The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal

 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.


10 Replies to “The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal”

  1. Can anyone give me any information about the Game against Bradford City in the 1910-11 season. The Woolwich Arsenal crowd had a running battle of the verbals with Citys International winger Dickie Bond.

    He was fined and suspended by the FL for ‘Inappropriate Language’ and this cost him his place in the 1911 FA Cup Final Victory over Newcastle.

    Does anyone have any more detail on what actually happened? Dickie was known to have a short fuse and a choice language.

    Many thanks in anticipation.

    Ian Hemmens

  2. Ian has given his email address, so I include it – but if you have this information could you please share it with all of us by writing also back to this site. Thanks

  3. Over the Christmas period I had this exchange with Ian about Mr Bond of Bradford

    Hope you had a good Christmas.

    In the recently published “The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal FC” Bond is noted twice on pages 28 and 72.

    Page 28 as part of a review of women spectators:
    “Finally, a Bradford player Bond, was suspended by the F.A. for one month after he was alleged to have sworn in the presence of two sisters, who were seated in the Arsenal stands.” Source Kentish Independent 17 Feb 1911.

    page 72 as part of the behaviour of the crowd:
    “There is one case of an attempted pitch invasion, in the game against Bradford in 1911, at a time when the Gunners were in a relegation position. The game was very physical, the visitors being adept at the hack, trip, and push, and the result was finally 0-0, not good enough given Arsenal’s plight. The crowd had been making their views known to the visitors all afternoon when one brutal challenge saw the Arsenal winger pushed to the floor and in need of medical attention. The crowd reacted with indignation, and the scene was described by ‘Red Rover’ thus: “Men… were only checked when on top of the barrier from throwing themselves onto the ground…The presence of Mr Morrell (manager) and some police in front of the barrier just then saved the situation. Had but one man got over nothing could have stopped a general rush”. Thus a combination of the police, officials and the barrier stopped an attempted invasion. After the match a section of the Arsenal crowd made their way to the dressing rooms via the pitch, and hurled insults at the Bradford players. Footnote: During this match Bond of Bradford was reported to the FA for bad language aimed at a pair of sisters in the grandstand. The FA suspended him for a month”. Sources: KI 17 Feb 1911, Woolwich Gazette 14 Feb 1911 and FA Minutes, February-March 1911.

    I think the two sisters were related to a newspaper man who took the case up with vigour, also that Bond was singled out by the crowd for persistent fouling early on. I must add this was the ONLY time the crowd tried to invade the pitch during a match at any game between 1893-1913. I saw somewhere else recently that he appealed against the suspension but it was turned down, and was not aware of the real punishment of missing the FA Cup final. Sounds like he was not popular with the powers that be as I came across no similar lengthy ban for swearing.

    Hi Mark,
    Many thanks for your reply and information…as for Dickie Bond, he was a fiery character, a small wiry, speedy, tricky winger said by some to be the best of his generation. He’d had a couple of fallouts with the City management but the club knew the value to the team of Dickie. He was also a practical joker. Once during a game in torrential rain at Valley Parade he tore down the wing and snatched an umbrella from a spectators grasp and carried on running umbrella up protecting him. The whole stadium was in uproar and luckily the Referee saw the funny side of it.
    As a former Army corporal, he was used to using ‘industrial language’. He was arguably City’s greatest ever player gaining several England caps whilst with the club in its ‘Golden Age’.
    Like i said, his biggest regret was missing the 1911 FA Cup Final. His suspension had just finished but Manager Peter O’Rourke felt the players who had reached the final deserved their places on the day and Dickie had to be content with being a travelling reserve.
    Thanks again for your help. Another link is another of our cup winners Archie Devine had a certain claim to fame with your club also!!

  4. My long deceased grandfather(born 1901) followed Woolwich Arsenal and as a boy would travel from his Bermondsey home on what he called a motor bus to Plumstead. He told me that if Millwall were at home on the same day (Southern League I believe at that time)fighting would break out on the bus in the New Cross area and it got so bad that he and his mates would walk beyond the Millwall area before boarding the bus.I’ve researched the Millwall history and they didn’t move to New Cross until 1910 so this violence must have occured during the final couple of years at Plumstead
    I’ve just ordered a copy of The Crowd so am unaware if this Millwall connection is included but I’m looking forward to what promises to be a fascinating read.

  5. Can you please let me know where I can purchase a copy of ‘The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal FC’? Amazon, abebooks, Waterstones and the Book Depository don’t have any available (not even used)

  6. Yes Dave you can buy one from me, Tony Attwood. The price is £14.95 with free delivery. Also I can sign it for you if you wish, just tell me what you want said.
    To purchase the book make a payment of £14.95 into the Pay Pal account of and then email to tell me it has been made, and give me your address. Books are normally sent out the next day.
    The alternative is that the book is available on Kindle.

  7. Hi Tony – this doesn’t appear to be available on Kindle on Amazon. I’d be grateful if you could make it available in that format – likewise with Woolwich Arsenal FC: 1893-1915 The club that changed football.

    If you still have copies though, I’d be happy to buy one via PayPal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *