This article is adapted from a more comprehensive review of the move in the book Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football.
By Tony Attwood
Henry Norris, on taking over Arsenal, had given the assurance that he would keep Woolwich Arsenal in Plumstead for a year. Later he extended that promise to two years, and during that time he continued to exhort the locals to support their club by attending the matches and buying shares.
But the support was not forthcoming and a war between fans that makes today’s battles between the loyal Arsenal fans and the infamous AAA look like the proverbial tea party at the vicarage.
Norris must have taken the decision to move Arsenal in the summer of 1912, for by October 1912 rumours were everywhere that Arsenal were moving – and indeed the highly regarded Athletic News ran a story that Arsenal had bought land by Harringay Park railway station; land that would eventually be developed into Harringay Stadium.
Neither Norris nor Woolwich Arsenal bought such land, but it is more than likely that Norris had made enquiries thereabouts while keeping an eye on the land in Highbury.
Meanwhile back in Plumstead the supporters at the club were still giving the players a hard time barracking and booing the team at every opportunity.
What did not help any Londoner’s self-esteem was the fact that, not only were Woolwich Arsenal doing very badly, so were the capital’s other first division teams: Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur – they all approached Christmas near the foot of the table.
Clapton Orient in division 2 were jogging along quite satisfactorily but they were then as now seen as the small partner of the quartet, and their relative calm did not ease the rising tide of dismay reported in the press. Only in the Southern League were London teams doing well – West Ham, QPR, Crystal Palace and Millwall occupying positions three to six respectively in the First Division of the Southern League by the end of the season.
It was not until November 1912 that Henry Norris settled on the site of the new home for the club, and even then it took months of painful negotiation until he actually purchased a lease on the property and was able to start turning the land into a stadium.
Although the story of Arsenal’s exact new location was kept secret until 22nd February 1913 when journalists finally hit on the fact that Norris was in Gillespie Road, there was one story that got very close.
On 5 February 1913 the Islington Gazette ran the story that Woolwich Arsenal were definitely coming to Islington.
This early announcement of the borough into which Arsenal would move allowed the clubs within the area, Tottenham Hotspur and Clapton Orient, to start work on an action play, so that by the time the exact location was announced they were able to demand an immediate meeting of the management committee of the Football League.
Tottenham had evolved a strategy which argued that the matter should be put to the vote of the whole League. But although Tottenham had a couple of weeks to prepare this strategy, Henry Norris was not a new-boy in relation to this issue.
For Norris had witnessed the situation first hand with Fulham’s objection to Chelsea’s arrival across the road to Fulham, and with his own attempt to have a ground share arrangement between Fulham and Woolwich Arsenal.
He knew, as he made his final preparations in February 1913 that Tottenham would object and he knew that they had not the slightest chance of getting their objections to stick.
It can be argued that Norris took Arsenal into Islington because it was the only place he could find, but this would be to miss the central point. Norris liked Islington because it had another team near by in Tottenham Hotspur.
Matches between Arsenal and Tottenham already had a grudge feeling, and Norris rightly realised that by putting the grounds close together he could harness that feeling and keep Arsenal in the news day after day.
And there was another reason – as we explain in the book from which this article is taken. Norris was the first man in football to recognise that fans were starting to travel in to games from outlying areas. Because of Arsenal’s fame he knew people from across London would travel to see the club play – and so a site very close to overground and underground stations was ideal.
Hence he chose Highbury.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal – crowd behaviour at the early matches