is also more than likely that had they done so they would have found another piece of ground  en route that would have served just as well!

6.  Who provided the goal posts.

Let us say that the Dial Square team really did hire a selection of boats to go across the river, they would still have two problems.  One would be the taking of goal posts (which by and large precludes the 12 mile walk and puts the journey back on a Thames crossing), and the other would  be asking the pilots to wait for the match to finish to take everyone back again – which would have  made the outing difficult.

7.  Who were Eastern Wanderers

One of the funniest things about this whole story of the Isle of Dogs and the first game is that everyone tells the story of the open sewer running alongside the pitch, and how the ball had to be washed down each time it went out of play,  but no one actually noted who the opposition were.

Eastern Wanderers is just a name.  There’s no location, ground, social base, works base…

One might of course assume that they were from the Isle of  Dogs, and that Dial Square was playing an away game, but if so why had the Wanderers got such a bad place to play?  Surely if that were their home they would have sorted a better ground out?

And come to that why were they playing the newly formed Dial Square who had never played before, and who had no kit, and then getting stuffed 6-0.  In fact the lack of all this  evidence, and the fact that the Isle of Dogs story comes from one source which cannot be accredited in any way, really does make the whole story seem preposterous.

8.  Did we win 6-0?

Here’s the one and only match day report.

Dial Square won the game 6-0 but the players were not pleased with the quality of the pitch they played on. Elijah Watkins is thought to have said, or written, “Talk about a football pitch! This one eclipsed any I ever heard of or saw. I could not venture to say what shape it was, but it was bounded by backyards as to about two-thirds of the area, and the other portion was – I was going to say a ditch, but I think an open sewer would be more appropriate.”

The point is that Mr Watkins only makes this one appearance in history to write this report, and then disappears off the radar again.  So, one begins to wonder.  Could there not be a simpler explanation – that the match was not played on the Isle of Dogs at all?

9.  What time was kick off?

That might seem an odd question, but it is important.  The  men worked on Saturday morning, and finished at 1pm.  They needed a drink and food.  2pm.  They then had to get to the Thames, and across in the various boats they had hired.  3pm.  Get set up, and start playing 3.30pm.   But at that time of year it is dark by 4pm.  Not possible.

10.  Did the men who formed Dial Square actually meet in the Royal Oak pub, on Christmas Day 1886 formally to set the club up?

Quite probably.  Most people would go to church on Christmas morning, but after that the day was their own.  There were no licensing hours for pubs at the time, so the pubs would have been open all day as normal.  The bank holiday act had come in a few years before and so Christmas Day was a paid holiday.  It seems likely.

And thus, what do we conclude?

The Isle of Dogs story is a myth because, in summary,

a) The only person who is reported as a source of the story doesn’t appear anywhere else in history.  He is not a club custodian, or a man who appears elsewhere in history.  That doesn’t mean he didn’t exist, but it makes his evidence harder to believe.

b) There was no “famous ferry” for the players to use to get to the match – the walk would  have been ludicrously long, and certain to pass other suitable playing areas (remembering the first part of the journey was through the Kent countryside).  In short, the journey was impossible.

c) There is no record anywhere of Eastern Wanderers – but if they were real, they would  have surely known a better ground to play at.

d) The club could have played on Plumstead Common

e) But even if we do still think the Isle of Dogs is a viable venue, think about the timing.

As I say, if you have other information – please do prove me wrong.  That’s the whole point of this site – we challenge conventional thinking, and if the evidence holds up, fine.  If not, we change the records.

The story of the Last Tango in Plumstead – the story of the very last game in Plumstead and the newspaper report

How the Norris era began – the story of 1910, and the founding of the modern Arsenal

And today… Untold Arsenal

43 Replies to “Dial Square FC did not play its first match on the Isle of Dogs. The evidence.”

  1. I would als olike to mention that “Woolwich Common” is directly opposite the old armoury in Woolwich, may have played there?

  2. Elijah Watkins was the club’s first secretary but I can’t find any details of him being involved after the first season.

    BUT, according to Alan Roper’s The Real Arsenal Story regarding the first game:

    “The team was disappointed that Fred Beardsley would not be available as he was playing in the FA Cup for Nottingham Forest.”

