Arsenal: the first year. If you know your Arsenal history you are in for a shock.

By Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews and Tony Attwood

It’s in every history book on Arsenal, and in every official Arsenal publication.  The club, we are told, has had five names – Dial Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal, and Arsenal.

It is at the start, matters are a little more murky.   We played almost all (if not all) of our amateur games as Royal Arsenal, and then moved to become Woolwich Arsenal FC when the club became a limited company and joined the Football League.

“The Arsenal” was a short lived name for the club adopted following the move to Highbury, and was soon replaced by “Arsenal”.   There’s an article on this change of name that will appear in the series “Arsenal Uncovered” in the club programme in a month or so.

But now it is time to go back to the start.  What about Dial Square?

We may note here that Soar and Tyler say on pages 24/5 of the Official Illustrated History that, “for the first few weeks of the team’s existence they had no name and were later referred to by Danskin as Dial Square, simply because many of the 15 founders worked there.”

And immediately we hit a wall, because virtually all the sources have 13 and not 15 founders.  And when something as basic as that appears to be an issue of contention, you can be sure there are going to be some arguments ahead.

Even where the official club sources (which we have found to be inaccurate about many topics) do quote dial Dial Square as the name of the club, they are, as Soar and Tyler say, only down as playing one or two matches, including the regularly reported game against Eastern Wanderers.

But even this game presents us with a problem.

There is but one account of what is proposed in many books of the reported Eastern Wanderers match – Elijah Watkins’ tale published in Association Football And The Men Who Made It in 1906.   Curiously, none of the histories make any mention of the fact that on 28 January 1887 Arsenal are reported in the Woolwich Gazette as having beaten the Wanderers 1-0 in a match played on Plumstead Common.   The paper does make mention of the fact that the Wanderers have been beaten by Arsenal again – but don’t tell us when the previous victories were.

But we should note that these victories were won by Royal Arsenal, not Dial Square and not by Woolwich Union or Woolwich United (of which more later).   Which means that the supposed Dial Square v Eastern Wanderers game is not included.

This, we may note, was published (and more than likely written) some 20 years after the event, and the question therefore must be asked at once – how accurate is anyone’s memory of any event 20 years on?  The answer is, sometimes good, sometimes not so good, and so from the start we must recognise that it is possible that Mr Watkins, our prime source, was mistaken.

We say “prime” source, because there is a second reference to the game – and that is Robert Thompson’s letter to Bernard Joy after “Forward, Arsenal!” was published in 1952 – although here the author doesn’t actually state the name of the opponents.

What we must note however is that this letter makes Watkins’ reminiscences look positively recent as Thompson is writing at least 56 years and two world wars after the match.  If memories from 20 years back are unreliable memories from 56 years ago are positively uncertain.

So as we look at the name of the original Arsenal team that supposedly took part in a game against Eastern Wanderers what we have is one man writing about a team whose name was never written down at the time, but which is now recorded 20 years later.

In terms of Eastern Wanderers themselves, we can be sure that they did exist, for not only have we got the record of a Royal Arsenal 1-0 victory over them on Plumstead Common, they are also recorded as playing against Millwall on 5th December 1885 at Glengall Road and won 3-1. The Glengall Road pitch was Millwall’s home for 1885-86 and can be seen here (and it is an excellent piece of historical work, well worth a look).

This patch of ground is on the Isle of Dogs, and looks like being where Dial Square allegedly played Eastern Wanderers on 11th December 1886. It is certainly where Alan Roper describes it in The Real Arsenal Story. The Millwall v Eastern W game is written as being played almost a year to the day before Arsenal’s reputed match with Eastern Wanderers.

So we have, in passing, a possible explanation for the Eastern Wanderers game – a simple mix up as to who played.  That is was not an Arsenal team playing there at all, but Millwall, playing at home.

Given the enormous difficulties Arsenal would have had in getting from Plumstead and Woolwich to the Isle of Dogs for a Saturday afternoon game in December (which have been discussed in detail in other articles on this site), given that no Eastern Wanderers player ever came forward later, as Arsenal moved to success, to say “I played in that game”, and given that there were spaces much nearer Woolwich where a team could play, there seems to be no real evidence to suggest that an Arsenal team did play against Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs.

Indeed, to put it bluntly, why would Millwall have offered Arsenal their ground to play the game?  At the very least they would have offered to play Arsenal themselves!

The story of Arsenal’s first year continues in the next article.

13 Replies to “Arsenal: the first year. If you know your Arsenal history you are in for a shock.”

  1. Thank you!

    These articles should be a litmus test for ALL true supporters. Those who are really interested may not respond, how can they? The number of clicks on these articles should reveal the number of true red through and through, hail, rain or shine gunners!!!

  2. Arsenal will be 125 years old on 1 December 2011. The one thing that we can be sure of is that the club was officially formed on 1 December 1886.

    We’ve had a further development today so keep an eye on the next few articles.

  3. Since you’ve established that Eastern Wanderers were an active club under that name at that time, and are not to be confused with the Wanderers that play in Bolton, Wolverhampton, or anywhere else; or with the Wanderers FC that won the first FA Cup in 1872, apparently folded in 1887, and were the model for a new club under the name founded in 2009 and playing in the Surrey South Eastern Combination…

    Maybe someone can be found who owns the copyright to the Eastern Wanderers name. Or perhaps there’s some library, somewhere, that has some sort of record. Based on the name, maybe whoever has the records is east of London in Kent or Essex.

  4. I’ve trawled through the local newspapers for the East End for that period and couldn’t find anything relating to them. Actually, I couldn’t find anything relating to football.

    We’ve been through the local papers for the Woolwich area and the only reference we have found is when Arsenal played them in 1887.

    I doubt that the name was copyrighted. The name itself indicates that they were homeless and I expect that they went out of existence soon after playing us.

  5. I might be preaching to the converted, but have any of you read the History and Full Record by Scott Grant and Colin White. First Published in 1988.
    Some of it’s records differ from other history books i’ve read on the club.

  6. What an amazing job this is. Very interesting and I think it took you guys ages to go through all those newspapers. Keep it up.

  7. Andy,

    This is brilliant work. Can you please write the next official Arsenal history because the current version has more holes in it than a sieve??

  8. Stevo: the book is on the way written by Andy, and the other two of us working on this. It is WOOLWICH ARSENAL: THE CLUB THAT CHANGED FOOTBALL. Arsenal FC have indicated that they are interested in stocking it. It should be out early next year.


  9. another one on the “to buy” list 😉 or to be gifted one. Just got to see that a drop a hint in time to my kids 🙂

  10. Allezkev,

    You are correct that the History and Full Record by Scott Grant and Colin White does have a different slant on the history. They do include many direct newspaper quotes and ideas. Unfortunately they also did take as read some matters which required further research. Also they did not footnote or reference their work. However having said that it is a labour of love and the most comprehensive source thus far. It would be great to be able to discuss their sources as they have some very good notions and information. Unfortunately we can’t locate them. Mark

  11. Hi, Looking to find out if the club was actually called Royal Arsenal before Christmas Day 1886 or did the clubs name change from Dial Square to Royal Arsenal at that very meeting?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *