100 years ago today: Highbury Defence Committee and Islington Council vote against Arsenal moving to Highbury

By Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews and Tony Attwood

When, in 1913, the League’s management committee turned down the demand for a vote on Arsenal’s move from Plumstead to Highbury, proposed by Tottenham Hotspur, Tottenham’s response was to appeal directly to the League as a whole.

However although entry into the Football League might be a matter for voting by clubs already in the Football League, where the clubs played was quite clearly established in the 1910 as being a matter for the clubs alone.  The League confirmed this on 1st March 1913 by rejecting the appeal.

Henry Norris made his public statement on 4th March confirming the location and the timing of the move of Woolwich Arsenal to a new ground.  It is perhaps a day that really ought to be commemorated each year by Arsenal, for without that decision being announced on that day, the club would most certainly have died.

Tottenham however would still not let go and continued to argue that there should be an emergency general meeting of the League to discuss the issue.  There is no doubt that they also encouraged either the setting up of, or the development of, the Highbury Defence Committee which was formed by local residents to oppose the move.

The Committee launched a petition, and did manage to persuade a majority of members on Islington Council to oppose the development.  But Islington Council itself had limited powers in the affair, and there was never any chance that they could have an effect on developments, no matter how much noise local councillors made.

Tottenham also failed in their attempt to get an EGM of the Football League called – undoubtedly because the overwhelming majority of clubs were in the Midlands and Northwest, and for them a journey to a ground with an easy connection from Kings Cross station was infinitely preferable to the journey that they had previously had to undertake to Plumstead.

The story of Arsenal’s move remained the main talking point in football for a couple of weeks but was then taken off the main sports pages by none other than Henry Norris who, perhaps trying to divert attention from his plans, or perhaps speaking from moral outrage, suggested that a match between Liverpool and Chelsea had been fixed to help Chelsea avoid relegation.

So strong were these accusations that the FA immediately set up a committee of enquiry, which reached a conclusion within a matter of days that the match had not been fixed.  However memories of the accusation remained, and were recalled when two seasons later Liverpool were once again at the centre of a match fixing row, this time involving themselves and Manchester United, once again with the possible relegation of Chelsea at its heart.  It was this 1915 match which had a direct bearing on Arsenal’s promotion to division 1 after the first world war.

Meanwhile in the Islington of 1913 emotions were starting to get heated.  Residents began to fret considerably about the thought of football hooligans and thugs coming to their area, and accused football supporters of the most outrageous crimes and behaviour as part of their natural everyday demeanour.   Indeed so strong, and indeed appalling, were the claims that football fans from across the country began to respond to the accusations, and for some time Athletic News was full of denouncements of the residents of Islington.  Whether Islington residents noticed this backlash or not is not recorded, but it certainly did nothing to raise the positive profile of the area.

On April 4th 1913 (100 years ago on the day of publication of this article) the Highbury Defence Committee managed to get a debate heard at an Islington Council meeting and the council voted to do all it could to stop Arsenal coming to Islington.   Meanwhile, countering the Defence Committee’s petition to the College over the leasing of its land to Woolwich Arsenal FC, local shop keepers retaliated with their own petition welcoming the move as a way of boosting trade.

As we all know, the activities of the defence committee, Tottenham Hotspur and the council had no effect, and Arsenal came to Islington.

The article is based on an extract from the book: “Woolwich Arsenal: the Club that Changed Football

Footnote: Whenever we mention Henry Norris and 1919 we get emails claiming that Henry Norris somehow fixed Arsenal’s promotion in 1919.  If you are thinking of writing this in a comment, please take a look at Arsenal’s election to the first division in 1919 first.   There’s £100 on offer.

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