by Andy Kelly
There has been much speculation over the years about Arsenal’s first game.
- Was it really played on 11 December 1886 or in October?
- What name did they play under – Dial Square FC, Dial Square Cricket Club, Royal Arsenal, no name?
- Was it really played in Millwall?
- Why travel there for the first game rather than play against a more local team?
- What was the score?
- Who were Eastern Wanderers?
We’ve asked all of these questions before on this site but we’ve found virtually no contemporary proof of the answers. We have looked in all of the local papers for Woolwich and the Isle of Dogs but found nothing. The earliest mention of this first game was by Arsenal’s first secretary Elijah Watkins in a letter he wrote to Football Chat in 1902. However, he does not mention the date or the final score.
The next mention of the game is in the Woolwich Herald in 1911 which stated that the club was 25 years old having played its first game on 11 December 1886, beating Eastern Wanderers 6-0.
We have been very sceptical of any non-contemporary report over the last two years following our findings of poor recollections by the club’s unofficial historians of the time. To this end, we were somewhat sceptical of this even though the Woolwich Herald gave precise details.
The club’s official history doesn’t make things any clearer. Here is what it says:
However, over the last few days I stumbled across a newspaper which has provided positive proof of the game and answered some more questions. It also corroborates much of what Elijah Watkins wrote which means that we can be much less sceptical about his version of events.
The cutting below comes from The Referee dated 12 December 1886. Every Sunday the paper would print results from matches the previous day that had been sent in by club secretaries. You can’t get much more contemporary than that!
As you can see it answers the questions of the name that the club played under, the opponents, the venue and the score. The (A) confirms that it was a game of Association Football and not Rugby which would be shown by (R).
But were they Dial Square Cricket Club, Dial Square Cricket & Football Club, Dial Square FC or something else? The following cutting from The Referee on 2 January 1887 gives us the answer. Elijah Watkins placed an request for opponents in The Referee’s Football Challenges section. The club’s name at this point was Dial Square F.C.
The question that we still don’t know is why play Eastern Wanderers?
At the time, it is believed that there were no local opponents for Dial Square to play against. Arsenal’s second opponents Erith were closer but their secretary has confirmed that they were not formed until after Dial Square played Eastern Wanderers.
We still don’t have a great deal of information on Eastern Wanderers. We know that they had played the previous season, that they were big enough to run two teams, that they played in Millwall and that their secretary was D.W. Galliford of 9 Marsh Street, Millwall. For those of you that are not familiar with the area, Millwall covers the western half of the Isle of Dogs.
On 14 November 1886 The Referee published the following in the Football Challenges section:
It may be that Elijah Watkins read this and contacted David Galliford or it may be that someone connected with Dial Square already knew someone from Eastern Wanderers. That is something for us to investigate further.
Having found details of the game on 11 December my next thought was “did Dial Square play any games before this date?” I searched through the football section from August (well before the start of the football season) and found no more references to Dial Square or Royal Arsenal. With what Elijah Watkins wrote and the Woolwich Herald published I think we can be certain that this was the club’s first game.
We can now safely say that the first game played by the team that we now know as The Arsenal was played under the name Dial Square FC at Millwall against Eastern Wanderers and they won 6-0.
- 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
Other sites from the same team…
The main series on this web site