The day Arsenal FC went bust: an eye witness report

Below is an extract from MAKING THE ARSENAL, the diaries of Jacko Jones, of the Daily Chronicle.  Jacko covered the story of the the demise and rebirth of Woolwich Arsenal in 1910.


In this extract, Jacko, a veteran of the Boer War turned football correspondent, has been ordered by his editor to get himself into both a private shareholders meeting of Woolwich Arsenal FC, and a post-match public meeting.  Jacko also has to cover for a colleague who has spent several nights on the razzle and is in no fit state to write up a match report from the Manor  Ground. 


Saturday 22nd January 1910


I found David at the Hen and Basket, just after half eleven, moaning into his beer that his brother had been injured in the defeat against Sunderland back in October and the calf muscle wouldn’t heal and so was on half pay. He was also offering the free tip that Woolwich would lose. I commiserated, told him my problem about getting into the meeting, and he said he knew where the share certificate was, and so I could go for his old man, if I cared to help a little with his drinking.


He did the deed. I gave him a shilling and took the omnibus into Woolwich to join the good and great at the Town Hall, waving my share cert as my bona fide on the way in. No one noticed – I may have had five proposals of marriage but no one actually knew what I looked like.


At the meeting George Leavey ran the show – turns out the club owes him a fortune – and he said the Woolwich were bust – which was news. The reason behind the problems, he said, was too many London clubs (Chelsea, Clapton, Fulham, Spurs and Woolwich Arsenal) in the league, with Millwall playing just across the river from Woolwich on the Isle of Dogs, and West Ham just along the way, plus all the other Southern League teams like Croydon, Brentford…). And all of them easier to get to than Plumstead – which I could verify yet again following my rotten ride out.


I did the regular: talked to everyone and got some background on Leavey. Turns out he ran a gents’ outfitters in town and he seemed well liked. Not one of your high-falutin’ top nobs, but just a local man who wanted to do the right thing for his local club. One of nature’s decent men, so the word went. Not his fault the club was in a muddle.


A couple of the girls from the pub were there – either they had lifted the share certificates from clients or the doorkeepers weren’t doing their job properly when a flash of leg was on offer. I couldn’t see a story in them, but I kept watching them all the same. Just in case.


Sadly for the club, the shareholders’ meeting had all the usual head-in-the-sand sugary speeches (if you can have sugar in the sand) that I had witnessed occasionally when captains in the army got together to discuss how the war should be won. In this case the talk was of not letting the factory boys down, the loyal workers of the Empire deserving their entertainment, the men who made the guns that beat the Boers, the significant help the club had given to the local flood relief fund last season, the Cup semi-finals two years running…


It had nothing to do with the club running out of money, but it made people feel good.


As a meeting it was getting boring, going nowhere, disintegrating shapelessly (good phrase that – disintegrating shapelessly) and I was not getting inside information, when one stout fella stood up and said, “I’ll tell you how bleedin’ good this bleedin’ club bleedin’ is, we’re worse than bleedin’ Millwall, and they ain’t even in the bleedin’ league. Bloody Isle of Dogs team, that’s what they is. And before that Hull beat us. Bleedin’Hull. I don’t even know where bleeding Hull bleedin’ is. Second division that’s what they is and that’s where we’re going.”


There was uproar. It was great; I couldn’t write it down fast enough. The old duffers at the top of the room were demanding that such language had no place in a civilised shareholders’ meeting, especially with ladies present, at which point someone shouted, “Then you bleeding well don’t go down the Manor Field do you squire!” and there was cheering, and one of the tarts said, “What ladies?” and they all laughed as if it were the greatest joke in the history of the Empire. Shouts too of, “Are you a shareholder, sir?” and the stout party waved his share certificate, so there was more cheering.


The top dogs protested that this was an outrage, an impossible situation, unacceptable, beyond the pale, and that nothing was being achieved. Several over-excited gentlemen who had themselves had a glass or two tried to get up on the stage, and the local bobby had to push them back down. And amidst all the carry-on I looked down to find that the stout party had dropped a document out of his pocket when he’d waved his share certificate. I went to hand it back to him but then hesitated.


OK, I shouldn’t have, but I’m a journalist, so I stuffed it in my pocket, and eased myself out as the meeting broke up. The paper contained quite a lot more information than had been revealed in the meeting including the really big news that the club still owed the firm of Archibald Leitch for the work they did on the grandstand ten years ago.


Is it possible that the board have failed to give the report to all the shareholders? That assumes the stout fellow had somehow got hold of a restricted document – and if it were true, I might just be on to something. Not giving full details to your shareholders is either ungentlemanly or a criminal offence. Either way it is suspicious.


David was having fun in the pub when I got back. I bought him another pint and left him to it, walking round the corner to the match, waving my press card in the flamboyant manner of hacks about to break a great tale.


Woolwich were actually much better than I had expected, winning three goals to none. I thought about Dick’s style – fluffy, lots of adjectives – they didn’t kick the ball high to avoid the mud, they kicked the brown ball very hard, into the leaden sky to avoid the sticky mud on the grassless field. I played with sticky brown mud and a soft brown ball, knowing that I was on the edge of taking the mickey out of Dick’s writing (which wasn’t the idea), but feeling the boss would cut the bits he didn’t like. Where I come from you never give up on your fellow travellers. Besides I liked Dick even if he was a fruit case. A perfect example of how to drink 10 pints and stay upright.


