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