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What was it like in the crowd 100 years ago at Woolwich Arsenal?

By Tony Attwood

At this moment when we are having our attention drawn towards players and their on field behaviour, and with some journalists now linking that to the chants that can be heard from the stands, it is interesting to spend just a moment thinking about how it was in the past.

What is was like being in the crowd at Woolwich Arsenal in Plumstead remained something of a secret from 1913 onwards when the club moved to Highbury, until, that was, August 1990 when Mark Andrews (of the Arsenal History Society) produced a dissertation on the crowd and crowd behaviour at Arsenal 1893-1913.

The magnificent piece of academic work has been used as the basis for the chapter on the crowd at Woolwich Arsenal in our new book Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football which is published this coming week.

The crowds at Woolwich Arsenal mostly paid 6d or 1/- (2.5p or 5p) to get into the match.  The workers in the munitions factories finished work at 12.40pm or 1pm on a Saturday and walked to the ground.  Some went via the pub, some went home for a quick meal.  Some got the specials from London which charged 7.5p for the trip including entrance to the ground.

The gates opened at 1pm, and reports suggest that even before that moment there could be 2000 gathered outside the ground waiting to go in.

Kick off was 3.30pm in the spring and autumn, reducing back to 2.15pm in the depths of winter.  (No floodlighting of course).   Many were unable to make the 2.15 kick off games on time, but it was said that 5,000 or more would join the match during the first half, swelling the crowd throughout.

Alcohol was central to the day, and there were bars around the ground, and drinking straight after the match was also common.   When Arsenal were playing away supporters would gather at the Lord Derby pub where the latest score was read out from a telegram every 15 minutes.

But it should not be thought that this was an all-male all working-class affair.  Women went to games, as did the middle classes, although both groups tended to head for the stand.  Indeed for the opening of my own book Making the Arsenal I presented a pastiche of writing of the era in which the journalist has fun with the fashions of some of the men and women who attended the games.

In the early days the support was made up mostly of Royal Arsenal munition factory employees, but the fame and prestige of the club spread over time, and quickly Woolwich Arsenal became the club of the military.  If you were in the army or navy you supported Woolwich Arsenal FC, even if you could not get to a match.

The club encouraged its link with the military and the munitions factories.  For two years it offered free season tickets to Principal Foremen at the Royal Arsenal because this connection would encourage others to attend the games.  Indeed the stands were made up mostly of middle class men and women, although that did not mean that they too would not let their feelings be known during the game.  As we show in the Woolwich Arsenal book, this could lead to the press reprimanding members of the middle classes for not knowing better how to behave in public.

And there was behaviour of the more “boisterous” variety on the terraces which led to matches being abandoned and the ground even being closed.   Indeed it is through events such as these that we can plot the earliest antagonism between Arsenal and Tottenham, long before Arsenal moved to north London.  And there was also the away support of Woolwich Arsenal which led to the Arsenal supporter becoming a legendary part of football.

You can read much more about Arsenal and its fans in the pre-Highbury days in “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football” which is available from the publishers.

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