Middlesbrough were poor and looked to me to be fit for relegation, but I wrote (in the style of Dick) “Let’s give Woolwich A their joyful day and celebrate their great achievement for the brave souls on the ever-flowing Thames.”


“Even better for the attack minded Gunners,” (I added) “it is the second week running they’ve got three, having energetically knocked over a battling Watford team in the Cup the week before.” (The local support reported that Watford were awful too from all accounts, but I chose to ignore that.)


After the game I checked David Mc, who was now in the King’s Head next door to the Hen and B doing his piss and vinegar stunt with a woman on his lap. He was probably doing more than that, and he was offering to share, and the woman seemed happy to oblige, but I left him to it, tucking the shareholder certificate in his jacket pocket – but he said no, keep it for next time. I did. Someone else would take David home – he only lived around the corner.

I ambled back into town for the full blown public meeting, reckoning that with the shareholders’ gathering turning into a riot they’d have taken extra precautions when letting the plebeians in.


The meeting in fact was so disorganised that I struggled to think how to write it up. “Everyone screams, no one can hear a word” was a possible headline but it didn’t really convey what I wanted to say. My main point was that the board of Woolwich Arsenal who had actually called the meeting must be meandering with Jules Verne if they thought they could use their middle class accents plus stiff collars and upper lips to get everyone to think they should put 6d in the cap for the club.


First off, they had made the stupid mistake of booking the same room for the whole afternoon. It was fine for the shareholders, but woefully inadequate for an open meeting, and people were standing in the aisles, with a lot of pushing and shoving even before the meeting began.


As I had learned, Leavey really had put a lot of his life savings into Woolwich A and he loved the club, had a deep feeling for the men in the factories, and this financial mess hurt him. An officer and gent, as we say, as honest and decent a man as you could meet. But I’d met officers like that, and being a gent did not necessarily make you able to take the right decisions on the field of war. They were the ones who put all the women and children in the Free State into the concentration camps, and then had no idea what to do when the cholera started. Jolly decent fellows – a total menace to the human race.


Being a gent didn’t make you able to work in a crisis, and didn’t make you a financial wizard or a politician on the stump – and what was needed here was both of those. Even after the crazy shareholders’ meeting he still seemed to believe that he could just stand up and say his piece and everyone would take his cap off and say, “Thank you Mr L, your lordship, sir, your highness, you done us proud, I won’t buy another pint, you have my money instead.”


And it don’t work like that Mr Leavey, no it don’t. It is just possible that it might have done before South Africa – but it don’t work now. Too many of the men who work in the arsenal were soldiers in Africa and saw how we treated the natives and the Boers and they thought, “That’s the way you do it. We could do it to them in Africa – so how about a bit of that medicine to the toffs?”


Leavey is not a toff, and quite possibly he did have the measure of working men in the last century when the old Queen was still with us, but he doesn’t know that he hasn’t got the feel of the men now.


But he was decent – and I determined not to take the easy road by making fun of him. I decided to stay with the shouting and screaming, and the comments from a group of girls who wanted the police officers to put on footballer’s shorts so they could see their knees. They were touting for business, and it was the girls who made sure there would be no real meeting. Woolwich was getting to be like the West End only without the accent. Another little point to note.


To the main concern: London’s oldest professional club is bust, and its major creditor was not going to put a single shilling more into the club. So (I ask myself)… is Woolwich an isolated case? Woolwich crowds are not huge – but they are not the lowest I have seen.


There’s also the fact that we know that the Football Association has always hated Woolwich for turning professional, and in the early days they ordered their clubs not to play Woolwich.

I tried an idea: Woolwich Arsenal has been deserted by the men of Woolwich because for some reason the armaments factory is cutting jobs just when (as we all knew) there were spies everywhere.


I wrote it and liked it. I called it “Woolwich and the Spies.”


I even found space for a mention of a certain Dr Clarke who emerged as a central man for running a new Volunteer Committee which had the aim of racking up £1000 with film shows, a whist drive or two and something that I couldn’t quite hear amid the uproar, but which involved the Theatre Royal.


I thought of the people there – the girls moving around sitting on men’s laps, the hardened ex-military who now worked in the arsenal, the shop-keepers and tradesmen whose lives depended on the life in the backstreets of Plumstead and Woolwich, and who got their profit every time Woolwich played a home game, and thought, “A whist-drive???”


I added a postscript saying that what was needed was a real leader, someone who understood working men, football and finances. “If he is around, would he please make himself known to the directors of Woolwich Arsenal FC, because they have dire need of him.”


Then I went across the road to the Pie and Pig.


MAKING THE ARSENAL by Tony Attwood is published later this month, and will be available for purchase via our on-line shop.  Meanwhile, there’s news and information on Arsenal in the present day on UNTOLD ARSENAL.  Full details of the availability of”Making the Arsenal” will be published on both web sites.


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