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By Tony Attwood and Andy Kelly
Today, 11 December, is the 126th anniversary of the first ever match which can, one way or another, be called an Arsenal match.
The score, according to the few reports we have, was Eastern Wanderers 0 Dial Square 6, although the current thinking of the elite of the Arsenal History Society is that the name of the away team was Dial Square Cricket Club.
If you have been a visitor to this site you will know that this first match has exercised us much. We know in more detail of all the other games played in the first season of the club which was to be known (from the second game) as Royal Arsenal. But this first one has caused us a lot of problems.
Contemporary references are non-existent, details of Eastern Wanderers hard to find, and it is only through the efforts of Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews that we have actually pinned down the location of the pitch.
If you really want to dig around this issue we have the following articles available but before you start working through these, let me warn you that there are contradictions in these articles and numerous changes of opinion.
Of course what we ought to do is pull it all together into one piece – Arsenal’s First Match. The nearest we have to this (unless my colleagues in the Society are going to tell me I have missed something – which is not unusual) is the article in the series below “Arsenal possibly played its first match on the Isle of Dogs” which I would recommend to you from the list of other explorations below.
Here’s a quick summary of a few important points:
Did Dial Square start in 1886?
Yes, Fred Ollier’s account is probably the most accurate so far, with a few dating exceptions. It was an offshoot of the Dial Square Cricket team, and is debatable if they ever called themselves Dial Square FC.
How did the players get to the Isle of Dogs?
There was no free ferry in 1886, but as “visitor” rightly pointed out there was a pay ferry running from the Royal Arsenal pier to North Woolwich at that time. Additionally there was a Ferry at Greenwich running to the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. There was no pedestrian tunnel at the time.
However, the most likely way to travel between the Royal Arsenal and Millwall was directly on the river. The “Dickens dictionary of the Thames 1887” has the timetable of the River Thames Steamboat Company steamboats going to and from Woolwich to Westminster – with stops at various locations including Greenwich, Millwall, West India Dock and Commercial Dock. They could have got on at Woolwich pier and travelled on the steamboat all the way to the Millwall pier which was a few minutes walk to the assumed ground. From the timetable it appears the journey would have taken either way just under 40 minutes.
Once the game was finished and they changed in a pub they could have taken the boat back as the timetables would have allowed the team to get back to Woolwich by early evening.
Who were Eastern Wanderers?
A team who were recorded as playing Royal Arsenal twice in the team’s first season. Firstly, they were Royal Arsenal’s initial opponents and then at Plumstead Common on 22nd January 1887, for the fourth game in the season.
As they were able to make it to Plumstead Common from the Isle of Dogs in the winter, then the “lack of transport” issue to query the first game should be raised no more.
Did we win 6-0?
There are NO newspaper results or a reported fixture of the match, but there are newspaper results or fixtures of ALL the other games that Royal Arsenal FC played that season.
The only record of the game is in a non-Arsenal accredited interview with Elijah Watkins in Football Chat dated 1902, and remarked upon in a 1906 Association football book by Pickford and Gibson. In no other contemporary record is the game acknowledged nor in any other reminiscence by any of the other founders, including one who played in the game.
Unfortunately, while we know the Watkins interview is in a 1902 Football Chat edition, we have not been able to find this valuable source and have to rely on the repeated version.
It should be noted that Watkins was the secretary of the club during the first season and then left, never to be seen or heard from except in his 1902 interview.
What time was kick off?
The men worked on Saturday morning, and finished at 1pm. They may have either got the 1pm boat or the 1:30 boat depending on how benevolent their employer was. It should also be noted that no more than half the accredited players were from the Dial Square workshops.
Did the men who formed Dial Square actually meet in the Royal Oak pub, on Christmas Day 1886 formally to set the club up?
No. The contemporary information we have located providing a definitive date mentioning the meeting (and we have multiple sources) state the forming of Royal Arsenal FC was earlier in December. Watkins’ story as noted in 1906 only says a meeting was held in December, not a specfic date.
The date of 25th December 1886 first appeared as the date of the meeting, in the Official History by Soar and Tyler. Unfortunately no source or reference for its veracity is given in this book.
And thus, what do we conclude?
The Isle of Dogs story is unlikely to be a myth. Some Arsenal handbooks give the date of the Eastern Wanderers away game as early as September or October 1886 but that seems very unlikely
So now if you really want to go on, here’s an index of other articles – but remember, this is a blog where we share ideas and put forth notions and possibilities. As much as anything these articles are a record of our thinking and research as it has been undertaken.
But here is one thought for you. The first ever book on Royal Arsenal FC is in preparation, and will be published next year.
Dial Square FC and the Isle of Dogs story – that is not where it started.