14 March 1908: Arsenal fans set fire to stadium

By Tony Attwood

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Arsenal were probably the first, or at least one of the first clubs to arrange away-day excursions to football matches.  And certainly, if there were other clubs doing what Arsenal did in terms of away day games, they didn’t do it on such a scale.  Nor indeed with such results.

As the volume “The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal” by Mark Andrews shows there were often 2000 or 3000 away fans at Arsenal games before the first world war – all of course travelling by train.

Many of these fans worked in the Torpedo Factory at Woolwich and it is their familiarity with explosives and incendiary devices that led to the tendency for fans to bring explosives on trips, letting them off on the trains on the way to matches, and indeed in the ground.

The Torpedo Factory workmen were described by the Woolwich Gazette as “among the very elite of our artisans”.

The most notorious action by these excursionists at a ground occurred on 14 March 1908 when their on-going firework display almost destroyed a stand. The Kentish Independent of 20 March 1908 received its information from the following understated extract in the Football Post.


“Just after the conclusion of the match, the stand on the ground behind the Trent goal was discovered to be on fire, but a number of attendants speedily procured buckets of water and subdued the outbreak. It is supposed that a lighted match, or, more likely still, one of the fireworks let off during the game had fallen beneath the woodwork, smouldered, and eventually broken into flame”

But the Arsenal fans did not just throw fireworks around.   For according to a letter to the paper, during half-time, the away support (called “the invaders”) “gambolled, wrestled, danced jigs, raced about the field with the ball, confusing and sorely trying the lenient police force, who might easily have placed at least one or two under arrest.”

Additionally, another report on the same incident noted that “someone produced a football, and in an instance there was a mad crowd on the playing field, amongst whom were several “red caps” and a man with a wooden leg, who had a drive at the ball with his timber toe”.

The same article stated that the behaviour of those at Nottingham before the game had “brought discredit upon Woolwich”. Carrying on it says: “nothing of the fireworks and decoration of their person with red hats, parasols and favours, etc, except to say that they all add to the fiendish aspect of the orgie”.

This was indeed all part of the pre-industrial misrule traditions of the carnival and fete which were taken up by those now experiencing the notion of the “excursion” for the first time, at the turn of the century.

It is possible that these people started throwing fireworks at games as early as 1893, but the main torrent of gunpowder mingling with all the other football smells was between 1904 and 1908.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, in terms of its support, the Torpedo Factory was moved to Greenock in 1910, as the government were looking to centralise this ordnance production.  As a result almost all the men in the torpedo factory migrated to Scotland in order to remain in work. This strapped Arsenal of much away support and was the most likely factor in the subsequent falloff in enthusiasm for “Excursions”, more so than the poor team performances.

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