Arsenal’s 125th anniversary? Sorry guys it may well not be this year at all


The Christmas gift for the fan with (almost) everything


This is part five of the series “Arsenal, the search for the first year”.  There is a link to the earlier postings on this topic at the end of the article.

By Mark Andrews, Andy Kelly and Tony Attwood

If you have been reading through the series of articles published through this week you’ll know that we have become less and less convinced that Dial Square was the foundation of the club that become Royal Arsenal.

Our basic conclusion is that an Arsenal team (often referred to as Dial Square FC) did not play its first match on the Isle of Dogs on 11th December 1886.

October 25 2010 saw us put forward a set of arguments on this point – one of which was how on earth the club could have got to the Isle of Dogs.  The Illustrated Official History claims that they took the famous free ferry – this is quite wrong, since it didn’t run at the time.  How the official history could make such an error is an interesting question in itself, but let’s move on…

Many questions were asked in the original article but several stand out such as:

How did the players get to the Isle of Dogs?

What time was kick off and was it viable to play even a part match before it got dark?

Why go to the Isle of Dogs for the club’s first ever match, when there were so many other places to play that were within walking distance?

We don’t intend to repeat all that debate yet again, but here is some updated information…

There was a private pay Steamboat from Greenwich (assumed to be Horseferry Place) to Isle of Dogs (probably Ferry Street) at this time. We found a letter from “A Crosser” bemoaning his lot on 19th Nov 1886 in the Kentish Mercury, which gives some details but it does not give the exact locations of the crossing.  But the names of the local roads are clues.

We ran a RAC routeplanner from the Greenwich Heritage Centre which is near the old RA entrance gates (SE18 4DX) to Horseferry Place, Greenwich (SE10 9HG). It is 10.42miles using the fastest most direct route and gives a time today of 42 minutes.

Having looked at the options the only feasible way to go the distance would have been in horse drawn brakes/carriages. The speed of these varies, but looking at the varying answers on the net, it is most likely that they would travel at approx 6-8mph. So it would take approx 1hour 25minutes to get to the Ferry. Assuming the ferry was a timed crossing and not on demand, would entail at least 10 minutes waiting and 10-15 minutes crossing, with 5 minutes unloading.

The probable ground is in Glengall Road (now renamed Tiller Road) which is 1.2 miles from Ferry Street, which adds  another 10-15 minutes, assuming the ferry took horse drawn brakes.

So the journey time would be approx 2 hours 5 minutes. As each of the  players worked in different factories they would not have been able to get a blanket nod and a wink from the management to leave early, so we have to assume they went after the normal half day which would be at the earliest 13:00 for manual workers.

They would have got to the ground for 15:05, with no stops for food or refreshment, and assume they changed on the carriage, there would have been 10 minutes to prepare. It gets dark at 15:51 this year on the 11 December, and would have been much the same in 1886 within a few minutes which would give them a max 36 mins game.

That is not a football game but a park kick about – and it leads us back to the point: why go for a two hour journey each way for a kick about when there were places closer to home to play?   Come to that, could the players really have got back after the game?   Few if any of the ferries would have worked their way across the Thames after dark.

What’s more we have not added any time for getting together from work to the brakes and assume they went on the dot of 13:00.

It could only have been played as a full game if all members of the team used up a precious half day holiday and left in time to beat the dark.

But the Dial Square v Eastern Wanderers story is central to the notion that a club was formed in 1886, because it solidifies the club formation on 1 December 1886.

But there are two counter proposals.   Royal Arsenal’s first match was on 8 January 1887- so this year of 2011 would be 124 years of Arsenal, with next year being 125 years.

On the other hand the evidence presented on this site in the last few days includes Woolwich United playing on 2 January 1886 which throws us out even more.

Of course it is quite reasonable to say: everyone knows it was Dial Square v Eastern Wanderers – it is in all the books.  They can’t all be wrong.

And that brings us to the heart of the problem.  Dial Square v Eastern Wanderers in December 1886 is not in all the books.  In fact in the six authoritative sources of Arsenal information published between 1897 (the earliest reference work to cite Arsenal) and the mid 1930s only two have any mention of Dial Square Eastern Wanderers in 1886.

It looks very much as if one person wrote it down in the early 20th century and then others simply copied the story without thinking about it.

Quite how this happened we’ll deal with in the next piece.


Arsenal: the search for the first year.

This is an extensive report on a major piece of historical research by members of the society which overturns previous views on the formation of Arsenal.

Part 1: Arsenal the First Year

Part 2: The Confusion Deepens

Part 3: The Earliest Evidence of Arsenal’s Foundations

Part 4: Arsenal evolved from Woolwich United FC, not Dial Square


Other Arsenal History pages:

10 Replies to “Arsenal’s 125th anniversary? Sorry guys it may well not be this year at all”

  1. Honestly, I think Eastern Wanderers may be the key. If their records are still in existence, and anyone knows where they’re kept, that would be the place to look. You’ve already posted evidence that they did exist, and had played Millwall earlier in 1886. So who owns the rights to “Eastern Wanderers,” who keeps (literally) their records, who knows about them?

  2. Uncle Mike,

    Yes and No.

    It is debatable whether any game was played against Eastern Wanderers in December. From what we can interpret it is pretty definite it was not on 11 December, though obviously if someone has primary source proof to show they played on this day, it would be appreciated if they were to share this.

