Arsenal’s First Game – The Facts Finally Revealed

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:

Arsenal's official version of events

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!

The Referee 12 December 1886

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 Referee 2 January 1887

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:

The Referee 14 November 1886

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.


The books…

Other sites from the same team…


The main series on this web site

Arsenal manager by manager.

Arsenal’s anniversaries

40 Replies to “Arsenal’s First Game – The Facts Finally Revealed”

  1. WOW. This is EPIC detective work. You boys deserve some sort of reward or recognition from the club for this. I mean, this is BIG NEWS. I was under the impression that the club never actually called themselves “Dial Square” but that they were referred to as such after the match in order to clarify who the speaker was referring to.
    It seems you have put that misconception to bed. Moreover, the date and scoreline were also correct.
    BRAVO Gentlemen. Truly incomparable work. You NEED to send this information to the Arsenal Historian ASAP. God willing, your work will be given the recognition it so thoroughly deserves.

  2. Excellent work chaps. Really excellent.

    Must admit that I’d always been incredibly dubious about us ever really being called Dial Square but it’s nice to know for sure one way or the other.

  3. Andy,

    As I was at Colindale with you, and at the very moment was struggling to get the printer to work, I thought you were quite restrained when you showed me the paper.

  4. Congratulations guys.
    It’s fitting to have the first game of such a great club properly documented at last.
    I am anticipating you uncovering more details about Eastern Wanderers in due course.

  5. …and forgive my impertinence, for I guess that you guys know this, but I feel the need to present it just in case:

    Wikipedia, on The Wanderers states,

    “In keeping with its name, the club never had a home stadium of its own but played at various locations in London and the surrounding area”,

    so it seems likely the Eastern Wanderers also,
    a) had no fixed ground (explaining, perhaps, why Millwall was selected as a venue) and
    b) were perhaps an offshoot of the famous Wanderers who, reportedly ‘folded’ sometime between 1884 and 1887?

    I also note that there is a present-day Eastern Wanderers Cricket Club playing “in and around Croydon”. (

  6. Mark, I was excited in the way that only an Englishman could be excited. There was no way I was going to interrupt a man going about his work and create an awkward situation.

  7. Matt,

    a) Have a look at the 4th extract above on 14 November 1886 , that will answer your query about the ground.
    b) We have gone with the theory of them being named after a local pub, as that is the most likely given the address of the secretary.


    A fittingly English response for St Georges Day.

  8. Mark,
    Thanks for the reply.
    I do wish that I had done my research and read the rest (that following my post) of the previous article on the same subject.
    I must say, now, that the several posts there (regarding the railway company) do make good sense and I look forward to you documenting it all 🙂
    Please do, also, let us know what the Club makes of all this. I agree with the first post that this is so important to the club that they ought to give you guys some sort of recognition.
    Thanks from me in the meantime.

  9. So maybe this first game was played on the Mudchute, where playing fields still exist [Millwall/Cubitt Town]?
    Or is this too speculative for you dedicated researchers?!

  10. Derek

    We’re open to suggestions on this.

    We have an 1885 map of the Isle of Dogs which shows Millwall on the West and Cubitt Town on the East. Eastern Wanderers’ secretary lived in Marsh Street which is over to the West so I’m more inclined to think it is over that way.

    I’ll have a look at the map and see what was on Mudchute (what a lovely name for a place!) back then.

    We are certainly going to do some more research into this as we want to complete the picture.

  11. Matt

    I doubt that Eastern Wanderers were connected to The Wanderers. The Wanderers was made up of ex-public schoolboys. They would have been very out of place on the Isle of Dogs in the late 19th century!

    But keep throwing stuff into the mix. Sometimes it is something like that which triggers a bit of lateral thinking.

  12. Derek,

    From Watkins account, which is the only report of the match available, it is apparent that the game was played near a pub and the field they played on was backed on to by house backyards on at least 2 sides. He is quite specific saying they played at Millwall, not the Isle of Dogs generically.

    Also the EW team had a private ground according to their entry in the referees Football Challenges section.

    As Andy says “keep throwing stuff into the mix. Sometimes it is something like that which triggers a bit of lateral thinking”.

  13. Andy,

    Are you sure it’s not Marshfield Street? That’s on the eastern side of IoD, just off Glengall Road (as it was then) and with a public house nearby: at the junction of Glengall Rd and Ferry Rd – now The George.

    Godfrey’s map of 1867 shows fields to the north of Glengall Rd that match Watkins’ description (including various ditches) and there is just room enough there for a football pitch. Godfrey’s 1894 map shows an area between Stratondale and Galbraith Streets that is quite a good match and is close to the Millwall Dock Railway (now Crossharbour), which the map notes record was open to passenger transport. With the station name and the later naming of Millwall Athletic Ground to the south, it may have been the custom, at that time, to call that area Millwall – before Cubitt Town became more dominant.

