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Arsenal possibly played its first match on the Isle of Dogs. Revised 2012 version

Mark Andrews

At the front of the blog is a caveat “This site represents very much a forum for knocking around ideas and seeking out issues that can be debated.  As such we openly acknowledge that some of the notions expressed here might be wrong, and will need correcting.  Indeed if you can help us do that, please do either comment on an article, or write a new article for us.  Some citation of sources would be good however, rather than just saying “you’re wrong”.

The reason it was placed on the site is that historical writing and blogs don’t really go together so this site while being historical in content can not be seen in its current form as the manifestation of our definitive views. This site is as it says in the quote above: a forum for knocking around ideas and debate where the items are works in progress not the finished item.

What this means is that only pieces of work that we perceive that should be cited by others are our published work which is why it is time to revise the most commented on item in the blog as it is showing its age. We will revise it using the same titles as were used 18 months ago, as since then so much has changed due to our copious research.

Revision – which should be read against the original.

Dial Square FC did not play its first match on the Isle of Dogs.  The  evidence.

Arsenal were founded in 1886 and possibly played their first match against Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs.

1.  What happened to Woolwich Union FC

We have no records of Woolwich Union FC, probably because this was the name of the local workhouse! A Woolwich United existed in 1885 but played rugby and the first actual vision of them as a football team was in 1891.

 2.  Did Dial Square start in 1886?

Yes, Fred Ollier’s account is probably the most accurate so far, with a few dating exceptions. It was an offshoot of the Dial Square Cricket team, and is debatable if they ever called themselves Dial Square FC.

 3.  Did we really play on the Isle of Dogs?

The answer to this is probably yes, but neither the location nor date is definitive, and the source is open to question.

 4.  What was the Isle of Dogs like in 1886?

Please see as previous article. Not really relevant to the issue.

 5.  How did the players get to the Isle of Dogs?

There was no free ferry in 1886, but as “visitor” rightly pointed out there was a pay ferry running from the Royal Arsenal pier to North Woolwich at that time. Additionally there was a Ferry at Greenwich running to the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs.

However, the most likely way to travel between the Royal Arsenal and Millwall was directly on the river. The “Dickens dictionary of the Thames 1887” has the timetable of the River Thames Steamboat Company steamboats going to and from Woolwich to Westminster – with stops at various locations including Greenwich, Millwall, West India Dock and Commercial Dock.  They could have got on at Woolwich pier and travelled on the steamboat all the way to the Millwall pier which was a few minutes walk to the assumed ground. From the timetable it appears the journey would have taken either way just under 40 minutes.

Once the game was finished and they changed in a pub they could have taken the boat back as the timetables would have allowed the team to get back to Woolwich by early evening.

 6.  Who provided the goal posts.

Not sure what the relevance is as the home team would have provided these, it was after all Millwall’s old ground.

 7.  Who were Eastern Wanderers?

A team who were recorded as playing Royal Arsenal twice in the team’s first season. Firstly, they were Royal Arsenal’s initial opponents and then at Plumstead Common on 22nd January 1887, for the fourth game in the season.

As they were able to make it to Plumstead Common from the Isle of Dogs in the winter, then the “lack of transport” issue to query the first game should be raised no more.

8.  Did we win 6-0?

There are NO newspaper results or a reported fixture of the match, but there are newspaper results or fixtures of ALL the other games that Royal Arsenal FC played that season.

The only record of the game is in a non-Arsenal accredited interview with Elijah Watkins in Football Chat dated 1902, and remarked upon in a 1906 Association football book by Pickford and Gibson. In no other contemporary record is the game acknowledged nor in any other reminiscence by any of the other founders, including one who played in the game.

Unfortunately, while we know the Watkins interview is in a 1902 Football Chat edition, we have not been able to find this valuable source and have to rely on the repeated version.

It should be noted that Watkins was the secretary of the club during the first season and then left, never to be seen or heard from except in his 1902 interview.