    We are revisiting Arsenal’s origins by stripping back the past 125 years contemporary and secondary accounts to look at the actual sources available. A myth has grown around the origins caused by layer upon layer of assumptions within many (not all) of the books on Arsenal.

    Eastern Wanderers are a side show to the real story, which will be published in the forthcoming book “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football”.

  3. Is it possible Woolwich United & Royal Arsenal merged into Woolwich Arsenal?

  4. Hi guys,

    I’m just reading through these articles as I’ve been trying to pin down a more accurate date of the club’s formation. Your website his defiantly the best source for Arsenal history. Some really amazing research from you! It’s clear that there is, despite real thorough research, a lot of confusion surrounds the timeline of December of 1886.

    I wanted to ask something about the newspaper report from the annual club dinner in May 1890. It seems to be accepted amongst real Arsenal people that the formation of the club was on 1st December 1886 according to the quote form secretary, Mr. Osborne in the report. Mr. Osborne reports that the club was formed on 1st December 1886 in the Royal Oak pub, so why would the club play under the name Dial Square on 11th Dec vs. Eastern Wanderers? I assumed that when the founding fathers met up to form the club in the Royal Oak pub, the name would have been established as Royal Arsenal?

    The official Arsenal website, of whom I now mistrust, claim that the name change from Dial Square to Royal Arsenal came on Christmas Day, 1886. If we are to believe the more likely source of the report of the annual dinner, then doesn’t this mean that the club’s original name was Royal Arsenal and not Dial Square?

    Any light you could shed on this would be much appreciated.

    Keep up the great work!


  5. Rahul As far as I can work out the club did indeed play as Dial Square in the first match simply because most of the men who played if not all, were from the Dial Square factory. We do know that there was a subsequent meeting at which the club was opened to all employees of the Royal Arsenal ordnance factories, and that was when the name was changed.

    The dates of meetings during the days around the formation of the club were not recorded at the time, and the only firm record we have are newspaper reports. The Referee (magazine) carried the result of the opening game as Eastern Wanderers against Dial Square, and subsequent games as being played by Royal Arsenal.

    The article that might help is

  6. Rahul I forgot to mention

    2 January 1887: An advert appeared in “The Referee” magazine that was placed by Dial Square F.C. seeking matches – seeming proof that the club did not become Royal Arsenal on Christmas Day 1886..

  7. Hi Tony,

    Apologies for such a late reply but thank you for clearing that up. So according to most of the articles it’s generally accepted is that the club WAS officially formed on December 1st 1886 and that the club played it’s 1st official game on 8th Jan 1897 against Erith as Royal Arsenal.

    I wanted to also ask, I’ve seen tweets online from Mark Andrews (author) saying the club formed in October 1886, the first game was 11th Dec and that the Royal Oak meeting was in December – most likely 12 Dec.

    Also, about Dial Square’s 1st game being against Eastern Wanderers on 11th December 1886, I’ve recently read that the game was on the Isle of Dogs at Glengall Road but some of the articles I’ve read here on the blog stating that Dial Square didn’t play there at all – there was a mix up and that the game was in fact Eastern Wanderers v Millwall on Glengall Road?

    Sorry for prattling on, any insight you can offer would be really appreciated! Thanks again!


  8. Rahul, I would defer to Mark on issues like this – he is one of the two guys who does original research using newspaper archives from the era. I did suggest for a while that the game on the Isle of Dogs could not have taken place because of the problems with the timing, but it seems that indeed it did. The date of the set up of the club as an active organisation can be taken from the moment Eastern Wanderers advertised in the Referee magazine for opponents – and there is also a listing in the same magazine showing the result of the game that took place, following that advert.

  9. Tony,

    Outstanding research. There’e more qualitative information on this website than I’ve ever seen on the subject elsewhere!

    A few thoughts spring to mind. None of them are based on anything other than idle suppositions.

    “2 January 1887: An advert appeared in “The Referee” magazine that was placed by Dial Square F.C. seeking matches – seeming proof that the club did not become Royal Arsenal on Christmas Day 1886.”

    What was the lead-in time for writing a letter to this magazine, having it travel through the postal system (over the Christmas holidays), and having it typeset and published? Perhaps it was Dial Square who wrote the advert, and they’d become Royal Arsenal by the time it appeared on the street.

    Was there any industrial action on the day of 11 December 1886 that would have given the Arsenal men the day off to travel to Millwall?

    Perhaps, in those early days, there wasn’t an awful lot of formality or discipline around the club. Perhaps one or two Dial Square players with an excuse not to work on 11/12/86, arranged a game against Eastern Wanderers, teamed up with some locals, and simply used the name of their parent club for convenience. Without seeing names on a teamsheet, I would not assume it’s the same club.

    It’s all supposition, and from this point forward, I’ll believe that the first Arsenal match took place on 8 January 1887 against Erith, unless evidence turns up to the contrary. I’ll also believe that sports journalists from local newspapers made a greater rate of error they do nowadays (not having fingertip access to the same depth of information), and that the journalist who reported that Eastern Wanderers had been beaten “again” in 1887 was simply mistaken.

    Final thoughts – and then I’ll stop. There are all sorts of examples of sports teams cropping up and named after the origins of it’s founders, or some other far away location. In fact, the Woolwich and Plumstead area is a good catchment ground for the Cambridge Harriers Athletics Club, who have never been grounded in Cambridge – they are based in Bexley. Perhaps the Dial Square of Millwall, or the Woolwich Utd that played in Selby have a similar backstory.

    Keep up the excellent work.

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