By Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews and Tony Attwood
This is part four of the series of articles concerning the very origins of Arsenal FC.
We have already cast significant doubt on whether there was a football club called Dial Square FC, and have found it hard to trace any real link between Dial Square Cricket Club (football section) and Arsenal.
We found (as was mentioned before) nothing to do with Dial Square FC in the Kentish Independent between August 1886 and January 1887. Ditto the Kentish Mercury for the same period.
However there is a score in the press for Royal Arsenal v. Erith, which shows that the name was invented or changed BEFORE and not after that match.
And that’s it, apart from one much later commentary. It is a letter from Tom Mc Coy to F M Shaw regarding “an old photography of an WUFC football team”.
Now we know that a number of sources suggest that Fred Beardsley played for a pre-Dial Square and pre-Royal Arsenal club which it has been reported as being called Woolwich Union. That club’s existence was only known until now via a comment from Beardsley to his son. And we have been dubious about this because Woolwich Union seemed such an unlikely name for a club.
But we have turned up something else – Woolwich United.
We have seen a letter written in 1966 from an old man remembering earlier days. Not contemporary then, but it sets us out on a new trail. The letter does ramble a little, but here’s the main point.
“Yes I do just remember the Woolwich United FC. They used to play on Plumstead Common behind Heavitree Road & later where the Bowling Greens are now – or were when I left Woolwich. The club was I believe the foundation of Woolwich Arsenal FC but has it is now about 75 years ago, or more, I cannot say with certainty….
“After playing on the Common the club played at Griffin Manorway on old “Piggy” Waltons ground.
Following that they built the “Invitca Ground which was sited where Gallosan Road & Mineral Street are now – or were. …”
So what do we make of all this? We now have one reference to Woolwich Union, and one to Woolwich United. But here’s something else, because on January 2nd 1886 we have in the Leeds Mercury, Selby v Woolwich United. There are no details of the game – just a listing of it.
Of course our first question has to be, is it “our” Woolwich? Rather surprisingly there is only one Woolwich in the UK, so it looks like it must be. But then if that’s right what on earth were they doing in Selby? That may seem unlikely, but what we do know is that clubs did travel around and go for “days out”.
(This is of course quite different from the suggestion of a trip by Dial Square to the Isle of Dogs. Our objection there, you may recall, is that it was simply not possible to get to the Island in time to play the match because there was no suitable transport system. Further, this seems so unlikely for the first ever game for a club. Getting to Selby, although much further away, is perversely easier, using the national rail network that existed in the late 19th century – it was much more extensive than now).
We can’t say for sure what this match was all about, but, if this newspaper report is true, (and we must remember that this is a newspaper report, not gossip or father to son stories as much of Arsenal’s history has been derived from), then Woolwich United really was a club of some substance.
That gives us three sightings of a club called Woolwich United or Union – one from Beardsley, one from the 1966 letter and one from a newspaper report from prior to the Arsenal period. Compared to the amount of evidence that exists for Dial Square v Eastern Wanderers, that is a huge amount of data!
Which in turn means we really do have a significant club playing in the area prior to 1 December 1886 when the football division of Dial Square Cricket Club was formed but open only to members of the cricket club. We know that this football club had no separate existence – it was part of the cricket club, just like sports centres today might have a volley ball team, a squash league etc etc
Here’s the dates…
5 December 1885 Millwall played Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs. It had nothing to do with Arsenal or Dial Square but could have been a match which got confused with the imagined Dial Square v Eastern Wanderers game.
2 January 1886: Selby v Woolwich United
1 December 1886 Original Arsenal club formed. But, and this is a big point, the early Arsenal handbooks (which make no mention of Dial Square) inferred this was the date of Royal Arsenal FC being formed.
September or December 1886 (depending on which source you take): Dial Square Cricket Club v Eastern Wanderers – although whether it really took place is in considerable doubt.
7 January 1887: Woolwich Gazette reports that sometime between 1 December 1886 and 5 January 1887 a meeting was held to widen the club to everyone in the area, and this club effectively broke away from the Dial Square Cricket Club and became Royal Arsenal Association Football Club.
8 January 1887: Royal Arsenal plays its first match.
28 January 1887: Woolwich Gazette. Royal Arsenal v Eastern Wanderers, played at Plumstead Common. “The Arsenal score another win against the Wanderers by one goal to nil.”
The problem with all this is that there are now quite a few sources, and each one seems to give us different ideas.
In the next article we’ll look at all the sources and compare their importance.
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