Tottenham Hotspur: the dark history
How an underhand strategy and a desire to rewrite history has transformed how people think about football in London.
To begin, somewhere near the start, and take you into an interesting world of politics and sport unlike anything you’d see today in football, poker online or any professional sport…
In 1882, the Hotspur Football Club was formed by a group of school boys attending a Bible class at All Hallows Church.
Tottenham’s aim early on, like so many clubs was to join a league and win it, and so they were interested in the attempt by Woolwich Arsenal to form a Southern League to rival the northern based Football League in 1892.
Indeed there was no reason why they should not apply to join the league – along with 21 other clubs, which they did. But Tottenham had the ignominy of being the only club not to get any votes.
Which suggests either that between 1882 and 1892 Tottenham had remained totally obscure, or else they had managed to annoy the rest of football in the south so much that everyone hated them.
Which was it?
I’ll pull all this together in a moment and give an answer, but we may note to start with that whatever the reason, Tottenham’s longer term development was not hindered for they went professional at the end of 1895 and joined the Southern League.
In 1900, Tottenham won the Southern League title and in 1901 the FA Cup, but despite the fact that other London teams such as Chelsea and Clapton Orient were in the Football League, and Woolwich Arsenal from Kent were also there, Tottenham did not get admitted to the Football League until 1908, when they came in and won the second division.
So again we have an interesting situation. Tottenham, with great success, ruling the Southern League, winning the FA Cup no less (and lets not be churlish, this was years before Arsenal even managed to get to the semi finals,) could not get out of the Southern League and into the Football League. Again, why? Even Clapton Orient got in, when they didn’t.
Here’s another drop of history and it is this which starts to give us the idea.
Tottenham were relegated in 1919 when Arsenal were promoted. Tottenham argued that although they had ended up bottom in 1915 (the previous year of the league) the league was being extended by two clubs and precedent would mean that they should stay up with the top two in division 2 being promoted. This plea was rejected.
Again, the League did Tottenham no favours. Again, why was this?
So to summarise our question…
Why did Tottenham get zero votes when they tried to join the Southern League in 1892, why did it take so long for them to join the Football League despite some early success and why did they get kicked out of the first division in 1919? What had everyone got against them?
I think the answer is to do with attitude, style and approach. In essence the rest of football really didn’t like Tottenham very much because of their behaviour.
Let’s go back to the very name Hotspur. Tottenham found a playing area near Northumberland Park, an area which by repute was owned by the family of Sir Henry Percy, alias Hotspur, made famous by Shakespeare in Henry IV. (And remember we are talking 15th century history here – not present day stuff).
The name Hotspur was a powerful name – it was a name that had come to symbolise British strength and determination, plus flamboyance, risk taking and the like. (Actually history paints a different reality, but this is how the word “Hotspur” was seen in the late 19th century).
But London already had a Hotspur club that laid claim to an inheritance of Sir Henry Percy – London Hotspur. The Percy family lived at Syon Park, which is south of the river, and that is where London Hotspur played.
What Tottenham were doing in adopting this name was several things. Firstly they were trying to find a romantic link through the Northumberland Park region to the hero Harry Hotspur. Second they were trying to take the name of the club London Hotspur, who themselves were getting a reputation. Third they were trying to give themselves instant fame, an instant reputation.
It would be rather like a club newly formed at the time of the death of Winston Churchill calling itself Tottenham Churchill. Popularist but ultimately a bit of a cheek.
The Duke of Northumberland’s family, who are the descendants of Harry Hotspur had not direct claim over the name “Hotspur” but they would undoubtedly have been concerned to see a general use of the name here there and everyone. One club, London Hotspur, playing by their ancestral home, perhaps with permission to use the name, might be one thing. But suddenly another one turning up, would be something else. How many more “Hotspurs” would arise?
One can imagine them getting irate, and writing a letter. Legend has it that a letter was indeed received at Tottenham, which caused them to change their name from Hotspur FC to Tottenham Hotspur, although the legend now says it was a wrongly delivered letter – intended for London Hotspur.
I believe this to be highly unlikely, for the simple reason to the club which was to become Tottenham Hotspur was not in London at the time – and in fact was not in London for a very long time to come.
The chances of a letter for London Hotspur, from Syon Park, south of the river, ending up with a team not even in London is too remote to give credence to.
Tottenham (which incidentally was where I grew up as a child, living in Devonshire Hill Lane which runs parallel to White Hart Lane) was part of Middlesex from 1850 to 1965. True, it was part of the London postal area (London N17) and the Met Police District, but in terms of administration and local government it was in Middlesex, not London.
In 1934 the urban district was incorporated as a municipal borough (still part of Middlesex) and it was only when this was abolished in 1965 following the London Government Act in 1963 and it became part of the London Borough of Haringey.
These facts were discovered by readers of the Woolwich Arsenal site “Making the Arsenal” and I am very grateful to them for the discussion which brought this to light.
So Tottenham Hotspur were formed, but they were already known as a club that pushed its luck, usurping the name “Hotspur” from another club, already using that name. That explains why they started getting rejected from early ballots for entry into leagues.
But then Tottenham made matters much worse for themselves. In 1905 when Chelsea was created out of nothing (see the special feature article on this topic) they (Chelsea) applied for a place in the Southern League. And Tottenham Hotspur objected on the grounds that London already had too many clubs!
Now that was cheek and a half. Tottenham had no right to speak on London, because it was clearly in Middlesex, not London. Woolwich Arsenal (in Kent) made no such objection. It was widely seen as the uppity Middlesex club sticking its nose into things again.
However Tottenham made so much fuss that Chelsea was rejected by the Southern League, with support from clubs like Brentford, and Croydon Common. So Chelsea applied for a place in the Football League and got in.
But the Football League would not forget Tottenham’s negative and arrogant behaviour in trying to speak for London, so from then on , no matter that they had won the cup, they were kept out of the League.
Eventually they did get in, but then they jumped back on the bandwagon in 1913 when Woolwich Arsenal moved to Highbury. Again they led the arguments again, and forgetting their previous PR disasters they used the “London clubs” argument. Henry Norris, a master at this sort of tactic, pointed out that this might well be a matter for London clubs, but not a matter for clubs from “other counties.”
“Maybe Lancashire and Yorkshire have an opinion,” he said, “and certainly if we listen to the opinion of Middlesex, we must listen to Yorkshire and Lancashire.”
Norris made the point that if the Football League were to be a national league, then the capital – the real LONDON – not the adjacent counties – needed football teams, and at that moment it only had Chelsea. Adding Arsenal to the list would at least give London two – as Middlesex had two (Orient and Tottenham).
This is why Tottenham, the Middlesex club, had no friends in 1919 when Arsenal applied for a place in the first division to represent LONDON. Tottenham claimed that by coming bottom in 1915 they should have stayed in the 1st division when it was expanded. But on what grounds?
Their only grounds were the fact that they were NEAR LONDON.
That was it – and indeed when Tottenham Hotspur make references to Woolwich Arsenal, we should always remember, they endlessly tried to manipulate London football from without – and that is why the Football League lost patience with them, and told them to shut up.
Woolwich Arsenal could become Arsenal, and Arsenal could have their place in the 1st division.
This is one of several special features on the history of Arsenal. Others are to be found on the Making the Arsenal web site. You can also read the history of Arsenal in 1910 in the book Making the Arsenal