Arsenal in the 30s. December 1936: once more top of the league as the king steps down

by Tony Attwood

Arsenal’s recovery in November from the horror show that was the slide down the table in October  1936, had left the everyone with great hope and restored faith in Allison as manager.  After all, Arsenal had won either the League or the FA Cup in every year from 1930 onward (except 1932, when the club were runners’ up in both competitions).  The slide down the league in October had been put firmly on Allison’s shoulders – he had been, it was said, living on what Chapman had left him.

Thus it had looked as if 1936/37 would end the great tradition of winning something or coming runners’ up every year, but the four wins in a row in November had transformed the landscape.  And we hadn’t even started in the FA Cup yet.

By the end of November Arsenal had been transformed from a club looking over its shoulder at relegation to one challenging for the top of the league.  Here is how the table looked on the morning of 1 November.

But before anyone could get down to football, the month opened with a fiasco.  As you will know if you have read the previous article in the series, the there was a constitutional crisis brewing in which the King was threatening to abdicate because the government would not let him marry the woman he wanted.   But the British public were felt not to be ready for such grave news, and so a Defence Notice (D-Notice) was issued, this being an official request to news editors not to publish or broadcast items on specified subjects for reasons of national security.

Opposition to the King came from the establishment, which Edward treated with disdain, and he had little time for the social norms of the aristos who ran the Empire.  Rumours about the king’s mistress’ sexual proclivities circulated in high society, and it was probably this that the D notice was intended to protect the innocent British worker from (although in reality many of those workers were engaged in hunger marches and fighting fascism on the streets of London).

Thus the issue of the D notice had nothing to do with the defence of the realm, and was clearly an abuse of process.  Indeed the situation was reduced to farce when the Right Reverend Alfred Blunt, the Bishop of Bradford made a speech which let the cat out of the bag.   Within a day, everyone knew and the D notice was abandoned.

In football the month began with England against Hungary on 2 December with Male (captain), Drake and Bowden all playing in their country’s 6-2 victory, Drake showing that what he could do for Arsenal he could also do for England, by getting a hattrick.   

As it turned out it was Ray Bowden’s last game for England.   In all he won six caps, and was one of the seven Arsenal players who played for England against Italy in the Battle of Highbury match, which England won 3–2.

And so it was that with the matter of the king and Mrs Simpson now public knowledge, and the latest England game sorted, those with a taste for the more serious matter of football turned their attention returned to Highbury.

With four wins in a row the home game against Manchester City – the first game in December –  did not hold too many fears for Arsenal, apart from the fear that that turnaround in the club’s fortune had been so sudden that it could not last.  Man City were 13th, and the league table showed them with just one away win so far in the season.   On the other hand that single win had come in the previous game, and they were unbeaten in the last three.

And there were problems at Highbury.  Male having captained England against Hungary and been injured, and now had to be replaced by Leslie Compton.  Swindon had been injured in the last league match and was replaced by Wilson for his second and final appearance of the season and Bastin was again out injured having exacerbated the injury picked up before the West Brom game (but which was ignored by the England camp).

The injuries told, and Arsenal were caught on the hop losing 1-3, although there was a very slight consolation in the fact that Drake scored again.  Indeed with Drake now scoring in five consecutive matches, there was a real hope that the improvement of November could be picked up again.

Before the next game, constitutional matters took centre stage once more and on 10 December the King abdicated.  The following day Parliament passed the Abdication Act, to which the king gave his royal assent (I always find that funny – the king had to consent to the act allowing him to abdicate, having already abdicated the day before.  But that’s the constitution for you).   He then made a farewell broadcast and left for Austria as Prince Albert became George VI.

The defeat to Man City had sent Arsenal back to sixth, and the mood was not at all hopeful for the match against Portsmouth, who were currently sitting third in the table.  Portsmouth were undefeated at home, having won seven and drawn two of their matches, letting in only seven goals in those nine games, and although Arsenal’s away form was on the up (three wins, one draw, four defeats) it wasn’t so good as to give too much confidence.

Besides Arsenal’s team was full of changes.  Swindon was back in goal, but Hapgood, Crayston and Bowden were all out.  Leslie Compton switched from right win to left back and Bastin returned at his new novel position of right half.  Alex James came back at inside right, which was no mean replacement for Bowden.

And the result was… a 1-5 away win for Arsenal.  3-0 up at half time the result was never in doubt. Davidson got four (having previously only scored two all season) and of course Drake got the other.  That meant Drake had now scored eight goals across six consecutive league games; he truly was back in form.

