11 December 1886 Arsenal’s birthday, and the birth of a famous early player

by Tony Attwood

Two events for the price of one: 11 December 1881 Thomas Tindal Fitchie was born.  Five years later on the same day, Arsenal’s first and only game under the name Dial Square was played, with Dial Square beating Eastern Wanderers 6-0.

So let’s start with the latter and then take ourselves on to Mr Fitchie to see the connecton.

When the Arsenal History Society was formed there was no evidence we could immediately lay our hands on to show this game actually took place, but our research eventually found the relevant missing newspaper evidence, including the only contemporary report of the match – something which had been lost for 100 years.  After this match against Eastern Wanderers, membership of the Dial Square club was expanded from just those who worked in the Dial Square factory to everyone working for the Woolwich Arsenal.

But then what of Thomas Tindal Fitchie who celebrated his fifth birthday on the day of the match?  How does he fit into the story? And indeed why?

TT Fitchie was in fact the only man ever to be signed by Arsenal five times.  He became a travelling salesman with Jacques & Co, a sports goods and games manufacturer. Arsenal encouraged his football career as it allowed them access to the clubs and the players who were his team-mates. He was what we might call a travelling player-scout. We get a hint of his life through a list of the clubs he turned out for

  • West Norwood
  • Woolwich Arsenal
  • Tottenham Hotspur
  • Woolwich Arsenal
  • London Caledonians
  • Woolwich Arsenal
  • Queen’s Park
  • Fulhm
  • London Caledonans
  • Woolwich Arsenal
  • Queen’s Park
  • Norwich City
  • Queen’s Park
  • Brighton and Hove Albion
  • Woolwich Arsenal
  • Glossop
  • Fulham

He had the nickname “Prince of Dribblers”, which makes him a very early Stanley Matthews, as well as obviously being a good businessman.

Fitchie came to Woolwich Arsenal in November 1901, played three games and scored three goals.  He went off on his salesman career, and came back in 1903 for an away game at Lincoln, and then was away again until he played away against Notts County in December 1904 when with Arsenal in the first division, he scored a hat trick – quite a return!  In his run he scored six in nine games, before he was off again.

He then managed to curtail his business operations long enough to play for Scotland against Wales in March 1905 – the first of four caps (he scored once).

In 1905/6 he scored nine goals in 22 games in the league and two goals in five FA Cup games (he played in the semi-final against Newcastle) and was top scorer.

But still they couldn’t hold him at the club, and his wandering continued.  He didn’t play in the next two seasons, but played 21 times in 1908/9 and scored 9 times. In all, he played 63 times for Arsenal and scored 30 goals.

But this was a remarkable man – not content with all he had done so far he joined The Pilgrims, a British side that toured the USA in 1909 as a freelance club demonstrating the game.

By 1909, football in the United States was flourishing, with four leagues in the New York/New Jersey area active, plus two state cup competitions.  A similar story of developing interest was to be found across the US from New England to the south west.  Slowly semi-professionalism was being introduced and when the Eastern Soccer League was founded in 1910 it seemed that football would soon play a major part in American sporting life.

As for the Prince of Dribblers he concluded his career in 1912. So what else do we know of him.

The first thing we have to recognise is that Thomas Tindal Fitchie was an amateur player – although he was undoubtedly paid for his trip to the US (where he probably set up some new business venture).

Other than that, at first we didn’t know, so I did the obvious thing.  I wrote an article on the Arsenal History Society site appealing for more information, and what should I get back, but an email from Andrew Fitchie saying…

“TT Fitchie was my granddad and I have carried out a fair amount of research into his playing days. I still have his international caps, his jersey badges (the international kit was owned by Lord Roseberry in those days so no swapping shirts!!). Sadly his four medals were stolen from my Dad. I have original Glasgow newspaper reports for pretty much all of his games for Queens Park and the four internationals.

“As a young boy, I heard a great deal about his time as an amateur when professionalism was beginning in earnest. This fuelled my love of football.

“TT was a travelling salesman with Jacques & Co a sports goods and games manufacturer. They encouraged his football career as it allowed them access to the clubs and the players who were his team mates – a bit like sponsorship, I suppose. As an amateur, he was not permitted to be paid. if he scored, he would often find a guinea in his boots after showering.

“In 1909, his great friend Vivian Woodward (Spurs and England and also an amateur), asked him to go on the Pilgrims tour to the States. They sailed on the Cunard Line – SS Mauritania – and I have his US immigration note from the Ellis Island landing in New York in autumn 1909. There was a lot of media interest since this was in fact the second Pilgrim’s tour and senior FA reps were also with the team. The Pilgrims handed out some heavy thrashings but also occasionally met their match because some of the teams were Scots and Irish immigrants (miners )who knew how to play.

“TT broke his ankle badly mid-tour and in those days it was touch and go if he would play again. He did, as you say in your summary of his career. In 1912 he got married – so that probably stopped the wanderings!! He served in France with the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders in the Great War and, like many soldiers, contracted a lung disorder from which he eventually died in 1947.

“During the first season he was capped for Scotland he was playing for Queens Park against Hearts at Tynecastle. Against him was Charlie Thompson, centre half, an established internationalist. They were good pals but Charlie had joked that TT should not be playing inside left because he was not naturally left footed. TT proceeded to nutmeg big Charlie twice in a row in front of the home crowd.

“Incidentally the Arsenal 08/09 team photo season has TT as an insert – so clearly he was hard to track down!!

“I just wish I had met him.”

And that is how history works.  Well, it does sometimes. We do some research, and then the person who really knows what’s what in the story comes in and helps us out.

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