    All the usual suspects show Beardsley playing for Arsenal in that first game. It wasn’t unusual for Beardsley to play for Forest during this time. They played Lockwood Brothers that day. I’ll ask around to find out if he did play for Forest. If he did, then there is another flaw in what was reported.

    Arsenal made another trip to the Isle of Dogs on 5 February 1887 when they played Millwall Rovers so the trip probably was possible although you would have expected them to have tried to get a game against Erith to start with.

  3. Very many thanks as always for that info Andy, and for correcting me on Watkins.

    What really made me feel I was onto something was the line in the Official Arsenal book, reprinted through each edition, that actually said they took the “famous” Woolwich ferry. Since the ferry did not exist then, it means that the authors, in writing about the past, have been willing either to take someone else’s word for events, or have just thrown in the occasional line to add verisimilitude.

    Thus it would seem that there is evidence that this is just a story that has “evolved” (to put it politely.)

    Consider this explanation. Watkins was not there in 1886, but heard of the Millwall Rovers game. Through the telling and re-telling of the Millwall Rovers game, he got that match confused with the supposed first Dial Square game, and so history is re-written.

    Of course I can’t prove that at all – but that story line is more likely than the one that for their very first game Dial Square would go to such a journey, when there were apparently both pitches, and indeed other teams around, within the local area, whom they could play.

    Naturally, once established, they would start accepting challenges from further afield, and a trip to The Island might well be on the cards. But it is this issue of such a ludicrous journey for the first ever match that baffles me. Surely first time out you would play Woolwich Union or some such team, on a pitch within a short walk of the factory, not on a three quarter size mud heap surrounded by a sewer on a spot that was quite hard to get to.

  4. Tony, we should meet up.. email me, I can tell you who actually founded the club!! where they played on the Isle of Dogs and more..interesting stuff..

    Peter Harvey

  5. I’ve just had it confirmed that Fred Beardsley played for Nottingham Forest on the day that Arsenal played Eastern Wanderers.

    If whoever gave the original account of the story got that wrong, how much more of it is wrong?

  6. I find it hard to believe that a club in the national sport in the national capital would have such a questionable origin story. Even a team with a dodgy history (i.e. shenanigans in setting it up, as is the case over here with the New York Yankees in 1903) usually knows exactly when, where, how, and by whom the club was founded and played its first game, its first home game, and so on. I’m sure Spurs, Chelsea, West Ham and all the rest know their origins with documentary proof to back it up. Why don’t we?

  7. Having reserached the origins of my own fave Club, Bristol Rovers FC when they formed in 1883 it is and can be very difficult to get documentary evidence. Some newspaper evidence can be established as proof but unsubstaniated as a actual source. The facts are hard to find and I wish you all good luck in your quest for the truth.

  8. Uncle Mike – every club has its origins stories as do Arsenal – but I suspect most of them have faults. But we are only looking at Arsenal, and what we find are issues with the stories. So far…

    The 1919 promotion story which we have allowed Tottenham to contro
    The change of the name from The Arsenal to Arsenal
    The first match
    The reason for the collapse in the crowds at Woolwich

    What you have to realise is that Arsenal is the only club with a supporters site dedicated to its history – this is not just me turning up something in a book, but the work I did on 1910, which took over a year and which gave me a strong insight into Norris, and all the incredible knowledge that Andy Kelly.

  9. Tony – I quote from the website Greenwich.gov.uk/history ferry :-
    “As London expanded the movement of troops and supplies became a problem. In 1810 the army established it’s own ferry that ran from Woolwich Arsenal to Duvals Wharf”.
    Perhaps this could be an answer.

  10. You can change everything and anything about our history but please do not change the date of our first game as 11 december is also the date of my own birth so I really feel kind of proud to have been born on the same day that Arsenal played their first ever game. 😉

  11. I don’t think the Duvals Wharf ferry continued until 1886, and even when it was running it was just as needed by troop movements – it wasn’t there on “standby” or available on a timetable, I think. So I have some doubts on that as a candidate, but I can’t find the evidence I need anywhere – although this in itself suggests it was an occasional venture.

    there was also the Western Ferry set up in 1811 following an Act of Parliament, but this failed to make money and ceased in 1844.

