By Tony Attwood
On 5 August 2023, I was delighted to join in a walk around part of south London to discover the places where Arsenal first began playing; an event arranged by Arsenal Independent Supporters Club (AISA) which has very close connections with the club, and which I would urge you to consider joining. (More on that below) The picture shows some of us on this walk standing on the terraces of the Invicta Ground that Royal Arsenal used before becoming a legue club in 1893.
I’ve already written something about the day on the Untold Arsenal site (Yesterday we stood on the terraces of Arsenal’s first stadium). Here I want to give a bit more background about the early days of Arsenal and how the Invicta Stadium and Dial Square (the two places we visited on our day out) fit into that history.
I would add also that we are currently trying to persuade Arsenal FC to take up an interest in Dial Square and expand the memorial to Arsenal that can be found there. But more of that another time.
So how did Arsenal come to start on the south bank of the Thames, and how did it end up in Islington?
In December 1886 a group of workers from the Dial Square factory, part of the Royal Arsenal complex on the south of the Thames at Woolwich, formed a football team responding to an advertisement in “The Referee” newspaper placed by a team simply looking for opponents to play. The match was played on the Isle of Dogs, and Dial Square won easily.
From this point, interest in the idea of a local team rose very quickly, and so the club quickly expanded, renaming itself Royal Arsenal FC, while holding matches at local playing fields including the Sportsmans Field and the Manor Field.
Enthusiasm for the project grew quickly, helped by the existence of a local rival – Millwall Rovers, and by the club entering the already famous, FA Cup (winning their first match 11-0 in 1889).
In 1890 the club won its first competitions, the Kent Senior Cup and the London Charity Cup, as interest began to grow not only in watching home games but in days out that were arranged for supporters and their families to see somewhere new, and to watch the match. Other local clubs liked playing Arsenal as it invariably meant their best gate of the season, and so the club flourished.
Thus with interest growing, Royal Arsenal FC looked for somewhere permanent at which they could play their home games and could charge an admission fee. The location chosen was the Invicta Ground – the site which members of Aisa went to visit in August 2023 and where we were kindly allowed to see the original terrace of the ground which is still in place. (See Yesterday we stood on the terraces of Arsenal’s first stadium for more details and pictures.)
Progress continued as in 1891 Royal Arsenal made it to the 1st round proper of the FA Cup and played league side Derby County at home. The club also won the London Senior Club, and in May that year turned professional – the first club in the south to pay its team.
Given that other clubs in the area were not professional, Royal Arsenal FC offered to resign from the London FA and Kent FA, but these resignations were rejected – other local sides most certainly did not want to lose the income from their best crowd of the season with the annual Royal Arsenal game.
It is interesting to note that for many years Arsenal itself got this story wrong suggesting in its handbook that Arsenal could not find teams to play, having turned professional, and hence got into financial difficulty. But this was totally untrue. It is most likely that this story arose from a campaign by a small group which had arisen with the committee that ran Royal Arsenal FC which argued that the working men could not run a club, and that this was the job of professional men with experience in business. Furthermore, players, they argued should be amateurs, playing for the love of the game, not professionals.
This caused a major split within the club, with a lot of mud-slinging and dirty tricks employed by the “stay amateur” branch. But they were seen off and in 1893 Royal Arsenal applied for and gained a place in the football league – the first southern team to do so. The law forbade the use of Royal in the name of a limited company, and the league required Arsenal to be registered in this way, and so the new name Woolwich Arsenal FC was used.
But the club particularly needed a new ground to accommodate the increasing interest now it was entering the League, and so chose the nearby Manor Ground. This was developed through the spring and summer of 1893 to make it fit for purpose. However, the “stay amateur” group tried various tricks to make the venture fail, including trying to persuade the owner of the Manor Field to double the rent at the last moment, thus forcing the directors of the new club into bankruptcy as they were guaranteeing the loans that allowed the club to develop the ground.
However having lost that battle, the “stay amateur” group then took over the Invicta Ground, and stayed there for one year before moving on. In 1894 they then formed a new club, Royal Ordnance Factories FC, and played at Maze Hill, joining the Southern League. However, the venture failed and in 1896 the company went into liquidation part way through the season. Woolwich Arsenal FC however continued to flourish, although when the Torpedo Factory moved from Woolwich to the Clyde in 1910 the club lost its most well-known and vociferous supporters, (we would today probably say “hard core” supporters) and from there started to suffer financial difficulties.
As the club sought to find a solution for its problems, Henry Norris, a director of Fulham FC, appeared on the scene and bailed the company out. He suggested at first that Arsenal and Fulham could merge, but when that option ran into difficulties with the League, he made it clear that in his view the only way Woolwich Arsenal FC could survive would be to move to a more densely populated area away from the river. He chose Islington as a location for the club, as that had a population of 327,000 in 1911. The population of Woolwich at that time was around 41,000.
Having saved the club from financial ruin in 1910, he allowed those who were again any form of move, to find ways to make the club financially stable. He offered in fact to keep the club there for one year, but extended this twice, allowing the club to stay at the Manor Ground with him footing the bills, for three years, before moving to Highbury in 1913. Henceforth its future was secured.
As I noted above, this event was arranged by Arsenal Independent Supporters Association and I would urge you to join. You can join in either as a paid member or as a free member – which you choose is up to you. But I do hope you will choose one or the other. Full details are here. You can read more about AISA on its website at www.aisa.org