28 June 1913: Woolwich Arsenal gain possession of “Highbury”

By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly, Mark Andrews

28 June 1913: Woolwich Arsenal gain possession of the Gillespie Road site and have 10 weeks before the first match of the season to make it ready.

We know this dateof 28 June 1913 as it was taken from a comment in the programme for the first match.  But what else do we know, and why did Arsenal take on a stadium so close to the start of the new season.

Tottenham Hotspur had called for an EGM of the Football League in 1913 to try to stop Arsenal’s move to Islington.  That was defeated at the League’s AGM on May 26th, although Tottenham used the meeting to launch another line of attack against directors being involved with two clubs at once.

They laid into Norris with a vigour that made Norris and Hall protest, and ultimately offer their resignation from the board to Fulham – a resignation that was refused by the rest of the Fulham board.

Hall eventually resigned as a director of Fulham in June 1913 and this time it was accepted. The reason for his resignation was not due to protests from other clubs but “in order to devote his energies to building up the Reds” as explained in an interview with the Islington Gazette.

Thus Norris triumphed twice: once by getting his way absolutely in the move of the club to the north of London, and once in making Tottenham’s directors look foolish in putting forward extravagant demands that not only the League, but the majority of League clubs, rejected.

Woolwich Arsenal opened at the Gillespie Road ground on September 6th 1913, with the programme noting the continuance of the traditions of the Woolwich club, despite the change of venue.  The team also showed that the North London club was a continuance of the club that had played at the Manor Ground.

Significantly after the move to Highbury, Henry Norris gave George Allison a job as editor of the club programme and author of the “Gunners’ Mate” column. Allison had been writing newspaper reports for different papers on Woolwich Arsenal for some time, under a variety of aliases, and was reported to be something of a fan. Clearly Norris, himself no mean contributor to the capital’s press during this period, recognised Allison’s talent and his overt support for the club. Norris contented himself with writing a newspaper column about Fulham.  Allison became the public voice of first Woolwich Arsenal and then The Arsenal.

The club, although admittedly in a lower division, saw its playing record improve, and the average crowd increased by a huge 14,000 from the last season at the Manor Ground to the first season at Gillespie Road. Tottenham’s fears that the arrival of Woolwich Arsenal in the district would affect their crowds were allayed when they saw their average home attendance increase by a healthy 5,000.

But Norris did not get everything his own way with the move.  He most certainly wanted to buy the ground at Gillespie Road, but instead he was forced to lease it on a full repairing lease basis.  The long and the short of this was that he had the land for 21 years and could develop the land pretty much as he wanted, but unless he arranged an extension to the lease at the end of the term, or agreed to buy it at a price to be determined at that time, he had to hand the land back in the same condition as he had taken it over.  In short he could build his football ground, at his own expense, but then at the end of the lease he might well have to take it all down again, once more at his own expense.

Secondly, he was refused permission to allow gambling or to sell alcohol on the ground, which denied the club a useful income.  Obviously the spectators had the option to buy their drink at pubs before the game, and bring their own drink into the game (there was little chance of anyone stopping such activity even if it was technically prohibited by the lease) so the level of drinking was hardly reduced, but the income went to the local publicans not to Arsenal.

Thirdly, the club was refused the right to play at the ground on Sundays, Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday.   Although the Sunday issue was an irrelevance (matches were never played on a Sunday) this religious holiday ban was something of a blow.  However since the club would, as a result of the ban, play away on Christmas Day (and get a proportion of the income for that match) they would automatically get matches at home on Boxing Day and Easter Saturday, it was not too much of a rebuff.

The lease arrangement was a gamble, but Norris knew the college was in severe financial straits and would never be in a position to take the land back.   The worst that could happen was that a very rich benefactor might take over the college in 21 years time, but it seemed highly unlikely, and if the club was a success, would cause a lot of ill feeling between supporters and the college.  Besides the rest of the college’s buildings were in a poor state and any such benefactor would surely have been more likely to move out totally and build a new site, rather than try and repair the Gillespie Road site.