    I am still in doubt about this – not least because once they had got across the river to North Woolwich they would still have over four miles to walk to the Isle of Dogs. I can’t see any record of a horse drawn bus service in that area. Unless Eastern Wanderers provided transport, but then if they did, how come they took all that trouble to get dial Square to such a useless ground – three quarter size, mud everywhere, fading light, and an open sewer.

    So even with a ferry, it still looks highly unlikely, and I am still not convinced about the ferry.

  12. Walter- I think we can stay with the date of the game ok; it is just a debate about where the match was played.

  13. 1885,Wynns common, Plumstead, SE18 and Erith Wanderers. E:mail me and I’ll tell you more.

  14. Hello Boys
    As an Arsenal supporter you can imagine my delight when I discovered very recently that Jack Humble was my great grand pa. Hurrah! Do you know where I can find out more about him? My family archives are perilously scant.
    Best wishes Philippa

  15. How about this piece of information that has been knocking around for over 57 years?

    This was published in the programme for the Arsenal v Derby game played on 18 February 1953.


    It refers to the team line-up for that first game which was published in Bernard Joy’s book “Forward, Arsenal!”.

    From this we can assume:
    * Arsenal’s first game was against Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs (sorry Tony)
    * Whoever recorded the team line-up got at least 3 names wrong
    * Arsenal played their first 6 games as Dial Square with the name changing on the evening of 29 January 1887
    * There was tension in the team a la Mario Balotelli and Jerome Boateng 125 years ago (sorry that was me slipping into tabloid journo mode)
    * We know who scored Arsenal’s first ever goal!

    R.B. Thompson was schoolteacher Robert Benjamin Thompson. He was born in late 1868 / early 1869 in Plumstead and died in late 1959 / early 1960 aged 91 in Bromley, Kent.

    Then again, Robert may have been having one over on the rest of us!

    Seriously, it seems plausible and I think it’s a shame that it has only been noted in a couple of books written about the club.

  16. Andy, as I hope you know by now, I defer to your greater knowledge and huge access to old papers. I really really do.


    “Arsenal’s first game against Eastern Wanderers” could mean “the first game Arsenal played” or “the first of a series of games played against Eastern Wanderers”. Also he calls Eastern Wanderers a “local club”. You may have seen a little piece I did taking a piece from the Kentish Indy in which the writer in 1886 says that people in Woolwich look across the river and see the other side as an alien landscape. A club from across the water (remember no ferry service then) was not “a local side”. If Eastern Wanderers were in fact from Woolwich, why go to the Isle of Dogs?

    “Or does, “after we had played the local club” mean “Erith?”

    Clutching at straws there a little, yes, but here we have a venerable gent aged in his 80s talking of events 67 years before. He was 84 and was talking of life when he was 17. So was he a “pupil teacher” (ie a school master” at 17? On that I am not certain, but I think (and I will check) that you left university before becoming a teacher, and although the issue was not as fixed as today, in the 1880s you went aged 17, not aged 14.

    But perhaps there is one thing that makes me more concerned than anything about this – and that is the gentleman’s memory. It is of course unfair to inflict the ravages of late middle age that afflict me, but at my current age of 63 I cannot remember who, what, where, when, even of incredibly important events aged 17. OK at 17 I didn’t play for Arsenal, but I did play in a rock band that was the warm up band for the Animals and the Pretty Things. And I have to say that memories of which I am certain of that age, have proven to be false when I go back and try and prove them.

    I am not saying R B Thompson was lying – absolutely not – but rather it is a set of memories from a long time ago, which might not be 100%, which have some inconsistencies, and which still don’t explain what the hell the club was doing going across the river on a journey that would have taken several hours, to kick off a game in December at a time when there was no chance of finishing it in daylight, on a pitch that was not full size, was bounded by a sewer, and which to get to it involved complex transport arrangements. And all that when they could have played in the light just up the road.

    I think I am reaching the position where I am saying, yes the match could well have been played, but not on the Isle of Dogs

    With these extra bits and pieces of knowledge we get it suggests to me more and more that something is missing here. Why go on such a long and complex journey all that way along the south coast of the Thames, passing so many places that could have hosted games, then across the bridge, then back along the Thames, to play on such a bad pitch, when there were pitches next door, and, as we have established, already other Arsenal teams playing there. At its peak Royal Arsenal employed 80,000 people – enough for lots of teams!