9.  What time was kick off?

The men worked on Saturday morning, and finished at 1pm. They may have either got the 1pm boat or the 1:30 boat depending on how benevolent their employer was. It should also be noted that no more than half the accredited players were from the Dial Square workshops.

 10.  Did the men who formed Dial Square actually meet in the Royal Oak pub, on Christmas Day 1886 formally to set the club up?

No. The contemporary information we have located providing a definitive date mentioning the meeting (and we have multiple sources) state the forming of Royal Arsenal FC was earlier in December. Watkins’ story as noted in 1906 only says a meeting was held in December, not a specfic date.

The date of 25th December 1886 first appeared as the date of the meeting, in the Official History by Soar and Tyler. Unfortunately no source or reference for its veracity is given in this book.

 And thus, what do we conclude?

The Isle of Dogs story is unlikely to be a myth but the date given of 11th December is not currently verifiable from sources at the time, ie there are no newspaper results of the game in 1886. Also Watkins repeat account does not specify a date and only says it was played in December.

Some Arsenal handbooks give the date of the Eastern Wanderers away game as early as September or October 1886.

The date of 11th December 1886 first appeared as a date for the first game in the Official History by Soar and Tyler. Unfortunately no source or reference for its veracity is given in this book.

Also while the ground was probably at Glengall Road this is again not currently verifiable.

Some sources, including those who played that season give a game against Erith as the first game of the club.

As we have said before if you have other information then please share it.  That’s the whole point of this site – we attempt to challenge conventional thinking but don’t blithely want to produce revisionist history for its own sake, and as shown here we change our thinking as we accumulate more facts. As while the first game may be open to different interpretations, the least persuasive reason to dispute the game on the Isle of Dogs is lack of transport.

Key for the continuation of the research and a better understanding of the various strands of inquiry is the location of the 1902 Watkins interview as this should show a far more detailed version of the account that the reworded 1906 version.

6 comments to Arsenal possibly played its first match on the Isle of Dogs. Revised 2012 version

  • Tony Attwood

    As the person who set the hare running on this one, I wonder if I might defend the art of asking annoying questions.

    As it turns out my question, “how did we get there?” turned up nothing particularly exciting. I didn’t know about the ferry that did existed, and was influenced by my knowledge of the fact that the ferry that the Official Illustrated History refers to didn’t exist.

    But, the question did raise other points – and indeed led to the discovery of the likely ground, the likely means of transport, and the supporting evidence that we played every other team home and away. Only Eastern Wanderers has one dated match – the home match. So it is possible that there was a 10th match on the Isle of Dogs.

    I’m happy to have proven wrong, because I do believe annoying little questions like this are worth asking, if nothing else, just to clarify the issue.

    Thanks Mark for doing the summary.

  • Matt Clarke

    I have read and enjoyed the above, not least because my earliest memories are from Camden and thereafter Southwark, thus mirroring AFC. I have since moved away from London, so want the resemblence to end there!

  • Stuart

    Tony,
    I believe a regular method of crossing the Thames during the winter used to be to walk across it. I dont know during what period this was the case but could it be possible?

  • Tony Attwood

    The Thames freezing over happened regularly during the mini-Ice age which I think was in the 17th century. Freezing over did continue because of the combination of pollution and cold weather, but that occurred further up stream around London Bridge. I doubt that it would have frozen around Greenwich because it is very wide and fast flowing there. Indeed even if it did freeze I suspect it would not have been safe to walk across.

    And then there’s the logistics – the game had to be fixed up at least a week before – who would have known if there would have been a thaw!

  • Jeremy Sims

    Could I ask whether the Glengall Road mentioned above is the same as Glengall Grove on the Isle of Dogs?

  • Andy Kelly

    Jeremy

    Yes it is. Eastern Wanderers played against Millwall during the 1885/86 season when Millwall were based at Glengall Road. This site gives a good explanation of where the actual pitch is believed to have been located:

    http://www.millwall-history.org.uk/Previous_Grounds.htm

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