28 June: Arsenal gain possession of their new ground 10 weeks before the first match


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28 June 1913: Woolwich Arsenal gain possession of the Gillespie Road site just 10 weeks before the first match of the season!

By Tony Attwood

Tottenham Hotspur had called for an EGM of the Football League in 1913 to try to stop Arsenal’s move to Islington.  That was defeated at the League’s AGM on May 26, although Tottenham used the meeting to lay into Henry Norris the Arsenal chairman with a vigour. This was the event that led to the perpetuation of anti-Norris propaganda that is continued in the media to this day. Meanwhile both Norris and Hall resigned as directors of Fulham, but Fulham turned down their resignations.

Thus Norris triumphed twice: once by getting Arsenal to move to north London, and once in making Tottenham’s directors look foolish in putting forward extravagant demands that not only the League itself, but the majority of League clubs, rejected.

Woolwich Arsenal opened at the Gillespie Road ground on September 6th 1913, with the programme noting the continuance of the traditions of the Woolwich club, despite the change of venue.

Significantly after the move to Highbury, Henry Norris gave George Allison a job as editor of the club programme and author of the “Gunners’ Mate” column.

The club, although now in the 2nd division, saw its playing record improve, and the average crowd increased by a huge 14,000 from the last season at the Manor Ground. Tottenham’s fears that the arrival of Woolwich Arsenal in the district would affect their crowds were allayed when they saw their average home attendance increase by a healthy 5,000.

But Norris did not get everything his own way with the move.  He most certainly wanted to buy the ground at Gillespie Road, but instead he was forced to lease it on a full repairing lease basis for 21 years, with the caveat that he could be asked to return the ground to the owners in its original condition at the end of the lease.

He was also refused permission to allow gambling or to sell alcohol on the ground, which denied the club a useful income.  Obviously, the spectators had the option to buy their drinks at pubs before the game, and bring their own drinks into the game (there was little chance of anyone stopping such activity even if it was technically prohibited by the lease) so the level of drinking was hardly reduced, but the income went to the local publicans not to Arsenal.

Thirdly, the club was refused the right to play at the ground on Sundays, Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday.   Although the Sunday issue was an irrelevance (matches were never played on a Sunday) this religious holiday ban was something of a blow.  However since the club would, as a result of the ban, play away on Christmas Day (and get a proportion of the income for that match) they would automatically get matches at home on Boxing Day and Easter Saturday, it was not too much of a rebuff.

The lease arrangement was a gamble, but Norris knew the college that owned the site was in severe financial straits and would never be in a position to take the land back.   The worst that could happen was that a very rich benefactor might take over the college in 21 years’ time, but it seemed highly unlikely as if the club was a success, that would cause a lot of ill-feeling between supporters and the college.  Besides the rest of the college’s buildings were in a poor state, and any such benefactor would surely have been more likely to move out totally and build a new site, rather than try and repair the Gillespie Road site.

With these thoughts in mind there is no doubt that Norris emerges as a consummate negotiator, and indeed if we bear in mind his position on the moral high ground over the allegations about Liverpool being involved in a match-fixing scandal in 1912/13 we can see how he laid the groundwork for future debates by picking issues as he went along that could later be used to his benefit.

In fact, Norris, for all his reputation as a man of bravado and outspokenness knew exactly when to speak and when to stay quiet – as when he attended the meeting of Islington Council in April 1913.  After hearing from the Defence Committee, the Council voted to do what it could to stop the move of the club to Highbury.  Norris was at this meeting but said not a word.  He knew that the Council had not a hope of stopping him, so he left it at that.

Woolwich Arsenal lost £2,000 in its final season at the Manor Ground (about £250,000 in today’s money) but that was nothing compared to the cost of preparing the Gillespie Road ground through the summer.  This was estimated at £20,000 (£2.5m today) and Norris paid for this out of his own pocket.

The lease for the land was signed at the end of April 1913, and the first game at Gillespie Road took place on September 6th against Leicester Fosse.

True, the ground certainly wasn’t ready and the grandstand was far from finished.  But nevertheless, 20,000 people turned up to see the newly installed team and the mood in North London was electric.  Tottenham like Arsenal started the new campaign well, winning the first three fixtures, and in the local press the response to Arsenal changed, with letters now commenting that within a quarter of an hour of the game ending, the streets were once again quiet.

As for the name of the stadium, that was simple: it was called Gillespie Road.

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.

100 Years: 100 Years in the First Division

Arsenal today: Untold Arsenal 

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