    You may be right, Andy, but I still think there is, as I say, something missing. something that either answers the question, “Why go all that way for a first match?” or says, “yes we played there as our first away game, but had already played a lot at home”

    I know you could be right, but I still think these are good questions

    What was

  17. “These were settled at a hotel in Erith after we had played the local club”.

    Says, to me, that they were in Erith at the time. The lack of a name for the Erith club suggests the normal dimming of memory while the detail concerning all else suggests a frequently retold story.

    The way it is phrased suggests that they were meeting after a game. I must also say that getting to Erith from the Isle of dogs has never been easy at any point in history. So, if it was after a match on the island, why get together there?

    This will confirm that pupil teachers were a bit like teaching assistants today but with a proper career path. So he could well have been doing that at 17.

  18. I think that what he meant was that the team had the conversation about the name of the club and the colours after the match away to Erith on 29 January 1887 (the club’s sixth game).

    Thompson was a teacher by the time of the 1891 census – I don’t know when he started teaching though.

    The one thing that gives me any doubt about his story is that he was about 17 when Arsenal was formed. He is shown as living in Plumstead in 1891, 1901 and 1911. The only record I have of him playing is his account from 1953. Why did he only play during 1886-87 and then stop at such a young age?

  19. There has been a historic ferry at Woolwich since the 14th century

    In June 1847 the Eastern Counties Railway extended the Railways to North Woolwich.

    They introduced a Ferryboat service from the newly built Roff`s Pier at South Woolwich and their own railway pier at North Woolwich (remains of this northern pier can still be seen).

    This pier was also used by the Paddle Steamers from the Pool of London on their way to Southend, Clacton and Margate, as it was ten miles down river from the Pool. It was to this pier that in September 1878, the Captain of the Princess Alice was trying to steer when she was hit and sunk by another vessel.

    The price to cross the river was a penny (1d), with the ticket office being on the southern side, which not only sold ferry tickets, but tickets to various destinations on the Eastern Counties railways.

    Originally a two-boat service, the `Essex` and the `Kent`, both built at Barking. They were described as Small tug like, open decked, paddle boats with wooden hulls and weighting 65 tons.

    In 1879, a third ferry, the `Middlesex`, which was an open decked, iron hull, 103 tons paddle boat, built at the Thames Iron Works at Canning Town was added, all there craft had twin red funnels.

    The free ferrry was opened 1889

    Alos it’s possible to eat and travel at the same time.

  20. Thanks “Visitor”,
    I suppose you don’t happen to also have primary source evidence of the first game actually occurring on 11th December 1886?

  21. Yes I was at the game. Fans were complaining about the manager even then.

    No, in fact I don’t. I just happened on the blog as an arsenal fan aware that a key plank of your argument was incorrect.

  22. Visitor,

    The ferry is a minor factor, and in fact there was another ferry at Greenwich at the time which could have been used.

    There is another much more pertinent reason to query the date and location of the game.

    PS There was no manager at Arsenal until 1897.

  23. This stuff is truly amazing, im 41 and been to 400+ game sin my time and i had read bits about all of this alternate history and ive just started my own arsenal forum and im going through my 20/30 ish book trying to get a more detailed history of our club and then 3 hours ago i found this site and im still here at 2.43m

    I suppose until more proof is found no one is going to want to or even allow anyone to change the official history

    What do Arsenal have to say on this matter or do they dismiss it as hair-brained gibberish or conspiracy nutters?

    I will be adding links to various bits on my site to this site so people can read the official history and then my links will provide the alternate theories and ive used one photo and put that i got it from this site as im not sure if im allowed to use the picture

    Also ive just read “The First Gunners – Arsenal, From Plumstead to Highbury” and then sent a friend a link to it on amazon and saw in the comments someone called Goonerack arguing with the bloke who wrote it, interesting stuff – http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/RGOV0QAQG39KM/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1906015279&nodeID=&tag=&linkCode=#wasThisHelpful

    keep up the discussions as its riveting reading

  24. GFP

    What is the name of your new forum?

    I too have noticed the goonerak comments about that book on Amazon. I didn’t perceive it to be a discussion more a deconstruction.

