By Mark Andrews
As part of the Arsenal History Society programme, Hamilton House is publishing my thesis, which is the source for chapter 6 of the recently published “Woolwich Arsenal FC 1893-1915: the club that changed football”.
This book ‘The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal FC’ is in essence the original research I carried out while studying for a MA in Twentieth Century Historical Studies at the University of Westminster.
The dissertation was called ‘The Crowd and Crowd Behaviour: Arsenal Football Club at Woolwich, 1893-1913’ and was submitted in August 1990. This was written while I was living with my now wife, Theresa, at Plumstead Common, about 200 yards from where Royal Arsenal first played at home, and our local was the ‘Who’d a thought it’ which was owned in the early Twentieth Century by Woolwich Arsenal director, William ‘Jock’ Craib.
The problem with the history of football crowd violence and behaviour is that it has been hijacked by sociologists, whose main theory of a direct link between the hooliganism of the 1960s-80s and that of pre WW1 Britain is encapsulated in the recent statement: “Although football hooliganism only rose to widespread public attention in the 1960s, it had been with the sport since its earliest development.”
This mantra is based around the belief that football hooliganism only “appeared” to start from the 1960s as the media then began to concentrate on it to sell papers, and the media had unaccountably previously ignored it.
Indeed from the 1960s to early 1990 there was a large amount of hooliganism (“Hooligan” was not a word in the English language until 1897), the main aspect being violent assaults on other team supporters. Having had sharpened coins thrown at me with great velocity by scummers at the old Dell in the 1989 championship season, and being on the wrong end of Millwall at the North Bank one season around that time were, personally, my worst experiences.
My pre WW1 historical findings based around our fine club were quite different, and it soon became apparent that the dissertation would have been very, very short if I had relied on violence alone when Arsenal were at Plumstead; because there was so little of it between 1893–1913. So the topic was expanded to deal with crowd behaviour in all its guises at Woolwich.
The Woolwich Arsenal supporters, our precursors, were fans who enjoyed a huge “session” away from home and verbal abuse of the home team, away side and officials at their manor. Much in the way our ancestors had enjoyed the pre-industrial traditions of drinking, inversion of the social order, antagonism to outsiders, dancing and music these supporters had far more in common with old English misrule traditions than as the beginning of a new tradition of organised football hooligans.
Especially true of this was the relatively large away support Woolwich Arsenal took to many away games in Nottingham, Bristol, Leicester and the Midlands. This away support was made up of many different supporters especially from the Royal Arsenal workshops and was initially organised by director George Lawrance and his wife.
The mainstay were the artisans from the Torpedo Factory who regularly, during the period of First Division football, took government sponsored fireworks to games and let them off at games and on the journey to games. They also drank and sang a lot.
Once this section of workmen had been shipped off to Scotland as part of the government’s centralisation of the torpedo manufacturing process the mass away support evaporated, and shortly after, the club moved to Highbury.
Having said all the above, Woolwich Arsenal were the first League club in English football to have their ground closed – in 1895 for 6 weeks, when the crowd beat up the referee after a fractious game against Burton Wanderers on 26th January. They couldn’t wait for Walter’s review and meted out a short, sharp, shock to an inept official.
The original sentence proposed for Arsenal, was that their ground would have been closed for the rest of the 1894/95 season. However, the “compromise” of a mere 6 weeks suspension was agreed upon by the FA.
An almost identical episode of ref bashing at Wolverhampton Wanderers next season in October 1895 led to their ground being closed for only 2 weeks. At least one non local reporter put the disparity in the harshness of the sentences from the FA, down to Arsenal’s role as the pre-eminent southern professional team.
There were also some altercations with Tottenham, the most serious being when the Spurs goalkeeper (ex-Woolwich Arsenal) punched a fan who was subjecting him to “foul and insulting language” from behind the goal.
Most of the findings point to a predilection for verbally abusing anyone and everyone, including the home team when they played poorly. Unlike today, the majority of supporters worked on the Saturday morning and only had that afternoon and Sunday as time off work, and also had very little annual leave. So this leisure time was precious in a way that, over a hundred years later, is very hard to appreciate.
They paid their 6d and saw it as their entitlement to exercise their verbal volleys at whoever they wished. If it was a home player who was the subject of their displeasure it was generally because pre-WW1 the crowd had an intense feeling of belonging and bond to that the club as a representative of “their” town. If the player was letting down the whole area with their uselessness, they were informed in no uncertain terms.
I cannot over state the role of Tony Attwood and Andy Kelly in getting this work into publication, as Tony has provided the ground breaking Arsenal History society as a platform for delivering quality historical research via the website in the short term and books in the longer term. It was his spark that re-ignited my interest in this after I read his excellent historical novel entitled “Making the Arsenal”.
Andy Kelly has a phenomenal amount of knowledge and resources about Arsenal History. He is also Renaissance man as he has proofed and set the formatting, re-sized cartoons and photos from the original. Bizarrely during my time in the newspaper library at Colindale in 1990 reading newspaper after newspaper, a similarly minded Arsenal supporter, namely Andy Kelly, was in the same location beginning his collection of recorded Arsenal games, by researching early games, team line ups and scores. It then took Tony’s efforts to combine our resources last year.
The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal is about to be published. You can order a copy here.