    Furthermore, Standford’s map of London has the whole of the eastern area marked as ‘Millwall’ and it shows an open water course running through the area mentioned above (between Stratondale and Galbraith Streets) that could well qualify as open sewer to the newly constructed house around.

  14. Oh dear, blabbermouth has done it again, sorry
    I just re-read the extract above and saw ‘Marsh st Cahir st’, which is, as you say, in the west.
    I’ll keep looking.

  15. Well, assuming that you have not lost patience with me:
    Standford’s map of 1862 shows both Marsh Street and Cahir Street present: close to West Ferry Road, which has a regular spacing of pubs.

    North of Marsh Street is a field with a ditch along the western side and housing on the south (Cahir St).

    Also (and I suspect that you already know this, but cannot find the previous article anymore to confirm) Stanford’s 1862 map labels the area immediately to the south (between Cahir St and British St) as ‘Great Eastern’.

    As an aside, this area is very close to the Millwall Iron Works – isn’t that where Millwall FC started out?

  16. [Delete me if you think I am too much I don’t mind]

    Great Eastern, I learn, refers to Brunel’s shipbuilding company, which built and lauched SS Great Eastern from Millwall.
    That would be an interesting link. LFC have a bit of that ship in their Kop.

    The Co was founded (Wikipedia tells me) in 1851 – so plenty of time to forma football team.

  17. Matt

    We have an 1885 map an we have considered that patch of land just north of Cahir Street. The 1885 map shows that patch of land with houses on one side, another building on another and what looks like a ditch running the length of it. I used the scale shown on the map and a pitch 110 yards by 60 yards would fit in there perfectly!

    We’re going to see what else we can find out about Eastern Wanderers and Mr Galliford and then see if we can make an educated guess. You never know we may find a report that says they played in xxxx Street which would be fantastic.

  18. You said to keep throwing ideas in, so here goes.

    Mr Galliford’s local:
    British History Online identifies a public house (from this era) at No. 395 Westferry Road, called the Great Eastern:

    No 395 was, as the accompanying 1893-5 OS map shows, then on the corner of Westferry Road and British Street (now Harbinger St) – so the nearest PH to Marsh Street.

    Those pages may give further clues as to the identity of Eastern Wanderers, but I will now jump to a more speculative connection.

    Possible connection between Millwall and the Royal Arsenal:
    After the collapse of the companies involved with the building of the SS Great Eastern and the 1866 economic crisis, the nearby Northumberland Yard (No. 288 Westferry Road) became Northumberland Works. This was subsequently occupied by the electrical-engineering company Latimer Clark, Muirhead & Company Ltd:

    Now, Hansard on 11 February 1887 (vol 310 cc1231-3)

    discusses the award of a munitions contract to this company. It also mentions a visit (for the purpose of pre-contract approval) from the Royal Laboratory, which was part of the Royal Arsenal:
    (lazy reference I know, sorry)

    So you see, my speculation is that this expanding company may have had time to raise a football team or two and the area, with the various iron works, if not just this particular company, had drawn the attention of the RA.

    Maybe business led to pleasure?

    “I see your lads playing football out there. We have an association football team that fancies a competitive game. How about it Mr Galliford?”

  19. Excellent work there, Matt, especially the Hansard link.

    I think we’re edging closer to finding the location of that patch of land. I’m leaning towards the south west part of the Isle of Dogs now, rather than the mid-western part near Glengall Road.

  20. Matt,

    Not a bad theory but the Royal Arsenal was split into three segments. Dial Square was in the Royal Gun Factory not Royal Laboratory. All three were fiercely competitive against each other. Also none of the chaps involved in the team were management grade.
    A more likely link is a mundane one that Mr Watkins read the referee newspaper and contacted Mr Galliford as they had mutual spare days in the calendar to play their games.

    A question: When was the Great Eastern pub opened? was it at the same time as the ship was being built?

  21. The British History article (1st link) says,
    “It was not until the mid-1850s that house plots were sold in any number, and even then only a handful of houses and another public house (the Great Eastern, No. 395 Westferry Road) appeared”,
    SS Great Eastern was started 1 May 1854 and launched 31 January 1858,
    so, Yes, they were contemporary.

  22. Matt

    You’re well on your way to getting an acknowledgement in the new book “Royal Arsenal 1886-1893: From The Common to the Manor”

    Do you have a twitter address?

  23. I am just an oldfashioned twit.
    Would it help if were the modern sort too?
    I am working some other leads, so will do so if you like.

  24. Matt,

    I assume the Matthew Clarke is you on twitter I’ve just followed.