With these thoughts in mind there is no doubt that Norris emerges as a consummate negotiator, and indeed if we bear in mind his position on the moral high ground over the allegations about Liverpool being involved in a match fixing scandal in 1912/13 we can see how he laid the groundwork for future debates by picking issues as he went along that could later be used to his benefit.

In fact Norris, for all his reputation as a man of bravado and outspokenness knew exactly when to speak and when to stay quiet – as when he attended the meeting of Islington Council in April 1913.  After hearing from the Defence Committee, the Council voted to do what it could to stop the move of the club to Highbury.  Norris was at this meeting but said not a word.  He knew that the Council had not a hope of stopping him, so he left it at that.

Woolwich Arsenal lost £2,000 in its final season at the Manor Ground (plus the £250 the directors had to pay out for the benefit to Shaw).  But that was nothing compared to the cost of preparing the Gillespie Road ground through the summer.  This was estimated at £20,000 and Norris paid for this out of his own pocket.

Building a stadium takes time – but no one told Norris that the task might be beyond him, and even if they had, he would not have listened.  The lease for the land was signed at the end of April 1913, and the first game at Gillespie Road took place on September 6th against Leicester Fosse.  For the very first match a marching band paraded before the game and at half time and there was a specially composed piece of music for the occasion.  Norris the showman was at his best.

True, the ground certainly wasn’t ready and the grandstand was far from finished.  But nevertheless 20,000 people turned up to see the newly installed team and the mood in North London was electric.  Tottenham like Arsenal started the new campaign well, winning the first three fixtures, and in the local press the response to Arsenal changed, with letters now commenting that within quarter of an hour of the game ending, the streets were once again quiet.

The club that had performed so poorly in the previous season that virtually anything would be an improvement and three wins and a draw in the first four games looked sensational by comparison.

The second home game played in the late afternoon on Monday 15th September has the crowd recorded at anything from 12,000 to 20,000 – although the latter number is the one most writers seem to quote.  Even the reserves at Gillespie Road could pull in more than the first team’s final first division match at Plumstead (4,000 for the 2-0 victory over Fulham on 13th September).

As for the name of the ground, the programme for the first game refers to “Football at Highbury” but also mentions “Forthcoming Matches at Gillespie Road”. Brian Glanville in his history of the club says that the ground was renamed “Arsenal Stadium” in 1914 but there is no supporting evidence, and indeed the handbooks up to 1932 have no mention of “Arsenal Stadium” as being the club’s address.  It is not until the handbook published in 1933 that the club uses the words “Arsenal Stadium” in the address for the first time.

This article is taken from Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – the book that covers Arsenal from 1893 to 1915.

The books…

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3 Replies to “28 June 1913: Woolwich Arsenal gain possession of “Highbury””

  1. I think it is not always realised by today’s supporters that that the first two seasons at N5 we were lower down the league ranking than “£$%£ds”. Yes we know we were promoted and they were demoted but we didn’t win promotion on the pitch. We didn’t win a trophy for some 15 years.

    Another fact I think not always realised is that our move was planned and virtually paid for by a rich owner. Is this another first for Arsenal?

  2. Although I have not checked ever club the existence of benefactors was commonplace in football from the start of the Football LEague. Arsenal certainly had their own in terms of Leavey and Norris came in when Leavey stopped providing funds and ultimately the club went bust in 1910.

    True Arsenal did not end up in one of the top two places in 1915 but the expansion of the league by two was dealt with by the election of two clubs, an election complicated by the fact that Man U and Liverpool had been found guilty of match fixing in 1915 but not punished.

    The election and demotion of clubs continued until around the 1970s, and was the normal way of doing things. Selection of the top four to go up without an election would have been against the League rules at the time.

    http://www.blog.woolwicharsenal.co.uk/archives/5592 has a lot of information on this.

  3. Thanks for your reply Tony.

    Oh well not another first for Arsenal! Just another example of the phrase ‘Nothing new under the sun.’

    It means though we can’t complain about other clubs being run and indulged in by a rich owner.

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