    Also please be aware that much of the information on this site is caveated by the phrase “This site represents very much a forum for knocking around ideas and seeking out issues that can be debated. As such we openly acknowledge that some of the notions expressed here might be wrong, and will need correcting”.

    As such very little is set in stone and the full expression of the ideas will be evident in our Woolwich Arsenal FC book which will be published very very shortly, and this specific first game issue will be given full thought in the later Royal Arsenal FC book.


  25. my site is http://www.the-highbury-inn.co.uk

    its for people who dont think arsenal were formed in 2003/04 and think highbury is our home and not the soul less hole that is cashburton, i had a season ticket at highbury for 19 season then 1 at cashburton and then stopped going

    ill buy both your book when they come out

    reading my post back it seem like i own 20 ish books, i dont, ive got 100 ish (every rothmans up to 2007) and 30ish biographies, plus my own detailed transfer stuff as i intend to build a site purely on arsenal players with all career stats

    ive tried to contact goonerack to see if he recommends a book on our history

  26. “Making the Arsenal” is the story of 1910, written through the eyes of a Fleet Street journalist in the style of the time. It tells of the end of the old Arsenal and the birth of the new. It is available now from Arsenal.com, in the Arsenal shops, from Amazon, and from the publishers (www.woolwicharsenal.co.uk)

    “Woolwich Arsenal the team that changed football” is still in production, and will be published shortly. It will be available from the same sources as above.

  27. GFP

    We don’t know what Goonerak thinks, but obviously when “Woolwich Arsenal FC: the team that changed football” is out that will be the definitive account of 1893-1915. Most of our work is based on contemporary sources but we found the best secondary sources to be as follows:

    The Arsenal History and Full Record by Scott Grant and Colin White (1988) is the best work published thus far. They include many direct newspaper quotes and ideas. Unfortunately they also take as read some matters which required further research. Also they did not reference their work. However, having said that it is a labour of love and the most comprehensive source thus far. It would be great to be able to discuss their sources as they have some very good notions and information. Unfortunately, we couldn’t locate them for our book.

    The other Book worth reading is Fred Ollier who has a very good origins section and is the best overall for statistics.


  28. Just a further comment: I suspect Eastern Wanderers were a team of railway workers from the local Eastern Counties Railway. Hence why the match was played in the area where the railway company operated. Certainly the railway and the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich were connected in that armaments and components would have been transported via the former.

  29. To amend the previous entry – I should have said the Great Eastern Railway, which formed in 1862 following the amalgamation of the ECR and other smaller railway operators.

  30. An interesting connection between the Royal Arsenal and the Great Eastern Works at Stratford:

    Alexander Mcleod (1832-1902) one of the founders of Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (RACS), set up by Arsenal workers in 1868. First full-time secretary from 1882 until his death.
    He was the son of Skye crofters and served an apprenticeship of five years as a mechanical engineer on the Firth of Forth. He then worked for Scottish railway companies. At the age of 27 he visited a friend at the Great Eastern railway works at Stratford and secured work at the Arsenal at Woolwich where he stayed until 1878. In 1882 he was appointed dual Secretary and Manager of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society which had been set up by a group of workers from the Arsenal in 1868, and he remained so until his death.
    McLeod was held in high regard both locally and throughout the Co-operative Movement, described in fact as ‘a Prince among secretaries’ by George Jacob Holyoake, another revered figure in the Movement. Died 17 May 1902. In his obituary in ‘Comradeship’, the RACS magazine, of June 1902, Holyoake said of him:
    ‘The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, standing like a pillar of cloud or of fire of old, to show to London the road to a better social system, is the monument that commemorates his life work’.(4)

    Source: http://www.vads.ac.uk/flarge.php?uid=69853

  31. Jeremy thanks for all your information. I am going to wait for Andy and Mark (the two officers of Arsenal History Society who spend their time examining the documents from the era) to comment on all this.

    Except to say as far as I know this is the first notion I have seen of who Eastern Wanderers were. Until now, for me at least, they have been a mystery.

    Again thank you for all your input.

  32. Jeremy

    Some fantastic information there. This gives us some new leads to follow. It has always puzzled me why Arsenal went to all that trouble of playing their first game on the Isle of Dogs. There had to be a connection between the two clubs and this may be it. Looks like work will have to be put on the back burner for a while!

