Why did Arsenal move to Highbury (and not somewhere else)?

Read any of the basic football history books and you will find that Arsenal moved to Highbury because the crowds at Plumstead were too small.

As far as it goes, that’s true, but in reality that simple statement doesn’t go very far.

There are two separate issues…

  • a) Why did we move at all?
  • b) Why did we move to Highbury and not somewhere else?

In answer to the first question, crowds were certainly a major part, and if you look at yesterday’s article you will see that we were down to well under 10,000 for each home game.

One reason given for this was that there were too many professional teams in London – but that was not really an explanation at all.  Few people traveled across the capital to see other clubs.  You watched your own team, and then when they were away you might go and see a nearby club (who could well be playing in the Southern League or could even be an amateur club.)

The real reasons for Woolwich Arsenal’s declining crowds were the terrible transport arrangements between London and north Kent where Arsenal played (one tram an hour), the low position in the league, and (most importantly) the decline in the employment in the armaments factory.

This last reason is generally ignored – but the fact that the government took a really odd decision in late 1909 to move the Woolwich Torpedo Factory (part of Woolwich Arsenal) to the Clyde.  The reason why they did this – a reason which had a great bearing on political activity in 1910 – is revealed in the book “Making the Arsenal“.

All these factors conspired against Arsenal, and Henry Norris, when he took over the club just 100 years ago, had every intention of moving the club to Fulham, where it would play on alternate Saturdays at Craven Cottage.

But in order to buy the club Norris had to sign a deal which said he would keep Woolwich Arsenal in Plumstead for two years.   In fact he kept the club there for three years, and then moved us to Highbury.

But why Highbury?

The usual reasons given here are that he was looking for somewhere with better transport facilities – and obviously the Highbury ground was right by Gillespie Road tube station on the Piccadilly Line.

However there was another reason – a reason that goes back to 1909.

In September 1909 the London County Council had given British Petroleum (BP) permission to build a series of huge oil storage tankers in Fulham.  The land was owned by the Church of England, who were happy to sell off some unwanted space.  But the land was in a residential area.

On December 7th the Fulham Chronicle got the story and ran it – pointing out that there was danger of civil unrest, such was the feeling against the church for doing this deal.

The question then arose, why on earth did the local council not oppose such a monstrous development, and in particular what was the Mayor of Fulham thinking about?

The Mayor of Fulham was… Henry Norris, and he was in as much of a fix over this story as the church.   Such a development would not be forgotten over night, and it would most likely mean that not only would the locals turn against the Church of England, they would also turn against Norris and the Unionist party, and throw him out of office.

Norris met with the Church Commissioners between December 7th and 17th and worked with them to find a way out, and eventually he persuaded the  Church Commissioners to rescind the deal, on the grounds that the local council were looking at the issue again.

There is evidence that the Church and Norris were bonded over this, for in the following year Norris’ company was involved in doing some unpaid repair work to the Palace of the Bishop of London.

The link between Norris and the Church was natural – he was a leading conservative and upholder of tradition, and a church goer, and it is clear that he was not going to let the Church forget that he had helped get them off the hook in December 1909.

So when Norris was looking for land for his football club in 1912, he had to look at three things:

  • Was the land suitable for a football ground?
  • Would the owner sell it?
  • Could he get planning permission?

There was no better solution than to buy church land.  The church undoubtedly did not want a football club on its land off Gillespie Road, and the local people were aghast at such a development, but all the wheels were oiled by a combination of Norris’ political connections and (more importantly) his links with the church.

The church owed him, and he collected, by buying church land in order to build Highbury Stadium.   There’s no doubt that no one else could have possibly got permission for a club there, or got the church to sell the land.  It was in fact, all down to the incident in the last four months of 1909.


You can read the whole story of 1910 in Making the Arsenal

This site carries the history of Arsenal in 1910, and around that time, on a daily basis.   For information about Arsenal today please visit Untold Arsenal.

(c) Tony Attwood 2010

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