The final match before Christmas was on the 19th at home to Chelsea who were 12th.  Chelsea had two wins, two draws and five defeats so far away from Stamford Bridge, and against Arsenal’s strong home form it was considered they had little chance even though they had won two of the last three.

There was only one change to the side: Bastin was out but Crayston, the regular number four, was back – and the confidence was still there.  Arsenal made it look just like old times with another 4-1 victory.  Kirchen (2), Drake and Davidson scored.  Drake had now scored in seven league matches in a row.  Arsenal were second just one point behind Sunderland who had been slaughtered 4-0 by Liverpool on 12 December and just scrapped a 2-1 win over Leeds on the 19th.

25 December 1936 saw another home game – this time against Preston North End.   Arsenal were one point behind Sunderland, playing a team in 14th position,  It was also the first game for Frank Boulton – and in fact was something of a route with Arsenal winning 4-1.  Drake got another two, Kirchen and Milne the other goals.  Arsenal had scored 13 goals in the last three games, while Drake had got 11 in his run of consecutive goalscoring games.

Everyone waited for the Sunderland result – and there was joy aplenty in the season of goodwill when the result came through – Sunderland had lost again – 2-0 to Birmingham.  Arsenal were top of the league on Christmas Day, on goal average just above Brentford.

Boxing Day saw Arsenal away to Everton who were not only 7th but also unbeaten at home so far.  Their last two games in fact had been at their own ground and they had won them 3-0 and 7-0 against Grimsby and Derby respectively.  There were no team changes, and it was felt that something had to give, but it ended as a one-all draw, Kirchen getting the goal.  Sunderland beat Sheffield Wednesday, but Brentford could only draw away to Bolton.

28 December 1936 was David Nelson’s first game, and a much more routine affair ending as a 3-1 win over Preston. Preston had now slipped to 18th before the game having lost 2-4 to Huddersfield in between the two games with Arsenal. Kirchen, Nelson and Milne scored, making it the fourth game in succession in which Kirchen had scored.  Sunderland beat Sheffield Wednesday to continue the keep up the pressure on Arsenal. 

Also coming in on this day were third choice keeper Frank Boulton and Bernard Joy at centre half.  Drake got a rest and Kirchen took over at centre forward.  The move of bringing in Boulton looked at first like a temporary decision but he kept his place right the way through the rest of the season – despite a set of unfortunate incidents in April.

Before the game Brentford, Sunderland and Charlton had all been equal with Arsenal.  All three had won, but with Arsenal winning as well, the position on top of the league at the end of the year was secure.

And as a little thought about the changing landscape of the country, as Arsenal took the train back to London it is possible that the players may have noted the occasional red telephone box in the villages they passed – the red K6 box that became famous as part of the British landscape.  The aim had been to provide every village with a post office with a coin box, and the plan had move forward at a pace.

Here’s the month’s summary.

Date Opposition Op pos H/A Result Pos Pts Crowd AC
05.12.1936 Manchester City  13 home L1-3 6 19  41,783 43,353
12.12.1936 Portsmouth  3 away W5-1 4 21  32,184  19,692
19.12.1936 Chelsea  12 home W4-1 2 23 49,917  43,353
25.12.1936 Preston North End  14 home W4-1 1 25 42,781  43,353
26.12.1936 Everton  7 away D1-1 1 26 59,440  30,292
28.12.1936 Preston North End 18 away W3-1 1 28 25,787  18,045

The abbreviations, as always…

  • 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 in league matches 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.

Arsenal had played six games and scored 18 goals through six different players.  Kirchen had got five, Drake had got five, and Davidson had got five.  It was quite a show.  They had gone from the threat of relegation to top of the league in under two months.  But as the year ended the top was indeed congested, and nothing as yet was certain.

There is one point to add: the breakdown between home and away.  Sunderland, as they had been in the previous season when they won the league were invincible at home, but Arsenal had the home/away balance that was the hallmark of the Chapman revolution.  We might compare with Huddersfield who, when Chapman had been manager, had also had the home and away balance.  Now they had gone half a season without winning away from home.


Meanwhile along the Seven Sisters Tottenham had won three of their five December games and were now 11th in the second division in which Blackpool had now taken a commanding lead.

Latest addition to the Arsenal History Society blog: the Index of Arsenal players

The index of all the major articles on the site about Arsenal players is now complete.  It comes in two parts:

A to K

L to Z

Arsenal in the 30s



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