  33. Tony, Andy

    I hope I haven’t but a spanner in the works but I just found this mystery too fascinating to leave alone. I’ve a keen interest in late Victorian history and of course early football development. In the case of the early development of Arsenall I think you will find the answers lie very much in the migration of skilled Scottish workers to SE London, particularly from the Kirkaldy area. They sought work in the major boom industries of that time, the railway and armaments – a. because they had already superior skills and b. because the money was very good for the era. From what I can see there are a number of Scottish connections between the Great Eastern Railway which had expanded its enterprise in SE London at around this time and the Royal Arsenal. I suspect that there were friendships and family ties.

    If you need help investigating this further then please feel free to contact me by e-mail.

    I also note Arsenal played Erith early on. Erith had a strong engineering industry and there were connections with the Royal Arsenal. I have no doubt there were Scottish connections in Erith as well. Indeed the founder of what became Pirelli in Erith was one of the Callender brothers from Glasgow, who originally started out with their father in the leather industry but this went pear-shaped, and I suspect they were forced to move south, where they prospered in the bitumen industry and cabling. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erith#Industries and http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/22434/pages/3716/page.pdf. The youndest brother became President of the?Royal Australian Engineering Society.

    So the key words for you will be: Scottish and engineering when seeking answers.

    BTW your site is an absolute gem and highly addictive for a football historian like me. I lost a lot of sleep last night going through it all 😉



  34. Andy, and maybe Mark (the third member of the trio that run Arsenal History Society) will respond to the detailed part of your piece, but I would say very clearly there is no spanner being thrown. We thrive on debate and argument. Indeed if you were to go right back to some of the earliest articles on the foundation of the club, which I wrote, you will find that Mark and Andy have thoroughly overthrown all my ideas – but we still managed to write “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football” together without falling out!

    Debate and argument is what it is about.

  35. Jeremy,

    We have carried out a thorough review of all the characters who were involved in the founding of the Royal Arsenal FC in 1886/7 and of the 20, only 3 were Scottish. Most were locals, Londoners or from Nottingham.


  36. There is speculation about the pitch on the Isle of Dogs for the Dec 1886 match against Eastern Wanderers. There are doubts on this page if there was a suitable pitch at all. I’d like to quell those doubts.

    Most are agreed that the match was played on Glengall Rd (now Tiller Rd), close to its junction with West Ferry Rd in the west of the Island. It is often described as a scrap of wasteland. However, this was certainly the location of a usable pitch, for it had been used throughout the preceding 12 months by Millwall Rovers. In Dec 1886 they had just vacated it, moving to their second ground behind the Lord Nelson pub, further round the Island. It was not unusual for pubs to be the main sponsors of clubs at the time: for the pub landlords it meant more public (ie income), and for the clubs it meant funding for kit and equipment (remember, these were all hard-to-do factory workers). It was equally not unusual for clubs to move frequently if they got a better offer from another pub. Do not underestimate the signifance of pubs in the early days of organised football.

    With regards to how the team travelled to the Isle of Dogs, the shortest and most direct route would have been the Steam Ferry from Brunswick Wharf in North Greenwich (site of Blackwall Tunnel approach road, where the power station used to be) to Cubitt Town (Pier St), and then along Glengall Rd across Millwall Docks. This route is almost in a straight line, and served then by buses on both sides of the river.

    Mick, Arsenal supporter, amateur historian with specific interest in the Isle of Dogs (where I grew up)

    ps This website has a nice map showing the location of the pitch (warning to the sensitive, this is a site about the history of Millwall FC): http://www.millwall-history.org.uk/origins.htm

  37. Another thing, considering the speculation about who the Eastern Wanderers were. There was at the time a pub on the Island called the Great Eastern (not to be confused with the contemporary pub of the same name). It was located on West Ferry Rd, approx 5 minutes walk north of the Glengall (now Tiller) Rd ground and virtually next-door neighbours with Mortons, the company that spawned Millwall Rovers. The landlord at the time was a certain Alfred Leggett. It is easy to see Mr Leggett taking advantage of Millwall Rovers’ departure to start a team named after his own pub. And if he had connections with the team from “over the water”, who better to invite for a match?

  38. Fascinating read. An incredible story turned credible by collaborative historical inquiry despite the (still) lack of an authoritative primary source. Thanks to all above.

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