    Feel free to add anything to the discussion: we have our thoughts on where the game was played, but this is vastly different from two weeks ago, due to the simple fact that Andy found the address of the EW secretary and the Dial Square game references.

    As we are empiricists and research driven we do not come to the data with preconceived ideas. We let the theory be borne out of the information, do not try to make the facts fit a dogmatic belief.

    So anything you may find will be gratefully received. The Brunel link you noted was great because previously all views were based around the Great Eastern being railway orientated.


  25. Aye it’s me.
    Thank you for kind comments and I laud your research methods.
    I am trying research on the Great Eastern landlords at that time – in the hope of making a link with EW’s Mr Galliford.
    Nothing reportable yet though.

  26. Galliford is turning out to be a bit of a bugger. He wasn’t living at 9 Marsh Street in 1881 or 1891. There appears to be only one DW Galliford born before 1886, he was born in 1886 which would have made him 19 or 20 when he was secretary of Eastern Wanderers. Too young? Not neccesarily.

  27. May be getting a bit wild in ideas here but reading this something just occurred to me and I thought I’d throw it in to get knocked down!

    Plumstead Common was owned by Queens College Oxford and had long been used for grazing and collecting turf/loam etc. They started enclosing much of the common in the early 1800s and that gathered pace as the century went on so that by the mid/late 1870s (?date?) the anti-enclosure movement of the time was, to put it mildly, up in arms and smashing fences etc leading to a riot of 10,000 people including many from the Arsenal as well as many dockers. This rioting actually directly led to the Met Board of Works buying the land. Also at the same time there were major strikes in the area which were backed by dockers.

    My reason for mentioning this is it would suggest more than a casual relationship between what basically would become the ‘works’ involved in the two teams that played and possibly the reason they knew each other.

    Another point that comes to mind thinking down these lines is the 1908 (?date?) enclosures built on Woolwich common for Polo pitches I believe which again led to rioting/protests (though on a smaller scale) which only abated when the War Office threatened to remove work from the Arsenal. Could this be connected with the Torpedo factory being moved?

    (I have some literature on this somewhere I’ll try and dig out)

  28. N5_1BU

    Cheers, the Plumstead riot of 1876 is covered in a lot of detail in one of our earlier chapters for the forthcoming “Royal Arsenal 1886-1893: From the Common to the Manor” book. It did as you say lead to the Board of Works buying the common from the College. It also led to the partioning of the common into various leisure aspects which allowed the authorities to charge children with the crime of playing football in unauthorised locations.

    The Torpedo Factory move was linked to the govts desire to centralise all torpedo making to Scotland. Woolwich workers were not the only ones who had to move North.

    If you could find the 1908 literature I would like to read it.


  29. @Andy:
    There is also the possibility that he was born outside of the UK…such as D Galliford, born (?) New York County, 1866.

    and there is this marriage record, David William G~, in Stepney, March 1892:

    which, if born 1866 would make him 26 y.o., which is about right.
    (and the first reference also shows a birth, 1896, of David Galliford, so maybe a son of our man?)

    I also wonder if there are records available on-line for the East London F A or the London F A.? (Though I cannot find any)
    These may have records of EW.

  30. hi. i know its totally out of the subject but i didnt know how to contact the admin..:? first time checking out a blog :S. so my boyfreinds b’days coming up and i want to gift him the recording of every single arsenal match till date but i am having a hard time finding the first matches, so if anyone of you could help me out i’d be very very thankful.

  31. The original Marsh St was only a couple of hundred yards from Tooke St. I also can’t find any DW Gallifords with an Island address at that time, only a David W Galliford who was born in Wales before moving to Stepney. According to a census record, he was also deaf.

  32. I see speculation about how Dial Square got to hear about the Eastern Wanderers. At the end of the 1800s, a significant proportion of the dockers in the West India and Millwall Docks came from south of the river (‘over the water’ as Islanders called it), travelling on one of the many ferries (before the opening of the foot tunnel in 1901). I think Island teams would have been well known among in Sarf Londoners.

    Incidentally, the opening of the tunnel sounded the death knell for the ferry services, and when they closed a couple of years later that made it more inconvenient for a lot of people to travel to Millwall matches on the Island. This directly contributed to their decision to move off the Island in 1910.

  33. Right here is the right site for anyone who would like to understand this topic.

    You know a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually
    will need to…HaHa). You certainly put a fresh spin on a subject
    that’s been discussed for years. Great stuff, just wonderful!

  34. We here at Arsenal New Zealand are incredibly greatful to have found all this info over here. Arsenal supporters round the globe try to connect with the club by researching a lot about the club its the thing that keeps us connected to this Club and this info here was like finding a gold mine thats not been mined ever. thanks and congratulations guys, Joe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *