26 October 1863: Arsenal and the beginning of football


By Tony Attwood

You may well have heard the tale about a youngster called William Webb Ellis picking up the ball during a football match and running with it, thus creating rugby.  That is supposed to have happened in 1823.

The problem is football (in terms of a game in which the ball is not picked up except by the keeper – the clue is in the name “foot” and “ball”) didn’t exist in 1823.

Yes there had been a variety of games which could be called “football” in England since the 19th century, but it wasn’t really a game with a set of agreed rules.

By the time the rules of football came to be codified, numerous different versions of the game existed each with their own rules.  There were the Cambridge Rules, the Sheffield Rules, and many others similarly named, each describing a game when holding the ball and running with it were not allowed.  But apart from that notion of “ball” and “foot” they didn’t have that much in common with the game as it was played when the Football League started in 1888.

The first serious attempt to set up the rules of football came in 1862 when the then famous headteacher of Uppingham School in the Midlands, Edward Thring, drew up a new set of rules for something that was quite akin to football.

Then on 26 October 1863 ten London clubs met together at the Freemason’s Tavern to take those rules and evolve them into something that they could all agree on – a game played without handling the ball.

The man behind this move was Ebenezer Cobb Morley. He was a founding member of the Football Association in 1863. In 1862, as captain of Barnes, he had written to Bell’s Life newspaper proposing the creation of a set of rules, and later became the first secretary of the Football Association.  He also drew up the first set of rules and played in the first modern style football match in 1863.  It was a goalless draw.

Matters progressed quickly, interest grew and in 1872 the first FA Cup final was held, with 2000 in attendance.

However it was not until 1877 that a unification occurred between two widely used different sets of rules: the London Rules and the Sheffield Rules, and by 1883 some clubs in the north of England had adopted these rules – and indeed started to pay players.  The FA tried to stop this but eventually gave in.

Given the growth of interest in the newly codified football it was not surprising that when on 4 October 1886 the members of Dial Square Cricket Club held their end of season night out at the Prince of Wales Public House, Plumstead Common, that the idea arose of a football team being formed.  The club became known as Dial Square FC

On 14 November Eastern Wanderers FC (a team formed the year before) posted an advertisement in “The Referee” newspaper asking for teams to play them on certain dates – including 11 December.  This was indeed a common approach for clubs at the time, there being no leagues to play in – any club interested would reply by post (Royal Mail have been established almost 250 years earlier) and the date and location would be agreed.

This game was played on the Isle of Dogs and Dial Square won.  It was in fact the only game Dial Square FC played, for by the time their next match came around they were known as Royal Arsenal, and thenceforth played a variety of friendlies.

Two years later the Football League was established by 12 professional clubs from the northwest and midlands.  Royal Arsenal were not involved, but over the next few years their status grew. The club became professional in 1891 and joined the Football League Division 2 in 1893.

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The Arsenal History Society is part of the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association – a body which gives positive support to the club, and has regular meetings with directors and senior officials of the club to represent the views of its members to the club.  You can read more about AISA on its website.

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