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.