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4 April 1913: When Islington Council voted Arsenal out of the borough

by Tony Attwood

On April 4th 1913 the “Highbury Defence Committee” persuaded Islington Council to discuss the proposed move of Woolwich Arsenal FC from Plumstead to Highbury.  The council agreed to do all it could to stop Arsenal coming to Islington.

Meanwhile, countering the Defence Committee’s petition to the religious college which was leasing its playing fields to Woolwich Arsenal FC, and upon which Highbury Stadium was to be built, local shopkeepers retaliated with their own petition welcoming the move as a way of boosting trade.

The League’s management committee had already turned down the demand for a vote on Arsenal’s move from Plumstead to Highbury, a demand proposed by Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham’s response was to by-pass the management committee and appeal directly to the League as a whole.

However, although entry into the Football League might be a matter for voting by clubs already in the Football League, the physical location of where the clubs played was quite clearly established through a vote of the committee in 1910 as being a matter for the clubs alone.  This resolution had occurred when Henry Norris had initially explored the idea of Woolwich Arsenal ground sharing with Fulham FC.  The League had already confirmed this view that where clubs played was not a matter over which they had jurisdiction on 1st March 1913.   There was in short nothing in the rule book as to where a club might play – an omission more recently exploited by Wimbledon when they became MK Dons.

Henry Norris had made his public statement on 4th March confirming the location and the timing of the move of Woolwich Arsenal to a new ground.  It is perhaps a day that really ought to be commemorated each year by Arsenal, for without that decision being announced on that day, the club would most certainly have died, given that its crowds at Plumstead had sunk to a financially unsustainable level.

Tottenham however would still not let go and continued to argue that there should be an emergency general meeting of the League to discuss the issue.  There is no doubt that they also encouraged either the setting up of, or the development of, the Highbury Defence Committee which was formed by local residents to oppose the move.

The Committee launched a petition and did manage to persuade a majority of members on Islington Council to oppose the development.  But Islington Council itself had limited powers in the affair, and there was never any chance that they could have an effect on the change of use of the ground, no matter how much noise local councillors made.

Tottenham also failed in their attempt to get an EGM of the Football League called – undoubtedly because the overwhelming majority of clubs were in the Midlands and Northwest, and for them a journey to a ground with an easy connection from Kings Cross station was infinitely preferable to the journey that they had previously had to undertake to Plumstead.  Besides, as we have noted in previous articles, players from the north liked coming to London, for the chance it gave them to have an evening in the West End.

There was also a desire to see League football established in London, in order to limit the aspirations of the Southern League whose player contracts were much more favourable to players than those of the Football League.

The story of Arsenal’s move remained the main talking point in football for a couple of weeks but was then taken off the main sports pages by none other than Henry Norris who wrote a newspaper article suggesting that a match between Liverpool and Chelsea had been fixed to help Chelsea avoid relegation.

Meanwhile, in the Islington of 1913, emotions were starting to get heated.  Residents began to fret considerably about the thought of football ne’er-do-wells and thugs rampaging through their area, and accused football supporters of the most outrageous crimes and behaviour as part of their natural everyday demeanour.

Indeed so strong, and indeed appalling, were the claims that football fans from across the country began to respond to the accusations, and for some time Athletic News, the leading football weekly, was full of denouncements of the residents of Islington.

As we all know, the activities of the Highbury Defence Committee, Tottenham Hotspur FC and the council had no effect, and Arsenal came to Islington.

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