The passing of Arsenal’s founding father – Jack Humble
Jack Humble, one of the founding fathers and the first-ever chairman of Woolwich Arsenal FC, died on this day in 1931 after a lifetime of service to the club. He played for Royal Arsenal, joined the committee that ran the club in the early days, and worked continuously to save the club from bankruptcy in 1910, and remained a director of the club until 1927 when the Hill-Wood takeover ejected him, seemingly without a word of thanks.
As such he was Arsenal’s last direct connection with those who took Royal Arsenal from being an amateur team playing friendly matches on the journey to professionalism, into the league, through the rescue by Henry Norris, and onto Highbury. He lived long enough to see Arsenal win the FA Cup, and sadly died halfway through the first title-winning season. His name is now all but forgotten, yet without him there would be no Arsenal as we know it today, not least because he was the man who formed the link between Norris and the supporters’ groups that opposed the Norris takeover of the club when it faced bankruptcy.
There’s general agreement that the club that became Arsenal was formed in December 1886 and most histories of the club give details of several men who played a leading role in the club from this earliest moment. But my personal view is that one man stands out above all the others. He is the man of great principle who made Arsenal his life, and who supported the club almost until his dying day, despite the way the club kicked him out in 1927. He is also the man who at two key moments was involved in the decisions that ensured that Arsenal first survived, and then grew. He is Jack Humble and in relation to this research I must thank Andy Kelly, a fellow member of AISA.
As you will probably know the foundation of Arsenal was laid with Dial Square FC which quickly mutated into Royal Arsenal. From this club Woolwich Arsenal was born in 1891, and after two years of playing friendlies, (while trying to form the new Southern League) they were admitted to the Football League to play their first league game on September 2, 1893.
It is of course true that no one man was fully responsible for this set of activities that led to Dial Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal and Arsenal FC, but when histories of the club are written, several names are put forwards as “founders”. These include Fred Beardsley, Joseph Bates, and David Danskin.
Yet the man who should really be remembered as the key player among the founders is John Wilkinson Humble (known as Jack): 1862 to 1931.
Jack Humble was born in Hartburn, (today a suburb of Stockton on Tees), County Durham, and moved to London in 1880 to work at the Royal Arsenal. The importance of Royal Arsenal in the country’s culture and history at this time cannot be over-estimated. For in an era of wars involving the British Empire it was one of (and by far the largest of) only three royal munitions factories. Year on year The Royal Arsenal grew, employing over 25,000 workers in its various plants in Woolwich and across Plumstead Marshes.
The story is that Jack and his brother walked around 400 miles from their village to the Royal Arsenal to find work, although we have no clear evidence that this is more than an invented media tale.
But we do know that Jack was a member of local socialist parties, who believed in workers’ rights, shorter working hours and more time for leisure activities, including of course football.
As such he moved south not only to find work but to be with like-minded people, for in 1868 the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society had been formed by workers at the Royal Arsenal. The area was a centre of the new thinking concerning the rights of the working man.
We know that Jack Humble wanted the club to become professional, and he was the leading committee member involved in this drive. At the 1891 AGM it was he who made the first proposal for paying the players.
After an abortive attempt to form a Southern League, Arsenal were the first southern club to join the Football League with Jack Humble as a director – and the club were able to do this because of Humble’s insistence that the club should be professional.
Indeed it is not unreasonable to say that this is one of the four most important and utterly fundamental moments in Arsenal’s early history, which each defined our future – and Jack was there each time.
The first is going pro in 1891, and the second was joining the League in 1893 (at which point Jack became chairman of the club).
The third was to welcome the involvement of Henry Norris in the club in 1910 when the club would have folded without his financial input. And the fourth was his support for the move out of Plumstead to Highbury. Indeed when that move happened Jack was not only the sole member of the original founders who were still at the club – he was the only director who had been there in 1891, and who was still with the club. And in case there is ever any doubt about the need to move, we should remember that the club ended its time in Plumstead playing in front of 3,000 people.
During the first world war Jack continued to work at the Royal Arsenal as a gun inspector, and spent World War I seconded in Sheffield and then Norway, but throughout he remained a director of Arsenal and returned to the club once the war was over.
Thus uniquely he not only laid the foundations of the club, and the foundations of the original club, he worked with Henry Norris to rebuild the club after it went into administration in 1910. That such a monumental set of achievements is not recorded at Arsenal stadium is indeed sad. For had Norris and Humble not been able to work with each other, it is doubtful that the club would have survived between 1910 and 1913 when Arsenal moved north to Highbury.
Jack stayed as a director until 1929, when the Hill-Wood group of directors who had taken over the club forced Henry Norris out, and Jack Humble resigned as well.
He died on 18 December 1931 leaving £1358 9s 9d (about £100,000 today) to his widow and his eldest son.
But let me leave you, if I may, with one other snippet, which shows just how deep his involvement was.
One of the many false statements about Jack in the reference works that mention him, is that which says he did not play for Arsenal. In fact he did. Records of the games for the early years of the club are sketchy. But we know he played either as a full-back or wing half-back in these first team games…
- 15/10/1887 Clapham Pilgrims (H) 2-2
- 5/11/1887 Grange Institute (H) 4-0
- 18/2/1888 Erith (H) 2-1
- 25/2/1888 Forest Gate Alliance (H) 1-1
- 3/3/1888 Grange Institute (H) 2-1
- 10/3/1888 Brixton Rangers (A) 9-3
- 30/3/1888 Millwall Rovers (H) 3-0
- 15/9/1888 London Caledonians (H) 3-3
Jack also played for the Reserves in the early years.
- 26/11/1887 Opponents unknown (A) 0-1
- 27/10/1888 Upton Ivanhoe (A) London Junior Cup 4-3
- 5/1/1889 Thistle (H) 1-0
- 2/2/1889 Leytonstone (A) 1-1
- 9/2/1889 Ponsonby Rovers (H) 2-0
- 9/3/1889 Crayford (H) 3-0
- 16/3/1889 Nunhead (A) 1-1
- 6/4/1889 Caledonians (H) 6-1
This, as I have said, is just the start of the story of Jack Humble. I hope to have more information soon – and to make progress with the big project: getting the club to recognise the supreme importance of this man in the history of Arsenal.
For details of the videos sorted by club, and videos in the order we published them, plus our 21 golden great videos please see here.
100 Years in the First Division: the absolute complete story of Arsenal’s promotion in 1919.
Henry Norris at the Arsenal: There is a full index to the series here.
Arsenal in the 1930s: The most comprehensive series on the decade ever
Arsenal in the 1970s: Every match and every intrigue reviewed in detail.