By Mark Andrews and Tony Attwood
Twice in the first 25 years of its existence Arsenal football club came to the very brink of going out of existence.
Yet in virtually all the histories of the club the first of these disasters (in 1893) is written (if at all) as a minor incident of no particular significance. The second (in 1910) is mentioned more often, but again only in a line or two.
But in fact what happened in each case was that not only did Arsenal avoid collapse and disintegration, it emerged each time far stronger than before.
The 1893 issue focused on Royal Ordnance Factories FC – a vanity project run by ex-directors of Royal Arsenal who couldn’t get their way at Royal Arsenal FC, and who perceived themselves to be of the gentlemanly class. They were very vindictive in their attempts to halt Royal Arsenal FC, their tactics including working with the landlord of the Invicta ground in a programme that included doubling the rent, demanding their own representative within the club who would be the sole arbiter of whether the club was being run properly or not, bribing the landlord of Royal Arsenal’s alternative choice of home so that he would not sub-let the land to the club, and even setting up a complex scheme whereby Royal Arsenal might be induced to rent the alternative ground (the Manor Fields), spend a fortune upgrading the ground, and then nullify the lease, leaving Royal Arsenal both without a ground, and bankrupt.
ROFFC was in fact a spoiler outfit which almost immediately ran its course, once it was obvious RAFC had seen off their challenge in purchasing the Manor Field. Indeed they only lasted afew years and were disbanded by late 1896.
From the evidence, Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited came about due to the quick thinking of the directors of Royal Arsenal, and their recognition of just what they were up against in Royal Ordnance Factory Football Club. George Weaver, the scheming landlord of the Invicta ground looks today like a pantomime villain, and yet the threat he and his gang posed in terms of Royal Arsenal Football Club was very real.
The planning to start up ROFFC was underway from late 1892. Around this period there are allusions in RAFC meetings that Weaver had not spoken to Royal Arsenal about ground lease renewals for up to 7 months, and is difficult to see the subsequent events in any other way other than a concerted effort between the three ROFFC leading lights and Weaver to remove RAFC from the Invicta ground from the latter part of 1892 onwards
This resulted in the Royal Arsenal Football club forming a limited company and changing their name to the aforementioned Woolwich Arsenal Football and Athletic Company Limited, taking over the assets of the Royal Arsenal Football Club on 3rd May 1893. This stock flotation enabled them to raise money with the intention of renting a new ground and allowing them to move away from the Invicta Ground.
However, the real credit must go to George Lawrance who at a critical time, when it appeared ROFFC were going to purchase the Manor Field themselves and thus leave Royal Arsenal’s newly formed Woolwich Arsenal club high and dry, ensured the freehold of the Manor Field was obtained by arranging contracts and the deposit with the freeholder of the Manor Ground in early June. It was later in the year that all the directors signed the “joint and several mortgage” which was a personal loan against the body of directors as individuals not the company.
This was an incredible thing to do, for these men risked everything in their lives – their homes, their possessions, their bank accounts, everything – to protect the club that they had formed just seven years earlier.
This action is as critical to the survival of the club as the later financial support given by George Leavey and then Henry Norris, and it is important to note that all the 1893 directors were personally involved.
Had there been no concerted attack, it seems very unlikely that Royal Arsenal Football Club would have changed their name, formed a new company, moved from the Invicta Ground and purchased a new ground, the Manor Field, all in the space of a few months in early 1893.
There is one final point we should note about this iconic moment. In Alan Roper’s book, David Danskin is alleged to have supported Royal Ordnance over Woolwich Arsenal football after 1893. This event made us re-evaluate Danskin’s role in Arsenal’s formation, as for him to support a team whose sole aim was to destroy Royal Arsenal FC would have placed him in a different less favourable light than currently portrayed by the club. We can confirm that there is no evidence from the sources we have utilised that he was involved in any way at all.