13 January 1919: Arsenal in the days of the pandemic

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By Tony Attwood

In January 1919, with the war over, but the wartime football leagues continuing, discussions began about how the official Football League could be resumed.

And on 13 January 1919, there was a meeting of the Football League with representatives of all the 40 League clubs – except Glossop North End, which the Hill-Wood family had now pulled the plug on.  Indeed unlike Henry Norris who had bailed out Woolwich Arsenal with his own money in 1910, the Hill-Woods were made of less stern stuff, and having abandoned one club, now decided to go looking for a club that might make money rather than just lose it.  They did indeed find one – but not for several years yet.

The meeting’s agenda for the Football League included the issues of getting to away fixtures by train (not all lines were working, and rail prices had risen by 50% – and motor coaches did not arrive until 1925), the demands of the Players’ Union on wages, the state of the pitches, which had been neglected during the war and an extension to the season, to reduce the number of midweek games.  There was also a debate on uniting the Football League and the Southern League.

Arsenal’s chairman, Lt Col Sir Henry Norris, now no longer required on a daily basis at the War Office, took his full part in these debates, once more putting forward the view that there should be no maximum wage for players – although he was alone in this plea. Overall the League wanted wages cut, the Union ultimately settled on £2 a week.

The FA followed this with their own meeting the following day, formally allowing players to be paid (which they were being anyway), and allowing matches on days other than Saturdays, and public holidays.  As had been the case before the war, 1 May was designated as the day on which clubs could start registering players for the new season.

A third meeting then took place in the evening of the same day (14 January) which voted to extend the football season in 1919/20.   This was curious because with no extension to the number of clubs, there was no reason to go for an extension.  But then, when has football management ever been logical?

It also became clear at this meeting that following the previous days’ meeting Claude Kirby, chairman of Chelsea FC, had written to the Football League Management Committee demanding Chelsea be reinstated in the First Division, given that they had only been relegated because of the match-fixing activities of Liverpool and Manchester United in the last season before the cessation of the league for the duration.

On 18 January 1919 Arsenal played top of the league Brentford in the London Combination wartime league in front of 30,000 at Highbury.

And this is of note because this crowd appeared despite the fact that Spanish flu had arrived in the UK in May 1918, and had since reached unprecedented heights.  The government said nothing, but the local authorities advised the public to catch later trains to avoid the crush, wear extra layers of clothing, wash drinking glasses more thoroughly and avoid shaking hands and kissing.  Theatres banned children from attending performances and removed their carpets.

Other advice included eating plenty of porridge and cleaning teeth regularly.  Hospitals were overwhelmed, and the shortage of gravediggers led to bodies lying unburied for days.  Nothing was done to control the size of football crowds.

Eventually, the pandemic subsided in the summer of 1919 with over a quarter of a million people in Britain having died.

And throughout, talk of football continued. Having launched their notion that Chelsea and Arsenal should be in the First Division next season as part of the plan to increase the league by two clubs, the influential magazine Athletic News also noted that if neither were elected to the expanded league for the 1919/20 season, London would have no teams in the top tier of English for the first time since 1903/4.

Of course that might have been a cause of some rejoicing among the teams of the north, who might welcome the absence of away games at such a distance.  But there was a danger in pursuing this line, because the Southern League were still making noises about joining the Football League, and the London Combination was also talking up the possibility of their continuing with an enlarged London and the South East league.

Besides, the clubs getting the biggest crowds were in London, and London now had six teams of note, and if none were in the top division, they really might well leave the League en masse.

And then, at this moment of much pondering about the future, Charles Sutcliffe wrote an article concerning the future of football.  This was highly significant for when Sutcliffe spoke, football tended to listen.  He had been a player, a referee, and was the founder of the Referees’ Association.  Later he had become a member of the Football League Management Committee, introducing, among other things, automatic promotion and relegation.

He now proposed that the two top teams from the second division in 1914/15 should be promoted as everyone naturally expected.  But in addition, there should be a voting system to find two more clubs to join them in the first division.  This, he said, would allow other clubs to put right the wrong done to Chelsea, who had been relegated because of the match-fixing of Manchester United and Liverpool, and allow the clubs to vote for one other team to join Chelsea in the expanded top division.

The idea was instantly accepted.  No one even considered stopping football until the pandemic had run its course.  No one was willing to consider ejecting Manchester United and Liverpool from the league for match fixing.

If you would like to read more on this period of Arsenal’s history, and indeed see extracts from publications of the day on these topics, you might find the article “Arsenal in January 1919: rioting in the streets and the question of promotion” interesting.


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.


Just as the videos have been put in date order so we are now doing a day-by-day series of Arsenal events, looking to find one good story a day throughout the year.   This project started on 1 December, and we are adding to it each day.   The index is here.

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.

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.

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