12 November: When Arsenal played a team of referees




By Tony Attwood

On 12 November 1894 Arsenal player David Howat had a benefit match – and rather curiously it was played against a team that was run by a leading referee of his own team.  And this was not a one-off match, for Roston Bourke’s XI was well known in the late 19th century.

What’s more, later in life Roston Bourke continued to be well known in footballing circles as he became the football correspondent of the Islington Gazette (Arsenal’s local paper).  On this day  Arsenal beat the refs 6-2 and the game was attended by 1200 people.

Later the great, great nephew of Roston Bourke (1866-1955) got in touch with the AISA Arsenal History Society and wrote an article for us about his great great uncle.  Part of that article is republished below…

After playing as a forward and half-back for Old Holloway Collegians, Arthur Roston Bourke joined the ranks of referees. A newspaper at the time recorded, “he was not one of those clever individuals who think themselves born referees and quite capable of taking charge of most important matches straightaway. He had two years’ apprenticeship among the juniors and started at the very bottom of the ladder in 1892. In this season, however, senior clubs in the Southern League became well acquainted with the referee with a curious name.”

In that year in fact he joined the London Football Association Council and was asked to organise teams of London players to oppose clubs at some distance from town – hence the formation of A. Roston Bourke’s XI.

In 1893, (the year Woolwich Arsenal became a league club) the FA formed the first referees’ society and Arthur Roston Bourke was appointed as Honorary Secretary. Its prime purpose was to examine the qualification of referees orally and appoint them to matches. This later became the Referees’ Association and he is mentioned in the history section of their website.

Moving on, in 1896 Mr Bourke’s team played against Reading at their first game at their new ground in Elm Park, Reading on 5 September.

However because A. Roston Bourke’s XI was a scratch team from Holloway College and thus not registered with the Football Association, Reading were later fined £5 and suspended for playing against an unregistered team. The match was abandoned due to torrential weather; Reading were leading 7–1 when the match ended!

In 1898, during a Cup Tie between QPR and Richmond, he ordered one of the Rangers players, Sammy Brooks, off the field and was then himself subjected to a gross assault on the part of one or more of the spectators. The FA decreed that Rangers’ Club Ground should be closed for two weeks and that during that period the Rangers ‘should not play within a radius of seven miles of their own ground.’ Sammy Brooks was also suspended for a month.   (You may also recall that Woolwich Arsenal’s ground was closed because of a crowd incident although Arsenal’s ground was closed for six weeks, after the initial sentence of “the rest of the season” was reduced – there are more details here).

Arthur Roston Bourke was also a keen cricketer, playing at Lord’s for Middlesex Colts in 1887, and worked as a schoolmaster at Holloway College, founded by his father William Roston Bourke, close to Arsenal’s ground. He was secretary of Holloway College Cricket and Football Clubs and the Amateur Dramatic Society.

And as we noted above he later became a sports writer (under the name of Norseman) for the Islington Daily Gazette where he devoted a lot of energy in reporting on Arsenal, sometimes critically, but always constructively, as a life-time fan.

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