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To know the origins of Arsenal you must know about life in 1886

By Tony Attwood

The 1880s was an era of strikes – indeed it was an era that carried on all the way to the first world war.  The TUC had been formed in 1868 and miners, girls who make matchboxes, gas workers, dock workers and many more trades saw strike action happening…  The unskilled workers were flexing their muscles despite or because of their poverty.

It was also the period of unbridled industrial development.  The underground system in central London – the first of its kind in the world – had by the time Dial Square FC (who for simplicity from here I shall refer to in all its manifestations as Arsenal) started, although with steam trains on the partially submerged Metropolitan line, not electric trains.  The first electric train started to run in 1890.

Indeed the Underground was a symbol of the industrial society and industrial triumph – which is what England had become.  But the 1850s, for the first time ever, more than half the population lived in towns rather than villages and farming communities, and this resulted in a dramatic rise in population during the 19th century the population rose from 9 million to 41 million.  And with that explosion, the traditional forms of society were overthrown.   The working classes, with their own ways of living, often their own language, and their propensity to demand a share in the riches of the kingdom, were starting to flex their muscles.

It is therefore no surprise at all, that they also started their own sport: which was organised league football.  Just as the unions represented the working class getting serious so football was the working class at play.

This was also a society in flux.  Millions left for a better life in the United States or Australia, but others came in.  Irish families arrived escaping the famine in the 1840s,  Russian Jews escaped persecution in the 1880s and so on.  It was a continuous process of change on all fronts.   From the era 100 years before where you knew everyone who lived in your village, now you probably didn’t know most of the people who lived in your street.

And throughout it all, the working class dominated numerically.

A working definition of a middle class family arose: which is quite different from any definition used by sociologists today.  If you were middle class you had a servant.  No servant, and you were working class.  If you were a working class woman looking for work you either went into a factory or into service.

The man was very much the head of the working class family, but by the time Arsenal was founded in 1886, the old law handing all a woman’s property over to a man upon marriage had ended, and divorce was legal.  In the working class districts many couples lived together and had families without any form of legal ceremony.

But higher up society women were flexing their political will, and were given full rights to get degrees in 1878.  Indeed as noted in “Making the Arsenal” by 1910 a third of all graduates from the university were women.  (Other more old fashioned universities took much longer to get this sorted – and from that you can guess where I got my degree).   Women were getting the vote in local elections (although property conditions applied which restricted the number of women who could vote), but voting in the general elections did not happen until after the first world war.

Although the church was important by the 1850s only about 40% went to church on a Sunday, and by the time Arsenal was formed the figure was down to about 30%.  Victoria was still on the thrown, but this was not the classic Victorian society.

Poverty was part of the world, and by the end of the century a quarter of the population was living at below subsistence level.  A change in attitude can be seen at this time with the formation of the Salvation Army in the 1870s, and by the 1890s some schools began providing poor children with a free breakfast of bread and jam and a mug of cocoa. Boot funds provide shoes for poor children.  The new approach was to help the poor, rather than blame them for being poor.

At the time Arsenal FC was formed, housing conditions for the working classes were improving and from 1875 most municipal authorities passed building laws which set out minimum standards for new houses.  So it is likely that most Arsenal players lived in houses with two rooms downstairs and two or three bedrooms upstairs.  Most would have had a small garden.

Many would still have had an outside toilet, but newer working class houses were being build with indoor facilities.  The newer houses also had a scullery with space for washing clothes.  Most homes would have gaslight – at least downstairs, and by the time Arsenal were in the league many of the houses of the players would have had gas cookers, rather than coal burning stoves.

As for food, fish and chip shops were common (with tomato ketchup which came onto the market in 1874) by the time Arsenal started to play, and there were convenience foods in tins and jars went on sale.

Biscuits were common, as were chocolate bars, although milk chocolate was only just starting to reach the shops.

I have written elsewhere about the supposed first game of Dial Square FC, and how it would have been played after work on Saturday.  Saturday morning work was the norm – the weekend holiday was saturday afternoon and sunday.

As for football, the London Football Association devised the rules of football in 1863. The first international between England and Scotland was played in 1872 – and at the same time other sports were drawing up their rules.  Football was by no means the only new organised sport of the time – there was also boxing, athletics, rugby, tennis, snooker, volleyball, all setting up their associations and starting competitions at this time.

For many cycling was the participation sport of choice, many women took up archery, and indoor games (especially Ludo) were starting to take hold.  But with better lighting, universal literacy, and the growing trade in printing, books and newspapers were consumed in great number.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first detective story The Murders In The Rue Morgue in 1841 and the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Other entertainments included the theatre, going to the seaside, evenings around the piano, photography, visiting public parks and children’s playgrounds (which started in the 1850s) and evenings in the pub (there were no licensing laws).

Finally, the military.   Arsenal players were civilians employed in a military working environment.   This was the era of the revolver and the machine gun, and while war on land was still anticipated (and fought in the Boer War) war at sea was also very much on the agenda.  Steam engines were introduced into the ships, and Britain was building a new navy.    But it is perhaps interesting to conclude this short review with a note that flogging in the armed forces was not abolished until 1881 – just five years before Arsenal FC was formed.

3 comments to To know the origins of Arsenal you must know about life in 1886

  • Steve Palmer

    Very nice peice,shows you what mattered to people in those days,maybe also being able to feild an all England side, mind you we may even get back to the stage where even half of the team are English seeing how its called the English Premier League

  • Tony Attwood

    Steve – I don’t think Arsenal ever fielded an all-England side. As the pieces we’ve done on the team at various dates from 1893 onwards, many of the Woolwich Arsenal team certainly didn’t qualify to play for England. In this regard the current Arsenal team reflects the traditions and core values of Royal Arsenal and Woolwich Arsenal.

  • Andy Kelly

    It wasn’t just Arsenal. The Preston “Invicibles” that won the FA Cup in 1889 only had 4 Englishmen in the team and Tottenham’s 1901 FA Cup winning team only had 3 Englishmen.

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