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19 February 1916: Arsenal’s player tragically dies during a game

Bob Benson tragically died aged 33 on this day during a wartime game at Highbury on this day.  He had arrived as a spectator but was persuaded to play as Arsenal were a man short.

Robert William Benson, known as “Bob” was born in Whitehaven in Cumbria on 9 February 1883.

His first club is recorded as Shankhouse of the Northern Alliance, and then Shalwell (a district near Newcastle – although I can find no record of the club), and Wikipedia suggests that at the same time he worked as a coal-miner.  He signed as a professional for Newcastle in 1902.

He played only one game for Newcastle (v Liverpool) and left for Southern League Southampton in 1904 for a fee of £150, playing for the club for the first time on 1 October 1904 in a draw with Brighton.

Descriptions of him include “snuffing out [the opposition’s] moves with his sense of anticipation“.

He was also given the job of taking penalties, and clearly had a great sense of humour since he apparently adopted the process of running the full length of the pitch before kicking the ball.  But unfortunately, the joke turned a little sour as he kept missing, and so was relieved of his duty as penalty taker after a while.

He played 19 times for Southampton before leaving to move to Sheffield United (then in the First Division) for a fee once again of £150.

This time he did stay – for eight years.  He also got his penalty taking sorted for he scored 20 during his time in Yorkshire ,playing for them 283 times.

He also played in the England tour of South Africa in 1910 and for England in a full international in February 1913 against Ireland.

And so to Woolwich Arsenal – whom he joined in November 1913 after the move to the north of the river.  He played away to Bristol City on 29 November 1913.  It was a 1-1 draw in front of a crowd of 15,000.

He played at left back but for the final game of the 1914-15 season (the last match before the war and his last match for the club) he played at centre forward with HE King moving to number 8 in a patchwork end-of-season game. He scored twice in a 7-0 win at Highbury.  (There are suggestions elsewhere that he made a number of appearances at centre forward, but in league terms it was just the one).

The Football League was suspended in 1915 for the duration but The London Combination was created in order to provide some entertainment for those still in the country.  Normal rules of registration etc were abolished and players played where there was a vacancy and a game.

Bob Benson went to work at Royal Arsenal when the league stopped and on 19 February 1916 he went to a London Combination match between Arsenal and Reading at Highbury.  Joe Shaw did not make it to the game, and Benson took his place at the last minute, although he had not been playing since that match against Forest.    He collapsed on the pitch in the second half and died in the changing rooms a little later, of a burst blood vessel.  He was just 33.

It is said he was buried wearing his Arsenal shirt, and a testimonial was held for him against the Rest of London.  5000 turned up and the proceeds went to his widow.

He played 54 first class games for Arsenal over his two second division seasons.


If you are interested there is a lot more about the Arsenal defeat to Walsall, and what happened after, on the Arsenal History Society website.

For thoughts on Arsenal today please see Untold Arsenal


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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